Thursday, August 31, 2017
#30. "The Hatfields and the McCoys. And endless re-writes.
Now a few words about the History Channel's TV miniseries "The Hatfields and the McCoys," the award-winning ratings bonanza from a few years ago. It turned out to be my last job. And outside of a annoying little page 1 rewrite late in the game, oddly one of my most fulfilling.
Back in the mists-of-time Eighties, I was hired by producer Leslie Greif and CBS to write a four hour mini-series about the legendary family feud.
We were to start from scratch; the true story of two families' civil war that grew and grew until it swallowed whole generations. Agonizingly, this was in the days before Google and Wikipedia, so I headed to Book Soup on Sunset and left with four tomes on the subject. Then on to the next bookstore. And the next. My credit card was actually warm when I got home.
I probably should've gone to the public library but they have always filled me with dread. I mean all those cards...and numbers? Eeuuu.
Starting a big historical project is hard. WHERE to start is one reason why. Fortunately I had one of my favorite producers on hand. I have worked with older producers, more experienced, sideboards groaning with awards and buddy celebrity photos. But I have never worked with a more focused, tenacious, funnier guy, and one that I treasure.
Los Angeles Leslie is his family's Crowned Prince; why he would be so obsessed with this violent hillbilly saga from a hundred-and-fifty years ago is anybody's guess. Very soon, partnered with the legendary Al Ruddy on the project, Leslie became my guy. He believed in the primacy of writing, and in the first ten years, before he replaced me with "Deadwood's" Ted Mann, I was his guy.
I had been living back in North Carolina then and Leslie and I were both fans of "L.A. Law." Since he was often out at night, I taped the shows for him and FedExed it the next day. He didn't know how a VCR worked or, more likely, just liked the idea of me taping it for him. He especially loved all the local southern commercials.
Once my parents passed, my marriage and my cat followed suit. I had suddenly run out of reasons to stay Southern. When I moved back to Hollywood, I found sweet little house on Alfred Street to rent that would accommodate a couple of Chows like me and Roxy. With the expert help of a move-in specialist (LA is covered up in specialists): a woman who had once, back in her day, been a British horror movie queen at Hammer Studios with Christopher Lee, we set up one of the bedrooms as my office first, then the TV. I loved my new little house.
Once I was ensconced, I called Leslie and we immediately buddied up on seeing Stupid Guy Movies like "Batman" and "Tin Cup" or anything with Bruce Willis.
I was still finding unopened Bekins boxes in the garage, when I made my first Hatfields-McCoys research trip to Eastern Kentucky and Western West Virginia, the two feuding families' homes. I talked to people, I went to small town libraries, I looked at Bibles, often a coded fount of odd family information. I remember someone had written "Peeuw!" beside some wayward McCoy cousin's name. Grist for the mill.
I stopped at historical societies and burrowed into old land purchase and sales records. I sorted through process services, arrest records in old courthouses, up rickety wooden stairs where, in Pikeville, an ancient marmalade cat followed me from room to room. I talked to local politicians, veteran newspaper folks, and even a large animal veterinarian. And then I went home to write.
But first -- being me, no surprise -- I whipped through a copy of Syd Field's "Screenplay." He'd finally written it! All those plot points and paradigms apply to most all dramatic narratives. In fact each scene should have those wheels. I made a massive 3X5 card display taped to my dining room wall and invited Leslie over for a little walk-around read.
He was mesmerized and most of his suggestions were like, "Flip those two scenes, Pup." Or "Take that card out, we don't need it." And time after time, he was right. This is a crucial ability given to only a few producers.
Four months later, when I finished the first rough draft at 250 pages, I thought I had something. So did others. We polished it, cut it, revised it, worked it over like a blurry speed bag. Got it where we wanted it and then officially Sent It Out.
As they say: crickets.
We couldn't get anyone we and/or the network wanted. No one would pull the trigger. People liked it, some even liked it a lot. Just not the Right Ones and not quite enough.
After I went through all my rewrites and polishes for the network and a director, there was nothing left for me to do.
I didn't want to go, I didn't. These characters and their real history had become archetypically real to me. But eventually, I drifted away to another project; I knew Leslie would never let The Hatfields and the McCoys die. And sure enough, he didn't.
Released to my new life/career course, I passed from pitch to pitch, from draft to draft, from show to show -- some got made, some didn't. Some were good, some not so much. One even brought me back to Leslie; a low budget war movie taking place in modern Korea. I got paid, it got made but as the kid said in the McCoy family Bible, "peeuw." The best thing about it was it co-starred R. Lee Ermey, a former Marine Corps drill instructor which he then brilliantly portrayed in "Full Metal Jacket." If you want to know what Parris Island was like for ten generations of Marines, see this movie. It is the experience itself.
Finally, months turned into years.
And one December, my year count added up to sixty plus. Momma mia, how does this happen? In my mind, I'm like forty-something. But suddenly, I have trouble putting on my socks! And my agent was honest enough to tell me that he was encountering resistance getting me jobs because I was...too old.
When that shock wore off, I looked around and realized I actually was pretty old for a Hollywood pup.
So I called in the rest of the dogs and pissed on the fire: I retired and began my Hollywood uncoupling. First to the Valley. Then to Santa Barbara where my sweetheart Paula became my wife. Finally, all the way up to an island in the Pacific Northwest. But I never stopped thinking about the Hatfields, an epic that, during its long night, had entered my bloodstream.
And speaking of blood, a brief note about open-heart surgery. They call it CABG ("cabbage") which stands for Coronary Artery Bypass Graft and bubba it is one of the medicine-man's better tricks. Eleven years ago, at Providence Hospital, I had it. A quadruple! And in four hours of surgery with four days of recoup and four weeks of rehab, my actual heart GOT REWRITTEN! Thank ya, Jesus! And thank you Dr. Pat Ryan, my surgical lighthouse.
Somewhere in those years, Leslie encountered his three lighthouses -- Kevin Costner, Ted Mann, and the History Channel. I don't know which came first, but one morning -- years later -- up here on island sleepy land, I got a wild-ass Hollywood call from Leslie. "We're a GO! We got
Kevin Costner and Kevin Reynolds to direct, we're shooting in Romania, six hours, and I promise you'll get credit! It's happening, Dog!"
I was thrilled and dead flat sure I had been rewritten, maybe even re-rewritten. Whoever did that was likely rewritten. As I may have mentioned, the movie and TV biz is fueled by fear and doubt. Until the big Kahuna (usually a star or a director) gets there and says "STOP! This is the script we shoot." I believe in our case that was Mr. Costner who I never met but who has my everlasting gratitude.
When they were done eight months later, I read their scripts and looked at the DVD they sent me. They covered much of the same ground mine did, the same events, the same characters, even many of the same moments. I liked what they'd done; even though theirs was more violent, Ted Mann is a very good writer. But hell, I still liked my version better. Just the way of things I reckon. And it was somewhat ameliorated by getting a big ol' single card first position story credit in the main titles. On all three nights!
A few months later, it hit the air and all hell broke loose. The reviews were kindly and the record setting ratings went through the roof. Those three nights were some heady days for all of us.
When I look at my "Hatfields and the McCoys" Emmy nomination certificate, I think of Costner and Leslie. When I look at my bronze Writers Guild Best Teleplay Award, I think of Leslie and Costner. And when I get those green envelope residual checks, I think of the whole gang of 'em, right down to craft services and the Port-a-Potty honey-wagon guys (in one end, out the other) slaving away in the wilds of Romania, shooting a mammoth historical six hour mini-series that I birthed and pretty much almost kinda wrote!
My night at the Emmys was...something. There is one winner per category and four losers. That night us screenwriters found ourselves in the latter group. Hey, somebody has to do it! But for a second or two, it was great. When they called out our names, instantly and without thinking, we grasped hands and squeezed tight. Instant fellowship, hard work, ascending prayers. Ahhh, if we could only bottle that moment.
Then the other dork's name was called out and we were crestfallen. In that huge room, for us, the air was gone.
Of course it's great to be nominated but when you get that close to that big Kahuna Emmy trophy, the one everybody knows everywhere, the hit to the heart is serious. And since I'm totally retired and unlikely to ever be there again, I will share my unused acceptance speech with you. Here it is in its entirety.
"I would like to thank Kevin Costner, our star and rabbi for saying yes. And producer Leslie Greif, who would not let this die. And finally, Margaret Swann, my high-school typing teacher."
When someone rewrites you, it's catastrophic and you take to the bed. When you rewrite someone, it's an interesting and lucrative way to pass the time while you take to Musso & Frank's restaurant, waiting for The Big Score.
I found these rewrite assignments can be fun and keep your rep and your writing chops sharp. The best writers in the business as well as the worst do them. Somewhere on that sliding scale, I did enough in my time. Here's what I found. Even the most wonderful journey has unforeseen stops at ugly out-of-everything places. Deal with it, keep going.
After you've carefully read the script the studio or network or producer sent you, you have to decide if it's a job you want. What can you bring to the party? Who is involved? I recall years ago I was being poached to work on "Hillman," a good but odd script by Don Petersen. It would be produced and star Paul Newman. Did I want the job? Oh, mamma, does a cat have an ass?!
Once I had made up my mind, there was a Big Meeting scheduled wherein all parties sniff each other carefully for type, possibility, and skill. I always found it best to tell them clearly and succinctly what you liked about their script and, if pressed, what you didn't. And tell them that inside of a month with their input, you are the one to get this off life-support to a green light.
Then, you will patiently take all their notes. Some will be good, some bad, some will seem like a Chinese crossword puzzle. Take 'em anyway, don't argue (I was very bad at this), and whatever problems arise, figure it out later in the privacy of your own home.
I found it was a good idea to make the first script shorter. Most early drafts are over done, over long, with way to much sugar. Jump in making cuts, tightening wherever possible. Your fealty is to the narrative arc, to the story itself. Not the Poetry.
The most important question one can ever ask: "What is this movie about?" Rent, food, getting a car that runs, paying off your AmEx bill may all be true but none of them are a good enough answer.
How do your characters face this question? How are we drawn deeper and deeper into its web? You have to know these things or you will die and this fifty million dollar project will die, too.
The ABOUT question is, I believe, the most massive inquiry a project can face. That's why you can never let it go. Why are we huddled masses gathered together in this theatre on this night looking at this movie? Director Sidney Lumet once said, it's not just the plot, it's the beating heart and soul of the film. As Ben Affleck pointed out, the plot is the meat you throw to the various guard dogs. The "about" is why you must climb over that wall in the first place.
In the effort to tighten things up, cut words, lines, even scenes if you can. If the story flows without it, sayonara sucker. Was Steven King's thousand page version of "The Stand" really better than his earlier, shorter one? And if possible, rewrite as much of the first twenty pages as you can. Because that's when they are really paying attention. And show some class by leaving the first writer's name on it; the Writer's Guild will work all that out later. But at this point, don't be a credit hog.
