Tuesday, November 18, 2014

#13. Lunch with Bobby. And the wealth of charachters.

#13.  Lunch with Bobby.  The Cookie Jones.  And the wealth of flawed characters.

And God said, let there be producers!  So the poor screenwriters will have something to do after they get home from morning coffee at the Farmer's Market.

It was back in the mid-Seventies when ICM agents Mike Medavoy and John Ptak lined me and director Philip Kaufman up for a project-pitch lunch with Bobby.

These lunch (and sometimes breakfast) meetings are classic; the big shot producer or executive takes the hot(ish) writer and/or director out for a meal where he (or she) pulls up a stool and milks them for all they're worth.

The big shot writes off the lunches as development costs.  These used to be known as The Three Martini Lunch.  By the time we got there, they had morphed into The Two Bottles of Cheval Blanc Lunch.  The write off remained the same.

Bobby was the son of a famous art-collecting industrialist who will be headlined in ANY history of Pre War America.  Philip and I had been, as I recall, recruited by Hannah Weinstein, a golden era lefty producer who had come upon actual government documents laying bare the sordid details of U.S. Army PX fraud in Vietnam, perpetrated by four senior level Master Sergeants, sunk to the very top of their boots in ill-gotten everything.

My idea was to lay it out in a bittersweet story about Frank and Mindy Moon (I can't believe I remember this), a couple of first rate human beings, second rate entertainers, stuck in the third act of a career, doing PX shows for the troops in Saigon.  While their marriage is coming apart, their act is actually getting better as they fall headlong into the Master Sergeant scandal, beset by careerist government investigators and a sudden NVA attack.

Philip had already directed "The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid" and "The White Dawn" and was well on his way to a spectacular career.  And I was well on my way to lunch at The Palm, yum yum.

Bobby was late, so Philip and I got caught up on local gossip.  I'd just had that terrible walk-out lunch meeting at Le Dump with the two rock and roll millionaire geniuses and he'd just been fired off "The Outlaw Josey Wales."  I didn't know directors could even get fired: he said it happened while he was eating lunch.  He came back to the set and saw Clint Eastwood up on the Chapman crane rehearsing a shot.  In a half- joking manner, he called up to Clint, "Are you directing now?"  Clint didn't smile back.  He just nodded.  And that was it for Philip on Josey Wales.  Although he remained the lead credited screenwriter.

Bobby finally arrived and we set about to have lunch.  The Palm is noted for their steaks, so we all ordered them.  For many hot(ish) writers, these meals were sometimes the only grown up food they got, so chow down, puppies!

We had a nice lunch.  Philip and I told him our take on the Master Sergeant - Vietnam project; he seemed to like it.  Then, talking more show biz gossip, talking about Bobby's wife, a Grammy winning toast-of-two-continents type singer, beautiful and thin as a shoelace, who I had met when we were all prior versions.  Bobby said sourly she was always ragging him to lose weight as he forked another bite of ribeye into his mouth.  Philip and I thought it was great; we didn't care what he looked like coming out of the shower.  Bobby was a sweet guy, a scion-of, and would maybe produce our movie.  More Cabernet?

Then desert.  And coffee.  And a Sambuca or two.  And more stories.  I lock-jawed back a yawn.  But we weren't worried.  Until Philip looked at his watch.

It was four fifteen.  Jesus H!  We'd been there over three hours.  Most of these lunches last an hour, maybe an hour-and-a-half.  Bobby excused himself for the men's room.  I signaled our waiter and asked him if Bobby had paid the check.  Or had an account there?  He smiled and shook his head.  Hmmm.  What was going on?

Philip requested a phone.  Hillbilly that I am, I remember thinking, Jeez, can you do that?  So while Bobby was still in the men's room, it was brought to the table, plugged in, and he called Mike Medavoy, the fount of all knowledge in Showbiz.

Philip quickly explained the situation.  Mike told him that he had been in Bobby's Century City townhouse and it was filled, honest to God filled with art: Picassos, Monets, Pollocks, he even owned the Larry Rivers' Confederate General, the one on the cover of the Brautigan book.  You know who his father was.  Bobby was rich, he was 'good for it,' he was a player!

"That's as may be," said Philip.  "But apparently not today."  We didn't think Bobby should have to sell one of his Renoirs for our lunch.  But maybe he had an extra velvet Elvis in his garage.  "I gotta go," said Philip.  "Rose and I have a dinner."

