The sign on the sandy highway optimistically proclaims: "Rosamond, Gateway to Progress." But if there have ever been any gateways (or any rpogress) during the history of this little town on the edge of the Mojave Desert, they've been sunbaked or sandblasted out of existence. A handful of fast-food franchises huddle together along the only street in town. Hilly desert country stretches out on all sides; a lonely highway cuts across it all, going to nowhere from nowhere.
Nobody in Rosamond knows about it, but the biggest news here is the shooting of the finishing touches of a feature motion picture.
The firm carries the marquee-stretching title "Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens." Coupled with the almost furtive location work, it's a sure sign that Russ Meyer, the man Forbes magazine calls "the Hugh Hefner of the adult-movie business," is back at work.
Work, for Meyer, means shooting -- and marketing -- his own filmed fantasies. Meyer comes up with the ideas for his films. He collaborates in the writing of the scripts. He secures all financing, half of the money usually coming out of his own pocket. In addition to the traditional duties associated with a producerdirector, Meyer feels most comfortable working as his own cinematographer, camera operator, gaffer, transportation captain, unit manager and occasinal cook. He will serve as the film's editor, and after it's completed, he will spend one day each week going over ledger sheets and calling up theaters, in his role as the distributor of the finished product. It may open soon in Dallas.
Although Meyer has kept away from hardcore footage in his work, he has spent years and hundreds of thousands of dollars defending himself against obscenity charges throughout America.
During the last 18 years, Meyer has turned out 32 films. At last count, the take for his movies totaled around $60 million. Meyer's audience, once limited to older men in raincoats, has grown to include college students and even a few women. This small, youthful Russ Meyer film cult turns out in full force for Meyer reruns.
It takes most of the two-hour drive out to Rosamond for Meyer to sketch in the plot of the film. Concerned with the career of a young man whose sexual dysfunction is cured by the divine intervention of a lady evangelist, "Beneath" is scattered with silly character names, cases of mistaken identity and a cheerful bawdiness throughout. Meyer can point with pride to Pulitzer Prize winner Roger Ebert as a collaborator on "Beneath." Ebert, an old friend of Meyer's who whn the journalism prize as a film critic for The Chicago Sun-Times, has his name listed as screenwriter on Meyer's "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls." This time around, he wants to use a pseudonym.
"Go ahead and use his name," Meyer says. "He just tells everyone anyway. He wants to call himself Holly Martins (the character Joseph Cotten played in "The Third Man"), but I think Mr. Hyde would be better."
There is little chance that "Beneath" will show up on many critics' top-10 lists, despite the shadowy presence of Ebert. In New Times, Richard Corliss accused Meyer of going directly from adolescence to senility in "Up." Another critic wrote that he found "not one damned thing redemptive" about "beyond the Valley of the Dolls."
But to many observers, Meyer's films have become important not so much for their content as for the way they are made. Meyer's working style offers what some say is a sensible alternative to the extravagances of major studio productions. A Meyer film rarely exceeds its $250,000 budget. He takes only a few people along on the crew; the films he makes require only a few weeks to shoot. A finished Meyer product has the high production values of studio features -- and Meyer's astonishing batting average of 30 hits and two flops is far better than any studio's.
On Meyer's small crews, everyone has double duties. Often, the sound recordist helps with the props, the makeup woman claps the slate and the actors help carry the equipment.
"Meyer is very overbearing, but he gets the job done," says Charles Pitt, an actor who played the lead in "Supervixens." "It's like old Blood-and Guts Patton. If he needs a shot, he'll lie down in the mud and show you the shot he wants; he'll never tell an actor to do something he won't."
Meyer has a tired face, the lines etched by the months he has spent looking at his latest film through the tiny window of a Moviola.Sitting in a corner booth in the bar at the Hollywood Nickodell, the 56-year-old Meyer sips on a nonstop series of Bombay martinis. He is reluctant to speculate on how long be will be able to sustain his flat-out working pace, but it is clear he intends to continue as a strictly one-man show.
"I want to make my films, my kind of pictures, one a year," he says.
