Getting the Picture
A Petaluma boy goes to Hollywood
By Daedalus Howell
CUT! Goddamn tourist trams. It’s a hazard of the neighborhood we’re shooting in, a tony faux burg that affords the beau ideal of establishing shots–a nice wide angle of the Leave It to Beaver house. That monolith of Americana is nestled just next door to the Hardy Boys’ joint, around the corner from Boo Radley’s ramshackle abode, and down the hill from the Bates Motel, which overlooks the gooey pastels of Whoville.
It’s also a popular stop on the Universal Studios tour. Every 10 minutes, my old pal and assistant director Abe Levy (a buzz-worthy filmmaker in his own right) calls “Tram!” and we scurry out of the way as the centipede brimming with tourists wends its way through our set, the riders all agawk and snapping photos of an honest-to-goodness real live picture show in the making.
After months of angling in the motion picture industry, I have finally landed an assignment to write, direct, and produce short films for potential theatrical, television, and Internet distribution.
My crew and I are granted one day on the lot to get all our shots. Time is fleeting.
We have been rained out of this location twice, so Jim Cashman, Universal Studios operations group manager of marketing, is booking our shooting dates on the fly. Unfortunately, there’s no way to re-route the trams, which run as mercilessly on time as if Mussolini himself did the scheduling.
The tram operators are nonplused by our obstruction and take potshots at the crew and me over the vehicles’ tinny public-address systems.
“Occasionally the studios will take pity on smaller, low-budget productions and let them shoot on the lot–like an outreach program for wannabes,” squawks a tour conductor. He catches my eye as he passes and lobs, “Hey, look at this one–let’s play ‘Guess the Day Job!’ ”
In this pissing match, I think I’d win, tram-man. The anatomy of my career is as follows: the newspaperman bone is connected to the novelist bone, the novelist bone is connected the filmmaker bone, and the filmmaker bone is connected directly to my ass, through which I often speak and which has of late endured the slings and arrows of being kicked around Hollywood.
Backstory–Elements necessary to the understanding of a story, often clumsily included as a flashback or in a surfeit of jumpcuts.
At the tail end of 1999, I quit my day job as entertainment editor of my hometown paper, the Petaluma Argus-Courier, because, while shoveling through a shit pile of deadlines, an attractive woman from the neighborhood came over, looked at me with her deep brown eyes, and inquired if I wouldn’t rather join her in making caramel apples.
After reassessing my values, I decided that (taken literally or euphemistically) making caramel apples with a pretty girl was truly more in league with my sense of, as the ancient Romans used to say, vocatio–one’s calling.
Enter Cary Carpe, a part-time Petaluman one decade my senior who is in the midst of piecing back together a once-thriving screenwriting career that crumbled when his wife left him for an aging teen idol.
The bearded, understated, and dreadfully deadpan Carpe and I met five years earlier through Petaluma poet Trane DeVore, who turned him on to my darkly comic novel The Late Projectionist, a semi-autobiographical riff on an aspiring screenwriter trapped in a small town. Truth and fiction would soon merge.
Aware that I recently chased a skirt into the rush-hour traffic of freelance gigs and theater reviews that barely covered my rent (but kept my jackets tight, as I had a habit of guzzling opening-night champagne and liberally grazing pallets of hors d’oeuvres), Carpe gives me my first show biz break.
Carpe is recovering from a five-year case of writer’s block and needs a title for a spec script he plans to write about entertainment industry ghostwriters. I suggest The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghostwriter. He says I’m hired.
I learn the craft of screenwriting while writing the flick with Carpe–feeling all the while like a magician’s apprentice who nightly watches his screen-bound corpus sawn in half and expertly restored, though usually a bit shorter.
Meanwhile, the brave new world of digital cinema is beckoning. The obstacles (lack of cash) and excuses (being a busy newspaperman) that have prevented me from making a film in the past are no longer an issue. So, in late spring 2000, I begin shooting Hold Me with Your Robot Hand, an 11-minute mockumentary about a boy, a band, and a robot hand.
