I never had the privilege of meeting the cinephile and cineaste Ric Menello, who died on March 1 at age 60. (His MTV.com obituary is here; a more heartfelt reminiscence from his Brooklyn neighborhood, with links to some pertinent videos, is here.) But during the mid-to-late 1980s, I felt like I almost knew him, thanks to a couple of mutual friends, people who had studied and hung out with Ric in the film studies program at NYU. I heard stories of movie-mad students festooning their sneakers with the names of their favorite directors, of Ric’s auteur catechism (“What is Budd Boetticher?” “Budd Boetticher is an auteur.” “Why is Budd Boetticher an auteur?” “Because his films have Mise-en-scène.”) and of some unhygienic payback shenanigans involving the hairbrush of a certain stuck-up desk monitor at Weinstein Hall who subsequently went on to her own music-video-related fame. As for Ric, his relationship with one-time Weinstein Hall resident Rick Rubin led to his directing a few music videos for the likes of the Beastie Boys and L.L. Cool J. And then…not much, that people outside of the business would have heard of, until a reemergence that was bearing more and more good fruit at the time of Menello’s passing.
Mel Neuhaus was one of Ric’s oldest friends and certainly his closest. I became acquainted with Mel when he was one of the co-owners of a mail-order laser-disc outfit called Laser Island. Mel really knew his stuff and had the chops to get super-obscure items, and I was a pretty good customer if I may say so myself. (Well I recall pre-ordering the eight-disc Godzilla “Toho Death Battle Chronicles” box set with a couple of music video compilations on the side [New Order among them]; the day the ordered arrived at Mel’s place, I got shitcanned from my job at Stereo Review. He very kindly offered to let me back out, but I stuck to the plan and shelled out the five hundred bucks. Boy, was my live-in girlfriend unhappy when she came upon that receipt.) In any event, after chatting over what new goodies I was likely to buy, Mel would clue me in on stuff he was up to, for instance, collaborating with Ric on a script for a haunted-house comedy starring the Beastie Boys.
A little after the laser disc market, such as it was, dried up, Mel and I lost touch. I thought of him when I learned of Menello’s death, and dropped him a note. As it happened, he and Menello had become neighbors again over the years. It was good to make contact with Mel, although I wish I’d been spurred to do so by a happier occasion. I was glad to learn that Mel, whose dry and mordant wit was always an outstanding feature of our talks in the past, has written a novel, Gray Matter, that’s on sale as an e-book at Amazon, which I bought pretty much immediately and look forward to reading. After we both bitched and moaned a bit about how poorly the world is treating aging male cinephiles such as ourselves, we got on the subject of the late, great Menello, and I’ve reproduced much of the conversation, with some edits and shifts and compressions I deemed necessary/desirable, below.
Glenn Kenny: I remember being at Cannes in 2008 and seeing James Gray’s Two Lovers and seeing Ric's name come up as the co-screenwriter. And thinking how great that was, because I had not heard much of or about him since the excellent commentary he did for the DVD of Chabrol’s Cry of the Owl in 2002. And I was so glad to learn he’d been working more with James Gray. Because I remembered a lot of the things about him that I’d heard from you, about not just what a great cinephile he was but how funny and generous he was. How did you and Ric meet? Were you guys boyhood friends or college friends?
Mel Neuhaos: We met first year at NYU. And I remember we were at some screening, back when the school would show you movies at the Bleecker Street Cinema. That was essentially like one of their classroom presentations. And I was just sitting there, I don't even remember what the movie was. He was in front of me sitting with some striking brunette—that's what I remember. And something came up on the movie, and I made some snarky comment, and he turned around and at first I thought he was going to tell me to be quiet, but he just kind of appended it. And I started laughing. And I said, “Oh, that was kind of fun.” And a little bit later I ran into him and we just started talking and found out we were sort of on the same page. We started going to grindhouses seeing spaghetti westerns and Italian Dirty Harry ripoffs, which were all over the place back then. And just talking about movies that we loved. Frequently he said “Nobody I know has ever heard of this movie except you. “ And I said, well, yeah, man. He would come over to the apartment up in Washington Heights and we'd watch 16 mm prints, which was the only way you could collect movies in those days.
