Monday, November 25, 2013

#1. It begins. Roger Corman and how I got "discovered"

#1.  It begins with Roger Corman.  Like everything.  And how I got discovered at Warner Bros.

For this random collection of memories, my nom de guerre will be that of a dog which I have chosen to stick with because I love dogs and these Hollywood memoir things can turn into an avalanche of name-dropping.  Which I guess in some ways, ironically, is the whole point.

But I got tired of seeing my actual name amidst all the rich and famous.  I kept hearing the sonorous Bill Curtis announcer voice, "And then I sat down and wrote...."  Barf-o-rama.

Hence this gathering of anecdotes of my adventures will be seen though the eyes of a Chow Puppy, the absolute cutest thing God ever made.  And now at eighty-one (Jesus, can this be possible?), I'll take whatever cuteness I can weasel.

Because, in the end, it's not about me so much as it's about the story.

When I was a little boy, about four, and between fathers, I lived with my maternal grandparents in a Tudor mansion on the southern shore of Lake Michigan.  If you look in a Rand McNally road atlas at Michigan, south of Benton Harbor and St. Joe, you will see Warren Dunes and Warren Woods.  E.K. Warren was my great-grandfather.  It was that kind of Little Lord Fauntleroy life and for two magical years while my mother ran off to Seattle to start a new life.  I stayed back in Michigan in our old one.  Up to my grateful little hips.

I still think every day about Lakeside where I lived, mostly in silence, waiting for evening to come when my grandmother would read stories to me by the light of real Tiffany lamps.  Two of which I still have.

Along with "Mike Mulligan And His Steam Shovel," "Young Abe," and "Paddle To The  Sea,"  Nonnie read me dog stories, courage under fire stories (it was the early Forties, Hitler and Tojo were big), ghost and horror stories (still have that book somewhere too).  She and Grampy also talked a lot about some guy they admired named Roosevelt.  But best of all, every year she'd read me Jack London's "Call Of The Wild."

These stories saved me.

For reasons that passed understanding, I'd had a father who walked or was chased out of our lives forever and a family that wouldn't talk about it.  At all.  But as long as these read-to-puppy stories were coming, the reality details seemed to matter less every day.

Twenty-five years later, various shrinks would put their kids though college on the back of all this but then, it was the richness and buoyancy of these tales that daily saved me.  They reached out calmly, quietly and pulled me into the boat.  And judging from the many pouting, scowling pictures of me in those days, I needed a lot of pulling.

Stories, well-told stories with an unstoppable narrative arc, are crucial to our lives, our whole species.  And these days -- like radio of old -- our stories are often handed down by movies and television.  Those story tellers, the birther of them, are screenwriters.

Of which I once was one.

This is why I am collecting these memories: for entertainment purposes to be sure, but also to honor the properly told screenplay story and its strength to heal us, to change us, to save us.

All right, enough of the Oprah shit, Puppy.  Get on with this tail forthwith!

     If most of what follows was true...
          If all that follows was lies...
               Oh, how easy it would all be.


My first taste of Hollywood was a few years before I actually got there.  I was in the UCLA film school during the mid to late Sixties.  Mamma mia.  There's a whole book there...for a different time and place.

In 1967, I'd grapevine heard that famous director-producer Roger Corman, King of the Bs, needed someone cheap who'd go on the road for him.  What for?  Special mission.  All expenses paid.  Uuuu-wie, where do I sign?!

I was sent to his offices on Sunset Blvd, rode up in the famous glass elevator, and asked to see him.  Oh, yes, a secretary said, we were expecting you.  I grew another inch in my Tony Lama cowboy boots.  She handed me a small AWOL bag.  In it: a 35mm gang synchronizer, a Rivas splicer, and a footage and reel count sheet.  Even though I knew how to use the instruments of basic editing, I was mystified.  What's this for, I asked as she handed me my cheapy airline ticket (the plane landed every ten minutes).  What indeed.  "You leave tomorrow morning at seven," she said.

Apparently Roger had a little falling out with his new project's co-star Dennis Hopper which had grown into a full scale war.  So I was to go to various film exchanges (where 35mm movies used to live between bookings) all across America to cut Dennis out of all the release prints of his LsD film, "The Trip."

The fucking release prints!

I have never heard of this being done before or since.  I believe I was paid something like thirty-five dollars a day and all the motel soap I could steal.  Indianapolis.  Cleveland.  Pittsburg.  Baltimore.  On and on.  Roger paid for my breakfast and dinner.  Lunch was on me.  I still don't eat lunches.

As I wound through the endless reels, snipping out ten feet of Dennis here and fifty feet of Dennis there, I couldn't understand how or why something like this could happen.  But it was my mission, so I did it.  You know, vee vas just following orders.

And I encountered the strangest thing.  At these exchanges, a truly blue collar operation, the people loved Roger Corman.  Apparently, he sent cards on their birthdays, he called them when their sons and daughters graduated high-school, he sent carnations (cheaper) on their anniversaries.  And they adored him.

Roger Corman never made a picture that lost money.  That was one reason why.  Here's the other.

Once my friend Richard Compton (more on him later) was doing some film editing for Roger; I think it was a biker picture's trailer.  I remember the one sheet poster logo line slashed across the three Harley choppers bursting out of the hellish background.  It said "See them ride their brutal throbbing steel to a white hot climax!"  Man, if Samuel Beckett could only write like that.

My friend wanted to borrow Roger's personal Movieola editing machine so he could cut the trailer at his house.  Roger agreed.  If Richard would take down all the Corman drapes, have them dry-cleaned, and rehang them before Roger and his wife got back from Hawaii.

