Authors: Art Linson
We both ordered veggie burgers. As we began the compulsory small talk, I noticed that the
word kept popping up. Bill liked to talk numbers: grosses, preview scores, ratios of scripts to movies made, ratios of movies made to hits made, etc. He also liked to talk about movies in the past that excited him. He seemed to care about movies, and he even seemed to
the people who made the moviesâan oxymoron for an executive in this day. It was too early to make any assumptions, but I was hoping that his gut rather than his bean-counting was going to play the major role in his decision-making. I wasn't concerned. After all, if the computer hadn't spilled out some past hits under my name, Mechanic and I wouldn't be having this lunch.
As I glanced over Bill's shoulder, I accidentally made eye contact with Murdoch. I felt the chill. He didn't know who I was, but his look reflected grave disappointment, as if he foretold the next few years. It was either disappointment or gas from the dreadful commissary food. In any case, I was certain that Rupert and Bill did not come from the same block. Maybe I was getting suckered, but Bill seemed like a bona fide movie fan. Murdoch was not projecting the same colors. A fishy blend, if you asked me. Had Rupert actually interviewed Mechanic before he got the job? Were their corporate goals shared? I had to wonder: When this drama finally played out (as do all executive dramas in Hollywood), would Bill be left with any of his vital organs? Get a pathologist. Murdoch ate meat.
âI'm lookin' to sign a couple of producers to help supply us with movies over the next few years. Would you be interested?' Bill was simple and direct.
âYes,' I said, even more directly.
I explained that I could start after my Warners contract ended. Since
was still in the early planning stages for Warners and none of us knew what a sizable hit it was going to be, it was apparent
to me that Warners would be only too happy to let me sign elsewhere. If they let me out of my contract early, they could save some money.
And now for the hard question.
âWhat kind of movies are you thinking of producing?' he asked. âI'm sure you have something up your sleeve.'
âShit, Bill, I haven't given it much thought. I'm working with Michael Mann on this thing for Warners, and after that â¦ I think, uh, I'm going to develop something with, uh, David Mamet â¦ and then maybe a kind of a Dickens sorta thing.'
âIt's all still in the planning stages.' I didn't have a clue.
âSounds good. Let me have our lawyers get this started and see if we can make a deal.'
âWe're lookin' forward to it.'
âBy the way â¦'
ââ¦ you could use a hit.'
âI know.' I couldn't help but glance over at Murdoch, who for a millisecond glared back with a âWho the fuck are you?' look. I should have made a run for it.
âWell, let's just hope it's for us.' Bill smiled.
âHere's hoping,' I said lightly, mustering up my finest acting. Dodging direct eye contact with Bill or Murdoch, I turned to look for Larry Gordon. He was gone.
âOooh, man, he gave you the “You could use a hit,” shot, did he? I like him.'
âThought you'd enjoy that, Jerry.'
âThat'll freeze the testicles.'
âWhere was that slippery Chernin [the News Corp executive just below Murdoch and just above Mechanic] in all this?'
âHe would hover and come in and out when it was convenient.'
âMakes you thinka bacon grease, dunnit?'
âI haven't given that part much thought yet, Jerry. Why don't we try to stick to a syntax we both understand?'
âLooks to me like Mechanic was sandwiched and you were the cheap brown bag carrying the lunch.'
âI think we're getting a little ahead of ourselves, don't you?'
âYou're right, you're right. Go slow, I want details.'
There we were at a new restaurant. Jerry wanted to meet at the Ivy at the Shore for lunch, an upscale hangout in Santa Monica but thankfully not as visible as the Grill in Beverly Hills. I suppose it's of little value to describe what Jerry was wearing, but there was something about tristriped, blue Adidas running pants, Gucci slippers, and a very old Ferrari sweatshirt on a desperate middle-aged man that must be looked at, particularly when it occurred to me that the same stuff was neatly folded in my own drawers. Were we turning âcasual' Friday into âsweaty casual' Friday? Since our breakfast in Malibu, his tan had faded, but the promise of tasting a little Hollywood action had apparently given him a boost.
