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Filmmaking | Reports

Varsity Cowboy

1 Jun , 1998  

Written by M.M. Goldstein | Posted by:

Former Massachusetts resident M.M. Goldstein goes behind-the-scenes of Jon Voight's upcoming film Varsity Blues in this 'Letter from LA.'
Jon Voight first burst upon the scene almost thirty years ago starring opposite Dustin Hoffman in the 1969 classic, Midnight Cowboy. Written by the great Waldo Salt, directed by the always eccentric John Schlessinger, Voight played "Joe Buck" in it, a Texas drifter who comes to New York City to make it as a cowboy hustler, but instead ends up befriending the unforgettably grungy "Ratso Rizzo," played by Hoffman in a brilliant counter to his first starring role as the clean-cut Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate. Well worth another look if you haven’t seen it recently, the film’s brutal honesty is breathtaking in this era of big budget kinderspiels.

Much blood has flowed under the bridge for all concerned since then, and Jon Voight’s star has dimmed, flickered, and nearly gone out, much as Travolta’s did a decade later. But, as Travolta has demonstrated in the last few years, cream does rise to the top eventually, and Voight’s career has shown a remarkable resurgence lately, He’s working constantly, moving from project to project, the latest of which is a Paramount/MTV movie about high school football in a small Texas town called Varsity Blues currently filming on location in Austin, Texas, on which one of the producers is, as you all know by now, our old friend Ruben, who was recently was invited down to visit the set during the filming.

Conscientious readers are doubtless further aware that exactly what sort of welcome would await him there was unclear; it was his to find or manufacture we concluded. But, as noted earlier, resourcefulness and creativity in conflict situations are by now an ingrained part of his makeup, so with an open mind and open heart, with the eyes of Texas and Paramount/MTV films upon him, off he went.

* * * * *

Day One began in the Four Seasons Hotel in Austin, waking up after a good night’s sleep, trying to prioritize the tasks of this mission. Knowing no one, the general plan was to make a good impression on as many people as possible, learn as much as possible as quickly as possible about everything having to do with the movie, and not fuck up. But whom to schmooze first? The director, young Brian Robbins? The other producers? — but Tolin and Laiter were not there. The star, Jon Voight, who’s a client of Marty Baum at CAA, his longtime friend and mentor? If so, how? Decisions, decisions.

Eager for his first cup of coffee to energize these cogitations, he comes downstairs for breakfast in the hotel dining room, and who’s sitting there reading the paper over his breakfast but Jon Voight? Hmmmm. Go for it, dude. He walks over to Voight and introduces himself.

"I don’t mean to interrupt, but I’m Ruben Hostka, and I’m a good friend of Marty Baum." Voight’s eyes raise. "I’m also a producer on this picture," he adds.

Voight smiles. It’s a ballsy opening even if not true, and if either statement is true, it could be interesting, even for someone who’s seen as much of the world as Voight has. So he shakes his hand and invites him to sit down. "Have you had breakfast yet?" he asks? No, but you seem to have just finished. "No problem, order some breakfast, let’s talk."

Jon recommends the specialty of the house, an egg and smoked salmon omelet, and as Ruben eats his breakfast they start to get to know each other. The attraction is immediate, beyond manipulation or control. They’re on the same wavelength; they hit it off; they get along. It happens, and that both are lifetime friends of the same remarkable man, agent Marty Baum of CAA, is, I’d venture to say, no coincidence.

But the set was waiting and Jon was soon off, prodded by his beautiful blond driver, the kind of woman who could almost make you forget California girls (sorry, Texas, but I have pride in my state, too.) She’d done this job before, for people like Kris Kristofferson and others, and doubtless had a story or two to tell about it all, but not 15 minutes before set call. Ruben said he’d be along later, and soon was.

