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Authors: Art Linson

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BOOK: What Just Happened?
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‘How can we make a movie about a guy who's going blind but doesn't get better?'

‘We thought you knew that. It's in the book!'

‘Pacino's blind in his movie but he can drive a Ferrari and dance for God's sake.'

‘Didn't anyone read the book?' I appealed.

‘Of course, we assumed you were going to fix those bits.'

‘But it's a true story!'

‘Who gives a shit if it's a true story?'

And so on. Suffice it to say it was another wonderful Mamet script, at least that's my take, that never got made. The consolation prize is that he got paid a shitload of money. But for the producer, when a movie doesn't get made, there is nothing to show for the time and the ultimate defeat. Moreover, the failed results usually reveal the importance of getting everyone on the same railroad track before the script is ever read. When the buyer doesn't get what he thinks he bought, it is because miscommunications exist before one word is written. These discrepancies start to occur as soon as the first question is asked:
So what's the idea?
at the pitch meeting.

I assured Mamet that this meeting was merely academic. I had already explained to Mechanic the general drift of the idea, but he had insisted for purposes of protocol that we run it past Jacobson. Could we do it on the phone? I asked. No. Proper protocol, he insisted, meant going to Jacobson's office. Since Mamet lived in Boston, this required a trip to Los Angeles, which always left him
in a mixed mood. A trip to Los Angeles may seem like a small price to pay to pick up one-million-plus dollars, but pitching is pitching. At its best, even when it's operating on all cylinders, it's annoying. At its worst, it's a humiliation for everyone in the room.

Halfway down the hallway, getting ever closer to Jacobson's office, we slowed down to look at the
Three Faces of Eve
poster.

‘Can you believe this studio made that movie? Gosh, what has happened to this place?' I asked.

‘Time mixed with cowardice,' Mamet said.

‘You're right, you're always right.'

‘This is not going to be one of those meetings where we walk in and no one knows why we are there?'

‘Please. I'm a professional.'

We stopped to glance at the
Alien
poster.

‘So, I say the usual, right?'

‘The usual,' I said.

‘It's a cross between
Raiders of the Lost Ark
and
Wuthering Heights
.'

‘That's right.'

As we entered the office of Tom Jacobson, the first thing that screamed out was that there were two secretarial desks. This guy must be very busy. Mechanic, his boss, had only one secretary.

‘Mr. Jacobson is off the phone now, he's ready to see you.'

‘Thank you.'

For those of you who have never been in a pitch meeting, it's nothing much different from door-to-door sales except the financial stakes are higher. You must convince the guy with the checkbook that he
needs
whatever soap you are selling. I'm not sure anyone actually
needs
to buy an idea for a movie. If you buy an idea, you have to pay to have the script written. Writers are expensive. In most instances the scripts are badly done and only a small percentage ever get filmed. Because of the high turnover factor, the executive who winds up buying the script probably won't even have his job by the time the wretched thing gets made and is ready for release. Either someone else will be the beneficiary of its success, or the poor sucker who was fired will inevitably be blamed for
supporting it. Under these rules, I'm always amazed at the optimism that's displayed so early on for something that might not pay off for years. Nonetheless, this is the very start of the process, and decisions made at this level have enormous impact.

We entered Tom's office accompanied by his assistant. It turned out to be twice the size of Mechanic's office. Hmmm. I didn't step it off, but I was tempted. If my office were twice the size of that of the guy who hired me, I would immediately ask for some partitions or at the very least donate a good part of it to some dispossessed underling. ‘Oh, please, Bill, this office is too big. All's I need is a desk, a phone, and two chairs – why don't
you
take my grand office?' Being offered all of this grandness smelled like a setup to me. Call me cynical, but it sure felt as if this guy, whom we were about to meet, was renting. I didn't know then that his lease was only month to month.

‘Boston's a wonderful city,' Tom said as he leaned back in his chair, his feet pushing back from the coffee table.

‘Sure is.'

‘Cultural.'

‘Very.'

‘Gosh, I love it, the season, you know.'

‘Uh-huh.'