And understand this -- as you are contemplating rewriting someone's script, somewhere, someone has that same furrowed brow contemplating rewriting yours. Nearly EVERYONE gets re-written. In my years in Hollywood, the only times I wasn't rewritten were on "Dadah is Death" made in Australia during a writers strike. And on "Lakota Woman" for which I thank director Frank Pierson and producers Lois Bonfiglio and Jane Fonda who held the line for me. God love 'em. There was nothing for the Guild to work out.
If you are lucky, they will hire a spiffy writer to come in and mop up. On "The Rose" I got rewritten by Bo Goldman, two time Academy Award winner. He did some really good stuff (along with an uncredited Bruce Vilanch) and now, thirty plus years later, I can no longer tell who did what. But the Guild can.
I rewrote the legendary Terence Malick on "The Dehon Brothers." He was so pleased with my efforts that he changed his name on the movie to David Whitney. And then fifteen years later, he rewrote me on some movie I can't remember the name of. Maybe "Great Balls of Fire." Alan Sharp and I rewrote each other many times. Keep in mind, I have never met any of these people. But the Guild had.
The line between so-called success and failure is thin, twisty, and fades in and out. Especially in show business. If you get real close to it, you can hardly tell the difference between a home run and a strike out. Because longing is an actual currency in Hollywood.
If they're rich, they don't have quite enough. If they're on a roll, they have nightmares about the next two being failures. When folks would ask the great 40s director Preston Sturges what he was doing, he would tell them he was "between flops."
Hollywood rookies' complaints sound indistinguishable from the high rollers: the biz is in the hands of idiots, there is no justice in This Town, he couldn't direct a two car funeral and he gets a goddamn Oscar, we got so screwed by being put in the wrong Emmy category (hey, waid a minit, dat waz us!). Why is it only tentpole D.C. and Marvel movies get green-lit?! We are poor little lambs who have lost our way, blah blah blah.
And, truth to tell, I was often a soloist in this choir.
Yet, I was ever grateful to have a job. That became a calling. That miraculously morphed into a career. I thought I would be forever lost. But somehow... somehow I was found.
Right up to the present moment wherein I recently got word that a rock and roll movie I worked on (see posting #15) back in the Pleistocene Era finally came together with some producers that 20th Century Fox trusted enough to begin work on a Broadway-bound musical. And magically, wonderfully, we are all still inspired by two wildly talented women at its original heart: star
Bette Midler and Amanda McBroom who wrote the timeless title song "The Rose." Of course, "many a slip..." but still.
A young, very smart woman I knew once described life as just things coming in and things going out. To me, that about nails it. And with that, I bid you farewell. Because -- for a while -- this is your Chow Puppy thing...going out.
But as always, he is probably watching TV and thinking happily about Show Biz: the very cat litter box of our hopes and dreams.
Sunday, April 23, 2017
#29. The Bad Dog phone call.
According to his biographers, John J. Nicholson grew up in New Jersey thinking the woman who raised him was his mother. Turned out to be his grandmother. And his "Older Sister?" His mother. His father in that odd mix? Who knew?
In his early twenties, Jack Nicholson wanted to make it big in Hollywood. But in the era of Tab Hunter and Rock Hudson, his singular looks and sideways talent weren't an immediate fit.
So he bounced around in early TV westerns and the Roger Corman stables, learning to write, direct, and act for the camera. Many of those cheapies are memorable because of Nicholson. And when he finally did "Easy Rider," with that million dollar smile, overnight George Hanson became a made man. Fonda, Hopper, and Nicholson: Jesus Calhoun, what's not to love?!
When I met him, he had already racked up "Five Easy Pieces," "Carnal Knowledge," "The Last Detail" ('I am the Shore Patrol, motherfucker!'), "Chinatown" and had just finished shooting "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." With these hits, he became the biggest movie star in the world. No one else was even in second place.
He was living with Angelica Houston (who he called "Toots") up in the Hollywood Hills at the end of a short driveway off Mulholland that was known as Bad Boy Lane, the drive servicing just two houses, his and Marlon Brando's.
Jack had a dog, some kind of Lab, one of many over the years, apparently all named Guinn "Big Boy" Williams. He also had a semi-permanent houseguest named Helena who was nowhere near as friendly as the dog. His best buddies back then seemed to be Warren Beatty (who he called "Maddog") and Bruce Dern (known as "Dernsie"), legendary Ur screenwriter Robert Towne, and maybe his agent Sandy Bresler upon whom he relied for much.
Another of Jack's friends was Scott, a nervous New York hipster who was in all the meetings. Scott Farcus was charming, smart, and had the dead eyes of a cobra.
Jack had bought the film rights to a Don Berry historical mountain man novel called "Moontrap." Turned out Farcus would produce this project.
I don't know how I got the job -- these guys weren't exactly my homies -- but with some John Ptak agenting magic dust, I did. In the Nicholson biographies, I was one of the faceless writers who "trooped in" on the project. Jack had enough bread, used carefully, to finance the script versions. I am not at all sure where on his road of troopers I was, but mamma, the deal closed, the check cleared and suddenly I was working with Randal P. McMurphy!
Up at Casa Jack, we smoked a lot of dope, made a lot of plans, and rode the high-flying talk to movie heaven. At first.
But after one extended afternoon of surefire weed and wonder, that evening I perused my screenplay notes and absolutely could not make sense out of a single item. It looked like scrambled ideas over-easy with a side of onion rings. From then on, I stuck to Winstons, coffee, and soft drinks. Former one-meeting-mentor Sam Peckinpah would've been disgusted with ol' Bob. The problem, as we continued working, was this new way allowed me to see -- in real time -- our collection of "Moontrap" ideas was still an inchoate mess. The spirit was willing but the brains seemed to be AWOL.
These days were well before I encountered Syd Field's "Screenplay" so I was mostly thrashing around on caffeine, excitement, guess-work, and outrageous dialogue. And whatever movie I had just seen. It was enough to keep me employed but not to do very good work. I could've used ol' Syd's unwritten book trying to unpack that mountain man's saddlebags and bedroll.
Finally I came up with a treatmenty-outline from the novel that didn't make too many eyes roll. "Go get 'em, Wild Pup," said Jack. He was addicted to nicknames too. Okay, John J, I said, gathering up my notes and heading for the door. On my way out, Helena gave me a deep scowl as she turned away.
What I didn't know was that would be my best day on the project.
At home on my trusty Selectric ll, everything seemed to misfire. At that early point, I hadn't yet learned the 3X5 outline card trick, hadn't learned about cutting all the pages out of the "Moontrap" paperback, copying them on large format paper leaving plenty of room for notes and ideas, and crucially, hadn't learned the three act paradigm that Syd Field made so famous a few years later.
Everything I wrote looked bad. I'm pretty sure every writer has these moments, at least that's what I kept telling myself. I'd look at the scene from the book. Then, at my scripted version. My cat Tector could have done a better job.
With that, my cat stopped as he sauntered through the room. "That's right, I could! But I'm not going to. Because you're a bad dog."
It bottomed out for me one afternoon when I saw a Writers Guild screening of the Robert Redford memorable "Jeremiah Johnson." Um, maybe a little too memorable, I had seen it when it first came out, but this time I was shocked at how similar our two stories were. And how alike our dialogue was. I thought I'd been recycling my own from my first unmade script for Warner Bros., "Clay Allison." Which is embarrassing enough, but it turned out it was way more John Milius and hardly any Chow Puppy.
Unfortunately, I had already turned in the rough first draft because I was still young and dumb and apparently hadn't learned the immutable lesson: do NOT EVER turn in "rough" material because everything in Show Biz is an audition. No one really wants or knows how to read anything but your very best offering. And then, only maybe.
That's when I got The Phone Call. In all my days, including the ones since, I have never heard anything remotely like it.
Producer Scott Farcus was screaming. There was no prelude, no small talk, he was already at the E above high C. Apparently, he'd seen "Jeremiah Johnson" recently, too. Oh oh. He put together excoriating insults like King Lear's storm scene rewritten by the "Bad Santa" guys. For minutes he howled on until he finally stopped and said, "well, aren't you going to say anything, you fraudulent hack asshole?!"
"I think you have the wrong number," I said and hung up.
I immediately called my agent in a blind panic. I was in trouble. I had brought it on myself. I was utterly lost and terrified. What could I do about this? "J.P., what can we do about this?!"
"Take your phone off the hook and wait an hour," he said. "Then, call me back. I'll reach out to Farcus. Is it really that bad?"
About the longest hour of my young life.
I called my agent back. Against all odds, he had somehow made it better. When smart people in Hollywood 'reach out,' amazing things can occur. Upsides are illuminated, some form of reason is seen, the famous Favor Bank is alluded to. I can't remember the gory details, but I took my leave of "Moontrap," keeping the start money but relinquishing everything else.
"Don't worry, Puppy," J.P. said. "Live and learn. We'll get you another job. And Farcus promised not to call you back."
About fifteen minutes later, my phone rang. "You no talent dildo," said Scott Farcus and hung up. I never saw or spoke to him again.
I sent a dozen red roses up to Nicholson's dog Guinn 'Big Boy' Williams and called it a day. Jack went on to cinematic immortality and I went on to the stories in this blog. Don't get me wrong; I'm dead flat happy about who got what. Especially when I pulled that draft of "Moontrap" out of my files last week and had a look.
Oh, me. Bad dog. BAD DOG!
Thursday, March 9, 2017
#28. Legal world, legal hell.
A little less than half way through my time in Hollywood, it came to pass that I got Tar-babied in a thirty million dollar lawsuit against Universal Pictures. Ill prepared and quaking, I was forced to enter...dom dom dom...Legal World.
I had written a script called "Frat Rats" with producer Jim Hart (one of my favorite guys), a wild ass comedy about college fraternities. Into this 117 page flaming rubric, we had shoehorned every ridiculous moment, every outrageous event we had ever heard of or experienced in our checkered four year different college careers (although mine took nearly five). This testament was never going to win us a Polk Award although maybe a poke award wasn't out of the question...because while many readers found it ludicrous and semi disgusting, they also found it funny.
I had some early but minor heat from "The Rose" (Fox had just cast Bette Midler in the upcoming film) so "Frat Rats" was making the rounds. Jim and I took meetings at various studios -- one being Universal -- trying to set the project up for development.
Maybe a year later, Universal released their fraternity blockbuster "Animal House" they had made for under 3 million which went on to gross 141 million, one of the most profitable studio films to that point. Jim and I instantly knew that our "Frat Rats" was dead and if we continued to tart it around, folks would think we were pathetically trying a coattail run for a straight-to-video slot. So we packed up our Selectrics and stole back into the night.
