Thursday, January 15, 2015

#16. The death of "Lazarus." And more about dialogue.

#16.  More dialogue about, um, dialogue.  And "Lazarus" finally dies.

There are many different ways of talking even though, for the script, you are doing all of it.  It still must have many voices, many cadences, many differences.  And they must line up correctly.

A high school dropout from Alabama who went to work in the mills when he was fifteen will not express himself in the same way a bond trader from Darien will.  In fact, that mill worker will probably not sound quite the same as his shift supervisor.  Listen to Tommy Lee Jones' character in the woefully underseen "The Valley of Elah" or "No Country For Old Men."  God, I'm glad I don't have to live in Cormack McCarthy's head.

One good way to make sure all your characters don't sound alike is to go back and read each character's lines, set off by themselves.  Or better yet, if you have actor friends, give the script to them to read.  This was hard for me.  But screw up your courage and do it; ask them what they think, really think.

When you get a movie into production, it will be difficult and very costly to set things right if the dialogue doesn't work.  Unless your star is Christopher Walken who it's been rumored only reads the script to get the gist of the story and then throws out his dialogue and just makes it up.  The story in     "Pulp Fiction" he tells about hiding his buddy's watch in the P.O.W. camp is great...whoever did it.

Dialogue is the first, but not necessarily the most crucial, window into the soul of your characters. But I still think its importance is keyed to the story it serves.  Otherwise it's just an acting exercise. This is a point David Mamet makes forcefully in his book to actors, "True and False."  The whole idea is for the reader to keep those pages turning.  Not to stop and admire the literary scenery.

So start lush and get spare.  Edit and cut, cut, cut.  I think a script or painting or poem is done is when you can't take any more out of it.  What do you think?

The next posting will deal with the actual writing of the screenplay.  Calling all angels...


But first, a few stories about people "along the way" from whom I took great joy, learned some things, and had tons of fun.

Like the time in Paris that involved me, my buddy Richard Compton, and the Marvelous Marvin Schwartz, you know, Good Marvin.

Since he had a fairly rich development deal with Fox, Marvin told me and Richard that we should come up with some cool story and pitch it to him.  He would pay us to develop it and then, we would make the movie and all grow old and rich together.

Here is what I can remember of "Lazarus," the story I came up with.  The protagonist was an old Hell's Angel, just out of prison for his involvement in a shooting in a rock and roll club like The Roxy on Sunset.  Laz and two of his buddies had been set upon by some early Euro-trash and their body guards.  Who had guns.  It left one of Lazarus's buddies in a wheelchair for life and another in Hell forever.  The Europeans bought their way out of the mess, the Angels got sent to San Quentin.

When they got out, during the 24 hours of tequila, nookie, and dope, they began to plan their revenge (always a good plot engine, said Marvin).  They would crate and air freight their choppers to Paris where they would hunt down the assholes who had ambushed them.

There were two things that positively electrified Marvin in this pitch: The head Angel, Lazarus, I would write for Lee Marvin.  And the other element that made him jump was -- for a plot reason I mercifully cannot recall -- that they teamed up with some French and German Hell's Angels chapters (man, we could get Klaus Kinsky and Belmondo!) to rob three Swiss banks AT THE SAME TIME.  Caper city!  Jeez, you wonder why Dostoyevsky never thought of this.

"I can see the 1-sheet!" Marvin said.

"But before we make the deal, I'll get travel money from the studio to send you guys to Europe to Hoover up everything in sight we might be able to use, like those corkscrew Swiss mountain roads filled with roaring choppers!  Whatya say?!"

I'd owned and ridden bikes for years; the aforementioned BMWs and the haul ass Ducati stranded in Mexico.  But the only chopper I ever had was a Veg-o-matic.  Nevertheless, I was ready to go and two days later, Richard (with his new French wife, Fast Annie) and I were on a plane, headed into a rising sun.

A few words about Annie.

Richard had met her when she was a working au pair girl for an A-list Brit transplant writer/director in Beverly Hills.  The Brit's three kids were well known little hellions so Annie knew how to handle things when the crazies busted loose.  She was quick, cute, young, and she thought her new husband Richard was the Second Coming.  In many ways, she was the perfect wife for a director.

