Brian Flemming and Keythe Farley were casting about for a topic for their next episode of Split Screen, a TV magazine show on the Independent Film Channel, when they spied the L.A. Weekly story "Haileys Comet" detailing Bruce Willis failed business forays in the tiny town of Hailey, Idaho. In early August, the filmmakers spent four days tracking how Willis, after pumping $10 million to $20 million into Hailey, abruptly closed businesses (Shortys Diner, the Mint nightclub) or allowed them to go unleased (the E.G. Willis Building), putting half of Main Street out of business.
"We didnt really have an agenda," Flemming explained. "By our last day of shooting, we still had a pretty ambiguous story some thought Willis was great, others were still bitter about the way he handled his business."
All that changed, however, on August 11, when two men in a convertible BMW pulled up and began snapping pictures of the filmmakers shooting outside Shortys. When the filmmakers drove away, the BMW followed them to Willis Liberty Theater (which remains open). The two men who later identified themselves as employees of Willis company Valley Entertainment parked and ran inside.
"I decided to shoot the license plate of their car," Flemming said. The men came running out of the Liberty shouting, "Get the fuck away from my car right now!" Pinning Flemming against the wall, one of them wrestled him for the camera, forcing the lens toward the ground. (Sound, however, continued to roll.)
"This bald, obese guy held his face four inches from mine and accused me of stalking Willis," said Flemming, "although we had attempted to neither contact nor photograph Willis while in town." A third man appeared and, in slightly slurred speech, told Flemming, "Im an exNavy SEAL, and you guys are screwing up." He then flashed a badge and two pieces of ID, adding, "Im a licensed security officer and I have the right to obtain you."
"Well, he certainly didnt obtain me, thank God," said Flemming. "But one might say he detained me." (Flemming has since filed a police complaint, which Hailey Police Chief Jack Stoneback said is under review by the Blaine County prosecuting attorney.)
"At this point, I yelled to my partner to call the cops, who showed up in about one minute flat," Flemming said. While the two original men were persuaded to go into the Liberty, the Navy SEAL ignored Flemmings repeated requests to back away, until backup officers arrived from the nearby town of Bellevue. Three days later, Flemming received a call from Willis L.A. attorney Marty Singer, of Lavely & Singer, who demanded that Flemming stop "harassing and defaming" his client.
"He [threatened] a lawsuit for my tortious conduct," Flemming said. Singer said he stepped in after receiving a number of calls from Hailey residents complaining that the filmmakers had invaded their privacy.
"It seemed he was doing a stalkerazzi, paparazzi type of filmmaking. Sometimes when people do this, they create a scene, and the only thing you see on film is the reaction," Singer said.
"Im perplexed by his accusation of my violating peoples rights, especially in light of the fact that he will not give me one specific instance," Flemming replied.
Flemming does not fail to see the irony in all this. "This obvious attempt to intimidate me into not reporting anything about Willis turned out to give me a story far more sensational than anything I had previously shot." Photographs and text about the rumble in Hailey are posted on Flemmings Web site, www.slumdance.com/thugs. The episode is slated to air on Split Screen (Mondays, 8 p.m.) sometime in October.
LEVIS KEEPIN IT REAL
Levi Strauss Co.s "whats true" advertising campaign, featuring artists in their own words and images, wants you to think that their venerable jeans line is keepin it real. But here in L.A., some community arts organizers are suggesting that the Levis campaign is getting a little unreal.
A Levis ad on the side of a building along the Santa Monica Freeway (10) at San Pedro Street in downtown Los Angeles features a photograph of artist Money Mark, against a backdrop of the Watts Towers, holding a sign that reads "restoration and rejuvenation." The suggestion is that Levis is supporting the $2.1 million restoration under way at the folk-art landmark, which was damaged in the 1994 earthquake. But while Money Mark is a Watts Towers supporter, Levis emphatically is not.
"The implication of the billboard is that [Levi Strauss] has something to do with restoration of the Towers," says Mark Greenfield, director of the Watts Towers Arts Center. "But they arent contributing a penny to this." Moreover, Levi Strauss gave Friends of the Watts Towers Arts Center, the centers fund-raising arm, the cold shoulder when members asked for help. "We were told there were no funds available to help out with T-shirts for the drum festival," says Coni Nettles, a member of the Friends group, referring to the 18-year-old percussion event slated for September 25 this year at the Towers. The price tag for the T-shirts was about $1,500, she adds.
Levi Strauss spokesman Danny Kraus acknowledges that the company is not supporting the Watts Towers project, but adds that "people understand what this campaign is about and this is an artists image." "People" apparently doesnt include the folks working tirelessly to save the Towers, who feel the ad, at the very least, creates confusion. They have a suggestion: Perhaps Levi Strauss should revise the billboard to read "restoration, rejuvenation . . . and cultural appropriation."
L.A. TIMES GETS STINKO
If youve been thinking that the L.A. Times stinks . . . well, it does. The New York Times reported this week that in an effort to get workers to think "outside the box," a consultant to the hometown rags pending redesign passed around little boxes of shredded newspaper for employees to smell. The sniff-test result? The L.A. Times smelled "a little sour," The New York Times reported. Did Times Mirror really need a pricey consultant to reach this conclusion? The Times has an 80-person in-house redesign team working full tilt to recast the papers image, but we doubt that any amount of pentimento or palimpsest, or perfume will change that verdict.
HOTEL UNION SAFE FOR NOW
The Miramar Sheraton, Santa Monicas only union hotel, was sold this week, and the workers are safe for now. Buyers Maritz, Wolff & Co. whose other properties include the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco and the Four Seasons Santa Barbara Biltmore promised to keep workers on at existing salaries at the historic beachfront property, which has been a union battleground for several years.
"It is an honor for me, on behalf of Maritz, Wolff, to extend this offer to you to continue working at the hotel with the same wage rates and benefits," Maritz executive vice president Matthew DiNapoli wrote in a letter delivered to workers Tuesday.
Local 814 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union, which had fought decertification efforts by previous management at Fujita Corporation USA, were cautiously optimistic about the new regime, but warned that the real test will be whether Maritz adopts the union contract.
"Were pleased that we pushed them to do what they did, but this is only the first step toward bringing this dispute to an end," said Kurt Petersen, lead organizer for Local 814. The strength of Maritzs resolve may become clear soon, when the Santa Monica City Council considers a living-wage ordinance to raise salary scales for low-end workers such as hotel maids.
RAZOR-EDGED HUMOR AT FARMERS MARKET
Who says developers and mall-owners-to-be dont have a sense of humor? Appearing this month at the corner of Third and Fairfax is the Farmers Markets latest slogan: "Older IS Better." Make that a wicked sense of humor. By October, bulldozers will begin razing one part of the L.A. landmark, owned by one of the citys richest and oldest families, descendants of the Gilmores, to make room for The Grove at Farmers Market, a 650,000-square-foot stucco-and-glass extravaganza that looks as if it was airlifted from Newport Beachs Fashion Island. Although the market itself will not be touched, the demolition will knock out a number of local institutions, including a post office, Antique Alley, and Mortigans Nursery, which will be downsized at a less desirable address across the street. Apparently, older is better. Especially when the old can be turned to new money, that is.