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The Rico Chronicles: Inside Psychodrama

Rico with his daughters Rachel and Sarah circa 1990 photo courtesy of Steve Rees

This is the fourth and final article in a series commemorating my friend Rico Rees, AKA Richard Rees.

February 1967. Atherton, Menlo Park, Palo Alto, Redwood City, California.

When Rico had two years and five months of high school left to endure, and I only had five more months of high school to get through, Rico bought a used mimeograph machine and he and I and Dave Biasotti launched Lyceum, a magazine. We brought out a new issue every few weeks chock full of articles and poems and stories. Dave made great pen and ink drawings for the first few covers, after which we used photos taken by Rico’s brother Steve for the covers. These photo covers were some of the very earliest Xerox copies.

We printed a hundred copies of the first issue and were thrilled when fifty people ponied up four dollars to have the next six issues mailed to them. Rico then convinced Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park, the hippest bookstore in our world at the time, to sell Lyceum for 25 cents a copy, and Rico and I hawked the rest of the copies at school.

A heady experience of my young life was seeing several of my peers sitting around at lunchtime at Woodside High reading Lyceum. Along with drawing the covers, Dave drew a one-frame cartoon for each issue and wrote reviews of new folk rock and rock albums. Rico and I wrote articles and stories and poems, and by the third issue people were submitting poems and notices of things for sale, some of which we published.

Were we good writers? Hard to say. Were we enthusiastic? Very.

That spring Rico fell in love with a young woman named Maureen. She was beautiful and smart and sexy and funny, and she enjoyed Rico’s company but drove him crazy because she denied him the sensual romantic connection he longed for.

Also around this time, Rico shared with me that his doctors were not optimistic he would survive much beyond his twenties. He told me this in the context of a conversation in which I said something about us getting a place together, going to Europe, and living our lives as literary bohemians.

“I don’t know, Murray,” he said, sounding uncharacteristically pessimistic. “Lately I’ve been having this fantasy of blasting off in a rocket ship and just going.”

(Fortunately, advances in medical technology made it possible for Rico to live to sixty-eight.)

One afternoon I was at Rico’s and he asked me to play some jazz piano so he could jam with me on a saxophone he’d just gotten. He hadn’t taken lessons, but he loved jazz and wanted to make music. So I sat down at their wonderful Steinway and played a jazzy-sounding chord or two, and Rico blew slow long notes with great feeling. We were both thrilled by the sounds we made together, and Rico said he might take lessons, but as far as I know he never did and we never played music together again.

We brought out the last issue of Lyceum at the end of May, right before school ended, and Rico announced we’d made a profit of seventy dollars, which in 1967 was a pile of cash for the likes of us. Rico proposed we use the money to take some girls to San Francisco for walking around and supper.

I took my girlfriend Connie, Rico brought Maureen, and I can’t remember who Dave brought, possibly Connie’s friend Harriet. For some reason, Connie decided the gals would wear saris and she came up with three beautiful saris for them. We took the train from Atherton to San Francisco and caught a bus to North Beach where we hung out at City Lights Books, had coffee and biscotti at Caffe Trieste, went shopping in Chinatown, ate supper at The Spaghetti Factory, and came home on a late night train—everything paid for with money made from our magazine.

With the last of the Lyceum money, Rico got two tickets for Ray Charles at Frost Amphitheatre at Stanford, our last hurrah together before I headed off to college at brand new UC Santa Cruz and Rico stayed on at Woodside High.

I dropped out of college after two years, which coincided with Rico finishing high school. He decided to take what they now call a gap year before attending Antioch University in Yellow Springs, Ohio. During that interim year, Rico rented a room in a house in Palo Alto for some months before he moved into a hippy commune in Palo Alto with Jean Trounstine who would become his first wife.

Jean was a bright energetic Jewish gal from Cincinnati, five years older than Rico. She had a BA in Drama from Beloit and had come to California to join the cultural ferment going on in the Bay Area. I first met Jean when Rico took me to House of Pies on University Avenue where Jean was a waitress. The waitresses there wore uniforms composed of skirt, blouse, and cap that supposedly made them resemble, symbolically, a piece of pie.

We had a hilarious time as Jean enacted the required shtick of House of Pie waitresses when Rico, following the printed prompt on the table, asked in the manner of Humphrey Bogart, “What’s fresh today? Besides you sweetie pie?”

