Every movie career has ups and downs. But every marriage has a breaking point. 1,924 words. Part Two tomorrow. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Jim pushed his glass aside and leaned forward.
“Let me tell you what’s really going on,” he said. “Bill Terhune has a deal going.”
“Bill Terhune always has a deal going,” Mike replied. “He probably had deals going in kindergarten – ‘You cover for me during nap time and you can have my cookie at snack.’”
“This is real."
“So was that. Not to mention the black market Lincoln logs. And the crayon exchange. Apparently he had the only sharpener.”
Jim had to laugh. “I mean it, Mike, this is serious. He found someone with money.”
It was the one sentence guaranteed to knock the smile off Mike’s face and silence him. This was what everyone was looking for, the seam of gold in the mountains, the genie in the battered lamp, the copy of the Declaration of Independence on the garage sale table: someone with money to make movies.
“Who is it?”
“The billionaire’s name is Carl Kreiden. He owns shipping lines in Greece and real estate corporations based in Delaware and cattle ranches in Brazil. And tons of other stuff. I don’t know all the details. But he likes movies. So he created a film financing corporation as one tiny part of a huge real estate development deal. Most of the money is German so the company is called Filmwerk AG. He came to Hollywood last year looking for co-financing, but no studio wanted to get involved. Apparently his terms were greedy and non-negotiable. Studios don’t mind greedy. But they hate non-negotiable. He had a lot of expensive dinners and lunches and got nowhere. The only person who showed any real enthusiasm was a VP of Production at Warner Brothers. They got along so well that the guy quit his studio job and is now running Kreiden’s company.”
“And the Warner Brothers executive is Bill Terhune.”
Jim nodded. “Right now he’s working on spec because there won’t be any money for Filmwerk until the real estate deal goes through.”
“Which might never happen.”
“This guy’s deals happen. He’s not some delusional Tinseltown wannabe. He runs a multinational corporation. His yacht carries a helicopter. Bill saw it; they took a cruise to Catalina last month. He just happens to think financing movies is fun.”
“And the great thing about it is, he’s financing everything. No partners, no loans. Bill can make the movies he wants and then look for distribution afterward. Bill wrote a three-hundred-page business plan with budget projections and profit roll-outs and flow-charts and graphs and commitments from some heavy hitters for projects that no studio wants to finance. He showed it to me. I flunked math but I recognized the names. Kreiden went to M.I.T. And he loved it.”
“So what does all this have to do with you?”
“He wants to make my movie, Mike. Parental Guidance Suggested. Remember that one?”
“The movie within the movie.”
“Within the movie. Right. He wants me to direct it. And he wants you to produce it.”
“He wants all of us to work together again.”
The last time Bill, Jim and Mike partnered was on Promiscuity, which had been a disappointment a few years back. Some people said it got lost in that summer’s flood of films. Some people said it was too sexy. Some people said it wasn’t sexy enough. The first weekend, waiting for the box office reports, was an insomniac siege, a hellish string of phone calls and emails, charting a downward graph demonstrating a decent Friday night, a weak Saturday, a fizzled Sunday. It wound up coming in just under the Top Ten. Reviews were positive but tame; no great quotes to banner over a full page ad in the Los Angeles Times, not that there was marketing money to pay for any. But with all the deleted scenes, extra sex and swear words put back in, the Director’s Cut generated some interest on DVD, and it wound up doing well in a limited foreign release.
“It wasn’t a home run but it wasn’t a strikeout either,” Mike recalled over drinks with Jim at the Formosa Café this Monday night. “The movie tanked because no one wanted to see it. That wasn’t our fault. At least we got it out there.”
“More like bunting into a single, getting to second on a walk and winding up left on base at the end of the inning,” Jim, always good with words, noted.
“It’s called making clichés interesting,” Jim explained.
“Which was our whole problem. Hollywood likes the clichés as is. They don’t want them interesting. They want them safe.” Mike took a long pull on his Rolling Rock. The narrow restaurant was loud and hot and smoky. A group of five gorgeous young women squeezed into the next booth. Mike was staring at them.
“Only a married man looks at girls that way,” Jim, long divorced, said.
“Hey, I’ve been there. I bought land there. Fuck, I was the mayor for a while.”
They drank in silence. Mike was still stunned anyway. Jim’s news that a billionaire wanted to finance another movie by them was so unexpected, so lavish and so lovely; it was as if Jim had thrown a wreath of tropical flowers around Mike’s neck.
“Well, what do you think?”
“Are you sure about this?”
There was a book of Formosa Café matches on the table. Mike slipped it into his pocket: something to remember this moment by, the chance he had been waiting for since he had come back to Los Angeles to make movies, since his childhood hanging around studio lots, since his mother had walked away from film, since his grandfather had been blacklisted. Real independence. This was everyone’s dream: working with friends, making the features they cared about with the money and the freedom to do it right. If they wanted an actor all they had to was make an offer; if they wanted a location all they had to do was scout it and go. No apologies, no explanations, no permission slips.
