Thursday, September 13, 2012

TV Bites: Confessions of a Dangerous Mind

The Formosa Cafe Sticky Ribs

One more Chinese food recipe! Who knew?

First off, let me get this off my chest.... This was going to be part one of the "Hollywood Celebrity in a Fictional Story" double bill with the second feature to be JCVD. I had seen JCVD at Fantastic Fest before it opened and really, really liked it. But I hadn't seen it since. When I rented to view, I discovered that when it was theatrically released (and on the DVD) they had "Tarantino-ed" it, i.e., they jumbled the timeline of the movie in such a rotten way that I think they completely ruined it. The version I saw was linear, beginning to end. So I decided to pass. It's a real shame. I kind of understand why they probably did it - some idiot told them to move the action sequences forward. But they should have trusted their initial instincts. Sorry, Claude. And what really pisses me off is that I really wanted to make Mussels in Belgian Ale to pair with it. You can do it, but I ain't.

Alright then. Let's move on.... When I was like 10 years old, there was only one thing I wanted to be when I grew up.... a secret agent. I was obsessed with James Bond, Derek Flint, (all one day coming to Chef du Cinema!) and The Man from UNCLE. A life of intrigue, danger, espionage, and mysterious women. Sign me up. I guess that's why I relate to this movie so much.

Now if you follow this blog regularly, then you know I've been cat-less since June. But all that's changed and now I'm in deep kitten love with my new boy Miles. What can I tell you? I spent a couple of days looking for kittens and am a firm believer in that you can have certain parameters when looking, but you get the one that picks you. Just like in relationships with real human beings. You can struggle all you want, you can try to pick someone, but in the end, as Chuck Barris learns with Penny Pacino, you gotta go with the one that picks you. And Miles is awesome. So I'm a happy boy.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is available for streaming on demand at YouTube, and on demand, DVD/Blu-Ray @ Amazon.


"I had heard that television was an industry with a future."

Let's start here. In the early 1980's, Chuck Barris had gone from having more television programs on network television than any other producer in history, to being reviled as the devil incarnate. Even today, he is written about (in this positive profile) as "one of the people most responsible for the current state of today’s television." Then, critics dubbed him - "The Baron of Bad Taste, the King of Schlock, the Ayatollah of Trasherola."

"Confessions was a book that wasn't even really meant to be written," Barris recalled. "It was at a time when I was really hurt, really upset, and angry and bitter and pissed off at television, critics, and what have you, this was after spending 15 wonderful years, mind you. I had so much of that anger writhing around in me that I went into a hotel in New York, I was living in LA, I still had my company out there, but my shows had all been canceled and I had a movie that came and went (The Gong Show Movie), so I just wanted to get it out of me and get it down on paper, like a cathartic thing. You know, maybe spend a couple of months in the hotel that had monthly rates and I could maybe use it some other time. And three years later, basically, I came out with Confessions of a Dangerous Mind."

Columbia bought the rights to the book in 1984, and greenlit the picture which was to be directed by Jim McBride, but no one, it seemed then, wanted to portray Barris. "His reputation on TV was outrageous and vulgar," McBride said. The very idea "so offended Richard Dreyfuss that he wouldn't even read the script."

The project then resurfaced in 1997, with writer Charlie Kaufman adapting the book. At the time, Kaufman was still doing episodic television, but would quickly rise to the A-list after Being John Malkovich in 1999. With the script written, Curtis Hanson signed on to direct and Sean Penn was to play Barris. George Clooney also signed on.

"There were some pretty funky things in the first draft of it that you couldn't really do as a studio [picture], I mean really funky. But I read the script and I said, 'Boy, this is fantastic. What else has he written?'.... And they sent me Being John Malkovich, and I went 'Boy, this guy is really talented,'" Clooney recalled. "And so from that point on, I attached myself as an actor in one of the smaller part, the CIA recruiter named Jim Byrd, just to help get the film made, because I wanted the film to get made."

"I grew up in the world of bad television, on my dad's sets and then as a young schmuck on dating shows and so on. I know what it looks, feels, smells like," he explained why he was so drawn to the story.

"My father had a local variety show in Cincinnati when I was growing up," he continued elsewhere. "If it was St. Patrick's Day I'd put on a leprechaun outfit and my dad would interview me, or if was Easter I'd put on a bunny outfit and my dad would say, 'What's it like being a bunny?' and I'd go, 'Um, it's hard.' And I did commercials live on the air. Later on my dad anchored the news and for a while he hosted a game show called The Money Maze. So I immediately recognized the world Chuck was living in, the world in the script."

