(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?”
“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.”
“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