Posts Tagged ‘Hollywood’

Sex & Power

Monday, December 11th, 2017

340swept

Swept diptych by Max Greenstreet

“As if layers of lies could replace the green illusion; or the sophistries of failure, the stench of success.” John Fowles

As part of my anti-anxiety regimen, I avoid mass media news. Even so, I still hear about the ongoing criminal acts of Congress and the Supreme Court, as well as the latest ecological disasters. And the main thing I’ve been hearing about lately are the movie stars, celebrities, politicians, and people in positions of power in arts organizations and corporations and universities, mostly men, accused of egregious sexual misconduct.

To which I say, “So what else is new?”

My mother grew up in Los Angeles. Her mother, Goody, was a close friend of Freda Sandrich, wife of the movie director and producer Mark Sandrich who directed Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Top Hat and produced and directed many other movies. Goody’s husband, Casey, hobnobbed with movie people, too. Which is to say, when she was a young woman with aspirations to be an actress, my mother imbibed lots of insider information about the movie and theatre and music world, most of that info having to do with who was a homosexual, who was having an affair with who, and who did what to get ahead—and that what was usually sexual, and we’re not talking romance here.

My siblings and I did not want to believe our mother’s nasty lowdown on the many actors and actresses we admired, and on several occasions we protested, “Oh come on, Mom, not everyone got to be a star by having sex with the producer or the director or somebody who was already a star.”

To which she would reply, “Why do you think they call it the casting couch and not the casting stage or the casting chair? They call it a couch for a reason. I know. I was asked to audition for parts. But I wouldn’t lie down on that couch, and if you won’t let them screw you, you don’t get the part. It’s not nice, but it’s true.”

According to my mother, nearly all of our favorite male movie stars were homosexuals or notorious heterosexual predators, their prey young fame-hungry starlets. And all our favorite female stars had once been fame-hungry starlets ready and willing to have sex with whomever they needed to have sex with to succeed.

And my mother’s brother Howard, an entertainment lawyer who represented many big stars, told me stories about his clients that made my mother’s tales of Hollywood sound like Frank Capra movies. Yet when I sold my first novel to Paramount Pictures and Bob Evans (he had just made The Godfather and Chinatown) I forgot all about the casting couch and went to Hollywood under the noble delusion that my excellent novels and scintillating stories and neato screenplays would be all I needed to exchange for riches and fame.

Now lest you think my mother and her brother exaggerated the pervasiveness of sexual dominance and submission in the entertainment industry, read any thorough history of Theatre and you will learn that in Shakespeare’s time, theatre companies were composed solely of men and boys, and could only exist under the auspices of powerful aristocrats with excellent connections to incumbent royalty. Thus in order to legally form a theatre company, a man had to bend, literally, to the will of someone with greater societal power than he, and once that man had gained the requisite support of a powerful person, other men bent to him if they wished to join his theatre company. From that tradition, entrenched for centuries, was born the theatre and movie world of today.

So there I was, a neophyte in Hollywood meeting with upper echelon players, and from day one I was made aware that my excellent novels and neato screenplays were of so little consequence to the people with power in Hollywood, you wouldn’t believe how little. And every step of my way in the movie biz, and on several memorable occasions during my odyssey through the publishing world, I was presented with demands and invitations to bend to the sexual wills of men and women in order to further my career—demands and invitations I was unwilling to accept.

Thus, as a sympathetic movie producer said to me when I lamented my fall from grace in Hollywood and New York, “Listen, sweetheart, you don’t put out, you get put out.”

Which is why news of famous actors and famous writers and famous politicos using their positions of power to coerce sexual favors from those less powerful than they is very old news to me and old news to anyone who has been in the entertainment business for more than a week or two. So my question is: why is such a big deal being made about such behavior now, when Power Over Others, sexual and economic, has been an essential component of our culture for centuries?

Here’s my theory. The controllers of our media and our government and our economy are keenly aware that our stock and real estate markets are fantastic bubbles filled with hot air, and Trump or no Trump, those bubbles are soon to burst. But rather than allow the endgame of their Ponzi schemes to be the focus of our collective attention, they have pulled out the oldest arrow in their titillation quiver to distract the masses from the colossal rape of the already supine population—a rape in the form of more tax breaks for the wealthy and more plundering of the national corpus before our casino economy comes tumbling down yet again.

Or as the Wizard of Oz said to Dorothy and her comrades, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.” Keep your eyes on the screen. Pay no attention to the psychopaths ransacking your future. Keep your eyes on your screens and we’ll give you the name of yet another Famous Old Man who did naughty things to people less famous than he. Aren’t you outraged? Doesn’t it make you just want to…buy something?

Hollywood Salads

Monday, May 16th, 2016

sunny days tw

Sunny Days painting by Nolan Winkler

From 1978 until 1985 I was entangled in the movie business as a novelist and screenwriter hoping to get my creations made into movies. I was not greatly successful, but I made a few chunks of money and had many strange adventures with the habitués of Hollywood.

Now and then something will happen in the very non-Hollywood life I now lead, and I will be reminded of one or another of those odd adventures. For instance, Marcia and I recently dined at our neighbor’s house, loved her salad dressing, and inquired of the ingredients. Our neighbor’s enumeration of those ingredients reminded me of a supping experience I had in 1981 at a trendy Hollywood eatery.

One of my three supper companions was Laura Ziskin, who would shortly thereafter produce Pretty Woman and other big hits and eventually settle into making Spiderman movies until her recent death. In 1981, she and her producing partner Ian Sanders had optioned my novel Forgotten Impulses and cajoled Warner Brothers into hiring me to adapt the novel to the screen.

Ian was at the table with us, and so was Leslie Morgan, then a vice-president at Warner Brothers facilitating the Forgotten Impulses project. Leslie was an attractive woman in her early thirties, as was Laura. Ian was a fast-talking guy who said he had no doubt whatsoever that I would soon be taking home an Oscar for my screenplay of Ef Eye, as he referred to my novel.

So…our waiter, a lovely young woman, almost surely an aspiring thespian, came to our table to take our orders, and Leslie ordered first.

“I will have the broiled halibut,” she said, squinting at our waiter, “but please have the chef douse the fish with olive oil a minute before he thinks it’s done. And I’ll have a green salad with dressing on the side. Now for the dressing, I want two parts olive oil, one part seasoned rice vinegar, a good amount of grey poupon mustard, finely-minced onion, fresh parsley, no salt, and a dash of pepper.”

Laura was next. “I’ll have the broiled salmon, but I want the pesto on the side, and instead of mashed potatoes I’d like basmati rice, carrots, al dente, and asparagus, well-cooked. I’ll also have a green salad with dressing on the side and for my dressing I want balsamic vinegar, olive oil, a splash of a good cabernet, a large clove of garlic, minced, and I’d like that slightly chilled. Oh, and no big leaves of lettuce.”

