1. Getting There
As one of the lucky contest winners for the Google+ hangout held on Roger Ebert’s birthday, I got to see the L.A. premiere of Life Itself. I actually won tickets for the New York premiere, but New York is a bit far from Seattle, and there wasn’t enough time to make the necessary travel arrangements. Luckily, I was allowed to switch cities.
This would be my first time visiting L.A., unless one includes layovers at LAX. I flew out on Wednesday, and might have missed my flight had I brought luggage, not printed out my tickets ahead of time, or gone when the security line was longer. Unlike my scramble in Seattle, I had plenty of time to make my connecting flight in Oakland and landed at Bob Hope Airport (Burbank) around 3:30. Then I almost missed my bus, as I went the
wrong long way around the airport to the bus stop.
After all these near misses, it was nice to arrive at the hostel around the time I said I would arrive, and I got to pass by Warner Brothers Studios, Capitol Records, and the former Knickerbocker Hotel en route. That’s when I found out there would be a $20 security deposit, paid in cash. If I had known that, I would’ve brought an extra $20, but it turned out to not be a problem. As I was getting settled into my room, I received an email from Allison Jackson (my contact for the premiere), saying that “dress [for the premiere] is business or cocktail attire.”
Now, as anyone who’s packed a carry-on can attest, one cannot fit shoes, a couple days worth of clothes, and a suit in there. As an earlier email had stated that most people would be coming from work, I had packed black shoes, khakis, a blue shirt, and a tie. After a moment of panic, I emailed her back with what I had brought to wear and asked if this was okay. Her response: “More than fine!” Yet another crisis averted.
The rest of the day I spent walking along the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard. I also went over to West Sunset Boulevard to see how far the ArcLight Cinemas were from my hostel (about 30 minutes by foot). That last detail is important, as that was where the premiere would be taking place. On the way there, I saw the Hollywood sign.
I took way too many photos of the Walk of Fame over the two days I was in Los Angeles, but there was one star in particular that I was looking for, which I found outside the Jimmy Kimmel Live studio (the El Capitain Theater), across the street from the Dolby Theater.
2. The Premiere
On Wednesday night, one of my friends had tweeted that I should try to go to the beach. I didn’t go that night, but decided to see if I could walk it the next day. As expected, it was too far to walk to, but I got to walk down part of Santa Monica Boulevard and loop back up to West Sunset Boulevard, which resulted in some pretty great views.
All this walking made me hungry, but while I had eaten Chinese food the first day (and had leftovers waiting for dinner), I wanted something a little more iconic for lunch. So when I saw this on West Sunset Boulevard…
…I decided to give it a try.
It was crowded inside, but I don’t remember my order taking that long. Plus, the prices were more than reasonable.
I ended up getting a cheeseburger and a small iced tea. Maybe I needed to add the ice myself, as the tea was a bit warm. The hamburger, on the other hand, was very good, and made without preservatives.
After eating lunch on a bench nearby, I walked back to Hollywood Boulevard and headed over to Capitol Records and the former Knickerbocker Hotel. I also found more Hollywood Stars to take photos of, the most important being the ones right outside Capitol Records.
One thing I noticed the day before about Hollywood is its twofold nature. One the one hand you have all this glitz and glamour: the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Madame Tussauds, the Chinese Theater, Capitol Records, etc. On the other hand, you have people in front of the Chinese Theater trying to give you “free” CDs…and then “asking” for tips. You have homeless people sleeping on the sidewalk, next to the Walk of Fame. You have touring companies — some established, others just a guy and a truck — trying to convince tourists to go on their tours. It reminds you that Los Angeles, in many respects, is just like any other city.
I spent most of the rest of the day indoors, conserving my energy for the premiere that night, though I did check where my bus stop would be for the ride back to the airport the following morning. At 5 pm, I ate dinner. At 5:30, I took a shower. At 6, I headed out the door, arriving at the theater a little before 6:30.