GK: I remember coming to one of your 16mm screenings in Brooklyn.
MN: Yeah, I moved to Sheepshead Bay. And screened every week. And even if he wasn’t around for that, one day a week it was just Menello day, and he would come over. Then, after that, laser discs and then DVDs, and then Blu-Rays. It was a constant. The one time that we were out of touch for a bit, because he was out on the Coast and everything, we both discovered obscure Japanese cinema at the same time. And it was bizarre, ‘cause we hadn't talked in a few months. And you know, we were the kind of guys who got kind of pissed off about sharing movies with people who had never seen them before; we'd get mad that they were seeing this for the first time. And we had this kind of “We've seen them all” attitude. But we were so stupid, because there's so much stuff out there. And I said to Menello, ”I saw some movies recently that have opened up a whole new world for me.” And Menello said, “Me too.” And I said, “I’m now into Japanese cinema, but not just Kurosawa and Ozu. It's beyond that.” He goes, “Me too.” And I said, “Like what?” And he's going, “Well directors like…”--and he started to go, “Shhhh”--and I said “Shinoda!” And he goes, “Yes.” And I said, “Goh…” and he'd finish, “Gosha.” I said, “Yes.” It was just crazy. He said, this is amazing. And we just were talking about that for hours and hours.
And eventually he came back to New York we both ended up in Ditmas Park, and Ric was only two blocks away from us. So we saw him all the time, and he became kind of a neighborhood fixture. The thing about this area is it's crammed full of artists. I mean not just writers but would-be filmmakers, musicians, painters, photographers. And we would all congregate at this place called Vox Pop. And Ric sort of became the king of this place. And you'd walk down the street, everyone would come running out of stores to say, “Hey, Ric!” My wife called him the Burgomaster of Brooklyn. And when all this stuff started to come into play for him the whole neighborhood was just so happy for him. The year that Two Lovers was eligible, everyone came to Vox Pop that morning, with Ric, to watch the live feed and see if Ric would get a nomination. This is seven in the morning. And Menello is there shaking his head, no, I'm not going to get nominated, I'm not going to get nominated. And he didn't. But everybody in the neighborhood was there to commiserate with him. Not that he really seemed to mind that much, but that was just a typical display of how the neighborhood felt about him. And at Vox Pop we had a Menello night when we showed a lot of his shorts, some of the things he and I made together. There was a promo Menello and I made in the early 80's to try to raise money to do a low budget movie. And we played it as Siskel and Ebert. We showed that and that got a lot of laughs. And then we showed this movie I helped out on with Ric and Adam Dubin called Sidesplitters which has sort of become a cult item. Lewis Black and Jim Norton are in it, playing sort of the Antichrist Abbott and Costello. And then we did a Q and A. So it was a really nice night. And I don't know, I mean I've got 41 years of stories and anecdotes and just hilarious stuff.
GK: I recall you guys were working on a script for a picture that never got made where the Beastie Boys were in a haunted house scenario. It was called Scared Stupid, riffing on Martin and Lewis…
MN: More Abbott and Costello, again, actually, as it turns out.
The funny thing about that is Ric was working for Def Jam at the time and Rick Rubin said, “I want to do a movie with The Beasties in the flavor of the Abbott and Costello movies.” And Menello and I particularly loved The Abbott and Costello Show on television, because it was—we think it's sort of surreal. Because here they were, kind of this broken-down aging comedy team…they were Abbott and Costello and they were living in this dumpy rooming house in Paterson, New Jersey run by a psycho-landlord, Mr. Fields. And except for Mike the cop, all the other tenants were either thugs or hookers. And Menello and I thought that was just the greatest concept ever. And what Menello and I would often do when we would talk about movies or shows we liked, or were working on a thing, we would always figure out what happened to these characters afterwards, or create entirely different movie scenarios involving them. And we said, you know, if Bud and Lou had only lasted as long as Gunsmoke, and that show had gone into the early 70's, we had this whole scenario planned. Lou basically stayed the same but Bud embraced the drug culture. And he kind of—you know the way older guys used to wear the paisley shirts and those long sideburns and the comb-overs to try to get chicks? Bud became that. And he started becoming a pothead ‘cause he was still living with Lou and he was just dragging on weed all the time, 24/7. And he changed his name from Bud Abbott to Bad Abbott.