Chagrined by the behavior of my companions, I was determined to make no such fuss when it was my turn to order. But first Ian had a go at our beleaguered waiter.

“Yes, I’ll have the sirloin steak, on the rare side of medium rare, but not absolutely rare. I do want the mashed potatoes but no gravy just lots of butter, and give me a bowl of pineapple chunks instead of vegetables. I want the Caesar salad, small leaves, and extra croutons. Those are fresh, I assume.”

“Yes,” said the waiter, writing as if possessed.

“I’ll have the halibut, too,” I said with a sigh. “And a green salad with blue cheese dressing.”

She waited for me to say more, but I had nothing to add.

When she departed, Ian said, “She’s cute. Great dimples. Walks well. We should audition her. I have a good feeling about her.”

A few minutes later our salads arrived. Laura and Leslie tasted their dressings, doused their salads, and ate ravenously, as did Ian. My salad was so thoroughly inundated with heavy blue cheese dressing, a single bite sufficed to quell what little appetite I had.

Two months later—I was living in Sacramento—Laura called to tell me Warner Brothers had offered the director Tony Bill a half-million dollars to direct Forgotten Impulses. He was thinking about taking the gig, but wanted to talk to me. Could I fly down pronto and have lunch with him?

The next morning I flew to Los Angeles and took a taxi to Tony Bill’s suite of offices in Venice. He was famed for producing The Sting and directing a quirky little film called My Bodyguard. A handsome boyish man with long hair, he greeted me warmly and said, “You like sushi? Sashimi? Good. You’re in for a treat.”

Tony and I walked a couple blocks to a Japanese restaurant overlooking the beach. We sat in a booth by the window, Tony had a beer, I had green tea, and Tony said to our waiter, “Whatever Inaba wants to make for us, I’m sure we’ll love it.”

Then we talked about my novel and screenplay and Tony said, “This is a dangerous movie. I can see why so many people want to make it, but on my third reading of your script, I realized the hero is actually the villain. In fact, all the characters are tremendously appealing, but then…no one is bad, no one is good. Who do we root for? We need at least one main character to root for?”

“I think we root for all of them,” I said, rooting for him to accept the offer from Warner Brothers so I could get paid to write two more drafts of the screenplay and have another movie made. “Their appeal is that they are believably complicated and we identify with them when they give into their passions.”

The sushi began to arrive—spectacular. Tony said he’d been to Japan several times, eaten at hundreds of sushi places, and never had sushi this good. I certainly had never had anything as good or in such quantity. Tony left a hundred-dollar tip.

Walking back to his office, Tony said, “I think we need to make Mackie more heroic and less of a bad guy. Maybe make his mother the villain.”

Two hours later, I was on a jet flying back to Sacramento.

Two days later, Laura called to say Tony decided not to make the film. “We’ll find somebody,” she said in her tough confident way. “Somebody who isn’t afraid of complexity.”

Idiots

Wednesday, August 14th, 2013

i-letter

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser August 2013)

“Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.” Mark Twain

I realize it is not, in Buddhist terms, skillful speech to call anyone an idiot, but there are times when no other term works quite so well for me. For instance, have you ever listened to John Boehner speak? I have only managed to listen to him for a few seconds at a time before I become nauseated and have to stop listening or lose my lunch, but what I have heard in those few seconds can only be called idiotic. Or Dianne Feinstein? Have you ever heard such blatant dishonesty, hypocrisy, and amorality spewed from the mouth of anyone? True, I am conflating dishonesty and hypocrisy and amorality with idiocy, but in my worldview these words are synonyms for each other.

And, assuming most of the elections in our great land are not completely rigged (a daring assumption), we the people elect these idiots, which would make us…

“You can tell the ideals of a nation by its advertisements.” Norman Douglas

“The problem is men,” said a visiting divorcee, her ex-husband problematic, indeed, and definitely male. “They’re all idiots.”

“Could we rephrase that?” I asked hopefully. “To make an exception of present company? Could we say the problem is most men? Just so I don’t run out of the room screaming? Yet.”

“I don’t think you’re an idiot,” said the divorcee. “I’m talking about the 75 per cent of male voters, Republicans and Democrats, who voted for George Bush instead of Al Gore.”

“You don’t think Al Gore is an idiot?” I asked. “Mr. Sabotage the Kyoto Protocol and promote nuclear power and then masquerade as an environmentalist?”

“Well, he seemed like less of an idiot,” she said, shrugging. “But you’re right. They’re both idiots. And that’s the problem. Most men are.”

“Why do you think that is?” I asked, having thought long and hard about why most men are idiots.

“Males evolved to be prolific sperm donors, hunters, and violent protectors of their mates and offspring from wild animals and other violent males.” She nodded confidently. “And that’s about it.”

“But why would such evolution lead to idiocy rather than brilliance? It seems to me that for most of our evolution, the forces of nature must have selected for intelligence, ingenuity, and…”

She shook her head. “Brute strength, violence, cruelty. Ever read the book Demonic Males? Check it out. Men are hardwired to be cruel, insensitive louts.”

“What about Mozart?” I suggested. “Mendelssohn? Ansel Adams? Danny Kaye? Fred Astaire? The Dalai Lama?”

“Mutations,” she said without missing a beat. “Do you see much evidence of those sorts of genes in the general male population? And the reason for that is obvious. The Mozarts and Mendelssohns and Fred Astaires, until very recently in the course of human evolution, only rarely survived long enough to procreate because the brutes killed them off in childhood.”

“Well, I disagree,” I said, fearing she might be right. “I think idiocy is learned. And I think that’s true for women as well as men.”

 “The remarkable thing about Shakespeare is that he really is very good, in spite of all the people who say he is very good.” Robert Graves

When I was in my late twenties and thirties, I spent a good deal of time in Hollywood trying to get my screenplays turned into movies, an excruciating epoch that involved countless meetings with movie producers, studio executives, agents, actors, and directors, those who would deign to give me some of their time. And in the beginning of my Hollywood education, I thought a few of the movie people I encountered were brilliant, many were not so brilliant, and many more were idiots.

However, by the end of my Hollywood education, I concluded that all the movie people I’d met and spoken to were idiots, and by that I mean they had no imagination, no genuine sense of humor, and absolutely no interest in making good and original movies. They only wanted to make movies they thought would make money, which I consider a terrible kind of idiocy. I also concluded there must be a few non-idiots in the movie business, but for reasons beyond my understanding I was never fortunate enough to meet any of those elusive beings.