Jim (a fountain of ideas) and I (a slow drip of idea) had come up with a new story anyway. It was to be a script about a lovable Dallas swindler named Eddie Bud Newhaus and the Texas-Oklahoma football game rowdies which, as we put it together, often made us laugh so hard we literally fell to the floor. Turns out, I would follow Jim's laughter any place.
Lame, I know, but fun.
Somewhere along in here, Jim heard that his former executive producer had contacted his firm of attorneys because he felt like Universal's "Animal House" had somehow ripped off "Frat Rats." I never paid much attention to all this; many people in Hollywood are either suing each other or are planning law suits or are, at the very least, talking about them. Law suits and tennis are two of Hollywood's favorite sports.
Then, one day it hit -- huge headline and front page story in Daily Variety. "Universal Sued For Thirty Million." Below in slightly smaller headlines, "Animal House gnawed by Upstart Frat Rats." Or something like that.
And our names were shot through the Variety article, followed religiously by everyone in town. Suddenly people who'd read "Frat Rats" began to tell us about the 'similarities' between our script and Universal's, now this megahit.
I didn't know what they were talking about. "Animal House" had become a pop cultural touchstone but all I could think about was how we were going to keep Eddie Bud 'alive' until the end of our new script. Finally we decided on a hotel bathtub full of room service ice cubes. And this was all before "Weekend at Bernie's."
Eddie Bud may have bought the farm but "Frat Rats" lived on. Because apparently in America, anybody can pretty much sue anybody for anything. And once it starts moving, slowly but inexorably, it has its own engine, fuel, drivers, passengers, and destination. Whether it'll ever get there is up for grabs...but it's on its way.
Oh shit, oh dear.
The last thing you want said about you in that town is that you are litigious. On so many levels, far deeper than truth, it's the kiss of death. Your phone goes into cryonic slumber. And I didn't want anything to do with this lawsuit.
But it was too late. Because once these things start, until it's heard by a judge, stopping or even turning them is like driving a huge 69,000 ton displacing supertanker doing 20 mph. You spin the wheel like mad (yelling panicked things you learned in submarine movies like "Right full rudder! and Reverse ahead stern!") and about a half hour later, the bow slowly begins to inch around.
Then came the phone call ushering in one of the worst days of my life. I was being deposed!
We met the next day in some huge law firm's conference room. I was early, heart slamming so loud I started apologizing to people who looked at me like I was mental. As it got closer to 9, the room began to fill up. I recognized my attorney but who were all these other stern-faced suits? Keep in mind this was light years ago and I was dressed in my semi-cowboy drag; I had shined my Tony Lama boots, combed out my ponytail, and put on a decades old tie.
As someone once said, "There is a Mark in every room. If you look around and can't find him...it's probably you." That morning, Chow Puppy's first name turned out to be Mark. And all those drill-down cadavers were Universal's lawyers, massed and out for blood. I looked at my lawyer and swallowed hard. He stifled a little yawn. The only advice he had given me was to tell the truth.
I will describe, as best I can, the flashing moments that I recall. It was so scary, humiliating, so racking that, at times during the long, long day, I actually thought I was having an out-of-body experience. Or they had lapsed into some arcane language I'd never heard.
My lawyer and I sat on one side of the long table. No cameras but several recording devices and a stenographer taking it all down. And we started rolling.
Is your name Chow Puppy?
Are you from North Carolina?
Were you in the Dog Marine Corps?
Did you go to the UCLA film school?
Are you now a screenwriter?
Were you a writer with Jim Hart on a screenplay called "Frat Rats?"
Well, I thought this isn't so bad. They're asking questions that I can at least answer. And it was beginning to have a kind of comforting rhythm. I looked over at my attorney whose face was in a beam of morning sun. His eyes were closed and I thought maybe he was mind-reviewing our defense. Until I saw his mouth drop open a little. My guy was asleep.
Mr. Puppy for reasons best known to yourself, I see you decided to show up today in costume.
"What?" And then came the question that is verbatim.
Are you primarily known in this town as a hack writer?
That was when I realized it was not only Universal lawyers but those representing "National Lampoon" which apparently gave birth to "Animal House" concept. And suddenly it seemed like a slow motion feeding frenzy. My attorney finally seemed awake.
This was Legal World and their phalanx of lawyers began to list every problem, real and imagined, that producers, studios and networks had ever had with me. All dialogue, no structure. Late on deadlines. Contentious, whiney, and funnier-looking than Bobby Blue Bland's hair!
Where had they come up with this shit? As they reeled off the Boulevard of Broken Dreams, I hoped my shocked silence might be taken as stoically butch but I knew my twitching red face probably nixed that.
My attorney finally called for a bathroom break and, just as quickly as it had disappeared, suddenly all the air came back into the room. Their lawyers turned to each other to schmooze about the back nine at Riviera and drink coffee and they seemed almost human. As I blindly made my way to the hall and what I hoped was a bathroom, my lawyer caught up to me. "It's going pretty well, don't you think" he asked as he put his arm around my shoulder.
"Compared to what: the Manson trial!?" His face tightened as he turned and walked away.
The rest of the day seemed to last six weeks. Each of their attorneys sharpened their little interrogatories on my face and occasionally my man would object which didn't seem to matter. They kept rolling. Depositions are about the sued grilling the suer until it all becomes a sewer or their office building is struck by a meteor.
Mr. Puppy, did it take you two tries to qualify with the M-1 rifle in the Dog Marines?
"Yes. I had bad eyes --"
Just answer the questions please. And a year later did you wash out of the Naval Aviation Cadet Program?
And in 1964 did you crash and burn on the TV quiz show 'Jeopardy?'
You seem to have a well-worn record of failure.
Were you looking to break this cycle with a raid on the overwhelming success of 'Animal House?'
"Raid? I didn't bring this lawsuit!"
Just answer the question please.
The character shredding went on like this until they were through with me about six. They hadn't even broken a sweat; I had to have help getting to my feet.
When I left and went down to the echoey parking garage (the fuckers didn't even validate), I got into my old Ford Woody and started to cry. I was grateful for the silence but my mind was scrambled by the legal onslaught I had just been though. A kind of public hating.
When I got home I put on a homeboy Marshall Tucker record, heated a Lean Cuisine, showered and got directly into bed. It was nine and I was completely stove in as "Can't You See" played again and again. Gonna take a fast train.... I think I fell asleep about midnight.
And for the next three weeks my phone didn't ring once. From five or six calls a day to zero. But the best thing about Hollywood Memory is that it's just about as bad as mine. And on week four, my agent called with a check, two studio meetings and an offer. Like Gloria Gaynor, I had survived.
Five months later a judge threw the whole lawsuit out. It was over just as quickly as it'd begun. There. Not there. That supertanker had taken a summary judgement torpedo amidships and sank without a trace. "Animal House" went on to successful gross-out legend and Jim and I went on to a frozen Consicle Eddie Bud and the rest of our lives. I have never felt so much relief at being shed of a project before or since.
I'm thinking about naming my next dog "Starry Decisis." And that is the very last thing I have to say about Legal World. Ever again.
Or until I actually need a lawyer...which ever comes first.
Tuesday, February 7, 2017
#27. Our national mania for Top Ten Lists, and mine.
I've had some requests about a Favorite Movie and TV list. With the availability of Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, On Demand, and your local library, you will have to go fishing. But it's worth it and that's why these lists are tons o'fun to read, make, and revise. So here is mine, not in any order except the first two, on this day and date.
Make yours. Tell your friends. Let's discuss. Can there ever be too much talk about movies and TV?
Driven by the outrageous talents of Orson Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz, "CITIZEN KANE", 1941, is still The One. The mysterious skillionare Great Man dies and a reporter is tasked with finding out what his last spoken word meant: "Rosebud." Poor Charlie. He loved things and even some people but the only way he knew how to express it was to buy them and then slowly crush them. Although there's a lot of yelling from its mostly theatre actors, its big gulp narrative structure and inventive staging rings true for every generation. Even now, it could be the Donald Trump story with Melania as Susan Alexander Kane. And, standing right next to it, is
"THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS" that Welles made a year or so later. Ambersons was a rich story from Booth Tarkington's book about the multigenerational love and loss we all suffer as a down payment for living our lives. After Welles finshed principal photography, and full of Kane boy-genius success, Nelson Rockerfeller personally proposed a Brazilian 'important' diplomatic documentary adventure (only you can do this, Orson) Welles left the editing of Ambersons to others who promised they'd do it precisely as his detailed notes directed. Suuuure they would. Just as soon as they cut an hour out of it and butchered the ending. Yet, it's still the Two. Because even though he was three thousand miles away on a South American fishing boat, you can't kill Superman.
"BLADE RUNNER." 1982, Ridley Scott directing Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, and the exquisite Sean Young from a script by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples. The compleat noir dystopian Sci-fi film, the production design and music score are breathtaking. The story is a mission search for malfunctioning lethal replicant robots who are equally determined not to be "retired." It ends up being about who is a replicant and who isn't. So rich on so many levels, it's Death by Chocolate Upside Down Cake.
"LAWRENCE OF ARABIA." 1962, everyone's greatest work (including uncredited Black Listed screenwriter Michael Wilson); except for maybe the guy who did the putty nose on Anthony Quinn. I am a river to my people...goddamn it, stop looking at my nose! Noel Coward once said if O'Toole had been any more beautiful, they would've had to call it "Florence of Arabia." As you watch it, you will see the matrix of many of the problems in the mid-east. This movie is on nearly everyone's Top Ten...as are the next two.
"2001, A SPACE ODYSSEY" by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke in 1968. Open the pod doors, Hal. No matter how many times you've seen it, it always sucks you in and it's still two steps ahead of you. Not many can say that. And thanks to Douglas Trumbull, mamma mia, that Stargate sequence. With his early films "The Killing," "Paths of Glory," "Spartacus," and "Dr. Strangelove" not many have ever gotten to the middle of their career with such walk-off home runs. And these were all before "2001."
"THE SEARCHERS." 1956. John Wayne and John Ford at their best from Frank Nugent's script of the Alan Le May western novel. Often listed by the top rank of Seventies directors as the movie that influenced them the most. This is the movie you finally understand why John Wayne was more than just John Wayne. And why John Ford is the Chesty Puller of the film world. Filled with great cinematic moments, some of them so sublime your heart will catch in your throat. Especially that last, lonely bookended shot...
"OPEN RANGE" 2003, with Kevin Costner, Robert Duvall, and Annette Benning. I also like Costner's "Dances With Wolves" but this one relies on sweep and characterization more than story tricks. And notice that director/producer Costner gives Duvall top billing. This is a great movie with a heart-felt ending.