The relative comfort of a full union crew dewsn't seem to sppeal to him. He has signed with only one union, Screen Actors Guild; the others have never bothered him.
"If you want to make a picture that has any real scope and name stars, where you have to have portable toilets, policemen, caterers, you have to sign a contract because you need all those services. It serves me no purpose to have a giant crew for my kind of film... but it's very good if you're going to make a musical, like 'Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.'"
"Beyond" -- or, as some critics called it, "B.V.D." -- was Meyer's first major studio film, made in 1970 for 20th Century-Fox. He went on to direct "The Seven Minutes" for the studio, but when it bombed, Meyer found himself back on his own.
"I wouldn't go back to a major studio," Meyer says flatly. "At Fox, [Richard] Zanuck was always telling me how great it was to see my car in the lot on Sundays, but I don't think he'd ever seen one of my films.
"I don't want to make an art movie," continues Meyer. "I don't want to make a film that has great critical acclaim. It's nice if someone says a few nice things, but the important thing is the guy who plunks down his $3.50 or $4 to see the movie.
"The satisfaction I have is that I can make films that are not peopled with any kind of stars; and if I do it right, people will come in large numbers to see what the hell I've done.
"My films are just extensions of my own fantasies. Right now, I want to make a film a year and have a good time."
Meyer's definition of "a good time" has always included flirting with disaster. Meyer, and nearly everyone who has always included flirting with disaster. Meyer, and nearly everyone who has worked for him, has a stockplie of stories about boat crashes, near-electrocutions and brushes with venomous snakes, all encountered during the course of shooting.
Steve Oliver, who starred in Meyer's 1964 bike epic, "Motorpsycho," before playing in 148 episodes of "Peyton Polace" as Lee Webber, recalls: "If Meyer wanted something, he'd get it. We were shooting on a hill, with about a foot and a half on each side of us and the camera right in the way of the bikes. Two actors ended up in the hospital, one with a hole in his stomach two inches wide."
But for Meyer, the worst disaster is failing to complete a movie.
"You make the film by the grace of God and a long-handled spoon," he says. "The only thing that counts is get the film done, no matter what you have to do. Lie, cheat, steal, bunco, con, get it out."
All Those measures failed recently on a project called (depending on who you talk to) either "Anarchy in the U.K." or "Who Killed Bambi?" Meyer was hired by the management of the then-punk, now-defunct Sex Pistols to direct a takeoff on "A Hard Day's Night"; but after three days of shooting in Ireland, the production stopped.
Meyer is suing the Pistols for back pay; they are countersuing him, claiming unprofessionalism and alleging that he attacked an actress during auditions. Meyer denies the charge, but he hopes the court fight will generate publicity for his new film.
Meyer's hunger for publicity never extends to the actual shooting of his films. He clamps a security lid on the set because he says his actresses balk at appearing naked in front of gawking strangers. It's also cheaper to shoot in a semisecret environment.
Segments of "Supervixens" were filmed in the home of an old Army buddy of Meyer's who lives in Highland Park. An interior for "Beneath" was shot at The Other Ball bar in San Gabriel. Inselecting an exterior for "Beneath's" inserts, Meyer simply turned off the main highway, drove across the rough terrain and opened up shop at the foot of a hill.
Meyer's drive to complete his own films in his own way often tempts even the unknown actors he uses to walk off the set and across the desert. On his "Cherry, Harry and Racquel," an actress left in the middle of shooting.
"The person who's involved in simulated sex," Meyer explains, "They think after a while, well, this is just a porno film, why is it so important?"
Uschi Digard, a buxom North Dakotan who has acted in four of Meyer's films and served most recently as associate producer for him, claims, "As an actress, you have to give Russ what Russ wants."
Meyer alumni have graduated to other things from his films. Oliver plays the character role of Dugan in Crown International Pictures' top-grossing "Malidu Beach." Harrison Page, a regular in "C.P.O. Sharkey," Ken Swofford of "The Eddie Capra Mysteries," Alex Rocco, who was Moe Green in "The Godfather," and Charles Napier, Chrome Angel in "Handle With Care," have all worked for Meyer.
