AUTHOR’S NOTE: Three years ago, I received an email from an old college classmate. He wanted me to write a memoir about the time he spent in Hollywood from 1988–1992 trying to become a screenwriter. He felt his experiences might help anyone who migrates to Los Angeles chasing dreams. I was skeptical at first, but as we talked, I became fascinated by his sordid adventures. What you’re reading is a serialization of his story.
Harley’s Angel was my buddy cop comedy about a Los Angeles policeman whose best friend is his motorcycle, a vintage Harley-Davidson that is possessed by the ghost of a dead 1940s noir detective.
When I finished writing it, I gave Matt Steele a copy. A week later, he voiced his reaction. “I read your script.”
We were crossing the plush USC campus on the way to one of his classes. I felt like a visitor to a country club where I was no longer a welcome member.
“And?” I said, eagerly.
“You wrote another comedy.”
“Did you like it?”
Matt glared at me. “It’s a bad version of Ghostbusters crossed with Chinatown. I don’t know why I even bother reading your work if you insist on shooting yourself in the foot every time.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
Matt stopped walking. “You’re adept at combining beloved genres with screwball elements that make the whole movie fall apart.”
“I thought it was refreshing.”
Matt shook his head in wonder. “Do you actually know a goddamn thing about motorcycles?”
“No, but those old bikes look cool.”
“Bottom line, you can’t write a good script from an ill-conceived idea.”
I eyed the ground. “I concede your point. Maybe I need to find a muse.”
“Don’t be a moron.”
“Muses worked for the ancient Greeks,” I said.
“That’s mythology. Invert the paradigm. You don’t need a muse so you can write. You need to write so you can fuck as many women as possible.”
“But what if I did have a muse?” I asked.
Matt grasped both my shoulders and stared straight into my eyes. “This is the most important piece of advice I’ll ever give you.”
“If you want to be a successful writer, never get serious with an attractive female.”
“But you told me to go after Katerina,” I said. “The first time we were in Bamboo.”
“I told you to stick your dick in her,” Matt corrected. “Not to fall in love like some weepy teenager.”
“What’s wrong with being in love?”
“I’ll make it plain and simple: committed relationships equal the death of art. True artists need to play the field because sex lubricates the creative engine, and you can’t play the field if you’re tied down to one woman.” Matt Steele fell silent as a pack of sorority girls crossed the brick pathway ahead of us. I had forgotten how beautiful USC coeds were. After they passed, Matt lowered his voice. “The trick is to embrace mainstream narratives, but with subversion and deft characterization. Do that, and the critics will build cultural altars to you. They’ll kiss your ass, and troubled young girls will flock to you eager to outfuck the last contender. You have a hidden Hemingway in you, Sam. Free him and all his lovely cats.”
I scratched my ear dumbly. Matt had a unique ability to hypnotize me with his words.
Then Matt added, “Be a whore first, then nobody can accuse you of selling out.”
Three weeks later. Early Sunday morning. I was sitting at Matt Steele’s kitchen table. Crumbs from a bran muffin speckled the corners of his mouth. The first thirty pages of Flash Zero were in his hand. He groaned as he read them.
Finally, he shook the bound pages at me. “What the fuck were you thinking writing this crap?”
“Action movies are the most lucrative spec scripts on the market right now.”
“A night watchman at the Port of Los Angeles uncovers a terrorist nuke but gets knocked unconscious before he can tell anybody?”
“It’s a thriller. A ticking clock.”
“Stupid approach. The terrorist nuke movie has been done to death. That’s mistake number one.”
“I’m sure you’ll tell me number two,” I said.
“Yes! It’s another disaster movie set in Los Angeles.”
“How much did you actually read?” I asked.
“I’m not gonna insult your pride by answering you.” Matt took a deep chug of orange juice from the carton. “Good scripts are page-turners. You can’t put them down.”
