The Film and TV Business. Screen Writer and Script Doctor. Titular Assistant Producer. Circa 1985-Circa 1993, with a brief revival in 2001.
Some time around 1985 my friend Max began talking about breaking us into the film and/or television business. Since I was naïve, ambitious, and greedy, and very susceptible to persuasive talk that offered me the fulfillment of my dreams, I agreed to pitch in and help in any way I could.
Max had reconnected with Neil Norris, an old high school friend of his, and a pretentious film student who’d been my dorm roommate for two weeks in 1984, until I ran him off by chain-smoking cigars and unplugging the phone. (Neil, at the time, had been trying to start up a student organization called “S.O.F.A.”– “The Society of Fine Arts.”)
Neil was active in film societies in Houston, and already had gathered a few good connections. He had supposedly met a Houston-based film director who wanted to make a movie about a missionary, called “White Man,” which was to be filmed in Nigeria. The guy wanted Neil involved, and Neil told him about Max.
Max went down to Houston and had a meeting with the director at his mansion in the ritzy neighborhood of River Oaks, and it was more or less agreed that Max would come aboard to help work on the script and maybe do some acting. Max, in turn, said he could probably bring me into the project as well, writing and acting, though I’d probably have to sit out the 1986 school year as I’d be working in Africa.
Max and Neil wanted to talk with me more about this, and the three of us drove down to Houston one night. We were going to drop Neil off at a movie screening at the Museum of Fine Arts, hang out, pick him up, then ride around and discuss the project in more depth.
But I began to suspect I was being played for a fool. Max claimed that after the meeting with the director, he’d slept with the guy’s leggy, blonde assistant. I asked her name. Max and Neil exchanged a look. Max said,
Neil quickly added,
I glanced to my left out the window just in time to see we were passing the cutoff for Allen Parkway.
And later in the evening when I noticed we were driving near River Oaks, I asked Max if we could drive past the director’s house, so I could see what it looked like. He turned down one street and we drove up and down it twice, but he insisted he couldn’t remember where exactly the house was located.
A few weeks later Max came up to visit me at school and fill me in on the latest details on the movie deal. He told me this elaborate story of how he’d met some guy at the director’s house the previous night, and wound up running around Houston with him.
He claimed he accompanied his new friend on a drug deal and got to carry an Uzi. The deal went bad, shots were exchanged, and even Max wound up shooting into the air. He said he’d even saved one of the spent cartridges he’d fired, and quickly flashed it in his palm before shoving it back in his pocket.
But I recognized the cartridge not as the 9x19mm Parabellum used in Uzis, but the .300 Winchester Magnum rifle cartridge that served as a fob on his key chain. I also figured out his story was a shameless mix of plots of “Miami Vice” and “Magnum P.I.” episodes, as well as the 1964 Lee Marvin movie, “The Killers,” which had aired on local TV the night before.
As the weeks passed, I found that the more I asked about “White Man,” the less Max had to say. Maybe Max and Neil figured out that I had figured out it was all bullshit. Eventually we dropped the topic altogether, though when I did bring it up again a few years later, Max said,
–Oh, didn’t I tell you about that? He was accused of murdering his girlfriend and fled the country for South America or somewhere.
Max started writing some film and TV treatments and scripts base don his own ideas. He brought me in to offer feedback and do some script doctoring, but would fly into a rage any time I corrected the spelling and punctuation.
He eventually came up with an idea for a TV cop show, a buddy comedy/drama called “To Protect and Serve.” I never liked the title, but couldn’t put into words why I disliked it so much. A student director I once interviewed dubbed the title as “too generic.” That was it! That was what I was thinking.
I told Max this, but he dismissed it. He thought the student director was an idiot and that any idea or opinion he expressed was unworthy of consideration. And any time I brought up the “generic” charge in later years, he said I was just repeating what the other guy had said, not expressing an idea of my own.
He said he’d consider changing the title if I could come up with something better, but of course, he didn’t like any of my suggestions.
We were going to film the show in Austin, Texas, and do post-production in either Austin or Dallas. Since the two main characters were based on us, for a time we believed we would play the roles—never mind the fact that we had precious little acting experience and no training. Max would write the scripts and I would be the script doctor. Max would be Producer and I would be Assistant Producer. It never occurred to us that a TV network or studio would think twice about investing millions of dollars in two guys who’d never finished college or held a full-time job. We were intoxicated on our own hubris and naivete.
