After two directors, umpteenth screenplay drafts, financing snafus, and a location-crushing case of Montezuma’s Revenge, the studio had at last found both a director with staying power and a fresh pile of Australian production dough to produce my breakout feature film, Honor Bright.
At last, I was getting off the first-produced motion picture schneid.
I was just wrapping up my first sit-down at the Chateau Marmont with Gotham filmmaker Abel Ferrara. The New Yorker had honestly expressed his discomfort about being outside his native New York City, let alone directing a picture that for tax reasons would need to be shot mostly in Australia.
“They got any islands off Australia?” Abel asked me. “Like the one in your script?”
“I’ve heard Sydney is a lot like LA,” I answered. “That’s about as much as I know.”
“Suppose we’re gonna find out,” he said. “Have you met this new producer?”
“You mean Jane?” I asked. Aussie film vet Jane Scott (Shine, Strictly Ballroom) had been assigned the gig of line producing the picture. “Just on the phone. Seems like she knows her stuff.”
Yeah. Like I knew what the hell I was talking about. I was a feature film virgin. Inexperienced and unsullied. Film school, and a couple of educational films, and an HBO banned mock-rock video comprised my production experiences.
For the next couple of days I met with Abel over at the Chateau. Just an hour or two at a time to work on the script. His notes were minor to say the least. Mostly small dialogue tweaks. Easily fixed. Some were even improvements.
Abel, though, itched for New York City, filling our sessions with constant complaints about Los Angeles, the layout, the people, the cars, the sun. It was decided that Abel would reread the script on his flight back to JFK before giving me his next set of notes. We said our goodbyes, planned to talk on the phone later in the week, and both figured the other was marching toward a production start date that was barely three months hence.
“So what do you think about our director?” asked Jane Scott, calling me all the way from Australia.
“What time is it there?” I asked without a clue.
“Tomorrow,” was all she said. “You met with him, didn’t you?”
“I did, yeah. For the last few days.”
“Very New York.”
“I had the same inclination,” she said. “I got a look at a couple of his films. He’s not too big on exteriors.”
I hadn’t thought about Abel’s work in that exact regard. Or better put, his disregard for shots that weren’t inside a paint-peeling apartment. His work was extremely contained. Claustrophobic. Not a lot of John Ford inspired vistas. Given a chance to shoot in the iconic Monument Valley, Abel might’ve retreated to the nearest outhouse.
“I ask because your script is better than half exteriors,” she said. “All the water and palm trees and island stuff.”
“I expect Abel wouldn’t have said yes if he didn’t have some kind of vision.”
“You’re right,” she said. “I’ve never worked with anyone like him so I guess I’m just trying to get a handle on what we’re in for.”
“We both are.”
During his flight to New York, Abel became convinced that the movie’s young soldier lead would be best played by actor Esai Morales.
“Esai read the script,” Abel said over the phone. “But he’s got some issues with the politics.”
“What politics?” I asked.
“The bad guerillas who attack the island. He thinks they’re like the Contras or something in Nicaragua.”
“They’re from a fictitious country,” I answered.
“Yeah, yeah. Anyway. Since you understand it, you mind sitting down with him and getting him all comfortable with it? Kinda hard to do it when he’s there and I’m in New York.”
Of course not, I said to myself. I was a fan of Esai. He possessed the barrio intensity of my story’s anti-hero. Thusly, the next day I found myself sitting down with the young thespian, talking geo politics and about America’s dark influence in the southern hemisphere.
“I think he’s in,” I reported back to my schneid-killing director. “I convinced him the movie isn’t pro imperialism as much as it is anti-interventionist.”
“Whatever that means,” chuckled Abel.
A week later came Abel’s next request.
“So this underground bunker that we have God knows how many scenes in,” described Abel. “It’s full of all kinds of electronic equipment. So like is it like an underground spaceship or what?”
“Nothing at all like a spaceship,” I explained. “It’s a radar tracking station built in an old, Cold War munitions bunker. I see it as messy, jury-rigged. And the only ones who know how to make it work are the guys stationed there.”
“Cool, cool,” said Abel. “I like that. Listen man. I’m thinking of hiring this production designer, Richard Whoever. Since you know what this looks like, would you mind sitting down with him?”
