SCOTT ESSMAN is the Creative Director of Visionary Media, a multimedia organization first created in New York in 1988 and reformed in Los Angeles in 1995. He has taught mass media, filmmaking, screenwriting, directing, and digital video editing at the University of La Verne, The Art Institute of California, California Polytechnic State University, Pomona, Santiago Canyon College, and Bradley University for their ‘Hollywood Semester.’ Mr. Essman has been writing and producing projects about motion picture craftsmanship and Hollywood history since the 1980s. Mr. Essman has hosted the appearances of dozens of Hollywood filmmakers, including Adam Rifkin, Fred Dekker, Mark Verheiden, David Franzoni, Richard Donner and many more at a variety of universities plus events including 2013’s Pitchfest and conventions, including Monsterpalooza and the ShowBiz Expo. Mr. Essman is now planning his first feature film. We spoke about the brand new reprint of THE TOTAL FILMMAKER by comic legend Jerry Lewis, which is now available from MICHAEL WIESE PRODUCTIONS.
Dave Watson: The Total Filmmaker may not be a book one expects from Jerry Lewis. How did this come about?
Scott Essman: I heard about the book around thirty years ago. It was published in 1971 but went out of print thereafter and is very hard to find, so Michael Wiese Productions is reprinting it, the same book exactly.
My first reaction was Jerry Lewis knew so much about the behind the scenes aspects of film, it was one of those, “Who knew?” things. He’d compiled all this knowledge of film as an actor throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s all the way up until the book was published.
Paramount gave him a deal to direct, which was a deal back then; if you were going to direct a picture then you had to be in it too. For instance, Ben Affleck has directed many films and starred in them too. Kevin Costner starred in all the films he directed, and this goes back to Clint Eastwood though he doesn’t star in all the films he directs. Jerry had so much knowledge and put it into a book, and it was shocking because on screen Jerry is such a comedian, so it was shocking to read how astute and polished he was as a director.
DW: He also gave a great performance in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy where he played it straight.
SE: He did, and he came out of nowhere. Scorsese was very sharp to cast him in that role. He’s supposed to be Johnny Carson. He was not playing that role for laughs at role and he’s excellent in it.
DW: The structure of the book is interesting. He begins talking about Humanities and fundamentals of manners. Was this reason for the author's long career in Hollywood?
SE: I have no doubt. Back then in the ‘50s and ‘60s, that Hollywood studio system, there was a cultural shift, television had come in, the rebel had come into the fore. The Martin/Lewis act had come to the end, and by 1956 they were breaking apart. Martin and Lewis were signed to Paramount Pictures, and Lewis owed them five films. He had to hang on as a solo artist. You don’t hang on as a solo artist unless you’re at this point where you’re nice to everyone and grasp all the fundamentals of filmmaking. His solo career was also arguable bigger than his partnership with Martin.
But yes, he is a spiritual person and all indications point to him treating everyone as nice as possible. He did fun things for his crew, and wanted to make his fellow actors and crew feel at home which by the early ‘60s he started to direct. His first picture as director was The Bellboy, and he was in Cinderfella, which the studio wanted as a Christmas release. He told the studio, look, I’ll direct and edit The Bellboy for a summer release. They shot it in three weeks. It doesn’t have a story per se, but it’s wonderful; I hate to say it, it’s my favorite Jerry Lewis film! He also doesn’t say anything until the absolute, very end. It was shot at the Fountain Blue hotel in Miami. He knew exactly what he was doing as a director, and they were able to hold Cinderfella for a Christmas release.
Jerry Lewis, for all his goofiness on screen, he knew exactly how movies were made, and hey, how many people can you say that about? He started to look through the camera during his Martin-Lewis era and noted everybody’s job.
DW: It points to my interview with John Badham who quoted John Frankenheimer about directing and always learning. It’s also a throwback to the silent era.
SE: Good point. I think Lewis took it so seriously he said to PAramount, “I’ll do two films a year for you,” and the studio said, “Fine if you don’t go over a million on the budget on any one film, you’re on,” and Jerry said, “But I get to direct the movies too.”
The studio signed him to a fourteen-picture deal over seven years, and I understand he got a huge percentage of the profits. He also went to them to build a set for The Ladies’ Man, which was in 1963. He wanted to build a set like a dollhouse, and it cost half-a-million dollars which in today’s money, multiply that by six, so that’s three million just for the set.
DW: He also believes in having something to say and is clearly passionate about all aspects of filmmaking. Would you call filmmaking the consummate art? As in, a culmination of many facets of artistic expression?
SE: I think it is because first of all there’s a literary component to it. A book is not too different from a screenplay. You’re writing in all the words that will be heard and seen, even thoughts in characters’ heads. Then there’s a very visual component, because you have to take that book and visualize it in a three-dimensional form for an audience. Not that easy to do. The good directors will look at a script and really visualize it. All the departments involved in a film are creating an art-piece. Every facet of that set on The Ladies’ Man had to be built into that dollhouse.
