Media Circus: How did you break into movies, you fatuous moron?

What journalists really think of the people they interview.

Published September 26, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

Recently I took my 8-year-old daughter and her friend Perri to see "George of the Jungle." Perri loves "George of the Jungle" so much that she didn't mind seeing it a third time. What she especially loves, it turns out, is Brendan Fraser. This is why repeated "George of the Jungle" viewings reward Perri with subtle and myriad delights.

"Sometimes when I look at him," she explained, "not when he's smiling, but just when he's going like this" (here Perri affected a blank, zombielike expression), "I think, Does he have a wife? And children?"

Ah, I thought. The birth of a fan. The nascent discovery that a celebrity can be a blank screen for reels of projected fantasies. Perri was so impressed when I told her I'd actually interviewed Brendan Fraser that her jaw dropped and stayed that way for several moments. "What did you think," she finally gasped, "when you interviewed him?"

Well ... "I thought he was very nice," I said, which was true. But what I'd actually spent more time thinking was, "Oh, God, another one. Another shy, quiet, sweet young actor. And now I'm going to have to spend tons of time tracking down people he knows to say interesting things about him, because he doesn't have much to say for himself."

Or at least he didn't until he started to loosen up. But at that point, exactly 59 minutes into the interview, Nancy Seltzer (his steamroller of a publicist) burst into the room and barked, "Time's up!"

So what do we think when we interview people? Often, it isn't pretty. "You are the biggest liar I've ever met," a reporter I know who covered defense attorney Leslie Abrahmson in her pre-Menendez days remembers thinking. "You know I know you're lying and you know I have to print this crap because I'm on deadline and I have a story to write."

Former Sony Pictures chief Mark Canton once actually explained, "You know, I'm from the Age of Aquarius and ..." to a reporter interviewing him about black filmmakers. The reporter's rather prescient thought: "I give him three to five years, tops, before he's booted out."

City-beat reporters, on the other hand, are always traipsing for hours through schoolyards or urban renewal projects while interviewing some long-winded official. According to them, what they typically think while they dutifully jot down the official's every word is, "God, I really need to go to the bathroom."

I was musing about this after cleaning out my files the other day. Because among the reams of half-forgotten hack assignments was one called "The Best of L.A.: A Local Guide to a World-Class Experience." It had an introduction by then-Mayor Tom Bradley -- who it seems was not above taking on the occasional hack assignment himself.

"Whether you prefer to wander through trendy stores on Melrose or enjoy an evening of theater in downtown Los Angeles, you'll find Catherine Seipp" (hey, that's me!) "a terrific tour guide," he wrote graciously ... if indeed he did the actual writing, which I doubt. This gave us something more in common than our dual bylines. Because guess what? I didn't do the actual interviewing of the dozen-odd local cultural experts I quoted in that piece.

Exhausted by the thought of such heavy-duty inanity, I paid an impoverished young actress with speedy typing skills $100 to make the calls for me. And she did an excellent job, turning in pages and pages of quotes. But when she came to Ruth Reichl, who of course is now The New York Times restaurant critic but then was still with the Los Angeles Times, she hit a snag.

Apparently Ruth took umbrage at the questions (basically, "Whither Los Angeles restaurants?") because, as she informed her interviewer with an exasperated sigh, "Anyone familiar with my work already knows what I think of Los Angeles restaurants."

But eventually Ruth loosened up and came through with some usable stuff. And here's how they appeared in my researcher's notes: "'... I think we're going to see a lot more cross-cultural cooking' -- Ruth Reichl (who's kind of unpleasant and a bitch)."

I share this with you not to besmirch the doubtlessly lovely personality of Ruth Reichl, who was perhaps just in a bad mood that day, but to illustrate this tacit tension between interviewer and interviewee. I almost never write stories from other people's notes. But when I do, I'm startled at how typical is such seething resentment toward the subject.

Once I was called to finish a story about women executives in Hollywood for a local magazine. The original writer couldn't complete it because of an unexpected family crisis. Luckily, however, she was a veteran of the Time Inc. school of reporting -- accustomed to providing thousands of words of raw material for someone else to turn into a story.

Slogging through a stack of perfectly professional notes, I was stopped short by the fury that erupted in the middle of a five-page interview with a Fox development vice president, who had started out as a casting director.

"'... a friend said, "Go in there and lie and say you've done casting!" And so they hired me.'"


"'... And I sort of took it from there,' SHE SAYS, HER VOICE GETTING VELVETY WITH SELF-LOVE. 'And I found a bunch of children they liked a lot. And that was the beginning of my career in casting!' SHE EXULTS, BREAKING DOWN INTO A LOUD HAPPY LAUGH THAT INVITES MY ADMIRATION. CAN YOU BELIEVE HOW POMPOUS THIS BITCH IS?"

None of this found its way into the article. But it could have! So be kind to that drone hunched over that notepad. We know you sound fabulous to you. But think for a moment how you sound to us.

By Catherine Seipp

Catherine Seipp is a regular contributor to Salon.

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