A once successful film director suffers flop sweat as he starts shooting a high-profile reboot. 2,173 words. Illustrations by John Donald Carlucci.
News of the retrieval of Sidney Ames out of the A-list directors’ dumpster to direct Zenith Studio’s reboot of Casablanca was greeted with puzzled expressions, tongue-clucking sighs and god-what-are-they-thinking gasps in the creative community. Even though these same people were long enured to the inanities of the movie business.
Sidney was 57, hadn’t directed a major film in 30 years and had last helmed a series of ten consecutive mega-hits that ignited audiences like Chinese firecrackers through the eighties. But his last film was a nuclear bomb, an epic $100 million biopic of Jesse Livermore, the American investor famous for short selling during the stock market crash of 1929 and committing suicide not long after. It detonated on 3,000 screens and posted a twenty million dollar loss on the studio’s books that year. Ever since, Sid shed fifty pounds and two wives, spent a half million keeping a drug-dealing son out of the can, and found plenty of time to markedly improve his tennis backhand. Everyone figured his career was done, fade to black, the answer to where-are-they-now questions on movie nostalgia websites. He was rarely seen in public, ate mostly at home, watched his granddaughter’s swimming lessons in his vintage manor pool overlooking the Pacific and squired under-age-thirty five ladies on ski trips to Lake Tahoe.
Fortune does indeed follow the brave, but it also follows the lucky. And in one aspect of his crazy quilt life, Sidney had proven gifted in the genetic lottery. He’d been born with the right brother. In his case, Hal Ames, a Harvard MBA investor with an impeccable stock market track record. Thanks to Hal slapping Sid’s wrists over money issues, Sid became a multi-millionaire and stayed one. Thus he was recused from the humiliating process of having to sit through endless meetings with development people while proposing film projects he knew would evoke little more than suppressed yawns or head-shaking titters after he’d left the room.
But not his Casablanca obsession. It was Sid’s pet project for decades: a reboot of the 1942 masterpiece. So he erupted into a euphoric scream on December 26th last year when Jack Terranova texted: “Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukah. The Casablanca project is go. Meet me tomorrow morning at eight.
Zenith International Films had merged with Brightlight Media putting 38-year-old Terranova into the CEO’s chair thanks to his gold-plated resume in the streaming service movie business. But nowhere in the press release announcing his new position did it say, “Jack thinks Casablanca was the greatest movie ever made. He’s seen it forty seven times just to remind himself what a real movie is.” Sid and Jack, somewhere in the filmland nursery, had been born blood brothers with the same infatuation.
“It’s a project that has to happen,” Jack told Sid as they ate omelettes at a Malibu café. “It’s an artistic orphan. It needs a Daddy to love it for the millennial generation. I’m seeing a ten-part series, with a backstory of Rick and Ilsa in Paris expanded. You ready, Sid?”
Stunned into silence, Sid finally managed to mumble a reply. “I’ll drive you to my house and you can answer your own question.”
Sid led Jack down a long corridor to his study. Fastened to the carved wood door was a framed photo of pianist Dooley Wilson singing As Time Goes By from the nightclub scene of the picture. Beneath it was an engraved gold nameplate with the words, “You must remember this.” Sid walked Jack through his Casablanca research trove of stacks of file boxes, notes, and correspondence. On one rosewood-paneled wall hung an immense framed 1942 military map of Morocco with a detailed inset of the city itself.
“I bought it at auction. It’s from Eisenhower’s headquarters,” Sid said, pointing to a street. “See, it’s the most likely location of Rick’s café . The Nitery Street,” he said, looking as proud as a dad pointing to a kid’s artwork scrawl taped to a refrigerator door.
He then took Jack through thousands of pages of computer files: refugees in Morocco during WWII, night clubs of the era, the airport, costume details down to the uniforms of the local constabulary. There was a sepia shot of a mustachioed police prefect seated stiffly behind a desk. “Can’t you just channel Claude Rains?”