What I didn’t realize is that the entrance to the ArcLight Cinemas is around the back. After texting and calling Allison and not getting a response, I decided to follow some people around to the back. There, I saw a small red carpet, the entrance to the theaters, and a will call table. On the red carpet were Leonard Maltin, Steve James, Chaz Ebert, and Werner Herzog. For whatever reason, I decided not to take any photos while I was back there, despite bringing my awesome camera with me, though I was tempted to join the guy on the wall with the cell phone camera.
Sadly, of the three people I had asked to go with me to the premiere, one was visiting the East Coast, one had other plans, and one was busy moving into a new home and hadn’t gotten my message in time. After waiting around a little longer for a message from Allison, I decided I better go in and grab my seat.
The ArcLight Cinemas is one of those theaters where half of the theaters are on the ground floor and the rest are up a flight of stairs. Life Itself was upstairs, which is where my ticket was checked. That’s when I noticed I had an assigned seat, and that my seat was quite good. Since there weren’t too many people there yet, I left to find the water fountain and then discovered I had a text from Allison, saying that she was at the table downstairs. I texted back that I was upstairs. “Should I come down?” But, at this point, more people started coming in, so I decided to head back into the theater. That is when I saw Leonard Maltin and his wife enter my row.
He was two or three seats removed from where I was and was half-joking with someone about when his review for Life Itself would be up. The next person I saw enter was Werner Herzog. I don’t believe his wife made the trip, but he had a “handler,” for lack of a better word. Then I realized that he was going to sit in the row behind me, one seat over from where I was. The woman sitting next to me knew him, as she had worked on a movie with him, and it was surreal to hear Herzog — in his much-imitated and unique voice — talking about such mundane matters with her as possibly wanting popcorn and not needing anything at concessions. That led to this tweet:
Then Chaz came in, and she walked from one end of the row behind me to the other, hugging everyone there. Someone asked her if she was going to greet the entire audience. She nearly did.
The movie itself started closer to 7:30, with an introduction by an employee at the theater, followed by Steve James. He then passed the mic to Chaz, who paced in front of the theater, mentioning to us that she used to be a trial lawyer, so she would be pacing and looking each of us in the eye.
She told us we would be the jury for James’s film and would be the ones to pass judgment on it, though she was confident we would love it. She also mentioned that she left a seat open in the front row for Roger, as he had told her he would be at the premiere, “cheering you on from the front row.” So, she reserved a seat for Roger, thinking, “Who knows?” It also explained what all the camera flashing had been that had come from that side of the theater earlier that evening.
She finished by thanking people in the audience, including Herzog and people who had worked on the show Siskel and Ebert in all its incantations. Then the movie began.
As I originally saw the movie via the Indiegogo campaign, I have already reviewed the film. The only difference is that James added footage from Cannes, which is good, since few of the numerous film festivals that Ebert went to are showcased, and Cannes was one of the festivals most associated with him. Also, I noticed this time that the transition to the Russ Meyer section of the film isn’t smooth, though how one could transition from anything to Russ Meyer is a tough question to answer.
I will mention three other things. At one point during the film, I was aware of the silence. I forget if this was during Siskel’s death or Ebert’s, but it was palpable because, just moments before, the audience had been laughing at outtakes from the show, when Siskel and Ebert had been bickering. It happens so rarely that I remember the few other occasions when it’s occurred. At another point, Ebert realizes he probably won’t live long enough to see the film completed. The look on his face is one of mourning, dignity, and acceptance. It is one of the most mesmerizing expressions I’ve seen on film. Finally, if the audience didn’t applaud as loudly at the end of the film as I thought they should have, it had more to do with the mood of mournful contemplation that had descended on them and slowed their hands than in their non-appreciation, for that silence extended to the end of the film, too.
