Sunday, December 14, 2014
#14. Rock & roll hellfire part 1. And words about dialogue
#14. The Rose's rock & roll hellfire, part one. And some words about dialogue.
"I ran the hellfire road
to chase the sweet smell of sin."
J. Mellencamp 'Troubled Man'
We were hippies once...and young.
We had pony tails. And loved rock and roll. And had been front row center for the entire Monterey Pop Festival. Netflix it; that's us four UCLA film schoolers in American flag shirts and black cowboy hats shooting my so-called thesis film. We got half a page in color in Time Magazine's 1967 hippie issue! My sister was thrilled, my southern small town parents were mortified.
Ten years later I was pinballing my way though Hollywood when agent John Ptak heard they were looking for a writer at 20th Century Fox for a Janis Joplin prototype rock and roll crash-and-burn story. At this point, my hippie drag was wearing a little thin, even for me, but J.P. and I figured what the hell. Once more into the breach!
So I threw my blue Bahne skateboard in the way-back, jumped in my '42 Ford woodie, and drove to Fox to meet producer Marvin Worth.
I think our simultaneous four word thought bubbles were "Are you shittin' me?!" I was in a faded tie-dye shirt, skinny jeans, Fairchild moccasins, and my black cowboy hat with its American flag hatband. I had a lit Winston clamped in my teeth. I am cringing as I write this.
Marvin Worth was dressed in a beige cashmere turtleneck, a $300 pair of slacks, Italian loafers, and wore, around his neck what must have been a four pound silver Ankh, popular in those days with hep cat businessmen.
We probably should have just blown taps right then. Neither of us could quite hide the look of disgust. But neither could we hide the fact that both of us got, well, curiouser and curiouser. So he half heartedly motioned me in and I barely made my way to a stuffed chair and we began our meeting.
They didn't have the data-urping internet in those dim days, so all we had to go on was reputation and rumor.
Worth seemed to be in his sixties with his perfectly done Prince Valiant long hair and his buffed and manicured nails. I recently Googled him to discover he was only 12 years older than me! In those days, I thought of myself as Young -- drinking, smoking dope, running around, no kids because I WAS THE KID! I had two cats named Tector and Lyle and an empty refrigerator and a waterbed and a Mickey Mouse rug in the bathroom (still got it) and a skateboard, man. The only thing I could cook from almost scratch was a Tater Tot omelet.
Is this not a kid?
Worth seemed so old. And even though he'd had produced and managed the legendary Lenny Bruce (a complete hero of mine; I could do all his routines including Fatboy's Used Car Lot), I couldn't quite get past Worth's big shot bit. To be fair, I'm pretty sure he felt the same way about me.
We looked at each other and slowly began to talk. I found out what he wanted, he found out what he might be able to get. And although we never became friendly, never lost the basic distrust from that first impression, we found a kind of peace with it, made the deal, and went to work. Such are the sometime residents in that Hollywood Hotel. In the end, with significant help, we put on a fairly successful party/movie down in the ballroom. It was called "The Rose."
After my deal closed, Worth and Fox hired John Byrne Cooke (broadcast legend Alistair's son) a former bluegrass musician who had worked for the famous gonif manager Albert Grossman (Bob Dylan, The Band, Peter, Paul, and Mary, Odetta, Paul Butterfield, Janis Joplin). During that period, John had been the road manager for Janis and had stories for days.
A good natured guy, he also had a four digit I.Q., made tri-lingual puns, could read upside down and backwards, and had an encyclopedic knowledge of music. He was the first to notice that my parent's zip code -- 28782 -- was a palindrome! Over the next five months, he gave me much.
Like his notes he'd made over the years, access to his recollections and stories, and a New York introduction to Janis' band, producer John Simon, together again in the studio to work the tracks of her memorial 'final album.'
However thanks to my substance abuse and being swept away by time and events, here the memory begins to shake and cough. So I will just say I learned some things thrilling, boring, even unpleasant about the record business. From sung and unsung rock and roll heroes.
