***ATTENTION: IF THIS “YOUR HIGHNESS SET VISIT” PIECE WERE A THREE-EPISODE TELEVISION SERIES, THIS IS THE BORING, UNNECESSARY, IRRELEVANT MIDDLE PORTION IN WHICH YOUR FAITHFUL WRITER VEERS WIDELY INTO VERY QUESTIONABLE TERRAIN. WHICH IS TO SAY THAT YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED. ALSO: THIS IS A LONG POST AND IT HAS ONE PICTURE AND IT ISN’T OF NATALIE PORTMAN OR ZOOEY DESCHANEL BUT I WOULD STILL VENTURE TO SAY THAT IT’S THE BEST JUNKET IMAGE OF THEM ALL.***
PART THREE: Set Visit Politics
When it comes to the concept of the set visit press junket, I’m not the only one whose bullsh*t detector begins to shriek. From the outside-in, this seems like a blatant case of a studio buying support and coverage for their movie. I mean, that’s what’s going on here, right? “Hi, reporter, we would love to buy you a round trip flight so you can visit the beautiful, historic locale of our production, at which point we will put you up for three nights in a four-star hotel, give you a hearty daily room stipend, but in addition to that, we’ll take you out for dinner and drinks every night, as well as pay for a daylong field trip in which you’ll visit the surrounding area in order to kill some time before the real reason for your trip, the one day when we’ll take you on a tour of the set, at which point you’ll get fifteen minutes of face time with the stars you usually only see on the big screen (or “befriended” at a previous junket!). But there’s only one stipulation, dear reporter. You can’t write about this visit until we say it’s okay, and even then you can’t get too specific about the actual production work that you’ve seen. But we trust that you will obey our wishes, have a wonderful time, and write enticing things about the experience, thereby helping to build an early buzz for the film that will hopefully reach its crescendo on opening day. Thank you, dear reporter!” (Or, for a more thoughtful contemplation of this dilemma, do yourself a very big favor and read James Rocchi’s excellent “Sun, Surf and Celebrity in Bora Bora.”)
For non-industry friends of mine that I told about this invitation, they agreed it was a no-brainer (what am I saying, industry friends said the exact same thing). Of course I was going to go. Yet there wasn’t anybody I told who didn’t agree that this seemed like a serious case of conflicted interest with regards to the question of objective journalism. Junkets are a necessary evil; while I’d love to argue against them, I won’t (though I will argue to the extent at which they play a role in the modern movie-making machine). The truth is that, in this particular instance, had this generous invitation not been presented to me, I still would have flown to Belfast to visit my friends and experience the madness with my own two eyes. Yet it wasn’t just the thought of the free flight and lodging that ultimately made me say yes. I confess to being enticed by the prospect of getting to experience a junket firsthand, from the inside-out, in order to consider it from this embedded position. That I would stay an extra day—ON MY OWN DIME AND CRASHING WITH A FRIEND, FOR THE RECORD—and be able to have a non-junket experience as well… well, I hope you’ll forgive me for having my cake and eating it too. Call it devious. Call it unethical. In this case, it seemed like the only responsible thing to do.
PART FOUR: Junket Day 1 (Monday)
Trouble arose quicker than I had anticipated. I arrived in Belfast early Monday morning and connected with two of my fellow junketeers, Drew “The Journalist Formally Known As Moriarty” McWeeny of HitFix and Eric “Quint” Vespe of Ain’t It Cool News. Earlier, I said that I don’t come from a fan boy background, but these names had nonetheless seeped into my consciousness over the past however many years, as their roles at Harry Knowles’s influential website Ain’t It Cool News had literally altered the film publicity landscape beginning in the late 1990s. Finding their way into non-industry test screenings and sneak previews, the AICN team would post reviews under aliases. Much to everyone’s dismay, the industry was forced to take notice, and Knowles, Moriarty, and Quint became rock stars within their community.