Three weeks earlier, Annie'd had major minor surgery to deal with an ovarian cyst.  At her insistence, the doctor had given his reluctant permission to fly.  But we had to take it easy, take precautions.  Of course we would, certainly.  "And remember to take your prescriptions.  This one might make you sleepy but you have to take it."

When we landed in Paris, Fast Annie was in heaven; she was home where everybody spoke French, smoked Gitanes, and drank ten gallons of coffee a day.  We tagged along behind her like puppies (easy for me, of course) as she tore through one arrondissement after another: Lee Marvin and the Hell's Angels at the Eiffel Tower, at Notre Dame, at the Crazy Horse.  In a traffic jam, being flailed by an enraged grandmother with a loaf of bread!

Later that day, we rented an old Mercedes 600, got half a dozen maps to Switzerland, put Annie in the back seat to stretch out with her travel pillow where she was fast asleep before we pulled out of the lot.

Richard and I had both driven in Los Angeles for years so we thought we were combat hardened cowboys.  But, buddy, Paris France is like a Daytona 500 stock car finish.  We just missed death a whole raft of times before we hit the Swiss border a day later and Annie slept through it all.  Every now and then, she'd wake up to say, "Puppee, I muss slep more.  Wake me when we get to Surrik."

We loved Switzerland.  Who doesn't?  Maybe Orson Welles, what with all those cuckoo clocks.

In Zurich, I thought I'd be able to get plenty of information on the so-called secret Swiss banks.  Silly me.  Apparently, I'd forgotten what the word 'secret' meant.  Nobody in those days before Google would say ANYTHING, they'd just look at me with cold eyes and a half smile.  As I told them it was for a 20th Century Fox movie, the smile faded.  A Hollywood movie with Lee Marvin as a Hell's Angel!  They asked us to leave.

Back in Paris, we'd heard that the Swiss' main competition for this kind of banking was just over there in the land-locked micro-state 'country' of Lichtenstein.  We had some guide book that told the fanciful story of the Prince, a constitutional monarch, actually coming down from his castle to -- get this -- play darts in the local pub with his subjects.  And we believed it!

When we arrived in Vaduz, Lichtenstein's layer cake capitol, it was sunset and Richard and I were whipped.  But recently awakened Fast Annie was up and running.  All in French, she found us two rooms in a beautiful little hotel, got us booked for dinner in some snazzy restaurant, then located the very pub that the King (we're so Hollywood we'd already promoted him from Prince), was said to dart in.  "Come on," she urged.  "I'll bet zee King is in there right now!  We can ask him about banks."

Too many hours and Scotches later, no King.  On our way back to the Mercedes, we looked up the hill to the castle on the huge rock outcropping.  It was brightly illuminated by hundreds of mercury vapor lights.  Finally, half drunk and fully exhausted, I yelled up the hill, "Kingy, come down and play darts with us, man!  We're buyin'!"  Then Richard started to take it up.

Suddenly, we heard sirens as Annie pulled us into the car and drove us back to the hotel.  All the way, Richard and I made up songs about how great she was.

But that night, something slowed way down inside Fast Annie.

When we woke up the next morning, she was already awake, flushed and grimacing, doubled over in pain.  "Something is wrong wiv me.  Take me back to Paris, Reechard.  Please..."  First we took her to a local clinic for some pain meds.  Lichtenstein is tiny, about 60 square miles, maybe 30,000 people.  The richest country per capita on earth, they were extremely accommodating but spoke mostly German which none of us understood.

"Take me to Paris," Annie kept saying.

So we did.  But I have no clear memory of how.  Maybe we turned the car in and went high speed rail but I don't know.  Just that suddenly, it was all hands on deck.

Hell's Angels and darts with Kingy were forgotten as, suddenly without his French bride, Richard the director took over.  And that's what we needed.  Writers, process oriented, see too much; lost in the pixels, every road looks the same and yet different and each one has endless possibilites and a story behind each and blah blah blah.  Directors, goal oriented, see the way through it, to it.

Back in Paris, we ran into the most important fact about the big central hospital: it was all Catholic, all the time.  The place smelled like Clorox and was awash with nuns and their white billowing habits and stern, scrubbed red faces.  They seemed to stand as the first line of defense between the patients and the too few actual doctors.

