CALL ME MADAM: KILL BILL VOL. 2 JUNKET APRIL 3 & 4, 2004
By anyone’s standards three am is the definition of “arse o’clock.” If you are still awake at that hour chances are you can’t sleep or you’re doing something naughty and are going to feel awful in the morning. Whatever the case, you’re going to lose come sun rise. If, however, it is the alarm that’s waking you up at this unholy hour, you’re either one of the hosts of Canada AM (those poor buggers get up really early) or, like me, you have a very early flight.
I have been in Edmonton, Alberta – home of the pyramid-shaped city hall – to tape an episode of a CBC radio show called Go, and now I am dragging myself out of bed to fly to Los Angeles to see Kill Bill Vol. 2 and speak to the cast. The radio taping went well – several hundred people crowded into a small theatre to hear us ranting about the Junos – and afterwards we went out to grab a bite to eat and have a few celebratory cocktails… until one am. When the alarm started chiming I had really only had a long nap – about an hour-and-a-half – and felt like I had been tap-danced on by a herd of Alberta cattle.
While I was struggling to stay conscious on the l-o-n-g ride to the airport I reflected back on the trip. I had been on Edmonton for a total of 16 hours, just long enough to eat some Alberta beef; pay $105 for a hotel room that would have cost three times that in Toronto; have a bunch of drunken yahoos in a rusted pick-up truck yell nasty names at me and get berated by a homeless man (that’s too long and too weird a story to repeat here). I can’t wait to go back…
The connecting flight to Calgary was a blur, and apart from a run-in with Custom Guardzilla, the feared foe of cross border travellers and the sardine-can seating on Air Canada, the trip was fast and uneventful.
It’s still early when I arrive at the hotel, and even though I have literally been awake since Friday morning I opt for a walk over a nap. It’s warm and I find the gentle breeze knocks some of the cobwebs out of my head. Forty minutes later I’m at the Farmer’s Market at 3rd Street and Fairfax. I like coming down here on Saturdays and watching the weird mix of families, the occasional celeb, (I see David Steinberg having a coffee and furiously making notes in a large book), locals and rubber necking tourists. I stay and look at the giant freshly baked pies and weird looking fish with their heads still attached until I start to actually feel the synapses exploding in my tired brain. I swear one of the strange looking fish told me it was time to lay down.
On my way into the hotel I see a familiar face. John Travolta is leaving just as I am staggering up to the door. I am tired and bedraggled with a slightly mad expression on my face, I’m sure I looked like Omar Sharif coming through the desert in Lawrence of Arabia. Travolta, on the other hand looked like he just stepped off the silver screen – his dark suit is perfect, his hair coiffed and his shoes are so shined the reflection emanating off them is blinding.
He is surrounded by minions who are shielding him from any contact with non-celebrities. To make sure that he wouldn’t have to stop and speak to anyone his eyes were focused somewhere off in the distance, making it impossible for the fame-challenged to make eye contact with him. The whole effect was kind of unnerving. I know this is a technique he has probably perfected over years of appearing in public and being hassled by the public, but frankly the thousand-yard-stare he is using today kind of makes him look like a robot. A well dressed robot with shiny hair, but a robot nonetheless.
Back in my room I fall into a coma. Before passing out I set three alarms – the clock by my bed, then, set for a couple minutes later my cell phone alarm and then for a few minutes after that I arrange a wake-up call. When the time comes to arise I miss the first two and only the ringing phone rouses me from dreamland.
Kill Bill Vol. 2 is being screened for us at the Arclight Theatre at 6360 Sunset Boulevard. Comprised of 14 large cinemas, each of which have been recently refurbished with state of the art sound and as they say “black box design aesthetic which favours undistracted viewing over opulence” – it is a great theatre; truly a place for real movie fans. Arclight also has very large seats – according to their website the chairs are 3 inches wider than current megaplex standards and boast 6 inches more legroom. It’s like sitting in first class on an airplane, except that the screen is really big and there is no one there to offer you a pillow or bring you caviar.
