From the Monty Python legend: the film/TV comedian delays writing his Hollywood reality novel to accept a TV assignment. Part One and Part Two. 2,642 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Los Angeles – 2003
My writing partner Sam and I are in an early morning meeting at the Disney Executive block. Execution block more like. Over the main doorway, wide enough for a football band to march through, Seven Dwarves bend, holding the weight of the world on their shoulders. Sam and I are in imminent danger of joining them. It feels like being back in high school.
In order to make up for what we promised to deliver by last week, Sam and I have just agreed to write all weekend, and all night if need be, which is something of a problem for me, since I now have a novel to write.
That’s right. Pangloss Publisher Richard Hume bought my fucking reality novel The Writer’s Cut from my pitch. My agent Morty Mortenson called to tell me the good news. It’s music to my ears. “He loves it. They’re going with a first printing of 30,000 copies. And I got you a quarter of a mill on delivery,” said Morty. “It is finished right?”
“Virtually” I said. Compounding the problem. Lying to agents may be common in the executive class but lying to your own agent can lead to trouble. Rest assured. It will.
It’s fair to say that I misled Richard Hume by underestimating how much of the book was left to write. All of it. I regret this now. But it might be also said that Richard Hume misled himself. So desperate was he to buy the brilliant and beautiful bestselling book I outlined to him at lunch at Le Dome the other day that he allowed himself to be taken in by his own dreams of glory. His publisher Pangloss is about to be swallowed by a giant German conglomerate. Richard Hume suddenly saw himself as a white knight fighting off a hostile takeover. For Pangloss was in trouble. Too many writers. Too few books. Way too few sales. My kiss-and-sell Hollywood memoir seemed to him an unexpected gift from the gods.
But gifts from the gods sometimes come at a high price.
The weekend rewrite for Disney started badly. That is to say it didn’t start. My mistake was to celebrate the successful sale of my novel. Dominick’s was packed Friday night with all the usual suspects who need very little excuse to celebrate and my book deal was greeted with genuine joy. The celebrations were loud and long and ended up in a drunken Jacuzzi schmooze somewhere in the Hollywood hills. The alcohol flowed like wine, the women flowed like water, the coke flowed like finely sifted salt and I couldn’t speak until Monday.
Which is when we get the bad news. Mickey has fired us from the rewrite. They won’t even pay for the work we did. The rumor is Carrie Fisher has been brought in at three times the amount we were making. Fuck. Sam won’t even speak to me. Blames me, I guess. I feel shame and guilt. For about thirty seconds. And then relief. Now I’ll have plenty of time to write my book. Well, not plenty of time, but a couple of months.
I’ve nothing else to do which is a pity as I don’t really feel like starting the book today. What I feel like doing is lying in bed being overpaid for not doing a rewrite that gets me access to the Disney lot and keeps up my health insurance payments. I call Sam again and he pretends he isn’t there. But I know better and reach him on his cell phone. He’s still pissed at me.
“I knew this would happen.”
“So why didn’t you finish it yourself if you knew this would happen?”
“Because you kept insisting I wait for you.”
“No need to yell, Sam.”
“Oh really. How about this?” He hangs up.
What’s with Sam? It’s just a gig. The movie’s crap anyway. Most movies are crap. I’m sorry but they are. Total crap. Which is why I always preferred books. I’m so glad I’ve made the switch into novel writing.
It’s official. It’s in the trades. A huge announcement from Pangloss about how excited they are to buy The Writer’s Cut from Stanley Hay. There’s even a quote from Morty at William Morris. “This has everything. It’s going to be a monster.”
It’s almost a shame to start.
Fuck me. Richard Hume calls. “How’s it going?”
“Brilliant,” I lie.
“I’m happy we’re in business. We’re very excited. Can’t wait to read it. If we’re publishing in June, we’ll need finished copies for the stores by May. Allow for proof reading, that means the latest we must have the finished text is in a month.”
“A month?” I’m gulping in shock, which somehow he takes for assent. I’m passing out in panic. “No problem,” I hear myself saying. Why must I lie? Why now? I can hardly stand. In fact I take the last of the call lying on the floor.
“Oh,” he adds, “how do you feel about pre-publicity? Marketing would like you to start right away. I take it you really want to get behind this timely book?”