I had a lump in my throat when the lights came up, but luckily had had my cry the first time I saw it. Leaving the theater after a moment, I saw Herzog hanging outside in the lobby, near the restrooms. Now, any normal person who had just won a contest in which he had answered a question pertaining to one of Herzog’s films would have gone up to him and introduced himself (the question had been about the animal that “engaged with Nicholas Cage from the movie Bad Lieutenant.”). I, however, thought that maybe he needed a moment alone, as it must have been tough for him to see, onscreen, the death of someone to whom he felt a spiritual kinship. Also, no one else was approaching him. At that moment, one of my housemates texted me. I told him Herzog was standing twenty feet from me. He wrote back, “Tell him I am watching fitzcarraldo right now! No joke!” He then told me to try and get a picture with him. At that point, however, the press had gotten to him, so I figured it would be easier to meet up with him at the after-party.
Sadly, he didn’t come.
The after-party was held in the Warwick Hotel, which was a short walk down the street from the theater. When I entered the place, I noticed the comfy couches, the bar in the back, the room upstairs, and a giant photo of a naked woman right in front of the stairwell. Knowing from the film that Roger loved boobs, I can only conclude that he would’ve loved this place. I think he also would’ve approved of the servers’ outfits.
I, however, had a problem: I didn’t know what Allison looked like. I had texted her what I was wearing, but I found out later that she didn’t have her phone with her at the party, and the person who I saw with Chaz was Rebecca, though she knew who Allison was (so, once again, I could’ve told her who I was and made my life easier). Instead, I waited around Chaz, hoping Allison would show up. When it became apparent that this strategy wasn’t going to work, I waited for an opportunity to meet with Chaz, which was difficult, since everyone wanted to meet with her, tell her what they thought of the film, and get photos with her.
Finally, though, I saw an opening. Two people had just left her, Rebecca was chatting with some other people, and no one else was around. So I approached, and when she turned toward me, I stuck out my hand and introduced myself.
“You’re who?” she said, leaning in so that she could hear me better.
“I’m Greg Salvatore. I’m one of the contest winners,” I said.
At that her eyes lit up, and I was under her wing for the rest of the night, with her leading me by the hand, or gesturing that I should join one of the photo-ops. We had our photos taken by one of the professional photographers there, and then one with one of the executive producers (Mark Mitten?). We next went upstairs to get photos taken in the photo booth, and I met Christy Lemire for the second time. She didn’t remember meeting me before, but there had been karaoke involved. I also got to meet Chaz’s daughter Sonia Evans and Sonia’s husband, Mark. In fact, I got to meet the entire clan, as Chaz invited me to dance with them as the DJ played Pharrell Williams’s “Happy.”
I had two impressions of her during this time: inviting and in charge. Tenderness and toughness. No wonder why Roger clung to life as long as he did with her at his side. Like other people, I am convinced she kept him alive during his last few years.
Through the rest of the night, Chaz brought over other people involved in the Google + giveaway, and I believe a few people involved with the website. I also got to meet Allison around this time.
“See how happy everyone is that you’re here?” Chaz said.
Since Steve James was hard to track down during the party, I had Rebecca grab him so that I could get my photo with him. After the photo was taken, he was very insistent that I make sure it was a good photo.
“Make sure he’s happy with the photo,” he said to Rebecca. “We want our winner to be happy with the photo.” And I am.
Meeting up with Allison again, she introduced me to Pete Hammond, “a really nice guy.” He writes for Deadline Hollywood and was amazed (as was everyone that night) that I knew the answer to the trivia question. He asked me if I was a movie nerd or if I had become interested in Roger Ebert first. When I answered that it was the former, he said he had been the same way before coming to Hollywood. He also said that writing is a great way to get into the industry, which–based on the stories I hear about screenwriters–rather surprised me (but perhaps he meant writing for publications in town). After listening to him talk to Allison for a while, and after he talked to me for a while, he became convinced that I would quit my job in two weeks to move down to LA “because now you’ve got the bug.” He then introduced me to a famous publicist, whom he said I should know for when I come back. So of course, I forgot her name.
