“Check out the rider for René Auberjonois,” our line producer suggested a week into the chaos of shooting an independent film in New York City; over budget, not making our days, rewriting the script nightly, pounding espresso, swallowing pride, coming down off twenty hour work days with Maison Premiere martinis and holding back tears.
As the producer of “Windows on the World,” not just the co-writer, all of the contracts came across my “desk.” But unless something was seriously wrong, I was never asked to scrutinize any particular contract. That job, along with travel and accommodations for talent, was someone else’s responsibility.
“Why?” I asked, bracing for another small calamity.
Rene was due on set the next day, and I was currently doing my best Cole Porter imitation and writing a song for his barfly character to sing in his scene as we suddenly didn’t have the budget to use Tony Bennett’s “Rags to Riches.” Or any other existing song. I had woken up to the brutal report that the “final number” to use a karaoke version of the classic “New York, New York” had blown our entire music budget.
“Look at the pick-up location.”
“What does he want? A limo? A guarantee his driver won’t make eye contact? Just green M and M’s in his trailer? A single sliced kiwi?”
I scrolled through the rider wondering what now, what now, what now? Were we going to have extra costs for excessive travel miles, some small print that required us to pay Rene for another day’s work at double union scale, the need to fly him first class. Was he NOT coming?
Then I saw his point of departure...
“One of us!” I said, uttering the line from Todd Browning’s film “Freaks,” and smiling for the first time in a month.
As a character actor, René Auberjonois was one of the best. The original “Father Mulcahy” in Robert Altman’s “M.A.S.H,” as well as playing roles in Altman’s “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” “Brewster McCloud,” “Images,” and “The Player.” Aside from his other numerous film roles, he was also in seemingly every iconic TV show of the 70’s and 80’s and into the 90’s; “Love American Style,” “Starsky and Hutch,” “Rockford Files,” “Charlies Angels,” “The Jeffersons,” “Rhoda,” “The Bob Newhart Show,” “Punky Brewster,” “Murder, She Wrote,” “Matlock,” clocking in 135 episodes as the pompous Clayton Runnymede Endicott III on “Benson” and 173 episodes of “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” as the shapeshifter “Odo.” According to IMDb, he had 228 film/tv credits as an actor. None of which covered his illustrious theater career; winning a Tony Award for his work with Katherine Hepburn in “Coco,” playing The Fool in the longest-running Broadway production of Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” teaching at Julliard, helping found ACT in San Francisco, being inducted into the American theater Hall of Fame in 2018.
In order to try to land someone of René’s talents to play such a small role in our obscure indie film, I had to first give the character a true name, “Maury,” as opposed to the formerly generic “Barfly.” If a character didn’t have a proper name, it seemed like too small a part to the actor. Or for his agent to pass along to him for consideration. Then I had to juice up the description of Maury. He was the pumping heart of New York City and the personification of all the post traumatic sorrow, suffering and terror of 9/11. His fellow eclectic bar patrons help him regain his courage and sense of hope by helping him cathartically finish singing “New York, New York” when he stumbles. We called this scene our ““La Marseillaise scene” after the iconic one in Casablanca where the refugee patrons of Rick’s sing the French national anthem to drown out the Germans. One of the greatest moments in cinema. If you are going to steal, I mean pay homage, steal from the best.
Apparently, René liked the part, the screenplay, and our politics. He wanted to add his talent Windows on the World, our attempt at changing the narrative about immigration, especially regarding Mexicans – not having any lead characters that were criminals, maids, or “cop #2,” which make up about two-thirds of the roles for vastly underrepresented latinos in film and TV – and telling a story about family, fathers and sons, undocumented labor, as a way into the larger tragedy of 9/11. The stark reality that contrasts the American Dream.
“Who wrote it?” René had asked our casting director.
“Two guys that are cousins from Northern California. Robert Mailer Anderson and Zack Anderson.”
“Really?” René replied.
“You’ve heard of them?” our casting director slightly shocked.
“Most everyone in Boonville has heard of Robert and Zack,” René answered, apparently with a giggle.
Some people make you smile when you see them coming, even if you’ve never met them before. René was of that rare breed. He came on set with the glowing poise of a true professional; ready in his role, immediately inspiring confidence with his tangible intelligence and experience. It is an overused expression in acting, and an under-available commodity, but René was “giving.” Generous in his craft.
With that scene stealing twinkle in his eye, we were introduced and he told me how much he loved Boonville, the community, the AVA, being called a “Hill Muffin” by my uncle Bruce Anderson. Quickly, we ran through some film touchstones – I could have listened to his inside stories and insights about The Industry for days – then literature, Paris, politics, art. René was an intellectual from a time when theater and filmmaking were a matter of life and death.
Then he dove into his character and the first scene.
Although I wasn’t the director, I had to break the news that “Rags To Riches” was out, and René had to learn a new song for the scene, “Don’t Break My Heart Again.” We had a recording of me singing it accompanied by my musical composer playing piano and he said he was up for whatever needed to be done. And he went off to learn the new song, as we also tried to rig an earpiece that could play the song for him as it was going to be tricky to play the song in the actually space out loud, baking whatever sound we had into something that may or may not be usable.
More problems. Lighting. An actress in tears. Cursing. Serious conflicts. Shouting. Changes. More changes. Time time time. No time. Limited set ups. Rewrites.
If we are going to get a version of the scene which we need, introducing René’s character, to have proper impact for the later “New York New York” scene, we are going to have to shoot a “oner” – a single shot that encompasses an entire scene. Or at least from only one camera direction.
So, René’s character is no longer on stage, singing with a karaoke machine. The blocking now is that he is drinking on a barstool next to our two lead characters (Ryan Guzman and Chelsea Gilligan) who are on an awkward first date. When they finish their pertinent dialogue (cut, save, cut cut, move, cut, add a new connecting line of dialogue...), René now sings along to the love song that happens to be playing in the bar. But it won’t be playing for sound concerns. René will be the only one hearing the music (me singing in Fred Astaire fashion) through an ear piece. If he mangles the words a bit, so be it, he’s playing a drunk.
Later, because it no longer needs to be a tinny karaoke version, I get five friends in the SFJAZZ Collective to record a beautiful instrumental version of “Don’t Break My Heart Again” and that’s what we match to René’s singing in the final version.
And it was magic working with René.
He was someone who made the collaborative experience happen. The sum total of the parts was more when he was involved. It was exciting and fun to be a part of. Without his willingness to change, to “play,” improvise, to lean into his unparalleled craft as an actor, to “trust,” we never would have got that scene. And everyone who has seen the movie always smiles (and spontaneous applause during a few festival screenings...) when René’s “Maury” comes on screen and plays out his role.
Today there is a little less magic in the world.
But I’m glad over his long career René Auberjonois was able to capture so much on camera.