Meyer is quick to point out the irony that although he is known for casting actresses of spectacular dimension, few of them have gone on to any prominence. Former Playmate Dolly Reed starred in "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls," but now she's known mainly for a succession of guest appearances on game shows with her husband, comedian Dick Martin. Erica Gavin, whom Meyer credits with the success of his "Vixen," now works in a boutique in West Hollywood. Shari Eubank worked in "Supervixens," acted in one other exploitation film, then returned to her home in rural Illinois.
"None of them are primarily actresses," says Digard. "They don't really want to be actresses. They either marry a rich man or go into other fields. I never really wanted to be an actress. I've had fun, but I've never felt about acting as I do about being behind the camera."
Francesca (Kitten) Natividad, one of the leads in "Beneath," seems to echo Digard's assessment. "I don't have to be a serious actress. I have a great body, so why not use it?"
Phyllis Elizabeth Davis may become the exception to the dismal track record of ex-Meyer actresses. Her first major role was in "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls," a film she somehow managed to get through without removing her clothes. Her later work in a couple of women-in-prison films did involve some nudity, but that part of her past didn't prevent her from doing "Love American Style" on television (she was with the blackout cast) and a major feature, "The Choirboys."
Currently on the ABC series "Vegas," Davis remembers that she and Meyer "just didn't hit it off.
"I don't want to say anything negative about him," she adds. "We just didn't become friends -- at all."
Meyer's subject may be sex, but he is puritanical about offscreen passion. He demands that the sexes be segregated while on location and is constantly on the alert to meke sure they stay that way. Just taling to an actress alone in her room drew an assistant cameraman an angry reprimand from Meyer.
"A newspaper editor came by while we were shooting once," reports Meyer, "a real swinger. He thought we'd all be mingling together like angle worms. Fall asleep, then wake up and do a couple of shots. That's not the way it works."
"Sure, you'd be ansious to see what the girl looked like when she took off her clothes," says one former grip for Meyer, "but then, after about five minutes, it was business as usual. Well... maybe 10 minutes."
"I choose to think that if the actors and actresses continue to keep being horny, their whole attitude is hungry, lean. It may contribute to their performance," Meyer said of his on-location policy.
Ms. Nativdad, who tells a reporter to "make sure to say I'm his girlfriend," seems to contradict Meyer's avowed reluctance to mix real-life sex with is celluloid fantasies. "I was in 'Up,' and after that I really wanted to be in his next one really bad. I kept inviting him out to lunch, but he wouldn't go. Finally, he went, because he had nothing else to do, I guess. You know, he drinks and I don't but I was drinking anyway. I passed out and woke up at his house. That's how our romance started," she says brightly.
Their relationship has continued during the making of "Beneath," and because of it, Meyer lifted has ban on fraternization.
During principal photography, he and Kitten would often slip away together at lunch. Concerned, Kitten says, "Do you think everyone knew what we were doing?"
"Sure," Meyer replies blithely."When you came back, some of your body makeup was gone."
At Rosamond, Kitten sponges on her body makeup for what she hopes will be the last time... on this film. Meyer completed principal photography a year ago, but he is still busy shooting inserts, brief pieces of nonverbal footage that add to the flow of the film. Kitten's figure is pure Little Annie Fannie, with an assist from a Las Vegas plastic surgeon.
Despite the proximity of these distractions, Meyer works steadily through the afternoon. His personality on the set is low-key; he rarely shouts. He moves quickly to set up each shot, but he doesn't seem to panic as he hurries to wrap up shooting before the sun goes behind the mountains. Everything goes so smoothly, one is tempted to wonder why Meyer needs even one assistant.
But suddenly, Meyer asks his assistant to operate the camera, enabling Meyer to do the one thing he hasn't done so far in this film -- act. He will play himself, directing "Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens."
After the scene, with the sun gone, Meyer takes advantage of te natural echo of the hills to record some sound effects. Kitten and the assistant position themselves next to each other, about 20 feet from the microphone. They burst into a cacophony of orgiastic moans and groans, punctuated vy lunatic dialogue. Meyer interrupts several times, orchestrating the precise effect he has in mind.
"I want it to sound like lunch at the zoo," he says with satisfaction.