Sunday, September 13, 2015

Sunday report: Fun with Michael and Gloria Schultz and "Cooley High" -- plus a first ride on the No. 7 to "34 St Hudson Yards"


Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs as Cochise and Glynn Turman as Preacher, the central characters of Cooley High, and two of only three professional actors the budget permitted -- along with Garrett Morris as the teacher Mr. Mason

by Ken

There's a scene in Cooley High where one of the central characters, the Chicago vocational-high-school student Cochise, played by the pre-Kotter Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, comes home and searches for a letter he's expecting -- the verdict on his college basketball scholarship. It's not with the mail on the bureau, so he asks his mother, who asks him if he checked the bureau, where all the mail is. Poor guy! Then he notices his toddler brother standing in front of the toilet bowl, and he goes in the little bathroom and looks in it, and sure enough, there's an envelope with his name and address typed on it.

We learned two lovely things about this scene during the post-screening discussion at the Museum of the Moving Image (which I mentioned earlier today I was attending) with director Michael Schultz and his wife, Gloria, who was up to her eyeballs in the making of the film (immersed in script-writing, casting, coaching the almost all nonprofessional cast, and doing whatever else needed doing. As I noted earlier today, the film is celebrating its 40th anniversary (it was made in 1974 and released in 1975), and as someone who had never seen it, I can testify that even in a less than ideal print it holds up very well indeed, and it was a special treat witnessing the Schultzes relive the making of this extremely low-budget film -- in the heart of Chicago's most dangerous ghetto, Cabrini Green, using lots of locals with no acting experience in the cast -- as if hardly any time had passed.

The two things we learned about that scene:

After Michael and Gloria had hammered out a script, based on autobiographical stories told by writer Eric Monte, Michael got what he describes as one of the best pieces of professional advice he's ever gotten: to go back and rewrite every scene in a way that he'd never seen on-screen. In the original script, Cochise comes home, looks at the mail on the bureau, and finds the letter. Trying to think of a different way to do the scene, he thought of a habit his and Gloria's then-toddler son Brandon had developed, of grabbing pieces of mail and dropping them in the toilet.

The on-screen toddler who played Cochise's brother was the self-same Brandon Schultz. (And no, we learned in response to an audience question, Brandon didn't get paid.)

(The film is now out on Blu-ray as well as DVD. Michael recalled the long delay in issuing it on VHS caused by the impossibility of cutting a deal for the rights to the 17 Motown tunes used, which he'd gotten for hardly any money when the film was made, but which were esteemed considerably higher by the time it came to video release. It wasn't until Berry Gordy sold the company that an affordable deal could be struck, Michael said.)

For me it's always a hard-to-match treat to witness creative people who have created something substantial talk about how that something was created. Michael Schultz, who had already garnered major attention as a stage director for his work with the Negro Ensemble Company in New York (he staged the original production of Lorraine Hansberry's To Be Young, Gifted, and Black, and re-created that production for TV), has had a busy 40 years since Cooley High, including Car Wash, Greased Lightning, and Which Way Is Up?, all with Richard Pryor.

Now that I've discovered what engaging raconteurs Michael and Gloria are, I'm that much sorrier that I have schedule conflicts that wil prevent me from catching the three remaining events in the little series of conversations MoMI has arranged, unfolding over the next three Sundays:

Working with Richard Pryor: A conversation with Michael Schultz and Scott Saul
With Michael Schultz in person and Scott Saul via Skype
Sunday, September 20, 2pm
Richard Pryor (1940-2005) was the most extraordinary comedian of his generation, and Michael Schultz made more films with him than any other director. This program will feature selected film clips of their collaborations, including Greased Lightning, Car Wash, Which Way Is Up, Bustin' Loose, and The Bingo Long Traveling All Stars & Motor Kings. Scott Saul [via Skype], author of Becoming Richard Pryor, will interview Michael Schultz about his directorial approach when working with Pryor and other comedians.

The Soundtrack of a Generation: A conversation with Michael Schultz and James Mtume
With Michael Schultz and James Mtume in person
Sunday, September 27, 2pm
Michael Schultz’s films have been accompanied by some of the most popular soundtracks of the era. Grammy Award-winning recording artist, film composer, and talk radio personality James Mtumewill show film clips and engage Schultz in a conversation about his vibrant use of music in movies such as Car Wash, Cooley High, and Which Way Is Up?

Talent Spotting: Michael Shultz on Discovering Exceptional Actors
Sunday, October 4, 2pm
A distinguished list of actors made their feature film debut under Michael Schultz’s direction, including Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Bill Duke, and Blair Underwood, among many others. The program will include clips of those film debuts and a discussion with Michael Schultz about his casting instincts and methods in spotting new talent, moderated by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, the award-winning actor of stage and screen.

Gloria and Michael Schultz (seen here at the 41st NAACP Image Awards in 2010): This afternoon, recalling the making of Cooley High 40-plus years ago, they sounded as if it happened last week.


In my earlier post, I wrote at length about today's grand opening of the westward-and-southward extension of the No. 7 Flushing line from Times Square to 34th Street and Eleventh Avenue. No, I didn't try to get to the ribbon-cutting before the MoMI screening, but afterward I did take a No. 7 train to its new westward terminus, at the station officially designated "34 St Hudson Yards." It's fine.

For the record, onsite the new little park is called not "Hudson Park" but "Hudson Boulevard Park," which makes more sense. (Hudson Boulevard, East and West, is a newly created sort-of-street that runs north-south from 33rd to 36th Streets, between 10th and 11th Avenues. The entrance that's been completed is at 34th Street and Hudson Boulevard East. Another entrance is being built at 35th Street.)

For the record, on my first extended-No. 7 trip I notched my first "We are being delayed by train traffic ahead" recorded announcement -- a much-appreciated homey touch. In addition, I should note, relative to my earlier-voiced skepticism about the durability of escalator technology, that in the first bank of escalators I encountered, three of the four were working. That's pretty good for the first day, don't you think? I hadn't in fact realized just how deep the station is. You ascend and descend in three stages, one of them quite long and one extremely long.

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