And there was another actor throughout those years also in love with the material, maybe even more than Clooney - and that was Drew Barrymore.

"I always loved Chuck Barris," she said. "I was cuckoo for him.... Whoever sort of owned the project I would call them every six months, as to not seem like a psychopath, but I wouldn't let any more than that go by, and just constantly say 'Remember, I'm Penny Pacino. Don't forget that. No matter who comes on as director, no matter who produces this movie – I'm Penny Pacino. You have to remember that.' I was just constantly waving flags and banners and fireworks to do this part. I knew that I knew her. I knew exactly how I wanted to play her. I knew exactly how she should be."

But back to our story.... Hanson was now out and over the next couple of years other directors, including PJ Hogan, Sam Mendes, Darren Aronofsky, David Fincher, and even David Cronenberg were being mentioned. Then Penn was out and Mike Myers was in with Fincher directing. Then Fincher was out and Brian De Palma was in. Then Mike Myers was out.

"It was crushing to me," Barris remembered. "I mean, we had Johnny Depp in it, Ben Stiller was going to do it, [Mike] Myers said he was going to do it, [Russell] Crowe was going to do it, Kevin Spacey was going to do it, Ed Norton was definitely going to do it. I mean it went on and on and on. I remember sitting in my little apartment and I would hear it was going to be made by such and such and then I'd hear that it fell apart. I kept saying to myself, 'It's only a movie,' but it was abnormally debilitating."

"It was a great screenplay," Clooney noted, "but it wasn't cheap enough for a real independent studio to make and it wasn't expensive enough for Warner Bros to make, and it didn't fall into any of the categories that they knew how to sell. So they used it as bait for five years, bringing in good directors and saying, 'Hey, that's great, but why don't you take a look at this?'"

So then De Palma was out and Bryan Singer was set to direct - first with Ben Stiller, then Johnny Depp.

"[W]hen we were about six weeks from starting shooting [with Singer directing], the company that was going to do it went under, and Warner Bros. was going to give it away," said Clooney.

According to Clooney, at that point there was so much money spent on the property, $4.5 million - in other words, if someone wanted to make the film, they would have to pay off that amount even before any production costs! It was going to cost more money than anyone would think it worth to actually make and was on its way to join a list of screenplays that would never probably get made.

"So I thought if I came on board as a director, for scale, and was able to bring everybody else on inexpensively, if I could get the film back down to 30, including eating that $4.5 million, then I was going to be able to get the film made. That was a big part of my pitch to Miramax," Clooney recalled. (In fact, he brought it in for about $27 million.)

Clooney and Steven Soderburgh had started their own production company, Section 8, specifically to make these kind of films they liked, and this fit right in with their mission. "The studios used to make films like Harold and Maude. The idea was to push the envelope, to try to get them to make movies with points of view again," Clooney said.

"[W]hen films were made that I really liked, which is like 1965 to 1975," he continued elsewhere, "what [the audiences] take away is that they walk out and they're discussing it afterwards. They're questioning things and asking questions."

But Clooney had never directed before. "So, after Confessions fell apart yet again, I was talking about it with Steven. I said, 'Do you think I could do it?' And he said, 'I think so.'

"I thought if I was going to blow it, I might as well do it with a great script, because that's the only thing that counts," Clooney added.

Actor Sam Rockwell had at one time been considered to play Barris when Bryan Singer was attached. But Rockwell was in no way then big enough of a star to, as they say, carry the picture. But Clooney had spent a few days with Rockwell when they worked on the (Clooney/Soderburgh-produced) film Welcome to Collinwood. The two went out to a bar one night. Clooney mentioned the film and Rockwell immediately went into his impression of Barris. Clooney decided then the part was Rockwell's. But Harvey Weinstein over at Miramax wasn't convinced it was a sound financial investment.

"I have a golf club that I left stuck in my wall at the office over at Warner Bros., when after two months of screen tests and everything I still wasn't able to get Sam," Clooney said. "I slammed it into the wall and put a date on it and left it hanging there. There were a lot of difficulties. I kept thinking, 'This should be easier.'"