In the last few years I spent at SHSU I made myself look like a fool among my classmates, repeating Max’s boasts about our big plans.
We made some connections here and there and took in some meetings. Max befriended an older man in Houston—a teacher who wrote scripts on the side. We took road trips to Austin, to meet with Cliff Crawford, director of a low-budget Austin-made film, or to tour the White Line production studios. When I moved to Austin in 1989 and Max followed a year later, it seemed just like the next logical step in the fulfillment of our plans.
But there were many problems with our trying to go into business together. One was that for most of the time I’d known him, Max had been a pathological liar. I don’t think he did this maliciously. But I’ve never known anyone who could become bored as quickly or stay bored as long as Max. I think he lied about important and unimportant things only because it made a boring life seem interesting—it imposed a narrative structure onto things that he could alter at will.
And any time I dared question if Max was lying, he’d start screaming and throwing a temper tantrum, so I learned it was better to leave things in doubt than risk the drama.
But it’s hard to work with someone if you never know whether or not he’s telling you the truth. I met enough official-seeming people that I thought we may actually be getting at least a foothold in show business, but it was hard to gauge.
Max assured me I’d be second-in-command, and well in line for fame and a huge cash windfall, but my ego is such that I was never comfortable with being second banana. I didn’t like standing in the wings or having my judgments over-ruled by Max or anybody else.
Max always wrote the first drafts of our scripts, because I never had any ideas for fictional stories. He always tried to make the stories into broad comedies, while I wanted to turn them into dark, existential tragedies that ended up with everyone dead or miserable. And of course, he always had the final say on such matters, so I had to wonder if I was making any kind of worthwhile contribution at all.
And finally, Max kept me out of a lot of meetings and decisions because he was afraid my ego would rage out of control and ruin everything.
So I was basically reduced to sitting around and waiting for Max to make us both successful.
Max announced he was starting a production company called “Red Rover,” but other than doodling some logos, he took no actions to make it a reality.
We took a tour of the Radisson Hotel downtown, where we hoped to set up our production offices and house our stars and ourselves. (At this time, Gary Busey was said to be interested in playing one of the lead characters.)
Max supposedly took a meeting with Willie Nelson, who said he was interested in investing. But two months later the IRS seized his assets. For years thereafter, whenever Willie’s name was mentioned, Max would start cursing, and blaming him for fucking up our deal and keeping the show from being produced.
The “To Protect and Serve” project fizzled, though we returned to it every few years. We worked on other things.
When I lived in Austin in a 64-square-foot room and Max still lived in Conroe, we collaborated on a slasher horror film called “Dark of Night.” The day before he was to take a meeting in Austin with the prospective producers, he tried to print out a copy of the script and accidentally deleted the middle third of it. We sat up all night in my little room, fueled by Coke, junk food, and cigarettes, furiously writing up those missing thirty pages, throwing in whatever crazy shit came into our minds. What resulted was a virtually unfilmable mess about a bisexual serial killer who picked up teenaged runaways, drugged them, raped them, killed and dismembered them, cremated the corpses, and stored the ashes in the milk containers that bore their “Missing” notices.
Max was hired to write, or possibly rewrite, a slap-and-tickle seaside sex comedy called “Beach Blanket Bimbos,” or as we privately dubbed it, “Pussy Beach.” It was pretty awful. I don’t know whether I did any work on it or not—if I did it was very minor. Max said it was eventually made in Japan and he earned between $300 and $500 for it.
I had an idea for a war movie, rather in the spirit of “Kelly’s Heroes.” It was to be called “Behind Enemy Lines,” and involved a group of GIs slipping behind the Nazi lines in World War II, and making their way to Hermann Goering’s country estate “Carinhall,” to loot it’s art, gold, and supplies of morphine. (I was intrigued by the fact that Goering had a huge model train lay-out, complete with model airplanes that flew overhead.) But we never got past the talking stage with that.
For several years we discussed doing a script about the Jacksboro Highway before we even sat down to write anything. The Jacksboro Highway was a section of road outside Fort Worth that, during the 40s and 50s, was lined with nightclubs and casinos. The rednecks who ran those joints were so crazed and violent that the Mafia stayed clear of that part of Texas for many years.
