Friday, August 28, 2015
#24. The Baked, the unbaked, and the half-baked.
#24. The baked, the unbaked, and the half-baked.
Here are some half-baked folk sayings that I love but have only the dimmest idea of what they could possibly mean.
1. "You can't tell which way the train went just by looking at the tracks." Phillip Browning told me this one and I love it. But wha?
2. "She cuts a wide peel on a small potato." Chester on 'Gunsmoke' from local accordionist and Alaskan long haul truck driver David Locke.
3. "Be careful what you're dreaming. Soon your dreams will be dreaming you." Willie Nelson.
4. "Everything is going in the wrong direction..." Jagger & Richards from The Rolling Stones' song 'Connection.' I know what they mean. I think.
5. "Eat Death!" Graffiti spray painted on a Dallas overpass. Say what?
6. "I don't always understand what I'm talking about. But I know it's right." Mohammed Ali.
7. "Time is a ruthless and hungry lover." Printed without attribution on the inside of a book of matches.
8. "Civilization is like sour mash whiskey. Too big a dose the first time could put a man off it for life."
9. "When the heart is full, the mouth is shut." Um, actually, I think we all know what this one means. Even if we almost don't.
10. "Am I dreaming or did I just see a gorilla and a beautiful dame?!" from the 40s movie "Mighty Joe Young" that can be used unsuccessfully in almost any situation.
11. "You have to get off the porch if you want to run with the big dogs." A bumper sticker seen in Langley.
And while we're on baking in general, here was my business card, set up in perfect screenplay format, complete with Courier type:
EXT. 2808 LAUREL CYN PL. LA, CAL. 90046 - DAY
Screenwriter CHOW PUPPY comes staggering out.
Anybody else want to talk
'story?!' Call (213) 650-1628.
Inside a producer lies dead, shot through his Upmann
cigar. Oh oh.
Someone once told me she saw my card on Roman Polanski's refrigerator door in Paris. Success enough for moi.
Here are a few stories from some of the scripts I either invented, got hired to write, or joined in progress. The reason I mention them at all, is that some of them were okay, a few were awful and one or two were pretty good. But all of them held joy or heartbreak in their typing adventures.
And, except "Little Richard," they went nowhere but kept me and a small number of others employed for a while. I'll finish this with rock and roll's great architect Richard Penniman.
It's right there in the Hollywood Bible: Man cannot live on development fees alone. Although I gave it a good run. With the three main TV networks, all the cable companies, the Studios, and the various independents, at any one time, there must be thousands of scripts in actual paid development.
In bedroom or studio offices, in garages, in living room corners, on dining room tables, in coffee shops, there are hundreds of writers hammering out screen or teleplays of all kinds.
They are based on original ideas, other scripts, novels, plays, true stories, history, even songs. I was once approached by a producer who had the rights to Jimmy Buffett's "Margaritaville." As a recently realized alcoholic, I thought it better to stay away from that one.
As we all approach our own third acts, I heard somewhere that Buffett was considering a national chain of old-age retirement homes under the Margaritaville banner. I envision a battalion of sloe eyed old hipsters wandering about in their flip flops, stepping on pop tops, looking for their lost shakers of salt.
I was always waiting for someone brave to come forward with the rights to Van Morrison's "T.B. Sheets." Now that's a scary song; U-tube it.
In this process, meetings are held, notes are given, agents hammer out the deals, checks clear and the writers start typing as, in opposite directions, they all sail away on different boats to the mystic shores of Development Hell.
As these scripts progress all over town, favorites rise and fall, project rabbis come and go, zeitgeists are caught and fly away. And even though many screenwriters make their living in this land, not enough of these projects ever come to fruition.
It's like a plethora of Hollywood marriages; long term often means boredom and exhaustion. So it is with script development. The longer a script is in this process, I believe the more remote its chances get at ever being made. It's too easy to rewrite the life right out of a good story.
Knowing when to stop is a gift.
As my novelist friend Judith Walcutt has pointed out, there is a wild pony strain of childishness in Hollywood. We know time (especially our own shelf life) is short -- so eat dessert first! Part of that dessert is more paid projects, num.