Clooney reportedly made a deal with Weinstein in which he would not only take a huge cut in pay to make Confessions, but would also give Miramax first dibs on upcoming Section 8 films (Soderburgh & Clooney's company), and do a cameo in Spy Kids 2 - all in order to cast Rockwell... and have final cut.

As far as Penny Pacino's role, a couple of other actresses were considered briefly, but Drew Barrymore got it. Plus, she had already worked with Rockwell in the first Charlie's Angels movie (he played her boyfriend in it).

As for Julia Roberts, "I got a call from nearly every A-list actress in town, I mean literally almost every one talking about the roles because everyone's known about this script," recalled Clooney. "And they weren't calling because they wanted to work with me as a director, because they had no idea, these were great parts. So when I called Julia and said, 'I'm calling you about the film.' She said, 'Is it for Patricia?' and I said, 'Yeah,' and she said, 'I'm doing it.'" And agreed to do it on the cheap.

At this point, I should let screenwriter Charlie Kaufman speak his mind. Even though Kaufman gets a full writing credit, Clooney made some changes to the final shooting script which Kaufman didn't care for. (See my previous post on Chinatown for more on bitter screenwriters.)

"I wrote a script that was an assignment. He came in and decided [to] become the director. It wasn't written for Clooney," Kaufman said.

"I can tell you that George Clooney is my LEAST favorite person," he stated elsewhere. "He's like this really charming guy who pretends he's your best friend. I had written him a 17-page note [of suggested changes to the script]. He didn't make the alterations. I was horrified when I saw the film. Someone can change things, as long as I'm involved in making the decisions."


Meanwhile, Rockwell dove into preparation for the role. He watched hours and hours of The Gong Show tapes, as well as interviews with Barris. He also spent a couple of months meeting with Barris. The two went to "[c]offee shops and dinner and movies, took walks, went to the zoo, [and] filmed him," Rockwell said. "[I] had him tape my lines in a tape recorder, and I listened to that.'"

"It was such a pleasure," Barris recalled. "He just watched every kind of tape I ever did. He just followed me around, he picked up my mannerisms, we played songs together, we sang together, we danced together."

"[Sam] could do an exact impersonation of [Chuck], which I didn't want," Clooney noted. "It's like when you're an actor and you do an accent. You may nail the accent, but you've left out all of these other colors which you wouldn't have if you weren't doing an accent. Sammy's work was to do it as far as he could do it, and just to let it go and to not think about it anymore. So there had to be an embodiment of the guy and I thought he did that marvelously."

"It's a big responsibility because you really feel you owe it to capture this person's essence, you know," Rockwell said. "The truthfulness and spontaneity of the acting was more important than the imitation – that should take the forefront, and the imitation should take a backseat to that. We talked about movies like All That Jazz, Carnal Knowledge, Alfie – We really wanted to tell a good story. So the imitation is sort of half Sam – half Chuck... and I think that's George and I always walking that tightrope."

In addition to those films, Clooney drew inspiration from many of the directors he's worked for and admired. “I stole from everybody,” he said proudly. “People will call this an homage, but we'll know differently: It's a rip off.” - Besides the obvious directors like Soderburgh, The Coen Brothers, and Spike Jonze, Clooney has noted taking ideas from Mike Nichols, Sidney Lumet, Alan J. Pakula, John Frankenheimer, and Stanley Kubrick, most prominently.

But in the end, Clooney said, "The movie works because Sam Rockwell was a very brave actor from the beginning, and that's the simple truth of it. This is a character that does a lot of despicable things, yet you still have to root for him."

I don't want to end this without noting the excellent in-camera transitions that Clooney devised in the film. Such scenes like when Barris has the idea for The Dating Game and then the camera zooms in on him and, without a dissolve, pulls back and now he's in the office pitching it to the executives. When the camera is on Rockwell's face, the crew was pulling away the bathroom set, changing his clothes, etc....

"We wanted it to be sort of a theater experience which is why all the effects are done in the camera and not back on a green screen," Clooney explained. "All of those running around shots... are all done by actors literally running and changing in the middle of a shot."

"I think it adds an energy, like an adrenalin to the film," added Rockwell. "There's a certain electric energy, I think, in those 'one-er's,' the transition shots." (By "one-er's," he means scene transitions shot in one take.)

Or in the montage of The Dating Game sequence, as Clooney recounted, "Sam's here, we start the camera and crossover the contestants, Sam runs around changes clothes, by the time we get there he's in a different outfit, we change out all of the contestants, come back across, change out all the contestants again."

