The Hun Revisited
My answer was quick: "I don't work on boats, I've never solved a murder, I'm not trying to quit." As usual, though, there is a longer and more complicated answer.
In my thirty years as a screenwriter I never wrote about myself. Didn’t care to. Wasn’t asked to. It was always he, she and it doing this or that. Sometimes they exchanged catchy dialogue.
Initially, I was hired to put third persons into comedies that ranged from features to series pilots, and included live action and animation for kids. Ten years of ever-dwindling paychecks went by before I realized I had to do what my agent at the time implied he wasn’t: “Resurrect your own career.” That became another agent’s saying, “You’ve always been known for action-adventure.” By the end it was potboilers and tearjerkers. The last gasp was sports specials.
At the turn of the millennium the people who had hired me were either dead or retired. The up-and-comers weren’t about to take a chance. In the entertainment industry youth wins all the prizes, and most people handing them out are childish. It didn’t make any difference that I had reached my mid-fifties with my inner child as immature as ever. My agent Lawson “I thought he was dead” Beavers said I was a Wooly Mammoth that needed to adapt to the new order and change the perception people had of me. He said, “Hook up with a young partner producers can relate to, much younger, preferably female and the darker the better because the big shots are Jews who feel guilty.”
He actually said that. I thought, OK, I’d sure like a Jewish agent, but I’m a pro; pros do what they have to do. I vetted candidate after candidate for the opportunity of becoming my writing partner. I was willing to share most of my good ideas, but she’d have to do the typing and take second billing afterwards because, hey, a ghetto girl should kiss my derrière for giving her a break, excuse my French.
Lawson broke silence again after seven or eight months. I was trying to tell him how happy I was about my progress when he cut me off with,“You mean no one wants to be your partner?” By then it was too late anyway. I had already jumped the career track by creating a web site sans the tender mitigating effect of a feminine scrivener.
Looking at the blank fill-in boxes on MySpace had been like confronting the first page of a screenplay re-write. The big differences were that one had print on it, the other didn’t, and no producer was paying me to add character complexities to mud wrestlers. The profile questions were about my interests, my favorite music, my most memorable movie, my mood.
Color me strange. I held my breath and typed the first word.
For a moment I wondered whether that was really a word. It could be just the first letter for Indiana or Indigo. I worried about that until I realized it was first person singular!
I think...I wrote hesitantly...the music died when Gene Autry did.
The Aswan High Dam of selflessness broke. A veritable tsunami of creativity washed away the Malaysia of my third person writing.
After giving my orientation as basically married but interested in women who aren't picky, I came across the phrase, “Create Your Own Blog.” Woah! That was like saying, “Do you want to be the Sheik of Arabee and tell everyone to اللعنه تذهب نفسك?”
I weighed in with my views and opinions, sometimes stuck to facts and gave the straight dope, which were remarkably like my views and opinions. I kept after it day after day, casting my pearls before swine, or if you will, chundering like an Australian into the Pacific and going right back for another Foster’s. Hate mail was swift in coming.
Dear sexist fascist pig,
You and your pals George Bush and James Dobson are the reasons why thinking people hate Christianity and will never vote Republican. You should have never been born.
You whining liberal prick. I wish I had aborted your father.
They were angry with the wrong person. By force of long habit I used every trick of third person stories to write about myself. I was alternatively polishing the gemstone of The Real Me, making myself, if possible, more charming, or irradiating this old lump of clay with fiction, creating Toxic Jeff.
Every time Toxic Jeff shows up as narrator, there is a grain of truth from The Real Me. Often when The Real Me tells a story, Toxic Jeff leaves sticky fingerprints. There must be psychological reasons for this mixture, but we’re happy-go-lucky guys either way and wouldn’t understand if you told us. We think we are more driven by Art. Whether in fiction or non-fiction authors must cut and paste, underline this, italicize that, edit and emphasize, balance the ying-yang with the sturm und drang.
For those mouth-readers who need a jacket blurb to explain a book, I will give you clues to how you can differentiate us. Generally, one can spot when The Real Me is in Fantasy Land by the story’s narrator mentioning that he went to USC. (Note for people who went to the University of Southern California: there is the University of South Carolina whose graduates already know that the initials could apply to your alma mater.) The Real Me spent his undergraduate years at Stanford, as well as in some other institutions. It was at Stanford that a fellow student explained the Pancake Theory of Knowledge, a kind of Avogadro’s Number for the liberal arts, that I describe in Krumline to the Rescue. I couldn’t remember whether his last name started with a C or K, which was one reason to get fictional, but the accidental email that sparks the story really did appear on my computer one day. Having flunked Economics, I felt I needed to redeem myself by answering the email. But no, I hadn’t accrued gambling debts in college.
