Written by: Ron Cotton on August 26th, 2005
Don Bledsoe took time out of his schedule to discuss his undocumented past and current outlook on cinema and screenwriting.
Don Bledsoe On His Beginnings
EveStudios (ES): What were your beginnings in the movie industry?
Don Bledsoe (DB): In 1963 at age 14, a series came on ABC called “Your Funny, Funny Films” hosted by George Fenneman that aired viewers 8mm movies. My cousin and I decided to make a film for the show. That was the event that sparked my interest in filmmaking. We never completed our film in time to submit it, but the flame was lit.
A couple of years later, I was determined to learn how movies and TV shows were really made in a real studio. I wrote the producers and stars of several TV shows I liked, asking if I could visit the set and see the process first-hand. Kindly, the producers of “The John Forsythe Show” at Universal wrote back and made arrangements for me and two friends to visit the studio. Hollywood, long known as a fortress designed to keep people out, opened up this one day to three kids who just wanted to learn to make movies. On that day, I met director Earl Bellamy, whom I remained in touch with until his death a few years ago. He explained what they were doing as they shot each scene. John Forsythe took time out to explain some points about lighting. Earl sent us over to another stage where they were shooting “McHale’s Navy” to watch them in action. Lunch at the studio commissary and another five hours had us heading home at 6 PM. I can clearly remember that wonderful experience to this day.
By the end of my junior year in high school, I had collected together friends and we decided to make a movie. We wrote a script and started shooting. I wanted people to know about what we were up to, so I sent press releases to all the newspapers. Much to my surprise, The Los Angeles Times showed up, took some pictures and asked some questions. Two weeks later, unknown to me at the time, our picture and story appeared as the lead article in the Calendar section. I was in English class and was summoned to the Vice Principal’s office. Surely I was going to be punished for some unknown crime I had committed. She sat me down and simply said, “Don, The Dean Martin Show” wants you.” “What?” I said. The producers had called the school and wanted to speak to me. She had me call them back from her office. I spoke with Paul W. Keyes, producer and head writer for Dean Martin’s show and he said he saw the article in the paper and would I be interested in making a film for Dean’s summer show. He cautioned me not to answer right then, but to meet with friends and decide together. We did, said yes (of course) and went to Paul’s office to sign our “contract” and get started. In a world filling up with long-haired hippies, we were clean-cut, nice young people. We were very appealing to the staunch Republican that was Paul W. Keyes (he later went on to become Richard Nixon’s head speech writer). My senior semester in high school was spent going to NBC three days a week to work on the script for our little film. We met each time with Paul and writer/comedians Pat McCormick and Jack Riley. Of course, I had no idea who they were. All I knew was that I was a kid in high school spending my afternoons at NBC laughing non-stop and having the time of my life. It was an amazing experience. We made the film but it never aired due to a network strike.
ES: While at the filing repository, did you ever take the time to read any of the scripts or documents that you filed?
DB: Sometimes, but I didn’t really understand what I was reading. I delivered script changes to the set of many movies in production and to front office executives. The studio was very busy at the time. I do recall a few things:
A memo from the front office in the mid-fifties questioned the sanity of the producer who wanted to make this sappy movie, considering it was going to be shot in their new and very expensive VistaVision process and shouldn’t the producer get a BIG star to play the lead rather than some singer and that title song was just too slow and boring. He doubted the picture would make any money. The picture was “White Christmas” with Bing Crosby.
I confess here and now that I “borrowed” a few scripts from the studio vault. It had two remaining copies of “Sunset Boulevard” filed there. Now it has one copy. I purloined a copy of the script from “The Ten Commandments” as a classic blockbuster of the era, and a few others.
I delivered a script to the offices of Gene Roddenberry just as he was packing up to move out after “Star Trek” had been canceled. All of the scripts from the entire “Star Trek” series were piled in a heap on the floor in the middle of the office. I asked if I could have one and the secretary told me to help myself. I should have taken them all, but I happened to grab “The Trouble With Tribbles” which became one of the most sought after scripts from the show years later.
ES: On television, which role will you be remembered for?
DB: If anyone would remember anything, it would be my moment on “Quincy, M.E.” starring Jack Klugman. I worked in a bit on the first episode where Jack throws back the sheet and says, “Welcome to the world of forensic medicine.” A cop runs out and the next one faints. That’s me, the fainting cop in the opening credits of Quincy for the next 9 years. It was a great job — I worked 15 minutes, fainted twice and got paid a bundle. A minuscule career to be sure. I couldn’t seem to get beyond a “fiver” (5 lines or less).
ES: Do you have any strange tales to share with us while in Vietnam?
DB: Certainly. I was the only soldier in the region who got The Hollywood Reporter in his mail from home. Earl Bellamy wrote letters about shows he was directing and kept me up to date. I acquired some white reflective and dull black paint and painted a new wide format movie screen to show the troop movies on. I horse-traded a second projector so our movies ran without a break in the middle to reload. After that triumph, I worked to get a bar for the troops built on our compound, for which I received a medal.
ES: What did it take to transform from Universal Tour Guide to Universal Actor?