“It was déjà vu all over again.” Yogi Berra

One of my screenplays, They Hate Me In Chicago, won me a dozen meetings with various Hollywood folks affiliated with other Hollywood folks who might have been able to get a medium-budget comedy drama produced. I should clarify that what won me those meetings was a clever one-paragraph summary of my screenplay, since none of the idiots I met with would ever have bothered to read an entire script unless they thought the idea was commercial or the script was written by someone they were having sex with or trying to have sex with or getting drugs from, or unless the script was written by someone they thought was having sex with or doing drugs with someone high up the Hollywood totem pole.

They Hate Me In Chicago is about a baseball umpire who makes the final call of the final game of the World Series, an incredibly close call at home plate that gives the series to the Yankees over the Chicago Cubs. The movie begins with our likable down-to-earth sweetly sexy hero making that fateful call, and follows our hero for the next year of his life culminating in his making the final and deciding call at home plate of the next World Series, the Cubs once again the National League team vying for the crown. Our flawed but lovable hero has a humorous and challenging life off the field as well as on, featuring several strong and appealing female characters to compliment the equally strong and appealing male characters—a compelling mix of professional and personal drama leading to the thrilling climax.

Right around this time, the movie Bull Durham was proving to be a great and surprising success, and was always referenced at my meetings regarding They Hate Me In Chicago. The producers, directors, agents, and studio executives I met with were universally baffled by the success of Bull Durham because, to paraphrase several of them, “Baseball movies were box office poison until Bull Durham came along and nobody can figure out why that movie did so well when so many other recent baseball movies bombed so badly.”

“I can tell you why Bull Durham was a success,” I said to each of the many movie people who professed bewilderment about that movie’s success. I was unaware at the time that my daring to say I knew something about movies that these folks did not know was an unforgivable breach of Hollywood etiquette. By suggesting I thought I knew more about movies than those with more power than I in the steeply hierarchical world of Hollywood was tantamount to, well, calling them idiots, which they were, but that is not the way to make hay in the movie biz. Au contraire, that is the way to burn bridges and end up on numerous shit lists in the movie biz, which I unwittingly did.

“Oh, really?” they all said, making notes to themselves never to meet with me again. “Do tell.”

Bull Durham is a success because it’s not really a baseball movie. It’s a comedy drama about sex and romance with a strong female lead and a sexy leading man, and that’s why so many women love it. And it has a baseball subplot for men so they can say they like it for the baseball, when they, too, love it for the sex and romance. In other words, it’s the perfect date movie. Which is what They Hate Me In…”

“What do you mean Bull Durham isn’t really a baseball movie?” said the producers, agents, directors, and studio execs. “Kevin Costner isn’t playing ice hockey. Are you saying your movie isn’t really a baseball movie? Because the only reason we’re talking to you is because baseball movies are hot right now because Bull Durham, a baseball movie, is hot right now.”

As I said…idiots.

“I know not, sir, whether Bacon wrote the words of Shakespeare, but if he did not, it seems to me he missed the opportunity of his life.” James Barrie

Today on my walk to town, I saw not one, not two, but four different people either talking or texting on their cell phones while driving. Not only are these practices illegal—the electronic equivalents of drunk driving—they are the height of idiocy and cause thousands of deaths and horrible injuries.

But far more idiotic than the use of cell phones while driving is the advent of computer screens in the dashboards of most new automobiles manufactured in America, screens for drivers to manipulate and look at while simultaneously doing one of the most dangerous things a human being can do: pilot a two-ton mass of hurtling metal at high speeds on roads filled with other multi-ton masses of hurtling metal being driven by other humans, some of whom are very old, very young, very stupid, very drunk, high on drugs, eating lunch, talking on phones, and staring into computer screens instead of watching the road ahead. That, as far as I’m concerned, transcends idiocy and climbs high into the realm of collective insanity.

Todd will be appearing at Gallery Bookshop in Mendocino on August 30 at 6:30 PM to talk about and read from his recently reissued novel Inside Moves.

City-States

Thursday, October 11th, 2012

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser October 2012)

My brother, a successful Internet Technology person living in San Mateo, recently wrote, “I know the Bay Area is back because for about three years no one was going out to dinner and a concert, so almost no one was playing at Yoshi’s; it was almost all spillover comedy acts. Now, all the ancient jazz/funk/smooth jazz/new age artists are performing at Yoshi’s again, and come to think of it, we just saw Liz Story there a few months back. The aging Yuppies, or as I like to call us, the sachems of the lower-reaches of the 1% are back in the tall cotton. Unfortunately it’s still not very recovered at all for the other 99%.”

My brother’s observation of those important economic indicators—going out to dinner and a concert—reminded me of something else he hipped me to a few years ago: the Worldwide Centers of Commerce Index, a remarkable and telling project funded by MasterCard. This fascinating study culminated in a multi-dimensional ranking of the top seventy-five city-states in the world, and has not, as far as I know, been updated since 2008. Nevertheless, if you are interested in how the giant multinational corporations develop their global game plans, I highly recommend you hop on a fast computer and check out the Worldwide Centers of Commerce Index. The revelatory information in the study confirms everything Buckminster Fuller wrote about how the supranational powers operate on spaceship earth.

Long before the rise of large and powerful nations came the rise of powerful city-states. Venice, for instance, known for several centuries as the Republic of Venice, was one of the most powerful city-states in the world during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Venice was a great center of commerce and art and war (notably the Crusades) for five hundred years, from the 12th through the 17th Centuries. Today we think of Venice as a quaint old city in Italy with gondolas plying canals, but at the height of her powers Venice was not an Italian city; Italy was essentially subservient to Venice. As a consequence of that greatness, the ambitious and talented flocked to Venice to make their fortunes, which is the main point of Mastercard’s Worldwide Centers of Commerce Index. To wit: the groovier the city-state, the more talented, creative, ambitious people will be attracted there; and those are the people in today’s world that the supranational corporations seek to capture.

According to the 2008 index (compiled before the economic meltdown that has so drastically altered the global financial situation and before the Fukushima nuclear disaster rendered Tokyo radioactive) the top ten city-states in the world were London, New York, Tokyo, Singapore, Chicago, Hong Kong, Paris, Frankfurt, Seoul, and Amsterdam. The San Francisco Bay Area was ranked twenty-eighth and rising fast. The seven criteria used to judge a city-state (each criterion composed of many sub-criteria) were: 1. Legal and political framework  2. Economic stability  3. Ease of doing business  4. Financial flow  5. Business center  6. Knowledge creation and information flow  7. Livability.

The authors of the study write with unbridled enthusiasm about an interconnected society of high-tech culturally exciting city-states taking maximum advantage of the resources and financial possibilities of the world through their interactions with each other, while the land and people outside the city-states are seen as extractive realms where money and manpower and natural resources and farmland are mined for the benefit of the city-states and those folks smart or lucky enough to be, in the words of my brother, among the sachems of the 1%.