“Think of it as a sort of Horatio Alger story set in the amputee ward,” I bray to an investor, who, either impressed with my chutzpah or my producer/new girlfriend’s sang-froid demeanor and doe eyes (meet Rachael “Caramel Apples” Costa), cuts the check for the production budget.
After playing nationally on the film festival circuit, the flick is acquired by Lions Gates Films’ online venture CinemaNow for online distribution (CinemaNow.com; keyword search: robot hand).
Buoyed by Tinsel Town’s reception of Robot Hand, I jump headlong into the chrysalis of new media and come out a moth fluttering around the limelight of Hollywood’s backdoor. Which in this case is tucked into the Echo (insert sound of automatic weapon fire) Park district of Los Angeles in an apartment split with Cary Carpe.
There, we set to writing the great American screenplay, and thus is born our partnership. We fancy ourselves a modern-day Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (hail of bullets and all) or Lennon and McCartney (hail of bullets on the side). I have turned a new page in my career as a writer–and find it crested with the words “FADE IN.”
The Pitch–A form of groveling native to Hollywood in which you “show them yours” and they show you the door.
In the meantime, Carpe introduces me to his private fetish–the relatively unheralded world of 1950s educational films (Dating Do’s and Don’ts, Are You Popular?, Soapy the Germ Fighter, What It Means to Be an American, et al.). He suggests we write a ensemble-cast comedy about the people who made them. We write the feature-length screenplay, titled Best Behavior, in a month, polish it for two weeks, and then begin shopping it.
To re-educate the studio executives as to what an educational film actually is, Carpe and I shoot a short parody, Is it Time to Swap?, for would-be swingers.
The buzz on Swap lands us a meeting with new media studio Hypnotic, a start-up strategically partnered with Universal Pictures and and boasting offices in New York and on the Universal Studios lot in Los Angeles.
EXT. GATE 3 UNIVERSAL STUDIOS–DAY
I utter my name with extra flourish to the unimpressed guard–and lo, the striped barrier arm raises in a 45-degree Sieg Heil to the nouvelle auteurs.
On the lot, it looks like Carnival has collided with a circus train. Carpe and I move among a widening gyre of astronauts and ballerinas, a bevy of teamsters moving prop palm trees in seeming slow motion, a wizard on a bicycle, monkeys smoking cigarettes lit by a fire-breathing man costumed as a satyr, a pantomime horse studded with arrow wounds, and dozens of beautiful young women toting headshots and yammering “Baby, screen kisses don’t count” into wireless devices.
Alas, I suddenly understand Ezra Pound’s inspiration for his poem In a Station of the Metro, wherein he witnesses a succession of Parisian belles worthy of whistles from the hard-hat set:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd/ Petals on a wet, black bough.
The Hollywood version of Pound’s verse, of course, reads like this:
The apparition of these starlets on the lot/ Casting on a black leather couch.
We’re greeted by Andrew Weiner, a vaguely debauched but trim executive with a smile indicating that he might or might not release the lions.
He sits us down in his office, then does some perfunctory meet-and-greet banter to get a clearer bead on who we are and–more important–who we know, or at least pretend to know. I let Carpe do the talking; he’s been around so long that he knows everyone by default, the way a prisoner might remind a guard of his anniversary.
We pop in our screener of Swap and nervously watch Weiner, whose stoic demeanor lets nary a whisper of laughter crease his lips. Finally, the tape ends and he turns to us.
“Nice calling card. So what do you want to do with it?”
I drop the screenplay on the table.
My partner turns to me and whispers, “You do ‘play by play,’ I’ll do ‘color.’ ”
I begin the pitch.
“In an era that liked Ike and loved Lucy, school boards commissioned thousands of sensational, conformist, and often bloody ‘social guidance films . . .’ ”
“Red Asphalt,” Carpe interjects, arching his brow.
I clear my throat.