Kill Bill Vol. 2 is the Citizen Kane of martial arts revenge films. The action moves from Japan back to the United States, and while there are some incredible fight sequences, Vol. 2 focuses on answering the questions of the first film and exploring the relationship between The Bride and the bloodthirsty Bill. For a full review watch Reel to Real in April.
After the screening I make my way up Sunset Strip to the hotel. As I pass by the line-up at The Viper Room I wish I wasn’t so tired and could go out on the town, but I’m feeling like ten pounds of hammers in a five pound bag, and it is time for bed.
SUNDAY APRIL 4, 2004
It’s going to be a strange day. By the time I call it a night I will have handled a giant snake on Hollywood Boulevard; chatted with Hollywood Madam Heidi Fleiss and hugged Uma Thurman. More on all of that later.
My interviews have been scheduled for early in the morning. For some reason I have my doubts that Michael Madsen or David Carradine will be up and at ‘em first thing, but I’ll be there and ready to go nonetheless.
Michael Madsen is first and he is on time. I saw him yesterday in the hospitality suite wearing a black suit and colourful cowboy boots. He speaks in kind of a low whisper, with a voice that sounds ravaged by cigarettes and too many late nights. I heard him talking about his boots, telling someone that they’re very comfortable, so much so that he bought two pairs, the ones he was wearing and a white pair which he later gave away because they seemed too flashy.
Sometimes when doing these interviews you have preconceived notions about people. The first time I interviewed Ed Harris, for instance, I was told that he was difficult and not a very good talker. Nothing could have been further from the truth and the anxiety I felt leading up to that interview turned out to be wasted energy.
For some reason I had that same vibe about Michael Madsen, that he would only give me “yes” or “no” answers and be uncooperative. I guess I was confusing the on-screen persona of Mr. Blonde from Reservoir Dogs with real life. I should know better. He recently said that having kids “was a good reason to stop acting like one,” and that new sense of maturity comes through when you meet him. He’s open and friendly, and more than willing to talk.
I asked him about how working with Quentin Tarantino was different this time around than it had been when they made Reservoir Dogs together in 1992.
“I don’t think Quentin has changed at all,” he said. “He’s exactly the same as he was when we did Reservoir Dogs. He’s got a bigger playground to play in and there’s more time to do what he wants to do, but he deserves that.
“I like to collaborate and he is a great collaborator… and on a picture like this it is important that everybody just be calm and get on with it. He inspires that in people – he brought out the best in Uma Thurman, she’s tremendous in the film that’s for sure… and so is David…
“The guy has only made four pictures and if he never made another film in his whole life he would still go down in history. I don’t think that is an overstatement at all…”
After we were done talking he notices my notepad full of questions. “I see you have a whole list of questions there we didn’t get to… sorry if I rambled on too much…”
From there I went over to David Carradine’s room. Everyone of my age grew up with the phrase, “Quickly as you can snatch the pebble from my hand…” from the Kung Fu series and if you didn’t know Carradine by name, you certainly knew by his character’s name, Kwai Chang Caine or more informally, Grasshopper. Who could forget the fortune cookie philosophy, the great fight scenes, or Carradine’s signature line, “I am Caine.”? Awesome.
In the thirty years since the original Kung Fu went off the air Carradine has fathered a baby with Barbara Hershey, who, in the free-wheeling spirit of the times was named Free; been convicted of drunk driving; made some good movies (Bound for Glory, The Long Riders) some bad movies (Down ‘n’ Dirty) and at least one cult classic (Death Race 2000). He also starred in a shot-in-Toronto series called Kung Fu: the Legend Continues and did some voice work for movies and video games. He has worked steadily through the years, although, like his dad, the legendary John Carradine, (who once said, “I’ve made some of the greatest films ever made – and a lot of crap, too.”) his choices haven’t always served him well. By anyone’s standards Kill Bill represents a giant comeback and a welcome return to A-list projects.