Say a writer wins an Oscar or an Emmy. And has a genuine hit. And does a big TV interview show and charms everyone (hey, it could happen!). At this point, the writer and his agent set him up with three or four more projects. Wherein the writer will take the necessary meetings to show his best tricks. And then, one of the dirty little Hollywood secrets makes its first appearance: the writer will hire several of his unemployed writer friends to lay down a first draft. The hot writer will then rewrite and polish it until it looks like his. Or enough.
The principal writer got, say, $350,000 for a first draft and two sets of revisions. Although I never got this kind of bread, most do now, if not more. He or she will pay his friend $10,000 under the proverbial table. This is frowned upon by everyone except the two dancers and yet is one of the hidden economic tenets of screenwriting.
The second writer gets no credit, is virtually unknown by the production team if it ever gets made, and gets no residuals. Maybe he gets to sneak his high school girlfriend's name for one of the minor characters. But with this unreported income he was able to pay the rent and put food on the table or get caught up on child support. No small achievement.
Anyway, this is how I remember script development and here are some of the stories it generated for me.
The first script I ever wrote; it came to me like a radio-active dream when I was in the UCLA film school. This was in the mid Sixties when our movie ideas seemed to come in little flashes, mostly made up of rock and roll (Country Joe and the Fish's "Section 43" was a universal favorite), cars, girls, half naked and otherwise, cars with girls in them. And more rock and roll. But suddenly, I had this idea for a Western. Where the hell did this come from? It was 95% fictitious and was this:
Famed buffalo hunter Joe Victory Smith was selected by Teddy Roosevelt to put down the last buffalo, celebrating the moratorium in 1900. Only three things stood in his way -- Runs at Night, a Lakota Sioux war chief, an old enemy. Time. And finally, the old buffalo hunter's dormant conscience.
Soon this idea possessed me and I bought every book on the history of buffalo hunting in American I could find. There're more than you'd think. Then I began work on it without ever having seen an actual screenplay. Not one. I just wrote as if I was describing the movie in my head, minute by minute. I think my dialogue even had quotes marks around it.
I showed the first 30 pages to Colin Young, the film school's director and it generated an idea. He knew I loved the films of director Sam Peckinpah, ex-husband of Marie, one of Colin's secretaries. And apparently Sam was in an unemployed Hollywood slump after the well publicized problems generated from "Major Dundee," a cavalry picture with Charlton Heston. This was well before "The Wild Bunch." Lots of us movie geeks at UCLA were early to Peckinpah's party. "Ride the High Country" still makes me cry.
So Colin set it up; Sam would get some sort of honorarium to mentor this film student and we would meet up in Trancas to work on "Buffalo Man." Sam, behind in rent, alimony, and car payments, took me on without having read my 'script' first. I later learned this was a lifetime pattern of his. He couldn't stand to be out of work even for a day. If you got him at the right moment, he'd sign up for the start money to write and direct a laundromat opening. "There's a good idea in there somewhere," he would say.
Here was my first day with Sam Peckinpah.
As he opened the door to his rental beach house north of Malibu that morning, he was shorter than I thought he'd be. And apparently my hair was longer than he thought it'd be. For ten or fifteen seconds, we just stood there and looked at each other. He took a slug of his pale orange juice mimosa and told me to come in.
We sat at a kitchen table in bright sunlight overlooking the Pacific Ocean waves flopping in relentlessly. Boy this was the life. Sam wore shades the entire time. I never saw his eyes. "You wanna drink, Bob?" He called me Bob for the entire time, too. I passed on the mimosa, not having discovered the deadly joys of alcoholic mornings yet.
"Colin told me you were in the Marine Corps." You could have opened a beer bottle on the lifted lip of his sneer. "I was a World War II China hand. What were you, a hippy Marine?"
"They didn't have them yet," I said. "So I just waited it out. I couldn't fly a plane, I couldn't shoot the M-1 rifle, I didn't want to carry the base plate of the 81mm mortar, and I hated Parris Island. I thought the Marine Corps was your basic Big Green Dildo." Which at least made him laugh.
