I worked at a comic book shop called Fantastic Store with my then roommate Gaston Dominguez (the man behind the empire that is now Meltdown Comics and Collectibles), which used to be kitty-corner from Hollywood and Highland before the Kodak theater, subway and mall complex led to the gentrification and demolition of the entire block across the street from what was then the Holiday Inn. Quentin Tarrantino shopped there occasionally, and Don Murphy (producer of Natural Born Killers and the Transformers franchise) was actually living in the shop between residences. I don't now if we were the first choice for filming, but the huge walls, concave entry and low location fee made us the final choice for the shoot that was True Romance.
I remember being impressed by the speed at which Tony Scott's crew set up and transformed the shop. It couldn't have been more than three days in and out. When we heard it was a Warner Brothers film, I made a display wall of rare and cool Batman comics which stretched six feet high and twenty-four feet wide. It took almost an entire day to choose the specific issues: everything from the classic Neal Adams "I Killed Bruce Wayne" cover of BATMAN #245 to the Marshall Rogers "Joker Fish" cover in DETECTIVE COMICS #475, with amazing covers by Mike Kaluta, Todd McFarlane, Frank Miller and Bernie Wrightson, too.
Then on the day before filming, I overheard a startling conversation. It went something like this:
Christian Slater: Did they already have all those issues or did you have to bring them in?
Second AD, Carey Dietrich: They had 'em. It's just a shame they're the all the wrong ones. Didn't think we'd get the rights, but I guess they're going with Spiderman now.
I was not in any union, and I was not on the production. I was merely an employee of the shop who wanted to be helpful. I approached the director, who was between set-ups.
Me: I just heard that you need to swap out all the BATMAN comics for SPIDERMAN comics.
Tony Scott: Oh yeah?
Me: If you want, I can change them all out for you. We just bought a couple boxes of classic Spidey books that aren't priced yet, but I can put 'em on the wall for you. It won't be as versatile as the Batman display, but it'll have all the key books. I'll try to stay out of your way. It shouldn't take more than an hour or two.
Tony Scott: You won't be in the way –and thanks!
The Art Director James Murakami wasn't on set that day, but the set decorator Tommy Lee Roysden was. I didn't know if usage of Spiderman meant that they could use other Marvel characters like the X-Men or Avengers, so I showed him a short box of the early Dave Cockrum and John Byrne UNCANNY X-MEN comics in case they wanted to use them, directed him to the key silver age Marvel books we had in the glass case at the counter, and we got to work swapping out all the Batman books. I remember we left gaps on the wall where books might have sold. Of course none of it is properly visible except for the rack of EC reprints at the top of the stairs near the office.
A couple of months later, my roommate let me know that Tony Scott had invited us to a screening at the Nuart. True Romance was still in post production; this was a screening for the Belgian film Man Bites Dog. If I remember correctly, we took the bus along Santa Monica Blvd. and Tony was waiting for us just outside the front entrance. I had to pee like crazy and headed hurriedly into the bathroom. The men's room at the Nuart is tiny. There are two stalls and two urinals (or at least that's what it was like back then). I headed into position at one of the urinals, unzipped and waited. It was disconcerting because I'd had to pee so badly I didn't think I was going to make it to the bathroom on time, but the second I stepped inside I didn't seem to have to go anymore. If you're male and this has ever happened to you, you know how incredibly awkward this is. The seconds seemed like minutes of me just standing there with my dick out in the open. Right about then, I became aware of someone standing next to me. And in an instant it struck me that there was no sound of urine hitting the ceramic. Whoever it was couldn't pee either.
Men's room protocol is simple: you walk up to a urinal, you do your business, you flush, walk over to the sink, wash and leave. You don't hang out and you don't talk, and you certainly don't look from side to side. But for reasons unknown I was positive that the person standing next to me was looking in my direction. I am only five and a half feet tall, so when the compulsion to turn and see who it was that was looking at me became too much to stave off, I basically turned my neck directly into the sight line of his crotch before realizing what a tremendous breach of toilet etiquette that was and immediately straightened my gaze up to his head and shoulders. In so doing, I discovered that he hadn't already been looking in my direction, but my head motion caused him to do just that.
It was Keanu Reeves.
And as we stood there, motionless, side-by-side in front of two adjoined urinals we both broke into hysterical laughter followed by quick and steady bursts of piss. By this time, other people had come into the restroom to see a tall guy and a short guy laughing their asses off while in the act of draining their bladders. When we each finished and zipped up and walked over to the sinks, we were laughing so hard we were almost crying. And when we exited to the theater lobby, we saw that our individual friends were talking to each other. Keanu had attended the film with Tony, who was talking to my roommate Gaston. We were then introduced to each other, laughing still and unable to really explain what was so funny about it because it had been one of those "you had to be there" moments.
It was quite some time later that True Romance opened at Mann's Chinese Theater, and I got to congratulate Tony on the great job he had done in person. I had only seen one aspect of the filming and didn't realize how many locations there were or even which other actors were connected to the movie. So, seeing Brad Pitt and Michael Rapaport in scenes filmed at Scott Spiegel's bungalow off Gower added a second level of first-hand familiarity that helped endear me to a film that seemed to be a Charles Bronson comic book fantasy. The adventures we followed in thinly stapled collections of pictures and word balloons were possible, but more importantly, geeks (like us) could be the heroes.
True Romance is still one of my favorite movies of all time. I've accepted every comparison to Clarence Worley (as few and far between as they've been) as utmost compliments. The timing of the film's release was square in the middle of my own Hollywood dream and being a miniscule part of that has always been a point of pride. Tony Scott made more very good films than most people (The Hunger, Revenge, Crimson Tide, Man on Fire). He had his failures (The Last Boyscout, The Fan, Domino) and he had his triumphs (Top Gun, Enemy of the State, Spy Game) but you could always tell one of Tony's films from those of any other director. How many directors get to leave behind a signature style?
He went out like one of his own protagonists: with intent (and I don't judge him for it). I'm sad that there will never be another Tony Scott directed film, but I thank the man for the legacy he left us –some of the best darn shoot-em-ups of the modern era.