As he approached the set, he ran into Herb Gains, the Line Producer, who had his hands full getting ready for the next night’s stadium shoot at the football field with 3000 extras. Too harried to converse with strangers, Ruben could see, even strangers who claim to be producers on the movie, and certainly too harried to be asked for an introduction to the director, so Ruben moved on, and immediately spotted Jon who was deep in discussion with the Art Director. Jon waved him over and introduced him as "the producer of the movie." Now that’s more like it. This was starting to be a good day. "So did you meet Brian (Robbins, the director) yet?" Jon asks. Well, no, not yet. "Let’s go, then," he says, and leads Ruben over to Brian, a man in his late 20’s who was deep into conversation with none other than Herb Gains, whose eyes widen when he sees this interloper showing up with the Star of the Movie in tow. Hmf.

After five minutes conversation with Brian, Ruben immediately felt one powerful primary emotion: relief. His movie, and his future, were in good hands. Brian was a delight; intense, extremely quick, very focused and perceptive, very much in the zone of making the best possible movie. You could feel the no-nonsense, open, creative vibes emanating from him out to each and every person involved in the film, from the stars down to the extras, and through each and every member of the production team.

As part of the "get him to know that I’m not an asshole" opening conversation, Ruben told him how much he had been enjoying the dailies, and noted an especially moving scene he’d just watched, the one where Billy Bob, sitting on the back of the pick-up with Mox (James Van Der Beek from Dawson’s Creek) makes an amazing, moving confession to Mox. Brian smiled as Ruben described the scene, and thanked him, saying that he, too, felt it was powerful, and further that he appreciated that Ruben had noticed it.

So, cutting to the chase, the deal was done, and Ruben was in. From then on he sat down by the Craft Services layout (the food and drink spread which is open the entire day, in addition to the catered meals served every 5 to 6 hours) and met everybody who came by, which meant, essentially, everyone working on the movie. The Prop Person even made up a chair for him saying "Ruben, Producer-type." It was starting to be fun.

At one point Jon came over, and they talked for about an hour about the amazing resurgence of Voight’s career recently. This was his seventh straight movie, the third this calendar year, having just left a film shoot in Belgium to come to Austin, and from there he would be going off to Australia where he’ll be playing Noah in a twelve hour television mini-series. He’d worked with Tony Scott, Will Smith and Gene Hackman in the last feature, a big-budget Disney film, and his discussion of working with egos of that size and stature was revealing, but must be saved for the book, due to both space and ethical constraints. Let’s just say that Mr. Voight is an extremely perceptive and articulate individual, whose three decade wealth of experience combined with his intelligence and sensitivity have created that rarest of all qualities, but arguably the most precious, wisdom.

As the day progressed Ruben also struck up a warm friendship with a most unlikely character, Willie the Teamster Captain. Willie is about 6’4", emaciatedly thin – a walking skeleton, big mustache, cowboy hat, boots, the whole nine yards. A Real Character. He reminded Ruben, who’s a bit of a character himself as you might have noticed, of a Texas Don Quixote. Willie has been around forever and worked with them all, from John Milius on down (or up, depending on your taste) and appreciated Ruben’s open eccentricity. When Ruben asked to bum one of his cigars, he returned with a whole box of "Travis Clubs," cigars made right in San Antonio, Texas, the best (perhaps only) cigar indigenous to the great state. And he wouldn’t take a penny for them. Texas hospitality.

As the day ended, Brian invited Ruben to a screening of the dailies at the production offices, and that, it seemed, would be the proper venue to get to know the last remaining key character on the shoot, Chuck Cohen, the Director of Photography, who’d come to this film from a career shooting NFL football live. Chuck was too busy during the shoot day to schmooze; fair is fair.

So Ruben arrived 15 minutes early to the dailies, figuring the DP would also arrive early, which he did. Chuck and he hit it off, and soon Ruben was introduced to everyone in the screening room, all the Department Heads there to see the results of their work.

During the screening, Ruben again looked for that special, memorable something to comment on (as opposed to that embarrassing, puerile, idiotic, obvious, naive, dumb or otherwise useless thing.) This time he noted a shot of Mox driving up to the diner where his estranged girlfriend Julie (the most excellent Amy Star) is sitting alone. As he drives up, the lights of the diner break on the windshield of his car, and when he stops, they frame his face like the bars of a cage as he stares at her inside, unable to go in to see her. It is a memorable image, one that defines and heightens the emotional impact of the scene without a word being spoken. It was designed by Chuck and Brian to do this, and it did, and Ruben’s noticing and defining it sealed the deal with Chuck. Artists like to be intelligently appreciated – or so I’ve been told.

