The most surprising thing about "The Martian" is how relaxed and funny it is.
HOLLYWOOD - There's an old union song with the chorus, "Newspapermen meet the most interesting people." I heard it sung once by Pete Seeger, and went to work for a newspaper. Twelve years later, the song turned out to be right.
Picture this. I'm standing on sound stage 24 at Universal Studios, the one where they used to film the Esther Williams pictures. It was from a tank on this very stage, indeed, that Esther Williams emerged dripping wet and inspired the observation, "Dry, she's OK. Wet, she's a star."
There is not a tank here today. Instead, there is a submarine. The submarine is a set for a movie called "1941," which is being directed by Steven Spielberg, the man who is sort of a hot movie director right now because his last two movies happen to have been "Jaws" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."
Now he is making the most expensive comedy since - nobody knows. In scope, it will be like "Dr. Strangelove" or "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" or "Around the World in 80 Days." In cost, it will be a lot more : The studio accountants started weeping when Spielberg passed the $20 million mark. In style - well, here's Spielberg.
He's wearing a baseball cap and shaking his head in amazement, and saying, "I never could have believed it myself if I hadn't seen it. In the same scene - in one scene in a movie - we've got Toshiro Mifune and Christopher Lee and Slim Pickens. All three."
It is indeed amazing. The greatest Japanese actor of all time. The greatest British horror movie star. And Slim Pickens.
What is the scene about, I ask. Newspapermen don't get to meet the most interesting people for very long unless they ask them incisive questions.
"The screenplay is classified," says Spielberg.
"However, since you are here and can easily see for yourself, I will reveal that this particular scene takes place on a Japanese submarine. The sub isattacking Los Angeles. No, not really. Los Angeles thinks it is under attack from the air, in the early days of World War II. Los Angeles is wrong. Meanwhile, a Japanese, submarine comes aground off of Long Beach, and the crew goes to see Hollywood Boulevard, and, for reasons that I won't go into, they take Slim Pickens as a hostage. Toshiro Mifune is the commander of the sub, and Christopher Lee plays the German adviser." And...?
"No more," says Saul Kahan, who is the publicist on the film. Kahan is a top Hollywood publicist whose credits include "National Lampoon's Animal House" and "The Muppet Movie" and "Hardcore," but now he is being paid to keep secrets instead of publicizing them. "When the movie comes out, it'll be funnier if nobody already knows what it's about."
Tight security, I say.
No story synopsis for the press.
"None, but have a cup of coffee."
Ever heard, I said, of a guy named Bob Zemeckis? "Zemeckis?"
Yeah. Cream, no sugar.
"You must be referring to the co-author of the screenplay of '1941,' who wrote it in collaboration with Bob Gale."
So, before "1941" was a top-secret classified project, Zemeckis, who comes from around Chicago and drops in every once in a while, told me it was based on the time Los Angeles became gripped by the notion that it was under attack from the Japanese, and...
"Well," said Kahan, "that's the premise of the story, but the comic incidents are being kept under close wraps."
I'll bet, I said, I can get the dope by cross-examining Toshiro Mifune and Christopher Lee and Slim Pickens. Also, John Belushi is in the movie and might talk. He used to hang out in O'Rourke's and was not known to be tight-lipped at that time.
"Belushi is not here today," said Kahan. "Mifune does not speak English."
I loved you as Dracula, I told Christopher Lee.
"Strange, strange, strange experience the other day," said Christopher Lee. "You know of course that I've appeared in a number of vampire movies. Well, one of the first things a British visitor to Southern California discovers is that he must have a car. Freeways. Bad public transport. I took driving lessons. In London, of course, it was either public transport or the studio sent a limousine. Here one must drive.
"On the--I believe you call them 'on ramps,' if I'm not mistaken--on the 'on ramp,' I came to a dead halt. I know now that I should have kept my momentum up. I did not. I was stopped by a highway patrolman, who asked for my driver's license. Examined it. My real name is Christopher Lee. Also, I look a great deal like myself. He looked at the license. At me. Must have been a Dracula fan. Said: 'Should you be driving by daylight?'"
We have, I told Slim Pickens, a mutual friend. His name is Clair Huffaker. I did not have to tell Slim Pickens that Clair Huffaker is a renowned author of Western novels and screenplays, and that he has written everything from potboilers about life on the range to a memoir called "One Time I Saw Morning Come Home" that will bring tears to your eyes, it is so good.
"CLAIR HUFFAKER!" whispered Slim Pickens. "WHY, HE'S ONE OF MY BEST FRIENDS IN THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD," he continued.
I will pause now to supply some inside Hollywood gossip, before continuing with the story. Slim Pickens really does talk like Slim Pickens.
Clair told me, I said, to ask you about the peace pipe.
"That woman he was married to," Slim Pickens said, "was SOMETHING. Shot off a machine gun into the ceiling during a party. Clair took off for my spread out in the valley to get hisself together, but after a week he was PINING for her again. Wanted to send her a greeting card with an INJUN on it with a peace pipe.
"'Hell, Clair,' I said, 'SEND YOURSELF!!' So I hitched up my horse trailer to my old station wagon and put my Palomino inside, and Clair rented hisself an injun suit and a peace pipe. We pull up outside his house, we saddle up the pony, he's in the injun suit, he lights up the pipe, and up he rides to the front door of his house to make peace with his wife.
"Me, I'm hiding in the BUSHES down by the street when the COPS pull up. They didn't have to think long before they asked me what the HE; I thought I was doing, not to mention Clair on the porch ringing the BELL with the PEACE PIPE. I had to explain. 'He LIVES here,' I said. 'And his wife is holdin' a PARADE'."
What's this movie about?
"MY LIPS ARE SEALED!"
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