After she'd been seen, Annie told us she explained to the ER nuns that the ovarian surgery had taken place in America.  Not good.  In California.  Worse.  In Los Angeles.  Worst of all.  She told us the nuns had become convinced she was lying, that she was hiding an abortion!

And that is why Annie in her hospital bed was given an injection of antibiotics and was told there was no room available for her.  She was finally pushed out into a long porch, under a roof to be sure, but completely open to the elements on one side.  No wall, no windows.  Just air.  Richard and I gathered around her bed as it began to snow.

I am not making this up.

At ten that night, Richard and I tried to wheel Annie's bed back inside but were stopped by a nun and an orderly.  Richard found a pay-phone and called the American embassy and briefly told them the story (if I'd made the call, I'd still be explaining it to them).  He tried to lodge a formal complaint and was told since it was after business hours, to call back in the morning.

So around midnight we went in and stole blankets from empty rooms, took them back out on the porch where we all hunkered down for the night.  About four, we tried to sneak her inside again, and again to no avail.

Sometime during that night, I realized there are some things more important than a screenplay.  When I thought of it, there was nothing left in my tank, my brain or heart for it.  All its half-cocked absurdities carried it away.  It didn't even wave bye-bye.  Just gone; in a long dark night in the City of Light.

So the next morning as Annie was fitfully sleeping, Richard and I ate oranges and dry cereal we stole from the hospital cafeteria.  Richard said, "Puppy, I gotta get my wife back to L.A., to her doctor at Cedars.  This place is going to kill her."  I told him WE would get her home.  I was coming, too.   Annie had two hands; he'd hold one, I'd hold the other.  This time, Lazarus was going to stay dead.

Eighteen hours later in L.A., Annie was in Cedars Sinai Hospital, Richard and I were across Beverly Blvd. in Jerry's deli, slurping down chicken soups.

The next day we drove in to Fox to confess to Marvin we had nothing on "Lazarus."  We had gone looking for a Swiss bank robbing, revenge bent Hell's Angel and found a very sick French girl in crisis who needed to come home immediately.

He was not thrilled but he understood when we told him all what had happened.  He had to swallow hard, but he got it.  Because he was Good Marvin.  And was a sucker for a good image.  I think it was the light dusting of snow on Annie's green hospital blankets as her husband and his screenwriter slept scrunched down on porch chairs next to her.

Every once in a while, I dream about those Goddamn French nuns.

Oh, and Annie fully recovered, Richard went on to direct hundreds of hours of episodic network TV, hell, he directed the pilot of "Baywatch," ka-ching, and the movie "Macon County Line" which made a ton of money, but it didn't keep them from getting divorced and the next time I saw Annie she was sixty at Richard's funeral some years ago.

Oddly, I love getting old.  I do.  But time's payback can be a bitch.  And I miss my friend Richard.


  1. Bill, fabulous, hair raising tale! When's next one coming? Monday? Can hardly stand the wait!

  2. Oh, Billy, wow—what a story. The last line is heartbreaking.

    As usual, I loved it from start to finish, with some examples here:

    "There are many different ways of talking even though, for the script, you are doing all of it." That's such a delightful truth! My favorite part is that you can finally get in all your should-have-saids.

    "The protagonist was an old Hell's Angel . . ." I really admire that: getting us to empathize with someone we think we never could. King Lear. Zampano. Ratso Rizzo. Don, in Mamet's "American Buffalo"--that's one of my favorite examples of dialog ever.

    "I think a script or painting or poem is done is when you can't take any more out of it. What do you think?" Well, I can't disagree; my problem is that I take it out only to replace it with new stuff I'll have to take out later--so that I’m really NEVER done.

    Jesus. Those God Damn nuns! My mom has some real horror stories about the nuns who taught her in school, but nothing this bad (just the usual punch in the face). I knew there were nuns in some European hospitals because of Fellini movies, like Dolce Vita, but I didn't know they had such tyrannical power.

    My favorite part of your post is this: "Because he was Good Marvin. And was a sucker for a good image. I think it was the light dusting of snow on Annie's green hospital blankets as her husband and his screenwriter slept scrunched down on porch chairs next to her." Now that is absolute poetry. Perfection.