Nobody ever said being an entertainment reporter would be easy. I’m late for my arrival on the Manhattan set of 15 Minutes, a new crime thriller starring Robert De Niro and Edward Burns and inspired by Andy Warhol’s maxim that eventually, everybody will find brief fame. Trouble is, my taxi is stuck in traffic, and I have a dinner reservation in less than an hour. By the time I spot the lighting trucks and furry boom mikes outside Planet Hollywood, I’ve got less than a half-hour window. I need a Warhol-esque burst of inspiration to save my journalistic hide.
And then it comes to me.
”I have a high-concept idea I need to pitch to you,” I breathlessly tell the movie’s writer and director, John Herzfeld, who’s hunkered down near a monitor. It helps to use terms like ”high-concept idea” with writer-directors, especially Herzfeld, who has attempted to transcend formula filmmaking with such projects as 2 Days in the Valley and the HBO biopic Don King: Only in America. ”Here it is,” I say. ”I want to spend 15 minutes on the set of 15 Minutes.”
The silence overpowers the car honks on Broadway. Herzfeld eyes me curiously, then flips off his headset. ”What are we waiting for?” he says. I click my stopwatch and we’re off. Fifteen minutes…tick, tick, tick.
Herzfeld loves the idea. ”It’s perfect,” he begins, rambling like an express D train. ”In a way, it’s what the movie’s all about. Speed. Movement. Reality. It’s a story about all the crazy things people do to become famous, to get themselves into the media. It’s stunts, it’s journalists, it’s…” In a nutshell — and frankly, that’s all we have time for — it’s about a high-profile homicide detective (De Niro) who teams up with an earnest arson investigator (Burns) to track down a pair of foreign baddies who videotape their crimes so they can get on TV. Herzfeld notices the time and tells me to keep moving. ”One quick question,” I say. ”You grew up in New York. What’s it like shutting down 57th Street at rush hour?” He turns and smiles. ”It’s like a movie orgasm.”
Herzfeld hands me off to the film’s unit publicist, Jeanmarie Murphy-Burke, who’s been eavesdropping on our conversation. Though it may sound glamorous, the work of a unit publicist can often be quite underwhelming. He or she usually waits around the set until something happens — a star breaks a leg or at least a wedding engagement — and the press comes calling. Murphy-Burke seems stoked by my idea. ”It’s completely brilliant,” she keeps telling me. ”Completely. Brilliant.” I like unit publicists. Twelve minutes, 28 seconds…
”Oleg wants to talk to you,” Murphy-Burke says. ”He’s our villain. Very scary.” If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my three and a half minutes on the set of 15 Minutes, it’s that you never say no to Oleg Taktarov. Before this movie, Oleg’s claim to fame was as a star on the Ultimate Fighting Championship circuit, which features an often bloody mix of judo and wrestling. Before that, he was just another wannabe actor from Arzamas-16, a Russian village-cum-nuclear-testing site. As I stand at a curb, shuddering beneath Oleg’s Siberia-blue eyes, I realize this is not a man who has time for small talk. ”Did you ever kill anyone?” I ask.
“Kill?” He thinks for a second too long. “Not kill. Just hurt bad.” Was it difficult to get this role? “They try another guy from Russia for my part and I got upset. I went to hotel room. Drank everything in minibar. Then John come to tell me I have part. I decide to hug him to keep my balance. His thought is, I am just emotional man.”
It was a nice moment. Oleg and I were bonding. But I had to keep moving. “I’ll call you, Oleg.” They always say that in Hollywood. Nine minutes…
I spot a bald guy in a trenchcoat standing in the middle of 57th Street. I recognize him as Bruce Cutler, famous for being John Gotti’s lawyer. If I could handle Oleg, Bruce should be no problem. “Mr. Cutler, what are you doing here?” I ask.
“I’m in the thing,” he says. “Basically, I play me.” He is, in fact, playing a character named Bruce Cutler, a bald media-savvy attorney not unlike himself. In the scene being shot this doggish summer afternoon, he’s supposed to make a deal on behalf of Kelsey Grammer’s sleazy tabloid anchorman. Cutler looks nervous. “I’ll take court over this any day,” he says. “This is much more stressful.” Eight minutes, 18 seconds…
Steve Davis is the film’s technical adviser. A former New York City cop, Davis has been hired to show De Niro the ways of the force. Steve is probably the nicest guy in the world and under most circumstances, I’d be thrilled to shoot the breeze with him. But even after spelling out my 15-minute gimmick, he doesn’t quite get it. But he gives it a shot: “For De Niro to play a cop he could do this in his sleep even though the cop he’s playing is a fictional character it is not a fictional character because the cop is actually a combination of a number of detectives…”
Davis, needless to say, is one of those wonderful highly caffeinated New York characters who speaks without punctuation. “I mean I fully understand that Bob is a great street guy and he doesn’t need me to tell him what to do whether he’s playing a hood or a wiseguy but I mean did you see him in GoodFellas because if you did then you know how involved he is in his characters…” I peek at my watch. Six minutes, 50. I feel the skyscrapers closing in around me.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see someone frantically screwing and unscrewing lightbulbs around the Planet Hollywood awning. I head over to talk to set decorator Chuck Potter. A trickle of sweat rolls down my back. “We’re dealing with about three to four hundred 100-watt bulbs,” he says, adding that the Planet Hollywood people love the look. “They want to keep the bulbs up. I keep thinking it’s gonna burn the place down.” Someone’s hand is on my elbow, pulling me away.
“Gotta go, Chuck,” I say, “but one question. Have you had your 15 minutes of fame yet?”
“Well,” he says, “I saw Elvis in 1975. Does that count?”
“Let me call you,” I say.
I turn to see who’s grabbing me. It’s Herzfeld.
“Whaddaya got? About five?”
“Four and a half,” I tell him.
“Oh man, it’s gonna be tight, but you gotta see some of the movie.” Tick, tick, tick…
Soon we’re sprinting through Planet Hollywood, down a hidden staircase to a screening room, where cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier is sitting in the dark. He’s the man who shot Good Will Hunting, so I feel we can speak, well, deeply. “What are you hoping to achieve here, cinematographically?” I ask.
“Why don’t we have a look?” His voice reminds me of Jacques Cousteau’s. Calm, slow. It makes me panic. The lights go down and the screen flickers with images. De Niro in a limousine. Oleg with a camcorder. A raging building fire. “For me, when I go to the movies, things seem artificial,” he says. I’m sensing a lecture on Truffaut. “The idea in this is to grab the feelings from real life. To take things and improvise with them…” One minute, 50 seconds…
“If you don’t mind,” I say, “I’d rather not spoil the surprise by watching the film now. I should probably get going.” Suddenly, I’m back on the sidewalk, scanning the street for taxis to take me uptown. But I can’t ignore the fact that someone’s trying to get my attention. It’s Steve Davis.
“I just wanted to tell you about my title,” he begins, a minute 10 to go, “which is retired private investigator but actually I started off in 1969 in the New York police department as a trainee…”
My stopwatch beeps. I’m done. My carriage will turn back into a pumpkin if I don’t get out right now! “Hey Steve,” I say, as a taxi pulls up. “Can I call you?”