Sid told Jack he’d travelled to Berlin and had combed Nazi archives regarding the German occupation of French North African colonies, looking for the names of officers, location of their headquarters, identity of their spies, and so on.
“You’re looking at twenty years of the most loving private obsession ever since I met my first wife. It’s a sex substitute to be brutally frank.” Sid chuckled. Then he reached into his desk drawer for a script. “Its my seventh pass, just finished last week. I saw it as a two-hour theatrical release but breaking it down to bingeable episodes is no problem at all.”
“Make a pitcher of vodka martinis,” Jack instructed, easing into the sofa and nodding at the mantle. “I’m getting over a flu. I would love a fire while I read.” They drank, they talked, and Jack scribbled notes then handed them to Sid when he finished. “It’s brilliant. I like the idea of your replacing the toy plane crawl over the map with real footage and actual combat scenes. Agree?”
They talked late into sunset. “This will work, Sid.”
“Can you sell it to the board?” the director asked. He knew everyone would be flummoxed at handing the reboot over to Sidney — no one more so than Sid himself.
“Don’t worry,” soothed Jack. “The corporation hired me to be ballsy. Zenith had slid into an assisted living home for algorithm geeks. Now they want period but edgy. But what the fuck do millennials know about Casablanca? About anything?””
“I’ll do it for back end. If that will help with the budget,” Sid said.
“Don’t be a shmuck,” Jack countered. “This gig’s gonna rip your guts out. A paycheck will keep your morale up.”
Two weeks later, after a nod from the board, Zenith greenlit the project and signed Sidney Ames to write, direct and otherwise develop all aspects of a Casablanca remake as a six-part series sold to Netflix with one phone call. The take-no prisoners budget was estimated at $110 million. Ryan Gosling was attached to play Rick and Jennifer Lawrence was to be Isla. Then an A-list supporting cast to step in the Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, Dooley Wilson, Sidney Greenstreet, Conrad Viedt, Paul Henreid roles.
Cost didn’t matter. The set was built in an abandoned skating rink downtown. Every wall, every table, every shot glass, every detail of the stage, was meticulously reproduced from the 1942 original just as Sid ordered. Even the casino scene had a vintage roulette table whose origin was traced to an illegal Morrocco casino.
On the first day of shooting, Sid toured the final set as the prop masters did their final check with the scrutiny of a bomb squad following a terrorist threat. “We’ve made some changes to the Rick’s place façade,” cautioned Dirk Johnson, the art director.
Outside, facing a parking field, was built a perfect replica of the stucco frontage of Rick’s café. They planned to shoot it lit by floodlights that evening. “We good to go? Anything you see you don’t like, Sid, talk to me now,” Johnson requested.
“No, it’s perfect,” Sid said as they walked back inside.
Sid took out his laptop and clicked onto the script page of the opening nightclub scene. On signal from his assistant director, the extras began to take their places on the set. “Ryan and Jen are having coffee. Whenever you want to start blocking the scene with them, just let me know,” Johnson said.
Sid felt a twinge in his gut, a sudden rapid heartbeat. His face flushed and sweat ran down the nape of his neck and a cloud of wooziness descended over him. He was going to pass out unless the blood began flowing back to his brain fast. He dropped down onto the piano stool and dipped his head between his legs as everyone stood staring and dumbstruck. As his field of vision darkened with blurry spots, someone handed him a Starbuck’s bag. He blew into it a few times, waited, then blew into it again. Drenched from his neck down to his armpits, he felt a wave of relief come over him.
“You need a doctor, Sid?” his AD asked, squatting beside him.
“No, thanks. Just leave me be a few more minutes. Is there a towel?” A last restorative burst of cold sweat covered his chest. He dried himself off, took a deep breath and felt purged, clear, a very new old man. “Any juice around? I had a blood sugar drop.”