“Once believed to be an infallible teaching aid, the films extolled the virtues of proper dating habits and good citizenship and the wonders of patriotism,” I continue, then ask rhetorically, “But who were these people that made films of such impossible virtue?”
We pause for dramatic effect, which succeeds only in giving Weiner a chance to check his watch.
“Our comic feature screenplay explores educational filmmaking from a behind-the-scenes perspective . . .”
Carpe adds with relish, “Boogie Nights meets Ed Wood in the dark alley of American educational films.”
“In our research,” I continue, “we’ve discovered that these educational filmmakers were out-and-out sleazebags . . .”
“Despots, junkies, beatniks,” Carpe adds.
“One day, into this melange of vice rolls a student teacher who has virtually raised himself on these films. He is polite, hygienic, clean-cut, possibly a virgin . . .”
“Squeaky clean . . .” Carpe avers.
“This aspiring pillar of society rolls in and whips the studios in shape . . .”
“Squeaky wheel . . .”
“But in so doing, he discovers that those he comes to call his mentors and friends are actually rogues, scoundrels, and weirdos. Does he succumb to their temptations? Or does he take matters into his own self-righteous hands?”
“Squeaky Fromme,” Carpe concludes, then leans back, satisfied.
Weiner blinks. He finally asks, “So what happens?”
“You see Frankenstein? That happens,” I say emphatically.
“This is a comedy?”
“A dark comedy.”
“Are there lesbians?”
“There can be.”
Option–Essentially a down payment on a screenplay or property that grants the producers the right to peddle and develop the work without purchasing it completely; i.e., getting fucked without getting kissed.
Weiner and his associates at Hypnotic read a lesbian-enhanced version of our screenplay. In mid-January 2001, while in Park City, Utah, during the 10-day soiree that comes with the Sundance Film Festival and its satellites (including our own festival, SCAMdance), Carpe and I ink our first deal as partners.
Park City is to film contracts what Geneva is to peace treaties–neutral territory suitable for the signing of documents. Talks are tense. Our then lawyer, a man plainly used to bigger fish, thinks of us as chum and consequently used our contracts–to extend the metaphor–as fish-wrap.
We get a new lawyer (who, incidentally, counts gangsta rap label Death Row Records among his clients and is conveniently a contract and litigation lawyer) and sign on to an option of our feature screenplay, the acquisition of Swap, and the commission of three more shorts to create a series of educational films.
Included in the series is the self- explanatory What to Do with Your Dead Hooker; Let’s Meet Those People–a pair of WASP kids venture to the other side of the demographic spectrum–and Johnny Come Early, a guide to preventing premature ejaculation, all of which we would shoot on the Universal Studios lot.
On Set–See Dante’s Inferno, canto 3: “Abandon all hope ye who enter here . . .”
The back lot of Universal Studios is the lost twin of downtown Petaluma. From the bricks to the iron-front buildings, from the clock tower to the slough, it’s a brick-and-mortar valentine to mom and apple pie–except that it’s all fake and nearly as expensive.
The cadre of Petalumans I have assembled to aid and abet my foray into studio filmmaking feels eerily at home and frolics in the vacant streets as if playing a game of stick ball.
Our star, Petaluma actor Zachary Kahler, arrives at the set fresh-faced and spritzing us with a squirt gun he found in a hole cut into the pages of his hotel room Bible. His watery assaults are combated by Levy, who tosses a brick at Kahler to watch him flinch. Luckily, the brick is a prop made of foam.
Costa quietly warns me that some of the studio people are en route to check our progress.
“It’s difficult see the Hollywood sign when blinded by the glinting sword of Damocles hovering perpetually over one’s head, eh, Daedalus?” my collaborator Carpe whispers wryly into my ear.
Indeed, it’s time to get the shot.
Another tram finally chugs out of the frame, Levy calls everyone to order, and the camera begins rolling. Carpe nods to me: “Go ahead, man, this one’s on me.”
I take a breath, cup my hands, and holler, “Action!”
From the May 24-30, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.