Traveling Rick McKay’s Winding Road To ‘Broadway’
Originally posted February 2018.
Filmmaker Rick McKay was a complex chap for sure, not to mention a supremely gifted contributor in this insane business we call, ‘Show.’ The news earlier this week that he’d passed at only sixty-two still hasn’t quite sunk in. We’d also not spoken in several years as I’m not shy to divulge that we’d clashed several times in our nearly eight year journey together.
We first met as demonstrators for Hasbro Toys during New York’s annual ‘Toy Fair’ during the late 90’s, and after several lunches he told me about how he was working on what he knew would be a special, significant documentary film. What was originally slated as a 5 minute featurette for Public Access TV focusing on a pair of sisters who’d painted a rather elaborate mural of Broadway luminaries, would soon evolve into something quite different. My fifteen year stint as a full time actor, singer and dancer had reached a saturation point and I wanted to pick up my camera and go deeper into the production end of the business. He offered me a yet to be determined spot on the team, and we got to work almost immediately.
One of the biggest misconceptions about the indie film world, is how varied the individual jobs within the medium actually are. Whether you’re acting as a DP, (Director of Photography) Cinematographer, Editor, 1st or 2nd AD, (Assistant Director) UPM (Unit Production Manager), Gaffer, PA (Production Assistant) or even a Cube Truck driver, (all hats I’ve proudly worn) it’s mind blowing to discover what a chaotic freeform existence it is working on any given set. Granted, bigger budget jobs tend to be a bit more regimented, but there’s a reason that ‘nervous energy’ is so prolific amongst the cast and crew on most indie film/TV sets. You simply have no idea what you’re going to be asked to do. The results can be hilarious, perplexing, dangerous, sobering, sublimely inspiring, and even psychosis inducing.
All of the above can be associated with my lengthy, three year stint as UPM on Rick’s epic, critically lauded documentary Broadway: The Golden Age.
My eagerness to dip my toes into virtually every component of the job was a plus and on many fronts a win/win, but Rick possessed a pointed ‘self-assurance’ about things and he relished in pushing people’s buttons on numerous fronts and I was no exception. Rick’s perfectionism was apparent early on yet I never took it personally or like anything I should be wary of. On the contrary, I relished in his pointing out my mistakes, which were many. Whether catching fire to the metallic foil used to dress the ultra hot studio lights, or losing a body microphone down Shirley MacLaine’s bra in LA, where to my chagrin she laughed and ordered me to “Just go in and grab the damn thing,” life with Rick was always an adventure.
I’ll never forget our interview with Bebe Neuwirth in her dressing room while she was doing Fosse with Ann Reinking at The Broadhurst Theatre. We were both unaware how deeply superstitious she was so Rick asked, “Theatre-wise, what would you like to see yourself doing that you’ve not had a chance to tackle in a while?” Bebe pondered a moment, and then went for what the theatre-extremist would be most proud of. “I’d like to do more Shakespeare,” she proclaimed. “Oh really, McKay replied excitedly, that’s amazing you’d make a wonderful Lady MacBeth!” Neuwirth’s eyes widened in horror, she glared at him and screamed, “Are you out of your f**king mind!?” and angrily ordered him out of her dressing room. Dumbfounded, but wanting to remain a pro I dutifully went to the camera to continue capturing the moment. “I can’t believe he said that!” she shrieked, after which I smiled and naively replied, “MacBeth, it’s great Shakespeare.” Yes, Rick and I had just unintentionally ‘double whammied’ her and I was immediately booted from her dressing room too. Clearly there were a few things I’d forgotten in my 15+ year tenure on stage.
If there was a land mine to step on, or a faux pas to utter that showed how green I was in the indie film production world you can bet I said it, or stepped in it.
Luckily for me, Rick found my youthful exuberance refreshing and he worked me, and pushed me to the edge countless times. Hours frequently would start early in the morning with me not leaving his New York City apartment till after midnight, only to be back in the saddle first thing in the morning. In addition to setting up all cameras, lights, and sound for close to half of the interviews in BGA and transcribing over a thousand pages of interview text, I started creating marketing and fund raising packets for would-be Associate Producers. He even had me creating some of the very first early mock-ups of what would become the films ‘trademark marquee banner’ for the poster which he wanted to be reminiscent of the original Merrily We Roll Along logo. We also tested a number of titles, including Looking For Broadway, and simply Broadway, before Broadway: The Golden Age cemented itself into celluloid history. One of the first times we really clashed was after his 8th or 9th ‘sharpie-assault’ on the pitch letter I was prepping for Jack Wrangler and Margaret Whiting. I’d integrate his requested corrections and fax it to him, and he’d fax it back to me with an entirely new set of bloody red slash marks, corrections and alterations. This back and forth escalated for almost three straight days and peaked to a heated exchange. Nearly three years in and this was the first of several times when I’d felt it was time to step away for a while.
Ruff patches aside, meeting and working with Rick McKay, being befriended by non-other than Fay Wray who turns out I shared a tumultuous Mormon upbringing in common with, and of course continuing my collaborative partnership with ‘BGA’ Associate Producer Sandi Durell has been a colossal blessing.
There’s no denying that Rick was a true pro at what he did, he had a keen understanding of the musicality of film editing and was a powerful influence that I still draw from to this day having just hit my ten year mark as a full time filmmaker, camera man, editor and writer.
Serving as Unit Production Manager on Broadway: The Golden Age By The Legends Who Were There, sitting at the knees of the countless luminaries we interviewed and hearing their stories of genuine sacrifice and pounding the pavement for years has only strengthened my allegiance to my industry of choice.