It was Melrose Avenue, says Michael Tolkin, that provided the inspiration for the follow-up to "The Player," his critically acclaimed novel-turned-screenplay that made him something of a player himself. Daily walks on Melrose between Fairfax and La Brea, where he lived until a couple of months ago, served as a font of stories and dreams.
"I saw Melrose turn from a strip of furniture refinishers and reupholsterers to a bunch of high-fashion boutiques to a cheap-shopping, T-shirt street not unlike the Boardwalk in Venice," the director recalls, taking a huge bite out of an overstuffed tortilla in his plasterboard, industrial-carpeted office. "Stores were offering deeper and deeper discounts . . . 10% off, 70% off . . . everything must go! You saw the economy crumbling. This is the story of area code 310's fear of becoming 213."
Determined to write about the Los Angeles he saw, Tolkin, 42, came up with "The New Age," which he has been shooting in and around town for the past two months. A humorous take on a modern-day melodrama, the story tells of a fast-track couple (Peter Weller and Judy Davis) forced to reassess their lives and their love when economic hardship sets in. By opening a boutique, ironically called "Hipocracy," the characters hope not only to avoid the "humiliation" of 9-to-5 jobs but to raise enough money to divorce. Dealing with their internal crisis brings them face to face with such external realities as the AIDS epidemic, the right-to-die movement, telemarketing overkill and the New Age quest for spirituality in a world defined by materialism.
A high-end boutique on Robertson Boulevard has been transformed for the day into a "New Age" set. Though Tolkin's script for "The Player' snagged the Writers Guild of America award for best adapted screenplay late the night before, the director shows up at 6 a.m. Was he surprised to win out over such strong contenders as "Glengarry Glen Ross," "Enchanted April" and "Howards End"?
"I knew I had a leg up since so many of the people in the audience were at my bar mitzvah," Tolkin quips--an allusion to friends of his father Mel, who wrote for Bob Hope, Sid Caesar's "Your Show of Shows " and "All In the Family."
Though it is halfway through the 43-day shoot and the $7.5-million project is on budget and on schedule, Tolkin is a bit on edge. The seemingly prosaic action contains emotional undercurrents that must be captured on film. And for a director who describes himself as a "neophyte," the movement and the camera angles are daunting.
Peter Weller is cast in the role of Peter Witner, a cool, impeccably dressed talent agent (outfitted in Donna Karan for Men) accompanying his father (Adam West, TV's "Batman") and his father's sleek young girlfriend du jour (Kelly Miller) on an afternoon of shopping.
"You look too much like a Del Taco franchise owner who lives in Palm Springs, goes to the mall, walks into a store for guys who cruise the disco in the Holiday Inn, and got talked into buying something too slick. . . . But if you like it, buy it," a gum-chewing Witner comments as his father dons a pastel-colored sports jacket and looks in the mirror. His father doesn't, but moments later, to his dad's obvious displeasure, Witner tries on the same jacket in a smaller size, decides it suits him, and charges the $925 to his credit card.
Keith Addis, who, with Nick Wechsler, is producing the film, finds the moment quintessentially "L.A." "Everyone in this town is either selling something or shopping for something or both," he observes. "So many of the lives are about nothing but production design. Looking successful, being seen in the right places is seductive and intoxicating--like a transfusion--but it ultimately leaves little else in the veins. There's very little real blood here."
Wechsler, who counts "The Rapture"--Tolkin's first directorial outing--and "The Player" among his credits, says the initial goal was to make "a 'La Dolce Vita' for Los Angeles in the '90s." "Michael and I are Fellini fanatics and, though we ended up with an entirely different movie, this one also deals with people trying to survive," he observes. "It's incredibly timely. In the past three weeks, I've gotten calls from five well-paid film executives, out of work or about to be, who sound angry and desperate as they consider the next step."
Though Tolkin works quickly, limiting himself to six or seven takes of each scene, the shoot doesn't wrap until nearly 9 at night--two hours later than scheduled. Rolaids accompany the food on the catering table. An exhausted Weller sits with his eyes closed, head in hand.
"At the end of the day, you want to slit your throat for something you should have done," admits the director who has long since shed his sport jacket for shirt-sleeves. "But you have to move on, hoping that as you build it all fits together. Making a movie is a operation of chance."