Thursday, April 30, 2015

#22. A slow tango with Wim Wenders. The Power.

#22.  A slow tango with Wim Wenders.  And the Hollywood pecking-order of The Power.

I count Wim Wenders as a friend.

But I really have no reason for it except I made him laugh.  He is certainly one of the world's great film makers.  And I am probably one of the pretty okay writers here on South Whidbey Island.  If you give extra credit for the Chow Puppy part.  For instance, I know for a fact that National Book Award winner Pete Dexter who lives here doesn't have a drop of Chow blood.

When I first met Wim Wenders, it was only briefly, back when he was married to my friend Ronee Blakely.  She had just delivered an Academy Award nominated performance for Robert Altman in "Nashville."  Ronee and Wim were beautiful, hurtling intensities; reminded me of that early 20s newsreel footage of the two driverless steam locomotives charging toward each other on the same track into a collision.

Wim and I met again some years later through producer Jon Taplin on an MGM rewrite, an early computer movie called "Trapdoor."

As I recall the script was already pretty good and I liked Jon, with whom I had done a picture in 1973 called "The Dion Brothers."  He is a very bright and funny guy out of rock and roll who also knows about world-wide finances, you know, half-caff debenture bonds and barking rollovers and all that stuff.  We even heard he got the billionaire Bass Brothers to help save Disney in the 80s.  Jon was a loyal friend who always believed in whatever it was I had that I might bring to "Trapdoor."

Actor Christopher Reeve, white hot off "Superman," was attached to star.  Mostly, he wanted to work with Wim and who wouldn't?  As Chris was appearing in Lanford Wilson's "The Fifth of July" on Broadway, we convened in New York mostly working out of my hotel suite.

Those were good old days (by cracky); first-class days, per diem days, sometimes even creative days.  But not always.

I had been on the road with celebrities before but it was nothing like walking down the street with Superman!  Jaws dropped, moon faces whirled in our trail as folks danced around like they had to pee.  Chris, ever the gentleman, smiled and waved as we ducked into coffee shop after luncheonette to hide and work.  Living in Manhattan for the play, he had become used to it.  He said it was mostly the tourists; New Yorkers left him alone.

To get a New Yorker's full attention, you had to be the Pope or the return of Moondog or maybe Broadway Joe Namath.  I once saw President Gerald Ford and his phalanx coming out of the Sherry-Netherland Hotel into waiting bulletproof limos and the New Yorkers streaming past never looked, didn't even brake stride.  God, I love that city.

We continued to work on "Trapdoor" even as it sprung its own on us, very probably guided by me.  In the end, even with Jon, Wim, and the biggest star in America, I couldn't really find a way to an exciting narrative for this early computer movie.  All that remained was for my script to do a beautiful cannonball into Lake Suckorama.  Which it did.

As the old chief says in "Little Big Man," Sometimes the magic works and sometimes it doesn't.

By this time, I had moved to Cape Cod and was about to get married again.   And there for a while it was a pretty peaceful run.  The marriage ceremony on the Cape in the Christopher Wren church was especially festive.  Many of my L.A. friends joined us and the reception was held in our yard overlooking a five acre fresh water Lily Pond.

Wim came.

I have two memories of that day.  One -- I stood next to the shrimp platter and gorged myself.  I figured it was half my day, screw it.  That's what I mean about the 'same schmuck.'  And Two -- when Wim arrived (he was always taller than I remembered), he was in his red frame eyeglasses and a full length black leather SS coat.  He came over and joined us, sitting on quilts out on the lawn.  He seemed to do a little spin as he dropped down next to someone's brand new baby whose eyes widened in terror.  Her scream popped eardrums for miles.  That child is now in her early thirties, likely with kids of her own.

Around this time, Wim had joined forces with Francis Coppola to direct a Ross Thomas script about detective fiction writer Dashiell Hammett.  When we were both back in L.A., Wim called me.  He was having a terrible time making sense out of it all.  He and Francis were at loggerheads and producer Gray Frederickson had been told to keep people away from Wim so he could finish the script polish.

But invited, I snuck in.

Wim looked to be at the end of his proverbial rope.  So I gave him the present I had brought to cheer him up; a first edition book of Alan LeMay's "The Searchers," maybe Wim's favorite Western.  And as I was going over my few notes I thought might help, the door blew open and there stood a livid Gray Frederickson.  I was immediately thrown out.  So I went to Tana's and fell face first into a bevy of margaritas.

