I have this love/hate relationship with research. When it’s the kind of study that involves slogging through a million pages of crap to find that one little nugget I can use, of course it’s worth it. But during the marathon swim I feel like I’m in a nightmare, cramming to deliver a paper only my professor will ever read. It’s dry work. Doesn’t mean I won’t do it. But I’d rather eat paint chips with a pickled turpentine dip.
Now if it’s the kind of research where I get to drive or fly someplace, hang out with interesting people, spend some moments in time inhabiting the world I’m going to pretend to know? Sign me up. I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve been on many interesting recons. Here’s one of my faves.
The location? New York City. The research was for the movie Money Train. It wasn’t a screenplay yet.
All I had was a pair of characters, the framework of a story, and a director—the one and only Tony Scott. He’d flown in from London, where he had just spent three sleepless days shooting a massive commercial. He could barely keep his eyes open when we met up at the Carlyle. We had a town car and driver to ferry us around the city. Between meetings with various transit personnel, Tony would catnap in the limo’s backseat, trademark Japanese baseball cap pulled down over his eyes, cigar ashes in danger of burning holes in his worn dungarees.
This wasn’t my first research trip on Money Train. Months earlier I’d haunted many of the same sites. Traveled some of the darkest corners of the subway system with a coterie of transit cops, each of whom had beau coup tales to impart. To a man, they loved my premise of two old neighborhood buddies-turned-transit-cops who harbored a lifelong fantasy to rob the money train, a special subway car that traverses the system’s electrified rails and carries the cash from all the token kiosks. Some of the detectives contributed their own plots and ploys, a few even admitting to having had their own great train robbery fantasies.
Tony wanted to see what I’d seen, speak to whom I’d spoken to. So I had set it up for us to tag along with a Subway Crime Suppression Unit. This team works undercover, dressing up some of their detectives as drug-addled inebriates who appear so incapacitated they’re barely able to function and unable to fend off the predators who assault and rob them. Those “undercovers” adorned themselves with phony designer watches and gold chains, making themselves targets by feigning sleep on subway benches or behaving so stoned they needed to keep a grip on a platform rampart in order to simply remain vertical. The rest of the team was deployed behind nearby construction walls or natural barriers, keeping an eye on the decoy through peepholes.
Tony was wondering if he was going to be able to stay awake on the stakeout.
“How long are we gonna have to wait for something to happen?” Tony asked.
“Just watch,” I said.
In a matter of minutes, the team had a predator on the line: a young gang banger who circled, timing his attack on the decoy. The team moved in, made the arrest, then set up for the next sting. In an hour, they had five collars. The rest of the day would be all about paperwork.
Over the course of our tour, we were given special access to the transit system’s electronic brain center, explored long-forgotten train tunnels, were introduced to an underground human subculture that thrived beneath the streets of New York City, and were shown actual turn-of-the-century platforms built, but never used, that remained unmanned and forever suspended in a bizarre and ghostly repose. It was a magnificent world unto itself. And Tony could hardly wait for me to bang out the script so he could be the first director to shoot a movie filmed entirely inside the NYC Transit System.
We celebrated our upcoming venture with a dinner at a downtown Italian joint. Just Tony and myself parked at an outdoor table. I was fighting a cold, so I was juiced up on medicine. We drank, we dined, and we drank some more. We traded tales of marriage and lost loves. We closed the joint. When the check arrived. Tony was so blitzed he couldn’t calculate a tip. He asked me to do the honors. I must’ve also been pretty impaired because I somehow left a gratuity in the neighborhood of five percent. Bad move. As Tony stumbled to the car I found myself cornered by a pair of brawny waiters who waved the check in my face. All I remember was feeling utterly embarrassed as I peeled off twenties until the waiters allowed me to leave.
Tony and I were both hung-over for our final act. We were due to attend a dog and pony show with some of the city’s powers-that-be at the Transit Authority head quarters in Brooklyn. It was a summit-styled lunch with members of the New York City Film Commission, executive staff of the T.A., and representatives from Hollywood—i.e., Tony and myself along with Jon Peters Productions’ chieftain, Adam Fields and Columbia Pictures Executive VP, Barry Josephson. The purpose of the gathering was to secure a rubber stamp as the first movie to receive both permission and cooperation to film inside the actual New York subway system.
The event was mostly about handshakes and horseshit. Most of the attendees were enamored to be in the presence of the man who made Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop and Tony was more than happy to tell stories and play the part of the charming English film director.
That was until the Boss entered. It was as if all frivolity in the room had been flushed and the oxygen cut in half. I don’t recall the man’s name, but by the way he strutted in, I could instantly tell we were in the presence of the King Ding-a-Ling of the New York City Transit Authority. The fellow was short, maybe five-foot-six in stature, thick in the shoulders, and smoking a power-stogie the size of the Jolly Green Giant’s big toe.
There were no introductions or even an attempt to catch the Boss up on what had transpired. He wanted to know one thing and one thing only: Was there anything in our proposed motion picture that would embarrass “his” Transit Authority?
Aside from our two heroes being transit policeman with designs on hijacking the cash-stuffed money train? Uh…no. But I was just the writer. So, I wisely kept my mouth shut.
Adam Fields and Barry Josephson performed their best showbiz tap dance.
“You think I’m impressed because you’re Hollywood people?” said the Boss, making little exhaust trails with his massive cigar. “This is my subway system. I’m personally responsible for depositing about a hundred million dollars into the city bank every goddamn year. So you wanna make a movie in my subway? Then everything’s gotta go through me. Script. Casting. All of it. Otherwise you are shit outta luck.”
Looks of surprise passed between myself and Tony.
“Let me let you in on a little secret,” said the Boss, leaning forward on his elbows. “The man who runs this subway system runs New York City. So don’t even think of fucking with me.”
As the meeting broke up, the little dictator didn’t even shake our hands. He simply vanished the same way he’d come in, leaving only the remnants of his odorous smoke behind him.
Tony, a tobacco connoisseur, curled his nose. “Not even a good goddamn cigar.”
If I recall, Barry had to rush off to a meeting in Manhattan and Adam, too, was eager to leave. Tony and I retired to our town car. For days, Tony had been politely offering me a hand-rolled Cuban stogie before he’d ever lit up his own. I finally relented and experienced my first gourmet Havana.
While we were driven back to our respective hotels, Tony lamented about the prospect of not being able to shoot the movie in New York. He’d scouted locations all over the world and, in his opinion, there was no place on earth that accurately doubled for New York City or its famed subway system.
“Maybe that asshole will die of a heart attack before you finish the script,” joked Tony.
“My suggestion…” I said. “Let the film commission and Barry work on the T.A. In the meantime, I think I found our villain.”
“For the movie?” asked Tony, happy to be switching gears to something more positive. He didn’t know I was still mulling over our lousy meeting in Brooklyn.
“Yeah. Let’s make our bad guy the head of the Transit Authority. Kinda jerk who walks into the room like he owns it, smokes a big-ass cigar, acts like he’s King Shit and declares the entire New York subway system is his domain.”
Tony practically swallowed his cigar laughing. He nodded and pointed at me.
“You do that,” Tony said. “And I won’t care where we make our picture.”
In the end, Tony chose not to stay with the movie. Joe Ruben, hot off a hit film at Fox, was brought on to direct and instantly had me replaced by a DMV line of writers who slowly dismantled the movie I’d so carefully constructed. Yet despite what the movie eventually morphed into, one part that was never altered was my villain, a cigar-chomping Little Napoleon in charge of all things Transit.
Had it not been for the research…