Out of work (and out of boredom), I recently responded to a post on Craigslist for a writing gig that looked somewhat interesting. Soon I was on my bike peddling west towards the Arclight Theatre in Hollywood to watch a preview of Miami Vice.
My assignment was to watch the movie, attend the press conference the following day, bring a cassette recorder, press record, go home, transcribe it, and e-mail it back to tmy erstwhile employer (who shall remain nameless).
I was told that this was called a "movie junket."Having no idea what the hell a "movie junket" was, I looked it up on Wikipedia:
While I was waiting in line to check in, I took a look around at the other Junketeers. Were these movie reviewers failed film school students, or people who dreamed of/or aspired to be directors and failed miserably, so they review other people's movies? Those who cannot create art, instead comment on other people's art. But commenting on other people's art, can that be an art? Hmmm.
A movie junket commonly occurs during movie marketing. A studio that produces a movie (or its marketing partner) invites several journalists/entertainment writers to see it before its release, then gives them the opportunity to interview its stars. The studio will sometimes pay for the trip. Although the marketeers may not always explicitly mention it, they usually expect the journalists to give favorable press to the movie after returning home... film critics who write too many positive reviews risk being branded quote whores.
Some consider movie junkets a practice in which journalism and marketing merge to a dangerous point.
Just past the check-in table was another table with free soft drinks and tubs of popcorn for the Junketeers. At first you would think that these people - these people who did this kind of thing for a living - would walk right past it with their noses in the air, not wanting anything to do with movie popcorn, but quite the opposite happened. It was like a bag of low-grade rice from a UN peacekeeping helicopter had just been dropped on a Third World village in East Africa. In fact, as I was nearly within arm's reach of the table, I noticed that I was actually walking backwards from all these freeloading Junketeers cutting in front of me without their blinkers on. It was like I was on the 101 headed towards downtown Los Angeles at 4pm.
I like to sit in the front third of the theatre, in the center. I found a seat there and eavesdropped on the conversations going on around me. Everyone seemed to know one another.
"Hey, how's it going? What have you been up to?"
"What junkets have you done recently? Do you know of any coming up?"
"How was the food at that one?"
After the movie, as I was making my way to the bike rack, I glanced at the front of the theatre and saw a couple buses waiting for the out-of-town Siskel & Ebert wannabes to be shuttled back to their hotel. The movie PR people put these people up at a hotel (Four Seasons Beverly Hills, $350??) and then shuttled them to and fro between the hotel and theatre. A lone black town car sat parked behind the two shuttle vans with a driver in suit and tie waiting by the back door. Pat O' Brien walked past. Already, a celeb sighting! This was going to be good.
* * *
The next day I received a phone call from my "boss" who gave me instructions for the press conference at the Four Seasons.
Once inside, a woman directed me to the fourteenth floor, to a room converted into a holding area for the Junketeers, where I received a press kit. A check-in guy asked me if I'd like my free promotional item.
"Umm...yeah, sure," I said. He handed me my prize: a black nylon backpack of the finest sweatshop quality that even the 99-cent stores in LA probably wouldn't carry as a two-for-one item, with the words "Miami Vice" embroidered on the back. It was kind of shiny.
I sat down in a seat in the fourth row (the first three were already packed with junketeers, a couple of them inhaling plates of more free food). Several had their Miami Vice backpacks with them, and a few were actually wearing them on their backs.
I grabbed some chips and dip and listened in on a conversation between a man and a woman. "You know, it's no longer the girls that have to sleep there way to the top here in Hollywood," said the woman. "It's the guys too now that are doing it." Just then, I heard an announcement that the junket was about to start.
Then one junketeer said, "I'd like to make a brief announcement. Since we'll only have 30 minutes with the talent it would be nice if everyone here would cut back on the typical Us magazine softball questions in order to leave time for more substantive questions. I'm just saying...you know, it would be nice if that happened."
