Posts Tagged ‘Inside Moves novel’

Playing for Capra Redux

Monday, June 26th, 2017

Cat & Jammer

Cat & Jammer photo by Marcia

My new book of essays and memories Sources of Wonder has garnered some wonderful feedback from readers, with two correspondents saying they were especially taken with my memoir Playing For Capra. So here for your enjoyment is the true story of my meeting Frank Capra, this memory first published nine years ago.

Marcia and I recently watched the Israeli movie The Band’s Visit about an Egyptian police band spending the night in a godforsaken Israeli settlement. Seeing this remarkable film coincided with my struggle to write about the time I played piano for Frank Capra, the famous movie director.

Why the struggle? Because the story of playing piano for Capra is entwined with my dramatic rise and fall as a professional writer nearly thirty years ago. By the time I played piano for Capra in 1982, I had gone from living on pennies in the slums of Seattle to being the toast of New York and Hollywood, and back to barely scraping by in Sacramento, all in the course of a few dizzying years.

Capra, despite his many triumphs, was a Hollywood outsider. Having succeeded brilliantly under the protection of movie mogul Harry Cohn, Capra made movies he wanted to make, which were rarely what his overlords desired. In that regard, Capra was my hero. I had failed to build relationships with the powerful producers of American movies and books despite the many opportunities my early success provided me. I was young and naïve, and I believed that great stories and great screenplays would sell themselves. To my dismay, I experienced over and over again that quality and originality meant less than nothing to those who control our cultural highways. But I didn’t want to believe that, so I burned a thousand bridges.

Capra knew all about what I was going through, for he and his movies, despite their popularity with moviegoers, often received muted support from the power brokers. Why? Because he was unwilling to compromise the integrity of his visions. Indeed, he made movies about those very conflicts: integrity versus corruption, kindness versus cruelty, generosity versus greed, and originality versus imitation.

Capra’s autobiography, an incomparable history of Hollywood from the days of silent movies until the 1960s, was one of my bibles. In recent years, a confederacy of academic dunces has tried to discredit Capra’s recollections, but their pathetic efforts only amplify Capra’s importance.

So there I was in 1982, hoping to resuscitate my collapsing career, when we heard that Capra was going to speak at a showing of his classic It’s A Wonderful Life in an old movie house in Nevada City.

In 1980 a movie had been made of my novel, Inside Moves. Directed by Richard Donner with a screenplay by Barry Levinson, the movie—a Capraesque dramatic comedy if there ever was one—Inside Moves starred John Savage and launched the careers of David Morse and Diana Scarwid, who received an Oscar nomination for her performance in the film. Sadly, just as Inside Moves was being released, the distribution company went broke and the film was never widely seen. I was then hired by Warner Brothers to write a screenplay for Laura Ziskin (Pretty Woman, Spiderman) based on my second novel Forgotten Impulses, which was hailed by The New York Times as one of the best novels of 1980, but then Simon & Schuster inexplicably withdrew all support for the book and the movie was never made.

Indeed, as I drove from Sacramento to Nevada City with my pals Bob and Patty, I was in a state of shock. My previously doting movie agents had just dropped me, Simon & Schuster had terminated the contract for my next novel Louie & Women, and I had no idea why any of this was happening. Yet I still believed (and believe to this day) that my stories would eventually transcend the various obstructions and be read with joy by thousands of people—a quintessential Capraesque vision of reality. And I was sure Capra would say something in Nevada City that would help me and give me hope.

We arrived in the quiet hamlet in time to have supper before the show. We chose a handsome restaurant that was empty save for a single diner. On a small dais in the center of the room was a shiny black grand piano. The owner of the restaurant greeted us gallantly, and to our query, “Where is everybody?” replied, “You got me. We were expecting a big crowd for Capra, but…” He shrugged. “That’s show biz.”

