Thursday, March 9, 2017

#28. Legal World

A little less than half way through my time in Hollywood, it came to pass that I got Tar-babied in a thirty million dollar lawsuit against Universal Pictures.  Ill prepared and quaking, I was forced to enter...dom dom dom...Legal World.

I had written a script called "Frat Rats" with producer Jim Hart (one of my favorite guys ever), a wild ass comedy about college fraternities.  Into this 117 page flaming rubric, we had shoehorned every ridiculous moment, every outrageous event we had ever heard of or experienced in our checkered four year different college careers (although mine took nearly five).  This testament was never going to win us a Polk Award although maybe a poke award wasn't out of the question...because while many readers found it ludicrous and semi disgusting, they also found it funny.

I had some early heat from "The Rose" (Fox had just cast Bette Midler in the upcoming film) so "Frat Rats" was making the rounds.  Jim and I took meetings at various studios -- one being Universal -- trying to set the project up for development.

Sometime later, Universal released their fraternity blockbuster "Animal House" they had made for under 3 million which went on to gross 141 million, one of the most profitable studio films of all time.  Jim and I instantly knew that "Frat Rats" was dead and if we continued to tart it around, folks would think we were pathetically trying a coattail run for a straight-to-video slot.  So we packed up our Selectrics and stole back into the night.

Jim (a fountain of ideas) and I (a slow drip of idea) had come up with a new story for a script about a lovable Dallas swindler named Eddie Bud Newhaus and the Texas-Oklahoma football game rowdies which, as we put it together, often made us laugh so hard we literally fell to the floor.  Turns out, I would follow Jim's laughter any place.  Lame, but fun.

Somewhere along in here, Jim heard that his former executive producer had contacted his firm of attorneys, that he felt like Universal's "Animal House" had somehow ripped off "Frat Rats."  I never paid much attention to all this; many people in Hollywood are either suing each other or are planning law suits or are talking about them.

Then, one day it hit -- huge headline and front page story in Daily Variety.  "Universal Sued For Thirty Million."  Below in slightly smaller headlines, "Animal House gnawed by Upstart Frat Rats."  Or something like that.

And our names were shot through the Variety article, followed religiously by everyone in town.  Suddenly people who'd read "Frat Rats" began to tell us about the 'similarities' between our script and Universal's, now this megahit.  I didn't know what they were talking about.   The dates didn't even line up.   "Animal House" had become a pop cultural touchstone but all I could think about was how we were going to keep Eddie Bud 'alive' until the end of our new script.  Finally we decided on a hotel bathtub full of room service ice cubes.  And this was all before "Weekend at Bernie's."

Eddie Bud may have bought the farm but "Frat Rats" lived.  Because  apparently in America, anybody can pretty much sue anybody for anything.  And once it starts moving, slowly but inexorably, it has its own engine, fuel, drivers, passengers, and destination.  Whether it'll ever get there is up for grabs...but it's on its way.

Oh shit, oh dear.

The last thing you want said about you in that town is that you are litigious.  On so many levels, far deeper than truth, it's the kiss of death.  Your phone goes into cryonic slumber.  And I didn't want anything to do with this lawsuit.

But it was too late.  Because once these things start, until it's heard by a judge, stopping or even turning them is like driving a huge 69,000 ton displacing supertanker doing 20 mph.  You spin the wheel like mad (yelling panicked things you learned in submarine movies like "Right full rudder! and Reverse ahead stern!") and about a half hour later, the bow slowly begins to inch around.

Then came the phone call ushering in one of the worst days of my life.  I was being deposed!

We met the next day in some huge law firm's conference room.  I was early, heart slamming so loud I started apologizing to people who looked at me like I was mental.  As it got closer to 9, the room began to fill up.  I recognized my attorney but who were all these other stern-faced suits?  Keep in mind this was light years ago and I was dressed in my semi-cowboy drag; I had shined my Tony Lama boots, combed out my ponytail, and put on a decades old tie.

As someone once said, "There is a Mark in every room.  If you look around and can't find him...it's probably you."  That morning, Chow Puppy's first name turned out to be Mark.  And all those drill-down cadavers were Universal's lawyers, massed and out for blood.  I looked at my lawyer and swallowed hard.  He stifled a little yawn.  The only advice he had given me was to tell the truth.

I will describe, as best I can, the flashing moments that I recall.  It was so scary, humiliating, so racking that, at times during the long, long day, I actually thought I was having an out-of-body experience.  Or they had lapsed into some arcane language I'd never heard.