“Are there any more mistakes you want to tell me about from what little you’ve read?” I hated asking the question and feared his answer, but part of being a professional writer is taking criticism. You can’t let ego get in the way of the work. And Matt Steele was the only person willing to read my work.
He set my pages on the table and placed his fingers on them, spider-like. “It’s time you rethink your approach to screenwriting. I know you grew up in a sheltered community. What those barbarians did to you in Borough Park is akin to child abuse. Your parents should be flogged and stoned for raising a putz who knows nothing about how the world works.”
“My parents did their best,” I said.
“No one cares. You’re so far outside the mainstream of American life there’s no way you can write the lowest-common-denominator stuff people crave. But that’s what you keep trying to do with shit like Flash Zero and Harley’s Angel and Sunny Goldberg.”
I gritted my teeth. “I’m not giving up.”
“I’m not saying you should. But you need to aim higher, be smarter.” Matt swallowed another gulp of orange juice. When he thumped the carton down, I could smell rum fumes emanating from it.
“Give me your suggestion then,” I said.
Matt had waited two years for me to totally collapse and fold to his raw input. He stroked his jaw before he spoke. “Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man are all fantasies of individual power written by scared little Jews. If you could reinvent the idea of the American hero like they did, you’d be an instant millionaire. So up the ante. Write something epic, with gravitas and pathos and honest emotion.”
“Like Beowulf or King Arthur?” I suggested.
“Too fucking European.” Matt gulped another swig of rum-laced orange juice. He excelled at building dramatic tension through his slow reveal. “You need a manly hero of mythic stature, but accessible to our cultural norms. The American version of Lawrence of Arabia, Julius Caesar, or Moses.”
“That’s a tall order,” I said.
“Yes, it is, but I have faith that you can do it. And there is only one person who remotely fits the bill to play the part. Our greatest living actor.”
“Marlon Brando?” I guessed.
Matt shook his head then pointed at me. “You need to write a movie specifically for Mel Gibson.”
My first impulse was a script about the ultimate American hero, George Washington. When I pitched the idea to Matt, he said, “Mel would kill to do Washington.”
“Should I write an outline?” I asked.
“Only if you make it about a love triangle between George, Martha, and Betsy Ross. I’ve never seen that movie before. There can even be a ménage à trois with all three of them fucking and sucking and George shooting jizz everywhere.”
“Gibson won’t do porn.”
“You don’t know that.” Matt scoffed. “A raunchy three-way is your water cooler scene, the one every development monkey in town will be talking about after the weekend read.”
“But it’s George Washington,” I protested. “People will hate me.”
“Not if it’s true. Read Ben Franklin’s books or Jefferson’s diaries. Our Founding Fathers weren’t prudes. Remember, back in colonial times there was no TV, so they had to entertain themselves by fucking everybody — especially their slaves.”
June passed without me writing a single word.
On August 6, I read an article in the Los Angeles Times about a woman who survived the nuking of Hiroshima. It was the forty-fifth anniversary of the event. That got me thinking. Maybe Mel Gibson could play the pilot of the Enola Gay.
The following afternoon, I rushed to the Santa Monica Library and started researching the life of Colonel Paul Tibbets. But I soon became more fascinated by President Harry Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bombs in the first place. For someone only four months into his presidency, it was a gutsy call. I wondered what gave him the balls to make it. Back to the shelves.
After several weeks of further research, I began to understand Harry S. Truman in a way only a writer can. Once I figured out how to dramatize the psychology of our thirty-third president, I hit the keyboard. Over the next three months, I wrote Young Harry, the working title of my biopic script. I smelled Oscar material.
When I could no longer find any flaws in Young Harry, my printer churned out a warm copy on three-hole punched paper. It was that copy I bound with number five round head brads and jammed in Matt Steele’s mailbox for his critique. His comments could take a day or a week, depending on his mood. However quick, I knew they’d be honest and come from his heart. With nothing left to do but wait, I stuffed my dirty laundry into three large garbage bags and left my tiny apartment.
(to be continued…)