The truth meter goes up for Typing for the Pope. It takes some dips with The Sporting Life. The only reason truth takes a dive in any of my writing is that there are some people on this earth that even Toxic Jeff wants to protect because they could beat the crap out of him.
My agent, Lawson “I thought he was dead” Beavers is one who might hold a grudge. I have a friend who is a former Marine who told me about a colleague at work who was as close to him as a brother. My friend had the unfortunate duty of having to testify against his friend in court. The long sad story boils down to the headline, "Closet Coke Head Murders Wife." World, meet Mr. Lawson Beavers, no longer serving time in the Big House but out and about in the screenplay Crazy chasing ambulances. The transition from attorney to agent was a snap. I just needed to indicate that my agent wasn’t swift about returning phone calls. Hence the nickname “I thought he was dead.”
Of course in thirty years I’ve had number of agents, many of them exceptional human beings, and Lawson “I thought he was dead” Beavers is a highly exaggerated compilation of the very worst traits of a mere handful.
Toxic Jeff is an ass-kisser. As such he knows he depends on The Real Me for his very existence, so he steps aside from time to time when I want to get serious, as in The Wedding, The War and The Speech, An Unknown Soldier and Berkeley Baboons. Whatever delusions of adequacy I have about being a humorist, they depend on my taking life seriously.
“Oh, look! The clown has a tear in his eye!” I heard that an exhibition of Tretchikoff paintins in South Africa and felt the comment could apply to me if I were in grease paint and had on fright wig. Or as Smokey Robinson and the Miracles put it:
My freshman roommate Larry Doors had "Tracks of my Tears" looped on his tape recorder. It played over and over in our room. A girl had dropped me. I was failing Chemistry. I believed in the Vietnam War. I just didn’t want to go myself. I felt like the swill of creation. Sadness was my middle name.
That’s got nothing to do with being serious, though.
Toxic Jeff is a raging alcoholic whereas I never drink beyond excess. He has been married three or four times whereas I’ve been married to the same woman for forty years. (Though come to think of it, the girl I saw weeping at the altar has morphed into at least half a dozen women.) Toxic Jeff embraces change he can believe in, and he voted for Clinton twice. Contributing to why The Real Me will never work in this town again, I slammed my fist on the table at a dinner party and declared, “Anyone who voted for Bill Clinton a second time might as well have been sodomizing the Devil!”
See? I’ve just done it. I pretend like I’m writing about a real event, but The Real Me would never use the word “sodomize” in mixed company. No, ma’am, especially when there is a good old Anglo Saxon equivalent that the children can understand.
The first time I was aware of Toxic Jeff raising his head to howl at the Muses was in the short story Return of the Hun. In what is meant to be fiction, there are two points of solid fact. Squishy solid anyway.
The first is that the title refers to the story within the story. It is the film the narrator has written, and if it is to get made, he must satisfy a certain starlet named Tawny Golightly with revisions. In reality that fictional film was a series idea that Michael Van Landingham, Clarence Felder and I pitched to John Ritter’s manager.
Most recently Clarence has starred in All for Liberty, a film co-produced, co-written and directed by his wife, Christine Weatherhead. (By the way, when the narrator of Malibu Palms, tries to put words around what great acting is, he was inspired by my watching Chris in a play, stunned that whomever that lady on stage was, she couldn't be the neighbor I took walks with.) In the past Clarence was a character actor who appeared in movies like The Last Boy Scout and The Hidden. The Hidden is a cult film for which kids in the hood always recognize him on the street and say how great he was as a police chief taken over by an alien who kills for kicks. (News flash: President Johnson’s War on Poverty - We Lost.) Clarence’s TV credits are as long as an orangutan’s arm, and because he had co-starred with Ritter in a short lived series called Hooperman, we were in the office of Ritter’s manager, smiling and nodding and pulling at our forelocks.
Michael was a Newport Beach surfer who went to high school with Clarence’s wife. Chris called Michael The Van Man. He was a car mechanic, a Maytag repairman, the founder of a Lake Tahoe writer’s conference, a clerk in photocopy store in New York City, roommate of a nobody actor named John Hurt, and co-founder with Oakley Hall III of Lexington Theater Company in the Catskills. Later Michael was instrumental in the creation of Capital Repertory Theatre, Albany, New York. When he tired of being a deficit fundraiser, he hopped his motorcycle and pointed it toward Los Angeles. He took over development for Chris-Rose Productions where I was working on an HBO movie.