This is how the world actually works—global feudalism—and the myriad wars around the world are being fought to serve the interests of those city-states, not in service of nations. This was Buckminster Fuller’s insight that he so desperately wanted people to understand, that the supranational rulers use nationalism to manipulate the masses in the service of the city-states. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are fought for the benefit of the city-states and their ruling elite, not to protect America or to promote democracy. Bucky believed that if people could learn to look beyond the primitive glare of nationalism, they would have a clear view of this superstructure of city-states; and with this clear view the people would cease to support the wars and destructive practices of resource extraction that enrich the city-states and impoverish the rest of the world.

As Bucky wrote in Critical Path (published in 1981), “Long ago the world’s great religions learned how to become transnational or more effectively supranational. Next the world’s great ideologies learned how to become supranational. Most recently the world’s largest financial-enterprise corporations have become completely supranational in their operation. Big religion, ideologies, and businesses alike found it intolerable to operate only within 150 walled-in pens (nations). Freeing themselves by graduating into supranational status, they have left all the people in the 150 pens to struggle with all the disadvantages of 150 mutually opposed economic policies.”

Indeed, when we use the city-state model to look at various aspects of American society that seem ridiculous and counter-intuitive using a “what’s-good-for-America-as-a-nation” model, the ridiculous and counter-intuitive suddenly make perfect sense. For instance, if the vast majority of Americans want and need Single Payer Healthcare, and such a system would save the nation and her people trillions of dollars, why don’t we have that system? Because such a system is not in the best interest of those city-states based in America. The resident corporations provide good healthcare for people of value and importance to the elite of those city-states, while everyone else is either irrelevant or a source of money extracted through exorbitant healthcare costs.

When one examines the upcoming Presidential election in light of the city-state model, we see that Obama is a product of the Chicago city-state hierarchy and a devoted servant of all American-based city-states, especially New York, while Romney was developed by the city-state of Boston with deep ties to New York. Now, a month before the election, it appears that the city-state elite want Obama re-elected, for he guarantees less unrest among the disenfranchised than would the Republican candidate and he is also a fantastic salesman of the wholly erroneous nation model that keeps 99% of humanity enslaved to the corporate elite. But no matter who wins the election, the city-states will be served by one of their high-level operatives.

One of the most interesting things to me about today’s city-state system is the enormous expense (hundreds of billions annually) that goes into enhancing the physical connections between city-states, including airlines, airports, high-speed transportation, and high-tech hotels and resorts for visiting sachem. With internet technology making it possible for people to communicate instantaneously with each other anywhere on earth, one would think that the need for concentrating people in particular places on earth would no longer be necessary; yet just the opposite is true. In the hierarchical systems dominating global commerce today, those who wish to succeed in any of those systems must live in a city-state where those systems are based.

I had a taste of this your-body-must-be-here phenomenon some decades ago when I embarked on a career as a screenwriter. After a motion picture was made of one of my novels, numerous doors in the Hollywood hierarchy were briefly open to me. Los Angeles and New York are the two American city-states where the movie industry hierarchy is concentrated, and when I met with several Los Angeles-based movie agents in my quest to find a representative, they were all eager to represent me, on one condition: that I move to Los Angeles or New York—to live anywhere else was unacceptable.

“But why must I live in Los Angeles or New York?” I asked the most powerful agent to give me an audience. “My work is writing screenplays. I can fly in for…”

“Your work,” she deftly interrupted, “is to establish personal relationships with the people here who have the power to get movies made. If a hot producer wants to meet with you, I have to know you can meet with him today, in an hour if necessary. If someone with clout gets interested in you and he’s giving a party and calls me and says he wants you at that party, I have to know you will be there, and pronto. You can write the greatest screenplays ever written, but if you are not based here and developing strong relationships with important people, you will never get a movie made. Not in this system. Can’t happen.”

“But I had a movie made,” I protested, the thought of trying to survive in Los Angeles or New York far beyond my powers of comprehension, “and I wasn’t here.”

“Based on your novel,” she said with a condescending nod. “Which did zilch at the box office. But if you want to live somewhere else and write novels, I will be happy to represent your published works. However, if you want to be taken seriously as a screenwriter, you must live here or in New York, and preferably with a presence in both places. Otherwise, you are simply not worth my time.”

So here we dwell in Mendocino on the outskirts of the great city-state of San Francisco/Silicon Valley, home to Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Visa, Pixar, Genentech, Hewlett-Packard, and Lucasfilm, to name but a few of the newer giants in the corporate oligarchy; and we most certainly owe much of our relative prosperity to our proximity to that fabulous concentration of wealth and power.

Better Be Good

Thursday, March 1st, 2012

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2012)

“In Hollywood they place you under contract instead of under observation.” Walter Winchell

I recently read a brief rave review of a new movie, not a remake, but the umpteenth “psychological thriller” about a psychopath keeping someone trapped in a closet for years on end. And this review, which sounded suspiciously like a press release, reminded me of one of the more bizarre and disturbing passages in my long ago Hollywood sojourn when I tried to succeed as a screenwriter. But first a little of the back-story, as they like to call the past in the movie business.

In 1981, following the success of my first novel, I was hired by Warner Brothers to write a screenplay based on my second novel Forgotten Impulses, with Laura Ziskin the producer. Laura would eventually produce the Spiderman movies and several other blockbusters, including the incredibly popular prostitute-to-riches movie Pretty Woman, but at the time of our collaboration she had yet to make it big. Laura was passionate about my book, had wonderful ideas about translating the story to film, and came very close to getting Forgotten Impulses made into a movie—quite the opposite of bizarre and disturbing.

As a side note to the back-story, Forgotten Impulses, an obscure novel by any measure, was almost filmed four times between 1981 and 2000, with four different screenplays written (after mine) including one by the now famous director Jay Roach; and these screenplays attracted several major directors including Sydney Pollack, Ulu Grosbard, Tony Bill, and Luis Mandoki. The why and how of Forgotten Impulses tempting and eluding production so many times would make a fascinating book about the movie business and the exigencies of fate, something I will jump right on as soon as I get that seven-figure offer from Random House. But I digress.

“A film is never really good unless the camera is an eye in the head of a poet.” Orson Welles

Two years after I wrote that screenplay for Laura Ziskin, my Hollywood agent was contacted by a famous director of made-for-television movies who had read my Forgotten Impulses script and wanted me to write a screenplay for him based on a true story he owned the rights to. I was a newlywed, short on cash, and desperate to get my career on track, so I listened eagerly to this mogul, a man I will call Frank, though Frank is not his real name, and I mean no offense to anyone who is named Frank.