With the party winding down, Sonia introduced me to her daughter, Raven, who is in the film. Like everyone else, she said, “Congratulations!” when she heard I was the contest winner.
“He’s had the biggest smile on his face the entire time,” Sonia said.
Soon after, Sonia and her husband had to leave, so though she wanted a photo with me, they didn’t have time. It was around 11:30, so I figured I should head out, too. Chaz asked me how I was getting back to my hotel. When I told her I was walking, she asked how far it was from there.
“About twenty minutes,” I said.
“Oh no,” she said. “We’ll call you a cab. We have to make sure our contest winner gets back safely.”
As it turned out, Chaz’s limo was dropping her off close to where I was staying, so I ended up getting a ride back that way. I got a hug from Allison, but most everyone else had left at that point.
In the limo with Chaz, she asked me what I did and turned her whole body to face me, something that one of my Japanese friends also does. I love it when my friend does that because it means she’s giving me her full, undivided attention. So, I turned a little in my seat and told her all the jobs I did, including the blog and finishing a novel. I also got to give her the pin I had been carrying around all night, which was for the 40th Seattle International Film Festival, “from someone who works at a film festival to someone who runs one.”
“Oh, I was asked to be on the jury for this,” she said.
Because she had been busy with the movie, she told them to ask her later. To give you an idea of her schedule, the following day she had a whole day of press, followed by a trip to D.C. to pick up an award that Roger had won, followed by the Life Itself premiere in Chicago on Monday.
I found out some other information from her as well, such as the other two winners hadn’t contacted her, the reason airfare and accommodations hadn’t been included was because of how close to the premieres the free tickets had been secured, and that if I wrote something about the premiere on social media, to send her a link so that she could include the post or the link on rogerebert.com. She also said that, while she would be happy if people streamed the film at home, she hopes people see it in a theater. I agreed, saying, “It reminded me that the loudest sound in a theater..is silence.”
Chaz conceded that I had a good point, and I could see her thinking about it more as she talked about it, for what she and I were referring to is that moment when the audience is so wrapped up in a performance, they are sitting in silent contemplation. Or, to quote Roger from his excellent review of Sansho the Bailiff, “it is happening to us as few films do.”
I also got to tell her that I had been at Ebertfest 2011, but I had been too shy to introduce myself to her then.
At that point, the limo driver needed some directions, as we were approaching my hostel. When we arrived, Chaz shook my hand, I got out, and I went inside to finish packing and turn in my key, since I would be leaving before the front desk was open the next morning. One of my new roommates was on Skype with his parents when I returned, but was finished by the time I was ready for bed. I set my alarm for 5:45, crawled into the top bunk, and went to sleep.
3. Heading Back
If I had stayed longer in Los Angeles, I would’ve had more of an opportunity to meet my roommates and other people in the hostel. As it was, I only met a few of them on Thursday, and I had to leave the hostel at 6:15 am on Friday in order to make it to the airport on time.
After getting out of bed, I folded up my towel and sheets and left them on a chair outside the reception area. I then headed down to Hollywood Boulevard to take the 222 bus back to the airport. With hardly anyone on the street, Hollywood could have been any city in the world at that point.
When I got to the airport, I tweeted one final time from California, then got ready to board my plane to Las Vegas, which was only 45 minutes long. I sat next to an attractive woman who shockingly initiated a conversation with me. It might have been because she doesn’t like flying. In any case, it was a pleasant conversation, though I wish I had taken photos of some of the scenery we flew over, as it was breathtaking. Then we arrived in Las Vegas, and I had time to buy some food…and tweet about slot machines in the airport.
Since my return to Seattle, I’ve been busy working, which will help pay for the plane tickets and the room. I actually did well for a two-night stay in terms of finances. Even if it had cost more money, it would have been worth it.
There are some opportunities that should not be passed up.
UPDATE 7/3/14: For your reading pleasure, I have added a link to Sheila O’Malley’s interview with me.