I couldn’t get much further fucking behind if I tried. I’m sure as hell not writing. Timely. Hold still my beating heart. Is this post uronic or what? Richard tells me that Pangloss has begun printing samples of the cover which it’s going to circulate to their sales reps immediately. Marketing wants to run a competition to find out who the actress I slept with and told Richard about at lunch that day. To start a ground-swell buzz going. Am I comfortable with that?
Frankly, I’m a little worried. I am a bit unfamiliar with the protocol in the sexual name-dropping stakes. Have I disguised the actress sufficiently? Can I be sued? Might I be subject to physical attack? What about that fucking husband?
“I know we can make this a bestseller,” says Richard.
There he said it. A bestseller. I’m not just a Hollywood writer any more. I’m going to be a celebrity author. Visions of The Tonight Show dance before my eyes.
Did I manage to explain my dilemma? I have four weeks to deliver a novel to my publisher. Now I have dicked away a whole week and done nothing. And that’s not the dilemma. The dilemma is I just accepted a job in Europe. It’s a quick rewrite on a miniseries being shot in Britain and Russia. The work is easy, the money is good. They only need me for a month. A month, dear reader. What must you think of me? A month is when my book is due. What am I thinking?
I’m not thinking. I’m grieving.
Tish left me. My fault entirely. My girlfriend left me because I told her to fuck off. I never meant for her to fuck off completely, it was just a thing you say instead of “don’t be ridiculous. But when I came back from the office from a sad and angry meeting with Sam, filled with totally unnecessary recriminations on his part, she had removed all her clothes. And not in a good way. She had removed all her clothes in a suitcase.
As I’ve said, six months is a kind of crucial date in a Hollywood relationship and I think I was becoming anxious about the commitment thing and of course I ploughed that terribly by asking Tish to fuck off. The worst thing was, she did.
It made me unaccountably depressed. I think I had some kind of crisis because I took to my bed for five days playing Randy Newman CDs and feeling very sorry for myself. Normally I’ll snap out of a bad mood. I bounce back fairly quickly. If things are bleak I’ll pick up a book and lose myself in somebody else’s problems. So about five days after Tish left, I thought I’ll go grab a book at Book Soup. I’m feeling a little weak and I have about six days’ stubble and I haven’t been doing too much bathing because I’m depressed so I must look a sight. Anyway, I park round the back, go through the door, and suddenly all these books are staring at me in the face. Thousands of them. And it’s like they are all speaking to me, saying “Come on in then, Mister Hot Shot Writer. Read any good books lately? Think yours will be here soon?” And I freeze. I totally freeze. Normally I get right in there and start hauling books off the shelves, but today I cannot move. I’m rooted to the floor. I’m beginning to sweat. I can hear myself reading the sections out loud: New Fiction, New Hardcover, Recent Paperback, Bestsellers, Literature, History, Biography, Lesbian Fiction and so on. People are starting to look at me. I want to run away but I can’t move my feet.
That’s how it starts. I think I have Thinkers Block. I can’t seem to think of anything. I keep counting the number of pages I haven’t written. I’ve got anxiety symptoms: sweaty palms, piercing headache, spots before the eyes, feelings of panic. Every time I get near my computer I start to shake. I can’t even open my outline. So yeah, Thinker’s Block.
The trouble is you can’t go around saying you have Thinker’s Block. People just laugh. Sam laughed for five minutes.
“Thinker’s Block?” he said. “That’s hysterical. I love it.“
“It’s no joke, Sam,” I said. “I feel terribly anxious.”
“That’s how I feel all the time.”
“Sam,” I said, “this is a real problem.”
“So’s Judaism,” he said.
I’m totally blocked. So I accepted a job in London.
Crazy. Mad. Stupid. Dumb. Go ahead, pile on the epithets, bring on the barbs. What could have possessed me? Well, panic. Richard Hume has just got off the phone. He actually said one month. I haven’t written anything. That is totally, utterly and completely impossible. I am so disturbed by the thought that I have so little time to turn in my book that I immediately take another job. In London. Why? Because I can. I want to escape. I get an offer. I take it. That’s how I deal with my problems. I run. Or in this case I take a limo to LAX and get on a First Class sleeper to London.
