A film financier asks something but expects nothing from the producers and screenwriter. 2,543 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
“Everyone there?” Mannie Jacobs bellowed, his super-lawyer’s telephone voice bouncing off the walls of the Periodic Pictures conference room.
“All here, Mannie. Me, Cal, Jim and Dex.”
“So Eric Greenhill came to see me. He’s a big hedge fund guy who wants to put $100 million into a single film with you.”
“A nut job with an agenda?” Cal asked.
“No. I checked him out. He runs a $15 billion fund. He’s 38, personally worth $2.5 billion, no scars or warts we could find. He lost a gorgeous young wife to breast cancer three years ago. Got two kids. A bit eccentric, but in another era you would call him a straight arrow.”
“Why us?” Cal Lerner, Periodic’s CEO, asked.
“He’s screened all your productions, both movies and TV series. He believes Periodic has integrity of intent. Why I’ll never know.”
“Sure he’s not a nutter, Mannie?” Dexter Foley cracked.
“Dex, I promise you, the guy’s legit. But, honestly, I haven’t a clue what kind of film he wants you to make.”
“Single, thirty-eight year old hedge fund guys who want to finance movies usually have one of two agendas,” Cal said. “Either a tax write-off or a chance to sniff around top quality pussy out here.”
“Not this guy.”
“No. Take the fucking meeting,” Mannie said impatiently. “He’s got his private jet ready to fly, wheels up by 8 tonight. He wants to meet in L.A. tomorrow. Yes or no?”
The three executives traded glances and nodded in silence. “Tell him tomorrow afternoon at 2. Find out where he’s staying.”
“He has a married sister in Encino and he’s staying there. Good luck, report back, gotta run. Bye-bye.”
The Periodic partners grabbed their iPads instantly as if Mannie was a symphony conductor and his bye-bye was a baton tap on the music stand.
“Dartmouth, captain of the crew team, Columbia MBA,” Dex said, peering at Greenhill’s Wikipedia page.
Cal was scrolling at Forbes.com. “Started in his dad’s stationery store in New Jersey. A few years at J.P. Morgan, then Credit Suisse. On his own by 2002 at age 26. Made his first millions in genius currency trading. So we’ll all clear our schedules for 2 tomorrow correct?” They thumbs-upped the decision.
At two on the button, the partners drove up to a sweeping ranch house set back on two acres in the gated Rancho Estates area. Dexter pulled the Audi A8 around the circular driveway and they all got out. A man in a plaid shirt and chinos was tossing a football to a gaggle of little boys yelling, “Me, me, me.” He was tall, well put together, with thick grey-streaked hair. He waved hello then walked over to quiet the kids with a long shrill blast from a metal whistle on a lanyard.
“Time out! Everyone to the backyard for whoopie pies and lemonade. Go!”
Still holding the football, Eric Greenhill greeted the partners and shook hands. “Welcome, gentlemen, and thanks for coming. Follow me.” His confident stride showed a rich man on a mission. “My sister’s having lunch with friends so I’m babysitting. Two of them are mine. This way.”
Eric led them inside and down a hallway into the library. It was a enormous rosewood-paneled room flanked on all sides with bookshelves. “Take a load off guys,” Eric said. They sat on sofas beside a large window with a panoramic view of the patio, pool and property.
Eric drew three paperbacks out of an open attaché case and tossed them into the laps of his three guests. The books were copies of Ayn Rand’s first bestseller, The Fountainhead, published in 1943.
The partners’ faces all melted into a human triptych of Edvard Munch’s The Scream, their eerie premonitions that Eric was just another bored-stiff billionaire with a crazed ideological mission depressingly vindicated.
“Ever read it?” Eric asked.
“Couldn’t get past the first fifty pages,” Cal confessed.
“I saw the 1949 movie with Gary Cooper on TCM last year,” said Jim. “I don’t think it holds up very well.”
Dex was most candid. “Sorry, Eric, but it’s god awful. And I hear Zach Snyder is looking to remake it for Warner Bros.”
Eric raised both arms in a gesture of mock surrender. “I get it. You’re thinking, god no, another right wingnut and Ayn Rand disciple with money to burn. And your-balls-to-the-wall question is, why can’t guys like you find better things to do with your money? Fair is fair.”
“Sorry Eric, but we really try to avoid Hollywood love ya baby bullshit whenever we can,” Cal said,
Eric laughed. “That’s exactly why I am proposing my film project to Periodic first.” He laid a hard cover volume on the coffee table and tapped on the cover. “This is a signed first edition of The Fountainhead. I was born Jewish but my Ten Commandments are all in here,” he said, his voice now solemn. “As it was for my late wife, god rest her soul. This project is all for her. It’s the fulfillment of a death-bed promise I made her.”
