This is an article about what a pretentious dick I am, and how David Lynch inadvertently showed me the error of my ways. More importantly, this is the story of how I learned that there is no room for cynicism in Hollywood’s inner circle.
My name is Tennyson E. Stead, and I’m that fortunate and rare individual who has a strong foundation in both the creative and financial fundamentals of film. My origins are in East Coast theater, and my storytelling background goes back twenty years on stage and screen. For me, theater has always been about family. On the East Coast, folks wind up working in showbusiness because they don’t really fit in anyplace else. The East Coast theater community is famous for taking care of it’s own because one another is all we have.
All that changed when I moved to Los Angeles. Nobody seemed to respect my experience, I had no place to turn, and I wound up talking my way into a career in film finance that lasted ten years. This story takes place around year three. 2005. At the age of 28 or so, I had just enough experience to feel like I knew "the business." I’d made my embittered peace with the idea that Los Angeles was more about the game than it was about the family, and I was resigned to make a success of myself regardless. Some good folks I’d been working with were opening a film company called Unified Pictures, they’d brought me in to help build a production slate, and the first film in our studio space was David Lynch’s Inland Empire.
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Before anything else, let me be clear that I love David Lynch. Dune was a film intensely debated by my parents when I was a child, and there’s no telling how many times I’ve seen it. Mulholland Drive was a defining film of my college years, and at boarding school my friends and I would spend Saturday afternoons watching cult movies in the basements of our faculty members. Eraserhead and Wild at Heart were exactly the kinds of movies we’d watch again and again.
David had Inland Empire at Unified Pictures for months, and working with him was one of the great pleasures of my career so far.
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Listen to Tennyson E. Stead tell his ‘Arriving in L.A. story here.’
That said, this is the story of one Friday night of particular spectacle and note. David’s producer, Jeremy, is tasked with the acquisition of a monkey, a woman with a peg-leg, and a lumberjack by six o’clock that same evening. Folks who have seen Inland Empire will recognize these elements from the ballroom credit sequence. For folks who haven’t seen the film, it’s not spoiling much to say that I don’t see Inland Empire as a narrative story, but as more of an abstract exploration of the weird relationships between actors and directors. This closing sequence is very much like those first two weeks after you wrap a show, when you really don’t want to talk to anybody but your Mom calls anyway because you haven’t spoken to her in two months. That world you’ve been living in is shattered, and you don’t really know what to do but drink and watch Firefly… until two weeks later, when you start writing something new.
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Anyway. That’s what the credits of Inland Empire are like, and there’s all these parts of David’s life floating around in there. Laura Herring from Mulholland Drive is talking to Laura Dern from Inland Empire. Woman with peg-leg, plus monkey. Hip-hop dancers. Indeed, there was a lumberjack (played by Keith Kjarval, president of Unified Pictures) sawing a log in half. These things are all happening in an enormous, beautiful ballroom that the camera waltzes through as if in a dream. To add to the effect, David wanted things in the room struck while the camera was looking elsewhere, so when it came back around some other oddity of interest could be there to confuse and disorient the scene’s geography.
At some point, Keith had called me to ask if I wouldn’t mind coming in to volunteer as a PA. Of course! This may be Los Angeles, but I’m still an East Coast theater kid at heart. Plus, David Lynch!
Well, it turns out that I was brought in because this log that Keith is sawing in half needs to be moved during that short time in which the camera is otherwise occupied. Furthermore, Keith and Jeremy had found two other folks to come in and help me. One of them was a fantastic make-up and special effects artist named Duke Cullen. At the time, Duke was working on Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest… which means impossible hours. All that latex needs to be prepped when the cast arrives, cleaned after they leave, and the amount of time make-up like that takes is legendary to begin with. Duke probably should have been in bed, but there he was. Moving a friggin’ log. Duke is a very good person and I wasn’t surprised to see him there, but seeing him definitely made me think twice about the jaded perspective I was slowly beginning to adopt towards the film community.
The other guy helping us move this log was Mike Mitchell. For those who don’t know his work, Mike was the director of Deuce Bigelow: Male Gigolo.
Now… I’m going to take you back in time. The year is 1999. Tennyson E. Stead is nearing the end of his formal education in theater, is studying dramaturgy and advanced design, and is at a tiny, smelly, dim, very inexpensive movie theater in Hadley, Massachusetts wearing combat boots and a black trenchcoat with a $1 whopper stuffed in each pocket to watch The Matrix for the ninth time… when he comes face-to-face with a life-sized cardboard standup of Rob Schneider wearing a silk bathrobe.
Words sear through 1999 Tennyson’s self-important, douche-bag brain that presumably older, wiser, 2012 Tennyson does not need to repeat. Suffice it to say, I judged the movie to be driven by cynical creative intentions.
Interesting call, 1999 Tennyson. Here’s a project you know nothing about… and you AUTOMATICALLY HATE IT? Because THE MOVIE is cynical?!! Rob Schneider, you are a mirror into my very soul.
Right now, you may be thinking that you’re getting the point of my little parable. Mike Mitchell turned out to be very cool, and I felt like an ass. Buddy, you don’t know the half of it.
This particular night was the second weekend of Sky High’s release. If you recall, Sky High was a high-school superhero movie starring Michael Angarano and Kurt Russell… and Mike Mitchell was the director. At that exact moment, Sky High was leading the box office. At that exact moment, Mike Mitchell was the number one director in America. If this isn’t the biggest night of his life, it might well be the biggest night of his manager’s.
Is he living large, pimpin’ through Hollywood in a limousine with a pile of cocaine? Nope. Is he at home, having a quiet drink with his wife while he starts checking out college websites for his kids? Nope.
That man is SWEEPING THE FLOOR on a David Lynch set. For free. All that night, he and Duke and I talked about films we love and projects we wanted to see.
Guys like Mike and Duke showed up to help David because when you get past the agents and the public relations, Hollywood is just another performing arts community that takes care of its own. Hollywood is a family, and families give each other the benefit of the doubt. Families stick together when the rest of the world points fingers. Families pick each other up, instead of putting one another down.
I will confess that I still don’t get Deuce Bigelow – which is EXACTLY why I respect and love Mike Mitchell. If ever there was another one of those movies in production, I might not have much to offer it… but I can sure push a broom.
If you’d like to find out more about me, my ensemble, and my stories, we welcome you to our online community at 8sidedforum.com and please, please support our upcoming feature, Quantum Theory. Quantum Theory is the story of two brilliant, goofy, passionate women of science who invent a technological means to alter and shape the very universe itself…and we are currently running an Indiegogo campaign in support of a webseries that will bring these characters to life! Please support our show and follow Quantum Theory’s development at here and at Quantummovie.com.
Tennyson E. Stead is a writer, director, and producer of film and transmedia. In his childhood, he spent all his time building cardboard spaceships and rescuing his sister in them. These days he does basically the same thing.
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Check out Tennyson’s prior Film Courage articles: