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Anatomy of a Press Conference: The Time Machine

By Rob Vaux

The kiosk along the back wall is full of yogurt and bagels. Interns and hotel staff flit around the room while an anonymous gaggle of men and women sit uncomfortably in their chairs, trying not to fidget. A long low table stands in front of us, with a cluster of microphones and an ever-changing cue card to denote the speaker. Samantha Mumba. Orlando Jones. Guy Pearce. Simon Wells. It's press day for DreamWorks Pictures, part of the push for their movie The Time Machine. The suite at the Renaissance Hotel is ready for the cast and crew to answer any questions the media might have.

It's also a chance to see Hollywood at work. Not the final product or the smiling heads on the cover of People, but the workmanlike and sometimes-tedious process of making, promoting, and distributing movies. Press conferences like this take place every week. Each studio has dozens of films to push throughout the year -- films where countless millions of dollars hang in the balance. This is not the land of art for art's sake. The scrappy independent with $40,000 and a dream is nowhere to be seen here. This is bidness. And very expensive bidness at that.

The press conference begins. Mumba (The Time Machine's female lead) comes in, smiling warmly and leading a small dog on a leash. The dog is very well-behaved. A couple of press members start feeding it salmon from the buffet. Meanwhile, Mumba begins fielding a series of quietly lobbed softballs from the assemblage. How hard was the transition from singing to acting? Was it fun working on all those sets? What would you do if you had a time machine? Mumba answers with poise and grace, saying a lot without seeming to say much at all.

She's soon replaced by Orlando Jones, who plays a holographic database called VOX in the movie. Jones has to do a little more heavy lifting than Mumba -- as an African-American, he gets to face the inevitable questions about the state of blacks in the industry -- but achieves more or less the same results. He delivers a lot of witty comments that reflect well on the movie, and the press gets some clever quotes that will make good copy.

Guy Pearce is up next, fresh off the plane from Sydney (and delayed by a no-doubt scintillating bomb scare at LAX). The men in the room are suddenly confronted with the harsh truth that, even with severe jet lag and a serious case of bed-head, Pearce is still more attractive than the rest of us combined. He sits down at the microphones, cracks a "no worries" Aussie grin, and watches as the softballs start again. Did you see the George Pal film? Did you read the H.G. Wells book? Why did the Academy ignore Memento? He's followed by director Simon Wells, and then the effects team, and so on and on throughout the morning.

As the conference goes on, I give silent thanks that I liked The Time Machine, because that makes it easier to behave. Somewhere inside, a demented little anarchist is screaming to ask something that will really make them squirm. The judge in me wants to point out the film's flaws; the cynic wants to ask if this is really anything but a money grab. And yet they stay silent, held in check by the atmosphere around me. There's something much different about the critical process when you're directly faced with the filmmakers. The folks who made it -- who invested years of their lives in some cases -- are now standing in front of you, politely answering your questions. Genuine criticism feels wrong here. Rude. Something that crass talk-show hosts do.

It's all the easier to go with the flow because none of the speakers betray any vanity or arrogance. There's no recent drug arrests or shoot-outs with the police for us to prod at. The actors show no self-importance, the director is gracious and affable. Genuine good character? Or Charm the Public mode? Not even they may know for sure. But whatever the case, in the immediate presence of the auteurs, the critical eye completely clouds over. Genuine manners combine with movie star charisma and quiet oblige to make sure we all act like good little boys and girls.

The results were inevitable, and can be seen in stark relief on every episode of Entertainment Tonight. Fluff goes in and fluff goes out, by the unspoken consent of everyone involved. Nothing of any real importance came out of that room at the Renaissance Hotel; it was just a nice chat with some attractive people. Devoid of nastiness. Devoid of hard questions. Even devoid of thought. Everything was cool baby; after all, it's just a movie, right?

And yet, here and there, as we watched and chattered and reveled in the marshmallow frothiness of it all, something else came through. A bit of insight, a glean of intelligence, a small piece of evidence that these people were engaged in more than naked moneymaking. You could detect differences between Jones' take on VOX and Wells', revealing glimpses of the creative give-and-take that resulted in the final performance on film. Pearce spoke eloquently on the philosophical conceits of time-travel, and humanity's reluctance to live in the moment. The effects team talked about turning vision into practical reality -- transforming a piece of abstract thought into something that could be seen and felt. Such instances were hard to spot -- sometimes impossible -- but when you did, all the bullshit and froth and warm fuzzies vanished, leaving a few bright shining moments of genuine creative energy.

That's Hollywood in a nutshell: nuggets of meaning amid a whole lot of noise.

Article published 03.18.2002.

Read Rob Vaux's review of The Time Machine.

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