Here’s the scene. It was night on a cold and windswept mountaintop movie set. Writer and movie star had found shelter near the playback monitors. I was passing on to Bruce Willis the conversation I’d had with the producers earlier in the afternoon.
“They want you to dial back on the f-bombs, partner,” I said.
“Like they don’t know this movie’s gonna get an ‘R’ rating?” said Bruce.
“Matter of tone,” I countered. “That and the F-word is like a money bunny.”
“Money bunny?” smirked the star.
Yes. Money bunnies. I described them like this: Adding F-words beyond what I’d already carefully written in the script was like a rabbit mating ritual. Once one actor starts tossing out extra-curricular curse words then it catches on like a virus and soon everybody but the extras feel it’s open season for improvised expletives. The money part comes from the increase in looping costs to complete a broadcast version of the film.
“Think of it this way, Bruce. Every extra F-word you put between my commas is another ten minutes of hearing ‘beep beep beep’ in the ADR booth.”
“Ha. I’m a fuckin’ ADR commando,” said Bruce.
“Help me out, dude,” I said. “My mom’s gonna see this movie.”
Bruce busted out a sympathetic laugh.
“Your mom and my aunt,” laughed Bruce. “But since we got forever until the next setup. You first.”
So I started with this one. I was just out of high school and I’d written a little twenty-minute short. I had a script, a cast from the local community college theater department, and a high school that had agreed to let me use the campus as a location on a forthcoming weekend. All that was left was the cash to pay for the film and processing. So I sought out my dearest financier. My mom.
Now I won’t say my mom was cheap. But she was frugal to a fault. Still, she liked my pitch and ponied up a couple of hundred dollars. Thanks mom.
Then a slight stumbling block. The principal of the school I was planning to shoot at wanted to see the script before giving final permission to film on his campus. What the hell? I thought. I’d written what I felt was an accurate depiction of high school drama. After all, I’d graduated only a couple months earlier. I dropped off the script with the principal and shuffled off to my job hauling bags of mail in the back of my pick-up.
Late that night, after I’d returned home, my mom was waiting for me at the kitchen table, her trademark lit cigarette, cup of black coffee, and a half-penciled crossword puzzle angled between her elbows.
“I got a disturbing phone call this afternoon,” said my mom with her patented direct and unwavering eye contact. “Do you know the principal over at Oakmont High?”
“He said you showed him your script for that little film I financed and was totally offended by all the foul language.”
“Just some curse words, Mom.”
“The kind of curse words you’d use in front of me?”
“I don’t curse in front of you.”
“But you curse around others?” she asked, smoke-reduced nicotine smoke curling from her mouth.
“The film’s about high school. It’s how everybody talks.”
“Everybody including my son?”
There was no climbing out from the trap she’d so aptly set. Inside I fumed that the nitwit principal hadn’t the stones to confront me directly with his complaint. Not only that, he’d called around until he’d procured my family’s unlisted number and narced me out to my mom. Now she was distressed.
“I’d like my money back, please,” she said.
“I’ve already bought the film,” I said. “Can’t return film because they can’t tell if it’s been exposed –”
“You know how I feel about coarse language.”
We argued. Her primary concern was that in using her money for my dirty little movie, I’d heap shame on our good name. In the end, we agreed I’d use a pseudonym instead of my own baptismal name. Not that anyone with a room temperature IQ wouldn’t know that Barbara’s boy was the film’s auteur. But for my mom, it was a simply a matter of principle.
“Great story,” said Bruce. “Stuff with my aunt wasn’t near as melodramatic. After Die Hard I did one of those interviews in Playboy. Never used to curse around my family. But this was Playboy. So who’s gonna read it, right? Well, I’ll tell you who fuckin’ read it. My Goddamn Aunt! She calls me up and gives me earful of grief, man. How disappointed she is in me, blah blah blah. And all I could do is apologize. Tell her how sorry I am and how much I’d try to watch my fuckin’ language.”
“Just like now,” I said.
“Yeah, I’m hopeless,” said Bruce. “But you already know that.”
“Here’s one more about my mom,” I said. “Die Hard story.”
Die Hard 2 was about to open. Expectations were high for the massive summer sequel launch. Because it was my first screen credit, the distribution folks at Fox told me to pick an opening night showing at any exhibitor in the nation and they’d arrange however many tickets I’d require for friends and family to see the movie. I chose the best screen in Sacramento and invited fifty or so people. The theater roped off the block of seats.
The atmosphere, as one might imagine, was pretty electric with anticipation. My wife and I sat in the rear-most row, flanked by my sisters and their husbands. My mother and father sat directly in front of us. The lights dimmed. The movie unspooled. And so began Die Harder, or as my mother came to call it, The Attack of the F-Bombs. I’d already seen the movie quite a few times. And not once had I noticed the cornucopia of four-letter utterings. And not just from Bruce Willis as John McClane. Dennis Franz joined the parade as well as William Sadler and John Amos. The Money Bunnies were flying as fast as the bullets and explosions.
When the picture finally concluded and my birth name appeared on screen, I received applause from nearly every quadrant of the house. From everyone but my dear and disappointed mum. And when the house lights eventually pushed out the darkness, my mom turned around in her seat, looked me dead in the eye, and said, “Nice language, dear.”
I know they sound like cold words from a mother immediately after witnessing her son’s big-screen debut. But if my mom was anything, she was consistent in both her praise and her criticism.
“Thanks, mom,” I said. “Glad you liked the movie.”
This past March, my mom left this world after sixteen years of suffering from a DMV-sized line of painful maladies. When she finally passed, I was holding her hand and she was looking me firmly in the eyes, full of both conviction and unconditional affection.
I firmly believe that she’s in heaven where, if four-letter words are spoken, they tickle her ears and remind her of how much her only son adored her.
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