It seems that Frank read a newspaper article about a young white man, a senior in high school in a big city in the South, who died from injuries sustained when he drove his car into a telephone pole after swerving to miss a dog crossing the road. The young man’s heart and kidneys and other organs were then used to save the lives of several people in need of organ transplants. What made the story so appealing to Frank was that this dead young white man was a golden boy, a football, baseball, basketball star, a devout Christian, a straight A student with a greenhouse full of orchids: a charming, animal-loving sweetheart of a kid who dreamt of a career in politics as an advocate for the poor and downtrodden, his girlfriend a brilliant beauty bound for Harvard.

“I jumped on a plane,” said Frank, his accent unmistakably Brooklyn, “and got down there just in time for the funeral.”

“Wow,” I said, troubled by his gleeful tone. “The funeral.”

“What a scene! The cemetery was packed. Guys wearing baseball uniforms, football uniforms, basketball jerseys, pom-pom girls, a huge choir in white robes, everybody crying and hugging each other. White people, black people. You can’t make this stuff up.” Frank paused. “I got the film rights before they had the grave filled.”

“You what?” I asked, doubting my ears.

“The movie rights. His father signed in the cemetery office and a couple hours later I got his mom to sign. They’re divorced so I wanted them both on board before I sent you down there. Lisa, the mom, isn’t so hot on the deal, but Jeff, the dad, is totally onboard and can’t wait to talk to you.” Frank paused. “So…you in?”

“I…I…”

“Oh, right. Money.” Frank named a dizzying sum. “And expenses, of course, with a fat per diem.” He named a swank hotel where I’d be staying. “I figure you go down there for a week, talk to his folks, his girlfriend, the minister, guys on the team, teachers, then you rough something out, fax it to me, and by the time you get back I’ll have this set up as a movie of the week.”

The money was too much to turn down, so I agreed to take the job. My agent was ecstatic, my wife delirious. However, before I signed a contract, I called Jeff, the dead golden boy’s father, and we talked for an hour. And then I called my agent and said I had changed my mind and would not be taking the job.

“You can’t do this,” she said harshly. “You cannot say yes to Frank and then change your mind. You’ll never work in this town again. Is it the money? We’ll get you more. How much do you want?”

“It’s not the money,” I said, the room spinning. “It’s the whole thing. This is…immoral.”

“Oh, Jesus. Immoral? Gimme a break. What’s moral? This is my reputation you’re fucking with.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Sorry is not enough. You’re gonna have to talk to Frank and explain to him that this has nothing to do with me. Nothing. Do you understand? I love the project. I think Frank is a genius. You make it clear this is your problem, not mine. And don’t use the word immoral. Please.”

So I called Frank and told him I had changed my mind; and he offered me three times the original dizzying sum to take the job. And I told him that in my conversation with Jeff, the dead golden boy’s father, I learned that the golden boy had a serious drinking problem, that he almost certainly was the father of an illegitimate child with a very young woman, and that he may not have swerved to miss a dog but swerved to kill himself. I also told Frank that the golden boy had been terribly depressed about his beautiful girlfriend dumping him when she found out about the probable illegitimate child, and that the golden boy had been benched for an upcoming big game because he was flunking so many classes. But, the golden boy’s father assured me, these were just rumors I would hear when I came down to research the story, and none of these rumors had to be in the movie.

“And none of them will be,” said Frank, shouting. “Who gives a fuck what the real story is? The story we give a fuck about is that this golden boy’s heart saves a guy’s life and the guy changes from an asshole into a golden boy himself, and the golden boy’s kidney saves a girl’s life and she becomes, I don’t know, a great singer or something. See? You can make this anything you want so long as it’s beautiful and inspiring. See? With a wise old black man, or, no, a wise old black woman who teaches him right from wrong and…okay…here, listen! Scenes from his childhood, key moments that made him a golden boy, coming off the bench to score the winning touchdown, winning basket, winning home run, whatever. Defending a cripple from bullies. A black cripple. White bullies. He’s crying in church listening to the heavenly choir, a bi-racial choir, golden rays coming through stained glass windows as we dissolve to a hot kiss and not quite sex with his half-dressed Georgia peach of a girlfriend and vows of eternal love on her front porch before he drives away and swerves to miss the dog that looks exactly like the dog he grew up with, his best friend that got hit by a car when somebody didn’t swerve to miss the dog. You know what I’m talking about. Sacrifice. Redemption. Transformation. All that shit.”

“I’m sorry, Frank. I just can’t.”

“What? You think you’re too good to write for television? Fuck you!”

And I thought that would be the last I heard from Frank and possibly from Hollywood, but two years later my agent called to say that Frank was taking a break between mini-series and wanted me to write a Christmas movie for him pronto.

“I didn’t know you were still my agent,” I said to my agent. “Haven’t heard a peep in a couple years.”

“Don’t be bitter,” she said, laughing bitterly. “You’re not exactly a hot commodity.”

True. And my marriage was foundering, our house payment was due, and I had twenty-six dollars in my checking account, so I said I’d be glad to talk to Frank.

“Listen, Todderoo,” said Frank, having won boatloads of Emmys and made tens of millions since last we spoke, “I just read your Forgotten Impulses script again and I am absolutely convinced that we’re supposed to work together, and not just on this Christmas thing, but on lots of things. I think we have some sort of cosmic connection, I really do.”

He said he wanted a two-hour Christmas movie set in New England during World War II. “Think Norman Rockwell family saga 1944 snow and sleigh bells and chestnuts roasting and funny sad desperate people and hope and redemption and presents under the Christmas tree full of forgiveness. That kinda thing.”

“And the story?”

“That’s why I’m hiring you.” He laughed a high staccato laugh. “Come on. Say yes. I hear you’re hurting for cash.”

Thus ensued eight of the craziest weeks of my life. I flew down and back from Sacramento to Los Angeles twice a week for long meetings with Frank and his “assistant”—Frank’s gorgeous British mistress who never missed an opportunity to say, “Brilliant, Frank. Brilliant!” I was never sure why we had to meet in-person so often since Frank was on the phone to me three times a day telling me everything he then told me again in these face-to-face meetings. I also attended several perplexing meetings with three young network executives who kept glaring at me and saying, “This better be good.” And I wrote dozens of drafts of a World War II Norman Rockwell family saga 1944 snow and sleigh bells etcetera Christmas thing that Frank was forever handing over to his staff writers to rewrite per his brilliant suggestions and then handing the mess back to me so I would, as he put it, “make this sing.”