I’d like to discuss that with him, but it is always awkward to sit with someone and essentially ask, “You’ve made a lot of really awful movies… How does it feel to be in a good one for a change?” Instead we discuss the scene that formally introduces Bill to the story. It is a flashback scene at the beginning of Part 2 in front of the church were The Bride and her fiancée are about to rehearse their wedding.
“How did you find me?” the Bride asks.
“I’m the man,” says Bill.
The playful back-and-forth between Thurman and Carradine continues for seven minutes or so, ripe with sexual tension and the possibility of violence – we already know, after all, that Bill has ordered a hit squad to crash the wedding – until we have learned the true nature of their relationship.
“Well, before we shot that Quentin and I were talking inside the church,” said Carradine, “and he said, ‘I think this is your best scene in the movie.’ I said, ‘Quentin, I think this is the best thing of my entire career.’ That scene was actually written late in the process. Quentin never stopped writing right up until the end of the movie. None of it is improvised. Not a single comma is improvised. Quentin writes it exactly as he wants it and that’s how you do it.”
Watch Reel to Real in April for more with Kwai Chang Caine… er… David Carradine.
The last one-on-one interview of the day was with Daryl Hannah who plays homicidal maniac assassin Ellie Driver. I’ve interviewed her a few times in the past for a number of different movies and find that she really comes to life when talking about this character. Today we discussed the epic fight scene between her and Uma. Quentin Tarantino described it as “Hannah’s Cheryl Ladd to Uma’s Farrah Fawcett,” making allusions to the original blonde cast of Charlie’s Angels. She tells me it took almost two weeks to shoot, and for most of it she was covered in gore, grime and a jar full of foul, brown spit. “I was like, thank you Quentin,” she said of the spit, “because that was one of those things he just added in…”
We’ll air more with Daryl Hannah on Reel to Real in April.
Uma and Quentin Tarantino opted not to do one-on-one interviews with the domestic press. In both cases I can understand why. My guess is that Uma didn’t want to answer endless questions about her very public is-it-on-again-or-off-again relationship with Ethan Hawke. Who can blame her? She’s here to talk about the movie not her personal life. I also have a feeling that from a scheduling point of view it is wise to present Tarantino in a press conference situation because his answers are so long that there would be no way possible to keep him on track doing four and five minute interviews.
The press conferences were being held in a small ballroom downstairs. I got there early and grabbed a seat at the front. A few minutes later, with no announcement, Tarantino showed up, took his seat and for the next hour spoke about his movie at a pace that would make Martin Scorsese seem laid back by comparison.
He was asked about the fight scene between Uma and Daryl Hannah and he explained the genesis of the scene. “I started really thinking about the two of them really just having at it… MAN! Uma Thurman verses Daryl Hannah… It sounds like a Tokyo monster movie. I even told them, ‘If I could have come up with a way that I could have had you guys take a couple of pills and grow sixty feet tall so you could have fought over Tokyo like War of the Blonde Gargantuans I would have done it.’ I thought that might have been a stretch… Then I thought for two seconds, maybe they could have a big old fight in a miniature golf course. That was my idea [for that scene] that they were like huge Japanese monsters fighting.”
Later he was asked if he had seen The Passion of the Christ, and while he hadn’t seen the film, he had a funny story to tell. “I had somebody last night as I was leaving this hotel… this old lady comes up to me and says, ‘Young man, don’t have all this cursing that’s in your movie. Every third word is profanity. You’re too good for that. You don’t need it. You leave out that profanity and God will bless you the way He has blessed Mel Gibson.’
“If it hadn’t been at the end of the day after I had been talking my tongue out, I would have said, ‘Let’s sit down…’ I love that line, but what I am curious about is what does profanity have to do with anything? I don’t think that with all of God’s problems – as long as we don’t use His name in vain – the little languages that us puny humans have come up with are going to be high on His list. And how does she even know Mel Gibson isn’t cursing all the way through the Aramaic scenes?”
He spoke at breakneck speed on a variety of subjects – from a proposed animated version of Bill’s life that he is working on to creating the soundtrack to hiring Robert Rodriguez to write the score for one dollar – for a solid hour and it was exhilarating. The time flew by quickly, and I could see why doing one-on-one interviews would be tough with him as his answers averaged about six minutes each.
