Thursday, February 19, 2015
#18. Our Broadway smash (up) with Hank Williams
#18. Our Broadway smash (up) with heartbroken dead country legend Hank Williams.
A year had passed between the end of our Jerry Lee Lewis script and Phillip Browning's call about the possibility of a Hank Williams musical.
During that time some changes had come into my life. I got eye glasses and suddenly I could read again. I thought I had gotten too stupid to read or had somehow lost the ability. But when I put on those glasses and everything popped into focus was one of the better days of my life.
Oh, and I got married again. So I pulled up stakes in Hollywood (as if you could ever really leave that town) and moved to Cape Cod, a little house right next to a five acre cranberry bog. And I learned how to write a TV mini-series (more about that later).
Best of all, I discovered my old friend Syd Field's recently published book on screenplays called, wisely, 'Screenplay.' He finally wrote it, I finally read it. It was a marvel. Still is.
Phillip and I met in Nashville to figure out what story we wanted this musical play to tell. How deep were we going to go? In which direction? And for how long? At the hotel, Phillip handed me a cardboard box that was filled with biographical material on Hank Williams: actual books, magazine articles, tapes (the pre CD days), and a self published book, a good one, too, by some guy who'd written it as his Vanderbilt doctoral dissertation on Hank.
But the big news was that all of Hank's famous music, the songs he had written, were tied up by one of the big Nashville family power brokers. They also controlled Acuff-Rose Publishing and the legendary Grand Ole Opry; this was with whom Pierre Cossette and Phillip were dealing. In those days -- like the historic relationship between Pittsburgh and U.S. Steel -- Nashville was a company town. And that company was Gaylord Enterprises.
The Gaylord guy we were dealing with was very high up in the food chain. But for the life of me, I cannot remember his name so we'll call him Big Suit.
His play was to sit in silence, listening, but his main response to anything was a small smile. In that first meeting he did offer that he and his wife had seen "The Will Rogers Follies" in New York and loved it. That's why they were taking this meeting. That and the fact that Pierre, in his younger days as an agent, had represented Ur country legends Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. Gaylord was sold on Pierre as a country music loving Keeper of the Flame, a real family man with Mary Mother of Five, a guy who could get the job done.
Now to the man who was going to write it.
Phillip asked Big Suit if he'd seen the tapes they'd sent him of "The Rose" and "Hooper" and "Gravy Train." He just nodded and smiled. While Phillip doubled down, extolling my several virtues, including the fact that I'd grown up with Hank Williams' music in a tiny town in the Blue Ridge mountains. I could not take my eyes off Big Suit's unreadable face. And slowly my blood began to run cold.
"What happened to your version of Jerry Lee Lewis," the Suitster asked. Phillip responded, quickly spinning, that our script was just too good. Too honest. I was grateful to my friend but worried that remark might come back in the night, dressed as an E.M.T.
Big Suit had arranged our accommodations in the enormous Marriott-Opryland hotel, some meetings with the former members of Hank's band, and Minnie Pearl, still alive and, as we were to see, full of intelligence and light and lots of memories about Hank.
I spent the rest of that day and night reading the biographical material. And oh, my Lord. That wondrous hillbilly icon was a complete mess, God's very own blueprint for everything that could go wrong in a man's life.
He was born with spina-bifida and thereafter became addicted to pain pills. As an alcoholic, he had a fear of being alone, had poor time management skills, was totally unreliable, had jug-ears and yet was a chronic catnip toy to women. But most of all, and always, he had the high lonesome voice of a lost angel.
However, this is what great drama is made of.
And in the next days, meeting Minnie Pearl and Hank's old band members, more and more came to light. Good and bad. Hank was also a loving son, happy-go-lucky, generous to his friends, and up for anything. He could write a great song in half an hour. His voice was so achingly sweet, even when he sang a mediocre song, it sounded wonderful. He was a terrible driver and an All-American depressive.
Jeez, I couldn't wait to begin.
In those pre-computer days, I was hauling my forty pound IBM correcting Selectric II around with me in an aluminum Halliburton suitcase. I had already unpacked it, gave it some hay and water, and set it up in my hotel room.
I was chomping at the bit as we rode up in the elevator that afternoon; I already knew I wanted to start at Hank's memorial, where he would rise out of the coffin to narrate the show. It would end the same way, only everyone would be singing "I Saw the Light." And somewhere, my old Warner Bros. office buddy Billy Faulkner would be laughing. Because along with Scriabin and all them guys, he liked Hank Williams, too!
