Friday, May 14, 2010

From Highland Park to the Hollywood Hills

OK bear with me. I was cleaning up on my computer and found an old article I wrote in 1999 for a magazine but it didn't get published. Through the miracle of free blogs - you still get to enjoy it! I warn you it is about 2000 words long. But if you are interested in film making I think it is a good story. So read on ...

What do Jurassic Park, Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List, and The Hi-Line have in common? No, this is not a Sesame St. game of “One of these things is not like the other...” Think more like the 6 degrees of Kevin Bacon (or Spielberg) and you’ll be on track.

In 1973 or ‘74 in a class at SMU, I watched an interesting little film called Sugarland Express starring the well known but as yet untested film actress, Goldie Hawn; more importantly this feature film was the first directed by Steven Spielberg (having gained a slight amount of notice for a TV Movie called Duel).

“I liked that film.” says Ron Judkins as we sit across from each other at a very small table in the likewise small establishment called Millie’s, located on Sunset Blvd. in the area of LA known as Silver Lake.

Ron just happens to be a two-time Academy Award winner. In the interest of the who, what, etc.; The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded an Oscar to Ronald Judkins for Best Sound on Jurassic Park and Saving Private Ryan. He was also nominated for his work on Schindler’s List.

Ron and I went to film school together in the early 70’s at SMU. Even though our Film 101 prof. was the location manager for the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, our school was not exactly a hot-bed for film. The sci-fi flick Logan’s Run was lensed in the Dallas area as were some other notables like Benji. Now with everything from dogs to dinosaurs to Chuck Norris, the north central area of Texas became quite a busy little area for films.

In another class, an assignment was to list five-year-goals. Naively I listed something like ‘to direct a feature film’ and other similarly bold statements coming from a twenty-one year old college senior. Ron tells me he can’t remember what he put down. I’m sure it was close to: 1) record sound 2) win an Oscar 3) direct feature film 4) win another Oscar 5) retire to Montana sheep ranch.

OK, so maybe it’s not that easy or simple.

Ron started his career in Dallas shortly after graduation; spending some months recording sound for filmed documentaries for KERA, the Dallas PBS affiliate. Some folks in New Orleans contacted him about editing their coming film. Not wanting to leave a secure position with KERA and unsure about their financial status, he asked for six weeks pay up front. Figuring he’d never hear from them again, he was quite surprised to receive a check in the mail. A man of his word, he quit KERA and went to work for them. They ran out of money anyway and Ron was soon out of work.

In 1979, he decided his career could benefit from a move to LA. Like every other struggling artist he made cold calls; about twenty a day. “I hated every one of them.” But after six or eight months they began to pay off and provide sufficient work to make a living. Ron says he had resigned himself to working on what he calls “the fringe of legitimate movie making,” when he got a call from a friend asking if he’d come to the Philippines to work on a movie called Purple Hearts.

This was not his first feature but Ron is sure I’ve never heard of the others. I understand. In 1975 Ron and I worked together on a very low budget independent film in Dallas. So far I’ve not run across it in Blockbuster.

Somewhere in this time frame our waitress spilled coffee in the middle of our table where I kept my small micro-recorder. Fortunately it survived and I was able to transcribe my notes - although I did learn that placing your recorder in the middle of a table, in the middle of a noisy cafe is not going to provide the best results. You’d think with a sound recording professional sitting right across from me, he’d have pointed this out. Must have something to do with trade secrets.

Through a DP he met on Purple Hearts, Ron was contacted about handling sound on Dad featuring Ted Danson and Jack Lemmon. With a little apprehension, “I was scared to death”, Ron said yes. Later he found himself on a soundstage working on Hook. He found the job hard and spent a great deal of time keeping track of all the communication equipment being used on three soundstages simultaneously. This was Ron’s first large budget motion picture and his first work for Steven Spielberg.

And the rest they say is... well not quite.

He subsequently worked on Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List and a few others (Congo, Lost World, Amistad, Saving Private Ryan and the Psycho remake).

I’d like to tell you this is about how to take your education and parley that into a successful Hollywood career but Ron said, “Nobody ever asked me where I went to college.” This is more about paying your dues, paying attention and probably a small amount of luck and the old; ‘it’s not what you know but who you know’ axiom (even though Ron claims he didn’t know anyone!)

What exactly does Ron do on a movie set? “I record all the dialogue the actors say and a few ambient sounds and effects.” I expected Ron to be involved in the final sound track of a film but “at the end of the day when I turn my tapes in, I never see or hear them until I see the finished movie.” Sound design, the adding of music, effects, replacing actors dialogue and in general building the final soundtrack for the movie, is the work of a completely different crew and department. Ron may advise them of particular problems with a recording environment but his involvement is limited. Ron’s Academy Award winning work on Jurassic Park was to somehow; in the midst of screeching mechanical dinosaurs, velociraptors and the like, manage to record intelligible dialogue from Jeff Goldblum, Laura Dern and the other human on-set actors. I tried to imagine doing the same during some of the more harrowing scenes of Saving Private Ryan. Whatever he does and however he does it; it must be working!