No need to ask why I'd decided to continue this dialogue. I'm aware that I must have been deeply disturbed to let Jerry beat the shit out of me again as we painfully traveled down memory lane. I had some serious issues to work out. I kept justifying to myself that when the future looks hazy and dark, who better to talk to then someone who had a big past and no future? Who else would have a better feel for desperation than Jerry? My consolation: No matter how bitter he became, I always knew he was drowning faster than me. I had no idea then that he had a firm grip on my pant leg.
âTwo chopped-vegetable salads,' the waiter politely interrupted. âWho gets the one with shrimp, no chicken, no oil in the dressing, asparagus instead of egg, no avocado, balsamic vinegar on the side?'
âMe.' I raised my hand, noticing that ordering a salad was getting as complicated as selecting a coffee at Starbucks.
âOh, gosh, welcome back, sir.' The waiter blanched, then genuflected, when he realized that was
Jerry. âIt's been years, sir, hasn't it?' The waiter's expression of doubt mixed with awe said
it all. He assumed that Jerry was âdead,' but just in case Jerry could spin some kind of showbiz voodoo reincarnation and actually make a comeback, a little anal massage couldn't hurt. Everyone in town was in on this game.
âWell, thank you, Jeff. Did you ever finish that screenplay?' Jerry's question was generic. It didn't require an answer. Who wasn't finishing a script in this place? It was as meaningless as asking about one's health or the weather.
âAs a matter of fact, sir, we're this far [thumb and forefinger almost touching] from a start date.'
âWell, isn't that just great,' Jerry said, trying to camouflage his annoyance that any good news brought.
âAnd do you know what else?' Jeff was grinning now.
âI'm going to direct.'
âDirect?' Jerry had had enough.
âOh, how special.'
âNice to see you out again, sir, enjoy your lunch,' Jeff added over his shoulder on his way to the kitchen.
Jerry sat there for a moment, not ready to reach for his food. He was conflicted. Jeff's enthusiasms rankled his spirit. You could see the bubble over his head â âEven the fuckin' waiter's got some Hollywood love.'
Nonetheless, being acknowledged again, even by a food server, was like giving blood to a vampire. His mood was tempered.
âHey, you know that “bear” movie you did?'
âYes. My first venture at Fox.'
âWord has it that Alec Baldwin carved some new assholes for you and that director of yours.'
âNot exactly true â¦ and anyways, that story has to start at the beginning.'
âWhy not cut to the grim bits and leave out the boring stuff?'
âJerry, it's my dime, it's my therapy. You're gonna have to listen to the whole story if I'm gonna let you get off on the bad parts.'
âYou're right, and anyways, where am I going? â¦ After all [his thumb and forefinger almost touching], I'm
from a start date,' he bellowed, bursting into a laugh.
' I replied.
In a brief moment of bonding, I held up my thumb and forefinger and we tapped hands in a drinkless toast.
âOkay, back to business, how did that car wreck of a “bear” movie happen?' Jerry asked.
âIt wasn't a car wreck.'
âNot what I heard.'
In the basement of the Fox administration building, just below Bill Mechanic's and Peter Chernin's offices, were two screening rooms: the Z room and the S room. They were built in the old Darryl Zanuck days, circa 1940. According to legend, and who cares if it's true or not, Zanuck, ensconced in room Z, would spend countless nights with his masseuse and assorted girls reviewing dailies, examining rough cuts, and doing whatever else that was handy. No one but Zanuck was allowed to use it. His florid excesses were legendary. The S room, apparently lettered after Joseph Schenck, was for the general use of other executives. Although Zanuck was responsible for the supervision of thirty-five pictures a year, he mixed business with pleasure and still maintained a healthy list of enemies. Today, the chance of interrupting an executive in midblow job at three in the morning, while dailies are being screened, is over. That kind of action is reserved for pols or dot.com guys. Hollywood has gone corporate and square. You don't have to worry about knocking anymore.