MN: [imitates Lou Costello] “Bud, stop smoking that stuff.” We would just go on with that for hours. And so Menello came over one day and he said, “Let's come up with an idea for the Beastie Boys movie.” I said, “Well, if you're talking Abbott and Costello, we've got a little selection here and it's pretty much compartmentalized. You either got the service comedy, the western comedy, the whodunit or the haunted house thing.” And Menello said, “Well, it's got to be the haunted house.” I said, “You're right.” So he said, “I'm going to tell Rubin that's what we're going to do.”
And then we were talking on the phone about it during the week and I said, “I have this bizarre idea.” “What is it?” “What if you come over on Friday and instead of watching movies like we always do on the weekends or something, we just spent the entire weekend doing this script? By that I mean, what if we do the entire script in one weekend?” “You think we can do that?” “I don't know. Let's try it.” So he came over on Friday afternoon and we had already the basic outline for the plot. And we broke it down scene by scene. And then we went out to the El Greco Diner where we would always go and pigged out, and then came back and went over everything we had done. And I said, “We've got the entire movie broken down.” Says Ric, “All we got to do now is write it.” And then: “I'll be here tomorrow at 7:30 in the morning,” which I thought was amazing for Menello to say. But he showed up with reams of loose-leaf paper and pens. And the way we would do it is we always put different actors or actresses in parts, whether or not they were living or dead. This is the way we imagined who would be who. And Menello would be laying down on the couch with a pad and pen and I would be pacing the floor. And we'd become the characters. And it got to the point where we started yelling at each other in different voices. It was kind of very Norman Bates-y. But it wouldn't be Mel and Ric yelling at each other, it would be Oliver Reed and George Sanders having an argument. At one point we had the slimy lawyer that the Beastie Boys hired and for some reason we decided it was Jose Ferrer. And we just started in, and it was real vulgar, which was great. That was the thing. Saying “Listen, you motherfuckers” in a Jose Ferrer voice, that kind of stuff. We would just be breaking up laughing. And with the reading of the will… At one point Menello had gotten got a call from Rubin who told him one of the Beasties was dating Molly Ringwald, and that she wanted to be in it. So I said, all right, sure. So she kind of became the Joan Davis character. And we spent the entire day doing this. And then we said, all right, let's take a break. And we had gotten through about 80 to 90 percent of the script. And we were shocked. I said, “This is working.” He goes, “Let's get something to eat.” So we went out and we got something to eat. And we came back and kind of went through everything to see if it even made sense. And he says, “It kind of works.” And we finished up the next day. If you saw it, we had reams and reams of loose-leaf paper. Most of it had Menello's doodles of cartoon characters, and there'd be sometimes only line on a page. If you stacked up the script pages they would probably go from the floor to your kneecap. I said, “Oh, God, pity whoever has to type this up.” And Menello goes, “It's not going to be me.” I said, well, “It's not going to be me either.” He goes, “Rubin's going to take care of it. The thing is, we got it.”
And I was so shocked when a couple of weeks later he came over with a typed up script. I remember he mentioned the woman who was Rubin's assistant who had taken care of it and I said, “Jeez, she deserves a medal.” And it was actually reading funny. And I remember at the time, and it's funny that you mentioned Martin and Lewis. Because Paramount had wind of the project, and called up threatening Rubin because they said it sounded too much like Scared Stiff. And Rubin said, “What are you talking about?” And they said, “We don't want people to get the two movies confused.” And so Rubin started going, “What, you're re-uniting Martin and Lewis?” He goes, “You're talking about a movie that was made 35 years ago? What do you mean, people are going to get confused?” And I swear to God, the guy from the legal department at Paramount said, “We've got high hopes for that movie yet.”