Once again, I was game as hell. After all, my director was busy with stuff in New York. Who knew what the indoor sets of my first movie looked like better than, well, me? The all-important, know-everything, creator-slash-writer.
Days later, I had my first meeting with the production designer. And a week after that, I was the first eyes on a series of sketches which, I must say, were fan=flippin’-tastic. As if I’d drawn them myself directly from my imagination to schematic.
As you might expect, I was very much enjoying my role on the movie. And oh-so honored to have such incredible trust from a director who so loathed L.A., that I had become his eyes and ears.
“Doug!” called Abel over the phone. We were a scant eight weeks from photography. And he was still locked up in New York. Why? I didn’t want to ask. I’d already lost two directors on my start and stop movie. I figured losing a third would be a death blow. “What do you know about this island we’re shooting on?”
“Aside from it being somewhere in Fiji?” I responded. Jane Scott had boarded out our production at about fifty-some odd days, which broke down into five weeks of interiors on Sydney soundstages, and seven weeks of exteriors on a tropical island in the Pacific.
“Yeah,” said Abel. “Can you believe it? Jane got us our own island to film on. You think a Pacific island can double for one in the Caribbean?”
“Can’t see why not.”
“Look man,” said Abel. “Love what you and Richard have done with the design. It’s like you know exactly what all of this is supposed to look like, right?”
“Jane wants me to get on a plane and fly to this island. You know, supervise the construction of all the exterior sets. But what am I gonna do there when you’re the one who knows how it’s supposed to look?”
“Well… You’re the director and—“
“Man. You’ve seen me. Worked with me for a bit. I’m all about the dialogue and the actors, man. Get me the script, cast, location and I’m gonna shoot it. But what do I know about building sets? My only backlot has been the City.”
“So do me this favor and go, okay?” asked Abel. “Get on a plane, go to that island, and work with the designer and shit and build it the way you see it.”
“Seriously?” I asked. “You want me—the writer—to supervise the set construction—the look—everything.”
“Why not the writer?” he asked. “You thought it up. Not me.”
No sooner had the conversation ended than the phone rang. It was Jane Scott in Australia.
“Alright,” she said. “So I guess you’re comin’ down our way. Guess that answers your question.”
“What question,” I asked.
“Whether—as the writer—you were gonna be needed on location.”
“Suppose so,” I said, still a bit addled at Abel’s earlier request.
“Here’s a question for ya,” Jane began. “When it comes time to shoot the movie, you think this Abel Ferrara fella can remove himself this far from New York?”
“Cuz so far,” she said, “Sounds like that man don’t wanna go anywhere but where he is.”
Jane had me flying out in three days. In that time I had to secure a new passport, settle my affairs, beg my bride-to-be for advance forgiveness due to the fact that I wasn’t going to return for five months. Of course, the future War Department was equally excited. After all, her fiancé was about to get off the schneid and officially into the movie business.
Twenty-four hours before I was scheduled to depart, my phone rang. It was Abel. And strangely, he wasn’t calling from New York City.
“I’m in L.A.,” announced the director. “Flew out on the fuckin’ red-eye.”
“What for?” I stammered.
“Meeting at New Line,” said the director. “Seems we got some kind of money problems.”
“What kind of money problems? Like with your deal?”
“Like with the whole movie,” he said. “It’s all screwed. Hate when this shit happens.”
As it turned out, New World’s down-under financing deal had proven to be a bit like a three-legged chair. Able to stand until someone finally placed a load on it. In our case, the weight was a ten-million-dollar movie.
“It appears the bottom fell out of the shopping bag,” said Jane Scott over the phone. “And with it a boatload of lumber on its way to Fiji.”
“For real?” I asked.
“For real,” she said. “All the materials for your movie set are strapped on a barge headed for the tropics. And nobody at the other end to pay for it.”
“Well, maybe the studio will pull a rabbit out of a hat and get us all back to work in the next day or so.”
“Hope so,” I said., marshaling my optimistic self. “I’m all packed and ready to go.”
Sadly, no white knight came in to rescue my first movie. All that was left for me was to unpack, store my passport for another adventure, and return to my day job. Which was that of the unproduced word merchant who continued to pound out script pages from his uncomfortable, yet familiar perch. Otherwise known as, the schneid.
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