Our table gave us a view of the piano and our elderly fellow diner, who we soon realized was Capra himself. Waiting for no one, eating slowly, sipping his red wine, the old man seemed to lack only one thing to complete the perfection of his moment: someone to play a sweet and melancholy tune on that fabulous piano. And I was just the person to do it if only the owner would allow me the honor.

I made the request, and it was granted. Frank was done with his supper by then and having coffee. I sat down at the piano and looked his way. He smiled and nodded, directing me, as it were, to play. We were still the only people in the restaurant, the room awaiting my tune.

I played a waltz, a few minutes long, something I’d recently composed, a form upon which I improvised, hoping to capture the feeling of what was to me a sacred moment.

When I finished, Frank applauded.

I blushed. “Another?”

Frank nodded. “Can you play that one again?”

“Not exactly, but close.”

He winked. “Perfect.”

So I played the tune again, longer this time, and slower at the end. Frank smiled and tapped his coffee cup with his fork. I approached him and told him we’d come to watch his movie and hear him speak.

He said, “Thank you. I love your music.”

His anointment of my waltz would have been more than enough to fulfill my wish that he say something to help me and give me hope. But the best was yet to come.

Capra’s genius was comprehensive. His best films are not only beautifully written and acted, they are gorgeous to behold. It’s A Wonderful Life was made when the art of black and white cinematography was at its apex, and we may never again see such artistry—many of the secrets of the black and white masters lost to time.

We marveled and wept at Capra’s masterwork, and then a nervous moderator gave Capra a succinct introduction and the old man took the stage. He thanked the crowd for coming and took questions—questions that made me despair for humanity.

The worst of the many terrible queries was, “Do you think you’re a better director than Steven Spielberg?”

“Different,” said Capra, pointing to another raised hand.

And then came the one meaningful question of the evening. “Your humor seems so different than the humor of today. Why is that?”

“Humor today,” said Capra, “for the most part, is pretty mean-spirited. We used to call it put-down humor, and we consciously avoided that. With Wonderful Life, you’re laughing with the characters because you identify with them, which is very different than laughing at someone.”

The inane questions resumed, and finally Capra could take no more. He waved his hands and said, “Look, if you want to make good movies, and God knows we need them, you have to have a good story. That’s the first thing. That’s the foundation. And what makes a good story? Believable and compelling characters in crisis. That’s true of comedy or drama. And the highest form in my opinion is the dramatic comedy, which has become something of a lost art in America. Then you need to translate that story into a great script. And I’m sorry to tell you, but only great writers can write great scripts. So start practicing now. And when you think you have that story and that script, get somebody who knows how to shoot and edit film, and make your movie. And when you finish, make another one. And if you have talent, and you persist despite everybody telling you to quit, you might make a good movie some day. Thank you very much.”

Which brings us back to The Band’s Visit. Capra would have loved those characters and their crises, and though he never in a million years would have made such a movie, his influence is unmistakable.

Inside Moves Miracles

Monday, March 20th, 2017

inside moves cover

Inside Moves Pharos Edition 

I began writing the novel that would become Inside Moves in 1974, when the United States was on the verge of withdrawing from Vietnam. I was twenty-five and living in a garage in Eugene, Oregon, buoyed by my first ever sale of a short story. My rent was thirty dollars a month, so nine hundred dollars from Cosmopolitan magazine for a fanciful tale about a female boxer was a vast fortune and gave me time to write two novels and several short stories before the cosmic largesse ran out.

The voice that spoke Inside Moves to me was that of a young American man wounded and disabled in Vietnam. My literary agent, the late great Dorothy Pittman, showed the manuscript to thirteen publishers over the course of two years. Several of the first twelve editors who read the book declared Inside Moves a narrative tour de force, yet felt the story was “an impossible sell.” Cripples and Vietnam were not considered commercially viable in those days.

Miracle #1: In 1977, Sherry Knox, a young editor at Doubleday, bought Inside Moves. My advance, minus Dorothy’s commission, was thirteen hundred and fifty dollars, which money lifted me out of dire poverty into functional poverty.