Jean batted her eyelashes and said, “Hold on a sec, big fella. I’ll go ask our baker.” And then she sashayed away to the kitchen, mimed asking the baker, and sashayed back to us. “You’re not gonna believe this, but all the pies are fresh today. And you know what just came out of the oven?”

“The apple pie?” I guessed, the place redolent with the scent of apple pie.

“What are you psychic?” said Jean, gaping at me. “The apple did just come out of the oven. And the blueberry and the cherry and the lemon meringue.”

I loved Jean. She and Rico were a great match and they were devoted to each other for several years until their lives diverged when Rico was in his late twenties.  

Around the time he was beginning his relationship with Jean, Rico heard a talk by Husain Chung, a radical practitioner of Psychodrama as it pertains to psychotherapy, and shortly thereafter Rico began attending group Psychodrama sessions at a house in Palo Alto, the groups led by Vik Lovell and his Psychodrama trainees. Interesting side note: Ken Kesey, who lived in the area, dedicated his book One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to Vik Lovell.

Rico was fascinated by the evolving use of Psychodrama in psychotherapy, and these Vik Lovell sessions were of particular interest to him because Lovell was, according to Rico, “constantly experimenting and unafraid to seriously fuck up.” Rico asked me to attend one of the Lovell sessions with him and I did.

Before being admitted into the house where the sessions took place, participants agreed not to leave until the three-hour session was over. Rico had told me a little bit about what went on at the Lovell sessions, but I was wholly unprepared for what I was to endure for the next three hours.

Vik Lovell was a handsome man in his thirties with an assured air. I am tempted to use the descriptors arrogant, insensitive, misogynist, and narcissist to describe him, but maybe he was just having a bad day. His trainees were men and women who dressed alike in loose-fitting pants and black T-shirts to identify them as Vik’s assistants.

Vik sat on a high stool just outside the large circle of attendees arrayed in chairs around the empty center of the big living room that served as the stage for the evening’s psychodramas. Vik communicated with his trainees by gesturing and pointing, and he directed his DJ with quiet asides to play certain cuts from a handy library of LPs—what Rico and I would later refer to as psychodrama soundtracks.

After reiterating we were not to leave before the session was over, Vik invited a tall bearded American man to stand in the center of the circle and tell us what was on his mind. With little preface, the man said he’d had sex with the wife of a friend, after which the wife and friend broke off relations with him. To my surprise, the two people he was talking about were there, and Vik directed the man and woman to join the bearded man in the center of the room.

The couple was British, the woman strikingly beautiful, the man handsome with a muscular build. The woman acknowledged she had slept with the bearded guy, said she regretted doing so, and was grateful to her husband for forgiving her and being so understanding. Both husband and wife said they had no interest in rehashing the affair or having anything more to do with the bearded guy.

The British guy struck me as intelligent and reasonable, the British gal the same, while the bearded American seemed seriously disturbed and obviously distraught about being booted out of his relationship with the couple.

Vik gestured to his trainees. One of the female trainees stood behind the British woman, one of the male trainees stood behind the bearded American, and another male trainee stood behind the British fellow.

And then all hell broke loose. The woman trainee accused the British guy of neglecting her sexually and shouted, “Which is the only reason I slept with that disgusting pig!” The trainee standing behind the British guy shouted at the British gal, “Bullshit! You slept with him because you’re a whore!”

The British guy protested, “No, I don’t think you’re a whore.”

And Vik asked, “Then what do you think she is?”

And before the British guy could reply, the bearded guy said to the British guy, “She told me you were impotent with women but got turned on by young men.”

“I never said that,” cried the British gal. “My husband is a wonderful lover.”

I don’t remember the order of events after that, but following a few more inflammatory exchanges spoken by the psychodrama trainees, the British guy and the bearded guy started seriously brawling, the bearded guy throwing punches, the British guy trying to wrestle the bearded guy to the ground, and the British gal trying to intervene only to be restrained by two of the trainees who continued to call her whore and slut.

Then an elderly man in the audience of attendees shouted, “This is wrong, Vik. You need to stop this!”

And in the next moment the bearded guy broke away from the British guy, pulled the elderly man out of his seat, threw him to the ground and started pummeling him, which caused me to jump up and try to stop the bearded guy from seriously injuring the elderly guy. But before I could pull the bearded guy off the old man, two of Vik’s male trainees grabbed me and slammed me against a wall and one of them pressed his fist hard against my nose and shouted, “What’s your deal, asshole? Working on your hero complex?”

