The Venice Film Festival was the culmination of their dreams. 1,719 words. Part Two tomorrow. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
The source material for their project, an obscure novella called “Fork In The Road,” was the story of two life-long female friends whose paths diverge. One pursues a career as a medical researcher, the other becomes a hardened criminal. But in the end, it’s the latter who has the more emotionally satisfying life. She becomes an angel of mercy in prison, redeeming herself through altruism. The story was tersely written, and because it was delivered without even a trace of sentimentality or bathos, earned the tears Cynthia shed when reading it.
She passed it on to Harlan, who also found the story compelling but pointed out “as a movie it screams ‘woman’s picture.’ The only male characters are incidental. And before you give me ‘the lecture,’ I’m only telling you what every producer in town is going to say, even the female producers. Just trying to prepare you.”
Married just two years, but together for six, they’d discussed several co-scripting projects for Harlan to direct but so far nothing had jelled. Cynthia was keeping them afloat with residuals from a long-running TV series in which she’d been a supporting cast member, and a combination of TV commercials, voice-over work and guest-starring assignments. She was regularly cast in pilots, none of which ever went to series. Harlan, meanwhile was directing local theater and temping as a teacher.
Like many of their aspiring friends, they were just getting by, stuck in gear, in desperate need of forward momentum.
Despite Harlan’s practical reservations, the characters in the story stayed with them and, since the author was willing to grant them an unbeatable extended option, they decided to go for it. Numerous drafts and countless niggling arguments later, Cynthia and Harlan were well pleased with their as-yet-untitled script. Friends effused praise after reading it and encouraged them to either find a producer or, better, ask Cynthia’s agent to help cast the film.
Cynthia wanted to play the less flashy lead but knew that might jeopardize the project. So she wrote herself a beefy supporting part with one showcase scene. Even if they could land one or two major actresses, they’d be working with a constrained budget, since no studio or major production company would touch it.
“Which is fine,” Cynthia observed, “since they’d probably turn it into Beaches.”
Actors, particularly females, are always hungry for strong dramatic material amidst the superhero glut. Two prominent leading ladies attached themselves, schedule permitting, despite the prospect of having to work for scale. But financing eluded the project. There were the usual excuses: “The story’s too small.” (It’s about women). “It’s too much of a downer.” (It’s about women unredeemed by romance.). “It has limited upside.” (Men will have to be dragged to see it.)
The one excuse that stuck with Harlan was, “We can’t take a chance on a first-time director.”
“They’re right,” Harlan said in moments of self-doubt. “If I don’t hit it out of the park, I’ll never get the chance to direct another movie again.”
“Don’t you start in now, Mr.,” Cynthia replied. “Let’s focus on getting your first movie made before we concern ourselves with the arc of your career.”
As one year became two and then four, casting for the lead roles changed. Actresses lost interest or became unavailable. Thanks to the material’s strength and the underground Hollywood network that promotes the best unproduced scripts, however, the filmmakers had little difficulty replacing them.
Or as Cynthia referred to it, “the easy part.”
Having exhausted the independent financing pool, however, Cynthia one day declared, “Enough. I’m going to switch gears and get my acting career back on track. Do you hate me?”
“No. I was ready to chuck it all a while ago,” Harlan admitted. “I only kept at it this long because I didn’t want you to think I was a quitter.”
The script was moved off the desktop and stored on a flash drive. Though their attention had waned, the project continued to rummage in the back of their minds. “Every once in a while, I have another idea about how to get it going again, but I’m afraid to say anything,” Cynthia confessed to her BFF Nadine during one of their regular late-night chats. “I’m afraid to open the ‘hope’ door.”
Cynthia was shooting a limited series, playing a waitress who has twice as much screen time as she has lines, when she read Harlan’s text: Call me as soon as you get this. Urgent. Urgent. Urgent.
Her husband was not given to hyperbole. He spoke what she described as “Fluent Northeastern Taciturn” using as few words as necessary, and was all the more effective for it. Theater performers adored him. He delivered pointed criticism in a dispassionate and forthright manner without a tinge of judgment.
The first words out of Harlan’s mouth when his wife phoned were, “We got financing.”
“Would you like to expand on that?” Cynthia said, picking at the pleats of her waitress’s apron while a hair person tried to puff out a flat spot on her head.
Errivo Monsour was a renowned international business tycoon best known to gossip column devourers for the wild parties he hosted aboard his Mediterranean super-yacht. Some said he was Lithuanian, others Serbian, a few Albanian. Monsour wasn’t even his real name. He’d had it legally changed because it sounded vaguely French. He oversaw a host of shell companies based in various tax havens, though no one was quite certain what was beneath the shells.