Over the years, I have come to spend some time with rock and rollers: Jim Morrison of The Doors, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, to name three. Here is what I learned. They are brilliant, gifted, and utterly damaged. When they are at their zenith, very, very few say "no" to them.
They end up as children who throw spectacular autonomy tantrums to get their way. After a while, just the threat of this is usually enough. It becomes habituated behavior whose wheels are lubed by staggering amounts of money. The music can be great but make no mistake, fame is a kind of stage four cancer. With occasional fun.
Here is an illustrative (and perhaps apocryphal) story. When San Francisco's Jefferson Airplane hit it big, I mean real big, "White Rabbit" and "Somebody to Love" had been on the charts for months, Grace Slick and Marty Balin were in Los Angeles doing business when they got their first massive check. Wowee wow, look at all them zeros! They were taken forthwith to a Beverly Hills exotic car dealership down on Wilshire.
Where not a single one of the car salesmen would come over to help them. And Grace was gorgeous! But this was 1967 and to the staff, they were just a couple of no account hippies off the street.
Grace fumed. She steamed. And then she exploded. Grabbing a cast iron base from one of the Aston Martin signs, she began to beat the steel grey DB-5 in a fury. The first blows froze everyone cold. They they all lept into action, running for her screaming "STOP! What the hell are doing?!"
Grace calmly dropped the cast iron base the concrete floor and smiled sweetly. "My name is Grace Slick, motherfucker and I want this car." With that she pulled the RCA check out of her purse and showed it to them. "All fixed up. By tomorrow at five."
This story widely made the rounds: no clue if it's true. But the underlying message is clear. Fair is fair. Money is money. And I want what I want when I want it. One pill makes you larger...
So with a whole raft of these kinds of stories and some vaguer ideas, I went to work on an outline, a kind of information dump, to see what I had.
A few years earlier, in the barely imaginable Time Before Computers, I had bought an IBM Correcting Selectric II typewriter, and it had become the new star of my life. There was something mystical about its hum when you turned on; it painlessly opened a vein for me every time and suddenly my fingers were flying over the keys and the little silver printing 'golf ball' was chattering away, page after page.
May Rose Foster was going to be a glorious, out of control southern girl rock and roll singer at the top of her career. She had been, as they say, rode hard and put up wet. And now she was completely exhausted, worn out by the non stop tours, endless hours in the studio, the business she didn't really understand, interview after interview where they never quoted you right, the booze and drugs, the parade of nameless men...and women, and very little normal human contact. She was always hustled from place to place by a phalanx of well-intentioned robots who treated her like a diseased queen.
She wanted a year off. On her own. To get well, to read, and to write new songs. To recharge the batteries. To find her creative center again. Maybe in a little mountain cabin by a creek...
No one wanted any part of this.
Her millionaire manager Rudge Campbell (a British Albert Grossman type) had a plan to kill all of it. He would guilt trip her, wear her down, threaten to replace her band, and cause her friends to betray her. Then he would move to cancel the one concert venue she wanted, her "homecoming," all to turn her back into the golden-egg-laying goose. He would make it all right again. He would save the day. He would save her.
It was always assumed that we were modeling our star after Janis Joplin. True to some extent. But to an old drama-junkie jazzbo like me, first there was Billie Holiday, Chet Baker, Peggy Lee, Anita O'day, and even the short career and lost anguish of Johnny Ray. I saw the Rose in all of them.
So I had my protagonist and my antagonist. I had two clear characters (at least to me) and, most importantly, I had conflict. And, of course, they had history. Now it was time for me to invent the other characters, the every day events, scenes, and some kind of resolution. Now the fun would start. Runners take your marks...
This was in the days before Syd Field, before I really knew what structure was. But let's be honest; it was also more fun. The old Twain/Gottlieb writers' koan -- if you don't know where you're going, any road will take you there -- had never been more true. But mamma mia, I saw lots of wondrous stuff wandering on my Any Road, my rock and roll midnight freeway to hell.