My nose started gushing blood and Vik signaled his trainees to let up on me, which they did, and then and one of them took me by the arm and led me to a bathroom where I stemmed the flow of blood with a plug of toilet paper and stayed in the bathroom until the bleeding stopped.

The trainee walked me back to my chair and said, “Don’t get up again unless Vik tells you to.” By then the chaos had subsided and Strawberry Fields was playing on the stereo. The British guy and gal were sitting apart from each other, both of them weeping, and the bearded guy was lying face down, sobbing, and I don’t know where the elderly guy was. I desperately wanted to leave but was afraid if I tried to go the trainees would hurt me again, so I closed my eyes and waited for the hours to pass.

Rico was very upset afterwards and apologized for not warning me that I was never to intervene in an ongoing psychodrama unless Vik invited me to participate. I suffered for some weeks with bruised ribs and did not attend any more Vik Lovell psychodrama evenings. Rico, however, went several more times and reported learning many valuable lessons from observing what went on in those sessions.

Later in his career as a psychologist, Rico would employ less violent psycho-dramatic techniques, especially when working with children and teenagers. When we were in our thirties, Rico and I collaborated on a screenplay called Any Time You’re Ready about a woman psychiatrist who runs a home for emotionally disturbed teens and employs Psychodrama as part of her work with the kids. We were never able to sell the script, though we were certain it was the best movie ever written.

Rico on the James River photo courtesy of Steve Rees

In 1970, when I was twenty-one and Rico was nineteen, Rico and Jean moved to Yellow Springs, Ohio. I’d only spent a little time with Jean before they moved to Yellow Springs, but I got to know her very well when Ilived in Yellow Springs for two months in early 1971.

While Rico was attending Antioch, Jean taught Drama at Central State University, a predominantly African American college, and she taught theatre games to little kids and adults on weekends. While I was in Yellow Springs, I assisted Jean with her little kid classes, took her classes for adults, and Rico got me a job editing a student handbook for Antioch. I’m not sure how he convinced my boss at Antioch to hire me as an editor, but he did.

I rented a room above Deaton’s Hardware, ate most of my suppers with Rico and Jean at their cute little house on the edge of the campus, and unsuccessfully romanced their good friend Kay who enjoyed me but didn’t consider me boyfriend material.

Jean was a gourmet cook and a frequent dieter. An ongoing source of amusement for me was that Jean would serve Rico and me wonderful multi-course meals while resigning herself to eating a hardboiled egg and a chicken thigh. Yet nine times out of ten, I wanted that egg and chicken thigh more than I wanted the fancy meal. Go figure.

What was I doing in Yellow Springs, Ohio, you ask, besides living near Rico and Jean? Well, I was waiting to hear from a major publisher in New York to whom I had sent my first novel. In my extreme naiveté, having recently read Kurt Vonnegut’s novels, I was sure I could write a novel as good or better than Vonnegut’s, and while living in a hovel in Ashland, Oregon, I wrote my first novel, The Apprenticeship of Abraham Steinberg, and sent it to Vonnegut’s publisher, having gotten their address from the copyright page of Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle.

On my way to New York to find out what was holding up my rise to lasting international fame, I stopped in Yellow Springs, Ohio and sent the publisher my updated contact numbers (Rico’s phone and address) and waited to hear from them, not knowing they didn’t read unsolicited manuscripts by neophyte writers unrepresented by literary agents.

In April of that year, I got a ride east with two of Jean’s Drama students from Central State University who were auditioning to get into the Drama department at Cornell University. From Cornell, I took a bus to Boston and crashed in a co-ed dorm with a couple high school friends, Dan Nadaner and Joe Tiffany, who were finishing up their undergrad careers at Harvard, and then I went to New York to find out what was keeping my literary career from taking off.

Interesting side note: while I was crashing at Harvard, one of the guys I got to be friends with, Jerry Hiatt, was taking a Creative Writing class from, you guessed it, Kurt Vonnegut.

In New York I stayed with my composer friend Scott Oakley in his roach-infested apartment in Harlem and called the publisher to inquire of The Apprenticeship of Abraham Steinberg. After a long wait, a young woman came on the line and sweetly explained that they did not read unsolicited manuscripts, but because I’d come all this way she would read my manuscript and get back to me in a few days, which she did.

