An American screenwriter becomes entangled with a zealous Italian film director. 2,780 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Rome, with the voice of all its sparkling fountains, said to me, You can’t leave. Los Angeles never spoke so imperiously. Or maybe she did, but since I was always in my car or in my office on the studio lot, I never heard the message.
In any case, I left.
Rome didn’t offer me a job, or a place to live, or a Vespa to get around. Language was a hurdle, but before too long I could order a plate of spaghetti alla carbonara alongside Pasolinian primitives without drawing a second glance.
The San Calisto bar in Trastevere was a decent substitute for Schwab’s as a place to sit and watch the world go by. The management put rickety tables outside on fair afternoons and evenings. Pretty often, they left them out when it was lightly raining so the drunks could watch the rainbow skies and the fountains carved from travertine marble which gurgled within earshot. Rome’s water is tasteless, or maybe taste-free. But I’d never drunk anything half as refreshing.
A well-dressed perfumed young man stared through face-making eyeglasses. When he came over, I expected tentative pick-up overtures. Instead, he explained his film theory.
“When you ordered white wine, I knew that you are American. From the world of spectacle. This is synchronicity at work. An Italian-American director has usurped an autochthonous genre, with great success” – he was talking about Coppola’s 1972 masterpiece – “at roughly the same time that an Italian director attempted an American-style road movie, which, at least in my view, is a dismal failure.” Maybe Sergio Leone’s Giù La released the year before? “My mission is to re-appropriate and re-subvert a classic theme to re-ëstablish purity of form.”
Ah, he wanted to make a Western.
He went on and on, as if he were re-spewing film school lectures from memory. The earnest young man who sat next to me was Gianluca Roventino, film director, and therefore took many things for granted. First of all, that I was free for dinner.
Gianluca seemed surprised and disappointed when I told him I wasn’t an actor but a screenwriter. He recovered quickly. “Don’t worry about that,” he said, and launched further into The Project. He kept talking on the road to Trattoria da Sergio for supper. He didn’t shut up even when we were seated at the table. I also could hear him from the claustrophobic toilet.
“A person has to decide whether to be a star or a serial killer,” he said. “Reality is drab. A cowboy, for instance, is primarily a shepherd, a veterinarian, and a terribly lonely person. The cowboy with the smallest knife, supposedly, is the most skilled. He only uses the pistol on his belt to frighten coyotes.”
He pronounced coyote the Spanish way, which loosed a nostalgic twinge in me for a cartoon canine eternally outsmarted by a smartass correcaminos and foiled by gravity. I immediately recalled an uncle of mine, not a blood relative, who had been born into a ranch family in the wilds of Northern California. I thought him a cowboy because he had once shown me a prized possession: the salted scalp of a Chumash Indian. He kept his mutilated Stetson hat and an oilcloth-wrapped Colt Peacemaker in a closet at home, and wore fancy cowboy boots to work. He wound up owning a used car lot in the Santa Clara Valley. His brand of entertainment was pro golf on television.
But, despite Gianluca’s fervor, a foreign accent is rarely a springboard to a career in motion pictures. Especially one desirous of making an oater. The Italian expression for Wild West is Far West, more of a dream in a north/south-shaped country where wildness is unknown. The connection to the young director’s film semiology was tenuous to non-existent.
“The face I want for my cowboy protagonist is an honest face,” Gianluca said. “The face of hard work, done in blinding light.”
“You don’t want me then,” I said.
But Gianluca said he did, and miraculously shut up. His meal of spags with eggs and bacon was his idea of a greasy dinner on the range. He left half of it uneaten. I reached for his leftovers. He was slim, not yet rangy, and didn’t drink much.
He didn’t know that Los Angeles always laid on the sunny smile, then whomped you with a sucker-punch that said, You’re here, all right, but you can’t come in. The rest of the planet imagines it as the place where dreams come true, and it is. But The Hollywood Machine palpates dreams for substance, squeezes their juice, sells the product as sunshine or knowledge of darkness. Light and shadow weigh the same on the global market.
There were similar machines clanking in Rome, but all I heard was fountains gushing clear cool water.
Rome in summer at night is where all the gods in the world come home after work. The fountains, lit from within, are movie star millionaire pools where the masses slake their thirst and occasionally bathe. I lived in a basement pad off the Via Nomentana, in the same Deco-Fascist apartment complex where Ettore Scola filmed Una Giornata Particolare starring Marcello Mastroianni and La Loren.
In the hot months, my sleeping hours began at dawn. I could breathe then. At night, I roamed. Monte Mario featured air that moved, and glittering nocturnal gods-eye views of the city. The uphill road was Lovers Lane. Couples threw garbage at possible peepers/slashers who slowed down too much or rode by too many times. When I wore out my welcome on the heights, I headed for the beach at Ostia, or down the coastal road to Anzio.