The partners were stunned into silence. Dex managed to stammer out a few words, “That’s quite lovely… and… yes, touching Eric… But–”
“Please, let me go on,” Eric pressed, his voice caught in emotion. “You see, my Sandra came from nothing. Her father drove a cab, her mother was a seamstress. But they belonged to a proud people who asked nothing from society but to keep what they earned and be left alone. She got a full scholarship to Radcliffe,” he went on. He clicked his iPad to a montage of photos and showed them around. “She could have been a model or an actress. She was gorgeous, in my eyes anyway.”
“In anyone’s eyes,” Jim said, looking at the pictures of the beautiful young woman frolicking with her children, romping on the beach with her dogs, snuggling with Eric by a ski lodge fire. “So sorry for your loss.”
“She saw the movie of The Fountainhead at college. Typical freshman, epiphany prone. She fell in love with Rand’s ideas. Ran to a Cambridge bookstore and scored this signed first edition and read it in a day. Then she rented the movie at Blockbuster and saw it again.”
“She loved it that much?” Cal asked.
“She did. She knew Gary Cooper was his usual wooden self, and Patricia Neal chewed the scenery and Raymond Massey hammed it up. But Rand changed Sandra’s life and recruited a blooded disciple.”
“I believe Ayn Rand wrote the screenplay adaptation to The Fountainhead,” Dex said, thumbing the paperback.
“Yes. That’s why the dialogue is so stilted. Her screen characters were merely ventriloquist dummies for the ideology.”
“I forget, who directed it?” Dex asked.
“King Vidor, no slouch with big themes. So here’s my proposal. I want you guys to produce a remake of the film with a brilliant script, great actors, and a money-no- object production. Convert Rand’s ideology into believable human dialogue spoken by real people. That was Sandra’s wish.”
“This is no lay up, Eric,” Cal warned. “You could be pissing your money into the wind.”
“Point taken,” Eric replied. “But I promised Sandra I’d make an honest effort and that’s what I will do. If you guys pass, that’s fine. I have five other preferred producers, but Periodic is number one.”
“Please don’t think I’m being condescending,” Cal explained. “But you could do so much good by memorializing your wife with hospital wings, college scholarships…”
Eric raised a hand to stop him. “Totally understood. But you see, Cal, I’m a hedgehog. A hedge fund guy who is really a hedgehog. Ever hear the ancient phrase, The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog one important thing?”
They all shook their heads no.
”I attribute whatever I’ve achieved to knowing one important thing. I believe that quality trumps everything. Whether it’s an investment, a car, a painting, a pair of sneakers or a jar of peanut butter. Even this,” he said, lifting the gleaming whistle on his lanyard. “Nothing could be more innocuous, right? But this is no ordinary whistle. It’s an Acme. The makers are hedgehogs, too. They know the one important thing is how to make the world’s loudest whistle.”
Dex brightened. “I do remember those whistles. Our rugby coach at Oxford used one. He’d hold it up and say, ‘Heed me lads or forfeit your auditory faculties for life.’ It was an eardrum destroyer, that’s for certain.”
“Correct. This one’s a commemorative replica of the Acme used by the crew of the Titanic in 1912. Its shattering blast penetrated over the screaming panic. It speeded getting the women and children to lifeboats.”
The partners were mesmerized by Eric’s passionate narrative.
“The people who make this whistle are hedgehogs. They believe in simple meticulous craftsmanship, first class materials, no compromises ever,” Eric said, putting it to his lips, taking a deep breath and blowing. The thunderous shriek sent the partners’ hands flying to their ears. “I’ve seen your movies, and I‘m convinced you guys always strive for what’s best. So my question is: are you ready to take on a serious remake of The Fountainhead? You say yes, I write the check. You’ll never hear from me again until the film hits the screen.”
Cal read the eyes of his colleagues. “Look, Eric, a whistle — sure, I get that. But we’re talking about a movie. You may hate what we’ve done.”
“Don’t worry about that. But I do have one request,” Eric said, reading the oh, here it comes look in the partners’ eyes. “I want Julia Healy to write the screenplay.”
“Julia?” Cal asked. “Why Julia? I mean, she’s brilliant. But she’s a real pain-in-the-ass leftist. I don’t think she’s much of an Ayn Rand fan given her obvious politics.”
“She did your Emma Goldman biopic, right?”
“She tried to get an audience to love a bomb-throwing anarchist. The project was a moment of weakness for us,” Dex confessed. “We had a great film but lost our asses.”
