David Jensen has managed to carve out a movie career living in Baton Rouge
David Jensen’s friends in the movie business respect him for his work in front of the camera as well as behind it.
What makes them shake their heads in admiration is that long before tax credits for the movie industry in Louisiana, Jensen made a living acting and working the technical side of filmmaking while living in a modest frame house on tree-lined Hood Avenue in Southdowns with his wife and daughter.
“Of all our friends, he’s the only one who hasn’t moved to L.A.,” said actor/director Eddie Jemison, who’s known Jensen since their LSU theater days.
“He won’t even move to New Orleans,” said Jemison from his home in Los Angeles.
“I know he was frustrated for a long time because he was a grip, and he wanted to act. I’d think he’s not as frustrated now,” Jemison said.
Grips move cameras around and light movie sets.
Jensen was a friend of his big brother, said screenwriter Ben Williams who grew up in Baton Rouge and worked on Steven Soderbergh’s “Sex, Lies and Video Tape” as a boom operator.
“David’s durable and persistent,” Williams said. “He found a way to make a career work before things started to really pick up with film production around here. He’s always working.”
“I’ll get you in the big one” is what directors tell their friends “who do these little favors, small thankless roles for little money,” Jemison said.
“They mean, ‘When I make the big movie, you’ll cash in,’” Jemison said.
Jensen is “very rare” in the movie business, said Jemison who just directed his friend in a movie shot in New Orleans called “King of Herrings.” The movie began as a play Jemison wrote.
“We’ve submitted it to Sundance,” Jemison said. “David’s so good in it. He makes the most out of nothing.”
The lunch Jensen had fixed one warm August afternoon was over, and he was fiddling with a French drip coffee pot in his kitchen.
The air conditioning was off but a fan pulled cool, wet air from outside the Jensens’ tree-shaded house.
David and Susan Jensen’s first house together was on Elbow Bayou on River Road south of Baton Rouge.
“We got used to living without air conditioning,” said Susan Jensen, a freelance editor and home-schooling teacher of the couple’s 11-year-old daughter, Ingrid.
“She’s the lead teacher,” Jensen said. “Last week, Ingrid and I went over longitude and latitude because we were tracking Hurricane Isaac.”
Late summer is a slow time in Louisiana movie making. Hollywood follows long-range hurricane predictions more closely than the natives.
Jensen, who’d been under his house doing plumbing a couple of days earlier, sat at a table in a room he added to the house and talked about his movie career.
Images of Jensen in some of the 70 movies he’s appeared in or worked on or both flashed across a laptop screen.
Elmo Oxygen in Soderbergh’s “Schizopolis,” a hotel clerk in Soderbergh’s “King of the Hill,” and “laughing man” in Soderbergh’s “Kafka,” Jensen acknowledges his debt to the geeky kid he worked with at Video Park in Baton Rouge.
“I don’t think anything would have happened without Steven,” Jensen said. “He demystified moviemaking and not being afraid to fail.”
Something happened early in Jensen’s movie career that would have sent most would-be actors straight to general studies. Jensen already had a degree in general studies.
Soderbergh had planned to cast him in the Peter Gallagher role in “Sex, Lies and Video Tape” shot in Baton Rouge, Jensen said.
The studio offered the 26-year-old director $1.5 million to use some promising young actors in his low-budget film, Jensen said.
Jensen worked on “Sex, Lies” not as one of its stars but as a “best boy (electric).” He was 37.
Twenty-two years later, Jensen is getting character roles that could make the soon-to-be-60 actor an “overnight success.”
Jensen, like some other Baton Rouge movie people his age and the younger Soderbergh, owe their starts in part to LSU film teacher Michael McCallum who with then-girlfriend Caroline Spurlock were “the Jack and Jackie” first of Cedardale Avenue and, then, River Road, Jensen said.
McCallum’s and Spurlock’s house in Sunshine was a place where people talked about telling stories using cameras instead of typewriters, cut their editing teeth in a darkroom McCallum built, butchered hogs, made cheese, made gardens and made short films.
David and Susan Jensen had a place on Elbow Bayou, up river from McCallum and Spurlock, where they grew okra and Jensen made a living gripping not movie gear but a chain saw for a tree service.
“It was hot, and the pickled okra was inedible,” Susan Jensen laughed.
Jensen, at 5-foot-10, 145 pounds, stays fit these days running and working out in a gym.
“This is a hard existence,” Jensen said.
The Jensens got married in 1983.
“It was never the money,” said Susan Jensen. “It was, ‘Do you want to pursue this?’
“For me, it was his emotional state,” she said. “The suspense. The hard end of the business. Wanting a role and not getting it. When it got too much, that would be the time to quit.”
Jensen not only stuck, he found the time and the energy to help his friends if he could, said John Mese who met Jensen at LSU.
“He keeps us together,” said Mese, who lives in Los Angeles and worked on “King of Herrings” with Jensen, Jemison and actor Joe Chrest.
“He’s the same guy he was 20 years ago,” said Mese, who’s 15 years younger than Jensen.
Asked if he’d encourage young people to try for a movie career, Jensen shrugged as a look of gas pain crossed his face.
“I was in my 30s when I started,” he said. “On ‘King of the Hill,’ there were grips in their 60s, and I said, ‘I don’t want to be like that. Now, I AM the old guy.”