DB: The top tour guides got a “perk” of sorts in that they were allowed to conduct what were called “VIP Tours.” This was not part of our job description, but it was nice because you got out of the regular tour rat-race. VIP tours were for guests of the studio execs. We’d pick them up, take them to a sound stage where they could see something shooting, meet the stars and then they’d get a condensed tour of the backlot special effects. Usually, this tour was for 2-6 people and they were carried about in a special trolley car for this purpose.
One day, I had three groups, totaling nearly a dozen people. There was this woman I was to pick up who’s pick-up point kept changing. In the shuffle, she was overlooked and the tour was especially good that time. Unfortunately for me, she was a friend of Sid Sheinberg, the single largest shareholder in MCA, Universal’s parent company. He got pissed and ordered me fired. My job was over before I got back to the tour dispatch office. Since I was out of a job, I went to the casting office and they told me to get some pictures of myself. A few days later I had them and the next day I was cast as an extra in “Get Christie Love.” The studio tours offered my job back because the union threatened to sue, but I elected to continue acting.
Don Bledsoe On Make-up
ES: Explain your relationship and apprenticeship with Micheal Westmore (Make-up artist of Rocky and the Star Trek Series). Did you meet him on the Paramount or Universal lot? How long did this collaboration exist?
DB: In the mid-1970s, Michael taught make-up at Pierce College in Los Angeles. I think there was some connection to him teaching and a make-up book he was writing because he only taught to one or two years.
ES: Why was your make-up career so short lived?
DB: I couldn’t get into the union, so it was very hard to get make-up jobs. At the time, the entire make-up and hairdresser union roster consisted of about 160 people. That’s a pretty small market.
During the union interview, I couldn’t remember what the term “ventilation” meant. It cost me my apprenticeship with the union.
ES: For anyone starting a career as a makeup artist, do you have any tips or recommendations?
DB: Do anything you can to become someone’s apprentice. You’ll likely work for peanuts or nothing at all, but do it if there’s any way possible. When you apprentice, you become a make-up “property” with an established name make-up artist “attached” to you. Doors open as a result. I could not afford to do that, so doors didn’t open very often for me.
I worked on anything I could … student films, religious films, non-union low budget films, local commercials.
Don Bledsoe On “Assault on Precinct 13″
ES: Explain some of your makeup experiences on “Assault on Precinct 13?”
DB: “Assault on Precinct 13″ was a wonderful experience. Everyone was nice and there were few problems. A few things stand out, though –
Blood. Gallons of it. The special effects guy and I sat around and made our own squibs for all of the gunshot wounds they’d be shooting.
I made a a gunshot wound for the star, Laurie Zimmer. It looked great.
We shot in November-December and it was cold and damp in Venice, CA, which is right on the ocean. I had one of the few heaters in the make-up/wardrobe trailer because make-up won’t go on right when it’s too cold. Outside on the set, I wore a parka. Co-star Tony Burton was a brave man through it all, climbing up out of a sewer, shimmering and sweating in the night. I sprayed him down often with a mixture of glycerin and water to re-apply the sweat, usually with an apology. He never said a word, bless him.
One of the supporting cast was a soap actor who played the father of the little girl, played by Kim Richards. One day on location, he showed up hung over and already made up in his “soap make-up” — bright pink. I had to remove the make-up, put drops in his eyes to make the white of his eyes white again, all the while reassuring him everything was going to be just fine. I think it was his last day of shooting.
ES: Did you notice that “Assault on Precinct 13” was a low-budget feature?
DB: Certainly it was obvious that it wasn’t a big studio picture, but I’ve worked on far smaller films. They spent their money wisely — on the screen where it counts and they took very good care of the cast and crew. I recall we were very well fed, which matters. People will even work for free, but not if they’re hungry.
ES: What was it like to work with John Carpenter?
DB: Without a doubt the most organized director I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with. He knows every shot he wants before he arrives on the set. I can’t tell you what a blessing that is. Everyone is ready, we all know what the next shot is going to be and we can all be prepared. Shooting goes much faster and there’s a real feeling of accomplishment that things are getting done. He’s very quiet when he works and there was a sense that everyone always wanted to do their very best for him.
ES: Did you work closely with cinematographer Douglas Knapp?
DB: Doug would cue me when the sweat was too much or not enough. He was a joy to work with as well — very even-keeled and methodical in his work.
ES: Shooting the entire movie in 18 days, how long did each day run on average?
DB: Our days averaged about 14 hours a day.
ES: While on “Assault on Precinct 13” did you take part in other tasks besides makeup?
DB: No. It was a full-time job since make-up was so key to the look of the picture.
ES: What do you think of the remake of “Assault on Precinct 13?”
DB: I haven’t seen it, although I understand they did an excellent job.
ES: During the production did you realize that “Assault on Precinct 13” was a remake of Rio Bravo?
DB: Not for an instant.
Don Bledsoe On Screenplays
ES: When did you first utilize a computer to assist your construction of a screenplay?