"You were a Marine," he said. "Now, let's talk about 'Buffalo Man.'"
So we did for the next two hours. And I learned a lot. Unfortunately, fifty years later, I can't remember hardly any of it. Except this: write better...but less. And this, too: even though you're the guide, let the reader (and viewer) find their own way into your story. It will mean more to them.
"There's a good idea in there somewhere. Call me when you get more pages and want to meet again," said handing me a little slip of paper at the door. His phone number. "And you gotta start drinking, Bob. Writers drink."
About a month later I called him. The number had been disconnected. The next day I read in the "L.A. Times" Calendar Section that he'd gotten a new picture and was on his way back to Mexico. I never saw him again.
Twenty years later, I finally wrote a full draft of "Buffalo Man." Then, again. And again. Maybe someday I'll finally catch it, maybe not. So here's to you, Sam, wherever you are. Even though you're long gone, Bob salutes you.
When I reread my script years later, "Idaho" is one that works. As improbable as the story was, somehow it works. Oh, if I could have just gotten a few more to think so.
I can't remember whose idea it was; probably a joint-custody job but I jumped on it like a Kardashian to a tanning bed. Its genesis was from the early Nineties, growing out of the pre-Tea Party lunatic fringe's idea to take Idaho (ever a haven for the Good Ideas of the extreme right) and secede from the union. For a while, the movement was led by a bemedaled retired Army Lt. Colonel gasbag named Bo Gritz. While his true history is somewhat suspect, the power of his personality is not. I thought, wow: movie! Because...there's a good idea in there somewhere.
We got a Canadian company working out of Showtime to finance the development and a research trip to Idaho and northern Montana where there had been recent unrest with the Militia of Montana and some federal officers. For a while in the 80s and 90s, these survivalist nut-cases were on the news every couple of weeks, sometimes with fatalities. The killings at Ruby Ridge were a true believer's nightmare. One of life's enduring mysteries is why some people court death so religiously. And so it came time for me to go see what was up there.
I flew to Seattle where I met my girlfriend and future wife Paula. We rented a car and headed east together across the Cascades into Idaho never-never land.
There are great and grave differences between being a screenwriter and a reporter, skilled at interviews. A few like David Simon, Cameron Crowe, and Pete Dexter have done both well. Me, not so much. But over the years, I pretty much learned how things in life work. I mean it's not exactly a secret. So within those holes in the narrative give and take, I just make shit up.
A long time ago, I interviewed black revolutionary Eldridge Cleaver for the L.A. Free Press. He told me some wild story involving Angela Davis that dropped my jaw; the one where she hides a small handgun in her towering Afro. I asked him if it were true. He smiled and said, "If it ain't true, it ought to be!" I took this rubric directly into my bloodstream, where it remains to this day, the pulse of fiction writers everywhere.
For years, Sand Point, Idaho has been known as Copville. Hundreds of retired police officers have lived there, many from the LAPD and other southern California law enforcement entities. It is a stunning town on the shores of Lake Pend Oreille. In the late 80s and early 90s, nearby Hayden Lake was the home of the Aryan Nation Brotherhood. The northern panhandle of Idaho and the Northwestern tip of Montana was free range to so called patriots of the reddest stripe. There was always cracker-barrel talk, some in jest, some not-so, about secession from the union.
I thought northern Idaho was one of the most beautiful places I'd ever seen. The same with Montana. It all seemed like a reality tinged Lake Wobegone. Only nicer.
We pushed on to the little town of Noxon, Montana. A few years earlier, it had been featured on a CBS "48 Hours" when some of the townies'd had enough of the recently formed all white paramilitary Militia of Montana. In a TV-covered demonstration, a beloved local school teacher named Joyce Coupal had called out one of her former students, John Trochmann, a retired snowmobile mechanic who was now the grand poobah of the Militia. Their face to face set-to, seen by millions across America, was both hilarious and touching.
I immediately called her.