That summer, I learned considerably from Gianluca Roventino, director. For one thing, he made the rest of his countrymen seem like amateur telephone dabblers. He used two sleek Euro machine-guns to set up meetings and tell people where to go. He left it to them to figure out how to get there. He conscripted natives and outlanders to impersonate Indians, banditos, bounty hunters, homesteader housewives, ranch-owners and runaway slaves. The people he inveigled into meetings were wildly unsuited for the roles he wanted them to play, but he was convinced, convincing, unwavering.
Pre-production afternoons were awkward. At a café near Ponte Milvio, a towering Brooklyn native who’d recently starred in a series of TV toothpaste ads spoke during the audition as though he’d just finished a doctorate in divinity at Oxford when Gianluca instructed him to improvise dialogue and body language to express the concept that there were white women at yonder farm every man within miles wanted to fuck.
The Brooklyn man’s Western-speak rejoinder was, “I’ll blow a hole in your head you could punch a fist through.” Which sounded ludicrous in Italian. At meetings’ end, The Director rode off on his spinach green Vespa into the sunset, towards aperitivo appointments with technicians and producers for The Project. The springs on my Lambretta 250 groaned when I gave the actor from Brooklyn a lift home. He was sharing a pad in Cento Celle with a band of imported bit-part players who hoped for breaks as exotic extras. He didn’t invite me in for spaghetti or a burger. Never saw him again, except when his next toothpaste commercial went into rotation. In it, a Zulu chieftain waves a skull-encrusted assegai at the chubby missionary in the village stewpot and admonishes his loin-clothed children to brush conscientiously after every meal. Close-up: he hoists the long cardboard box into frame and smiles for the birdie.
The guy had amazing teeth.
After a summer full of meetings around town with a whole Wild West show of bodies, faces and souls, Gianluca said he wanted me to be the movie’s writer, as well as a bad-guy gunslinger.
“You mean, you don’t have a script,” I stated.
He tapped his chestnut curls. He had a vision for a Western. The words would follow. Of course, he also had the chronology of the U.S. government’s Western land grab ass-backwards.
Rub your fingertips together, make a tsk-tsking sound, and everyone in Italy knows you mean money. I can’t bring off such gestures. I’m mute, as far as hand-jive goes. But I suspected Gianluca Roventino was the scion of an ancient patrician family, living in a palace, with villas in the country and on the beach at Sabaudia. He was able to commandeer a car with driver for days when it rained too hard for Vespa travel. Torrential downpours are rare, in Rome, but they happen. No mudslides, though. Got to travel further south, if you want mudslides like in Los Angeles.
“Look, Gianluca, I said I’d act in The Bad Shepherd for fun, and because I like you. But a screenplay represents real work, and for that, you gotta pay.” I attempted tsk-tsk finger-friction.
He shook his fingers at sternum-level. “Just give me a story,” he said. “A few pages for the producers at RAI,to explain what we intend to do.” State network gods inhabit a grim rationalist palace in the Zone of Ministries. Mortals must pay tribute to be bombarded by TV ads, so RAI’s got lots of money.
Gianluca’s idea was to film a non-spaghetti Western, starring mostly Italian cowboys and injuns, set in the hills surrounding the Eternal City, to be shot on a boot-string budget, for television. A ricotta rancher runs afoul of the Appaci family. The town of San Marzano hires gunslingers to thwart marauding Mafiosi who demand pasta protection bucks for the wheat crop. Bandits intercept a sheep drive from the Sabine Hills. Blood-feud between an illiterate trigger-happy swineherd and the prosciutto factory in Parma. Shoot-out at the Ciao Ciao Bambino.
Nothing in the form of a plot came to mind. Nothing good.
Gianluca called to set up a story meeting at Rosati, in Piazza Navona, the commissary for Hollywood on the Tiber. I was embarrassed. “I been working hard, honest, but no big concepts have materialized. Maybe if we got together in your office first, with some other people involved in The Project, to toss ideas around, bounce them off each other. That’s how we used to sometimes get things un-stuck in Hollywood…”
“Sure, sure,” he said. “We can do that at Rosati too, you know.” He had a soothing voice, a reassuring manner on the phone and in person. He was always immaculate, but not overly fastidious. Women, I thought, would be happy to have their picture taken beside him. He’d be right for the lead role, or to play the good guy who gets killed by the bad guys in the first reel and whose death brings down all hell on the peaceful prairie land. Innocent blood that can only be avenged through grotesquely violent retribution. The idea to cast him was something to start with, a small part firmly assigned, a tessera in the gory mosaic falling into place like a broken molar on a tile floor.
But Gianluca refused to appear in his own film. “My place,” he insisted, “is behind the camera, slightly to the right. I have to see everything as it happens, not afterwards.”