As soon as he was gone Uma seemed to magically appear to take his place. She was asked about The Bride and how she and Tarantino fine tuned the character.
“There were all these things that came and went,” she said. “At one point The Bride had this monster-like quality where there was a special effect in her eyes… I said, ‘No Quentin, you can’t make the character into a monster.’ I mean, she’s a monster anyway, but let’s keep the monster real…
“Then he settled on a pulsating vein that he was going to put on me. I fought him on it endlessly. He knew I hated it, but had the special effects rig one up just to really draw the torture out because I was like, ‘Oh no, he’s going to do the pulsating vein…’ They would [use it] when I was about to go nuts. Ultimately the pulsating vein was gone. He wryly said to me, ‘You know, you have a vein in your forehead that when you get mad it sort of sticks out, and you know, I don’t need the special effect at all.’”
She spoke for about forty-five minutes before being whisked off and then my work day was done. Now I can enjoy the warm weather and explore the city. My first stop is a true Hollywood landmark, the Paramount Gates. If you’ve seen Sunset Blvd, you’ll be familiar with Paramount Studio’s ornate, wrought iron entry gate. Built in 1926, the arched gateway is located at the north end of Bronson Avenue (and is hence called The Bronson Gate) and it has a unique history. According to legend the extra iron filigree on top of the gate was added after hysterical female fans of Rudolph Valentino besieged security and climbed over the original exposed gate. Charles Bronson (whose name was originally Charles Buchinski) took his stage name from this gate. It looks a little smaller than I expected it would be, but since it is the only studio gate that is still standing from the heyday of the studio system it is worth a peek.
From there I hoofed it over to Hollywood Boulevard. The first major intersection I came to was Hollywood and Vine. It is a world famous address, but I can’t for the life of me figure out why. There is nothing particularly notable here, other than a cool neon sign suspended above the corner. Just north of the fabled corner is the Capitol Records Building, which is home to the first major record company based on the West Coast, and the world’s first circular office building. Rumor has it that it was designed to resemble a stack of records topped by a stylus on the suggestion of Nat King Cole.
Music fans take note that John Lennon’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is right outside the Capitol Records building, and is often the site of candlelight vigils on the anniversary of his death (December 8).
After dark, you can see that the spire high atop the Capitol Records building is capped by a red light which repeatedly blinks on and off. The red light blinks out the word “Hollywood” in Morse code every few seconds. In 1956, the granddaughter of Samuel Morse (inventor of the Morse code) threw the switch that turned on the tower light. This single-word message has been changed only once, in 1992, to celebrate Capitol Records’ 50th anniversary. For the next year it signaled: “Capitol 50.” In 1993, it returned to sending the original message: “Hollywood.”
On this outing I had decided that it would be my goal to see one famous person doing something completely regular. I wanted to see Steve Martin washing his car, or Nicole Kidman buying groceries. My wish didn’t come true exactly, but I did encounter someone who could be described as infamous.
The newest step of the gentrification of dirty old Hollywood Boulevard is a store called Hollywood Madame, owned by Heidi Fleiss, who once ran a high-priced prostitution ring that allegedly served Tinseltown’s rich and famous. Previously she held sway over a cadre of high class hookers who charged Charlie Sheen $1500 a night. Now, instead of doing time, (she did three years in jail for tax evasion and money laundering) she bides her time writing books (Pandering) and running a clothing store.
I was surprised to see her behind the counter, and she told me that she had just fired some of her employees for stealing and had to work the shop by herself. I bought a t-shirt for my girlfriend and wanted to pay with my Visa card. Trouble was Heidi didn’t know how to use the Visa machine. I went behind the counter to see if I could figure it out, but couldn’t. We both stared at the blinking box as though it was the impossibly complicated Rambaldi device. I finally paid in cash, but unfortunately she didn’t have enough change. I took whatever coins she had in the till and we called it even. With my pockets bulging with quarters I left the store having fulfilled my wish to see a celebrity doing something ordinary.
