The screenwriter of the studio mogul’s biopic works on Act One. 2,036 words. Part One. Part Three tomorrow. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Hollywood – 1969
Weak, Dave, weak. Just like your ex-wife said. Or soft, as Jules used to say. Driving out the front gate was like stepping from inside a fun-house mirror. He felt a headache coming on, the kind he used to get when he worked at Hollywood mogul Jules Azenberg’s Argot Pictures – like a nail being hammered into old plaster, making a hole twice its size and sending dust flying everywhere. He never did work for anyone remotely like Jules after leaving the movie business. Television was a completely different animal. Writers like Dave were hired for a series episode for one reason only: to fill in the intervals between commercials. There was no pretense of making art, or quality entertainment. It was called programming for a reason. The beats were all laid out; writers merely inserted new words inbetween. No one expected Dave to pour his heart and soul into a teleplay the way he had with a movie script in the vague hope that a scintilla of what he’d written actually made it to the screen intact. It never did but it never stopped screenwriters from trying. Keeping that kind of delusion going took a great deal of energy. And Dave had paid for it with big plaster cracks.
The next night, over dinner, Dave and his friend Joel Rodgers discussed Azenberg’s offer to write a warts and all biopic of Jules’ life and career.
“You said yes, I hope,” Joel said.
Dave nodded, but couldn’t conceal his unease.
“Good. For once in your life, maybe you’ll be smart,” Joel chided him. “Take the money and run.”
“It’s not that simple, Joel. It’s just that I’ve never been a leech.”
“It’s a wonder you’ve survived,” Joel chortled. “In this town you need to be either a leech or a lemming. Or a rat. So tell your agent to squeeze that little fucker’s balls until he screams. Then, once you have your money, write whatever the hell you want. He gave you permission. Now call him on it.”
The next two weeks were taken up with the back and forth negotiations between Argot’s lawyers and Dave’s agent. But it came together surprisingly fast. Morris tenpercenter Cabe Fallman related boastfully how Jules had, uncharacteristically, caved in to almost all his demands.
“The crusty old buzzard must want this pretty bad,’’ Fallman said.
Dave had to clear away some TV business before he could start on Jules’ biopic screenplay. He perfunctorily dashed off a couple of oaters, then passed on a staff position on a new drama series which would have been a good credit and even better money. But Dave knew the politics would be draining and the hours horrendous. He had grown spoiled working at home for the past several years, even though it had left him with an acute case of agoraphobia. He rarely saw anyone except for Joel, who was neither married nor employed, and his poker buddies. His ex-wife had warned Dave that, if he didn’t meet a new woman soon, he was going to get used to bachelorhood and that he and the house would go to seed.
When Dave looked around the cozy Craftsman, he could already envision a bleak future: Peeling paint, leaky faucets, chipped plates and broken furniture. He never got around to fixing any of it. The front lawn was more brown than green.
But this biopic could save him. Dave calculated that the script for Jules would pay almost as much as a full season of TV work. Even with revisions, he’d have a first draft done in about three months. He toyed with the idea of actually taking that European vacation he’d been promising himself. But not if another job materialized because Dave could never turn down work. The ethic was bred in his bones. “Writing is pretty much all you’ve got left, buddy,” Joel reminded him. “And it’s the only thing that keeps you from full-on cirrhosis.”
As soon as the biopic deal points were hammered down, Jules’ longtime assistant Doreen messengered over several thick folders crammed with memos and correspondence spanning the Azenberg family history at Argot. There also were several boxes of personal photos and at least a dozen film books and star biographies in which Mr. A figured prominently. Doreen also supplied Dave with the names and numbers of many figures who had worked with Jules and might share anecdotes about their infamous employer.
When Dave telephoned them, however, they were hesitant. Jules had to make a follow-up call to either cajole or browbeat them into cooperating. Renewed exposure to Jules’ gruff insistent manner after so many years must have been a bracing reminder of what it had been like to work for him. And that helped open the floodgates to half-forgotten slights and resentments which they still harbored about Jules.
It took Dave a couple of weeks to sort through the material and select what was useful and/or dramatically revealing. He also enlisted his friend Joel to help dig up material about Jules’ ex-wife Doris and his various mistresses via a network of hairdressers, costumers, interior designers and personal assistants who’d worked in and around Argot for years. All these industry pros found it an advantage to be gay, even expected. And Joel had an instant rapport with them. Because, except for Dave, none of Joel’s friends were aware of his sexuality, though all suspected. The two men met at the Asphalt, a faceless and largely empty gay bar tucked into a secluded alley in Silver Lake.
“Do I have news for you,” Joel beamed when Dave walked into the dingy dive. The writer listened patiently as Joel rattled off his findings, trying to discern the credible from the apocryphal. But most of the intel was useless in terms of the final script. So what if Jules didn’t pay his bills on time? That was a droit de seigneur in Hollywood. It would make an amusing scene in a satirical sketch. But not in Jules’ biopic. Joel graciously allowed Dave to pay for the next round of drinks. And the next. Dave didn’t care. He’d negotiated for expenses. And he was glad to give his friend the work.