I shaved, put on my cleanest shirt, and went down to the snazzy publisher’s offices in the heart of Manhattan where a woman no older than I met me in the lobby, handed me my manuscript, and said she really enjoyed the story, that my writing reminded her of William Saroyan, keep trying, and get a literary agent.

A year or so later, I was living in a boarding house in Santa Cruz and looking for a job when Rico called to say he and Jean were getting married, would I come to Yellow Springs and sing at their wedding. I said Yes and was so inspired by the invitation, I wrote a song especially for the wedding and then wrote a collection of short stories entitled What Shall the Monster Sing? which I dedicated to Rico and Jean.

That collection of stories ultimately landed me my first and finest literary agent Dorothy Pittman, and contained a short story about disabled folks hanging out in a bar that presaged my novel Inside Moves.

I flew to Ohio courtesy of Rico’s folks, stayed with Jean and Rico for a week before the wedding, sang at the wedding, stayed another week, and flew home. Singing for all those people at the wedding in the glen in Yellow Springs, and singing again at the big reception at Jean’s parents’ house in Cincinnati, along with writing that collection of stories gave me a vision of how I wanted to proceed with my life, and I have stuck to that course ever since.

Five years later Dorothy Pittman sold my novel Inside Moves (original title The Gimp) to Doubleday. After I’d rewritten the book with the help of my excellent editor Sherry Knox, Doubleday sent forth the galleys and soon thereafter we had a big paperback sale and then a movie sale, and a week after the movie sale I was summoned to Los Angeles to meet with Bob Evans who had just made Love Story, The Godfather, and Chinatown, and now wanted to make Inside Moves.

But rather than fly directly from my garret in Seattle to LA, I stopped in San Francisco to commune with Rico. We stayed up late talking and he drove me to the airport the next morning, his parting words, “Call me if you need to talk.”

I landed in LA, got a cab to the Beverly Wilshire with a Czechoslovakian driver who kept insisting I was Clint Eastwood, had lunch with my new Hollywood agent Candace Lake and a vice-president at Paramount, Nancy Hardin. After lunch Nancy dropped me off at Bob Evans’ mansion and I met with Bob in the pool house next to his big swimming pool.

After a few niceties Bob Evans said, “You’ve written a nice little fable here. I couldn’t put it down. But it’s too quirky, too many cripples. You overdid the cripples. Don’t get me wrong, there are moments, but the second act is a dud. We can fix this and it’ll be huge. So here’s what we’ll do. We hold off on publishing while you rewrite the book the way I tell you to rewrite it. That’s what I did with Love Story. I told Segal what to write and he made millions and so will you. We’ll get you a place in Malibu, a secretary, a cook, anything you need, and we’ll get this done.”

I was in shock. Much to Bob’s chagrin, I did not jump for joy, but said I would think about it. Somehow I got back to my room at the Beverly Wilshire from where I called my sister who lived near UCLA and she came and got me and I collapsed at her place.

I called my agent Dorothy Pittman and told her what had happened. She said she would support whatever decision I made. The book was to be published in just a few months. She had already heard from my Hollywood agent and Nancy Hardin at Paramount both of whom had reiterated Bob’s proposal to have me rewrite the book per his direction, for which I would be handsomely recompensed, after which they would put big money into promoting the book.

Then I called Rico. He listened in his patient way and when I was done telling him what Evans wanted me to do, he said, “Your book tells the truth, Murray. They’re afraid of the truth. Don’t let them wreck your story. You’ll never be able to live with yourself if you do.”

And I did not rewrite the book for Bob Evans. He hired Barry Levinson and Valerie Curtin to write a screenplay that changed the main character from a man crippled in Vietnam to a failed suicide, and they changed the heroine from a woman with a leg shrunken by polio to a woman with two gorgeous gams, and they changed Max from a man with no legs to a big strong able-bodied guy, and some months later Bob Evans dropped the movie, Dick Donner picked it up and shot Barry and Valerie’s script and added a revenge scene at the end of the movie that was the antithesis of the spirit of the book and the antithesis of the rest of the movie.

But the novel Inside Moves came out as I wrote it, and the inspiring story of a friendship between two physically and emotionally challenged guys, versions of Rico and Murray, lives to this day, however humbly.

Thank you Rico for being my friend.

Rico photo courtesy of Steve Rees

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Inside Moves Miracles

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.