An assistant brought him orange juice, which he gulped down. He stood up, all six-foot-two of him, all rugged frame of him, all pepper-and-salt still thick hair of him, all fifty-mega-watt smile of him, restored.
“Apologies. Hypoglycemia. It’s too long to explain. Okay, let’s take our places, people,” he said, summoning the extras to their tables.
The shoot went well. Gosling’s close-up watching Lawrence enter on the arm of Mathew Broderick was intense perfection, combining suppressed shock with stunned deja vu. The lens exploded with the chemistry. Everyone on the set knew it, sensed it, felt a gut level instinct, that they were about to create entertainment that would break every Netflix number ever clicked.
Sid refused a multitude of offers to drive him home, his spirits elevated by the day’s work.
“You asked for a surprise,” Pilar said as she neared his easy chair in front of the fire that evening. She placed his dinner on the tray stand. “Your favorite: meat loaf, mashed potatoes and creamed spinach. I made the apple crisp with Granny Smiths like you asked.
“How’d it go today?” the housekeeper asked, leaning a bit forward, hands clasped on her apron.
“Wonderful. Go ahead and leave. I know you have your class tonight. Thanks for this.”
After Pilar had gone and he was alone in the house, Sid wolfed down his dinner and paged his script to the next day’s shooting schedule. He made notes on his iPad as he scrolled through the scene. Finally, he set down the tablet, leaned back and closed his eyes thinking about the embarrassment on the set that morning.
It was not hypoglycemia but a full-blown panic attack of the kind he’d not had for decades. He’d freaked. And as he knew from therapy, it was always his fear of the fear that sunk him into depression. He trembled at the prospect of facing the same scenario timorrow, so he popped a Xanax and called Dr. Harvey Morgenstern.
“I can drop over now, Sid, if you’d like. I’m just a few blocks away at my daughter’s home.”
“Yes, please. Thanks.”
Dr. Morgenstern arrived, a pleasant-looking man in his late seventies with neatly combed hair and wire-rimmed glasses in a black t-shirt, moleskin chinos and topsiders. He and Sid sat outside by the pool, sipping a pitcher of freshly made sangria. The night was breezy with a slight nip in the air yet deliciously comfortable as they stared out at the gurgling ocean waves.
“Will I worry myself into another panic attack tomorrow?” Sid asked, not taking his eyes off the surf below his property. ”I think a heavier dose of Xanax may be in order. Will you prescribe it?”
“I would but not yet. You’ll be fine tomorrow and every tomorrow. I thought you told me one time that you’d made a plaque out of our little aphorism and looked at it whenever you felt emotionally deadended.”
“You’ve forgotten. But it got you through ten huge hits. You have a success aversion, Sid. You’ve always had one. Didn’t we talk about that together in many of our sessions?”
“I guess so. But this Casablanca thing iss frankly…” Sid began.
“It was your sanctuary city. The project that would never be a reality. It’s what kept you safe and happy. We worked on that, didn’t we?”
“I remember the plaque.”
“You swore you’d get the plaque etched in gold. Like the one on your study door. ‘You must remember this.’”
Sid mulled a while until his memory clicked in. Then he sprang to his feet. “Hold on.”
He left and minutes later came back with the plaque and handed it to Dr. Morgenstern. It read: “The key to the treasure is the treasure.” — Lin Yun, 1234
“So you did. Take this to the set every day. Never forget that the ride is always happier and the destination is always overrated. We worked on that for six years. And that may well be why you suffered your panic attack. You just forgot.”
“I never asked you but I tried to google Lin Yun, and got nowhere. Who was he? What century?”
Dr. Morgenstern smiled, raised his glass and took a long drink of sangria. “Lin Yun? Oh, that’s the name of my favorite Chinese restaurant when I was a kid. On Pitkin Avenue in Brooklyn. Great chow mein. Shrimps this big,” the therapist said, spreading his fingers wide.