The elevator shuddered and jerked to a stop between floors. I turned to Phillip about to laugh at another of our "fine messes." Until I noticed the other couple in the elevator with us; a middle-aged nicely dressed man and woman. She was white-faced and started to tremble. She began to make panting sound as she sank to one knee and then a low moan. "We're going to die," she said.
Oh, no, I thought because at that very moment I discovered that elevator panic is contagious. My heart started to pound. Phillip, good in so many situations, went to her side, leaned down next to her, put his hand on her shoulder and spoke to her so softly that I couldn't hear what he said. And then the emergency alarm bell went off. Her husband began to hammer the control panel with his fist as the woman got to her feet, the color coming back to her face. Phillip stood and smiled at me.
Just as the elevator came back to life!
It began to ascend and the alarm shut off. "You'll dine out on this, Puppy," said Phillip softly. As often as I have been in elevators, this was the first and last time it ever happened to me.
About ten that night, Phillip stuck his head in. Unable to resist temptation, I was already on page 9. "Come on, let's go down to the bar. They have a Hank Williams tribute singer."
Down in the hotel bar things were hoppin'. The Hank Williams guy turned out to be good, if about twenty years too old. Had the voice, though. "Hey, good lookin', whatcha got cookin'..." We found two seats at the bar and ordered Margaritas. "We're going to die," said Phillip as we clinked glasses.
Just then, a gorgeous babe slipped into the chair next to me and put her hand on my shoulder. Hey, now!
She leaned in real close. I couldn't believe this. Until she spoke. "Why don't you introduce me to your friend there..." I just lowered my head to the bar and bonked it softly a few times. Phillip turned to see her glowing face staring hungrily at him and immediately assessed what had happened.
Let's just say he was not exactly unfamiliar with his kind of situation. And then, shutting it down, he explained to the girl he was very happily married to a glorious woman named Junius back in Malibu but he was grateful for her interest.
The next day we were on a plane to Branson, Missouri to meet Pierre.
Branson is Las Vegas for the geriatric set.
The small Ozark Mountain town was packed with enormous parking lots, filled mostly with picture window busses from all over America, motors endlessly running to keep the air conditioning on, in front of the dozens of huge concert venues, each owned by a corporate consortium or by the performing artist themselves.
Our destination was The Moon River Theatre owned and operated by easy-going crooner Andy Williams. Who Pierre Cossette used to represent. Andy had just had his dressing room(s), some three thousand square feet of it, featured in "Architectural Digest," and he was opening a new show.
Pierre explained that the Branson rationale, wildly successful, was to magnetically pull millions of people a year into a centrally located destination that was only about these shows. There were no other distractions. Like gambling. Or sporting events. Or famous scenic sights. There were restaurants and Best Western motels to be sure, but it was only about the shows. And nothing else.
Andy owned Moon River; he basically 'four-walled' his show, eliminating the greedy hands of promoters, agents, managers, and endlessly demanding talent. The performer-owners controlled it all. Those with a good business sense were raking it in. Beaming, Pierre said Andy had never been so rich. "And after 'Hank' finishes on Broadway, we're gonna bring it here to this theatre and you'll get rich, too!" I didn't believe it for a second. Not me. I was too busy thinking about the new cowboy shirts and boots I could buy and books and records and all the dinners I could eat at Musso's and and and...
Andy Williams' opening night dressing room soiree was filled with music and Los Angeles royalty. Not to mention the Mayor of Branson and the Captain of the Missouri State Police in his dress blues. No one worked a room better than Andy Williams as he sidled over to us. Pierre introduced me as "my guy who is writing my Hank Williams Broadway show," two possessive 'my's in a ten word sentence; not bad.
"Mr. Williams, half hour!" a crackling voice from wall mounted speakers. "Half hour..." With this, the party broke up and we were all led out and into the theatre itself. Given programs, we were shown to our seats by uniformed locals. "Enjoy the show, enjoy the show..."
The layout of the theatre was totally new to me. About every ten or fifteen seats it seemed, there was an aisle up and down. And when you sat in comfortable seats that whooshed when you sat down, there was at least four feet between your knees and the row in front of you. "What's the deal," I asked Pierre. He nodded to his right. Here's your answer. And there were two elderly couples, three of whom were using those aluminum walkers with the yellow tennis balls on the back legs. As they made their way down our row, they smiled past without us having to even turn our knees to the side.
Of course, I am older now than they probably were then and I have learned how much it takes to navigate normal theatre rows even without the damn walkers. Especially once the show started and all those pinched and tiny bladders began to kick in. And the race to the bathrooms was on for, as my friend Wayne says, us Morse Code pee-ers.