‘Winter,' Tom said, trying to make out Mamet's reaction.

Awkward silence.

‘You like sports?' Tom politely continued, trying to keep this ship afloat.

‘Not that interested.'

The room was dying.

Tom turned his attention toward me. ‘So, we know what David's been up to, what about you?'

‘Well, I'm at Fox working for you.'

Awkward silence.

Tom was encouraging me to get this fucker rolling. Even Mamet was looking at me peculiarly as if to say, ‘What exactly do
you
do for a living?'

I took the hint.

‘Well, Tom, Dave here has this good idea for a movie.'

Tom, who was a mellow, diminutive sort, gave me a glance of ‘thanks for the help.' Everyone's patience was shaky. Introductory small talk at pitch meetings, especially when the parties are complete strangers, always disintegrates into a gooey, treacly mess. Tom put his fingertips together and placed them near his lips.

‘So, c'n you tell me a little bit of what's it about?'

‘Indeed, I can.' David starts in speaking at a rapid pace. ‘There's this extremely wealthy and refined bookish man living in New York who is married and very much in love with a beautiful, young fashion model, who has an assignment to go on a photo shoot in the wilds of Alaska. The photographer, a dashing young up-and-comer, who will be doing the shoot knows the girl. She invites her husband to go—a get-outta-the-house sort of thing. We soon learn that there is some competition between the two men for the girl. In fact, the photographer has an agenda to maybe do away with our bookish gentleman, marry the model, and inherit the wealth. And our girl may be in on it. Before he gets a chance, however, the two men, while sightseeing for locations in a small plane, violently crash in the middle of no—'

‘Could I stop you there for a second.' Tom jumps in with an uneasy look on his face. David was just revving up.

‘Am I going too fast?'

‘No … it's not that …'

‘Is the setup clear?'

‘I'm following you all right …'

‘Perhaps I should start over.'

‘No, not necessary.'

‘Well, what's the problem?'

‘I just wonder if the smart fellow has to have so much money?'

‘Huh?'

‘You know, I'm worried.'

‘You're worried?'

‘I'm concerned, that's all.'

Mamet shoots me a ‘Where do we go from here?' glare.

‘But they're trying to get his money,' I chime in, hoping David will stay in his seat.

‘I know.'

‘If he has no money, then there's no sense in trying to get it, that's the plot,' I said, almost begging.

‘Okay then, let me ask
you
, David, do
you
really think an audience can root for a guy who has money?'

David waits for several seconds as if he were just asked to explain the concept of time in the universe.

‘Yes.'

For some reason this detour threw David and everyone else in the room into the wrong spin. The rhythm of the pitch had been inexorably altered. David's spirit had darkened. Where were we? Should he start over? What were the rules? Finally, Tom took charge.

‘All right then … let's continue.'

‘Um, well, then they run into a bear,' David said quietly, ‘… and then they kill the bear.' It was all that he could muster.

After a long, clumsy pause, we all stood up. Tom thanked us and said he would get back to us as soon as possible. In Jacobson's defense, one of the job descriptions of a film executive, I suppose, is to be mindful of what the audience wants. Unfortunately, no one except Jerry Bruckheimer seems to know what that is.

In the hallway I couldn't help but notice the poster of
The Poseidon Adventure
as we made our brisk walk through the building. The ad line at the top read, ‘Hell, Upside Down,' while a giant crashing tidal wave was about to drown a cast of thousands.

‘What just happened?' David asked.

‘I think it went well.'

‘What's it like when it goes bad?'

‘They tell you
no
in the room.'

Remnants of six freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, an Ivy at the Shore specialty, were scattered next to the bill. Jerry looked at me with a semisatisfied smirk. He knew I was going to pay. The accepted protocol in this town was that the one still functioning was
the one who paid. There's a pecking order to all this. Agents always pay. Executives usually pay. Talent never pays. And producers rarely get asked out. For those who have left the business, voluntarily or not, the courtesy was for the survivor to pick up the tab. And a show of gratitude was never required since the assumption was that those who were still working had an expense account. It wasn't really their money anyway. And besides, Jerry wasn't large on gratitude.