The horrible thing about that was the Beastie Boys split from Def Jam and fell out with Rubin. And they wanted to take the script with them and Rubin said, “It's mine.” Like Daffy Duck in the Warner Brothers cartoon--it's mine, it's mine! And Menello said, “I guess it's never going to get made cause there's no way—believe me, I can't get into it, but there's no way they're ever going to get back together again.” And I said, damn. But one of the Beastie Boys at that time was getting laser disks from me. And he had talked to Ric and the idea was, “Well maybe Mel would consider working with us on some project.” There was a lot of bad blood at the time and Rubin didn’t like that idea, and nothing ever became of it anyway. I heard that that script was named one of the most wanted never-to-be-made cult movies ever. And somebody, I guess, had gotten a copy of one of the drafts or whatever, how it ended up, and was selling them on eBay for I don't know how much.
GK: Eventually the Beastie Boys had their rapprochement with Rick Rubin. They were in a completely different place as performers by that point.
MN: Yeah. I must have a copy of the script somewhere. I remember some funny stuff in there.
GK: I mentioned before, Ric’s commentary on the DVD of Cry of the Owl is really something.
MN: Well for as long as I knew him Ric would say of Chabrol, “He's my favorite living director.” And Ric wrote him a fan letter, and Chabrol wrote him back and Menello would sit there translating, with a French-English dictionary what he said. And he would correspond with Chabrol and Chabrol—I don't remember what movie it was, it might have been Story of Women or Madame Bovary, one of those pictures from around that period—Chabrol sent Ric his script with all his annotations in it. And Menello was over the moon about it. He says, “I can't believe this.” And they kind of…things happened, they lost touch.
When James Gray was at Cannes with Two Lovers he was sitting next to Chabrol at an event. And Chabrol loved James Gray. He goes, “You're the only American director I like.” And James thanks him. And Chabrol goes, “I was shocked when I saw the name Ric Menello and I was wondering, could it be the same Ric Menello who used to write to me in the 80's?” And James says, “Yes, Ric told me about that.” And Chabrol says, “Why did he stop writing?” James replied, “I don't know, I guess he didn't want to bother you. That's the way Ric is. “ And Chabrol says, “No, no, no.” He gave him his contact information. “You must tell him to get in touch with me.” So Ric was thrilled. And I said, “Why didn't you go to Cannes?” And he goes, “Well, a couple of reasons.” I said, “Well what's one?” “I don't have a passport.” “That's a good reason.”
I had been shooting footage for a documentary Adam Dubin was producing about Ric, and after I heard this story, I said to Dubin, “If we go take this movie to the extreme, this is the only thing I want to go and manufacture. Everything else just happens. But I want this to be planned. I want to contact Chabrol and tell him about it, because I'm sure he'll agree, and I want to fly Menello over to France to just--under the pretense of getting some kind of award or something like that. We'll actually film him going to the passport office to get his passport. Which will be hilarious in and of itself. And he meets Chabrol. And I want an overhead shot of the two of them walking off together, like the end of Casablanca. And that's the only thing I want to plan.” And Dubin said, “That's great.” Of course in the interim Chabrol passed away. And then the project went on the back burner for a while. But I'm glad that Adam wants to do something with it now.
The only consolation with respect to his passing is that the last three months were the happiest I've ever seen Menello. ‘Cause everything was starting to really open up for him. He has a new movie he wrote with James Gray, Lowlife, coming out in a couple of weeks. And Thanksgiving we always get together at a mutual friend's house and she does this huge layout. And he had just seen the movie and he said, “First of all it was no digital crap, it was an actual 35 mm print,” so he was all excited about that. And he said, “Do you remember when I first saw Two Lovers and I said I thought it came out way better than I thought, I really was proud of it?” I said, “Yeah.” And he said, “This grinds it into the dust. If I ever get remembered for one thing, I'd be happy if it was this. It was great. It looks like an epic, it moves, everything works. I'm so happy about it.” I said, “Well, that's great, Ric.” And then we were exchanging notes cause we were going to start another script at the end of this month. He had also been contracted to do a screenplay for a biopic on Jimmy Roselli, which he was working on. And the final draft went through with the producers and they greenlit it. And he was so excited about that too. He was supposed to pick up his check on Monday. And on top of that, we went to some industry Christmas party where we met a man who, unbeknownst to us, turned out to be some enormously successful producer. He kind of passed himself off as “Well, I've made a couple documentaries.” He did a lot more than that. And we met with him a few weeks ago and he was interested in having us develop a crime series for TV with him. And we're coming back afterwards and he turned to me and he said, you know, “You're the most pessimistic bastard I know after me.” And he put his hand on my arm and he said, “For the first time in my life, I'm cautiously optimistic.” And it's just--it's such a fucking shame.