When I had rewritten the book to Sherry’s satisfaction, and my brother Steve came up with the stellar title to replace my original title, The Gimp, Doubleday decided to kill Inside Moves before publication—common practice for large publishers when the Sales Department decides not to support a book.

However, to minimally fulfill their contractual obligations, Doubleday listed the book at the back of their Spring catalogue with this briefest of descriptors: “Inside Moves: story of friendship between two men in San Francisco bar, basketball sub-plot.”

Miracle #2: As Inside Moves was about to vanish without a trace, an editor named Bill Contardi at the paperback house New American Library read the brief descriptor in the Doubleday catalogue and asked to see the manuscript. He loved the book, showed it to NAL editor-in-chief Elaine Koster, and she offered Doubleday 100,000 dollars for the paperback rights.

Miracle #3: When Dorothy called with news of the paperback offer, I was quite ill and in a very dark mood. Rather than rejoicing (I would get half of that 100 thousand dollars) I said, “Did they show it to other paperback houses? According to my contract, they’re supposed to.”

Dorothy said, “Dahlin (she was from Georgia), this is a mahvelous offer.”

And I said, “They were going to kill the book. They should at least show it to other paperback houses. Maybe there will be a bidding war.”

Dorothy reluctantly relayed my wishes to Doubleday. Moments later, some corporate honcho called to berate me for not taking this wonderful offer, and I explained to him that I knew very well Sales had intended to kill the book, and since I might never get another chance with a New York publisher, I wanted them to show Inside Moves to other paperback houses.

Miracle #4: So the honcho called Elaine Koster and asked for a few more days to consider her offer, and she countered with a take-it-or-leave-it offer of 150,000 dollars and the promise of a big bonus if a movie was made. Dorothy begged me to accept the offer, so I did.

Miracle #5: Two weeks later, Bob Evans, having recently produced Chinatown, The Godfather, and Love Story, optioned the book for Paramount Pictures. I was flown to Los Angeles to meet with Bob Evans in his mansion where he informed me he wanted me to rewrite the entire novel per his directions. He wanted to eliminate the Vietnam connection and not have so many disabled characters. I refused. He was not happy.

Bob Evans then hired Barry Levinson (before he became a famous director) and Valerie Curtin (then married to Barry) to write a screenplay based on the book. They changed the narrator from a man crippled in Vietnam to a failed suicide, but were otherwise faithful to the heart of the book, and Bob Evans subsequently dropped the project.

Miracle #6: In 1979, Dick Donner, fresh from directing Superman I (and before he made his Lethal Weapon movies), made the movie of Inside Moves with independent money. Beautifully filmed by László Kovács, the movie stars John Savage, David Morse (his first role) and Diana Scarwid, who earned an Academy Award nomination for her performance in Inside Moves.

Sudden Cessation of Miracles: The company that owned the distribution rights to Inside Moves went bankrupt just as the film was being released in 1980, resulting in Inside Moves having an extremely limited theatrical run. And though the mass-market paperback of Inside Moves eventually sold 150 thousand copies, and I subsequently published four more works of fiction with four different publishers, all four books were abandoned by Sales prior to publication and I became persona non grata in the world of mainstream publishing.

Resumption of Miracles with Miracle #7: Thirty years after the original publication of Inside Moves, I got an email from the man in charge of preparing the DVD release of the movie Inside Moves for Lionsgate Entertainment. His name was Cliff Stephenson. At first I thought the email was a joke, but it was not. Shortly after I responded to Cliff’s inquiry, Cliff and an excellent cinematographer, David Chan, drove from Los Angeles to Mendocino to interview me about how the novel Inside Moves became a movie.