"I hope it's more real than this one," I said hauling out my brand new credit card.  He took his out, too.  "Splitzies?"

We paid, wrote a big tip for the long afternoon's service, and were on our way out the door when Bobby came back, an embarrassed but friendly smile lopsided across his face.  "Thanks, guys!  It was a great meeting, a great lunch.  If you see my wife, mention that I just had a salad.  I'll call your agent, we'll set something up.  And thanks."

We never heard from him again.  And the project, like so very many, disappeared in its own smoke.  Thank God the Monet and that velvet Elvis are safe.  Somewhere.



I have known Jamie Diamond for years.  We met in the mid-70s when I went to visit her bosses, producers Mitch Brower and David Foster at Warners to pitch them yet another exciting project that mercifully faded away half way through the meeting.  But on the way out, I stopped to talk to Jamie; she was tall, striking, and had a great sudden laugh.  We hit it off.

For about a week we tried to be...something, I don't know.  But that clearly wasn't going to work for reasons best known to the Baby Jesus, so we decided to just be girlfriends.  It stood us in good stead for the next forty years.

Jamie grew up in showbiz: her mother (now a certified scholar with a PhD) had been a showgirl/ dancer in Billy Rose's Diamond Horseshoe in New York.  Jamie's father was a Hollywood press agent when he met and married Mamma Diamond.  Humphrey Bogart was their best man.  One of Jamie's first memories was standing in Bogey's lap while they all laughed and smoked and drank.

One day, Jamie showed me a piece she had written about a first date with a well known screenwriter/playwright.  I must have read it three or four times.  It was good.  I mean real good.  God, where does this talent come from; there she was working as a secretary/assistant to a couple of producers and she could write better than most of the scripts that came across her desk.  From 'good' writers.

Time passes and now she has written for the L.A. Times, the N.Y. Times, and God knows where else.  She also writes fiction and over the years, she's gotten even better.  And yet, not published; one of the great mysteries of life.

Down deep in her heart, I believe the following Cookie Jones story illustrates how and who she is.

Years ago in L.A., maybe still in high school or home from college, Jamie went out riding with two or three of her girlfriends.  They were hungry and nearly broke, so like many kids at that intersection, they stopped at a Ralph's Market.  Trooping inside and pooling their money, they bought a large flimsy plastic tray of chocolate chip cookies, the big ones, and went back out to the car.  Where each one had one.  Then, all watching their weight, they chunked the package of cookies into the dumpster and drove away.

They cruised a while, 'bumpin' on Sunset,' you know.  Pretty soon, one of them got hungry again.  Then, they all did.  Only now they were completely broke.  So they drove back to that same Ralph's, pulled in next to the dumpster, one of them boosted another one in, and THERE WERE THE COOKIES!  Untouched, still in the package.  Mostly.

Back in the car, they each had one -- okay, maybe two.  But that's it, swear to God!  Then, Jamie got out of the car and lined the remaining cookies up under the path of their car's left rear tire, got back in the car, put it in reverse and backed over them.  Okay, took care of that.  Wanna go to Westwood?


A few more words about the screenplay.

Here are some of the smartest I've heard; spoken by Ben Afleck on The Charlie Rose Show, attributed to T.S. Eliot.  "When you're trying to break into your audience's subconscious, plot is the meat you throw to the guard dogs."

And to drive the plot, you use CHARACTERS.

Somebody smart (hell, maybe it was T.S. Eliot, too) said character is destiny.  And I believe that it's true.  Destiny not only for the Hero but for those around him.  Forces, both good and bad, follow him on his journey and often sweep everyone else to heaven or hell.  The Hero is kind of a destiny magnet.

Citizen Kane ends up a gazillionaire who destroys everything he loves: Jedidiah, Susan, Mr. Bernstein, the newspapers, even a priceless but ignored treasure house of the world's great art (and sled).  All gone because the only safe way he knew to love was to buy things and then choke them to death.  His destiny.

Dreaming up and writing characters is a difficult amalgam of showing how they behave, how they dress, how they speak, what they do.  As Freud pointed out "We are who we were" so we have to understand their past even if they don't.  It always helps to know what your characters love most, hate most, and crucially, as Robert Towne pointed out, what they fear most.  So much of our lives are run and ruined by this motor.

Even our President had said, more than once, that power is born out of fear.  And not coincidentally, it's the title of Bob Woodward's book about the 2016 Trump election.