While I knew I’d be junketing (junketeering?) with these two gentlemen, riding in the car with them to the hotel and listening to them talk about Fantastic Fest gave me a legitimate charge. I’m man enough to admit that for a split second I thought to myself, “I’m riding in a car with Moriarty and Quint! Neat!” In all seriousness, it was because of the tireless fandom and cinephilia of these two individuals that this trip was even happening. As much as I joke about fan boy nerdiness, at the moment, I was genuinely appreciative of their efforts.
During this ride is when I also decided it would be most appropriate to play down my connection to the YH team to the point of nonexistence. As I write this now, having forced myself to keep quiet when I normally would have spoken, I feel kind of gross. It’s not in my nature to withhold information. And while I never told any outright lies, I didn’t tell the truth, either. Forgive me, junketeers, for I have (kind of) sinned.
This was early Monday morning (October 5th). Our only official agenda for the day was to meet for dinner later that night. I planned to spend the afternoon working in my room and catching up on sleep (according to the schedule, Tuesday was field trip day, Wednesday was set visit day, and Thursday was bye-bye day). But around noon, Chris Gebert—who has not only made a name for himself as a production sound mixer for all of David’s films (and many more, including Man Push Cart, Chop Shop, Palindromes, and Adventureland) but is also the co-writer of David’s upcoming remake of Suspiria—called me in my room. He said that David wanted me to come say hi to them. I expressed some nerdy concern, knowing that it was safer for me to stay away from the set until my fellow junketeers had left town (there were murmurings that things can get awkward with regards to certain press members feeling that favorites are being played, so I wanted to respect the publicists and studio folks who were making this happen and not imply in any way that they had anything to do with my seemingly “preferential” treatment). But David wouldn’t take no for an answer.
Thirty minutes later, I was being driven to set by David’s new assistant, Will, a former worker in the draftsman’s department whose job had wound down but who had weaved his way back into employment through the kindness of his boss.
Here’s where things get complicated and I probably should just combine some of my personal reflections about that first day into the official set visit report (without revealing specifics that the other junketeers might not have seen, blah-blah-blah). Suffice to say, it was very nice to see my friends. But in a deeper sense, it was a strange feeling to be in Belfast, chatting with David in his trailer before wandering around the gigantic sound stage, thinking back to ten years before when many of the faces here were the same faces that had been scrambling around in the North Carolina summer heat, crashing on floors in order to make a movie we weren’t sure would ever be seen.
PART FOUR.1: Later That Night
I skipped out on the junket dinner to rendezvous with the crew, who were celebrating Danny’s fiancée Gia’s birthday. It was great to catch up with Chris and Tim Orr in a more low-key environment than on set. The shoot, which was winding down after three months, sounded like it had been a tough, rewarding, and indescribable one.
After dinner, a seemingly minor moment occurred that reminded me I was now hovering around the Hollywood vortex. Justin Theroux had relocated to the table where I’d been sitting with Tim and Chris and a few others. Spirits were high. At one point, there was some talk about the recent epic ALCS battles between the Yankees and Red Sox (something like this, actually). Without thinking, I chimed in to recount my experience watching game 6 in 2003 at a Lower East Side bar (Nice Guy Eddie’s for all you cultural historians out there) that almost turned into a riot. Before I’d even finished, the table got quiet and there was more than one look that didn’t just seem to say but did say, Why are you talking right now?
While I was admittedly an unfamiliar face in this situation, this was more than that. It was an example of that supremely distasteful energy that permeates so many Hollywood social situations, in which an invisible hierarchical structure is automatically assumed and enacted (which is what makes David Gordon Green and Danny McBride’s down-to-earth congeniality stand out even further, and I’m saying that as an innocent bystander—ask anyone and they’ll tell you the same).