“That’s what second unit directors are for. Give some kid the camera and his big chance to say, ‘Action!’” Actually, here in Italy they say, Ciak! when they mean, Cut!
“C’mon, Gianluca,” I pleaded. “You’re better-looking than most of the movie stars around here, and your fee will be zero. Tarantino does it all the time.”
Gianluca shuddered at the thought. “Just supply the basic narrative arc,” he said. “No paper necessary. Give me something I can tell them in words. It doesn’t have to be La Dolce Vita.” He rubbed the fingertips of his right hand together, tsk-tsk, the sound of money on the way.
I’m still trying to imagine the treatment. Crooked politicians raise the Spaghetti Tax. Wheat farmers launch a rebellious uprising, and won’t be mollified by professional football and nude women on television. The government threatens the masses with a secret weapon, a neutron bomb that only disintegrates noodle products. Shades of the Great Potato Famine loom. A lone hero rides into town. He’s got… something. A dark-haired beauty spills out of a second-story window. She yells… something.
“I’m sorry, Gianluca, but I confess, I got nothing. Nothing,” I told him the next week.
A spark flashed through his lush eyelashes. “How about this,” he said, and the story began to take shape. It was a pastiche of Shane, The Ox-Bow Incident and The Blue Hotel.
The people he’d called to Rosati s howed up in dribs and drabs, the usual crowd that gathers there to bask in showbiz aura and hope for screen glory and euros. They oohed and aahed. Re-hashed misconceptions of American Expansionist Imperialism flew like arrows as they contributed their own idea fragments with the certainty that can occasionally lead to screen credits. These flint-tipped missiles bounced off each other, back and forth. Now there was a lynch mob. Frontier justice. Hangings. A rancher who claims he didn’t do whatever The Law says he did. The busty cathouse madam who could save his life is addicted to spaghetti alla carbonara, and the Calabrian Mafia injuns control all the chickens and the pigs.
“Works for me,” I said.
The meeting wrapped. Gianluca had his treatment. All I had to do, as the writer, was put my name to it. Oh yeah, and I had to be the bad guy in the movie, too. A cold sweat began to drip.
Picture this: credits roll, for something you wish you hadn’t done, something you wish you could take back or do over.
A forehead smack is an easy gesture to deliver credibly. “Wait a minute,” I said. “I have to talk to my agent before I sign anything.”
Gianluca didn’t know I didn’t have an agent anymore.
“Sure, sure,” he said. “Of course. We’ll talk.”
Phone calls flew, like pigeons flying away from whatever they were doing when the noon-day cannon booms from atop the Gianiculum hill. Aperitivo appointments moved further and further afield, to the former livestock market, the ex-communal slaughterhouse, the Mussolini Forum. Vespa miles buzzed.
The party stopped dead when Gianluca showed me my engagement papers. Play along quietly now. We don’t want no trouble. Taking the cap off a Bic ballpoint never sounded so ugly.
Evenings fell when even the director couldn’t keep up with his furious meeting schedule. He’d call the next day from his office, wherever that was, to apologize and set up further encounters he must’ve known would never take place.
The September equinox was an appropriate date for The Project to officially disintegrate. The sky was filled with cloud-patterns of starlings, spooked into flight by Vespa backfire. The birds, like words in endless pitch sessions that end in blackness, flashed the end of an imaginary showbiz venture. They covered everything in their flightpaths with runny ordure.
A beach umbrella over the terrace of a bar on the last day of summer provided shelter from the shitstorm. Final sunlight on the most ambivalent day of the year shone on the sucker in the Cinecittà poker championships. When you’re the only one who shows up for a meeting, that means all the meetings are over, and the money’s gone. It was a young goddess who appeared.
She didn’t know her interview appointment with the director was a three-frame scene that wound up on the cutting room floor in a financial scam. She looked around hopefully.
The seat next to mine was free. She asked, and that was the only answer. A sucking sound, like dreams disappearing down a narrow drain. She’d been counting on this one, for some fast cash, at least. I got her an Aperol spritz, and a mortadella sandwich. The panini were included with the cocktails. The aperitivo crew helped themselves, heaping their plastic plates while elbowing out kids who looked like they were still in Spaghettiland high school who’d buzzed in on their bored-out scooters. Teenagers can legally consume softy cocktails here. No one balks, no one cares. The young bartender poured white wine spritzers for them like there was no tomorrow. Buy a beer, and they make it look like the greasy salty dinner is free..
The Far West epic’s chorus girl and the bad guy who won an imaginary Worst Screenplay Turkey buzzed off into the sunset on a 250 Lambretta, towards more helpings of carbonara at Sergio’s. She wiped egg off her lips, and asked what life was like in the real Hollywood where the Coliseum’s a basketball stadium and no lime trees weep along the invisible river.
“Like a dream,” I said. “Until you go there.”