My lawyer and I sat on one side of the long table.  No cameras but several recording devices and a stenographer taking it all down.  And we started rolling.

Is your name Chow Z. Puppy?

"Yes."

Does the "Z" stand for Zonofabitch?  (Only kidding, they didn't ask this)

Are you from North Carolina?

"Yes."

Were you in the Dog Marines?

"Yes."

Did you go to the UCLA film school?

"Yes."

Are you now a screenwriter?

"Yes."

Were you a writer with Jim Hart on a screenplay called "Frat Rats?"

"Yes."

Well, I thought this isn't so bad.  They're asking questions that I can at least answer.  And it was beginning to have a kind of comforting rhythm.  I looked over at my attorney whose face was in a beam of morning sun.  His eyes were closed and I thought maybe he was mind-reviewing our defense.  Until I saw his mouth drop open a little.  The guy was asleep.

Mr. Puppy for reasons best known to yourself, I see you decided to show up today in costume.

"What?"  And then came the "question" that is verbatim.

Are you primarily known in this town as a hack writer?

"WHAT?!"

That was when I realized it was not only Universal lawyers but those representing "National Lampoon" which apparently gave birth to "Animal House" concept.  And suddenly it seemed like a slow motion feeding frenzy.  My attorney finally seemed awake.

This was Legal World and their phalanx of lawyers began to list every problem, real and imagined, that producers, studios and networks had ever had with me.  Where had they come up with this shit?  As they reeled off the Boulevard of Broken Dreams, I hoped my shocked silence might be taken as stoically butch but I knew my twitching red face probably nixed that.

My attorney finally called for a bathroom break and, just as quickly as it had disappeared, suddenly all the air came back into the room.  Their lawyers turned to each other to schmooze about the back nine at Riviera and drink coffee and they seemed almost human.  As I blindly made my way to the hall and what I hoped was a bathroom, my lawyer caught up to me.  "It's going pretty well, don't you think" he asked as he put his arm around my shoulder.

"Compared to what: the Manson trial!?"  His face tightened as he turned and walked away.

The rest of the day seemed to last six weeks.  Each of their attorneys sharpened their little interrogatories on my face and occasionally my man would object which didn't seem to matter.  They kept rolling.  Depositions are about the sued grilling the suer until it all becomes a sewer or their office building is struck by a meteor.

Mr. Puppy, did it take you two tries to qualify with the M-1 rifle in the Dog Marines?

"Yes.  I had bad eyes --"

Just answer the questions please.  And a year later did you wash out of the Naval Aviation Cadet Program?

"Yes."

And in 1964 did you crash and burn on the TV quiz show 'Jeopardy?'

"Um, yes."

You seem to have a well-worn record of failure.

"I do?"

Were you looking to break this cycle with a raid on the overwhelming success of 'Animal House?'

"Raid?  I didn't bring this lawsuit!"

Just answer the question please.

The character shredding went on like this until they were through with me about six.  They hadn't even broken a sweat; I had to have help getting to my feet.

When I left and went down to the echoey parking garage (they didn't even validate), I got into my old Ford Woody and started to cry.  I was grateful for the silence but my mind was scrambled by the legal onslaught I had just been though.  A kind of public hating.

When I got home I put on a homeboy Marshall Tucker record, heated a Lean Cuisine, showered and got directly into bed.  It was nine and I was completely stove in as "Can't You See" played again and again.  Gonna take a fast train....  I think I fell asleep about two.

And for the next three weeks my phone didn't ring once.  From five or six calls a day to zero.  But the best thing about Hollywood Memory is that it's just about as bad as mine.  And on week four, my agent called with a check, two studio meetings and an offer.  Like Gloria Gaynor, I had survived.

Five months later a judge threw the whole lawsuit out.  It was over just as quickly as it'd begun.  There.  Not there.  That supertanker had taken a summary judgement torpedo amidships and sank without a trace.  "Animal House" went on to successful gross-out legend and Jim and I went on to a frozen Consicle Eddie Bud and the rest of our lives.  I have never felt so much relief at being shed of a project before or since.

I'm thinking about naming my next dog "Starry Decisis."  And that is the very last thing I have to say about Legal World.

Ever again.

5 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. "Jim (a fountain of ideas) and I (a slow drip of idea) . . ." Love.

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  3. This couldn't have been more fun (for us to read) if it had been fiction!

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  4. "Compared to what: the Manson trial!?" Ha!

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  5. Wow, Billy, what a rollercoaster! By the way, above where it says "This comment has been removed by the author," that was just a duplicate of another comment. (Don't think I said something mean and then thought better.)

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