All Mike had to do was say yes.
“No,” said Emma. “No way. Never. Absolutely not.”
“Emma – ”
“How could you even consider it? Are you insane?”
It was two nights later. They were standing in their kitchen, as usual. If their marriage had any historical significance, students would pace out the paths from the stove to the cupboard, from the sink to the table, as reverentially as they walked the battle fields of Antietam and Vicksburg. But of course no one would ever be interested in the details of this private war. All that redundant misery would choke the life out of you. Maybe that had already happened, maybe they were dead and this was hell: the same argument in the same room, forever.
“It’s an incredible opportunity,” he said slowly. “It’s the chance of a lifetime. It’s – ”
“It’s nothing! It’s just a lot of smoke and mirrors and big talk and speculation from the same pair of characters who practically ruined your life the last time they talked you into one of their crazy schemes.”
“This isn’t a crazy scheme. That’s the whole point.”
“Some wacky zillionaire no one has ever heard of wants to give three unknown losers all the money in the world to just go out and make movies? Does that sound sane to you?”
Mike had prepared for this debate and had done his homework. “First of all, people have heard of Carl Kreiden. He’s the CEO of the Bascombe Group: it’s . ranked twenty-third on the Fortune 500. Google him. Business Insider asked him what his hobby was and he said, ‘Making movies.’”
Emma sniffed contemptuously. “So he’s now got a crummy Hollywood office and a prospectus written by the king of bullshit. That’s all. And you want to throw away everything you’ve worked for to jump off the same cliff as Bill and Jim, well, good luck. I’m sure it’ll be lots of fun until you all hit the ground.”
“So there’s not a chance in the world this could be real.”
“There’s a chance. A one-in-a-million chance, Mike. And watching you play these one-in-a-million chances over and over again sickens me. It’s like those old ladies in Vegas feeding their life savings into the slot machines a dollar at a time and yanking the levers with this feral look in their eyes… ”
“It would be a fresh start for all of us.”
“I didn’t know you needed a fresh start.”
“I don’t. But there aren’t that many ways to the next level of this business. I could stay at Paramount for years and just rot there. Or get fired when the management changes again or they have another bad year.”
“I don’t believe this. The last time we had this conversation you were building a great career at Paramount with job security and benefits and glamour. Remember? Now you’re shriveling away in some cubicle.”
“Is it? What I want to hear from you, Mike, is that your job is good and there’s some future in it for us. That we haven’t been throwing away the best years of our lives.”
“Emma, I’m trying to make our lives better for both of us.”
They stared at each other, and the air seethed with unspoken questions and answers and rebuttals. Emma crossed her arms and hugged herself tightly, as if against a chill.
“Let’s say you do this. Quit your job, burn your bridges at Paramount, further your reputation as an unstable prima donna – ”
Mike started to interrupt, but Emma pivoted one arm out, palm up, elbow still pressed into her ribs. He looked down. They needed to mop the kitchen floor. Actually, they needed new linoleum: the grime was ground into the creases and would never come out completely.
“So there you are,” Emma was going on. “How long can it last? Most of these independent movie companies go out of business in a year. They put out two unsuccessful films and they’re bankrupt. They don’t have a film library to cushion the blow. They don’t have deep lines of credit. They just have to hope every movie will be a hit and most movies aren’t. Doesn’t that concern you? It concerns me. This little art film division of Paramount you work for might not be glamorous and it might not make you a millionaire, but it’s a real job. Your boss likes you. The films you make are decent. You said it yourself: it’s a real measurable step. You’re building a career, Mike. If you leave now, and come crawling back in two years when Bill Terhune’s grandiose scheme goes up in smoke, do you think Paramount will take you back? Why should they? You’re only going to be there until the next ‘once in a life time opportunity’ arrives.”
“But it won’t, Emma. That’s what ‘once in a lifetime’ means. You just get one. I didn’t come to Hollywood to be some bureaucratic beancounter, crunching numbers on a computer and eating lunch for a living. I came here to make movies and this is my chance to do it. I know it’s risky, but so is my job. Studios fire executives all the time. No one needs three VPs of Creative Affairs, whatever that is. To them, ‘creative affairs’ means taking your mistress to a poetry reading.”
Emma smiled, despite herself. He could always get her to smile. Now he had to build on that.
Part Two tomorrow
3 comments on “The Failure Tactic
What could be more intriguing than this–The Failure Tactic, Part One? I guess we know where we’re going from here. I’m hooked, and I can’t look away. Bring on the next chapter. Thomas Perry
I almost always laugh out loud when reading Steven’s stories, not only because they ring so true in content, but also on account of his inspired and often surprising similes and metaphors (if that isn’t too academic). I know his characters, or at least once did, and imagine I could walk into the Farmers Market or the latest hot spot and recognize them. So far this story does not disappoint!
Enjoyed the first part, ready for the second. Steve knows his way around a story. Don’t just take my word for it, read his Henry Kennis novels and find out.