Andy opened with Henry Mancini's "Moon River" and closed with the same timeless song. In between, he did his other hits like 'Born Free,' pop song covers, the great American songbook, some light jazz and a few Bossa Nova numbers. The man had an easy, wonderful voice and his orchestra was spectacular. And yet, there I was, making notes on the back of the souvenir program booklet on possible Hank scenes. "Stop that," whispered Phillip. I couldn't. Finally, he grabbed the program and started to read my notes by the ambient light. A big smile came across his face.
And I knew I was headed in the right direction.
Back in Hollywood, once I had my probable scene cards in the right order, I made an outline. Then did it all again. And again. Finally I was ready to start.
Putting a play together is a whole other format I had to research and learn. As best I could. I had to remember that in the theatre you are dealing with a stage which is really only a big black box with lights and painted scenery, that only actors and what they say carries the story, that there are no close ups, no cutting to shift the attention, nothing is 'realistic' or natural. It's ALL artifice. It's supposed to be.
Drove me crazy.
Such experience and skills as I had learned in screen writing took me, every time, in the wrong direction. So I read plays. I saw as many as I could. I talked to theatre people. It got better. I bought a laptop and typed faster: my first real computer.
And I loved it! As far as I could tell, here was the laptop's only drawback: One afternoon, I came into my office and my cat Frisco was on my desk. Close to the keyboard. Very close. I got his attention and softly called him to me. He turned and, as cats will, that little bastard walked away from me, ACROSS THE KEYBOARD thereby sending 3 prime, recently written pages of "Hank" into the ozone.
I yelled, I stomped, I freaked and I didn't see my cat for two days. Good thing, too. I know some of these tales end with the writer rewriting the pages and they are completely, joyously better. Didn't work that way for me. They were okay. But the first ones were better. I called it the Frisco Scene. But I learned about some of them little buttons and clickers you could adjust to automatically save your material every 30 seconds.
Then finally, I had a first draft. I read it over and over and over. I don't know, I thought it was pretty good. I thought people will like this Hank, these people in his life, the songs of course, but the whole thing just seemed...strong.
So I handed it in to Phillip and Pierre. I didn't have to wait long. Things started to move fast.
Phillip loved it, Pierre loved it, his son (and heir apparent) loved it, Mary Mother of Five loved it, assistants loved it, agents loved it; it caught fire. Right up to the time Pierre sent it back to Nashville, to the Gaylords.
Big Suit recognized its potential, its power, and its pedigree. And how many people might see a play like this. That was the problem. I was told he thought it was too hard core, too tough. Their main corporate mandate was to protect what would become known in the ensuing years as The Brand. They wanted a safer Hank. I found it ironic that the same people who had kicked him out of The Grand Ol' Opry for life, now found just the memory of those days too...icky.
But since without their full cooperation, there would be no "Hank" at all, EVER. So I went back in and began to cut. I took it from an R to the northern border of PG-13. And when I read it, again and again, I thought it was still pretty good. I missed its early rawness, its tough-minded overview of the angelic hellfire of his life. But I still liked it.
And finally, begrudgingly I was told, so did they. Nashville still had 'notes,' but at least it appeared to be still in play. Then several things seemed to happen simultaneously.
We were given a green-light to put up a beginning production of the play in the Tennessee State Theatre. Phillip called with the dates and made airline reservations for us all. We would cast the show from back in Tennessee, using as much of their stock company as we could. But they said we could bring a Hank if we had someone we thought was right for it. I think they hoped Pierre and Phillip with their connections would come up with some magic voiced celebrity. And we were, in fact, after one: Dwight Yoakam, a great singer/songwriter who was just getting his acting career started.
Then suddenly it was Thursday chaos by a flurry of phone calls. Pierre's long-time Los Angeles attorney had somehow failed to send a check and renew the option with Gaylord. The date had come and gone and it slipped his mind. At least, this was the story I got. Losing the rights is like taking off from the USS Lexington for a bombing raid on Tokyo and forgetting the airplane.
By this time Big Suit and his corporate cohorts decided they might as well do this show themselves; why did they need a bunch of suntanned Hollywood interloping fruit-burgers telling them what Hank Williams was really like.
I was actually packing for the trip when Phillip called. "You remember that lady in the elevator in Nashville," he asked. Umm, yeah. "Well, she was right. We're dead," he said quietly. Then, nearly in tears, he explained it all.
And by the following day, in spite of beseeching phone calls to Nashville from Pierre, the whole enterprise had disappeared in a cloud of smoke. Simply gone.
And that was that.
