How many stagehands does it take to screw in a light bulb? It was at least a half dozen for Cinefamily’s custom made 24-hour Telethon marquee, which blazed the stage for the duration of the entire-day-night-and-morning-long fundraising jamboree.
“Make a hole, people!” a sound guy yelled as he barreled through the aisle as if he were an ER surgeon and someone’s life depended on it. The crowd started to filter in. Robert Downey Jr., the guest kicking it all off, waiting in the sunny vine-covered courtyard out back, looking a bit wary.
As the sickos excited to endure such an event poured in, the crew was still securing cords and checking the stability and stamina of Camera Three. The whole thing was filmed and streamed live, produced in real time by Cinespia’s John Wyatt, aka the guy who brings movies to screen outdoors each summer in LA’s famous cemetery, Hollywood Forever.
Someone apparently handed out friendship bracelets in line, as one attendee taped hers to the back of a seat, putting the finishing touches on her creation as she waited for the whole thing to start.
Cinefamily, an independent film theater that has the most ambitiously outrageous programming—it’s all the weird, amazing shit you didn’t know you wanted to see, plus some stuff you really don’t but are compelled to anyway through pure human curiosity—is “charmingly unkempt,” as co-founder and executive director Hadrian Belove likes to say. It’s the city’s old Silent Movie Theater, which famously shut down for ten years in 1996, until Cinefamily rescued it, on account of a real-life gay love triangle film noir murder on the premises.
The theater is “fighting the death machine of Kardashian culture,” explains Shadoe Stevens, narrating the house-made video kicking off the whole event. Cinefamily has the power to “heal the ecosystem of indie film,” he proclaimed, and donations toward additions—namely a new projector and hopefully some reupholstering on the seats—would make the place “at least acceptable.” It’s not like you’re watching grade-A films in a dump, but the place could use some decent upgrades. “We want the quality of the theater to match the quality of programming,” says Belove.
Once the projection glitches smoothed out (see “charmingly unkempt” comment two paragraphs above), Robert Downey Jr. came out to open up a mysterious time capsule supposedly discovered on the premises and dedicated to him. The bolt cutters were busted out to snap the padlock; contents, basically everything Downey’s ever done and then some, were handled with a mixture of amusement and regret. Downey decided to give it all up in exchange for donations to the theater, to help cover that new projector. And then Downey asked the big question: “How much does something like that cost?”
“Between $60 to $100 thousand,” Belove replied.
“I’ll cover that—it’s not like I can’t swing it.”
Jaws literally dropped. In like 15 minutes of the opening act, the dream goal was met. Robert Downey Jr. was instantly, effectively a patron saint and possibly the chief investor of an independent film center in Los Angeles. Just like that, on a whim, with a nonchalance that almost bordered on callousness—a capriciously generous expression of perfect beauty by this loveable prick.
Belove could’ve just dropped the mike and walked out, but he picked up the silence immediately to ensure the rest of the event stayed relevant, explaining how they still wanted seat covers, a sound system, etc.
“I get it, you need money,” Downey said. “Just shut up.” He turned to the camera, addressing the web audience at home. “The more you can do, the better.”
And with that, the pleading pretty much stopped, and it turned into a weirdass time. Here, we take you through it.
From here we learned how Downey likes to work: “You come out, you take the scene, you tear it up, and say, ‘Let’s shoot.’”
On how people operate: “We’re all a mosaic of influences,” says Downey. For him, in 1983 there was a very specific line: Were you on the side of The Police and Synchronicity, or were you one of the Elvis Costello Imperial Bedroom people?
What was it like working with Rodney Dangerfield? “It’s a testament to the quality of his cannabis that I don’t remember,” says Downey. He did, however, tell us a tale about how Dangerfield answered the door one day in only a loosely tied bathrobe, and Downey was “daunted and mesmerized by his massive kiwis.” Dangerfield let him in and asked, “Mind if I smoke some shit?”
Backstage, while a blooper reel screened of John Landis flubbing his lines, I have a minute to chat with Neil Hamburger before he blew the audience away with his super crude, phlegm-clogged humor.
Do you have any independent film material prepared?
Well, I have a Marcel Marceau joke. Does that count?
That might be the extent of my indie film knowledge. Oh wait, there’s a Tim Burton joke.
It’s good to keep it topical.
Then he comes out and tells his first two jokes:
What were the only words Marcel Marceau said onstage?
I’ll be in Room 812 at the Hyatt if anyone wants to come by and shit down my throat.
Why is Tim Burton’s macaroni art so terrible?
Because it’s glued to Johnny Depp!
Udo Kier was picked up to join the madness at 4 AM, and according to his chaperone, Justine Jones, “is charming, and game beyond description. That drizzly Sunday morning, I drove us right over a bolt in the road, thereby provoking a heinous clacking with every subsequent rotation of my tire. He instantly responded by serenading us with ‘Singin’ in the Rain,’ complete with percussive tap dancing sounds.” And he spent quite a bit of bonding time out in the courtyard with a poodle-husky/Cinefamily Black Card member named Pasta Rehnberg.