When I finally saw "Hammett," it seemed to me they had not quite answered the main question I posed to Wim that night: "What is this story about?"  Oh, well...

In his next movie, "The State of Things," the book I'd given to him was featured as a minor plot point.   As the director character lends "The Searchers" to someone he tells him to take great care with this book, it was given to me by a friend.  When I saw that, shocked, it brought tears to my  eyes.  And I don't cry pretty.

"Wings of Desire" was a hit for Wim and I thought a wonderful movie.  We had flown to NYC for the premiere.  I still have the tiny gold feather lapel pin Wim gave me.  This trip coincided with my friend Susan Felter's opening at some downtown hot shit photo gallery.  She had gone on the pro rodeo circuit for a season with the cowboys and a large format camera.  Susan June's work is spectacular; I am looking her shot of legendary bull rider Gary Leffew that hangs in this office right now.  As I remember, Wim -- himself a photographer -- loved them, too.

Now, we arrive at one of the strangest, saddest moments of my screenwriter life.

Wim came to visit on the Cape with his exotic French German girlfriend and star of "Wings of Desire" Solveig Dommartin.  They were putting a new project together, a science-fiction film, and were talking to writers about joining them.  This weekend, it seemed, was my turn.

Well, thank ya Jesus!  Let's talk.  So we did.  And did.  And did some more.  And it was great; I was drooling, laughing, crying, dying.  I knew this was it, I was ready to start then and there.  All in.  Right up until the moment Wim said, "Okay, that's the back story.  Now the film starts."

W H A T ?!

I don't know whether it was the shock of discovering that the hour long 'back story' wasn't a part of the deal or whether it was that the ideas they had for the film did not seem as developed or compelling as the amazing story they had just told me.  But I realized that this was not going to work for me and I'm sure they could tell.  Because  when you are dead flat broke and want to play poker, I'm your mark.  Everything I think is writ large on my face so you are going home with all my money and probably my car which is why I don't gamble.

Mercifully, I cannot recall how this ended.  Only that they departed the next day.  Soon, I read in the trades that Michael Almereyda was set to write the new Wim Wenders'  "Until The End Of The World."  In the way of things, it was later rewritten by Peter Carey, Wim, and Solveig who also starred in it.

I finally saw the movie but even at four-and-a-half hours, I didn't quite get it.  And here's the sad part for me.  I love Wim, and for a while we wuz bro's, but I am mostly not on his story-telling wave length.  Any room he is in, he's going to be pretty much the smartest guy.  And for sure the coolest.

Any room I'm in, I'm barely going to be in it, and can't wait to get out.  Wim is an intellectual German film maker, living with his history, far away so close.  I was an excitable skateboarding Chow Puppy in a cowboy hat and the only history I got was from books about way back when and somewhere else.  The British call this kind of mix chalk and cheese.

We never saw each other again.  Except once for about an hour, years later.

I was having dinner in a Sunset Strip L.A. restaurant with Paula who would become my last and final beloved.  We had just ordered when Wim and his new wife Donata walked in and saw us.  The years between sightings fell away in a happy avalanche.

There were introductions and hugs all around: we had never met Donata, a German photographer and Wim had never met Paula, down from Seattle visiting.  Someone suggested they join us so we pulled up more chairs, they sat down, and we started talking, catching up.  It was a great dinner.  And then it was over and Wim had an appointment somewhere about financing for his new project which might have been "Buena Vista Social Club."

My default position at the end of most restaurant meals, is that I truly enjoy picking up the check.  It's an odd but comforting way to pay forward some of the generosity that has been shoveled out to me, now over a lifetime.  But I do like to see what happens when the check arrives.  There are so many ways these things can go.  You know, the big To-Do; here, let me have that!  The Stare Down.  The Dueling Wait-It-Outs.  The I-Don't-See-anything.  The Go-To-The-Bathroom Sneak Away.  So many ways and, let's face it, I Am Curious (Puppy).