We drove up to Joyce's house in the middle of apple pressing time; she put us right to work. The interview could wait as we were recruited to several hours of serious farm/orchard labor. The Coupals insisted on putting us up in their guest room and after a few hours watching us carefully, her advice was that we should definitely get married. As soon as possible. Our time in these haunts were filled with such hi-def moments. One of which was a breakfast meeting with "Colonel" Rick Rackley, Minister of Information of the Militia, which took place in a classic small town restaurant, its counter filled with home-schooled kids all watching a fuzzy Disney's "Cinderella" on a large screen TV.
Nearly the first thing Col. Rick said was that his former teacher Joyce was a well known commie which then opened his conspiracy gates to the entire left-leaning education system in America, not to mention the U.N.'s black helicopters, the Jew-run media, the new Denver airport where we would all be collected and disposed of in the vast new luggage system whose slots were body-sized, doncha know and he had rock solid proof that the NAACP were all slavering leftie mud-people. The only thing that stood between their chaos and utter ruin was the Second Amendment, its guardian the NRA, and misunderstood groups like his.
During his deadly eyeball-locking rants, he kept urging us to "read his lips." After he left, Paula pointed out that, ironically, Col. Rick was one of those guys who had no lips.
After more interviews, more meetings, I was chomping to start writing. I had scenes and characters constantly loping through my mind. Most of them had lips.
So I started to work. And somehow -- mirabile dictu -- it kept getting better. But one's own opinion is just that. And just when I thought I had it as good as it could get (still do), I turned it in to Showtime and Alliance Films. God I was happy.
Subsequent events can best be described in the following manner.
It was like the Coyote in the Roadrunner cartoon: in full chase, catching up, closer, closer then suddenly he freezes and looks around. He's over the edge of the cliff! And then,
straight down, finally disappearing into a tiny cloud of dust in the bottom of a deep canyon. Who knows how, who knows why? It just IS, brother and somehow, like the immortal Chuck Jones cartoon, it seems understandable...if not exactly right or fair.
So bye bye Idaho.
I'm not sure, but I think there has never been a more beloved, a more important rock and roll icon who was gay and a childhood cross dresser to boot than Little Richard Penniman.
Maybe, generations later, Freddy Mercury of Queen.
One of the many differences between them was that Little Richard was there in the beginning, one of the inventors and absolute monarchs of rock and roll. Plus which, in those days, there was virtually NO acceptance of this kind of sexual behavior. I mean in those days, if you started that ol' shit, there'd be someone in the back of the crowd, looking for a rope.
He was, as his song sings, "Tutti Fruity." And since I first saw him in concert in Greenville, South Carolina in 1955, he was mesmerizing. All us white kids up the balcony were invaded by a wild-eyed demon spirit that night. So much that some of us were actually lowered onto the main stage by our friends so we could dance with the all black audience.
Little Richard was a pioneer, a rock and rollin' beautiful little bad ass. He was a wild-eyed revolutionary funster of the highest order and once you surrendered to his down bound train, you were NEVER the same. I became Uncle John, as in "Long tall Sally, she built for speed, she got erry-thing that Uncle John need, oh, baby..."
So I read all the books, all the articles, talked to all the people including Richard, all the while playing his records, night and day and night again. And do you know, I never got tired of them.
I loved this script. I got everything I wanted in it. And then some. As it passed from hand to hand going up the necessary but harrowing executive food-chain, the reaction was the same: Great script, let's cast it and go! For a while my stock was rising again. Ahhhh.
Then, it hit the last guy in line, the president of the company, a thin, handsome guy in a five thousand dollar baggy suit who thought it was maybe pretty okay. But nothing more. "Who can we get to rewrite this thing?"
This was the last news I heard from the studio for a year until I read they were making the 'new version' with Leon as the eponymous rocker. I was happy I ended up with a 'written by' credit along with the New Guy but was still so discouraged that, shamefully, it was ten or fifteen years before I could actually watch it. One morning reading my beloved "TV Guide," I accidentally saw it listed on B.E.T. and, what the hell, recorded it.
Holy Kazinties, it wasn't half bad! Most of my stuff seemed to be still in it and Leon was great. In the end, I got paid, had a good time writing it, re-heard a lot of great music, and like the best of life, the bad memories were washed away by the immortal incantation of --
"A wop bobba loo bop ballew bam boom!"