I took him to some media events I was covering freelance, and they said you could bring a guest. We had a blast. And one of them was for the 40th anniversary of Cabaret and it was kind of one of those things—you know, ”You want to go?” And he said, “Yeah, what the hell, why not?” Then he said, “You think Marisa Berenson will be there?” I said, “It's possible. They said all the principals will be there.” And Menello goes, “But not Bob Fosse.” I said, “Well, if he is, I'm going to run like hell.” So we went. It was at the Trump Tower. You walk in and you look at the bottled water and they had Trump Water. It had his picture on it. We started laughing about that. I don't know if you've ever been to one of those things, but it's in a suite, they set you, 2 or 3 journalists, at each table and it's like speed dating.
GK: Yeah, I did that with Leon Vitali and Malcolm MacDowell for the Kubrick Blu-ray releases…
MN: Yeah, yeah, so you know how that works. So it's Michael York and Joel Grey and we were talking to them, and they were really nice and it was great, ‘cause you could get really intimate with these people and it was fun. And then after everything was said and done, we were really asking questions we wanted to ask them. Menello and I brought up Accident to Michael York, and he just lit up: “God bless you both.” He just started talking to us about Losey and Dirk Bogarde and Stanley Baker and it was just great. And then we were asking him about, we said, “We're very fond of a movie you did called Zeppelin.” And he says,” I actually like that too. I'm particularly fond of one critic's review who said, ‘It's a gas.’”
And I was talking to Joel Grey about this movie, Man on a Swing that I kind of thought was quirky. He kind of was surprised that anybody knew about it. Then he talked to Menello at another table and Menello brings it up and Grey goes, “Somebody else just asked me that.” And Menello goes, “That's my best friend. I'm his guest here today.” So we're sitting there, and then t I look over and I jab Menello in the side and I said, “I think Marisa Berenson's coming in.” Menello goes, “What?” She came in, and she looked gorgeous. And she's sitting down. And Menello’s like, “Please let her be smart.” We're talking to her. And she was great. And she was very intuitive about the differences of working with Kubrick as opposed to Visconti. All this great stuff that she was talking about. We were just thrilled. And Menello was started asking her some questions and he stopped and he says, “I just have to say this. You're so beautiful. I can't stop thinking how gorgeous you are. I just wanted to say it.” And she said “Oh, well thank you.” And she said, “And who are you with again?” And Menello goes, “Well actually I'm not even supposed to be here.” And he pointed to me and says “This is my best friend Mel and he's writing for this Examiner online or whatever, and I'm his guest. But we've written a lot of stuff together and I've actually…well, I wrote a movie a couple of years ago with James Gray. “ And she says, “Oh yes? What movie was that?” “It was this movie called Two Lovers.” And Marisa Berenson gasps, and she says, “I love that movie!” And Menello was in heaven. And he just was like, “Really?” Yeah. And afterwards he came over, he was like in a trance. And I said, “Ric, this is crazy. Go up to her and let me get a picture of you guys.” And so he goes up to her: “Would it be all right if Mel took a picture?” She goes, are you kidding? And she grabbed Menello and he was just flying. And then afterwards, he said, “I don't want you to think me being out of line or anything like this, but when the new movie comes out in the spring, James has indicated to me that he might arrange for me to do a modestly budget movie that I could write and direct.” Ric goes on, “I have no idea what it would be yet, but it's up there and I just wanted to know, would it be all right to get in touch with you….because I mean again, I don't know what it's going to be but I would love to have you involved in it if you wanted to.” And she just said, “Of course, of course.” She gave him her e-mail address and he was just…you know…he just said, “I didn't think anything could top the event we went to last night”—which was like the 90th anniversary of Warner Brothers thing, which was fun—“but this topped it.” And he goes, “This is like, everything's going. Everything's going for me. Everything. “ And I said, “Yeah. Good stuff. “