#7. Early days in NYC, script how-to notes, and the sublime Leslie Caron.
We look back on our lives and find a few huge, nearly unimaginable turning points. As life-altering as they are/were, you'd think they'd be spectacular death in car or plane crashes, huge arrivals or departures, finding and losing great loves. Or unthinkably massive moves.
Mine was a move. But thinkable. In 1964. From New York City to Los Angeles. But the tiny reason for why it ever happened is the plot point. And it wasn't but this big(.).
I was living in NYC, day-job employed as a New York City Welfare investigator out in Red Hook, trying to 'make it' as an actor. Sadly, I wasn't very good at acting and not even all that driven. But, God, I was having a great time in the city, for much of it living in a tiny carriage house down in the West Village. At night I sold orange drinks and bonbons in the Broadway theatre balcony of "Barefoot in the Park."
I was seeing Johanna then, a former pro whose main john (a top executive at a Fortune 500 company) had given her an elderly Jaguar, a Swallow Standard, type 1. In mint condition. One late afternoon she drove me to the theatre to work, as luck would have it, arriving at the same time as Robert Redford and Elizabeth Ashley, the play's stars. They all swiveled to gape. I know, I know, it was the car. But, hey....
When I got home from hawking concessions at the theatre, I would turn on the radio and listen to Jean Shepherd and Long John Nebel all night. On Sunday I played softball in Central Park for The Stay Out Late on Saturday Night and Get Up Early on Sunday Morning to Play Ball Yacht Club of Middle Greenwich Village Nine. We had sweat shirts!
You know sometimes when you're sailing through golden quotidian days, swept along by happy detail, you sort of forget where the hell you're going? Or why? Well, I had.
Until one night when my Welfare Department buddy Ray was supposed to meet me for dinner. But about six, he called and begged off, saying he had just scored a hot date with some girl he was pursuing. He seemed genuinely remorseful until I began to hear his blood pounding over the phone.
So there it was: I was on my own. At home, grumbling, I opened some frozen veggies and a can of my favorite Campbell's Scotch Broth soup. God, why'd they ever stop making that? Set up next to the TV (before the era of the remote), I started eating and flipping through the channels.
I landed on 13, PBS, a show called "Student Films." After about twenty wide-eyed minutes, I realized my mouth was actually hanging open and my soup was getting cold. The two films that most took me that night were "A Time Out of War" by Dennis and Terry Sanders for which they'd apparently won an Oscar, and "Freight Yard Symphony" by Bob Abel. Both were made at UCLA. The next thing I remember is looking down at my forgotten dinner and two hours and the national anthem had passed. I was eye to eye with the Indian on the test pattern.
The following day I sent for UCLA's catalogue and began to draft my supplicating letter for admittance to the graduate program in film. "I know my Kent State University transcript doesn't look promising but I have undergone some difficult life experiences recently that have matured me."
Months later, I'd heard nothing from UCLA and found myself a crash-and-burn contestant on the old NYC-based TV quiz show "Jeopardy" with Art Flemming. My local friends thought my self-immolation was hilarious but I had totally embarrassed my baby sister back in North Carolina just because I couldn't get a good grip on that damn buzzer or answer questions about opera, particle physics, or Nigerian foreign policy. They hadn't yet invented string theory or I'm sure that would've been one of my categories too. The group right before me had questions about famous literary alcoholics, movies, and things chow puppies know. I left the show with the loser consolation prize of four hundred pounds of Encyclopedia Americana.
The same day they were dropped at my door by two puffing red-faced delivery guys, I also got my acceptance letter from UCLA! Oh, mamma, I was lost but now I'm found. I left the unopened encyclopedia boxes for the next tenant.
And that's how I got to the University of California at Los Angeles film school; because Ray Berger wanted to get laid. I hope it worked out as well for him as it did for me. Several years later, I had an Master of Fine Arts degree auto-signed by Ronald Reagan.
In creating the screenplay, we have talked about story, about characters, about events in the script. You recall the Jean-Luc Godard drill: a man, a woman, and a gun.
So let's say -- like Les Bohem -- you have the idea for a story about a leak in the Holland Tunnel that gets bigger and bigger, developing into a serious flood, up to the hubcaps, then the door wells and finally into a full blown catastrophe. Car alarms are going off, people yelling and screaming, thousands will be trapped at rush hour and will surely die horrible deaths. You have researched it like a mad dog. You have three notebooks filled with ideas, events, moments, heroes, and of course, villains.
