Saturday, July 4, 2015

Gary Kurtz

My big post of the day -- whew, took forever to write. Several people have asked me about Gary Kurtz, so I spent hours and hours writing up the following post. The hours and hours included keyboard stints between barbecue, washing dishes, short power nap, and a walk to the mailbox....

I met Gary at USC when he came back to school after serving in the Vietnam War. Gary is a Quaker. He was drafted, and reporting to duty, Gary informed his Commanding Officer he would not carry a gun or shoot because of his religious beliefs. At this time, the military was in need of fodder, so the Commanding Officer really wanted to keep as many of the recruits as he could. The Commanding Officer worked out a deal with Gary. Because Gary had gone to film school, they would give him a Bell & Howell so he could shoot with a camera. Gary would not have to shoot a gun at the enemy but would serve as a cameraman. The hitch was Gary had to carry a holstered weapon at all times. Gary agreed, and this made both Gary and his Commanding officer happy. Gary, however, did not tell his Commanding Officer the holstered weapon he carried on his hip was not loaded. He was firm in his beliefs as a Quaker.

At USC, Gary was older than the rest of us. I'm not sure if he and Meredith were married at the time, but she was his high school sweetheart who would later become his wife and the mother of his two daughters. There were a few other students who were married, like Bob Dalva, but most of us were single dogs. Film school was not a place where you could spend all your time chasing girls. You had to do a certain amount of work to remain in the program. I didn't see him much so I don't know what he was doing at USC. I saw George more often than I saw Gary. I even saw John Milius, Willard Huyck, Chuck Braverman, John Bailey, John Carpenter, Caleb Deschanel, Richard Franklin, Taylor Hackford, Howard Kazanjian, Randal Kleiser, Robert Lovenheim, Walter Murch, Robert Zemeckis and others whose name I've forgotten right now. I'm sure you recognize some of the names of my fellow film students as many went on to work in the industry.

At the time, going to film school didn't necessarily endear you to the studio executives, who saw our fresh young faces as arrogant know it alls who knew nothing. The industry then was made up of people who had worked their way up the ranks. The unions were very strong and protectionist, which made it tough to break in. You had folks who were related to other folks, and they helped get someone a job. That was how people got into the industry. Film school was not something which guaranteed entree because up until my generation, the studios were not that interested in growing talent. They did not go to see student film screenings in search of new talent. This was because the idea of going to school and studying to become a filmmaker contradicted the Hollywood tradition of fathers passing the craft down to their sons. It was not only the craft. It was also the business of making movies which was a father-son tradition.

George Lucas and John Milius were two USC graduates who changed the industry's view towards film schools. There were others, like UCLA's Francis Ford Coppola, who were all part of this new wave of filmmakers that revolutionized the industry's father-son tradition by bringing in new blood, but I'm getting ahead of myself, because the revolutionizing started with the success of films like STAR WARS.

I escaped from USC and got hired to work at MGM as a publicist through Arthur Knight, who wrote an important textbook, THE LIVELIEST ART, and taught USC's popular Introduction to Film class. Knight also had a standing room only class which screened films and had guest speakers. Knight's lineup included Frank Capra, Lina Wertmuller, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, and Peter Fonda. The day Peter Fonda came, Arthur had to go out of town so as Arthur's Teaching Assistant, I got to interview Peter Fonda about EASY RIDER.

One day, on MGM's lot, I ran into Gary Kurtz. Gary had worked with Roger Corman. The great thing about the Roger Corman school of filmmaking is that it's like guerrilla warfare. You have to learn how to do a little bit of everything, which gives you a very good basis to produce low-budget films. You know what it takes to get things done, with the barest of budgets. That was the key to Corman's film. You didn't spend money, everything was beg, borrow or stealing. Corman's budgets were then around $200-300K. When I ran into Gary, he had graduated to bigger budgets -- well, bigger middling budgets, like TWO LANE BLACKTOP's $850,000 budget.

So Gary comes up to me. We're part of the student upstart legions, so we have a camaraderie that goes back to USC. We're all in the same boat bucking the industry's protectionist old boy network. Gary told me he had an offer to work with George Lucas, and asked me what I thought of George. Francis had talked to him about a picture George was going to be doing, and wanted to know if Gary wanted to work on it. Did I think this would be a good thing? Sure, I said, it was a great opportunity, and George was very talented. He asked me if I knew anything about American Graffiti because he knew I worked with George on his THX-1138 presentation to Warner Bros. I didn't know anything about the AMERICAN GRAFITTI project, but thought they would work well together.

So what do I think of Gary? Gary is very focused, and maybe he's a bit shy. He used to keep these little notebooks with very small writing in it. I didn't know what that was about. He would write his little notes, then sometimes refer to them. Gary is not outgoing. If you're in a meeting with him, he doesn't strike some people as a guy who has a lot of humor, but there's more humor to him than appears. I think some people are put off by him, but anybody who immediately takes a disliking to him is missing the point. He's not the jolly glad-handing kind of guy, but would you want someone handling your money to be glad-handing while they're pocketing your money? Or a used car salesman type of producer who is cheery and affably ebullient, but you can't trust his word because your hand slides off his grease and oil? I figure, anyone who likes Carl Barks has got to be OK. He's got a sense of humor.

Good ol' Gary. He kept the troops marching. STAR WARS fans have to thank him for that :)