"THE EXORCIST." 1973. My wife, the venerable Mrs. Puppy, will not see this movie and I don't blame her. But I still love it. When I got out of that theatre years ago, I had to go home and change my shorts. A real movie-movie by W.P. Blatty and William Friedkin and with wonderful performances from Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller, Linda Blair, and Max von Sydow. When you are in such trouble you have to call in The Knight from "The Seventh Seal, you know what trouble is. And projectile pea soup will soon be involved.
"NIGHT CALL NURSES." 1972. Only kidding. Yet it's a list of movies; Roger Corman deserves to be on it someplace.
"THIEF" 1981, by Michael Mann with James Caan, Tuesday Weld, and Willy Nelson. This is a drop dead modern gangster film about a legendary professional safe-cracker with some truly indelible moments. It will remind you of what a great actor Caan could be. Relentless and dark as ten feet down.
"POINT BLANK" 1967, by John Boorman from a script by Alexander Jacobs and the Newhouse brothers starring Lee Marvin at his all time best. Count the times Marvin kills somebody in this one. You are likely to be wrong. And you will bless the day you found it, cheap, on Amazon. The younger salesman in the used car sequence is Lawrence Hauben who later co-wrote and won the Academy Award for "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," to my knowledge, his first and last produced screenplay. Ahhh, show biz.
"INSIDE MAN," 2006, a strong heist thriller with Denzel, Clive Owen, Christopher Plummer, and Jody Foster. It was directed by Spike Lee who, of course, got his possessive credit. But after I saw the movie, I read Russell Gurwitz's script which had EVERYTHING in it, all laid out for him. And I mean everything. Possess this, Spike. Even Woody Allen doesn't take a 'Film By' credit.
"THE GUNFIGHTER" 1950 (by Wm. Bowers and Nunnally Johnson) and "TWELVE O'CLOCK HIGH" 1949 (by Sy Bartlett and Bierne Lay, Jr.) both movies with Gregory Peck, both directed by Henry King. The first, a classic American Western with a different take: Fame kills. The second, a WW II bombers-over-Germany film with one of the greatest openings ever. The rest of the movie is about General Frank Savage himself becoming a casualty. How's that for a name?
"SINGIN' IN THE RAIN." 1952. As you may recall from earlier, I once told Gene Kelly I thought it was the musical "Citizen Kane." He turned that billion watt smile on me as he agreed and strode down the hall. Moses supposes his toeses are roses...
"BAD SANTA," 2003. My all-time favorite Christmas movie with Billy Bob Thornton and some pudgy little Canadian kid they couldn't have made the movie without. Completely outrageous on every level. Rated R but should be rated Z. No admission unless accompanied by a priest.
"MOON," a 2009 low budget, high intelligence clone sci-fi movie with Sam Rockwell, Sam Rockwell, and Sam Rockwell. It was directed and co-written by Duncan Jones, David Bowie's son. If this one doesn't make your heart pound, call the Neptunes: you're already dead.
"TRULY, MADLY, DEEPLY" 1990. By Anthony Minghella is the British "Ghost," but the better one that packs live ammo. Do not attempt this movie without a full box of Kleenex. The tragically underseen Juliet Stevenson has lost, to an early death, the love of her life Jamie played by Alan Rickman. Her world shattered, the scenes with her shrink are truly painful to see. She has, very tentatively started a relationship with Bill Patterson but it's not jelling. One day, she goes home from work to drink and cry...and finds dead Jamie waiting for her! Oh-oh. From here on out sunlight and humor begins to float her grief away as Jamie keeps turning up the furnace and inviting his dead friends over to watch videos. This is all beginning to irritate her. She just wants to be alone with him. He says tomorrow for sure but tonight they have a triple bill of "Five Easy Pieces," "Fitzcaraldo," and "The Wild Bunch!" Oh, really? With that voice, he probably has a goddamn list of movies...
"THE WILD BUNCH," a 1969 turn-of-the-century Western by Sam Peckinpah and Walon Green that is so well acted, designed, and cut, that pretty soon you can smell the road apples and gunpowder because you are actually there. The slow-mo blood ballet at the end is the stuff of legend. But more importantly, it is the movie that gave us Bo Hopkin's immortal line, "How'd you like to kiss my sister's black cat's ass?"
"DR. ZHIVAGO" 1965. Is the Russian revolution, WW I, with Julie Christie and Omar Sharif. Man, can that guy suffer. A true David Lean - Robert Bolt epic. I mostly remember the snow, the myriad heartbreaking stories winding together and the huge red star and whistle screaming on Strelnikov's on-coming locomotive at the intermission break.
"MAN ON FIRE" 2004. Denzel plays a mysterious broken warrior (his specialty) with the best leading lady of his career: a ten-year-old Dakota Fanning. Ridley's younger brother Tony Scott's hard core Mexican kidnap movie from Brian Helgeland's script has more moves than a monkey on a hundred yards of grapevine. Plus Christopher Walken! Its classic ending leaves not a dry eye in the house.
"GALAXY QUEST" 1999. Directed by Dean Parisot and written by David Howard and Robert Gordon is a loving parody of the world wide "Star Treck" phenomena. With Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, and Alan Rickman, this Sci-Fi comedy is about a group of has-been TV actors who troupe from convention to convention to scratch out a living. At the same time actual aliens land on earth to save their own civilization light years away because they think that the cheesy "Galaxy Quest" was a documentary! David Mamet, famous writer and Ur grump, called this a nearly perfect movie. In the end (spoiler alert), both Earth and the Alien world are saved by the show's fans...who are the only ones that actually know how to separate the science from the fiction. Thrills, spills, and laughs aplenty.
"SALVADOR" 1986. By Oliver Stone and Richard Boyle with James Woods and Jim Belushi. A truish story about the Washington sponsored terrorism and chaos in Central America. Woods brilliantly plays photo-journalist Boyle, a fast-talking weasel who finally finds a reluctant heart hidden in his double time brain. My favorite scene is Woods trying to make a salvation deal with a befuddled priest in the confessional. Both Stone and Woods were nominated for Oscars. You'll see why.
"LARCENY INC." Comedy 1942, from a play by S.J. Perelman starring Edward G. Robinson, Jane Wyman, Broderick Crawford, and Jack Carson. Tough guy Robinson as "Pressure" Maxwell gets out of prison with a plan. He has a Manhattan bank robbery in mind; right next to the bank is a tatty luggage store for sale. He will take over the failing business and drill sideways into the bank's enormous vault. Things he didn't count on: the savior soul of his beautiful daughter who wants him to go straight...and the sudden success of the luggage store, now full of customers who wonder what the annoying sounds of the jackhammers and drills are about. They save one of their best jokes for the last shot. Why Warners never remade this hilarious movie is a mystery.
"TRUE GRIT," 1969, the first version with John Wayne (for which he won his only Oscar), Kim Darby, Dennis Hopper, Robert Duvall, and Glen Campbell. This movie, written by Hollywood Leftie Marguerite Roberts from a once-in-a-generation book by Charles Portis, is a language dance of the highest order. "You will think a ton of brick have fell on you." Directed by tough old bird Henry Hathaway; the legend was that on the first day of shooting, Wayne came to the set and announced he had some script changes and he was not going to wear that goddamn eyepatch. With that, Hathaway yelled out to the crew "All right, that's a wrap. Shut it down," and walked off the set. The next day, a very quiet Wayne showed up minus the script changes and wearing the eyepatch. Roll camera...
"ZULU," 1964, by blacklisted American Cy Enfield and John Prebble is an overlooked true story masterpiece of the 1879 Battle of Rorke's Drift in colonial Africa which pitted 150 fortified British soldiers against 4000 Zulu warriors. The epic sweep of this movie gives me goose bumps just to think about. It's Michael Caine's first film also starring Stanley Baker, Jack Hawkins, Suzanna York, and Nigel Green. The music score by John Barry is cripplingly beautiful. In a lull before the big battle, dried blood caking his face, a bewildered young fusilier turns to his Sergeant Major and ask "Why us?" The grizzled old vet simply says "Because we're here, lad. And no one else." The ensuing battle is a thing of horror and glory. They fear to make 'em like this any more.
And of course "Grapes of Wrath," "The Godfather" 1&2, "Saving Private Ryan," "Alexander Nevsky," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Deliverance," "Seven Samurai," "Network," "Les Enfant du Paradis," "Touch of Evil," "Paths of Glory," "Psycho," "La Dolce Vita," "Alien" 1&2, "The Leopard," "8 1/2," "Tom Jones," "Casablanca," "Breathless," "The Conformist," "Shoot the Piano Player," "How Green Was My Valley," "Jeremiah Johnson," "The Philadelphia Story," "Sullivan's Travels," "Treasure of the Sierra Madre," "Face in the Crowd" "Once Upon A Time In America," and hundreds of others.
Oh, boy, we LOOOOVE movies! And of course
"SLINGS AND ARROWS" is a Canadian TV series about the misadventures of a down and out Shakespeare Rep company like Ontario's Stratford only broker and funnier. The hammy targets are easy but the sniping is brilliant. I once did two summers in a Shakespeare rep company (I played, criminally unheralded, half a Siamese twin with John Lithgow in a "Measure for Measure" crowd scene) and "Slings and Arrows" is so real, so funny, it gave me the willies. But the good ones. It was designed to run for only three short seasons; trust me, you will want more.
"THE WIRE" is always listed as one of the top shows in TV history. It was an HBO crime series about Baltimore: dealing with the criminal justice system, education, the port, and the press. Like all great TV, it relies on great casting and writing from David Simon, George Pelicanos, Dennis Lehane, Richard Price, and David Mills -- a typing Murderer's Row if there ever was one. It's a grim portrait of saints and sinners, just trying to make it through to the weekend...you know, when they can take a deep breath. And really fuck things up.
"LIFE" ran for only two seasons on NBC, created by Rand Ravitch and Far Shariat (why the hell didn't my mom name me 'Far Shariat?') It stars Damian Lewis as a disgraced former LAPD detective who went to prison for murder only to be found innocent. His lawsuit against the city settled leaving him a multi-millionaire. He's back on the job with the great Sarah Shahi as his new partner. This L.A. police procedural that is never quite what you think it is. Everybody has troubles, is on the make, running from their past, dealing with betrayal and an endless parade of people who want to destroy them. The whole story is shot through with sly humor and jaw-dropping surprises. Perfect hypnotizing TV.
"IN PLAIN SIGHT" was a five season crime show from the USA network about the U.S. Marshal Service working out of Albuquerque. Created by David Maples, starring Mary McCormack and Fredrick Weller, it was a odd view of mid-size city Feds running the witness-relocation program amid their TV turbulent lives. The acting is stellar, the writing exemplary. And nobody left their sense of humor back in L.A. I love this show.