A representative of some sort came out and asked who had questions to ask the actors; people all around me raised their hands. He said that there wasn't going to be enough time for all the questions to be answered and gave out numbers, starting from the front row, left to right, for the order of questions. At around number 13 he explained that that's all the time they would allow.
I didn't have any questions to ask - nor did I want to ask any questions. What was I going to ask? "Hey Jamie, how 'bout those 'In Living Color' days?"
When the cast -- Naomi Harris, Jamie Fox, Colin Farrell, director Michael Mann and Gong Li, along with her interpreter - walked into the room and sat down at the panel, one by one nearly everyone got up from their seats in order to place their micro-cassette recorders on the table.
I found myself wondering if Gong Li was just pretending not to speak fluently or understand English in order to avoid idiotic questions at junkets (which would have been quite brilliant).Instead of paying attention to what the actors had to say, I found myself distracted by the snide remarks and snickering from the reporters in the back whenever someone in the front rows asked a question:
The one question that was asked that I actually wondered about was about the TV show's theme song - it seemed like something was missing without it in the opening sequence of the movie. Jamie Foxx answered:
"The music was such an integral part of the television show. How important was it to maintain that level of authenticity in terms of the music in this film?"
"For Jamie and Colin, can you talk a little bit about the love scenes?"
"What was the most difficult part about shooting this film? Was there any kind of training for the weapons you used? The weapons scenes were realistically incredible. Did you have any kind of training?"
"There was a new report out this week about how more teens were smoking on film and television and how do you feel about it?"
I'll put it to you this way: I understand exactly what you're saying. I believe this movie has returned, because you do go away with what you think. You can't keep rehashing. It's like watching the dunk contest today. We can't go in and do the Dr. J dunk anymore because we're past that. So if you go do a couple from the free throw line it's like you've seen that. But if you went in Dr. J's jersey and you bounced it off the backboard from the back, then you've got the spirit of Dr. J and you've changed it. You got it? Cool.
[Wild applause from the Junketeers.]
One question was asked which pertained to this article:
Here's the juicy part
But on Miami Vice things went so wrong that Foxx ended up leaving in the middle of production, after a shooting (and we don't mean the kind with a camera) took place during filming in the Dominican Republic. Foxx refused to return for any more work outside the United States, meaning that Mann had to rewrite the ending, eliminating a version that was to have been shot in Paraguay.
Sources on the set say things got off to a rough start with Foxx. For one thing, after signing for the film, Foxx won the Oscar for his performance in Ray. He was a bigger star than before, and according to members of the production team, he showed up with an entourage and something of an attitude. Foxx balked at flying commercial to Miami (Universal finally gave him the jet). And there was an early problem because Foxx was getting paid less than Farrell even though he was now an Academy Award winner. Foxx got a big raise while Farrell took a bit of a cut.
Then there were the issues that arose while shooting was under way in the Dominican Republic. There was a private security force comprised of individuals from a variety of countries. Its members were armed and aggressive but, for a time, worked in plainclothes so they were not that easy to identify. Their presence made the situation seem extremely volatile to several crew members. Sources also say Mann shot in a square in Santo Domingo that even the police avoid, drafting gang members to work as security.
The irony, in Mann's view, was that when the production moved to a relatively upscale area, a local man--a police officer--approached the set, got into a quarrel with a guard (one supplied by the Dominican military), and allegedly pulled a gun. The man was shot and wounded. "It was very scary," Mann acknowledges. "What if this guy has six brothers? What if they blamed us? ... All these questions rush into your head." He says care was taken to ensure that the cast and crew could leave the set safely that day.
But immediately after that incident, Foxx and his entourage packed up and left for good. "Jamie basically changed the whole movie in one stroke," a crew member says--and not, in his opinion, for the better. The ending that was supposed to be shot in Paraguay would have been "much more dramatic."
Asked about Foxx's departure, Mann doesn't speak for a moment and then says, "You hear the sound of silence."
