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Film fest luncheon offers intriguing morsels

TORONTO -- We are all gathered here at the Four Seasons hotel for the 13th annual running of George Christy's Toronto Film Festival luncheon. We know it is the 13th year because that's what it says on the hand-crafted leather passport cases that are this year's favors. We are pretty sure the menu will center around chicken pot pie.

Christy, a columnist for the Hollywood Reporter, throws this party every year, and we all attend, although we are not quite sure what the occasion is. George says it is the annual meeting of our "extended family," but I am not sure my family includes Kim Basinger, Gary Oldman and Atom Egoyan. No matter. It is always lots of fun, and you get to hear great gossip.

For example, just now I am learning that James Ellroy doesn't wear underwear beneath his kilt. Ellroy, of course, is the best-selling crime novelist whose L.A. Confidential has been made into a big autumn movie. There he is in the corner, the tall drink of water with thinning hair and a defiant mustache, looking like Nelson Algren on steroids.

"I was with him when the movie premiered at the Cannes Film Festival," confides a publicist, "and he was wearing his kilt because the premiere is formal attire, and he was all wound up in telling me about the Blue Dahlia Murder (a famous L.A. case in the '40s), which he is utterly obsessed with, and he laid right down on the sidewalk to show me the position the corpse was found in."

"And that's when you found out he doesn't wear underwear under his kilt?" I ask.

"Uh, huh," she says.

I wander over to Ellroy, who talks like a racetrack tout with a Ph.D. in criminology.

"Once you picture your characters in your mind," I ask, "how does it affect you when you see them on the screen? Kevin Spacey and Kim Basinger - do they replace the people in your mind?"

"It's confusing," he says. "It's parallel. My people are still there. These new people are there now, too. They exist uneasily side by side, trying to nudge each other out of my attention. I think my characters remain and I deal with the actors by thinking that they are playing my characters, although paradoxically the actors are of course real, and my characters exist only in my imagination."

They claim the test of friendship is, could you take a three-day bus ride with the person? I think I would like to sit next to Ellroy on the Greyhound for three days. It would be more entertaining than a TV set screwed to the back of the seat in front of me.

Danny DeVito is in the corner, gesticulating. He is such a great gesticulator he looks like a conductor deprived of his orchestra. I wander over to him.

"I was just thinkin' the other day," he says, "that Ellroy could be an actor. No kiddin'. He's got that kind of weird light in his eyes, and that voice, and he's so articulate. The right kinda guy, he could play him."

DeVito and I fall into a deep discussion of the merits of DVD disks, and then a gong sounds, and it is time to file into the dining room for luncheon. I am seated next to the actor Matthew Modine, who is about as nice a person as you would want to meet, and who is worried about what to do with his father's collection of movie coming-attractions trailers.

"Dad ran a drive-in theater," he says, "and they'd send him all of these trailers. Science-fiction, Westerns, classics, big pictures, 'Night of the Living Dead,' everything. I've run into Jack Lemmon and told him I have the trailer for 'Save the Tiger,' which he has never seen. But prints decompose if you don't take care of them. I'd like to donate them to some museum, but I don't know where."

We discuss the merits of the UCLA Film Archive and then he starts talking about working with Stanley Kubrick on "Full Metal Jacket."

"He doesn't believe in waste," Modine says. "He uses the smallest possible crew. Sometimes only six people. One day he had a set lit, and he told the electrician, 'OK, this set is lit and it's not going to change, so I don't need you here anymore,' and he sent the guy over to work on the wiring on his house."

They say he likes to make a lot of takes of every scene, I say.

Modine looks at me as if I don't know the half of it.

"He told me that on 'The Shining' Jack Nicholson would arrive on the set sort of knowing his lines. After six takes, he would know them. After 20 takes, he would know what they meant. After 50 takes, he would start to play around with them in interesting ways."

"And then it got good?" I ask.

"No . . . then, Stanley said, after 100 takes, he begins to really feel them."

"Yeah," I say, "I heard he really works his actors."

"At the end of 'Full Metal Jacket,' " Modine says, "there's a scene where all the soldiers have to march together. We did it over and over and over. Like 150 yards, and then back up, and then do it again and again, because he wasn't satisfied. Finally at the end of yet one more take, I shouted out, 'I am Spartacus!' And then all the others took it up, 'No, I am Spartacus!' And 'We are all Spartacus!' Because Stanley hates 'Spartacus.' "

"There's supposed to be a scene where you can see one of the Roman soldiers wearing a wristwatch," I say.

"I kept a diary on the set of 'Full Metal Jacket,' " Modine says. "I knew Kubrick had a reputation for working his actors hard. In the early weeks, I kept writing down, 'He is a great director. He is a great director.' "

"And toward the end of the film?"

"I wrote down, 'Stanley Kubrick is the Devil.' "

We are jerked back to reality by the arrival of our chicken pot pie. It is about the best chicken pot pie you can imagine. The menu used to change every year, but four or five years ago, Garth Drabinsky, the theater mogul, told George Christy how much he liked the chicken pot pie, and so George has served it every year since.

Garth Drabinsky did not attend the luncheon this year, but we ate the chicken pot pie, and thought of him.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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