"SAVING GRACE" was Nancy Miller's super highway of Holly Hunter. Another cop show, this one on TNT about Oklahoma City and the ultimate redemption of an out of control, driven detective (Hunter) trying to make sense out of the new man in her life: A sixty-year-old angel named Earl played by unforgettable Leon Rippy, wings and all.
"MY SO CALLED LIFE" 1994. This ABC show by Winnie Holzman with Claire Danes and Jered Leto was, during its nineteen episode run, was my favorite. A simple concept done well -- a realistic portrayal of high school kids dealing with love, betrayal, alcoholism, sex, homophobia, bullying, homelessness; you know, just the normal patchwork of teenaged fun. When I wasn't cheering, I was cringing. Once at a real life dinner party, I was seated next to Carolyn See, a well-known California novelist. I hadn't read any of her books yet and she hadn't seen any of my movies. So we spent the whole night talking about how much we both loved "My So-Called Life." All the way through desert.
"MAD MEN" was a brilliant, grueling look at who America was in the early Sixties as seen through the Madison Avenue advertising eyes in New York City. Created by Matthew Weiner, careers are made and ruined. Backs are stabbed. Cigarettes are smoked. Way too much booze is drunk. If it weren't so well done, I would've quit after the pilot. But it was and I bet you won't want to leave it either.
To me, Aaron Sorkin's "THE WEST WING" was the greatest political series of all time. Looking back, it was NBC's seven years of Camelot viewed through the smokey fires of what has happened to us since. Again, brilliant writing and casting wins the day; somehow its scope was both narrow and huge, its stories both personal and institutional. Just the best. To see more of Sorkin, check out his series "Sports Night" and especially "Newsroom."
"THE L WORD" was Ileen Chaiken's nighttime soap opera about lesbians that takes place in West Hollywood (my former home) so I'm in! But even with all the soap in these stories, I totally fell for the characters and the actresses who played them. Especially Katherine Moennig who was Shane. And, again, Sarah Shai. I felt like I was suddenly looking at a world I knew but not exactly. Not really. Maybe not at all. But it turns out there's all kinds of 'knowing.'
"JUSTIFIED." Love, hate, revenge and sometimes even justice comes to Harlan County. Created for FX network by Graham Yost from an Elmore Leonard short story, starring Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins. Who is Walton Goggins? Well, if Warren Oates had hooked up with Meryl Streep, their love-baby would've been Goggins. It was a six season series about the beleaguered U.S. Marshal Service in crime-ridden rural Kentucky. Wound tight with family, lovers, friends, and mortal enemies, this show has it all, including the most lethal Bad Guys ever. And the worst is a woman: Mags Bennett played by Margo Martindale who won an Emmy for it. Her gimlet-eyed weasel son Dickie, played by Jeremy Davies who also won the Emmy, is so horrific that, if he came to my front door at night, I believe I'd just go on and kill him. As my best friend used to say, "No judge in the world..." Especially one who'd been to Harlan County.
"THE GOOD WIFE" is the brain child of Robert and Michelle King. Taking place in Chicago, it is a brilliant, poisonous mix of law and Illinois politics where the phrase "vote early and vote often" came from. The good wife is Julianna Margulies and her sometimes less than good husband is Chris Noth. This is a soap for the brain while retaining (a lawyer pun, get it?) enough love and humor to keep the concentration headaches to a minimum. The casting is perfect, especially the law firm's beautiful, devious fixer Archie Punjabi.
"BRAIN DEAD" is a most unusual mix of horror creepy and hysterically funny, also by Robert and Michelle King, their off season CBS followup to "The Good Wife." I would've loved to hear this network pitch: an alien spaceship crash lands in Washington D.C. and is immediately covered up by the CIA because it was piloted by billions of tiny bugs which got loose and are crawling up the drain pipes and stone stairs all over D.C. and into people's ears while they sleep, rendering them (mostly politicians) brain dead! WHAT?! They only got one soaring season so watch it. But not over dinner.
Oh, sure, for six seasons PBS's "DOWNTON ABBEY" was gunnel deep in upper class British twits and their long-suffering staff, and sometimes it looked a little like "Upstairs Downstairs" or "Brideshead Revisited" but still it was better than all its elements, created as it was by Julian Fellowes who wrote nearly all the episodes, a Herculean feat. And they saved many of the best lines for the manor's dowager empress Maggie Smith. Of whom, let's face it, one can hardly ever get enough.
"NYPD BLUE" a classic cop show from the early 90s by Steven Bochco, David Milch, and former NYPD Detective First Grade Bill Clark. Many of its early episodes were either produced or written by Emmy winning Ted Mann (more about him later) and a nonpareil staff. It went for 12 seasons with many cast and writing staff changes, and all seemed to be as good or better than the ones "replaced." They found a brilliant whip-pan fast cut format and rode it to glory. Great binge watching but lay in the Cheetos, brother.
"MI-5" by David Wollstonecraft was called "Spooks" in its U.K. home. This epic (86 episodes) spy series had, to me, the greatest array of cast ever. An embarrassment of riches right down to the day-players. And you could never be sure of continued life either; even though their ratings fell off, some of the best characters disappeared into a deep foreign retirement or all manner of death. More than almost any other series, this one is like a drug; the only way out of it is through it. But it's a great journey when you have actors like Peter Firth and Nicola Walker with you.
"MAJOR CRIMES" started out to be a decent cop show called "The Closer" with Kyra Sedgwick. I never bought her "southern" accent. But it was okay and fairly successful. Then Sedgwick decided to move on. Most of the cast remained but her honcho job was taken over by the wonderfully odd Mary McDonnell and that's when it really got good. On TNT, you can plug in anytime but I suggest going back to its changeover beginning because when Capt. Sharon Rader is cooking, you'll be eating.
"GOLIATH" is an Amazon eight episode series from 2016 starring Billy Bob Thornton and William Hurt as the creepiest villain in years. Wait for his cricket clicker. Eeww. It's a law show co-created by David E. Kelley who, years ago, did "L.A. Law," "Aly McBeal," "The Practice," "Chicago Hope," and many others. Brothers and sisters, he's back! When you see this kind of story telling you'll remember how much you miss him. Billy Bob alone is worth joining the Prime part of Amazon. Even though this series has a definite ending at episode 8, I pray they go on. Saddle back up Billy Bob -- you're not done yet!
And of course, "Hill St. Blues" "Maverick," "The Simpsons," "Seinfeld," "Breaking Bad," "Letterman," "The Sopranos," "Frontline," "Cheers," "Have Gun, Will Travel," "Antiques Road Show," "Sex in the City," "The X-files," "L.A. Law," "Howdy Doody" (I had a pre-teen crush on Princess Summer-Fall-Winter-Spring, sue me), and a hundred others.
Holy ranchero, we LOOOOVE television. And I'm sorry these lists have way more than ten items. But it's my list and I can have however many I want. The twin engines of my life, I've probably seen more movies and TV shows than you've had hot meals.
When I'm too old and in a home, come check on me. Please? Even though I will have forgotten your name, I probably love you. So make sure I have a tiny private room, lots of decaf, a small high-def TV and an idiot proof remote that will alternate me from Turner Classic Movies to Bravo to Home & Garden Network to Audience.
I'll find the football games.
Thursday, October 29, 2015
#26. New Glory light-show or the UCLA film school goes rock and roll.
I'm kind of bouncing around and I'm sure some of you are tired of hearing about The Sixties, yet here I go. It re-birthed music, political dissent, clothing (or lack of it), and an overwhelming wave of Let The Good Times Roll!
For many of us, it was Scene 1, Act 1 of Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll. I dearly loved every single day of it although I quake at its lower depth and lowest chakra Camelot memories...even though I was one of the few of us who did not do acid, peyote, or mushrooms. Back in those days, I still believed in Control and I wanted as much of it as I could grab with two paws and a rake. Dogs don't do well on psychedelics. You could look it up.
I got to the UCLA film school in 1964; oddly the Sixties didn't really start for me until about 1965 and didn't end until the mid to late Seventies when I finally let it go and got my hair cut. Bye bye, Ponytail. I was a little slow on the uptake.
It was 1965 and with the early success of the Bay Area rock and roll concerts and the meteoric rise of groups like Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, and Big Brother and the Holding Company, it was only a matter of time before the Southern California dorks caught that same idea and put on their own concerts. As long as you had the money, the groups would come play. But you better have the agreed upon sum because some of the groups began traveling with Hells Angels who were all too good (then and now) at getting said money. And word soon got around the motorcycle gang's 'pound of flesh' was an actual pound of flesh.
I was a Teaching Assistant / projectionist in 3H, the film school's ratty old theatre. I worked for Gary Essert who knew Hollywood intimately and was a past master at booking movies for us. Gary could get films that hadn't even been released yet and films that had thought to have been lost for thirty years. He could get work prints, ancient explosive nitrate films (one reel of which went off on my friend Dave), Tracy and Hepburn's personal print of "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." He once got Charleton Heston's first movie, "Peer Gynt," a 16mm student film the skinny well-oiled hunk had made while a seventeen-year-old freshman at Northwestern!
Gary and a couple of his better-heeled off-campus friends decided to go into the rock and roll concert business. They would call themselves Kaleidoscope. So they got what they thought were the proper permits, got money promises, set up a business checking account, and began wondering how this badass guy Bill Graham was doing so well in S.F.
I volunteered myself and a few friends to become Kaleidoscope's light show!
We would be The New Glory (as opposed to Old Glory; get it, get it?). We would wear American flag shirts (made by our friend and downstairs roommate, Gloria Garvin) and cowboy hats (made by Resistol) with American flag hatbands (made by me). Now having envisaged ourselves, we thought we'd better find out what made an actual light show, giving rise to a tour of dance concerts in the Bay Area.
To accompany the massive amounts of weed and psychedelics consumed, overhead projectors and large concave glass trays of oil, water, and glycerin with colored dyes were employed. Also Kodak Carousel slide projectors and as many 16mm movie projectors as we could wrangle.
One of us thought to add a portable pop-pop-pop strobe light blaster which was rumored to cause seizures in some but made everybody look like they were in an old-time movie. Lord, if we'd only had the full color high def Mandelbrot fractal zooms! But for us, it was early and rudimentary. Excitement, a willing spirit, and the sneaky ability to kite checks helped enormously...as Gary and some of his cohorts proved daily.
Our mission finally coming into focus as The New Glory, we began to collect throw-out movies from various film school trash bins. Old editing projects, camera tests, animation experiments, abandoned student films, anything that would fit on a reel and get through a projector: track 'em and stack 'em! We gathered boxes and boxes full. Then Carousels of slides, slides, and more slides; I stuck a few handfuls of my own into a tray, shuffled into the mix.
We found a company in the Valley that would rent us the projectors, 16mm and overhead, the cables, the junction boxes. In L.A. they had everything. We built a colored light keyboard which, in my mind, would be Thomas Edison great, but in reality was more like Billy Bob Edison, his wastrel idiot brother. Although it did manage to nearly blind Jerry Garcia who apparently was staring at it a little too hard.