But more interesting to me than how Inside Moves came to be a film was the story of how this DVD project came about after the movie Inside Moves had been unavailable for nearly thirty years. Cliff told me that Dick Donner had long wanted to release Inside Moves (his favorite of his movies) in DVD, but was never able to untangle the corporate mess and discover who actually owned the film. When it was finally determined that the movie was owned by a British conglomerate, Lionsgate got the rights to bring out a DVD version of the movie.

Miracle #8: Initially, Lionsgate planned to find a serviceable VHS copy of Inside Moves, transfer that copy to DVD, and bring the movie out with no extras. However, Cliff’s wife worked for Lionsgate, knew of Cliff’s love of Donner’s films, and asked Cliff if he wanted to oversee the DVD project. He said he would love to helm the project, and when he saw the quality of the VHS copy they were going to use, he felt Donner would be outraged.

So Cliff undertook a search for a good 35-millimeter print of the movie, and one was eventually found in a vault in England—not a perfect print, but far better than any VHS copy. This film was transferred to DVD and Cliff convinced Lionsgate to let him create extra matter exploring how the movie went from book to screenplay to film.

As Cliff assembled this material, Lionsgate got more enthusiastic about the project, and on February 3, 2009, they released a snazzier product than originally planned—from which I earned not a penny. About fifteen minutes of my ninety-minute interview appears in the Extra Matter on the DVD of Inside Moves.

Miracle #9: A few months after Cliff came to interview me, I was walking on Big River Beach in Mendocino and bumped into Larry Bauman, owner with his wife Margie of Redwood Audio Books. I told him of the impending revival of the movie of Inside Moves and he said if I would make an audio version of the book, Redwood Audio would release it through Audible and other audio book sites. So I went into Peter Temple’s recording studio in Albion, had a great time reading aloud the novel I wrote when I was a young man, and the audio version of Inside Moves was born.

Miracle #10: Three years later, in 2012, I was minding my own business and writing yet another fabulous novel no publisher will touch with a ten-foot pole (I have eight such novels ready to go if you are a bold and prescient publisher), when I got an email from someone named Harry Kirchner. He said he was launching a line of books called Pharos Editions. The premise of Pharos Editions is to reissue long-out-of-print books that currently well-known authors feel deserve to be published anew. Once Harry secures the rights to publish such a book, the well-known author writes an introduction for that favorite book and lends his or her name to the reissue.

Harry’s email did not name which of my novels he was interested in, nor did he name the famous author involved, but during our first phone conversation he revealed that the marvelous Sherman Alexie was keen to have Inside Moves reissued and would write an introduction and have his name on the cover with mine.

So in 2013, Inside Moves, the novel, was born anew in a lovely quality paperback edition. Sherman’s intro is funny and flattering, though I wish he had written what he told an audience in Seattle at the launching of the Pharos line. He said his father gave him a paperback of Inside Moves when he, Sherman, was fifteen, and he has since read the book twenty times.

In the copy of Inside Moves he signed for me, Sherman wrote, “I am honored to be a part of the reissue. This book was formative in my life.”

Miracle #11: As a result of connecting with Harry Kirchner regarding Inside Moves, Harry convinced Counterpoint Press to bring out a beautiful paperback edition of my collection of short stories Buddha In A Teacup in 2016.

Possible Miracle #12: I recently had an inquiry about the remake rights to Inside Moves. I do not own those rights, but a new movie of the book would be most appreciated by this author.

Wrong Ending

Monday, March 6th, 2017

inside moves covers

Four Editions of Inside Moves photo by Todd

“Sometimes the first duty of intelligent men is the restatement of the obvious.” George Orwell

A few weeks ago I had an inquiry about the movie remake rights to my novel Inside Moves. I replied to the inquiry (I do not own those rights) and then burned some sage and prayed to the gods of cinema to please make a second film from my novel. And though a remake is highly unlikely, just the thought of a new iteration of Inside Moves took me back thirty-eight years to the making of the first movie and the many conflicts I had with the filmmakers about how that movie should be made.