After this conversation, as people began filing out, Chuck took Ruben aside and asked him privately, "So, Ruben, is this your first one?"

After a beat, Ruben avowed that it was.

"Not bad," says Chuck, "Not bad."

* * * * *

Day Two marked the beginning of night shoots, with a 6:30 PM call. Ruben invited Jon to an early dinner before the call, and they left the hotel together in Jon’s car, and arrived at Sullivan’s Steak House, named after the Great John L., who has what to do with Texas I don’t know, but it is reputed to be the best steak house in Austin nonetheless. The restaurant doesn’t open until 5:30, but since they had the early evening call, arrangements had been made to have it open early for them, and so they were ushered in at 5:00 to the empty dining room.

As they waited for the steaks to be grilled, they talked, a talk which involved a bit of testing by Jon; people in his position are constantly confronted by seemingly "interesting" people, but how genuine are they? Ruben, in his desire to impress, had mentioned that he had been "picked out" by none other than future Nobel Prize winner for Peace, Menachim Begin. It happened when Ruben was a young soldier in the Israeli Army during the time of the Yom Kippur War. Begin, who knew Ruben’s father, had sent for him, and then looked him right in the eye and said, "I choose you."

Okay. I choose you for what? Jon asked, not unreasonably. I don’t know, answers Ruben. Didn’t you ask him? counters Jon. No, says Ruben. Why not? asks Jon. Well, I don’t know, responds Ruben truthfully. Maybe I didn’t want to know. Maybe I wanted an out, in case he told me something I didn’t want to do. Maybe when someone like that says something like that, they know that if you have to ask the details, maybe you’re not really the one for the job, whatever the job is. So you don’t ask.

Jon shrugged. Maybe. By then, the place had started to fill up, with the long table next to them occupied in one gulp by eight prom-bound high school couples, the creme de la creme of Austin, Texas, off of whose charming vivacity and wholesome beauty neither Ruben nor Jon could take their eyes for very long. Nor they of him, a genuine movie star. Autographs followed, all done with amazing grace and subtle wit by Mr. Voight. A class act, no doubt about it.

As the dinner drew to a close, Jon noticed the logo on Ruben’s sweater, "CLOUT," the corporate clothing of the CLOUT empire. And soon Ruben was into the story of how it came about, which is worth relating since it’s both part of this episode and of the larger agenda.

It seems Ruben was driving down from Ojai (not on the weekend of l’affaire ATM; he’s up there often to see his kids) looking for a sign. Not a road sign, not a gas station sign, but a sign sign, something to give him some direction in his life. You’ve been there, I’m sure. Show me the way, Big Fella in the Sky (or whom or whatever) – give me a hint, a clue, something.

But driving down the PCH from Ojai, he remained clueless – until he passes through Zuma Beach, aka "Surf City, USA." A more goyishe place on earth being hard to imagine, there he sees an huge 18 foot high Menorah up on a hill. Now that’s a big sign, noted Jon. Indeed.

So, he stops and looks at it for a while, trying to figure out exactly what it means. A burning bush, it isn’t, but still in all, for an Israeli in California, it’s gotta mean something. But what? Further contemplation revealing no profound answers, he decides to drive into the town of Zuma, looking for enlightenment, or at least a little lunch. And there in the small shopping center of Zuma he finds both.

The lunch is not important now (wasn’t so terrific anyway) – but the enlightenment is. Seems there’s a clothing store in this shopping mall he stopped for lunch at, and right on top of it is a big sign saying, well, "CLOUT." It’s a line of clothing developed by this New Zealand chap, whom we’ll call "Kiwi" for now, and Ruben goes in and starts up a conversation, and ends up buying a few armloads of the eponymous clothing, including the British Army style sweater Jon Voight noticed at dinner.