Tim, Dave, Gloria, and I set up a test run someplace, I can't even remember where, but it was a disaster. Fuses blew (remember fuses? We later bought like twenty boxes), projector lamps overheated and blew, we even lost power cords and had to replace them. We were new to all this and it showed. However, the difference between this test run and our first actual light show was night and day. Well, at least night and evening.
Somehow it had slipped my melting mind: we were not the stars of these concerts, the rock and roll bands were. They were musicians and they'd been working together for years.
Between the ages of ten and thirteen, I was trying to hide from John Lewis Fisher so I wouldn't get beat up during recess or to get one more first kiss from Nancy Thompson. The musicians were at home, practicing the guitar, the keyboards, the drums. It mattered to them. Cool as we hoped we looked in our American flag cowboy drag, we were just along for the ride and for whatever ooohs and ahhhs we might elicit in passing.
Here are some moments from that time, as seen by flashing strobe light. Don't have a seizure, okay?
* The Beatles, either together or individually, were rumored to be coming to this particular concert. This happened every week for the six months of Kaleidoscope's operation and was usually low sparked by a high heel of Gary Essert.
* The concert venue seemed to change every half hour. There was always some kind of looming disaster about the permits, the Fire Marshal, a bounced check, or a "better" deal afoot.
* As it became an official Scene, regulars began to appear.
There was a very young Rodney Bingenheimer whose endlessly repeated mantra seemed to be "Whaaaat's happening?!" Rodney would go on to manage bands and become the unelected mayor of Sunset Strip.
One of the regular dancers, an old soul with great legs, showed up one night with her panties worn over and outside her black tights. She became known as Karen Underpants. We'd heard she ran off with Paul Simon who wrote "Bridge Over Troubled Underpants" for her. The song later went to the top of the charts in a slightly different version.
Marc Wanamaker and Hy Slobodkin, two young guys who found their way to us and became helpful, willing to jump in their car and get us whatever we needed. When the shit hit the fan, they were always ready to pitch in. Marc was blood kin to one of my fave Lefty actors, blacklisted Sam Wanamaker who escaped the rightwing Hollywood purge to England where he became crucial to recreating Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. When Sam invited a then 13-year-old Marc over to London to hang out, the first thing the old dude did was take Marc out to Highgate Cemetery where he showed him Karl Marx's grave. My kind of guy.
Outside the various concert venues was Larry "Wildman" Fischer, a bi-polar paranoid schizophrenic street casualty/musician, hawking his one claim-to-fame, a major label record of his songs produced by Frank Zappa. I always greeted Larry but I confess his clear and present damage made me a little nervous.
Our first gig was a concert in the Grand Ballroom of L.A.'s famous Ambassador Hotel with The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Canned Heat (the last band managed by the boys of Kaleidoscope). The Dead and Airplane were then the two hottest American rock and roll bands. The Dead were like heavyweight Joe Frazier in the ring, the Airplane were like dancer Rudolph Nureyev without the tutu; both great but totally different. The light show was good...if you shut your eyes and pretended you were watching the star-gate sequence from "2001."
A year later, about 20 yards from the concert stage where we were set up, Senator Bobby Kennedy, running for President, was murdered, shot dead by some loser Palestinian schmuck who's mother thought he was so nice, she named him twice.
We lightshowed some amazing gigs. I lost about 25% of my hearing with the great power blues trio Blue Cheer, your basic stripped down model of Southern three-chord blues apostates. It was rumored that one of them couldn't read or write. True or not, it didn't slow them down a lick. And a bunch of my hearing went with them.
We played for our old film school friends, The Doors at Ciro's on Sunset Strip. They were just getting started on their mach ten journey. A fuller accounting of this night can be found in the UCLA Daily Bruin, wildly over-written, but you'll get the idea. We had the gorgeous Kim Gottlieb with us that night and for a while backstage, she was afraid Jim Morrison, completely drifted away and impervious to her revival attempts, was actually dead. Four years later, in a Paris bathtub, he would be.
My first and last solo gig with New Glory was in New York City's Carnegie Recital Hall. Malcolm Terrence, a whip smart ex-journalist from Tucson was in L.A. managing Joe Byrd and Dorothy Moskowitz' band, The United States of America.
They had recently been signed by Columbia and to celebrate the release of their first L.P., Columbia arranged for a concert at Carnegie Hall. The little one, to be sure, but it was still Carnegie Hall! The band invited me to go to New York with them and do lights...but this time nothing but film. No overhead sploosh splooshing, no strobe lights, no Carousel slide shows. Just six movie projectors and oversized 16mm reels.
Columbia put us up in the old Henry Hudson Hotel; in a Sixties slump but friendly to the record company's budget and only blocks away from the venue. One afternoon, I walked over to the rehearsal with Gordon Marron, the band's violinist. Classically trained, Gordon was in hog heaven playing rock and roll.
We saw a crowd of people gathering up ahead. Gordon, of course, heard the fiddle before I did. He quickened his step and began opening his violin case. As we arrived, the crowd parted as Gordon handed his case to me and started playing along with the street busking violinist. His name was Richard, he was (as they say) famous all over town. He had long hair and wore street makeup that he had not taken around the back of his neck. Suddenly Richard and Gordon were soaring on some familiar piece of classical music, the crowd was enraptured.
And then, here came the cops.
"Ahright, Johnnie, nothing to see here, keep walking, let's go, nothing to see here!" One of them was already trying to put the cuffs on hapless Richard. Gordon stepped in. "You probably didn't like the Mozart. I don't blame you; it's too effete. I bet you're a Dvorak man or maybe Samuel Barber!"
With that Gordon began to play Barber's so well known Violin Concerto. Richard somehow got his fiddle back under his chin and began to play too. The crowd went nuts and, as the cops tried to regain the upper hand, the people began to boo. Richard was lead to a squad car and as the cops were looking around for Gordon, he quickly cased his violin, passed it off to me, and we scurried away.
It was one of the all time coolest moments I have ever seen. Years later, I read in Newsweek that the the famous busking Manhattan 'starving Julliard student' violinist Richard had retired at 45 and was living in his Miami beachfront penthouse condo...paid for with 20 years of tips.
The USA concert was a slightly befuddling success: the band was playing live rock and roll, using Moog synthesizers, odd time signatures, electronic stuff so common now but back then, most folks, especially rock and rollers, had never heard of such. And Dorothy's glorious voice, ring modulated, holy ranchero! The band got a good review in The Village Voice. And New Glory Lights were mentioned in passing.
The last L.A. gig I remember was Country Joe and the Fish. I loved those guys. And maybe Steve Miller, back in the Boz Scaggs days. Somebody get them a cheeseburger! And I think on that same bill was Hammond organist Lee Michaels and his dervish drummer Frosty. Between those two guys, they had so much hair, you absolutely could not see their faces. But when they did what would become their great hit "Do You Know What I Mean," the place went completely apeshit.
When the gig was over, about 2AM, we packed up and went home, totally exhausted spiritually and physically. Mental had taken an earlier train.
Our ears ringing, we were covered with sweat, cooking oil, chemicals, dyes, and I don't know what all. We stopped at the laundromat down on Lincoln Blvd. and threw all our clothes into a couple of washers. I may be combining two events here but I think my buddies went home and I stayed, fascinated, watching the wet, soppy clothes go around and around in the smooshy rhythm dancing soap bubbles. Look at that. Finally, a light show.
Since I was alone, I turned off most of the laundromat's overhead lights, shed my Levis and skivvies and tossed them in. Then, my socks. In the ensuing quiet hour, few cars drove by outside and no one came in. I was so tired, I didn't even have a cover story prepped. Now, in the dryer, the clothes were rolling and tumbling. Made me think of Taj and Muddy Waters....
The sun was coming up as I got home. But you know, anything for rock and roll.
Saturday, September 12, 2015
#25 "Van Nuys Blvd," a barely baked idea. And my weekend with The Wolfman.
Many years ago, this wild hare idea of mine was taken up by Burt Sugarman.
Burt was a well known hot music/TV executive with a whole floor of the 9000 building on Sunset. This was the same building in which former Monkee Michael Nesmith's mother sold a little product she invented called Liquid Paper (later White Out) which corrected typing mistakes. I used it for years; we all did. It was the triumph of a good idea. A secretary herself, Momma hawked it floor to floor. She later sold the company to Crane or someone for nearly 50 million.
My story was to be called "Van Nuys Blvd." after a well-known teen-age cruising street out in LA's San Fernando Valley. Under the influence of "Animal House" and "American Graffiti" I had a mob of half-baked characters: One guy had invented a gadget, a crossover TV remote that would change stop lights to green.
Another had a hotrod built around a WWII P-38 Allison V-1710 supercharged engine.
There would be prom hijinks under clouds of marijuana smoke, you know, real high class stuff like that. The two lead narration characters were AM disc-jockeys, one guy a perennial favorite, old and tired at 37, and the new hot babe from New Orleans who was eating his lunch in the ratings.
Burt Sugarman was the creator and executive producer of the long running network rock and roll show, "Midnight Special." He was married then to dynamite blonde actress Carol Wayne, a frequent guest/target on Johnny Carson's show. Burt knew the music of the day and the men and women who made it. His Rolodex was fat with all their names, addresses, and private lines. By itself, it would have made an excellent 'McGuffin' plot device. "The Heist Of Burt Sugarman's Rolodex!"
Burt thought it would be a good idea if I spent some time with the hot DJs in L.A. All he had to do was make some calls (he was a maestro at Phone) and soon I was in with Humble Harve, B. Mitchel Reed, Emperor Hudson, three of the hotties of the day. I spent a few hours with Harve and then he just dropped out of sight, taking humble to a new level. However, a week later it broke that he murdered his cheating wife Mary Gladys and was now wanted for more than personal appearances and light yardwork.
I did some shifts with other jocks and began to learn the system of record rotations, rack jobbers, under-the-table favors, cash and otherwise and, most importantly, how to keep talking long after you had anything interesting to say. I learned about radio's one unforgivable sin: silence...Dead Air (a title if I ever heard one). I learned that some jocks read aloud from a record's liner notes as if they had just thought of it themselves, that a lot of this hypnotic jabber was fueled by happy drug Dexamyl greenies. Thinner and a fast tongue, what's not to love? Babe.
I was always waiting to meet the actual rock and rollers but Burt kept me well away from them. They were his. The one celebrity he gave me turned out to be good enough. It was his "Midnight Special" singular voiced announcer, Wolfman Jack. Who had already starred in "American Graffiti."