Now, you just sit there.
You blink fast and often. You're excited. You know you have something... but what is it? Well, let's find out. Time to stand and deliver. And here comes the Oh-shit moment that stops the faint of heart and some very good writers equally.
Taking this next step.
Here is how I sweet talked my way, sometimes conned my way past this quaking moment of self doubt. By asking myself a few simple questions.
What is the THEME of the story?
In other words, what is this script about? Many writers, even some pretty successful ones, don't have a clue. But if you think about it, working it out, you will end up armed and dangerous. Producers and executives alike react well to this stuff. If you know your theme, you will be able to defend it. You will be seen as caring, strong, even passionate (a holy word in Hollywood).
Say, for instance, you have a story whose theme is the power of redemptive love and sacrifice set against the chaotic backdrop of war. Like WWII, in Algiers, just say. Hmmm. Bogart, Bergman, Claude Raines? It worked for "Casablanca" because a timeless theme never dies.
I think most writers are obsessive by nature, so chances are they are drawn to a few themes over and over. Those that work smoothly within the story's arc, run through their heart -- and yours -- like a silver river.
Let's assume that the writer has the theme worked out and spread over some story elements he/she knows they want. At this point, they are chomping at the bit, ready to haul ass even though the compass and half the supplies have been left in the garage. The excitement is so strong, you can hardly wait to type page #1 and FADE IN:. But don't do it.
No. Staaaay...stay. Good dog!
If you tear off riding this joy -- fun as it would be for a while -- it can cost you weeks, sometimes months of work from which you will salvage very little. I believe it was (yet again) Mark Twain who said "When you don't know where you are going, any road will take you there." For most of us, the first and best way to start is
The outline is to see exactly how the movie gets from the starter's gun to the finish line, from FADE IN to THE END.
Finding the story's beginning, middle, and end is a tough process which demands clear-eyed creative bean-counting while setting fire to dreamy, hopeful assumptions. This clockwork is what I call plot and is the bane of many writers' existence. Alvin Sargent, one of the best screenwriters who ever lived, hates this so much that he jokingly (I think) said he was going to have his marble gravestone inscribed with just four words -- "At last, a plot."
I usually do outlines on my beloved 3X5 cards. And after 30 or 40 years, I still have them, rubber banded up and hidden away. So that when St. Peter stops me at the locked and pearlies and wants to know why "The Rose" second act blew so bad, I can wheel out my cards and show him. "There, suckah. Plot point two!"
On these 3X5s I scrawl a few lines in pencil of what the scene might be, maybe even a line or two of dialogue. These are the building blocks for the story. Okay, this has to happen here. Or should. Or could. You can change the locale, time of day or night, sometimes even who's present. But -- for right now -- this has to be here and now. It is crucial to keep this bad boy moving. You can pause and think yourself straight to hell; I used to have the tee shirt concession on it. So keep going. You can make changes when it's done. You can polish it when it's done. You can sleep when it's done or you're dead. Which ever comes first.
As we go from chunk to chunk, from card to card, is there a continual, believable conflict? Are the dramatic and character arcs on their way to being fulfilled? Is David fighting Goliath, not some easily beat dweeb named Gavin. There is an old Air Force saying that "it takes a great enemy to make a great airplane." The harder the hero has to fight -- within reason -- the deeper we are pulled into his story. All these things should become clear as you do the outline.
I number the cards sequentially in pencil as I go. The reason is this: a brilliant but distracted student of mine named Jo at the National Film School of England once dropped his unnumbered loose cards on Kensington High Street. It took him two full days and a migraine (pronounced mee-grain over there) to get them back in order.
Once you have ten or fifteen cards, a kind of exhilaration kicks in, good fertilizer for the creative process. Look this this, I got the beginnings of a movie here! Also cards make stopping and starting easier for me. When I come back to it the following morning, I can quickly thumb through them to see where I am and how to restart the engine. When I was in this process, I kept notes, sometimes even a little tape recorder of ideas that will always boil up (eg. card 3: add note from missing wife) but whatever you do, don't stop yet.