Jensen describes his career as “extrovert screaming toward introvert.”
“I always said I’d feel it out,” he said. “I’d fall into something. Now, as I’m about to turn 60 … this is nothing I intended; it’s something more motivated by situations.”
Movie people who work on both sides of the lights are sometimes viewed with suspicion by their peers.
A casting director told Jensen it wasn’t good to work the technical side of movies as well as act.
“She said that’s how the unions started; people saying they’d work as a grip if they could also act,” Jensen said.
Jensen holds union cards as an electrician, a grip, a film actor and a stage actor.
“The film business is like junior high school,” he said. “You get in the makeup chair, and they say, ‘Where ya from?’
“They want to know what part of L.A. you live in, where you are in the pecking order, who you know. It’s a loaded question.
“I say, ‘I’m from Baton Rouge,’ and they say, ‘What’s that like?’ It’s really a tiny business.”
In the movie business, you are whatever you’re doing, Jensen said.
“People might say, ‘Well, you’re working as a grip, you must not be a very good actor.’ I have a family to support.”
It might have been so different.
McCallum had moved to the Pacific Northwest and Jensen was on his way to join him. LSU had just hired John Dennis to teach acting. Dennis had been at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.
Jensen thought Dennis had a lot to say about acting but Jensen wanted to act, not talk about it. Dennis was considering Jensen for the role of Scrooge in Doris Baizley’s version of Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol” in 1982.
Well, should he postpone moving to Seattle or not? Jensen asked Dennis.
“Go on,” Dennis told Jensen, “but call me from Dallas.”
When Jensen called from “Dallas,” Dennis said, “Call me when you get to Denver.”
When Jensen called from Denver, Dennis said, “Call me when you get to Seattle.”
“I was an undergraduate,” Jemison said. “David was hanging around looking to act. Dennis had just come to LSU to teach and David wanted to be part of that.”
Jemison had heard the “call me from Dallas” story.
“That was the power of John Dennis, though the ‘Call me from Dallas’ story is an extreme example,” Jemison said.
Jensen flew home to Baton Rouge to audition a second time for Dennis. He got the role and didn’t go back to Seattle.
“I didn’t have $10 in my pocket,” Jensen said. “There was no money. It was a college production. I cut trees during the day and rehearsed at night,” Jensen said.
Jemison’s sure Jensen wasn’t afraid of moving away. He wanted to act.
Jemison had seen Jensen act on other stages — and streets.
“One of the first times I knew Jensen was out of his mind …” Jemison began.
“He had an old VW with a sunroof and a really high idle,” Jemison said. “He’d sit on the roof of the car steering with his feet, waving to people like he was in some kind of parade. He was going about three miles an hour like he was King of Rex.”
John Hardy, who used to be an advertising man in Baton Rouge, met Jensen in the mid-1980s.
“He worked at Video Park about the same time as Steven Soderbergh,” Hardy said. “David’s been part of the Soderbergh mafia for years.”
Hardy’s father was an Air Force general. Hardy graduated from high school in England, “attended LSU Law School for about three weeks” and went into the advertising business with Sonny Cranch.
Hardy had made a feature film in Israel in 1978 and was looking to get back to moviemaking.
Soderbergh, before he and Hardy joined forces on “Sex, Lies,” Soderbergh behind the camera and Hardy producing, had recut a mess a professional video company had made of a video for the rock group Yes.
Jensen is looking forward to the fall political races, knowing he’ll pick up jobs lighting campaign commercials.
“David and Susan have a way of making things artfully,” said Hardy, who calls Jensen a good friend. “They choose to live a simple, artful life.”
“A lot of movie people who live in Los Angeles wish they could live on Hood Avenue,” Hardy said. “Before the (film) tax credit era, I wondered why David didn’t move to L.A.,” said Hardy, who did move to Los Angeles.
Hardy’s back in Baton Rouge trying to parlay the worldwide theatrical rights to “A Confederacy of Dunces” into a show that, he hopes, will end up on Broadway.
“David had a better worldview,” Hardy said. “Now, a lot of people work as grips and electrics in Louisiana. David’s a rare and special person who’s been doing it for 30 years.”
Paul Ledford enjoys the reputation of one of the film industry’s top sound mixers. Ledford lives in Baton Rouge.
“One becomes aware of David Jensen because he is a noticeable person at any distance,” said Ledford who knows Jensen from their LSU and McCallum days.
After years of making the most of small roles and working the technical side when he couldn’t get acting jobs, Jensen calls himself Steven Soderbergh’s Clint Howard.
Clint is director Ron Howard’s little brother who appears in small parts in big brother’s movies.
Jensen works in a lot of movies that have nothing to do with Soderbergh.
“David Jensen is one of my favorite people on the planet,” said Soderbergh who’s just finished shooting a movie about Liberace.
“I feel lucky I had access to David’s talent and enthusiasm for so many of my projects. He’s the definition of ‘value-added.’”
Jensen’s had small parts in some good movies. He sounds sweetly cynical when he says, “Boy, there are a lot of bad movies getting made.”
For Jensen, the delivery doctor in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” a movie called “The Tomb” says a lot about the business.
“They used Grand Isle as Morocco,” Jensen said. “They had camels on Grand Isle. Can you imagine this guy fishing, he looks up and sees camels?”