"Jamie," says the Junkeeter, "it's obvious you play a very good guy, a cool guy in this movie. There's an article out in Slate that kind of portrays you as kind of a bad guy in terms of making this film. Since it's out there, would you like to comment about it, what was said?"
Mann: That's just nonsense. The article is nonsense and a lot of it, the perspective of it is nonsense and -
Foxx: This is one of those films where a lot of stories are just written. They were writing stories about -
Farrell: Second week in, me and Jamie were killin' each other. I hadn't even met him yet.
Mann: These guys weren't getting along, and we were finishing a movie in Peru. That's one story.
Foxx: But you know that makes the opening, you know "let's go see what all the hubbub is about." It's like, when you have something like this that's just so great, man, it's so, everybody descended on Miami just because we were shooting down there, you know what I'm saying? You know it wasn't the truth, but I think that it all plays into the hand of nature of get up and get in there and get them tickets and see what's going on.
Somebody else then asked, "But isn't there a basis and fact for these rumors? They just come out of nowhere?"
Farrell: Yeah, we're in the same film together. That's all it really takes.
Mann: We knew we were going into major hurricane season in Miami because we're shooting in the summer. So all you had to do was look up in the weather bureau and you're gonna find out the history of hurricanes in Miami and it keeps getting worse. We knew it, we provided for it, Our Security precautions that we had prepared worked flawlessly. That's why a guy who was in fact a policeman was stopped by uniformed Dominican military, which was our outer perimeter security.
Foxx: And Michael shot that. That's on the DVD version. "Get the camera on that, it's real! ... Go back!"
Mann: Everybody had to leave and that's why I wasn't going to shoot in the Dominican Republic anymore, because we didn't know what the back-story was. Think about these things - does this guy have five brothers? Do they have a lot of animosity to the military that we don't know about? Are they blaming, you know, Gong Li, or something. Who knows?
Farrell: [to Gong Li] It was you!
Towards the end of the conference, a fight nearly broke out when a journalist asked, "You touched on this a little earlier, but do you think that people have a different recollection of the TV series? Does it seem to be they're caught up in the superficial aspects of it?" A guy sitting in the backsaid that that was a stupid question, and that they already answered that.
So, the journalist - who turned around and gave the guy who made the comment a look that he was going to hit him - asked a different question instead: "All right then, you cut out about what, say ten minutes or so of the movie - like the opening boat race. Should we expect that on the DVD?
Mann: You bet.
What was the purpose behind cutting it?
[Wait a minute, what opening boat scene?]
And finally, the last softball question of the day:
This question is for Colin and Ms. Li. What was the chemistry like, or how did you center with the obvious language barrier that you have, how did you work that out?
COLIN FARELL: I sign.
[Laughter from junketeers]
GONG LI [through translator]: There is a lot of things where you don't have to use language, eye contact and body language, and so on, and that is what art is about.
And on that note, the press conference ended.
As I got up to retreive my cassette recorder from the table, I made a mental note to myself that if I ever attended one of these junkets again, I should bring two recorders so I can place one on the table, and use the other one to record the snide remarks from all the people sitting in back. I also noticed that some of the junketeers were making their way up to the front not to ask more questions, but to ask the stars to sign memorabilia.
Though at times I pretend to be one in real life, I'm not a journalist. But I'm pretty sure that the journalism professors at Columbia - or even Chico - don't have "How to tactfully obtain autographs at press conferences" in their class curriculum.
Why did they do it?
Is it because they all get paid like crap and to make ends meet they sell their free swag eBay so that they can make a few extra bucks to feed the kids? Or is it because these people worship these stars? If it's the latter, then that might explain why I've so often read a positive review for movies that were total garbage.
On my way out, I went back to the food table to grab a bottled water. There was a guy there with his Miami Vice backpack wide open, stuffing sodas and bottled water into it. I grabbed a bottled water (just one) and left.