A director with no studio deal enlists a struggling screenwriter, a first-time producer and a world famous actor to make a film. 2,717 words. Part Two. Part Three. Part Four. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
For months after it happened, Hollywood speculated about what a first-time producer could have possibly said to the highest paid movie star that would cause him to stalk off the set in a rage and quit the film a day later, sinking it at a net loss of close to forty million dollars to the studio. The trades reported “artistic differences.” But the crew on location in Manhattan saw Mike Garth leaving actor Douglas Troy’s trailer with a split lip — and suspected that art had very little to do with it.
Garth was famous for a while, as a curiosity rather than a hero — the way a self-ordained lesbian priest might become famous for throwing a custard pie at the Pope. But he never told anyone what actually happened on that autumn afternoon, and Troy never spoke about it either. With the dramatic finale unexplained and unresolved, interest in the whole matter eventually faded.
But Mike thought about it often. Despite the consequences to his career and the industry consensus that he had been an irresponsible self-destructive prima donna, he found his behavior impossible to regret. He hated bullies. They had ruled his childhood in the form of big kids, teachers, and camp counselors. The memory of those despots could make him, at unexpected moments, fierce, even dangerous, though the results were often dire. Some bullies actually were as strong as they pretended to be. And Douglas Troy had turned out to be one of them.
It had begun with Bill Terhune; things always seemed to begin with Bill Terhune in those days. Mike was sitting on the tiny terrace of his Westwood apartment one October morning, having coffee with screenwriter Jim Hotaling, when the film director called. Mike picked up his burner flip phone on the second ring and pushed the button to open the connection.
“Here’s the difference between us, Mikey,” said Terhune whose voice, even at this early hour, bristled with aggressive self-satisfaction. “Apart from the fact that you’re still using that crap Nokia and I’m on an iPhone 7. You’re just waking up, you’re putting off the work you didn’t do last night, and thinking about calling in sick at the office. Which is at — I have to mention this, Mikey, not to rub it in, just for the sake of comparison — Vista Films, a bunch of two-bit losers who grind out VOD garbage. Whereas I am in my office at Wilhelm Brothers whose average budget per picture last year was $93.5 million, and chatting with Douglas Troy and getting ready to start pre-production on a picture called Unfinished Business… ”
“That’s Jim’s script!”
Jim tugged at Mike’s arm. “What? What about my script?”
“Exactly,” Terhune continued. Mike tipped the phone so Jim could listen. “While Jim’s at your impromptu breakfast club and wondering why nobody wants to buy any of his downbeat depressing scripts about dysfunctional families and alcoholic assholes, I’m sitting here actually getting them made. You’re complaining that nothing’s happening. I’m making things happen. That’s the difference between us.”
“Bill, what the hell are you talking about?”
“Want to produce a movie?”
“What drug are you on right now?” Mike asked. “I want to be sure I never take it.”
“Because, if by some chance you actually do want to produce a movie, I strongly suggest you get your ass over to Burbank now and bring Jim with you. I have a drive-on for you at the Barham Gate.”
And then Terhune hung up.
Mike and Jim were sure he was kidding, but you could never be totally sure of anything with Terhune. They had nothing else to do except eat bagels and procrastinate, so they compromised and ate the bagels in the car. Half an hour later, they were walking across the asphalt to the line of brown two-story office buildings on the north side of the studio lot. It was at least twenty degrees hotter in the Valley and it was getting hotter all the time: solid blinding desert heat. The second floor hallway was air-conditioned but the chill wore off quickly as they looked for Terhune’s office. The door to his office was open. A secretary was typing and behind her they could see Terhune himself in another larger room with his feet propped up on the desk and reading the trades online.
He stood when they came in: massive and daunting as usual, shaggy and broad-faced, his hair in a ponytail. Like a grizzly bear, he made simply standing erect seem like a physical threat. “What do you think?”
Jim grinned. “I think you do it with mirrors.”
“Yes, I admit there’s magic involved. But unlike your average journeyman magician, I’m glad to reveal how I do my tricks. Actually, that may be the best part. But first, coffee — I know I interrupted your breakfast. Carol,” he called out, “three coffees, milk, no sugar.” He turned back to his pals. “In half an hour we have a meeting with the head of the studio, the Vice Presidents of Production and Distribution, the executive in charge of the picture and a couple of actors named Haigley and Troy.”
“Rick Haigley besides Douglas Troy?” quizzed Mike.
“No – Melvin Haigley, his first cousin with the speech impediment. Of course, Rick Haigley.”