After eight weeks of sheer madness, and on what I thought would be my last day of working for Frank, I arrived by taxi at the Century City skyscraper wherein Frank had his humongous suite of opulent offices, and found the man himself waiting for me in front of the building, smiling beatifically. Dressed all in shiny black leather, Frank was standing beside his shiny black Lamborghini, the mighty engine idling. He held the passenger door open for me and I climbed into a car worth more than most houses. And then, with the Bee Gees singing How Deep Is Your Love on the surround sound stereo, we drove across the stinking metropolis to Frank’s mansion in Beverly Hills, a huge Roman villa Spanish hacienda hybrid with a gigantic abstract black brushed-steel fountain sculpture installation thing splish-splashing away in the center of a circular cobblestone driveway.

Frank led me into his gargantuan dining room and there upon the massive rosewood table was a magnum of champagne riding high in an ornate silver ice bucket towering over a fat contract announcing a breathtaking increase in my fee—with only my signature lacking.

“Our next project,” said Frank, slapping me on the back. “You didn’t think I would let you get away after just one, did you?”

“What is the next project?” I asked, every cell in my body yearning to never see him again.

He handed me a newspaper clipping. The headline read FORTY YEARS IN THE DARK. An old woman died. She was a recluse with no known relatives. When folks from the Salvation Army came to clean out her house they heard scratching sounds coming from a locked closet wherein they found the dead woman’s daughter who had been imprisoned by her mother in the closet for forty years, since she was six years old.

“You were born to write this movie,” said Frank, proffering a fountain pen. “I locked up the movie rights this morning. You can do the novelization, too, and we’ll bring out the book a few weeks before we’re movie-of-the week.” He winked at me. “We’re thinking Halloween.”

“You know, Frank,” I said, only mildly curious to know how he got the movie rights, “I hate to disappoint you, but I’ve decided to only write original material from now on. My own stuff. It’s either that or go insane.”

To his credit, Frank did not damn me to hell, but said I was making a huge mistake I would regret for the rest of my life. We never spoke again. Our Norman Rockwell 1944 Christmas movie was never filmed. My agent dropped me like a hot potato. My marriage evaporated. And I have never again seen a contract with my name on it that had so many zeros following the initial digit. Yet I have not once, not even for a fraction of a split second, regretted turning Frank down.

Over the intervening decades I have written many screenplays and novels, none yet filmed, and not one involving a psychopath who imprisons someone in a closet. That, as they say, has been done and does not need to be done again. Trust me.

Creative movie producers, brilliant movie directors, whimsical book publishers, and loquacious readers are invited to contact Todd through his web site UnderTheTableBooks.com

 

Falling Behind

Thursday, December 8th, 2011

Photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2011)

“If we weren’t still hiring great people and pushing ahead at full speed, it would be easy to fall behind and become a mediocre company.” Bill Gates

In 1983, as the trajectory of my writing career, commercially speaking, was turning steeply downward, my third-rate Hollywood agent gave me an ultimatum. “Get an answering machine or find another agent.” Thus I became one of the last people in America to discover the joys of screening my calls.

In the early days of owning an answering machine, I especially enjoyed making long rambling outgoing messages; and people seemed to enjoy hearing those messages a few times, after which they would urge me to change the messages because they never wanted to hear them again. So I got in the habit of making new outgoing messages every couple days; and then people complained I was erasing really good messages before their friends got to hear them. Thus art mirrored life.

Then one day I made an outgoing message that went viral before the phenomenon of something going viral even existed. I’m speaking about a time before the advent of the interweb, which was not very long ago but seems prehistoric. If I still had that particular outgoing message and put it on YouTube today as the soundtrack to beautiful scantily clad women dancing on the beach or swimming in lagoons or sprawling on bearskin rugs or walking through sun-dappled forests, I have no doubt my message would go viral again and I would become famous and wealthy from all the hits and links and apps and downloads from clouds and kindles and everywhere.

Sadly, I only remember the feeling of the message, not the words. The feeling was of being exactly where I was supposed to be and doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing, which was telling an entrancing story or expressing some deeply satisfying feeling or describing a most delicious way of being—something so alluring that the caller was overcome with a full body sensation of life being a lovely adventure, a sexy samba on a warm summer day, and that their calling me and listening to my message was exactly what they were supposed to be doing. Yes! The experience of listening to my message was a holy act, a miraculous give-and-take, a blessing, a multi-dimensional, emotionally, physically, and spiritually fulfilling orgasm free of even the slightest attachment to outcome or length or reason. Hallelujah!

I got hundreds of calls. Telephone calls. Not emails or hits or links. I’m talking about actual human beings calling my number and listening to my message—hundreds of people from all over America and around the world. Friends told friends and their friends told their friends, and so on. A woman called from France and left a message my neighbor translated as, “I am so very much wanting to have the child you are the father.” Another call came from a bunch of people having a party in England, and after hearing my message they applauded and shouted “Bravo!” Calls came from bars and cafés all over America and Canada where the callers held the phones up so everyone in those joints could listen and respond. I felt like I’d won the Pulitzer Prize, minus the prize money.

That message made people happy. Those words, their order and tone and cadence, made people laugh and cry and rejoice. Some people left delightful replies—impromptu poems full of love and hope that brought tears to my eyes. I tell you, that message was an elixir, a salve, and a great big answer to the gigantic question: why are we here?

I kept that globetrotting zinger of a message on my answering machine for months until one day a friend who had heard that psalm too many times said, “Enough already,” and I hit the Erase button. Honestly, I had no idea what I was erasing because I had not listened to the blessed thing since the moment, all those weeks and months before, when I hit the Record button and fell into a reverie from which flowed those now forgotten words.

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Arthur C. Clarke

My wife Marcia and I are both self-employed and have web sites whereon we display our wares and talents in hopes of enticing people to give us money for what we do. Marcia is a cellist, cello teacher, composer, and she runs two chamber music camps each year for adult string players. Her web site is NavarroRiverMusic.com on which she promotes her marvelous camps and sells her CDs and sheet music. Her most successful creation, commercially speaking, is her Cello Drones for Tuning and Improvisation, a CD that has sold three thousand hard copies and is being downloaded at an enviable rate each month, I being the envious one. Music teachers and musicians and meditation practitioners rave about her cello drones, and there seems no end to new customers. She also sells her album of wonderful cello-centric songs Skyward, sheet music of her original compositions, and three CDs she’s made with her husband Todd (that would be moi).

My web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com on which I sell my books, music CDs, story CDs, birthday cards, and cards and posters of my zany paintings. Visitors can listen to stories and chunks of my novels (read by yours truly) for free, and sample tunes from my albums. My most successful creation, commercially speaking, is the lovely little hardbound book (signed by the author) Buddha In A Teacup (just ten bucks!) I am currently most enamored of my solo piano CDs and dream of one day rivaling Marcia’s enviable download business, though for now I’m thrilled when I make .0013 cents from someone in Poughkeepsie taking a listen on Napster.

