Making an Author Video

You can see authors smiling on our websites, taking questions on our publisher's web page, chatting on Facebook. And now the author video.
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In the old days -- about five years ago -- it was still the case that writers were occasionally read but almost never seen. Celebrity authors popped up on television from time to time, and faithful fans turned out at bookstore readings, but most sightings were confined to author photos on book jackets. On the whole, this was probably a good thing--few of us resemble Brad or Angelina (who does?) and even those jacket photos had to be touched up or used for years. (A twenty year gap was considered a stretch, but ten was common.) That was then.

Now, in our new era of viral friendships and photos bounced off phone satellites, authors are everywhere (if not necessarily more widely read). You can see us smiling on our websites, taking questions on our publisher's web page, chatting on Facebook. And now the author video. Typically, the author sits in front of a blank wall and answers questions from an unseen interviewer. The usual 'ums' and pauses are edited out and, with any luck, for two minutes or so the author is articulate and personable. As a way of communicating with an audience of readers, it's cheap and efficient, but not very exciting. When we were gearing up for the publication of Stardust this fall, I watched several videos and they seemed to me -- well, flat. Even the subject-oriented ones (as opposed to the less interesting how-I-write ones) were curiously static, movies that didn't move.

Why not try something different? Stardust, after all, was about Hollywood at the peak of the studio system (1945), a period abundant with visuals far more attractive than an author talking head. Why not make the video a mini-movie, shooting on location in front of sites that actually appear in the book, but cutting away to archival footage to show what it looked like then, what the characters would have seen? My publishers, not yet knowing what they were getting into, said okay.

Our budget gave us one day to shoot, so the first step was to choose locations that wouldn't eat up hours of driving time. Mt. Wilson, a key location in the book, was too far and in any case had just been threatened by wildfires and not open to the public. The Farmers' Market was now dwarfed by a shopping center next door. Salka Viertel's house (she had been an unofficial den mother to the German émigré community who appear in the book) was miles away in Santa Monica, so we kept that segment for last, in case we ran out of time. (We didn't, but cut the segment later anyway.) Shooting on a studio lot required permission and insurance guarantees and restricted times, but how could we do a Hollywood video without going on the lot? We got the permission.

The most important sites in the book are in Hollywood itself -- the actual place, not the state of mind -- so I decided to open at the corner of Sunset and Gower, where the very first studio in Hollywood had been built. There had been a roadhouse called the Blondeau Tavern, with a corral and a stable out back, and in 1911 a producer from Bayonne, New Jersey, who'd come to California looking for sunshine, thought it would be a good place to make westerns. Within a few years, that stretch of Gower Street was lined with small studios turning out one-reel quickie westerns, sometimes three a week, and so many cowboy extras loitered outside, hoping for work, that the street was nicknamed Gower Gulch. (Today it's a western-themed shopping mall with a sushi restaurant.)

Further down Gower, I located the fictional Continental Pictures, across the street from the still existing former Columbia lot. A few blocks south, at Melrose, was the old RKO studio -- the flashing radio tower of its logo is gone, but the globe it stood on in still there -- and along Melrose, mighty Paramount Pictures. These were the crucial locations, to which I added Union Station (our protagonist arrives there on the Super Chief), still in operation and still beautiful, and the Egyptian Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, where an important premiere in the book takes place. (Coincidentally, the first red carpet premiere was also held here: Doug Fairbanks in 1922's Robin Hood.)

Not everything went right. We had to shoot first on the old Columbia lot, the model for Continental. The video narrative refers to the iconic Hollywood sign and palm trees behind me in the hills and to the year-round sunshine that first drew moviemakers here -- all fine, except the morning was overcast and threatening drizzle. At Union Station a big Latino festival was being held across the street, mariachi music blaring though loudspeakers, not quite the right ambient soundtrack for the Super Chief. And then there were the gawkers drawn to any camera and microphone in L.A. People passing on Hollywood Boulevard would look at us with expectant eagerness, then realize we were nobodies and keep going. Some Marines in Santa Monica asked if they could be on TV too. Everyone, it seems, still wants a little stardust.

But mostly everything went according to plan, thanks to the shoestring crew: Matt Nothelfer, a gifted cameraman and editor (my director) and my son Mike, who drove and fed me my lines (my P.A.). Missing were the hundred plus technicians you'd find on a studio set, but the underlying process was the same -- we felt we were making a movie.

The problem was, we had made a long one. Matt was a whiz at finding archival footage (one favorite: people riding on the Super Chief in the late '40s, all dressed up) and a lot of it was fast and funny. As I'd hoped, he made the movie move. But it was now four or five times as long as the usual author video. Alarming sounds reached the publisher. "Look, we've made The Birth of a Nation of author videos," I said, hoping we could salvage most of it. "It's a little long."

Luckily, my publisher was game and Matt trimmed it and we got it to come in at around seven minutes. I doubt it's really pioneering, or will change the face of author videos forever, but it is fun and certainly a lot more interesting than me droning on in a studio. It might even capture some of the glamour of old Hollywood, its real subject. I know making it did that for me--for one day, at any rate, I knew what it was like to be sprinkled with stardust.

You can see the video on my site, and on Simon & Schuster's site, and below and various other sites floating happily through the Ethernet.


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