“I’m supposed to work with him?”
“Hey, for this kind of money, you can let bygones be bygones.”
“Bygones? What do you mean, bygones? Nothing’s bygone,” Mike paused, stunned for a minute, then spoke slowly to Terhune who loomed over him. “What makes you think he’d be willing to work with me?”
“He’s fine with it. Relax. This town runs on nepotism. Just sit back and enjoy it.”
“Rick hates me, Bill.”
“You’re deluded. The guy couldn’t care less. You hate him, but deal with it on your own time. Okay?” Terhune turned back to Jim without waiting for an answer. “They all think you know what’s going on, so I have to tell you a few things before we walk in there. They want rewrites.”
“Everybody. The execs. Troy. I have all their notes. You’ve already agreed to them.”
“That was cooperative of me.”
Carol walked in with their coffees. “I love your script, Mr. Hotaling, I cried. I’m so excited for you guys. I’m writing a screenplay myself.”
Terhune laughed. “The favorite indoor sport of the Los Angeles basin.”
“It’s perfect,” Mike added. “A game with no rules where everyone loses.”
“Not everyone,” Carol said. “You guys are the proof of that.”
Terhune flashed her an evil smile. “But we cheat.”
“He cheats,” Jim corrected. “I just do what I’m told.”
“And I’ve never seen either of these guys before in my life,” Mike asserted. “Is this the DMV? I just came to renew my license.”
Jim set his cup down. “Now tell us how you did it.”
Terhune turned to Carol. “Stick around. I’d like you to hear this.”
“But the phones — “
He put each on hold, one at a time. Then, with the little plastic buttons pulsing unobtrusively on and off, Terhune tilted back in his chair and began.
“The trick of cheating,” he said, “isn’t breaking the rules. It’s ignoring them. You can get away with anything if you don’t announce to people that you’re doing it. Once I stole a sixty dollar art book. I was leafing through it and I walked outside to check my parking meter. There was nothing furtive about me so no one noticed. I’ve lost the book but I never forgot the lesson. It came in handy when I decided to set up a fake office at Wilhelm. I drove in with a delivery six weeks ago, found an empty office and went to work. I bullied them into giving me a phone, that was the first thing. I told Maintenance it was supposed to be installed two weeks before and I was losing thousands of dollars a day because of their incompetence. They said they didn’t have any paperwork on Terhune Productions. And I said, ‘That’s a great excuse. Tell your boss you lost the paperwork. Better yet, let me talk to your boss.’ So I got my phone and my desk and the rest of it. But that was just for show. What I’d really done was given myself physical proximity. I’d been on the outside for years. Now I was on the inside. The trick was using that fact. So I walked around and mingled. I poked my nose into sound stages and cutting rooms. I saw plenty of stars and directors, but they were always walking fast to somewhere else while talking to six other people. I needed to slow someone down and I needed to do it fast, since it was only a matter of time until Studio Security wised up and threw me off the lot head first.”
“So what did you do?,” Jim asked.
Terhune shrugged. “I ate lunch. A classic Hollywood career move.”
“I don’t get it.”
But Mike did. He sat forward and said, ”In the commissary.”
“Give the man a stuffed panda. I started eating long lunches at the commissary every day until I saw Douglas Troy eating alone at a corner table. Everyone was looking at him, but no one came near him. Not even other movie stars. Part of it is what a great actor he is and how he influenced all of them and all that crap. But they were scared of this guy. He’s been in jail, he’s been in psychiatric hospitals, and that wasn’t for research, pal. He’s supposed to have killed a couple of guys. And there’s something spooky about his face. You believe it. Anyway… All I could think was, this guy is perfect for the father in Unfinished Business. So one day I took a deep breath, walked over to his table and sat down. He said, ‘What the hell do you think you’re doing, kid?’ He really called me ‘kid’. And I said, ‘You’ve never won an Oscar. Here’s your chance.’ “
“And you pitched him the movie? Right there at the table?” Jim asked.
“Not exactly.” Terhune addressed Carol and Mike in the room. “Jim has never grasped the basic principles of pitching a story. And if he haven’t learned it yet, he never will. And it doesn’t matter anyway. He’s a hot writer now. He doesn’t need to pitch stories any more. They’ll pitch stories to him.”
“Why can’t I quite believe that?” Jim said.