Ron uses only digital equipment with such names as Stelladat and Sonosax and a small crew. His work usually involves a lot of travel, putting him in climates ranging from the jungles of Costa Rica for Congo to the shivering cold of Auschwitz for Schindler’s List. “Travel and getting to see other cultures” is what he enjoys most about his work.

Being an avid student of movies and having just watched the riveting Amistad on video shortly before our interview, I was curious about the effect of the content on the movies he has worked on. “I really am too busy worrying about the job at hand and keeping ahead of Steven. Spielberg works quickly and there is little time to pay much attention to the movie itself.”

During the summer of 1975 we both worked on the aforementioned very low budget film called Pyramid. While we sat round gabbing during a long scene on a very hot Dallas summer day (1975 would go down as one of the hottest summers) I remember asking Ron about what he wanted to do with his life and career. Ron didn’t remember but I recall he wanted to be on the sound crew for motion pictures. Later he admitted he might have said it. After all it makes his story all that more interesting (and amazing) to me. At least one other member of our crew that summer went on to bigger and better things; Tak Fujimoto, DP for awhile and more recently cinematographer on the Oprah Winfrey produced feature film, Beloved. So all you film students; don’t despise small beginnings on unknown films.

I think the die was already cast as far as Ron’s future in the film biz. During our senior year in college, his was one of two scripts picked for production as class film projects.

Ron spent some time hanging out with the sound crew of Pyramid, asking questions, watching them; which he says is how he really learned most of what he knows. “Problem solving is the most creative part of my job. About 50% of what I do is the mechanics of my work, the rest is getting along with people.” He stays pretty quiet on the set. “Some directors”, he says, “don’t ever want to hear from the sound man.” Ron rarely speaks up during a take unless it’s very early in the scene or if something like an airplane flying over might require waiting a few seconds. Once a scene is underway, he’s not going to interrupt the flow of the actors. At the end of a take he may point out a problem to the director. “If I have a mechanical problem or there’s not going to be anything on the tape, obviously I’m going to let the director know.”

At some point Ron’s cell “beeped” at him. Very quickly a waiter approached who pointed at a menu; "NO CELL PHONES!" his finger shouted at us! Ron said Millie’s had a reputation of pretending to treat customers badly but outside of the “no phones” warning, we were allowed to take up our small table for over an hour on a very pleasant southern California September Sunday morning.

At this stage of a career, some would be content to rest on their laurels. Not so for Ron. He’s embarked on a new phase, having written and directed his own independent feature. The Hi-Line is about a young girl in a different kind of coming of age story shot near Ron’s summer home in Montana. He is wrapping up the last music work before firing off a tape to the Sundance Festival. Like many directors, he hopes his film will be selected for a screening. (In late November I received an e-mail from Ron telling me that Sundance had accepted his film!) After that it will be off to other similar events; hoping to catch the eye of a distributor and get his film into wider release. I asked if this might limit his future opportunities to work on films like Saving Private Ryan, he said “yes” but this is the creative itch he hopes to scratch.

Even with his own project (and another in the works) he’s also hoping to go on to Memoirs of a Geisha (another planned Spielberg project) which would allow him to spend some time in Japan and provide a chance to experience another culture (one of the more enjoyable parts of travel and film making). As of this writing, production on Memoirs has been delayed.

What should a person do if they are interested in a career in motion pictures? “There is no specific body of knowledge, no school, no book... a lot of this job is knowing what the important battles are. Talk to people, ask questions, listen. SMU did allow me to be around the process and it helped me get my first job at KERA. Just get a job, any kind, office assistant, PA (production assistant), even volunteer. I’m amazed at the amount of that kind of labor this town can support. When I was in Montana working on my own film I hired some of the locals. Four of them decided to come to LA. They got bit by the bug and I thought, great now I’ve caused them to move down here and I’m sort of responsible; but they all have jobs now. You just need to have the desire. Try.”

“Winning the Academy Award was very gratifying. It was never something I aspired to. All the nominees go to a luncheon and it was at one of these, surrounded by all the other award-winning professionals where I felt like I had finally joined the Hollywood community. Winning doesn’t make me any more money, but it does give me the opportunity to work on more interesting projects. I could probably stay as busy as I want to.”

Since our breakfast Ron has enjoyed the heady life of the Sundance Film Festival. Ron has reached a level of success and recognition achieved by only a few. Now he’s moving into a second phase of his career as a director. We’ll have to wait to see if someday Ron may get to accept another Oscar for his talents in this area.

When the last microphone has been packed away and the last credit has
rolled, Ron hopes the final phase of his life will find him on his Montana ranch raising a few sheep.

Vincent Crunk
December, 1999

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