And, yes, my previous experience with the aforementioned miraculous outgoing answering machine message and a few other game-changing incidents of cosmic largesse keep me believing that one day such transcendental beneficence might befall me again. My new CD Mystery Inventions, piano and bass duets, for instance, might be just the creation that inspires those hits to keep on coming. Or not.

So…from what I’ve just said you might get the impression we’re a fairly techno-savvy household. In truth, Marcia is a computer enthusiast and gets better at cyber software stuff all the time. I, on the other hand, am a technophobe. Even simple procedures involving software are to me as Everest is to one with high blood pressure. After nearly thirty years of owning a personal computer, the contraption remains for me little more than a typewriter with a screen, a way to send and get mail, and a pseudo-television for watching sports highlights and movie previews—all else digital is baffling to me.

“The system of nature, of which man is a part, tends to be self-balancing, self-adjusting, self-cleansing. Not so with technology.” E.F. Schumacher from Small is Beautiful

So yesterday I’m reading the newspaper, the actual paper, not a projection, and I come to an article the likes of which I usually skip, an article about a man who has an app design software company that is growing so fast he just rented another 150,000 square feet of office space in the hottest sector of downtown San Francisco, and he thinks he’ll quadruple that space by year’s end.

I could not understand anything this man said or anything he is reputed to have done. He said that twelve million people have downloaded one of his apps that empowers them to paint on their cell phones, thus “unleashing an avalanche of pent up creativity.” Twelve million people are painting on their cell phones? Are they finger painting? What does a painting made on a tiny screen look like? Then the guy goes on to say that everything he and anyone in the know are doing today is “all about the cloud.” The cloud. I’ve heard about this cloud, some sort of virtually unlimited cyber space computing zone making possible the instantaneous transfer of jillions of bytes of digital information per nanosecond times a jillion squared. This cloud, according to this billionaire cyber wizard, “will unleash the creative potential of humanity.”

And my gut reaction to that is, “I hope so, but I doubt it.”


Prostitution

Thursday, October 14th, 2010

“Working in Hollywood does give one a certain expertise in the field of prostitution.” Jane Fonda

I have never heard of a workshop for writers that teaches the efficacious use of sex to make it big in theatre or publishing or the movie business, but any writer who has toiled in Hollywood or New York, or in the outposts of those Babylons, knows that sexual linkage to people in power is of paramount importance to success in The Biz; and anyone who denies this is either a phony or grossly naïve.

Grossly naïve describes moi when the sale of my first novel to the movies landed me in Hollywood circa 1980, though my naïveté was not so much intellectual as grounded in a fierce unwillingness to accept reality. That is, I knew a good deal about the sexual machinations of the theatre world, yet clung to a mythic notion that by creating highly desirable plays and books and screenplays I would be allowed to travel sexually unmolested into collaborations with creative people possessed of sufficient clout to get books published and movies made and plays produced.

The sale of my first novel to a major New York publisher and the subsequent sale of the movies rights to a Hollywood studio were accomplished without my having screwed or been screwed by anyone even remotely connected to those industries, and so at the age of twenty-eight, I felt confirmed in my belief that the quality of my writing could, indeed, trump the necessity of screwing or being screwed by people I had no interest in screwing or being screwed by.

In one fell swoop I was transported from a rat-infested garret in Seattle to a plush suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel, and into meetings and dinners and soirees with powerful agents and studio executives and well-known movie producers. And it was made clear to me again and again that unless I was willing to engage in drug-enhanced sex with these wonderful people and to rewrite my stories and screenplays to suit their moronic fancies, my chances of a successful Hollywood career were precisely nil.

And sure enough, a mere two years into my Hollywood adventure, the last agent to officially represent me declaimed, “Stick with novels, okay? You might hit again with a book, but you can forget about working in this town as a screenwriter.”

“Why?” I asked, knowing why.

“Because you won’t do as you’re told. And nobody wants to work with somebody who can’t get with the program. Kapish?”

I didn’t and don’t want to believe that sexual extortion and drugs and nepotism are the primary coins of the theatre and publishing and movie worlds. I wanted and want to believe that producers and directors and editors were and are starving for original, compelling, well-written screenplays and books and plays. But that belief presupposes producers and directors and editors are capable of discerning the excellence of a creation, which they (with painfully few exceptions) are not.

And therein lies the disastrous problem (disastrous if you like good movies and plays and books). For if the game is first about gaining and asserting power over others, and secondly about maintaining the status quo, and thirdly about making money, then we aren’t talking about collaborative creativity, we’re talking about prostitution.

“The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side…” Hunter S. Thompson

Long before my short-lived career as a writer in Hollywood, I had several strange and fascinating and ultimately depressing adventures in the music biz. Another of my mythic notions is that success with my music will resound to the benefit of my novels and plays and screenplays (or vice-versa) so that one day I will pen the story, the screenplay, and the soundtrack for a movie that will change cinema as we know it (in a good way) and usher in the long awaited renaissance. This particular fantasy becomes more and more of a stretch as middle age gives way to old age, but in my dreams, age holds little sway.

So. 1971. Los Angeles. I was twenty-two, the composer of a dozen heartfelt songs, and barely literate on the guitar, yet I miraculously wrangled a face-to-face meeting with a “for real” record producer at Columbia Records by innocently calling the studio and asking to speak to someone, anyone, interested in auditioning a hot new singer songwriter with a golden voice, i.e. moi. Talk about naïve. But by golly, after being transferred by the switchboard operator to a secretary to an assistant producer to a producer, I made my case to a bona fide record company executive and he invited me to come on down with the tape of three songs I had hastily recorded on my Aunt Dolly’s neighbor’s reel-to-reel tape recorder—Todd singing along to his funky guitar.

So I borrowed Aunt Dolly’s purple Impala and set out to make my fame and fortune. And as I was merging onto the Santa Monica Freeway, I couldn’t resist stopping for a breathtakingly beautiful young woman who was thumbing a ride. She had long brown hair and wore a crimson T-shirt tucked into blue jeans, and I was so blinded by her curvaceous loveliness that I did not perceive her very unbeautiful companion until the goddess was hopping in beside me, and her boyfriend, the quintessential scruffy dweeb, was commandeering the backseat.

I took a moment to assess their vibe, deduced they were harmless, and surrendered to the sarcastic fates as I eased back into traffic, unsuspecting of the Gordian (traffic) Knot awaiting us. Thus for the next two hours I found myself trapped in Aunt Dolly’s purple Impala with Tina and Hal, Tina a twenty-year old prostitute, Hal her unemployed beau. And for those two hours of inching toward Columbia Records, I interviewed Tina (for Hal would only grunt when spoken to) and she told me many spine-tingling tales of her life as a hard drinking pot smoking cocaine snorting hooker in an upscale spa for wealthy businessmen and show business executives.