“I want Julia because she writes with passion. Would you call her? If we meet and I get her to say yes, can we call it a deal? And if not, well, we’ll call it a day.”
There is nothing so eloquent in Hollywood as a no-strings check for $100 million to animate filmmakers.
Cal turned to Dex, “Call Julia.”
Dex left the room and punched in Julia’s number. Her reaction was predictable. “Oh please. Dex, just tell the crazy asshole to fuck off. Ayn Rand? That fascist? You have got to be kidding me. El Paso.”
“Just take the meeting, Julia. Costs nothing,” he begged.
“You realize if news of this got out, I’d have my epaulets and brass buttons stripped like Alfred Dreyfus when he was tried for treason. In front of Trader Joe’s.”
“Sit with the guy for an hour and then tell him to fuck off if that’s your final take on the project.”
She sighed. “Okay. But you owe me one, Dex.”
Aged thirty-four, Julia Healy was a divorced mother of two and raven-haired natural beauty. She lived in a Spanish Mission cottage in West Hollywood where, between scripts, she gardened, cooked delectable dinners for her small circle of friends and read A.A. Milne stories to her children.
Eric called her that evening to meet the next day in Marina Del Rey. “Brown bags and benches OK? My turkey, provolone and tomato sandwiches with garlic aioli on sourdough are legendary,” Julia told Eric.
“No strychnine dressing, I assume,” Eric zinged.
“Cyanide is quicker — so I’m told,” she said.
Noon was overcast and misty, the marina almost deserted, a strong breeze luffing at the sails of docked boats. Eric arrived and saw Julia, who wore no makeup and a cut-off t-shirt with “Feel The Bern” emblazoned in Cyrillic type, Eric stood before her in a t-shirt silk-screened with a huge dollar sign. They pointed at one another’s t-shirts and burst out laughing.
“Oh, this meeting isn’t going to end well,” Julia chuckled. “But here’s your sandwich anyway.”
She hadn’t expected Eric to be that good-looking, and he hadn’t expected her glowing complexion, killer body and mischievous grin. “Ground rules: this meeting is not about ideology,” Eric told her. “It’s about you leaving behind your beliefs and taking on an artistic challenge.”
She handed him a bottle of Orangina. Then her soft grey eyes trained on his face. She asked, “So this project is about a death-bed promise to your wife?”
Eric took a bite of sandwich and then stared out at the water, feeling a faint spray of the bay against his cheeks. “It’s about love and closure. A promise kept.”
“I screened the picture last night. If I may ask, did your wife see herself as Dominique Francon?”
“A different kind of Dominque. She wasn’t plagued by guilt. That was not my Sandra. To her, the consummate theme of the book and the movie was the right of the individual to their own life. To be obliged to no one, to harm no one, in their pursuit of their own dreams and realities. The movie dealt in those ideals but never attained what Sandra thought was the clincher.”
“Proving that love and selfishness can co-exist. A very tough contract for any movie at any time, I know that.”
“You two had that kind of love?”
He took a long drink of Orangina and turned to her. “We did, we really did,” Eric said. She saw his lips quiver and his eyes tear up. “It’s hard to believe…”
She lay an empathetic hand on hs shoulder. “No. it’s not hard at all,” she said, feeling a slight catch in her own throat and listening to the cawing of the gulls. “You realize we live in alternative universes, Eric. But someone like you has unlimited options to memorialize a loved one. Why this movie?,” she said. Then something clicked inside her head and she nailed it. “You want to bring her back to life, don’t you? This remake, it’s a way she can live again.”
“It’s not a ghoulish instinct,” he said. “But it’s close.”
“I respect that,” Julia told him. “I’m sad for you. I’m touched and also challenged. And I’m crazy.”
“Can I take that as a yes?” Eric asked, his voice cracking.
She didn’t reply. They finished their lunch in silence. Some chemical reaction was happening between them, a mixture neither of them could grasp, yet they kept their eyes on the water then walked back to the parking lot.
“So in or out?” Eric asked, grasping her elbow.
She faced him. “I’m going to pull a Rand on you. I’ll write a treatment. No charge. I won’t show it to Periodic. Only you. If you think it’s worthy of your Sandra’s memory, we’ll move on to a screenplay. If not, burn the damn thing. No IOUs either way. Deal?’
“Deal.” he said, taking her extended hand.
“I’m texting you my address. Put it on the GPS and follow me back to my place. We can talk. Do you mind if I stop at Trader Joe’s on the way over?”
“My hangout for cinnamon grahams,” Eric smiled.