I took off ramps, on ramps, overpasses, underpasses, rest areas; I even took runaway truck pull-offs! Because I had left town with no map, and to flog the metaphor further, I tried to stay within sight of my freeway but it didn't always work.
You get happy and tranced, writing some scene that has absolutely no business in your story but the wasted time and effort is so enjoyable. And my Selectric II printer ball couldn't have cared less. He was just happy to be jumpin'. I named him Russell Dehon and through the hypnotic hum, I could often hear him singing bebop a'lula, you mah baby!
So, lots of blind alleys.
But in some of those I found Sarah, an old lover of Rose's. And Houston Dyer, an AWOL Silver Star winning Army combat vet on the run from Vietnam. I found Dennis, Rose's road manager who was most like John Cooke. I found Tiny and Mal, young soldiers on leave before their posting to Southeast Asia, rabid Rose fans, thrilled to get on the Tour plane with her. I found her band, wild boogying horn dogs and all last named after former U.C.L.A. quarterbacks. Hey, be true to your school.
Since I seemed to have most of my characters, I thought well, it'll be smooth sailing now. I guess I can start. Just see how and where it wanted to go. You know, like novelists, real writers. I'll let my characters talk for a while. They'll show me where they want to go.
B.F.M. Big fucking mistake.
Because like children left to their own devices, they're so happy to be up and running, they'll say anything. Endlessly. And here, for a bit, we are going back to THE SCREENPLAY. Because where we left off if you recall was -- tah dah --
Many people think that dialogue is all that screenwriters write. Until they read their first script (no easy task, believe me). There is where they discover the whole movie; the story, the motivation, the characters, the costumes, the way things look, the action sequences, and -- yes -- the dialogue. In other words, the whole nine.
In a good script, it's nearly all there. Or arrows that clearly point to it.
Someone who can write good dialogue has an odd gift that settles somewhere between the ear and the typing fingers. It's fairly important but not crucial. There are very good writers who have a tin ear for talk. But if you can do it, you will find a niche in Hollywood. Because characters tell who they are and what they think by what they say...or don't say.
As dialogue seemed to be a comparative long suit, I gratefully accepted its gift and turned my concerns toward structure, an area more troubling for me. And it was my first attempts on "The Rose" that made this clear. My peeps wouldn't stop talking! Just blah blah blah. After I had a stack of pages of this mess, I stopped typing, nearly out of breath myself.
Going back through it, I uncovered about three lines that had some actual meaning, that revealed something, that I would keep. One of them was the shortest sentence in the English language, just two letters long. It was a woman saying "no." I figured at this rate, it would take me about six years for a first draft instead of the projected six weeks.
About here is where the 3X5 scene cards began to look good.
Fortunately, I knew where the story started, I knew some of the stuff in the middle, and I knew where it ended. Although then, I was not sure where SHE ended. That came later.
Once I had a collection of possible scenes, I numbered them (as you recall) in pencil and push-pinned them to a bulletin board. After I had rewritten the cards many times and switched them around and around and around, even though Sid Field hadn't written his book yet (come on, Syd, get busy!) I knew I had something up there that looked like a movie. God, what a feeling.
It was that joyousness that propelled me into
EXT. DALTON, GEORGIA - DAY
Your carpet probably came from this sleepy midsize town. It has a well-defined class system -- race, money, and the railroad tracks -- with cotillions, cockfights, stock car hero Cotton Ravan, bankers in their sweat through seersucker suits, and The Rose.
It's a hot smokey day in late summer.
I spent the next month and a half alone with my cats in my home office in the most exhilarating creative free flight I had ever known. I believe if you are doing something you love, reach out with both hands. My face hurt from smiling.
But, as bad times come to an end, so do good times. Turned out that was what my script was about. And keeping that balance was about to become a mess. For both of us. Because I had finally finished my first draft: standing there on the edge of the Hellfire Highway.
Where we'll start next time in Part 2.