I was surprised and very disappointed when I read Max’s “Jacksboro Highway” script to see it was mostly an action comedy—with an emphasis on comedy. I tried to rewrite it as a drama, but Max changed it back.
Max did several more scripts, but I lost track of them. Everything we did fell into a pattern: He’d come up with an idea, pitch it to me, expect me to get excited and play cheerleader, then he’d write a script, I’d get to work a little on it, he’d network, and maybe find a person or company interested—maybe a cable network, actor, director, production, company, or financier.
This would go on for awhile, and if Max didn’t get bored somewhere along the line, as often happened, he’d give me periodic status reports and maybe ask for my feedback here and there. Then he’d start telling me how close we were getting to a green light. I’d get excited again, and then…nothing. I’d wait. Then wait some more. Then I’d ask Max what was up and he’d sound angry. Some guy involved had looked at him the wrong way or made a comment that pissed him off. And just when the deal was almost about to happen, when everything was waiting on Max making a key phone call or setting up and important meeting, he’d tell me,
–Fuck that guy. Let HIM call ME.
Or words to that effect.
He’d wait for the other guy to act.
The other guy never did. And the deal would fall apart.
I don’t know why this always happened this way, but Max always got pissy at the last minute and drew an invisible line in the sand, waiting to see what the other guy would do, but never bothering to tell him about it.
As years and deals kept passing by I noticed this pattern. I finally had the courage to speak up about it.
–The one thing all these deals have had in common is you. We always get so close to making them happen, and then you get mad at the other guy for some reason, then blame him when the deal falls apart. I have to wonder if you’re afraid of success or something.
But he never really gave me a satisfactory answer to this.
My problem was two-fold. First, I didn’t even know how many of these deals were real and how many were made up. Second, I was naïve enough to believe that when a friend promises you something, then that means he’s telling the truth, even if he has a reputation for lying.
For many years, my dreams of show business success were the only things that kept me going through all those soul-crushing jobs. I believed I could get through the poverty, hunger, abuse, insults, and humiliation, because I was so convinced that in a year—maybe eighteen months—I’d be living in a swanky hotel suite, helping produce a hit TV show. My delusions got me through those ordeals.
Towards the end of my first tour of duty in Austin Max was introduced to two dentists who were trying to get a movie made. They had written a script for a children’s movie and they wanted their kids to act in it. But they also wanted the film to be released commercially.
Max read the script and found it appalling and amateurish. He met the kids and could tell immediately that they couldn’t even handle being extras, much less star in a film. Max let me read the script, and afterwards he informed the dentists that we would take the assignment if and only if we could completely rewrite the script and cast professional child actors.
The dentists weren’t happy about that, but agreed to our terms because they thought we could make a commercial hit. Max and I wrote a script, the dentists read it, and Dentist #1 balked. He liked his story better and still wanted his kids to star. Max suggested he buy a video camera and shoot home movies in the back yard. Dentist #1 dropped out of the deal.
Dentist #2 wanted to proceed, however.
Max had a co-worker who was taking acting classes. In the class was a kid named Jerry Swindall who had appeared in a movie called “Flesh and Bone,” with James Caan, Dennis Quaid, and Meg Ryan. And he’d just finished playing a blind boy in a western called “The Quick and the Dead,” with Gene Hackman, Sharon Stone, Russell Crowe, and Leonardo Di Caprio. That had really fired up his enthusiasm to improve his acting chops, get serious about the profession, and oh yes, get the fuck out of Texas.
Max interviewed Jerry. He seemed a serious, solemn kid. He had read the script and liked it. Max felt he’d be perfect for the lead role in the movie.
Everything was falling into place.
Then Dentist #2 called Max and reluctantly announced he was having to declare bankruptcy. It was Willie Nelson all over again.
–How the fuck so you not know in advance you’re about to declare bankruptcy? Why have you wasted our fucking time all these months when you’ve KNOWN you didn’t have the money to pay for this goddamn film?!