Over the course of the junket, I experienced this bizarre dynamic at play from many different angles (and not just pointed in my direction, lest you think I’m wearing my tear-soaked baby diapers to the dinner table). Even for professional journalists who should understand that filmmaking is a collaborative medium, meeting a Tim Orr or a Chris Gebert just doesn’t seem to inspire as enthusiastic a reaction as it should, especially when compared to meeting a Danny McBride or a David Gordon Green (it doesn’t need to be stated how indispensable a role both Orr and Gebert play in the making of David’s movies, but consider it stated). I’m not trying to sound like an overprotective mother here. The same goes for any DP or sound mixer on any set wherever you go. But that nonetheless leads to a bigger question with regards to this Press Junket Industry, which is: why aren’t vital crew members like Orr or Gebert ever asked to participate in these roundtables? Why is it always just the director and the stars?
One harmless response to that question is that these vital technicians are too busy working to hob-knob with nerds like us, but I don’t think that’s it. The real reason is more obvious: THIS IS HOLLYWOOD AND THIS IS HOW IT WORKS AND FOR YOU TO EVEN QUESTION THAT MAKES US THINK YOU MIGHT HAVE SOME SORT OF BRAIN DAMAGE. DIRECTORS AND STARS, THAT’S ALL WE CARE ABOUT. THAT’S ALL WE’VE EVER CARED ABOUT. YOU DO REALIZE THAT, DON’T YOU? WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU, YOU PATHETIC SNOB?
Still, it never ceases to amaze and disappoint me whenever I encounter these blatant cases of star f**kery and a complete lack of regard for the people who do so much of the real work to bring these movies to life.
In the case of this particular junket, two non-“stars” did, in fact, participate in the roundtable—executive producers Andrew Z. Davis and Jon Mone—yet their appearance only further highlights the invisible hierarchy at play. I challenge you to find any mention of Davis and Mone’s 15-minute interview in any of the set visit reports that emerge from this junket (I would love it if someone proves me wrong here, I really would). This omission is a different shading but points directly to why I was quietly scolded at the restaurant that night. It is also why I have such an aversion to the Hollywood publicity machine and ordinarily try to avoid these situations at all costs. Not because my own fragile nobody of an ego can’t take it, but because it brings a gross and wrong energy into the world. I don’t care how rich or beautiful or “powerful” you are. It’s gross, man.
PART FIVE: Junket Day 2 (Tuesday)
Tuesday morning, I felt like a doofus when everyone asked me where I’d been and I froze up before offering a vague, “I met up with some friends.” It was at this point that I felt like I was trapped in some strange role. First of all, would any of these dudes have really cared if I came clean about my relationship to the Your Highness team? In hindsight, I highly doubt it.
Here’s the part where you’re supposed to ask, Why are you writing about a field trip you took as if it has anything to do with this set visit report? All I can say is that it does have to do with this set visit report. It was early October in the year 2010, I was 35 years old, I was on a FIELD TRIP in NORTHERN IRELAND with a handful of FILM BLOGGERS, and it was being FUNDED by a MAJOR HOLLYWOOD STUDIO. Was this really happening to me?
Truth be told, my ultimate verdict, now that I’ve experienced it for myself, is that these junkets aren’t “evil” or “insidious.” I never encountered any pressure from the studio to say great things about our experience or, more importantly, to talk about how “amazing” Your Highness is going to be, though everyone did a great job of leading us to believe it will be just that. My distaste is of a more selfish breed. As a filmmaker who is currently scrambling to put the finishing touches on a feature for an amount of money that I would confidently venture cost less than the budget for just this online press junket alone, the whole affair just seemed so bloody extravagant and wasteful. But there I was, loving every minute of it.
***Come back tomorrow, wherein I actually talk about visiting the set of Your Highness—I promise!***
***Read “YOUR HIGHNESS SET VISIT – PARTS ONE AND TWO” if you haven’t already.***
***Also, check out “YOUR HIGHNESS SET VISIT – AN INTRODUCTION” to see some more cool pics.***
***Also-also, don’t forget to vote in this week’s poll on the main page to let us know which is your favorite David Gordon Green movie.***
— Michael Tully