By Luke Poling
The basement was dank and dusty with wrapped pipes hanging down just low enough to hurt like hell if you thoughtlessly stood up without checking above you first. It also reeked of coffee and dry mold. You couldn’t move two feet without kicking another overfilled box, a continually depressing reminder that you were hired to move that box and the one behind it. The fact that it was a bright, sunny spring day outside didn’t make the windowless room any more appealing. If you could pick a basement to spend a day working in, this one, located in Allston, Massachusetts, would not be your first choice.
I met Tom Bean, another production assistant, that day. Tom was in his last year at Boston University, arriving at the basement – and the production company located upstairs – as part of an internship program. Our assignment for the day was to clean out a production company’s storage area before shooting began on a teen bedroom makeover show. I was there because the show’s producers hinted that employment on the aforementioned teen makeover show was possible if I helped them out with this particular dirty job. As we organized a random assortment of director’s chairs, boxes of research material and really heavy, large sheets of hard plastic whose purpose no one could discern, Tom and I spoke with equal zeal about the work of Stanley Kubrick, the Velvet Underground and Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast.
Our basement cleanup proved good enough to get us some work on the show. We spent most of the shooting trying to cope with the long hours of standing around, the ridiculous requests that pop-up during any shoot, and trying to keep a sense of humor about the whole thing. At some point during a 14-hour workday, we decided that we should try writing something together.
The show wrapped in February, and the first Monday after wrap, Tom and I began writing. Our first script was set in a New England college town, and it was about a woman with a fear of death finding out that she is the only family member left to oversee her uncle’s funeral. Oh, and she was falling in love with her uncle’s mortician.
We wrote a few other things and then found ourselves on opposite coasts. Tom was in Los Angeles, working as an assistant editor, and I remained in Boston, working in the production offices of whatever films came through town. We were hired to write an Indian Bollywood movie, complete with princesses and songs. Unfortunately, the production was put on hold indefinitely after the film’s producers decided to focus on TV production in India.
As an avid book collector, I hunt for signed copies of works by authors I admire. I found a particular thrill in holding a book I loved that had been signed by the author, the electric charge of knowing that the person who wrote those words also handled the actual copy that was now in my hands. As a reward for a patch of rough jobs in 2006, one of which involved Danny Bonaduce, not a lot of sleep, and me sitting in a 15-passenger van double-parked in Harvard Square, I began looking online for something signed by George Plimpton, an author whose work, and life, I greatly admired.
Most authors seemed to be miserable and angry. George didn’t fit into that mold at all. He seemed to love life. After George died in 2003, I remember reading tributes to Plimpton and his generous spirit. Such glowing praises made me want to dig and learn more about him. His parties were things of legend, with a wide array of authors and actors and artists all crammed into his living room. He seemed to know everybody and everybody seemed to like him. And the ease and simple grace that comprised his writing was easily overlooked by many and greatly valued by anyone who had tried to put a few sentences on paper. If one was aspiring to a writing life, one could do far worse than wanting to emulate Plimpton.
I found a signed copy of Plimpton’s Open Net, and ordered it. The box was waiting on my doorstep one evening when I got home from work. “For Roger,” George had signed the book, “With warmest best wishes, (despite his Ranger-hood!) George Plimpton.” All right, sure, I didn’t know who Roger was, but I was excited to add the book to my shelf, my first piece of Plimpton memorabilia.
Tom shared my interest in Plimpton. The Paris Review, the literary magazine George co-founded in 1953, was still going, continuing to publish work by up-and-coming writers, and we were both impressed by its legacy. The more we talked about it, the more it seemed like George was a good subject for a documentary and it surprised us that no one had done it already. Tom was as excited as I by the proposition. Plimpton certainly led an interesting life. He was far more than just the host of Disney Channel’s Mousterpiece Theater, or the first psychologist they take Matt Damon’s character Will to see in Good Will Hunting.
We began reading everything George wrote. Trips deep into the library’s stacks turned up articles and pieces from George from every decade of his career. The more research we did into George’s story, the more fascinated we became. We knew he was standing next to good friend Robert F. Kennedy when he was shot, and fought Sirhan Sirhan for control of the gun, but we didn’t know that he was equally close to Jackie and John F. Kennedy. (George asked his first wife Freddy out by saying, “I’d like you to join me and have dinner with the President tonight.”) He fished and boxed with Ernest Hemingway. He was good buddies with Hunter S. Thompson and watched Ali and Foreman’s famous “Rumble in the Jungle” bout from ringside as a reporter for Sports Illustrated. He was an intellectual Forrest Gump, turning up everywhere you looked.
We decided that if we were going to make a movie, we needed to just do it. Nobody was going to come to us and say, “Hey, we need you two to do a documentary on George Plimpton.” We needed to take control, announce we were filmmakers and get on with the process of making a movie.
I called Dennis Joyce, a friend of mine who had played drums in my high school punk band. I had shown him one of our scripts years before, and he was impressed enough to ask that we let him know when we were ready to move ahead and start filming something. I told him this was it. He immediately came on board as our executive producer.
I wrote Sarah Plimpton, George’s widow, a letter, laying out our idea for a film and asked for her blessing. A few weeks later, I called her and pled our case. I can’t remember all of the reasons I gave that we were the only guys who could tell George’s story properly, but she was interested and gave us the go ahead to proceed. We scheduled a time for all of us to sit down and talk. Tom hopped on a plane back east and we began work in earnest.
We met with Sarah in the living room of the apartment she shared with George and their family. She said that she had a vast archive of George’s videotapes and audiocassettes, which she offered to give us for use in the film.
But first she needed to organize what she had… There were a lot of tapes. She mentioned that she just had shelving units delivered that day and she needed to set them up in the basement beneath the former office of The Paris Review. Tom and I looked at each other. “Umm, do you need help with that?” Once again, we were headed underground to the basement.
Little did we know what we would uncover. It was a little different than the maze of director’s chairs and unwieldy sheets of plastic that surrounded us when met in Allston. It was a treasure trove of Plimpton-alia. It was 8mm film canisters, slides and boxes upon boxes of audio and videotapes. It was baseball cards, handwritten notebooks and photos. One unlabeled tape featured a clip of RFK ribbing George on the campaign trail. One film canister had footage from a 1967 Plimpton party with the guest list including Arthur Miller, Terry Southern and Bundini Brown. There was still plenty more research to do, and interviews to conduct. However, within a matter of moments in a Manhattan basement, worlds away from our first trip into a poorly lit storage area, our journey to George was already well underway.