Then you add sound. Roughly thirty years of film were silent, when it was invented in 1895. Generally speaking, you have this amazing silent industry where it’s purely visual, then you add sound and you have to add sound. Background score came later. The real game-changer was King Kong which had its own score, and ever since then people have put wall-to-wall scores in them.
Then there’s the whole technical part of filmmaking. Lewis was very good that that, putting a video recorder next to the movieola and you could replay what you just filmed. I’ve used video taps in the short films I’ve directed. That’s a Jerry Lewis invention! He was doing it in the early ‘60s.
DW: Very pre-eminent. Is it a forerunner to the playback system used now?
SE: Definitely. Lewis used that because he worked with it in television. They started doing it in the early ‘60s on his films. In his book he talks about editing on a Moviola, which looked like a big sewing machine before flatbed editing machines.
DW: Paul Hirsch talked about that in his memoir. A Steenbeck I believe it was called.
SE: Yep, they had that and a Kem. Those were the standards for years before the flatbed editing came in. In the ‘90s computer editing started where you scan the film in and edit the whole movie digitally, go back to the negative and conform the negative to the digital image spit out by the computer, but the final film would go back to the negative.
What’s interesting is now films are shot digitally so there is no film. Jerry Lewis would say, “What do you mean there’s no film?” In the town I live in there are no projectors. You get a hard drive, load it up onto a server in the theater, and all the projectionist does is push a button and send it off to theater one, five, or wherever. If there’s never any film, there’s never any work print, so the process is very strange.
DW: He also discusses navigating money and distribution. The book is a personal journey and memoir and applies to many in the industry. Did this surprise you? As a professor, have you come across this many times?
SE: It surprised me at first because he is the authority on directing and navigating budgets and so forth. About the set we talked about, he had to go to Paramount and say, “This set will make the movie that much more visual and dynamic and add production value.” That movie was over three million partly because of that set. He knew his way around budgets and technology. I was surprised at first and not now. He is very articulate and lucid in the ways he describes these things, and the fact that we can get this book now after fifty years since the original is out of print, it’s very expensive.
When I told one of my friends I was doing this interview about this book, he said he got it out of the library and didn’t return it.
DW: It’s also relevant for young filmmakers.
SE: Yes, many things have changed but how to set up and light a scene, certain things haven’t. I don’t think Jerry ever made green screen scenes, and now you can shoot a whole movie with a green screen, add the actors in, and maybe they’ve never been in the same room together.
Jerry’s advice in the book I think is still relevant to young filmmakers is that the mechanics of making a movie haven’t really changed that much. Jerry Lewis could be seen in a different light versus our generation or people who saw his films in theaters. Some young viewers saw him as the muscular dystrophy telethon guy who was on TV every Easter. Maybe young filmmakers will go into the book and discover him. The Bellboy and others are sixty years old.
DW: He concludes the book discussing comedians. Why?
SE: I am going to making a statement here. I believe Jerry Lewis is the greatest comedian of the sound era. I mean, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, those guys have their own category. In the sound era we have our stars. I don’t think there is a better screen comedian. He knows exactly how to make people laugh. There’s a scene in The Errand Boy, also an early ‘60s film, where he’s walking dogs for the studio and he has like twenty dogs on a leash. He was obviously a student of comedy and he knew what would make people laugh.
DW: It sounded like he had to switch gears pretty quickly. What's next for you?
SE: Weeelllll...I’m trying to make a science fiction film based on an old, seventeen-page short story that I’ve fleshed out to a full-length film. A former Production chief at a studio is very high on it and he’s attached as a producer and myself as screenwriter and director. We’ve already talked about its potential and then I’ll come back.
DW: Absolutely. This is a feature film?
SE: Yes, I’ve expanded it to 110 pages or so. The core idea is very good. You couldn’t film the story as written.
DW: Finally, what is your favorite cinematic moment?
SE: I have favorite moments from all different genres, but I have two clips. The first one is from The Nutty OProfessor. This is probably one of my favorite moments from Jerry Lewis’s films in 1963.
Clip: The Nutty Professor
To your earlier point, Dave, that’s like a silent movie! He’s such a comic visual stylist. Just being able to conjure this nerdy professor where the music is moving him just a little bit to get him going.
This is him as Buddy Love, the antithesis of the nutty professor where he’s on a date with Stella Stevens:
Clip: The Nutty Professor
SE: Isn’t that wonderful that he comes out of this professor character and into this Buddy Love character. He’s so cool!
DW: Stella Stevens played off of him very well there. We also forget what a complete actor he was. In that second clip we’re with him and falling for him.
SE: They remade the movie thirty-three years later with Eddie Murphy where Rick Baker won an Oscar for makeup, but I don’t think anything beats Jerry Lewis doing that sans makeup using his looks, physical intonations, I think make him the greatest comedian of the sound era.
Founder and editor of Movies Matter, Dave Watson is a writer and educator in Madison, WI.