From 7:30 PM onward it feels like a time warp. There’s a girl out on the patio interlacing her fingers with mine; her boyfriend’s in unmatched Crocs and sunglasses.
During the Skype Q & A with Mark Mothersbaugh, he makes a call to action: “I don’t have many singers I’m working with right now, so if you know any who aren’t afraid of bad karma…”
Later, comedians Brett Gelman and Jon C. Daly decide to debut documentary footage of their absolutely filthy comedy rap duo, Cracked Out, from the time they crashed a very sincere freestyle rap competition in the East Village and managed to escape without getting their asses kicked. We watched this footage for the first time along with them, as they were ripped in half with shame, fronting as they rapped about sucking elf dick and fornicating with “whack dudes’ moms.” Says Gelman: “This is maybe the stupidest thing I’ve ever done.
It’s a strange lead-up to Alabama-bred country boy turned avant-garde puppeteer and artist Wayne White. He leads everyone in an “Oh, Susanna!” breakdown on banjo, then sincerely tells us that “The world is dying for stuff made out of love. They’re craving it. Do it for love and the money will come. The world constantly tells you to stop having fun. It’s frightening to go out and dare to do the things you love to do.”
Immediately afterward, the director of The Simpsons Movie, David Silverman, comes out playing a tuba that shot flames. Apparently this was the first thing Cinefamliy booked for the Telethon.
How’s it going thus far? John Wyatt, producer, responded: “It’s Cinefamily style. The reach is beyond the grasp… but every so often we grasp it. You know that kitten hanging on to a twig?” He takes a smoke break about four puffs long to tell me this, then runs off.
Past midnight, the backstage scene starts to devolve into madness…
And then came the first round of power naps around the control deck.
Early in the morning, an irascible Robert McKee, author of what’s widely recognized as the “screenwriter’s bible” Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting, Skypes/phones in (technical difficulties—it was complicated) for a Q+A with director-screenwriter Nicholas Jarecki. This is when the event really turned into an education, as the conversation skewed largely academic and poetic.
There was a lot of Aristotle and Mamet being tossed around, as McKee schools us on how to conclude a story. “We are the victims of circumstance,” he urges us to remember. “People are often annoyed by ambiguity. They want a choice for some kind of closure. But ambiguity could be anything, or nothing.”
Just then I realize I am sitting in a pillow full of coffee, and am waking up via assmosis.
“The problem with open endings,” McKee says, is this: “We want our lives enriched by someone who has something to say, someone with a point of view. We don’t go to the movies to see what we already know. We want to discover meaning, insight, truth. The emptiness of contemporary film is from a lack of irony. It’s all positive or all negative; there’s an unwillingness to deal with irony. It’s the world we live in.”
At this point, Belove’s gone through an outfit change (silken robe and pajamas) and back again, with only half of his shirt tucked in. He looks absolutely insane, eyes black and shiny. Still, he stays remarkably on track, as he continues to expound on the mission of Cinefamily: “It’s honoring filmmakers and giving back to them what they’ve given to us.”
He segues into a clip from the time when Gary Oldman moderated a Q & A with Ben Gazzara onstage for the theater’s triple feature of John Cassavetes films. This is likely the last interview Gazzara did before he passed away last February. Explaining how he really digs into his roles, Gazzara says to Oldman, “We’re not stuck with a character. The character is stuck with us.”
After this, we’re treated to a brunch tableau onstage with Jason Schwartzman. “There’s a food plan,” Belove says, “but I don’t know what’s going on.” We’re now past the 24th hour and barreling into the 25th. Nothing’s making sense anymore. By a show of hands, we discover that about a dozen people had been around this whole time. Fucking animals.
Schwartzman’s coming fresh off an undisclosed “animal snafu.” All parties at the table—whoever they are?—devolve into gibberish. The mics are fully not working anymore, and no one cares.
In the audience, we’re surrounded by smashed and abandoned cupcakes, stacks of half-full cups, and gum on bottle tops, with confetti and glitter ribbon curls in the aisles. It’s like some fabulous movie exploded from the screen all over the seats.
“Fatherhood’s incredible… it’s like living with a science experiment,” Schwartzman says. We also learn that The Last Unicorn was the first movie Schwartzman ever saw in a theater.
Everything is completely trashed backstage. Details of scattered stacks of paperwork, miscellaneous equipment, uncapped pens, a crock of crusted chili, and a quarter-eaten bagel smeared with cream cheese adorn a scene like someone’s crawl space had been ransacked. Boxes of Christmas decorations have exploded. There’s a vintage suitcase full of walkie talkie batteries on the floor. There are golf pencils, a handle of tequila missing its cap, a small framed marker drawing perched on a music stand, a pot full of mystery broth steaming on a hot plate. God help whoever had to clean this up.
By now, the message has become clear: “Protect your dream more than anything, above all else.”
The last scene reminds me of the best part of any episode of Saturday Night Live—where you see who’s friends with whom, and who had zero bond time with the guest. Except here, everyone was chumming it up, belting out “With a Little Help From My Friends)” as a unisonic karaoke act, led by an incredibly enthusiastic gentleman named Irv.
And true to form, during the performance, the sound broke twice.
Photography by Sarah Soquel Morhaim