And so it all began. Suddenly CLOUT took over, becoming the name of our company, with a philosophy and position papers soon following (courtesy of moi.) Doing well by doing good is it in a nutshell. The letters became acronyms in our minds for the essentials for this task: Courage, Love, Order, Unity, Truth. The essentials for good work and a good life. A quote from the Torah supplied our mantra: "It is not incumbent upon thee to complete the task, but neither canst thou desist from thy part of it." You can carve that one on my gravestone; I’ll go out with it gladly – though not quite yet, if You please.

Anyway, such discussions met with a receptive audience in Mr. Voight, he being a thoughtful, principled, and spiritual person in his own right. He liked both the ideas and the idealism Ruben was showing, and began talking about a book he had hopes of writing someday, based on his own perceptions of life over the course of his career. "Not now," said Ruben with surprising firmness, "You do not have time to write a book now. You are too important as a visible presence, a messenger, to hide yourself away to write." I happen to agree, but more importantly, so did Jon. It was a good dinner, and when it was time for the check, Jon told Ruben that his money was no good in this part of Texas, and took care of the bill himself.

But the set, yet again, called, and the beautiful young Texas maiden rounded them up and out and back to 3000 extras and Voight as Coach Kilmer pacing the sidelines on a crucial game for the Varsity Blues. On the way to the set, Ruben offered to give Jon the very sweater off his own back, but Jon demurred, after a moment’s thought, saying he needed an extra large, but doubtless thinking that Ruben could probably use it himself right now, enough so to take the slight risk of offending him by denying the gift. Being rich and famous isn’t easy, and only the great ones do it well.

As they drove there Jon confided that he thought Ruben had done something truly exceptional with the CLOUT concept. He had taken an idea, a word, and made it his own. From his mouth to God’s ears, direct.

As they arrived on the set and got out of the car, Jon hugged Ruben, and I guess you could say our friend had his presence and position validated for all to see and appreciate. It was, indeed, another good day.

* * * * *

On set Day Three there were a few new people to meet, including Brian Robbins’ dad, a character actor and a genuine character in his own right. "Your dad is something else," Ruben observed to Brian. "I know, I’ve been dealing with him all my life," responded Robbins with a wry smile. It was sweet to see them both there, the father’s obvious love for and pride in his son reflecting around the entire set.

Another bonus was Beth Gains, Herb Gains wife, a nice Jewish girl from New York whose beauty and intelligence inspired Ruben to tell Herb he was "envious" of him, of the obvious love and respect the two of them shared. Good relationships do exist; they are not out of our reach if we are willing to pay the appropriate dues to find and keep them. Or so one would hope.

He also schmoozed a bit with James Van Der Beek, whom Ruben found to be as decent and genuine in real life as the character of Mox he portrays in the film. Concerned, committed, unpretentious, a salt of the earth kind of guy. Much appreciated, too, was Scott Caan, James Caan’s son, who’s an actor in the movie as well. A bright future ahead of them both, and this movie should be the start of it.

* * * * *

A good film shoot is a magical experience, as close as one usually can get to a utopian community, a "from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs" (at least below the line) communal working arrangement, a huge hard-working, hard-playing, highly functional extended family. But all things, good, bad, and even great, must end, or at least transition, and soon The Ruben’s First Texas Adventure was over, and Teamster Joe took him, who left without saying any good-byes since he knew he’d be back for the wrap party, to the airport, arriving about an hour before flight time. Never one to waste a moment, Ruben invited Joe to breakfast at a place of his choice while they waited for his departure.

With a smile, Joe took him to Katz’s Deli, the best Jewish Deli in Austin, Texas, where Joe’s money was no good, and Ruben became, by the time the breakfast was over, an Honorary Texas Teamster before boarding the plane back to L.A., leaving our Israeli friend a world of memories of a generous, soulful, prideful people, the people of the great state of Texas.

There’s a lot more in common between Texans and Israelis than at first meets the eye, it seems. Who would have thought?