The narrator of the novel Inside Moves, Roary, is disabled from wounds suffered while fighting in Vietnam. For the movie, made in 1979, the screenwriters changed Roary from war veteran to a man who attempts suicide by jumping from a tall building. He miraculously does not die from the fall, but is somewhat disabled due to his injuries. I fiercely opposed this change because I felt it undermined the veracity of the entire story, nor is it ever explained in the movie why Roary wanted to kill himself.

John Savage plays Roary in the movie, and though superb in the role, I didn’t find him credible as someone who wants, or wanted, to kill himself. But the moviemakers were shy of bringing Vietnam into the story and they loved the shock value of showing someone jumping from a tall building. To compound the wrongness of their idea, when they filmed that suicide-attempt scenes they blocked traffic on the streets around the tall building and a huge crowd gathered. That crowd appears in shots of Roary’s jump, though in the movie, Roary sneaks into a building, goes to an upper floor, and quickly jumps, so there would have been no witnesses, no crowd. Oops.

One of the things many people love about the novel Inside Moves is the generosity and kindness of Roary and the gang at Max’s bar, where most of the story takes place. And this generous spirit does infuse the movie. However, the screenwriters added an ending in which Roary does something so antithetical to his nature, so opposed to the message of the rest of the movie, I several times beseeched the director, Dick Donner, not to end the movie that way. I also spoke at length to John Savage, and he agreed the ending was terribly wrong. John was certain that when Donner saw a rough cut of the entire movie, he would not use the misguided ending.

But because the people making the film were spending a large part of the production budget staging and filming the ending scenes of the movie, I was not hopeful. I attended the filming of those scenes at what is now Oracle Arena in Oakland, and was deeply saddened by an ending that had nothing to do with my book or the rest of the movie they made.

A couple months before the movie was to be released, I was invited to attend a sneak preview in a huge theater in San Francisco. I brought several friends with me and we sat in the jam-packed theater with hundreds of other people, most of them unaware of what movie they were about to see.

This was my first time watching Inside Moves, and I could barely process what I was seeing. There were times when the audience howled with laughter, and there were moments when I could feel everyone in the theatre deeply connecting to the characters and the story.

Then came the final ten minutes of the movie. In the scene just before those scenes filmed at the Oakland arena, Roary and several characters from Max’s bar are on their way to attend Jerry’s first basketball game as a member of the Golden State Warriors. While the group is waiting for their bus to arrive, Roary encounters Ann, Jerry’s former girlfriend, a hooker, who knows nothing of Jerry’s success. The interaction between John Savage and Amy Wright in this scene is a brilliant enactment of a scene lifted verbatim from the novel. As Roary says goodbye to Ann and joins his pals on the bus, the music swells and EVERY PERSON IN THE AUDIENCE THOUGHT THE MOVIE WAS OVER!

Because it should have been. The audience began to applaud and cheer, and hundreds of people gave the movie a standing ovation. But wait. The movie wasn’t over. Alas, there was an implausible and wrongheaded revenge scene glued to the end of the film. So people sat back down, and all the excitement and good feelings drained from the theatre as the senselessly violent scene played and then the credits rolled.

Filing out, we heard dozens of people saying how wrong the ending was; and many people made that comment in the questionnaires accompanying the screening. Then we went to a pub full of people who had seen the movie, and everyone was talking about the movie—how good it was except for that terrible ending.

And I hoped the director and producers, who were all in attendance at that sneak preview, would see the wrongness of their ending and cut it. But instead they shortened the scene of the bus driving away with the gang from Max’s, and they brought up the announcer’s voice at the Oakland arena while Roary was getting on the bus, to insure the viewer understood the movie was not over yet, lest they miss the violent ending.

So if by some miracle the cinema gods do remake Inside Moves, I hope they allow Roary to be a man transcending the wounds of war, and they end the movie with a message of kindness and generosity, not vindictive violence.

