Telephone Book Producer Merv Bloch on Permissive 70s Cinema, Misleading Trailers, Playboy Mansion Screenings and the Voice of God

01/24/2012 4:00 AM |

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!”