I told Morty I was free to do this. It’s a very highly paid job – a quick punch-up on a mini-series shooting in St. Petersburg. Rumors are that it’s in deep trouble – well, it must be if they want me. The producers want some humor injected into a very long adaptation of an extremely long Henry James novel. Everyone and his brother has had a go at some stage because the script is a kaleidoscope of different color pages, a sure sign that many a hack has had a hand in it. Pure shit is not so easily achieved, and I might have spared a sympathetic thought for Henry James if I had ever been able to finish one of his novels, but for me he was always Edith Wharton in drag.
Putting humor into Henry James is like inserting salami into a vegan sandwich, but when you’re keen to get away you’ll take anything. In my case a Virgin Atlantic Upper Class round-trip ticket and a few nights staring at the fancy wallpaper in Earl’s Hotel. Fortunately, there was no need to read Henry James. Even the producers didn’t ask that – they just wanted something by yesterday and they were apparently desperate and grateful for my tired and pallid one-liners.
The plane is empty. Do I work all night? Or do I drink a fine bottle of Chablis and take a sleeping pill? Right. The plane seems to accelerate towards Heathrow. I feel inspired. This is the land of Shakespeare, Chaucer and Keats. I could write any novel here. Unfortunately, I have to rewrite an NBC miniseries.
Earl’s turns out to be a quiet little backwater hotel off St James’s. I get an eerie feeling of calm. I circumnavigate the park, breathing deeply, then head up the steps to Waterloo Place and along Lower Regent Street to Piccadilly. I venture into Hatchards. Holy shit. The English must read more than anybody. I suppose it’s so god damn soggy all the time they have to do something with all those hours indoors. It’s not as though they talk to each other. “Shush” should be the motto of the country. That and “Sorry.” Everyone in this country seems to be writing a book. It must be fucking compulsory to write them because the entire store is packed from floor to ceiling with books. Five floors of totally alien books. I recognize none of the titles. I take one look and flee.
The rest of the three days I spend holed up in a hotel room with Jeremy Goldsmith, a bearded mini-mogul, dark-eyed with curly black hair, who eyes me with the suspicious look of someone deliberately withholding his Emmy. I’m spending excruciating hours desperately straining to shovel comedy into the dry Jamesian world of this epic bomb. Jeremy feeds me the gist of the scene and I give him improvised gag lines. It’s like a bad TV show.
A pale-faced Englishwoman with straw hair and freckles glares at me over her tinted granny glasses and writes down everything I say. I could feel contempt oozing out of her Marks & Spencer frocks, her little print bras that could not quite conceal her little pink breasts. At the end of the second day, when I leaned in to ask her out for a drink, she said with total sweetness “Mr. Hay, do they really pay you for this crap?”
Part of the kicker on the NBC deal is that I get to go to Russia. Only for three nights but, hey, I’ve never been there before. Henry James set his novel in Paris but for reasons known only to the studio we are shooting in St. Petersburg. As I’m checking out of Earl’s there is a call for me. It’s Morty. Something about Pangloss and urgent. I tell the concierge to tell him I’ll call from Russia.
St. Petersburg amazes me. I had no idea the place was so beautiful. Our location is in one of the many Tutti Frutti Palazzi with their schizophrenic interiors ranging between the ornate gilt baroque period of Tsarina Elizabeth – “Rococo ’n Roll” says Jeremy, admiringly – and the more classically restrained ivory moldings of Catherine the Great. “Ya gotta admit the bitch had kitsch,” he breathes in my ear through his thick black beard.
It’s a heritage movie. That is to say it’s heavy on sets and costumes and desperately light on drama. The hairdos do most of the acting. It’s a four-parter, to be spread across a sweeps week. Major names look bored as they hang around in the grounds of a pale pistachio summer palace. The lesser actors, in their fine costumes in their chairs, glance up guardedly from their English newspapers, then turn away, disinterested.
“The rewriter’s here,” I overhear at lunch, in a tent.
“Perhaps they get them by the yard.”
Brits can be quite cutting.
“Which one is he?” asks a red haired young thing in an Anna Karenina dress. “The thin one with the glasses?”
“He’s the one in the Bruce Willis sandals.”
And I thought it was cool now to wear socks with sandals.
At the end of lunch, I am led away. I’m being sent back. Morty has called and spoken with Jeremy. I’m urgently needed back in LA. “Lucky beggar!” shout the extras when they hear of my departure. “Blimey, he didn’t last long.”
“Sorry,” says Jeremy. “But, well, you’re done aren’t you?”
It’s true. I’m well done.