When I returned to L.A. after eleven days of Hopper slashing, I finally knew what I wanted from life.  This was my first taste of Hollywood, however low and sour it might have been.  And I wanted more!


I was a screen and television writer for thirty years.  Full time.

During the Seventies, Eighties, and Nineties, I was employed either by studios, networks, or well-funded producers.  And once in the very beginning, by Academy Award winning actor Cliff Robertson.  He wanted me to write "I Shot Down the Red Baron, I Think," a job I had no clues how to do.  But he was also a bi-plane stunt pilot and a nice man and his wife was from the Post cereal fortune so I guess I was paid by Raisin Bran.  In my dotage, this has come to mean more that I would've thought back then.

Here is how I got discovered in 1969.  I do not recommend this as a career path.

Through rumor and a chance phone call (the genesis of so much that a friend of mine named his loan-out company Amalgamated Telephone Call ), I heard that Richard Moyer, then head of the story department at Warner Bros. might like to talk to me.  He'd read the occasional rock and roll piece I had done in the old "L.A. Free Press" and apparently thought they showed something that might translate into the screenplay format.  What that meant, I had no idea but since I was on thin ice at my teaching job at early Cal Arts (downtown), I called him and set up an appointment.

Richard was a gentle, dorky guy with glasses and after we'd chatted a while, he seemed interested enough to bring me back the next day.  He was going to take me into his boss, over to the executive building in Big Guy Ville, where maybe I could get in on the string.

Years before, Warners had set up twenty thousand dollar step deals for new writers: five grand for a first draft, five for the subsequent drafts, and ten if it ever got made.  I later heard the rumor that these step deals were sometimes used to, um, encourage important critics into good revues.  "You handle your dukes pretty good, kid.  How'd you like to fight the champ?"  I mean that's what I heard.  And the guaranteed five grand was big money in those days, bro.  My eyes were bobbling in their sockets.

With a grin as he looked me up and down, he said, "And dress just like you did today."  It was 1969 and I was wearing stove pipe Levis, cowboy boots, a tie-died shirt and a black cowboy hat with an American flag hat band.  Well, yeah.  I dress like this every day.  I got on my big BMW motorcycle and roared back down town to school.

The next day, Richard took me into the Warner Bros Main Building, under all the portraits of the great movie stars of the past and present, down lushly carpeted halls, past busy assistants and muffled laughing and yelling behind oversized doors.

Barry Beckerman was a young vice president.  He sat me down.  Richard stood by the door as Barry squinted over his half-reader glasses at my hair.  "He drives a motorcycle," said Richard. "A real big one."

"So what kind of movie do you want to write," asked Barry.  I told him that Clark Gable and Loretta Young had totally hosed "Call of the Wild."  I wanted to go back to Jack London's version; men on sleds, dogs, snow, emptiness.  He shook his head.

"Snow pictures don't make money," he said giving me my first official received Hollywood Wisdom. "What else you wanna do?"  

At this point, my memory smithereens.  I vaguely recall telling him about a neo-noir story involving a blind Vietnam vet, some disaster sci-fi story, a cowboy story about shootist Clay Allison that I'd read in a coffee table western history book the night before, a book I still have, in which I believe William Goldman might have found Butch and Sundance.

I was so excited, so unhinged, I was up and jumping around, ponytail flying.  The next thing I actually remember is Barry's braying laugh as Richard gently hauled me out of his office. "You gotta love a hippie who doesn't know how to take 'yes' for an answer.  We're buying the western!" were Barry's last words to me that day.

Out in the quiet Warner Bros. hall, I looked around.  Whatever had just happened -- I still wasn't really sure -- rendered me about the happiest pup in Hollywood.  Which apparently, I was now officially in!  It was my first 'yes,' the most important one I ever got.  And I thought my heart would bust wide open.

I drove back down town in a daze.  It seemed the Dean of Students at my school wanted to see me.  "Chow Puppy, I'm sorry to have to tell you: it's not going to work out here,  You're fired.  It wasn't my idea.  Why are you smiling?"

Less than a week later, I had an office in the Warner Bros Writers' Building, an entertainment lawyer, a business manager named Joel (who I am still with), and an agent.  All I had to do was write a screenplay (whatever that was) about Clay Allison in the old west and his tragic wife who he may or may not have killed.  Up to then, I had never even seen a screenplay.

Oh, boy.

And that was the start -- FADE IN: -- of my nearly 50 year journey which continues through the Writers Guild pension plan to this day.  Every morning on my 5 mile walk, I thank Richard and Barry, now both departed.  And I thank them out loud...because you never know who may be listening.

Further adventures, glory, and disasters about the 'yes' and 'no' days to follow.  Along with a few hints on how to write a script.  Thanks to a little talent and a whole lot of screenplay guru Syd Field  (recently departed), I kind of learned.

As Don Carpenter wrote in "Payday," You only pass this way once, brother.  Might as well be in a Cadillac.


  1. Yay! I'm so excited to subscribe-- I already cried reading your first installment because I get so into it; and I never seem to quite remember some of the stories correctly when I'm bragging about my dad.

  2. Hilarious--love it!

    Wow, Roger Corman: I watched all his Poe movies with my cousin Erika late at night with Grandma Barlow (rest her soul). Oh, the buckets of red-orange-paint blood! (E & I were born the year your career started: '67.)

    Cutting out Dennis Hopper?! What a shame--but what an insanely fabulous beginning for you.

    I laughed out loud at "Snow pictures don't make money"--very loud. It so perfectly fits my impressions of Hollywood from Larry McMurtry and the movie Barton Fink.

    I'll really look forward to reading more! --Megan M.

  3. Hey Bill, Wax here. I'm starting down the rabbit hole. The rest of the stores damn well better be as good as this one.