Unfortunately, it seems I am also Bad Memory (Puppy) so that evening's details are fading even as I sit here.  But I did happily pick up the check.  As we made our good-byes, Wim headed out to get their car when Donata came close to me and said the strangest, most interesting thing.  "Wim must really care for you," she said.  "He doesn't usually allow anyone to buy him dinner."


Then, with the two-cheek European kiss, she was gone.


Hollywood is a company town.  Because of the expense, the power, and the celebrities involved, both movies and TV have a strict hierarchy and a pecking order.  So no one accidentally goes out of order, ya know.  Counter-jumping is strictly forbidden... unless you are with a star or have a mega-hit in tow.

Here's how it works, no big secret.  Take a look at any of the show biz websites or magazines like the Trades or "Entertainment Weekly," the old "Premiere" or "Vanity Fair's" annual Hollywood issue in which the Fabulous Fifty or the Hot Hundred or whatever are laid out.  The Heavy Hitters list.  You know, who does what and to whom.  I think every business has this, ours has it in spades.

Those that own the multinational corporations that own the studio or network are at the very top.  Bob Iger who runs Disney, according to informed sources, pulled down $46,500,000 last year.  The average salary of his employees was $19,530, below the poverty level for a three person household.  Nice, huh?  Disney owns ABC Network, Marvell Comics, pretty much all of George Lucas, Touchstone Pictures, Pixar, all the ESPNs, theme parks, cruise lines, etc.  Check the holdings list.  So Bob Iger's probably your top dude.  And I hear he's actually a pretty stand up guy.

Rupert Murdock, Les Moonves (now "retired"), there's five or six of these billionaire machers, all tough, all men, all white, all wildly over-paid.  Fortunately, they give some of that money away to charities.

Then, you have the stars; this generation's usual suspects.  The Toms; Hanks and Cruise.  Bradley Cooper, Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Sandra Bullock, the Fast and Furious actors who one day will probably be racing jet powered wheelchairs down the halls of the Motion Picture Country Home.

Then, the producer-directors like Steven Spielberg,  Joss Whedon, J.J. Abrams, Christopher Nolan, Clint Eastwood, etc.  These are the guys, you know: one phone call, one green light.

And TV (in a new Golden Age, believe me: I watch more TV than any four people you know) we have the show creators and show runners like Shonda Rhimes, Dick Wolf, Jerry Bruckheimer, and Robert and Michelle King.  Money and power for them is delivered in dump trucks.  The Kings and Rhimes actually write and they are extremely good at it.

Also the great Aaron Sorkin, Matthew Weiner, Vince Gilligan, and David Chase.  TV is where the poor little Typing Lambs finally found their way home.  Baa baa baa.  "Vanity Fair's" editor Graydon Carter recently wrote that TV used to be for the kids, the movies were for adults.  Now, it's the other way around.
  • In Hollywood, while writers are crucial, they are also interchangeable.  Sydney Pollack and Dustin Hoffman reportedly used a total of 23 of them (most uncredited) on "Tootsie," a masterpiece comedy.  I was one of 12 writers (most uncredited) on "48 Hours," a pretty okay comedy with Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte.
You wonder why the people at the top spend so much money hiring so many writers.  I mean, they seldom ever read the actual scripts.  They read something called Coverage.  This Black Plague is a two page nasty book report done by Readers, often faceless writer hopefuls, making a living now by hating everything that comes across their desk because it's not theirs and they're not going out on any limb so a big-shot's frown can saw it off.

Trying to understand in what esteem a script is actually held is a constant struggle.  The apocryphal joke is the Producer who lumbers into a studio yelling "I just bought the greatest script ever written!  Who can we get to re-write it?"

Who indeed.

See you next time, boys and girls, for the tale of the Billionaire, the Academy Award winning actress, and the Indians.


  1. I've missed that tone. Looking forward to reading more of them.

  2. "I Am Curious (Puppy)": that's hilarious!

    I'm glad you pointed out that stuff about Bob Iger's salary compared to his employees'. When Michael Eisner was CEO--and I'm sure it's still true--the sweatshop workers in Haiti who made the Disney T-shirts earned, in a week, the equivalent to the cost of one Lion King T-shirt. Motherfuckers! (The Disney execs--not the workers.)

    Your final quote is also quite hilarious.

    It's fun to read about Paula. I hope I'll see her name in here again soon.

    Looking forward to reading more; I Am Curious (Megan).