Keep this thing moving. If you want to go slow, write a novel.
Once the cards are completed, beginning to end, you will feel bulletproof, or at the very least, warmed by the bright winds of Nirvana. Because suddenly you can read your movie. You can see where it flows naturally, which scenes work and which don't. Since they are pencil numbered, you can move them around. Or if there're too many scenes ("Too many notes") or not enough. You can see where the dead-ends and unintended red-herrings are, where you left things hanging. The over-all arc should look something like this:
x x adios
x x x
x x x
x x x
x x x
At the end, have things changed? Has the hero, the lead, done a 180 from his initial course because of the story's effect? If it seems good and tight, it's because it now has its most important overall element: STRUCTURE.
AN EVENING WITH THE GREAT LESLIE CARON
She was probably in her late forties then. But still breathtakingly beautiful and utterly elegant. She was with a producer named Mark, a guy who was at the opposite end of the Warren Beatty spectrum, the man Caron had been, um, linked with for all those years. Mark looked a little like a small town funeral director which, to me, made it even more fascinating. Because he was a true New York tough guy with a shockingly good education; Columbia, Sorbonne, Oxford, the whole nine. Imagine Jeremy Irons as played by Harvey Keitel.
Mark had called several agencies and set up a dinner party for two or three of their 'hot, young scribes' and luckily I was available and included. We were to come to their hilltop house to meet the legendary dancer/actress so we could get to know her a little, and maybe think of a script idea for her and Mark to develop.
It was one of those stand-up-walk-around dinner parties; there was a baby grand piano and some guy in a tux playing show tunes. What a riot. Nine writers, basically unsocialized curs who make their living working alone, few of which could 'play well with others,' all wandering around, gawking at the antiques and career memorabilia, balancing plates and wine glasses, trying to come up with some story/script idea for the Great Dancing Beauty sitting over there in her wing chair.
And like them, on this night, I was lost. So I set up on the closed lid of the baby grand, careful to put a folded napkin under my plate of seafood pasta and asparagus and its already wolfed hollandaise.
My agent walked up with producer Mark. "Come on, let's go meet the hostess," said my agent. "She thinks you look interesting." I was the only guy in the room with black hand-stitched Lucchese cowboy boots and a pony tail. Takes me a while to let things go. I was still working in Word Star until seven years ago, okay?
The two of them had caught me mid-bite, so I picked up my plate and followed them over to Ms. Caron, still in her wing chair. The closer I got to her, the more stunning she became and the deeper my undying love.
"Leslie, I'd like you to meet the screenwriter Chow Puppy," said Mark. "His movie 'Hooper' is in the theaters now." My agent added, "...and cleaning up." Her face brightened immediately.
"Is zis the movie about stuntmen with Bart Reynolds? I LOVE zis movie!" She extended her delicate hand with a dazzling smile. I was hers for life.
And then, it happened.
As I bent down to shake her hand, slowly, slowly (but not slowly enough) my entire seafood pasta and asparagus slid off its plate...and into her lap!
Her smile did not dim for even a millisecond. "Oh, dear," was all she said. Mark looked like he wanted to kill me. My agent's rictus said he would have gladly taken the night train to Peoria. I wanted to die. As for the galant Ms. Leslie Caron, she simply rose, trapping the whole mess in a filmy longer skirt with one hand and with the other, squeezed my arm and said, "Don't you dare leave. I want to talk to you about zees stuntmen!" And with that, was gone.
See, to me, this grace, this elegance, this je ne sais quoi (the only French I know besides 'Chevrolet') was what set her apart, even after these nearly forty years. She was back in five minutes in new dress, looking even more beautiful. She came straight for me. "Now, when zay fall, do zay scream? I would! Let's get you a new plate," she said. "I saw you didn't get any hollandaise on your asparagus. I made it!"
Out of the depths of hell I came, surfing a wave of her very own hollandaise. But I never came up with a story idea for her and on the way out that night, Mark grabbed my hand hard and pulled me close.
"Don't ever come back here."
On my motorcycle, I rode home along the Mulholland ridge, hoping the night-blooming jasmine wind would blow me a clear mind. It did. By the time I got home, my heart-rate was almost back to normal. My agent wouldn't take my calls for a week.
What're you gonna do? It's Hollywood, Jake. It's Hollywood.