Tina had a honeyed voice, huge brown eyes, a fine sense of humor, and a particular sorrowful beauty I’m a hopeless sucker for. So, yes, I fell in lust with her and thought if we could somehow jettison her boyfriend, I might convince her to crash with me at Aunt Dolly’s until my first hit record provided us with sufficient funds to buy that farm in Mendocino. But after an hour stuck in that jam with her, I fell entirely out of love and thought I would play the field a while longer.

The story Tina told me that I remember most vividly after forty years is of the elderly movie producer who availed himself of Tina’s services every Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday.

“He likes me dressed up like a little girl, pig tails with big red ribbons, and he talks baby talk to me while he undresses. His suits must cost thousands of dollars, and he is so fussy about hanging them up just so. Then he sits naked on the edge of the bed with a stack of hundred-dollar bills beside him, and he begs me to take my clothes off.

“And I act like a stubborn little girl and shake my head and pout and say ‘No!’ until he crumples up a hundred-dollar bill and throws it at me. Then I pick up the bill, smooth it out, and start a pile of my own. Then I take off one piece of clothing and he begs me to take off more, but I won’t until he crumples up another bill and throws it at me. And if I play my part right, I can make three thousand dollars because he’s paying for each shoe, each sock, each ribbon in my hair, my belt, skirt, scarf, sweater, blouse, and I’m resisting the whole time, making him throw more and more bills as we get closer and closer to nothing left to take off.

“Then when I’m naked, he tells me to come over to him, but I won’t until he throws more bills. Finally I come close and let him catch me, and then he makes me lie over his knees and he smacks my bottom and tells me what a bad little girl I am. What a terrible girl I am.”

“And then?”

“That’s it. No sex for him. But he’s happy. He always leaves happy.”

(This article originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser October 2010)

Todd and his impressive stack of unpublished works await inquiries from producers and directors and publishers at underthetablebooks.com

Bums At A Grave

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

The first movie I remember seeing at a movie theatre was The Court Jester starring Danny Kaye, Basil Rathbone, and the very young Angela Lansbury. 1955. I was six years old. As we left the Park Theatre in Menlo Park, California, I distinctly recall turning to my mother and announcing that I was going to be a movie star like Danny Kaye. To which she replied, “Don’t be silly.”

Three years later, 1958, my parents took me to see Alec Guinness in The Horse’s Mouth, after which I proclaimed, “That’s what I’m going to be. An artist and live on a boat.” To which my father, a psychiatrist, replied, “Just what we need, another narcissistic sociopath.”

Both The Court Jester and The Horse’s Mouth have stood the test of time for me. I’ve seen them several times in the intervening fifty years, and I still consider The Horse’s Mouth to be one of the very best depictions of a person who cares more for his art than for anyone or anything else.

When I was nine, Willy Mays supplanted Danny and Alec as my supreme mentor and hero, and led me off my artist’s path into the glory of baseball and eventually basketball, my twin obsessions until late high school when I was felled by what the western medical doctors called a hot case of ankyllosing spondilitis, which ailment cut short my dreams of athletic glory, returned me full steam to writing and music and drama, and shortly thereafter saved me from going to fight in Vietnam.

When I dropped out of college at nineteen, I knew what I wanted to be: a professional writer, actor, and musician—Danny Kaye and Alec Guinness rolled into one.

Despite a thousand setbacks and highly annoying poverty, I held to this vision of myself, worked day and night at my writing and music, and at twenty-eight was rewarded by having my first novel published and made into a major motion picture. A year after that, I published my second novel, and Warner Brother paid me to write the screenplay for Laura Ziskin, famous most recently as the producer of the Spiderman franchise.

And though by the age of thirty I hadn’t made buckets of money, I had made a goodly chunk of change, so I decided to make a little film of my own to prove to myself and others that I had the chops to offer myself as a director of my own movies. This, of course, was in the days before digital anything, when making a good-looking movie, even in sixteen-millimeter film, was extremely expensive; and so was born my truly minimalist fifteen-minute fictive film entitled Bums At A Grave.

Within a year of completing the film, my career, so bright and promising (in commercial terms) had collapsed. Bums At A Grave became but a reel of celluloid in a canister that lay on my dusty shelf for nearly thirty years. And then a few weeks ago, at the urging of several old friends who remembered the movie and wanted to see it again, I had the film transferred to DVD in a good lab in San Francisco.

Seeing Bums At A Grave for the first time in twenty-eight years was a fascinating walk down memory lane for me. I wrote the script in 1979 when I was living in Santa Cruz, California. The film is set in 1933 during the Great Depression, and seems remarkably predictive of Now. We filmed it in the summer of 1980 shortly after I moved to Sacramento—a two-day shoot in 105-degree heat near Grass Valley. Richard Simpson was the cinematographer and editor, Doug Peckham handled sound, Bob Smith produced, Patty Nolan was continuity person and assistant-to-everyone, my brother Steve starred as Willy, and I co-starred as Trevor.

For years prior to the Bums shoot, I studied movies in search of filming techniques that particularly pleased me. This meant I had to go to movies multiple times, since VHS technology had barely been born and DVDs were not yet a glimmering in the eye of the future. I did not and do not like quick cutting from one scene to another. I very much enjoy action within a still frame, slow tracking shots, and a slowly pivoting camera on a tripod. No handheld shots, please!

Thus when I wrote the script for Bums At A Grave, I intentionally minimized the need for edits while creating setups for active and changing points of view. This not only made for more pleasing cinema, it saved money in those days when even 16 mm shooting and editing was expensive.

For instance: characters at a distance can move (in the course of a scene) to the forefront of the frame where a slow zoom to a close-up can add up to three or four “scenelets” in a single take without the need for an edit.

Bums At A Grave screened at the 1980 Filmex film festival in Los Angeles for an audience of 1200 hardcore film buffs and movie biz folks. They loved the film, laughed uproariously at the Republican joke (Reagan our brand new president in 1980), and gave us a rousing ovation at the end. While we were in LA, we screened the film for Laura Ziskin, and to my everlasting delight Laura pronounced, “Your agents are missing the boat with you. They should be pushing you as a director.”

But life, as the poets say, intervened and I took another road in the opposite direction of Hollywood. Today, at last, you can see scenes from Bums At A Grave on Youtube. Turn up the volume and have some fun. Or view the entire fifteen minutes of Bums At A Grave, Admission Free, at Underthetablebooks.com.