The film picked up some nominations at various festival, won a few prizes, but surprisingly, at least in my opinion, was ignored by most of the major awards.


So, the question remains... Is this all an interesting bit of fiction, or was Chuck Barris really a ruthless killer for the CIA while producing television programs?

"I can't really deny it or confirm it. It's just a thing that I wrote," Barris said.

"I don't know how much I believed it," noted Clooney. "I didn't want to officially ask him, because I didn't want him to say, 'I made it up.' I wanted to tell the story and I thought, how interesting if it was all made up, why someone as wealthy and as successful as Chuck Barris, would have to do that. I thought that was an interesting person to explore, and that's what we wanted to do with the film. It was pretty fun. I also love the idea of comparing the CIA to bad television. It just made me laugh, from the minute we started."

One journalist contacted the CIA and, according to him, "They said, 'We make it a practice not to say who is or isn't in the CIA. But in this case we'll make an exception. Chuck Barris is not.'" But of course that doesn't prove anything, does it...?

"I don't think it matters," Rockwell echoed Clooney. "It's interesting either way. If he made it up, that's interesting."

"I wrote the book because I felt it was ridiculous to be crucified like I was in my mind for trying to entertain people with shows that I thought were pretty funny and didn't think they were so dirty or whatever," Barris explained.

"Critics were just ruining me and I just couldn't handle that criticism," he continued. "I just wanted out. So I sold the company and got what I thought was a great offer and could live happily ever after, so I took Penny and moved to France. It was a foolish thing for me to react like I did. In retrospect, I should have just taken those hits and gone right back and gone right on. But I crumbled up. It's like if you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen. So I got out of the kitchen... and I should have stayed in the kitchen."

It's Gene Gene the Dancing Machine!

"The premise of the book," Barris said, "was here was a guy being crucified by his critics and peers for trying to entertain the public and on the other hand being given covert medals for killing the enemies of the United States. What was important to me not what I did or didn't do, whether I was in the CIA or not the CIA, only thing that was important to me was whether the book was a good read and if somebody could put the book down and say, 'That was fun.' Same thing holds true for the film. The book is plausible. What I said I did in that book could very well have been done. Whether it was done or not, again I go back to that's not important. But when you finish the book or when you finish watching the movie, if you can walk out of that movie and say to yourself, 'That's possible.' That's cool. And if 95% of the people who see the movie or read the book think I'm absolutely out of my mind, well that's cool, too. The only thing that matters to me is 'Did you have fun?' That's why I'll never confirm or deny anything, 'cause I don't think it makes a difference. The CIA will deny it constantly. So what."


There are several restaurants named in Barris' book that he visits, but only one in the movie - The Formosa Cafe in Hollywood. In the film, we see Barris (Rockwell) enter and clearly see the sign on the door.

The following story is not from my "unpublished autobiography," but IS a true story which happened to me and seemed very appropriate with this movie to share....

Back in the late 80's, if you needed to find me after 8pm, there were a few bars you could call. The Formosa was one of them. The drinks were famously reliable. The food, famously terrible. The recipe below turned out pretty fabulous, so either it's my cooking or the food has gotten better there. But back then, friends, you needed a half-dozen scotch and sodas before you could even consider ordering something, and then not. If you saw someone ordering the food, you knew they were probably tourists.

At one time the place was known for all the big stars that hung out there. Peter O'Toole called it his "lair." It's been said that is was where "Lana Turner once danced in the aisles, where Elvis Presley came to drink beer late at night, where a drunken Lee Marvin was thrown out and a sotted Rudy Vallee was once driven home by the staff, [and] where the waitresses still remember Clark Gable as a lousy tipper...."

In my day, the joint was typically filled with a handful of used-to-be's and an equal or greater number of wannabes. They had a waitress who had to have been working the place since at least the Clark Gable days. She was surly woman who may have been a looker back in her day, but it was too long ago to really tell anymore. She certainly hadn't been hired for her personality.

One late afternoon, I was sitting at the bar waiting to meet the girl I'd been seeing. She was better then I deserved then, but I wasn't as wise as I am today. She came in and I ordered her a drink. She said she was hungry. I reminded her the food here wasn't worth ordering, but like I said, she was hungry. So I waved over the surly waitress and told her to bring us an order of egg rolls. Oh, they always took forever to get your food even though the kitchen was never busy.

