Rob Harris isn’t here to tell you how powerful he is. “Unit publicist is neither a power position nor a creative one. It is a position of access… to deliver the right message to the right people…and tread lightly through minefields of conflicting agendas among stars, filmmakers and executives.” A celebrated Hollywood publicist, Harris is part of, as Joni Mitchell once sang, “the star-making machinery”. But he writes more as a foot soldier in the filmmaking army that costs millions and employs thousands with an aim to entertain billions. With egos, careers and fortunes at stake, the unit publicist holds the hand, soothes the brow and buries the bodies if necessary. They’re the happy face of a fragile, glamorous business.
maybe with a little practice I could have satisfying flings and still stay married. Look at the French!
Harris isn’t here to dish the dirt either – not that he doesn’t know the dirt. His first on-set memoir, Unexposed Film: A Year on Location, was praised for deft insights from actors and creatives while probing his role in the process. His latest, The Trouble with Love in the Movies, emphasises personal over professional. He is achingly aware of the questionable decisions he makes while working so far from home. All the people he writes about are real and if he dishes the dirt on anyone, he dishes it on himself. Inspired by Chatwin and Theroux, Harris also channels Joseph Heller. Considering his marriage, Harris writes, “It wasn’t too late to reconcile myself to the sanctuary of marriage. Mine wasn’t so bad. It was just unfulfilling. What is fulfilment? Getting up every morning should be fulfilling enough. Did I want to have affairs? Could I handle that? …maybe with a little practice I could have satisfying flings and still stay married. Look at the French!”
Harris began his career as a freelance TV writer before sliding into film publicity. His life is not without tragedy; suffering the untimely loss of his first wife and watching the failing health of his son. Telling the tale from within, as it happens, shows how one man learns to live with bad things and their outcome. Harris does find love again and his sons went on to form The X Ambassadors, a band with a huge international following. On set for blockbusters and critical favourites such as Gladiator, Black Swan, World War Z, The Bucket List among others, Harris’ ability to deftly juggle new colleagues, locations and overlords is impressive. He travels a lot and meets a lot of people. “I remember the year by locations. Grand Junction, Colorado. I took a hundred-mile drive to Wyoming one weekend for Cheyenne Frontier Days. Weekends were the hardest. What was her name? Donna? Donna from Houston. She taught me the Texas two-step in a dance hall. She taught me to move on.” Malta to New York, LA to Johannesburg, Mexico to Morocco and more. Like the old vaudeville plate-spinner, Harris runs from pole to pole as each piece of porcelain starts to wobble – star crisis, personal wreckage or set politics. Don’t expect celebrity tidbits, although there are a few, such as Brad Pitt’s on-set flatulence (hey, he’s only human). Harris gives us insight too into the making of Syriana with George Clooney, the difficulties of Hotel Rwanda and how Blood Diamond starring Leonardo DiCaprio got made against the odds.
Favouring professional montage punctuated by personal revelation, Harris is a kind of showbiz everyman, alternatively flying and stumbling in a job where neuroses are the norm. Although a useful read for those interested in film publicity, it is more about the art of working under pressure while sustaining a real personal life. In an email interview, Harris said he wanted this book to concentrate on connections. “Relationships are our greatest teachers. I wanted to share what I’d learned not only from primary relationships but from the ones you form in sort of battlefield conditions with fellow itinerant workers in film production.” From within a glitzy and demanding career, Harris opens his heart to show us what it’s like to be a man who loves to be in love and who learns not to fear its cost. C