Once you know these things, you add them in tiny little brush strokes, blending, even hiding, so it's not obvious and simplistic.  It's a good idea to salt the script with lots of cool details, factoids, behavioral tics, and throw-away moments.  So that everywhere you look, the sweep of the story is reflecting the myriad faces of the main character.  Remember: it's on the hero's back the whole thing rides.

Simpler, paint-by-numbers movies always go down easier for a mass audience.  You know, movies with lovable lead characters who generate oodles of what executives call "rooting interest."

I came to hate those two words.  Because even though it's the polar opposite of the exec's daily life, in this case they want their hearts engaged, not their brains.


There are times when this is not dramatically possible.  Ideally, you want both heart and brain alive and working and above all, ABOVE ALL your main character has to be interesting.

You're not supposed to get an emotional woody over Hannibal Lecter but you still can't take your eyes off him.

You don't want to grow up to be Walter White in the legendary "Breaking Bad," but you follow his story wherever it goes because deep in our black little hearts, we know that could be us on our darkest day.

Even in comedies like "Tootsie," Dustin Hoffman's stubborn self-obsessed actor is not our ideal best friend or next door neighbor.  Can you imagine the meetings the studio had about "softening him up" so they could "expand the brand."  Thank god Hoffman and director Sydney Pollack held out.  It ain't easy when a bunch of tanned, handsome, well-dressed execs whose money you are playing with, all want you to just make these Few Little Changes.  And these are the same men (and a few women) who will hire or not hire you ever again because you might become known as "inflexible" or "difficult."

But, hey, there are good days, too!  The perfectly named "Bad Santa" got made, reviewed well, and did good business.  Steven Hunter, the smart, tough-minded critic for the Washington Post said the two most memorable Santas in film history are Edmund Gwen and Billy Bob Thornton.  Haven't seen it?  Netflix.

This balance between a lovable and a flawed main character is one of the hardest things to strike in screenwriting.

Orion Films originally paid a lot of money for the book "Silence of the Lambs" for Gene Hackman to direct and star in as Lecter.  But when Hackman saw what Ted Tally had written, he chickened out.  He'd won an Academy Award for playing Popeye Doyle in "The French Connection" but Hannibal Lecter was fucking EATING PEOPLE, man!  There is an old adage in Hollywood: They can kill ya, but they can't eat ya.  I guess Hannibal finished that.  Especially for Mr. Hackman.

For a while the project was as dead as Monty Python's parrot.  Then Orion's president (and my ex-agent) Mike Medavoy sent the script to his old pal and former client Jonathan Demme and the rest is box-office and Academy history.

All great dramatic characters have a fatal flaw.

It is simply a blind spot.  Because of who they are, how they were raised, what they became, they are unable to see the one thing that could save them.  Their glorious struggle to survive is what makes for great drama.

Take a look at James Stewart, driven by revenge and guilt in the Anthony Mann directed westerns of the early Fifties.  Or "Lawrence of Arabia." Or "Raging Bull."  Or "The Hustler."

Robert De Niro and Paul Newman gambled their careers on 'unpleasant' characters like these.  So did Bogart, Brando, Lee Marvin, Barbara Stanwyk, Joan Crawford, Jack Nicholson, Woody Allen, Faye Dunaway, Al Pacino and more recently, John Cusack, Sean Penn, Seth Rogan, and Matt Damon.  Hell, even Vin Diesel (is that a butch name or what?).

How these lead characters reveal themselves to us comes primarily though DIALOGUE.  What they say or don't say.

So that is where we will start next time.  And remember the wise words of actor Jake Gyllenhaal, "Freedom is just on the other side of discipline."

So keep going.  You'll find it.

1 comment:

  1. "We didn't think Bobby should have to sell one of his Renoirs for our lunch. But maybe he had an extra velvet Elvis in his garage." That is hilarious. So is "for reasons best known to the Baby Jesus." Now, was Bobby's wife "beautiful, and thin as a shoelace," or was she "thin as a shoelace" and "beautiful as a shoelace"? And that Jamie Diamond, "standing in Bogey's lap while they all laughed and smoked and drank"--boy, she got started on booze and cigarettes early!

    I like the cookie story, and I've done things quite similar: destroying food beyond repair to keep from eating more (though not in such an interesting way), and diving into a dumpster to retrieve the food I didn't properly destroy.

    "Plot is the meat you throw to the guard dogs." That is just gorgeous.

    This is fun.