“Because all of your imagination goes into your work. You never apply it to your real life. And you’re cynical. Which means you’re scared. Okay, so this is what Jim does. First of all, Jim tries to keep it short, because he knows the morons he’s pitching to have the attention span of toddlers on a caffeine jag. So he spits out five or six boiled-down story ideas, as if they can see the whole picture in their heads from a few sentences. But they can barely see the whole picture in their heads when they’re sitting in a theater watching the finished picture. So that’s a miscalculation. Then he gives the premise and the plot twists away up front to grab their interest. Like with Unfinished Business, he said, ‘When a college student’s father is shot on Christmas Day, the kid uses his access to a top-secret time travel project to go back two weeks. But once he’s back in the past, he finds out the mob killed his father over gambling debts.”
“So what’s wrong with that?” Jim asked. “I’m interested.”
“You better be. You wrote the script. But you’ve blown the story in the first five minutes. They’re ‘interested’ but they’re not hooked. They haven’t had a story experience. When you start filling in the details, they don’t care. They’re just sitting back and punching holes in it and you’ve already lost. Because a story is something we grasp one piece at a time. You have a secret advantage when you’re pitching that no finished film ever has. Your audience really doesn’t know what’s going to happen next. They haven’t talked to their friends or read reviews. There’s no buzz, no fanboy website spoilers, no trailers or TV ads. No one and nothing has ruined it for them, unless you do it yourself. The way Jim does.”
“So how did you do it?,“ Jim asked testily. “If the lecture is over.”
Mike sympathized with Jim’s annoyance. But maybe people had to be a pain in the ass to succeed in Hollywood. Or at least be friends with one.
“I told Troy the whole story from the first shot,” Terhune replied. “I have the script memorized from page one to the end, but I didn’t bother with the fade in, iris to black, interior exterior, night day dissolve bullshit. I just said: ‘It’s Christmas Eve at Hollywood Park. Only the hard-core gamblers are at the track. It’s the second race and Ray Brackett is screaming for a horse named Four Leaf Clover as if his life depended on it. Which it does.’ And I took it from there — the race, the chase through the paddocks, the murder… moment by moment, scene by scene, straight to the end.”
“How long did it take you?”
“An hour and a half — just like the movie. We were alone in the commissary by the time I finished. He asked, ‘Who have you shown this to?’ I said, ‘No one.’ He asked, ’Who’s the writer?’ I said, ‘A pal of mine.’ He asked, ‘Who’s the producer?’ I said, ‘A pal of mine.’ He asked, ‘Who’s the director?’ I said, ‘Me.’ He said, ‘You’re pretty sure of yourself.’ I replied, ‘Lucky for me.’ He asked, ‘How much development money has Wilhelm given you?’ I said, ‘None.’ He said, ‘So how are you going to set this up?’ I said, ‘You’re going to help me. You have access and I don’t.’ He asked, “Access to whom?’ I said, ‘Rick Haigley, for the son.’ He said, ‘Rick is like my son. I’ve known him since he was three weeks old.’ I said, ‘His agent won’t return my phone calls.’ He said, ‘Get me a copy of the script.’ So I handed him one. He said, ‘You’re prepared.’ I said ‘Boy Scout.’ He said, ‘Me, too.’ And that was it. I shook his hand, walked back to my office and got arrested. They charged me with trespassing and fraud and a few other things — including resisting arrest.”
“You resisted arrest? You’re certifiable,” Mike asked.
“Just a little. The cop shoved me. I shoved him back. So they took me to the Burbank jail. They let me call my lawyer. Total waste of a quarter. So anyway the Burbank jail was pretty clean. One of the guys brought me food from the Taco Bell down the street. Shit, that reminds me, I’ve got to read his screenplay. I was there for six days. The cops didn’t really believe my story. They enjoyed it but most figured I was just bullshitting.”
“Which you are.” Mike pointed out.
“Which I am. But then, the following Saturday, Douglas Troy bailed me out. It was pretty funny, actually. One of the cops had busted Troy, and Troy actually remembered him. It was like a reunion. And the day after, Doug –”
“You call him Doug?” Jim asked
“Hey, it’s his name. He has La Barca cater a huge Mexican dinner for the night shift. He even paid for strolling musicians. This actor’s supposed to be some kind of monster, but sorry, I just don’t see it.”
“How did he find out you were in jail?” Mike asked.
“He gave the script to Haigley who loved it and the two of them came looking for me. Everybody was very apologetic. The charges were dropped and big shots sent flowers and champagne. What can you say but ‘Hooray for Hollywood’? I got a real office, and a secretary, and a production deal. Which meant it was time to call you guys. All you have to do now is convince these people that you’re human. Which might be quite a trick. Fortunately, you don’t have time to worry about it. The meeting’s in five minutes.”