Louie & Women

Sunday, May 1st, 2016

When I Sit In The Dark tw

When I Sit In The Dark painting by Nolan Winkler

Some weeks ago I shared the opening chapter of my novel Inside Moves, and a number of readers wrote to say they were sufficiently inspired by that opening passage to read the book and/or listen to the audio version narrated by yours truly. And those responses have inspired me to post the first chapter of my third novel Louie & Women published by Dutton in 1983.

Louie & Women has an unusual structure, each chapter composed of a Third Person narrative followed by a woman’s voice continuing the story. Four different female characters take turns telling their sides of the unfolding drama. In the audio version of Louie & Women, Beth Richmond, one of Mendocino’s finest actors, brilliantly assumes the character of each of the three women and one girl who tell the tale, and I feel honored Beth agreed to narrate the novel.

In 1988, Louie & Women came tantalizingly close to being made into a motion picture with a screenplay by yours truly. By tantalizingly close, I mean the financing for the film, several million dollars, was withdrawn on the day principal photography was set to begin, the stellar cast assembled and raring to go when the moneymen changed their minds.

The hardback edition of Louie & Women was not promoted and barely distributed to bookstores, so sold very few copies. But despite the book being little known, Dell acquired the paperback rights and brought out a lovely paperback edition of Louie & Women in 1984. On the first page of that fairly rare paperback, among the several reviews, is the following from the Los Angeles Times: “You can’t help but love the landscape of this book. It is paved with real California gold. Todd Walton is such an accomplished writer and believes so strongly in his vision that the reader puts down this book fairly dazzled.”

1.

Seen from the road, it appeared to be nothing more than a large, gray plastic bag that had blown out into the field and lodged among the heads of iceberg lettuce. It was, however, not a bag but a poncho, and beneath its wrinkled exterior there lay a man named Louie Cameron.

An old brown backpack served him as both pillow and windbreak, and the inflatable pad beneath him made the lumpy ground tolerable for sleep. He had a flashlight to read and write by, dried fruit and nuts to give him nourishment, and a tiny gas stove should he desire his water hot. He lacked only company, and given the dimensions of his canopy, it was not a lack that grieved him much that rainy evening.

It was April of a very wet year in California and the lettuce harvest was at its height. Louie had been picking the heads for two weeks, going into Salinas in the evenings to see movies, to eat good Mexican food and to watch the beautiful women promenade down Main Street.

In the morning, Louie would head for the coast. He had worked hard, saved a little money, and now he wanted to sit on the sand, to soak his aching feet in the cold water, to rest a while before moving on.

 

Marie

When I was in prison, I used to lie awake, looking at the ceiling, waiting for a certain sound that I would be sure was Louie coming to take me home. He would move like a shadow past the guards, open the door, lift me from my bed, wrap me in black silk, and carry me out into the night, without anyone knowing.

When I finished my time at Chowchilla and moved back to Santa Cruz, I’d lie awake in the same way. I’d wait for my children to settle into sleep and then I’d listen for an engine sound, his old Volkswagen coughing as it shifted down from third gear to second.

But I don’t listen for his car anymore. Now, I wait for the dog to bark. Louie doesn’t like Dobermans, so he’ll stay out on the sidewalk until I come for him. I’ll put on my white kimono, go downstairs, open the door and look out at him for a long time. I want to make him wait, like I’ve been waiting for three years now. Then I’ll walk slowly down the path, stopping before I get too close. He’ll be dying to come in, but the dog will be there, keeping him out.

I never get to the part where I forgive him. I can’t conjure up how that will be. There’s just this jumble of pictures and words and anger, so I don’t know what I might do. I can’t help thinking my life would have been better if he’d stayed in Santa Cruz and waited for me.

Then again, I know he couldn’t have stayed. Everything he owned, everything he believed in, was taken from him because he didn’t know how to fight. I’ve tried to hate him for leaving, but all I can hate is his leaving. Hating Louie would be like hating a child for not knowing that fire burns and things can break.