Dentist #2 said not to count him out just yet. He called his rich brother-in-law. The brother-in-law was very interested in movies. The brother-in-law was very interested in making movies. The brother-in-law was very interested in investing his money in movie-making. The brother-in-law was a religious zealot. The brother-in-law wanted to make religious movies, based on the books of Christian author, dispensationalist, and apocalypse expert Hal Lindsay, books such as “The Late, Great Planet Earth” and “Satan is Alive and Well On Planet Earth.” The brother-in-law did not have the kind of money that would pay for the expensive special effects that would make a movie on the Apocalypse worth a shit, nor did he have the money to option the rights to film any of those books.
The children’s film deal fell apart.
Jerry Swindall went out to Hollywood, made a few more movies, and became part of Leonardo Di Caprio’s infamous “Pussy Posse.”
After that Max would mention, maybe once a year or so, that he was working on a new script, but I wasn’t listening and I didn’t care. Around early 1999 he was talking about producing a play in Waco, of all places. I gave him some advice about lighting and set design that I flattered myself into thinking was cutting-edge, only to find out later was fifty to sixty years behind the times. The play never got made. Max eventually drifted back into the radio business.
A couple years ago Max told me he’d heard a rumor that the two dentists were still trying to get someone in Austin to make their film, over sixteen years later.
Neil Norris, by the way, actually did make it to Hollywood, and enjoyed a small degree of success. But one of Neil’s lifelong problems was he always considered himself God’s gift to women. He met some loser succubus out there who convinced him that he needed to get out of show business, leave LA, marry her, and settle down to a steady job somewhere in the Flyover States.
And so, within the space of a week, he turned down a job offer from Joss Wheedon’s Mutant Enemy Productions (at a time when both “Angel” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” were in production), another job offer from Dick Clark Productions (Clark actually followed Neil out to the parking lot and said, “I really wish you’d reconsider. You’re a very talented young man.”), moved to Boulder, and married this ignorant skank. Their nuptial bliss didn’t last through the spring thaw, and Neil limped back to Texas with his tail between his legs, getting a truck-driving gig with the HEB supermarket chain. Later, he injured himself on the job, pursued another doomed romance with a drug addict he’d met in a Adam and the Ants chat room, and fled that fiasco to go drive more trucks–this time for Halliburton in Afghanistan.
In 2001, my old friend, New Guild house mate and Sir Galahad Security co-worker, James, contacted me, and said he wanted to take me to lunch and discuss a film project. I’d been laid off my job, and so I was eager to hear what he had to say.
At the meeting he said he and a local film-maker were wanting to make a comedy based on the misadventures of a group of college security guards. James figured I’d remember more stories from those days than he would, and that I’d also make a fine screenwriter. I thought James was sitting on a big pile of money, so I was careful to kiss his ass.
James arranged for me to meet his partner for dinner. But it turns out the “filmmaker,” Miguel, was a wannabe, rather than the real thing, and he really didn’t have much in the way of financing. Dinner was not in a posh restaurant, but at a Chipotle Grill, a Tex-Mex fast food joint, and then only because Miguel had a coupon. Miguel I despised immediately, and my hatred for him only grew worse over time. The more I found out about this operation, the more pissed off I got. We had two other meetings—one at a Wendy’s and the other at a cheap Tex-Mex place on the East Side.
I prepared a script treatment, based on the ideas of both James and Miguel. By the second meeting Miguel made it clear he didn’t like any of James’s ideas at all. His chief complaint with my story was that it wasn’t enough like “Animal House.” Indeed, every change he suggested thereafter would’ve made the film so much like “Animal House” that had the film been made, we’d have likely been sued for plagiarism. I dropped out of this circle-jerk while I could still withhold an urge to pistol-whip Miguel within an inch of his life.
The more Miguel had talked, the more I realized he had no conception of what made a movie good or bad. His tastes were totally skewed. He acted like a film snob because he’d been to so many film festivals and seen so many amateurish indie films made by first-time directors, but he had an astonishing degree of ignorance when it came to classic and foreign films. And the intensity and single-mindedness with which he pursued his obsession with pinching pennies infuriated me. Top that off with the fact that he found instances of animal cruelty in films to generally be a great source of laughs, and you have what I consider an all-around piece of shit. I put James on notice that he was to keep Miguel out of my sight for the rest of my life, or I’d not be responsible for my behavior.