The Telephone Book screens on Wednesday night, January 25 at 92YTribeca, with producer Merv Bloch on hand for a Q&A.
In Nelson Lyon’s The Telephone Book (1971), an unnamed woman holds a phone close to her mouth and, in chilling detail, explains what it's like to masturbate with a peeled banana. Forty years after that film's debut, describing the scene from his Upper West Side office, Merwin "Merv" Bloch—silvery hair, tortoise shell glasses, wide-creased dimples — can't keep himself from giggling exasperatedly, rolling his head back. "To this day, I can barely watch it with an audience. The squishing around is the thing that gets me." The film was his first, and last, feature film producer credit.
A veteran of the advertising business, Bloch grew up in Manhattan; as a high school student, he caught word that a movie was being shot in his apartment building. He perched himself in a corner and, for hours, watched a scene reworked ad nauseum by a lanky, nasal-voiced director in his early twenties: it was Stanley Kubrick, shooting Killer's Kiss. "He's really responsible for my total interest in moviemaking," Bloch says. (Years later, he would tell Kubrick—on MGM's dime, working on poster campaigns for 2001.) His first movie gig was driving a sound van on North By Northwest; a year later, stationed at Fort Dix in New Jersey, he paid a quarter to see the finished product, and his friends had to stop him from excitedly talking over the movie.
After college, working as an ad man for major studios, he supervised print and trailer campaigns, beginning sometimes even before production—"for the Wall Street people." He was also a co-creator of Jericho, a short-lived show on CBS about espionage during World War II. (Bloch's office is abundant with mint-condition wartime toys and memorabilia, much of it from Germany.) His stable included legendary illustrators Richard Amsel, Bob Peak, and Frank McCarthy. "Illustrators saved my ass," he says. "But I had to master the art of denial, at one point, because we worked on a lot of crappy movies." In 1968, Bloch founded Rosebud Studio, Inc.—the "boutique" firm that transitioned him away from studio accounts and allowed him to supervise trailer and poster packages for specific movies. His biggest return client was Woody Allen.
Two years later, he and a "dirty young man" on his payroll (Lyon) set out to make their first feature—the European-inflected Telephone Book. He balanced both jobs, with many clients operating on west coast time. "22 hours a day," he sighs. Indicating an autographed still on the wall—him coaching Orson Welles at a microphone—he continues: "I asked him, 'How did you do it? You were doing all these radio shows, directing films...'" he trails off for a moment, then abandons his New York accent in a flash; grinning, his next voice bears an unmistakable imprimatur, like reverberating echoes of butter being slathered on the inside of a car tire. He becomes Welles: "'I loved it. Best time of my life, Merv.'"
The overlap of careers influenced the film. Bloch cast Norman Rose, whose own gravelly baritone in countless trailers and commercials (including Bloch's) earned him the nickname "the voice of God", as the ultimate phone pervert—incognito behind a plaster pig mask. "He was not a handsome man, but who else could turn a woman on with an obscene phone call?" Rose's role cost him his biggest annuity—doing voiceovers for U.S. Army recruitment commercials. "He laughed. He had plenty of work anyway; he was the top guy." (Bloch also helped foster the voice career of Don "In A World…" LaFontaine, providing him with trailer gigs at Paramount in the 70s.)
Producing the movie was a huge gamble—Bloch recounts firing one crew member for flooding the guerrilla shoot with LSD, one of myriad difficulties. Skittish over nudity, actresses broke contracts; nearly a quarter of the movie was reshot, and a costly animation sequence was added. But despite going over budget and "beyond schedule", the film solicited the enthusiasm of Hugh Hefner, who prescreened it (alongside Gimme Shelter) at the Mansion; the idea, for a while, was to make The Telephone Book the launch film for Playboy Productions. Bloch was thrilled, but Hefner ultimately chose a different maiden voyage: Roman Polanski's Macbeth.
"Shakespeare over Sex," Bloch grins. "That's my line. Either I was gonna put him out of business, or Polanski was." Playboy nevertheless ran a four-page spread—"a consolation prize"—featuring nude photos of the star, comedienne Sarah Kennedy, and notes on the film. According to Bloch, it didn't help one bit; the movie was toxically received at New York's Astor Theatre, with walk-outs a daily routine. "The only market this picture had was Los Angeles; it played the Vogue Theater for months. I don't know why LA got this movie."
Bloch continued building clients at Rosebud, and never produced again; his last job before retirement was the trailer for a 1996 western called The North Star, starring Christopher Lambert and James Caan. "Awful movie," he stresses. "Set in Alaska." His memory is a blend of refined fondness and sharp pragmatism. Asked, in retrospect, how he could've changed the Telephone Book script, he says point blank that "I wouldn't have done that script. (Lyons and I) were mindfucking each other for hours about what this picture could be, for us and our careers... We could never have imagined the reception we'd get."
Still smitten with his era, "when movies became mature", Bloch's office is emblazoned wall-to-wall with career prizes: autographed candids, lobby cards, the original art for the proto-psychedelic poster for The Dirty Dozen. He has dozens of scrapbooks of personal photography, alongside thicker volumes of ad art—mostly famous posters, but some unused logos for Nashville, Reds and The Last Tycoon. ("They used a piece of shit", he says, wincing.) When asked which of his campaigns he's proudest of, he silently and solemnly points to a framed poster for Raging Bull; the image of a battered DeNiro, which he came up with, flummoxed executives but clicked instantly with the star—and Scorsese.
There are plans for a domestic Telephone Book DVD release, as well as a coffee table book of his work. "This is fun, talking about yourself," he ruminates. "I had a long run in this business. Today they would consider me a dinosaur—and I am! But I could still direct trailers.... I feel I've remained in obscurity too long." He waxes philosophical about alternate career scenarios, hypothesizing that a better reception for The Telephone Book—or a worse reception for his ad work—could've led to a fulltime career in directing. "But: if you make any movie—good, bad, or indifferent—and wait forty years, suddenly it's a fucking masterpiece!"