A lot of writers don't like writing.
They like 'having written.' I admit there is a certain relief in that but what I really love is the actual writing. I don't like the schmoozing to get the job, I don't really like the research, I hate the interviews you have to do for story or background or both. I am happiest behind this keyboard, and even though I am nearly the worst touch typist in history, I love pounding it out. Part of the pleasure is the solitude. And I like being alone. No one to disappoint. No checking in. Silence.
Surely you have heard that Chows are not very social. They mostly just sit and stare, glowering, not really knowing what the hell anyone is talking about. Is it time for dinner? Is it time for a walk? No? Then, you suck and I'm gonna take a nap. I am sorrowful shamed by this, but it was my way for most of my years in show biz. Even a little bit now.
Once in the old Earthling bookstore in Santa Barbara, my final wife was skimming a book on dog breeds. I heard her laugh so I went over. "Look at this," she said. "Golden Retrievers are supposed to be good for families with kids. Labs are good for couples. German Shepherds good for a single person. And here is The Chow." She pointed to the page and right there it said 'a no person breed.'
This is a crucial procedure: it can mean the difference between a made movie and 117 pages of telephone scratch pad.
When the first draft is finished, make a copy file immediately, one you're not afraid to play with and then, cut it to the bone! Be brutal. If you're doing this right, you have likely cut 30 pages out. I know, it's absurd, you've just cut the heart and soul out of it, what in God's name have you done!?
You can't get your breath, this is an atrocity, oh my God! Breathe, breathe, it's gonna be all right. This is not Forever. It's just to see what it looks like. In the giant scheme of things, It. Will. Be. All Right. You have the original full file and a back up right there, a few clicks away.
So here's what you do next. Go back to the beginning of this massacred new bare bones version -- and put back maybe 10 or 15% for flow and reading ease. And try to do it without going back to look at the original. Restore, say, three cool lines. No more! Now your page count is back up to 100. And you're breathing a little easier.
You want the version with the least amount of stuff that will clutter up the view and allow the light to shine through, illuminating the strength of your story.
Now, either email or print out enough versions to give to some friends who will read it and give you notes. Even though they might be wildly divergent, these notes can sometimes mean the difference between success and failure.
Have you cut so deeply, that no one can follow the story? Have you over-written so much that no one wants to? Are eyes glazing over?
As you debrief your friends, do not be defensive or morose. Of course this is hard. But they are helping you and the most they will get out of it is dinner or a thoughtful gift. They just did you a huge favor.
In the overall process of writing your three-ring notebook monster (keep all the drafts all of the time), you will encounter many demons, many angels. And some that come dressed as their opposite. These are very dangerous because while they seem so cool, in fact, they can derail the whole train. They might be majestic stretches of prose, a jaw-dropping brilliant scene, hilarious dialogue that jumps off the page.
You know, the kind of stuff you want to stop people in the street to show them. I call these 'my babies.'
May I tell you a story I once heard?
It was the summer of 1898. Auguste Rodin, the premiere sculptor of his time, had just finished an enormous commission in plaster called "Monument to Balzac." It was to be a historical figure of one of France's greatest writers, driven, tortured, wrapped in the huge dark cloud-like robe he wore when he wrote. When it was okayed by the powers-that-be, it would be cast in bronze.
When Rodin finished but before he showed it, he invited the members of his masterclass in to see it. They were euphoric in their praise. Oh, Master, they cried, how stunning, how magnificent! You have captured all of humanity in Balzac's hands. His hands are perfect. His hands say it all. On and on they went. Hands, hands, hands.
Finally, Rodin thanked them and sent them home. That night, by firelight, he went in with his hammer and a chisel, and chopped off both hands. He had certainly taken pride in their creation; from the drawings that remain, deservedly so. But that piece wasn't about hands. It was about the man, his work, the whole. And that is why today you see Balzac in his robe that seems to come down and cover his hands.
What matters is knowing that sometimes you have to kill your babies. Because there can be enough, of great hands, even of chocolate mousse.
Wouldn't it be perfect if the story were true? But who knows? In his earlier "The Burghers of Calais," you will see six figures and seemingly about a hundred hands. All ropey arms and hands, hands, hands.
But who the hell am I to question The Great Man? I was just a screenwriter who wouldn't even race Jerry Lee Lewis down his driveway, backward. Yet here is my secret; I am willing to learn from the highest and the lowest, the best and the worst. Even from myself. And apparently, so was Rodan.
See, I didn't come just to load the wagon. I am here to get in that sucker and, as the sun comes up, drive it to Glory. I already got the pretty girl.