Dianne Neufeld, Billy Wider And The Man Nobody Could StandThursday, January 31, 2013
There’s a lot of talk about how the BC film industry is suffering these days. Specifically, how American producers are forgoing BC locations because of the lack of competitive tax incentives. For local film crews, this is grim news. For me, it brings back Dianne Neufeld’s prophetic words from way back in the eighties. Neufeld – a former BC Film Commissioner during the industry’s formative years – used to say: “This could all disappear in the blink of an eye.”
Of course, Neufeld was also fond of saying: “I’m just a bureaucrat.” Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, it was her creative problem solving and constant diligence that proved instrumental in helping to make BC one of the three most popular feature film locations in North America.
I know this because I spent the better part of a decade writing about locally shot movies for the Globe and Mail and other publications. I recall Alex taking a picture of Dianne with a couple of extras from Clan of the Cave Bear. (We were collaborating on a business piece for Harvey Southam’s Equity.) It was an elaborate set-up that involved Dianne sacrificing her lunch hour. She didn’t hesitate for a second.
She told me it was because producers on scouting missions were actually reading what I was writing and deciding to make movies here. At the time, I didn’t tell her that I would have done it for nothing. You just never knew who you’d end up having a conversation with.
There’s a lot of waiting around on film sets. So I quickly developed the philosophy of talking to anybody who was willing to talk back. I recall seeing a man sitting by himself, surrounded by nothing but empty chairs. This is very unusual on a film set. When I asked one of the crew what was going on, she whispered that he was some big deal from LA. “But don’t go near the guy. He’ll bite your head off.”
“Nobody can stand him.”
I sat a couple of chairs away. Eventually, the man asked me what I was doing onset. I explained who I was. Looking at me with thinly veiled suspicion, he asked: “Who’s your favourite director?” I thought maybe the wrong answer would get me a punch in the nose.
But I decide to be honest and say: “Billy Wilder.”
“Really? Wilder, huh?”
“No question. Wilder’s the best.”
The man breaks into a big smile, moves over to sit next to me and begins to talk about the last scene in Double Indemnity. He starts getting excited, waving his arms around, laughing. Out of the corner of my eye I see a member of the crew thinking: “What the hell’s going on here?”
It turns out the man is the former head of a major studio. When I say: “You must really like Billy Wilder too,” he tells me: “Like him? He’s one of my closest friends! I just had lunch with him at his apartment in New York.”
At the time, Wilder’s Manhattan apartment was famous – the walls covered with priceless art that he’d been collecting for decades. I ask what the inside of the place is like and my new pal begins describing it in detail. Then he leans over as if confiding a huge secret.
“Billy’s thinking of selling most of his collection because he can’t sleep at night. He’s afraid the people upstairs are going to leave their bathtub running and it’s going to ruin a Picasso.”
A few more minutes of this. And then he says: “Next time you’re in New York, give me a call. The three of us can have lunch.”
“The three of us?”
“Yeah. You, me and Billy.”
I consider telling the man that I don’t have his phone number. But I don’t want to spoil the moment. I’m just about to go – out of my chair, on my way – when the man puts his hand on my shoulder.
“Thanks for talking to me,” he says. “It was really nice.”
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