So my girl has a drink now and within the next five minutes we're having a fight. I honestly don't remember what we were arguing about, but we were breaking up. I'm sure it was my fault. I probably said something stupid. I had a habit of that then. Anyways, now she walked out. Then I walked out. We continued arguing in the parking lot until she got in her car and drove off. Then I got in my car and drove off. That was the last I saw of her.

For the next few years I stopped going to the Formosa. Being an incurable romantic at the time (now I'm just a cynical bastard), even just driving by reminded me of the break-up and I didn't want to be reminded of it. You know what I'm talking about. We all have places with bad memories that we avoid.

So anyways, it's now 1991. The big buzz around town is that the Formosa may be closing. "Save the Formosa!" was a rallying cry for drunks from all corners of Hell-A. I was going to meet up with some buddies one night and they said we should go to the Formosa - it might be the last time we could.

I told my friends I didn't want to go. But they were both adamant and sensible. "C'mon! It's been like three years! It's history, Ron! Let it go, bro!"

Okay, I sighed. So we went. I pulled in to the parking lot and my buddies were being very supportive about the whole thing. We walked in, sat at the bar, and ordered a round of drinks. The waitress came out of the kitchen with a tray of food. As she passed us, she stopped and looked me hard in the eye.

"YOU owe me for an order of eggrolls," she snarled.

I looked at my friends who were now laughing so hard they almost fell off their stools. The waitress just kept staring at me.

"You got a good memory," I said to her.

"I remember people who stiff me," she countered.

"Sorry," I sheeplishly replied, pulled a $10 dollar bill out of my pocket and put it on her tray. "Keep the change."

She nodded and walked off.

Well, the Formosa didn't close. And because I felt I had now paid my bill and my dues, I returned it to my list of haunts. In fact, I'd often regale friends with the story about the eggrolls and turn to Ms. Surly and shout out, "Ain't that right?" And she'd snarl back, "I always remember people who stiff me." One memorable night I'll never forget in the ensuing years before I left LA, was spent getting soused there with my now dear departed friend Francis X. Feighan (one of the greatest friends ever) and the always charming Vampira. Good memories.

Life goes on. The Formosa is still around. And so am I. Here's a lesson to you kids... Always pay your bill.

As always... cook, eat, watch & enjoy!

The Formosa Cafe Sticky Ribs
from a recipe by Vince Jung, Chef/Owner @ The Cooking Channel
Click for Printer-Friendly Version

Serves 4-6 as an appetizer

2 tablespoons kosher salt
2 tablespoons cracked black pepper
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 rack baby back ribs (have your butcher cut the rack in half crosswise)
2 teaspoons peanut or vegetable oil
2 tablespoons garlic, chopped
1/2 cup orange juice
1/4 cup sweet soy (kecap manis)
3 tablespoons sweet chili sauce
1 teaspoon black sesame seeds, for garnish
1 scallion, chopped, for garnish

Line a bamboo steamer basket with parchment paper and set the steamer in a wok. (OR use a stovetop steamer, line with parchment paper.) Add enough water to just touch the bottom rim of the steamer basket and bring the water to a boil. Cover the bamboo steamer with a lid.

Mix together the salt, black pepper and cinnamon in a small mixing bowl and rub it all over the ribs. Lay rib rack pieces in the steamer (it's ok if they overlap as long as the lid closes). Cover the steamer and steam the ribs until fork tender, about 1 hour, adding water to the wok as needed so the basket doesn't burn. Remove the ribs and let stand until cool enough to handle. Cut the racks into individual ribs.

Drain and dry the wok and return to medium heat. Add the peanut oil and garlic and cook until the garlic softens, about 2 minutes. Pour in the orange juice, sweet soy and chili sauce and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat to medium low, add the ribs and cook, tossing frequently, until the ribs are glazed and the sauce is sticky, 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer the ribs to a plate and garnish with the sesame seeds and scallions.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind Page @
The Gong Goodbye, by Karen Valby @
Chuck Barris Interview @ Archive of American Television
Confessions of Dangerous Mind Page @ Being Charlie Kaufman fan site
Confessions of Dangerous Mind screenplay (3rd draft, 5 May 1998)
The Formosa Cafe Website

Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind DVD/Blu-Ray/Streaming
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, an (unauthorized) autobiography by Chuck Barris
Bad Grass Never Dies: The Sequel to Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, by Chuck Barris

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