Burt arranged for me to accompany the Wolfster on one of his many public appearances; this one, the New Jersey State Fair. We flew out early morning from LAX, first class and all, to Newark. Travel with the Wolfman was unique. Everyone loved him, they felt they knew him, and that he must know them, too. This was a part he played brilliantly. In just a couple of words, a sentence or two at most, he fulfilled them and kept them moving. I asked him how he did it. "We're bound by time and rock and roll. Besides, I like people," he said. "Kinda."
When we alit from the limo at the N.J. State Fairgrounds, we were met by a team of Clipboard People who had the whole day planned out, down to the minute. Wolfman plugged into them immediately and deep. He was theirs and he made sure they knew it. "They pay the freight, they get the goods," he whispered to me and we were off.
Wolfman announced the bake offs. Wolfman hawked for the carny Side Shows. Wolfman announced the Any-And-All-Dog-Contest, Wolfman manned the 4H table, handed out the ribbons, got a standing-O when he left. With no script or notes, he announced everything they dragged him to, never at a loss for words or quips. It was a stunning performance. Then there was the looooonnng line at the Take A Picture With Wolfman Jack! And oh, God how they did. His charm and patience never flagged; he was he gravel-voiced Energizer Bunny.
When we got a little coffee break, I asked him how and why he did this. He smiled. "You'll see, Chow Puppy. You will see."
I think the highlight for both of us was when he got to present the headline act of the day: Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, who for years had been New Jersey's own hard core white boy blues band. Until that pesky Bruce Springsteen came along. But it was early, Bruce wasn't quite The Boss yet and Southside Johnny was still cookin'. We had a great evening of music and Wolfie kept the show moving. The band and the huge audience loved it.
When the night was over and we were about to climb into the company limo for the airport, an official handed Wolfman a brown paper shopping bag. They said their goodbyes with a manly pelvis-held-safely-away hug and we got into the Lincoln. "I'll call them and tell them you're running a little late." Okay.
On the red eye flight home, Wolfie opened the paper bag and began to count his money: banded packets of well used tens and twenties. "You always want night flights," he said. "Half the seats are empty, they're grateful for the business so they treat you good." On this night, they actually held the plane for him. And when he boarded, me bringing up the rear, the whole plane broke into applause. As he talked, he never stopped counting. Until he did. "How much," I asked.
"I drifted off at thirty-five grand. There was more. For one day's work. I do ten or fifteen of these a year. Is this a great life or what?!" He reached into his hand-carry bag and pulled out a can of Lysol. He upended it into the paper sack, clamped the sack shut around his hand and sprayed for a full five seconds. "Germs," is all he said.
That task complete, he washed down a 'lude with some champagne, dropped to the floor on his knees -- what the fuck!? -- as he turned toward the seat, he draped an airlines blanket over his head and flopped down, asleep.
Okay, by now, you know the drill: way too often I go and see all these cool things and write the script about something else. We should've done a documentary about Wolfman. I should have written a movie about Michael Nesmith's mom and the White Out: Talk about a generous, inventive and empowered woman! And we probably could've gotten a Monkees soundtrack out of it. Hell, they made a whole movie about the guy who invented the intermittent car windshield wiper. Or at the very least, I should've done Humble Harve and his gone wife. We could've called it "Dead Air!'
But oh, noooo. I had to stick with my stupid idea about the kids and disc jockeys of Van Nuys Blvd. And folks, that script dead flat sucked. Even my cat hated it.
Burt Sugarman, wherever you are in deep retirement and married now to Mary Hart, you are still king of the machers. And I am utterly and forever sorry.
What makes a hit?
Oh, God, if they only knew. Every few years, certain movies break out; The Little Engines That Could. They come from nowhere, fighting through the shit storms of indifference, poverty, and fear. Yet somehow they get made, get a limited release, and find an audience. Some hits are bad, some are good -- it doesn't seem to matter. They just spoke to people.
This is where the William Goldman quote from his 'Adventures In The Screen Trade' shines brightest. "NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING."
When I was starting out in 1970 (Jesus, does the calendar actually go back that far?), it was a movie called "Joe" starring Peter Boyle and a very young Susan Sarrandon in their first roles, directed by John Avildsen who went on to direct "Rocky" and most of the "Karate Kids." Written by the bizarrely great Norman Wexler (see earlier MGM pitch story) and made for only $100,000, "Joe" grossed over $20,000,000 for the goniffs at Cannon.
A few years later, there were the Charles Bronson revenge blood-bath "Death Wishes." Coming at a time when our national crime stats were out of control, these movies gave lines around the block a simple tough guy approach that completely satisfied...if you didn't look to closely. Like at the movie itself or the U.S. Constitution.
Then there was "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," Nia Vardalos' theatrical memoir licence to print money. And later anomalies were from 'documentarian' Michael Moore and movie star Mel Gibson. Imagine dinner with those two.
Moore's docutainment "Fahrenheit 911" was made for 6 million and grossed 222.5 million. As for Gibson, he decided to put up his own money, 30 million, when all his fair-weather buddies passed on "The Passion," his hard-core Jesus movie. Then, four-walling it across the world, he ended up making over 612 million. Think anyone saw that coming?
These movies may yet eclipse "The Blair Witch Project," a simple film about rage and Tarantino & Avary's masterpiece "Pulp Fiction" considered the most profitable films in history. They didn't follow the normal success formulas. They blazed their own staggering trail to financial glory, leaving us mystified but happy.
"Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?" Well, The Shadow, of course. But after him and all the way down, a screenwriter does. Because every one of these movies came from one. Including Michael Moore who, on "Fahrenheit 911," functioned as a screenwriter as ever a writer did.
And Sparkie, I love screenwriters! The good, the bad, and the ugly.
Friday, August 28, 2015
#24. The baked, the unbaked, and the half-baked.
Here are some half-baked folk sayings that I love but have only the dimmest idea of what they could possibly mean.
1. "You can't tell which way the train went just by looking at the tracks." Phillip Browning told me this one and I love it. But wha?
2. "She cuts a wide peel on a small potato." Chester on 'Gunsmoke' from local accordionist and Alaskan long haul truck driver David Locke.
3. "Be careful what you're dreaming. Soon your dreams will be dreaming you." Willie Nelson.
4. "Everything is going in the wrong direction..." Jagger & Richards from The Rolling Stones' song 'Connection.' I know what they mean. I think.
5. "Eat Death!" Graffiti spray painted on a Dallas overpass. Say what?
6. "I don't always understand what I'm talking about. But I know it's right." Mohammed Ali.
7. "Time is a ruthless and hungry lover." Printed without attribution on the inside of a book of matches.
8. "Civilization is like sour mash whiskey. Too big a dose the first time could put a man off it for life."
9. "When the heart is full, the mouth is shut." Um, actually, I think we all know what this one means. Even if we almost don't.
10. "Am I dreaming or did I just see a gorilla and a beautiful dame?!" from the 40s movie "Mighty Joe Young" that can be used unsuccessfully in almost any situation.
11. "You have to get off the porch if you want to run with the big dogs." A bumper sticker seen in Langley.
And while we're on baking in general, here was my business card, set up in perfect screenplay format, complete with Courier type:
EXT. 2808 LAUREL CYN PL. LA, CAL. 90046 - DAY
Screenwriter CHOW PUPPY comes staggering out.
Anybody else want to talk
'story?!' Call (213) 650-1628.
Inside a producer lies dead, shot through his Upmann
cigar. Oh oh.
Someone once told me she saw my card on Roman Polanski's refrigerator door in Paris. Success enough for moi.
Here are a few stories from some of the scripts I either invented, got hired to write, or joined in progress. The reason I mention them at all, is that some of them were okay, a few were awful and one or two were pretty good. But all of them held joy or heartbreak in their typing adventures.
And, except "Little Richard," they went nowhere but kept me and a small number of others employed for a while. I'll finish this with rock and roll's great architect Richard Penniman.
It's right there in the Hollywood Bible: Man cannot live on development fees alone. Although I gave it a good run. With the three main TV networks, all the cable companies, the Studios, and the various independents, at any one time, there must be thousands of scripts in actual paid development.
In bedroom or studio offices, in garages, in living room corners, on dining room tables, in coffee shops, there are hundreds of writers hammering out screen or teleplays of all kinds.
They are based on original ideas, other scripts, novels, plays, true stories, history, even songs. I was once approached by a producer who had the rights to Jimmy Buffett's "Margaritaville." As a recently realized alcoholic, I thought it better to stay away from that one.
As we all approach our own third acts, I heard somewhere that Buffett was considering a national chain of old-age retirement homes under the Margaritaville banner. I envision a battalion of sloe eyed old hipsters wandering about in their flip flops, stepping on pop tops, looking for their lost shakers of salt.
I was always waiting for someone brave to come forward with the rights to Van Morrison's "T.B. Sheets." Now that's a scary song; U-tube it.
In this process, meetings are held, notes are given, agents hammer out the deals, checks clear and the writers start typing as, in opposite directions, they all sail away on different boats to the mystic shores of Development Hell.
As these scripts progress all over town, favorites rise and fall, project rabbis come and go, zeitgeists are caught and fly away. And even though many screenwriters make their living in this land, not enough of these projects ever come to fruition.
It's like a plethora of Hollywood marriages; long term often means boredom and exhaustion. So it is with script development. The longer a script is in this process, I believe the more remote its chances get at ever being made. It's too easy to rewrite the life right out of a good story.
Knowing when to stop is a gift.
As my novelist friend Judith Walcutt has pointed out, there is a wild pony strain of childishness in Hollywood. We know time (especially our own shelf life) is short -- so eat dessert first! Part of that dessert is more paid projects, num.
Say a writer wins an Oscar or an Emmy. And has a genuine hit. And does a big TV interview show and charms everyone (hey, it could happen!). At this point, the writer and his agent set him up with three or four more projects. Wherein the writer will take the necessary meetings to show his best tricks. And then, one of the dirty little Hollywood secrets makes its first appearance: the writer will hire several of his unemployed writer friends to lay down a first draft. The hot writer will then rewrite and polish it until it looks like his. Or enough.
The principal writer got, say, $350,000 for a first draft and two sets of revisions. Although I never got this kind of bread, most do now, if not more. He or she will pay his friend $10,000 under the proverbial table. This is frowned upon by everyone except the two dancers and yet is one of the hidden economic tenets of screenwriting.
The second writer gets no credit, is virtually unknown by the production team if it ever gets made, and gets no residuals. Maybe he gets to sneak his high school girlfriend's name for one of the minor characters. But with this unreported income he was able to pay the rent and put food on the table or get caught up on child support. No small achievement.
Anyway, this is how I remember script development and here are some of the stories it generated for me.