Dave already was sketching out an informal outline and breaking the story into three acts with a folder for each: Act One: Getting There; Act Two: On Top; Act Three: The Decline. After expanding and refining the outline, Dave started writing the first draft over the next month. His plan was to send it to Jules for comments and spend the next 30 days on revisions before officially submitting the script to the studio.
Dave rarely stepped away from the dining room table where he wrote the screenplay except for his weekly poker night or to sleep. And then it was a fitful slumber, with ideas and solutions to story problems popping into his head just as he was drifting off, or awakening him in the middle of the night and demanding to be written down.
The opening scene of Untitled Jules Azenberg Biopic – First Draft gets off to a surreal start: a dream sequence in which the pseudonymous protagonist, a man in his mid-80s, is sitting alone on a park bench. Jules’ dead brother Mort appears and sits next to him. Jules is surprised to see Mort, who is draped in a heavy overcoat on what is a balmy spring day.
“How’s life treating you?” Mort asks Jules, who is too taken aback to mouth a response at first.
Finally, Jules replies, “What are you doing here?”
And Mort says, “I came to ask you a question: why did you kill us?” Mort turns and glances across the path to another bench where two young men in military uniforms are sitting: Jules’ sons who died in WWII.
A flash cut and Jules awakens in his bed, bathed in sweat, his forearm over his eyes. He is alone in a sparsely furnished room in a convalescent home. A nurse, all in white, opens the door, peers in and asks “Are you all right?” Jules nods several times, his throat too parched to speak. He signals for water. “A bad dream?” she says solicitously as she holds up his head while he sips from the glass. He nods and the camera moves in on Jules’ bewildered face while the scene dissolves to the past.
The bulk of the first act covers the early years at Argot, renamed Excelsior Pictures in Dave’s script. The studio is founded by both Mort and Jules Azenberg, born in the Bronx to newly emigrated parents. It’s Mort who becomes the family powerhouse, with both brains and business sense, and starts working in the nascent film industry as a bookkeeper. He convinces the aimless Jules to help him produce his first short with money borrowed from a Brooklyn loan shark.
Mort strikes up a friendship with a young actress, Lyla Carson, who agrees to star in a turgid melodrama called The Convenient Wife. This leads to the first family rift – at least in Dave’s screenplay. Mort is smitten with Lyla, but it’s Jules who seduces her. When his older brother confronts him, Jules denies it, planting the first seeds of mistrust between them.
The Convenient Wife does so well that its profits pay off the loan shark and fund a second short, Laughing On The Outside, starring the stage comedian Izzy Grace, and a third film with promising comic Floyd Longbottom.
Dave’s story skips forward to a montage of Argot’s early years in Los Angeles, where the studio moves to take advantage of the mild and sunny weather and set up shop alongside the other B-studios on Gower Street in Hollywood. Comedy shorts from Izzy Grace and Floyd Longbottom manage to keep Argot afloat as the brothers expand into features with mixed success. At one point, they even flirt with the concept of sound – years before Warner Bros. introduced Vitaphone.
But Jules is unable to persuade his more fiscally conservative brother to invest in any innovations, creating greater tension between them. By the end of the decade, the company has gone public and Jules is working behind the scenes to maneuver Mort out. Jules, meanwhile, can’t outshine Mort as a businessman but is the better liar and cajoler. And that counts for equally as much in the movie business. Like Iago, Jules subtly poisons the other Argot board members against Mort and then in a move of great subterfuge wonders openly why they dislike his brother.
In Dave’s screenplay, these beats are laid out in several short scenes building to a dramatic crescendo. At the end of Act One, the board asks for Mort’s resignation, naming Jules sole president. This is the last straw since Jules has already stolen Mort’s girlfriend, Doris, and eloped with her. Mort returns to clean out his office only to drop dead of a heart attack. The scene dissolves to Jules sitting on the same park bench from the opening, seeing his brother in the distance and calling to him. But Mort doesn’t turn around and, a moment later, he vanishes, leaving Jules alone with his guilt.
The real-life end of the relationship wasn’t nearly as dramatic. Mort Azenberg lived on for several years in obscurity. But, as one of his daughters told Dave, he was so devastated by Jules’ betrayal that he never worked in the movie industry again. And while Jules didn’t actually steal Doris Pincus from his brother, he had introduced them. The reason the couple eloped was because Jules was denied her hand in marriage by Doris’s father, Abner Pincus, a wealthy Beverly Hills developer and one of the Jewish swells who founded the Hillcrest Country Club. After persuading Doris to defy her father, Jules swore his ardor to her, though he was likely more smitten with her trust fund. And she was pregnant.
End of Act One.
Part One. Part Three tomorrow.