‘Frankly, this story is very dull,' Jerry proclaimed.

‘Why?'

‘No drama.'

‘How so?'

‘This deal had to make.'

‘I wasn't so sure.'

‘If Mamet were drooling all over his shoes and said, “I want to write about the art of grilling squid,” you woulda ended up with a deal.'

‘Jerry, I think you've been out of the loop for too long.'

‘Please, you were in your honeymoon phase, it was a nobrainer. Or as Dawn Steel used to say, “Hello!”'

‘I don't take anything for granted.'

‘Once Mechanic spent all this money on you, what's he gonna do on the first thing you're excited about? Say, “Fuck you!” I think not. Wait'll you deliver a coupla stink bombs his way. Wait'll one of those beauties of yours gets made and opens on a Friday and you get the death call on Monday. You'll see, Mamet's gonna have to sound like Richard Burton in a tutu reciting Macbeth before you're gonna get the cash.'

‘Don't hold back.'

Of course, Jerry was being astute. There is a grace period where the buyer wants to believe he's made the right purchase. Mechanic had just made this deal with me. He's got to show some support or his superior is going to question why the hell the deal was made in the first place.

‘Y'know, I really miss sitting in on those pitch meetings,' Jerry said wistfully. ‘If you'll permit me a movie metaphor, “Aahh … it's like the fresh smell of napalm in the morning” … I was
good at it. I would listen patiently, with my eyes slightly moist, waiting for the person to finish his or her ambitious tale. Then, I would lean back with a complicit nod to show artistic respect. And then, after the room went still for about ten seconds, I would draw an appreciative smile, letting them see my soft side, and say, “It's just not my cup of wonton. Sorry.” Ooohweee … like a cool breeze in summer.'

‘Jerry, that's why you're loved.'

THREE
Over the Edge

It was the middle of December and I was feeling smug. It was one of those good Hollywood mornings where I actually woke up with the confidence that I'm usually faking. This was due to a combination of things. A morning article in the trades had surfaced, revealing that Paramount's most profitable movie of the year was
Clueless
, a light comedy written and directed by Amy Heckerling, whose first movie,
Fast Times at Ridgemont High
, had been produced by me ages ago. It wasn't simply the parental pride that gave me the satisfying glow. The mention that
Clueless
had been developed by Fox and subsequently put into turnaround by Fox was the intriguing sidebar. This meant that after the executives Jacobson, Mechanic, and Chernin et al had read the script, they'd passed on it. For a myriad of reasons they collectively believed that it was too silly, wouldn't work, and it was time to recoup some development costs. So they had quickly sold it off to Scott Rudin and Paramount, only to get snakebitten by its success months later. While Paramount was celebrating their most profitable movie of that year, Fox was languishing in last place in total yearly grosses among all of the major studios.

One can only imagine Murdoch receiving the good news, baseball bat resting quietly in his hand, putting on his best Capone/De Niro/Mamet rhythms: ‘What!? What, am I alone in this world or are we a team … blah blah blah,' before restraining himself from turning someone's head into grapefruit.

These kinds of mistakes, particularly when they are in the press, always give the executives at any studio a jolt of insecurity, reconfirming their deeply hidden fears that maybe they don't have a fucking clue. Before they can regain their confidence (and it doesn't take them long), the next bunch of salesmen through the door get the benefit of the doubt. When a studio is weak, opportunities are created. When agents and producers start marching up and down the hallways saying, ‘Don't worry, I'm a doctor, stand aside, I know what I'm doing,' for a brief period they will be endorsed.

Good timing was veering in my direction. I had two scripts ready to be made:
Great Expectations
, a meat-cleaving experience that I will get into later, and
Bookworm
, the newly completed Mamet script. I was searching for a director and a cast for each movie, and more important, I was trying to convince the powers that be at Fox to spend money. A lot of money. ‘C'mon, gentlemen, “two guys and a bear,” lust, violence, courage under fire, can't miss with this one, let's make it!'

BOOK: What Just Happened?
10.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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