âAre you sure all I have to say is “it's two guys and a bear, they get lost in the forest and have to learn to survive together even though one guy was trying to kill the other guy and take his young, beautiful wife”?' David Mamet asked.
He was not particularly concerned. He just wanted some reassurance that I had already worked things out and that this was going to be a mere formality. He had that look of âI'll do my job, did you do yours?'
âYep, it's in the bag,' I said.
We were making the long walk down the wide administration building hallway, the wallpaper still revealing some leftover touches of Zanuck green (a color that Zanuck insisted on because it matched his mother's nail polish), to deliver a pitch to Tom Jacobson, the newly appointed head of film production under Bill Mechanic. Wait a minute! Who's Tom Jacobson? Wasn't Mechanic the newly appointed head of film production under Chernin? And wasn't Chernin, who dutifully reported to Murdoch, head of worldwide motion pictures? Well, yes, it's all true. It's a complicated system. Even the most experienced insider has a gruesome time trying to find out
where the buck stops
. If you're looking for solid answers, it's rare to find them in movie meetings.
The best way an outsider can understand these subtle distinctions is by asking who has the power to say yes, maybe, or no. Tom Jacobson could say no, but if he wanted to say yes to anything, he would have to appeal to Bill Mechanic for an approval. And even if he wanted to say no, Mechanic could overrule him, assuming you knew how to get to Mechanic. If this request was very expensive, such as the green-lighting of a fifty-million-dollar movie, Mechanic would have to appeal to Chernin for approval. If Mechanic wanted to say no, it would end there, unless you could appeal to Chernin to overrule Mechanic. If a request was very, very expensive, such as more money for a
production that was running mercilessly out of control, Chernin would have to ask Murdoch for approval. As complicated as all this seems, it is a layered committee method designed to pass on the risks and defuse the blame. As you might suspect, the executive at the bottom of this pole is naked. Daryl Hannah's manager wields more power. This guy might be able to jaw his way into a good table at a restaurant with his Fox film production presidential business card, but when he went to work the next day, he was a duck waiting to hear the gunshot.
Tom Jacobson had
I had called David six weeks before. After several months of negotiations, my exclusive deal with Fox to produce movies for them over the next three years had been completed. It was nice to
have the deal, but I needed to get something going â to put some scripts in development and kick-start the promises. The first rule of producing is to find a writer with an idea, or to get an idea and find a writer. Making friends with agents can be handy, but it's way down the food chain. Since David and I did
together, we had developed a good professional working relationship:
You get me a lot of money, I get you a good script
. I was hoping that if I leaned on David, he could pull some rabbit out of the hat. His price to write a screenplay had skyrocketed. I knew this rabbit would be costly.
I placed the call.
âWhat's the shot?'
âI got a new deal, I'm lookin' for you to write a new script.'
âThere'll be lots of money.'
âGood. Let's do it.'
âIt's not that easy.'
âBecause if you don't tell me what it's about, I can't get you the money.'
âFine. What do you want it to be about?'
âI don't know; that's why I'm calling you.'
âDave, how about an adventure movie?'
âSomething castable. Two guys, maybe.'
âC'mon, Dave, I need more to go on.'
âOkay â¦ how 'bout two guys and a bear.'
âIt's a start.'
âThat's all I got.'
âI need more.'
âI'll get back to you.'
Within a short time he did get back to me with a rather well-worked-out wilderness story that promised big intrigue, a fierce
struggle for survival, betrayal, and of course, a bear. I was quite confident that Fox would be engaged, but it was early in the process. Even if they agreed to the screenplay, there was no assurance that it would be made into a movie. We were still smarting over our last venture together at Warner Bros. He had written
, a powerful script based on a true story written by Andrew Potok about his struggle with retinitis pigmentosa. Much money was spent, many meetings with directors and executives were taken, but the movie was never made. We were preempted by Al Pacino's
Scent of a Woman
. In the end, Warners balked.