DB: Around 1997, I bought Scriptware, then the prevalent screenwriting software. The vendor of the software has not had an update in nearly 5 years, so I think they’re not going forward with it. I switched to Movie Magic Screenwriter 2000 about 18 months ago. Movie Magic Screenwriter 2000 is now my screenwriting software of choice.
ES: If someone is writing their first script, are they obligated to purchase professional screenwriting software?
DB: Absolutely not, but it’s a great help to not have to worry about the formatting issues so the writer can concentrate on the story. It’s ALL about the story.
ES: What are the biggest blunders that you read in scripts?
1. Incorrect formatting.
2. Bad grammar and incorrect word usage.
3. Passive voice writing.
4. Starting scenes too soon.
5. Wordy dialogue.
6. Weak, trite stories.
Don Bledsoe On Techology
ES: Is there any emerging technologies on the horizon that you feel will change the face of filmmaking?
DB: More, cheaper and faster PCs lower the cost of entry bar for filmmakers. Nearly any recent PC can edit video. As PCs get faster and disk storage and video display technology gets bigger and cheaper, in-home editing of feature films will be a reality. You can do it today, but at a premium cost. When any middle-class kid can make a movie, the choices for the consumer go through the roof and the face of entertainment will change.
ES: How do you feel about DV filmmaking?
DB: DV affords anyone who wants to learn how, to become a filmmaker. This is unprecedented in the art form. Once the rarefied air of those who were insiders, specially trained or rich, now it’s possible for any kid to make a movie — cheap.
The problem is: stories. Filmmakers need stories to tell. It’s the old adage: First came the script. Everything else follows.
ES: Is Digital Rights Management (DRM) a technology that you support?
DB: No. This a quagmire of epic proportions, all designed by the status quo to keep them in control of their product. In other words, you pay their high prices. If DVD publishers charged the same for a DVD as they did for a movie theater ticket, most people would buy the DVD, in my opinion.
On the other side of the coin, let’s say you’re an indie filmmaker. You make a film on DV and release it. Let’s say you made the feature with $20,000 you raised from friends and relatives. Of course, you want to make the cost back and reimburse your backers. That’s what producers do. For some reason, your film is a hit and everyone wants to see it. How do you prevent everyone from stealing the product what you’ve sunk everything you own into, making it impossible to recoup even the initial cost? You need protection too.
It seems to me there’s a balance here somewhere, but we’ve yet to find it because the people who are making the rules don’t care about the indie filmmaker, just their studios. When there’s a workable control mechanism that benefits ANYONE who wants to make movies and not just the establishment, then there’s a chance. Until then, it’ll be a mess.
Don Bledsoe On Script Nurse
ES: What was your initial inspiration for Script Nurse (http://www.scriptnurse.com/)?
DB: I discovered people needed help getting their scripts properly formatted, so I decided to offer a low-cost formatting service to aspiring writers.
ES: Who inspired you to start a Screenwriting Contest on Script Nurse?
DB: A developer of a new screenwriting package wanted to get some exposure for his new product. I suggested having a contest where the entrants would be required to use the specified software in order to submit their scripts. He thought that was great and agreed to make a trial version with an extended trial period just for Script Nurse. I was excited because here was a way to introduce new writers to using writing software at no cost to them, so it would be a learning experience.
I announced the contest and then the software arrived. It sucked. It couldn’t do even basic formatting according to the rules. I panicked and wrote to a Script Nurse forum member who works for Write Brothers, the authors of Movie Magic Screenwriter 2000, explaining my predicament and asking for his advice. He said he thought he could help. I next day, I got an email from their marketing guy and he offered to supply the software and also generously offered complete packages to give away as prizes. It was after that I discovered that the fellow who drops in on our forums is also the co-founder of Write Brothers (formerly Screenplay Systems). Some fast adapting and we were off and running. Submissions started coming in immediately.
ES: Who were the judges for your “Mini-Movie” Screenwriting Contest?
DB: Scott Cummins (www.take-oneproductions.com), an indie producer/director from Portland, OR signed on, followed by Dr. Melissa Caudle (www.screenwritersrus.com), a script consultant and Erin Wright, an editor at Louisiana Red Carpet (www.louisianaredcarpet.net), and myself.
ES: What can we expect in the future for Script Nurse?
DB: I’ve learned a great deal from the contest about the writers who frequent our site. On balance, most don’t know how to properly format a script, they can’t spell worth a damn and they do not have a command of the language. These are all requirements if a writer wants his or her script read beyond page one. My goal is to find ways to teach the importance of this to writers and our members. Our focus will change somewhat. I want Script Nurse to be a site where a filmmaker who is trying to find a decent script to shoot will be able to find one. I want to match new screenwriters with indie filmmakers. It’s clear that filmmakers need scripts to shoot and writers need to see their work produced.
Don Bledsoe works for an Internet Service Provider (ISP) and owns interest in a web hosting company, Forefront Internet (http://www.forefrontinternet.com/). Don is currently active on Script Nurse (http://www.scriptnurse.com/), an Internet site devoted to all avenues of screenwriting. Don Bledsoe’s scripts are currently making the rounds.
This interview transcript was reprinted by permission from murderedrum.com.