I tooled around Hollywood and Highland for the next hour or so; had my picture taken with a giant yellow snake wrapped around my neck and talked with a street performer named Dr. Geek Wordologist who has been busking in Hollywood for seventeen years. He can instantly make up a rhyme using your name and your hometown. It is quite impressive, and I noticed he had a bucket load of ones and fives next to him, so his kind of wordplay must be profitable. He’s probably making more than many of the songwriters who went to California to find fame and fortune. Fans of late night infomercials will remember him as the guy who rapped on the beach in the Blu-Blockers sunglasses commercial ten or so years ago. I’ve never tried the glasses, but one website I checked said they make everything look like you are having an “electric Kool-Aid flashback.” (You can hear his song at: https://www.alphalink.com.au/~deddy/blue2.htm.)
Dr. Geek tells me that he came from Detroit in 1986 and he has been here “crackin’ ever since.” When I ask if all his rhymes are straight off the top of his head he replies in verse, “extemporaneous rhyme to help please the mind… no profanity because there might be little kids around to hear me… They’re getting enough of that crazy stuff out there, so I have to do it the way I learned – old school with class.”
I walked back towards Heidi’s store and notice that she is inside, alone looking bored. I go back in and say hello. She looks surprised to see. “Didn’t your girlfriend like the shirt?” she asked. I explained that I was just killing time, and we ended up talking for quite a while.
We talked about the store, which she described “as Hustler without the porn,” and how when people come to Hollywood they can visit her store and “at least say they saw someone who has been on the news.”
We also talked about why she chose Hollywood Boulevard as the location for her store. “I’ll give you the rundown of LA,” she said. “Being born and raised here I have seen the evolution of Hollywood. I remember when I was in the sixth grade when I would skateboard down Hollywood Boulevard with a bunch of kids and we were rowdy and rude and we would knock ice creams out of people’s hands and do obnoxious things… I got my payback for that in prison, don’t worry… Hollywood Boulevard, right now, all the nightlife is here and that sets the trends. All the cool restaurants and the cool stores are coming here, so it is going through a renaissance and it is good to be a part of it before it gets to be all Banana Republics… no offence to Banana Republics, but how much of the same thing can you see?”
She also tells me about her plans to expand her business interests to Las Vegas. “I’m the best madam on earth because I know the dynamics of males and females and the nature of human nature better than anyone. Better than doctors, psychiatrists, professors… anyone. In two years prostitution will be legalized in Las Vegas proper and I’ll have the best brothel on earth.
“It’ll be a brothel that people would walk into and be proud to be seen… like the speakeasy days, when people were proud to be there. In today’s climate the type of person that I would see walk in there as a celebrity… I would see someone like Ben Affleck. He looks like a hot shot. A big roller. Confident enough to go in there and be proud. The girls would love him. I’d promise him the time of his life. There is a reason why I am Heidi Fleiss – I have superior product.”
She’s an interesting character, and I was surprised at how much I liked her. I have never met her before, but had made up my mind negatively about her from learning about her sordid past on E! True Hollywood Story, and seeing her being lead away in handcuffs on the news. In person and conversation she is quite sweet – edgy, but sweet. She is one of those people who gives you a little too much information right off the snap. Within minutes of meeting her she told me that her staff had been stealing from her; how she was hung-over from being at a party at the Playboy Mansion the night before and that she was a criminal with no college education. But despite the barrage of words and personal data I got the impression that she was trying to be friendly but has some trust issues… which is perhaps why she asked me several times if I was a cop or had ever worked for the FBI… I guess she has been stung before.
When I left Heidi was sweeping the floor of her shop just like any other shopkeeper would and it was hard to imagine that she was a notorious madam whose little black book had kept Hollywood on the edge of its collective seat during her trial.
Back at the hotel I had dinner with some friends on the restaurant patio before retiring early to pack and get some rest. With visions of long yellow snakes, legendary madams and Uma colliding in my head I got some sleep so I wouldn’t be wiped out for my early Monday morning flight.