The first script I ever wrote; it came to me like a radio-active dream when I was in the UCLA film school. This was in the mid Sixties when our movie ideas seemed to come in little flashes, mostly made up of rock and roll (Country Joe and the Fish's "Section 43" was a universal favorite), cars, girls, half naked and otherwise, cars with girls in them. And more rock and roll. But suddenly, I had this idea for a Western. Where the hell did this come from? It was 95% fictitious and was this:
Famed buffalo hunter Joe Victory Smith was selected by Teddy Roosevelt to put down the last buffalo, celebrating the moratorium in 1900. Only three things stood in his way -- Runs at Night, a Lakota Sioux war chief, an old enemy. Time. And finally, the old buffalo hunter's dormant conscience.
Soon this idea possessed me and I bought every book on the history of buffalo hunting in American I could find. There're more than you'd think. Then I began work on it without ever having seen an actual screenplay. Not one. I just wrote as if I was describing the movie in my head, minute by minute. I think my dialogue even had quotes marks around it.
I showed the first 30 pages to Colin Young, the film school's director and it generated an idea. He knew I loved the films of director Sam Peckinpah, ex-husband of Marie, one of Colin's secretaries. And apparently Sam was in an unemployed Hollywood slump after the well publicized problems generated from "Major Dundee," a cavalry picture with Charlton Heston. This was well before "The Wild Bunch." Lots of us movie geeks at UCLA were early to Peckinpah's party. "Ride the High Country" still makes me cry.
So Colin set it up; Sam would get some sort of honorarium to mentor this film student and we would meet up in Trancas to work on "Buffalo Man." Sam, behind in rent, alimony, and car payments, took me on without having read my 'script' first. I later learned this was a lifetime pattern of his. He couldn't stand to be out of work even for a day. If you got him at the right moment, he'd sign up for the start money to write and direct a laundromat opening. "There's a good idea in there somewhere," he would say.
Here was my first day with Sam Peckinpah.
As he opened the door to his rental beach house north of Malibu that morning, he was shorter than I thought he'd be. And apparently my hair was longer than he thought it'd be. For ten or fifteen seconds, we just stood there and looked at each other. He took a slug of his pale orange juice mimosa and told me to come in.
We sat at a kitchen table in bright sunlight overlooking the Pacific Ocean waves flopping in relentlessly. Boy this was the life. Sam wore shades the entire time. I never saw his eyes. "You wanna drink, Bob?" He called me Bob for the entire time, too. I passed on the mimosa, not having discovered the deadly joys of alcoholic mornings yet.
"Colin told me you were in the Marine Corps." You could have opened a beer bottle on the lifted lip of his sneer. "I was a World War II China hand. What were you, a hippy Marine?"
"They didn't have them yet," I said. "So I just waited it out. I couldn't fly a plane, I couldn't shoot the M-1 rifle, I didn't want to carry the base plate of the 81mm mortar, and I hated Parris Island. I thought the Marine Corps was your basic Big Green Dildo." Which at least made him laugh.
"You were a Marine," he said. "Now, let's talk about 'Buffalo Man.'"
So we did for the next two hours. And I learned a lot. Unfortunately, fifty years later, I can't remember hardly any of it. Except this: write better...but less. And this, too: even though you're the guide, let the reader (and viewer) find their own way into your story. It will mean more to them.
"There's a good idea in there somewhere. Call me when you get more pages and want to meet again," said handing me a little slip of paper at the door. His phone number. "And you gotta start drinking, Bob. Writers drink."
About a month later I called him. The number had been disconnected. The next day I read in the "L.A. Times" Calendar Section that he'd gotten a new picture and was on his way back to Mexico. I never saw him again.
Twenty years later, I finally wrote a full draft of "Buffalo Man." Then, again. And again. Maybe someday I'll finally catch it, maybe not. So here's to you, Sam, wherever you are. Even though you're long gone, Bob salutes you.
When I reread my script years later, "Idaho" is one that works. As improbable as the story was, somehow it works. Oh, if I could have just gotten a few more to think so.
I can't remember whose idea it was; probably a joint-custody job but I jumped on it like a Kardashian to a tanning bed. Its genesis was from the early Nineties, growing out of the pre-Tea Party lunatic fringe's idea to take Idaho (ever a haven for the Good Ideas of the extreme right) and secede from the union. For a while, the movement was led by a bemedaled retired Army Lt. Colonel gasbag named Bo Gritz. While his true history is somewhat suspect, the power of his personality is not. I thought, wow: movie! Because...there's a good idea in there somewhere.
We got a Canadian company working out of Showtime to finance the development and a research trip to Idaho and northern Montana where there had been recent unrest with the Militia of Montana and some federal officers. For a while in the 80s and 90s, these survivalist nut-cases were on the news every couple of weeks, sometimes with fatalities. The killings at Ruby Ridge were a true believer's nightmare. One of life's enduring mysteries is why some people court death so religiously. And so it came time for me to go see what was up there.
I flew to Seattle where I met my girlfriend and future wife Paula. We rented a car and headed east together across the Cascades into Idaho never-never land.
There are great and grave differences between being a screenwriter and a reporter, skilled at interviews. A few like David Simon, Cameron Crowe, and Pete Dexter have done both well. Me, not so much. But over the years, I pretty much learned how things in life work. I mean it's not exactly a secret. So within those holes in the narrative give and take, I just make shit up.
A long time ago, I interviewed black revolutionary Eldridge Cleaver for the L.A. Free Press. He told me some wild story involving Angela Davis that dropped my jaw; the one where she hides a small handgun in her towering Afro. I asked him if it were true. He smiled and said, "If it ain't true, it ought to be!" I took this rubric directly into my bloodstream, where it remains to this day, the pulse of fiction writers everywhere.
For years, Sand Point, Idaho has been known as Copville. Hundreds of retired police officers have lived there, many from the LAPD and other southern California law enforcement entities. It is a stunning town on the shores of Lake Pend Oreille. In the late 80s and early 90s, nearby Hayden Lake was the home of the Aryan Nation Brotherhood. The northern panhandle of Idaho and the Northwestern tip of Montana was free range to so called patriots of the reddest stripe. There was always cracker-barrel talk, some in jest, some not-so, about secession from the union.
I thought northern Idaho was one of the most beautiful places I'd ever seen. The same with Montana. It all seemed like a reality tinged Lake Wobegone. Only nicer.
We pushed on to the little town of Noxon, Montana. A few years earlier, it had been featured on a CBS "48 Hours" when some of the townies'd had enough of the recently formed all white paramilitary Militia of Montana. In a TV-covered demonstration, a beloved local school teacher named Joyce Coupal had called out one of her former students, John Trochmann, a retired snowmobile mechanic who was now the grand poobah of the Militia. Their face to face set-to, seen by millions across America, was both hilarious and touching.
I immediately called her.
We drove up to Joyce's house in the middle of apple pressing time; she put us right to work. The interview could wait as we were recruited to several hours of serious farm/orchard labor. The Coupals insisted on putting us up in their guest room and after a few hours watching us carefully, her advice was that we should definitely get married. As soon as possible. Our time in these haunts were filled with such hi-def moments. One of which was a breakfast meeting with "Colonel" Rick Rackley, Minister of Information of the Militia, which took place in a classic small town restaurant, its counter filled with home-schooled kids all watching a fuzzy Disney's "Cinderella" on a large screen TV.
Nearly the first thing Col. Rick said was that his former teacher Joyce was a well known commie which then opened his conspiracy gates to the entire left-leaning education system in America, not to mention the U.N.'s black helicopters, the Jew-run media, the new Denver airport where we would all be collected and disposed of in the vast new luggage system whose slots were body-sized, doncha know and he had rock solid proof that the NAACP were all slavering leftie mud-people. The only thing that stood between their chaos and utter ruin was the Second Amendment, its guardian the NRA, and misunderstood groups like his.
During his deadly eyeball-locking rants, he kept urging us to "read his lips." After he left, Paula pointed out that, ironically, Col. Rick was one of those guys who had no lips.
After more interviews, more meetings, I was chomping to start writing. I had scenes and characters constantly loping through my mind. Most of them had lips.
So I started to work. And somehow -- mirabile dictu -- it kept getting better. But one's own opinion is just that. And just when I thought I had it as good as it could get (still do), I turned it in to Showtime and Alliance Films. God I was happy.
Subsequent events can best be described in the following manner.
It was like the Coyote in the Roadrunner cartoon: in full chase, catching up, closer, closer then suddenly he freezes and looks around. He's over the edge of the cliff! And then,
straight down, finally disappearing into a tiny cloud of dust in the bottom of a deep canyon. Who knows how, who knows why? It just IS, brother and somehow, like the immortal Chuck Jones cartoon, it seems understandable...if not exactly right or fair.
So bye bye Idaho.
I'm not sure, but I think there has never been a more beloved, a more important rock and roll icon who was gay and a childhood cross dresser to boot than Little Richard Penniman.
Maybe, generations later, Freddy Mercury of Queen.
One of the many differences between them was that Little Richard was there in the beginning, one of the inventors and absolute monarchs of rock and roll. Plus which, in those days, there was virtually NO acceptance of this kind of sexual behavior. I mean in those days, if you started that ol' shit, there'd be someone in the back of the crowd, looking for a rope.
He was, as his song sings, "Tutti Fruity." And since I first saw him in concert in Greenville, South Carolina in 1955, he was mesmerizing. All us white kids up the balcony were invaded by a wild-eyed demon spirit that night. So much that some of us were actually lowered onto the main stage by our friends so we could dance with the all black audience.
Little Richard was a pioneer, a rock and rollin' beautiful little bad ass. He was a wild-eyed revolutionary funster of the highest order and once you surrendered to his down bound train, you were NEVER the same. I became Uncle John, as in "Long tall Sally, she built for speed, she got erry-thing that Uncle John need, oh, baby..."
So I read all the books, all the articles, talked to all the people including Richard, all the while playing his records, night and day and night again. And do you know, I never got tired of them.
I loved this script. I got everything I wanted in it. And then some. As it passed from hand to hand going up the necessary but harrowing executive food-chain, the reaction was the same: Great script, let's cast it and go! For a while my stock was rising again. Ahhhh.
Then, it hit the last guy in line, the president of the company, a thin, handsome guy in a five thousand dollar baggy suit who thought it was maybe pretty okay. But nothing more. "Who can we get to rewrite this thing?"
This was the last news I heard from the studio for a year until I read they were making the 'new version' with Leon as the eponymous rocker. I was happy I ended up with a 'written by' credit along with the New Guy but was still so discouraged that, shamefully, it was ten or fifteen years before I could actually watch it. One morning reading my beloved "TV Guide," I accidentally saw it listed on B.E.T. and, what the hell, recorded it.
Holy Kazinties, it wasn't half bad! Most of my stuff seemed to be still in it and Leon was great. In the end, I got paid, had a good time writing it, re-heard a lot of great music, and like the best of life, the bad memories were washed away by the immortal incantation of --
"A wop bobba loo bop ballew bam boom!"