To date, he had resisted the lure of Hollywood and its unquenchable thirst for investment capital. But, lately, his representatives had come knocking at agency doors and departing with piles of unproduced screenplays.
“Mr. Monsour is most interested in your script,” one such representative, the sharply-dressed and slickly coifed Philippe Renoir, told Cynthia and Harlan the following week over lunch at Craft in Century City. “He would like it to be his entré into the film business.”
“He is clear that this is an independent film, not a studio project?” Harlan asked, and Cynthia wanted to stab him under the table for his frankness.
“But of course,” Renoir said with an amiable Gallic grin. “He prefers to dip the toe before jumping into the water.”
“How much of the budget is he willing to underwrite?” Cynthia asked.
Renoir seemed surprised by the question. “Why, all of it. Every penny. Is that a problem?”
Cynthia and Harlan sat there, speechless, trying to contain an impulse to turn suddenly giddy and break out in song and dance in the middle of the restaurant.
“Depending on casting, naturally,” Renoir added.
But Cynthia and Harlan barely heard him. With cash in hand, they foresaw no trouble having their pick of talent. Schedules would suddenly open up and the only downside would be having to smooth the also-rans’ egos. As Cynthia herself could attest, there’s nothing worse than being the person who almost got the part.
Overnight and seven years since they discovered the source material, the film went into production. Two of the previous year’s Best Actress nominees were set to star and Cynthia settled into her supporting role.
The technical and managerial aspects of filmmaking didn’t seem to faze Harlan. He rarely shot fewer pages than planned on any given day and then it was due to circumstances beyond his control.
“Duck to water,” Cynthia reported to Nadine.
His explanation was simpler: “I’ve shot this film two hundred times in my head. I’m beyond prepared.”
Every week, Monsour, whom they had yet to meet, was rumored to be coming to the set. He never did materialize, though in a later phone conversation with Harlan and Cynthia, he apologized. “Business is crazy. I’m so sorry,” he said in a thick and impossible to place accent. “But Philippe tells me that the movie is turning out to be everything we hoped for. I am so happy we found each other.”
Two months later, Monsour emailed that he had watched the close-to-final cut on his computer and could not wait to view the finished print fully scored and on the big screen. “I am honored to have my name associated with your film,” he wrote.
At a small screening for Philippe Renoir and a few of their closest friends, Cynthia pinched herself repeatedly. Not a fidget, not a pained smile in sight, which was a huge relief. Through the various early cuts, she had been disheartened. It played too slow in one version, too clipped in another. Harlan was unusually testy throughout the editing process, and at one point suggested firing the editor.
“Deep breath,” Cynthia said, trying to comfort him. “It’ll work itself out.” It took all her acting abilities to get the lines across convincingly to the person who knew her best.
“It’s the music, the music saved my ass,” Harlan whispered to her during the film’s climactic scene at the screening.
“Said the magician to the rabbit,” she teased.
The reactions ranged from approving to enthusiastic. No one used the kiss of death word “Interesting.” Considering that many of their friends had yet to realize their ambitions, Cynthia was actually surprised that their appraisals were so envy-lite.
“You were right,” Nadine said, dabbing kisses across her cheek. “The deathbed scene killed.”
“You didn’t find it clichéd?” Cynthia asked.
“Yes and no. Deathbed scenes may be a dime a dozen, but when they work, they work like gangbusters. This one worked. Don’t go poking at the gift horse’s teeth.”
The one thing about the film that neither Cynthia nor Harlan liked was the title: Monumental. They had agreed to it only because of Monsour’s insistence. “It came to him in a dream,” Philippe Renoir explained, “and he is a big believer in dreams.”
Harlan tried to object, but Cynthia pre-empted him. “Look, it’s his nickel,” she argued. “Monsour gave us carte blanche. He’s asked for nothing in return except that we use his title. We owe him that much.”
They fought about it at home later but Harlan finally acquiesced. “But just so we’re clear. It’s my movie and I want to be on the record. It’s a horrible title,” Harlan sneered as he ambled to his home office and shut the door.
And they say actors are vain, Cynthia thought.
When their producer’s rep told them that Monumental had been accepted to the Venice Film Festival, they began to envision Oscar statuettes, or at least a distribution deal. While neither effused to the other, fearful of jinxing the whole thing, never, not for a nano- second, did they entertain the idea that what was happening might all be too good to be true.
Part Two tomorrow