Two of the six producers and the first director, whom I write about in Whatshisname Transforms a Young Life, all got fired. So did I. The reason was that the production company was run by... No need to name names. Let bygones be bygones, to coin a phrase, because Hell could freeze over and they still might hire you. Anyway, I was long enough on the project for Michael and I to go through the medicine cabinet in the executive washroom and discover Mr. Nameless was taking enough controlled and illegal substances to think my script was a writhing bug-filled horror. No wonder he fired me. The good that came out was that I became friends with Michael and met his wife, Susan Overstreet, an Orange County layout artist for biker magazines.
She had just given birth to their son, Willy. Michael was re-flooring their living room for their homecoming when he passed out. It was kidney failure due to a genetic defect that had killed his father when Michael was ten years old. Dialysis followed. I was visiting Michael during one of his thrice weekly runs at Hoag Hospital when we hit upon the series idea of two assistant professors accidentally bringing the Scourge of God from the Sack of Rome and planting him in a southern California college where he fits right in. We called it Return of the Hun.
Between dialysis runs, Michael carried a notebook organizer that he modified to hold his numerous medications. It pulsated with a small warning light to indicate times to pop pills. The light touched off the paranoia of Ritter’s manger who thought we were tape recording our meeting. I’ve tape-recorded lots of meetings. No big deal. But this time, as we were shown the door, it was certain that Clarence would not be playing The Hun to Ritter’s post-modern Professor Higgins.
The second fact is that I once spent an evening with an actress who really did have fifty-four pages marked for revisions in a script I had co-written. She asked me if I would modify scenes that had her lying down because, as she fetchingly explained, she was of an age when she no longer looked as hot on her back as she once did. I was smitten with her honesty.
End of real story.
RETURN OF THE
Copyright 2000 www.jeffandrus.com
SURE, AS A PRO I was curious about how Tawny Golightly might act in one of my screenplays, but when she actually agreed to co-star in Return of the Hun, I fantasized like your average Joe with three bucks left over from the unemployment check and no bar nearby, just the Quick Sale bin at the local video store and Ms. Golightly saying, "Hiya, Sailor," from the best looking box cover. She would be so grateful for the role of her life, she'd want to take in the moonlight at Malibu, on her back, with hearts-and-flowers music swelling as we made sweaty love on the cool Pacific shore. Not that I'm a crazy romantic, but there's a human side to The Biz. And I felt extremely human when Tawny called and asked me to come over to her Brentwood bungalow, sighing regrets that her husband wouldn't be there. Then she added, "An actor needs to bond with the writer."
I hit on the neighbor kid for condoms, hoping that Ms. Golightly's morals were as half as weak as I'd been letting on to The National Enquirer. I string on the sly. I'm not ashamed to admit it.
Nor am I ashamed to say that I hoped Return of the Hun would break me out of television to put me in my rightful place. Not that there's anything wrong with Days of our Lives and a couple of episodes of Power Rangers, but I'm as human as Shylock, and it hurt to have one or two movies for television under my belt and not get credit for it, the sons of bitches. So even though Return's budget was so low it would make Plan 9 From Outer Space look like Waterworld and Sheldon my producer didn't have a contingency for even street permits, I figured the picture would have that cinema verite feel the critics love, like a propaganda film shot by rebels just before they seize the capital.
I confess I didn't hold a lot of hope for the director in spite of his credentials. Bruno learned the ropes as a kid under Leni Reifenstahl, but, hey, in my opinion Bruno was one gay who got passed over during Hitler's purge of party undesirables, and I'm sorry, the world isn't better because of it. That's how I feel. I can't help it.
In AA they tell us not to apologize. You never heard Francis apologize for starting with Corman, doing Targets for a nickel and a prayer, and I'm not going to apologize that Return was my first paid-for feature. I've done a dozen on spec. This one, the Guild could take me to court for working with a non-signatory and not paying dues. By the time they figured out my pen name, I planned to be in the DGA, an auteur saying, "Fuck the writer. Film by me." An ultra low budget direct-to-video movie was a step in that direction. A small step, sure, but it's a process: you pay your dues and take it day by day. With Return two days from shooting, I knew I was boarding the Success Express and might be forgiven for imagining that Tawny Golightly would want to join me for cocktails in the observation car. I should have realized that when a lady actor invites the writer to her house, husband there or not, it generally means one thing.
Tawny had fifty-four pages marked. She kicked off with a long discussion about art and The Method. Like, flashback thirty years and I'm in the dorm talking Vietnam with some green book bagger. This time through it was sans whiskey and magic mushrooms because Tawny's into Health and The Environment; knows Rosie O'Donnell personally. Finally, I had to say to Tawny.... We're about two hours into bonding: it's nine o'clock at night, and her first costume fitting is at seven in the morning; I know that if I have to really make all the changes she's hinting at, I'm not going to be able to hang out and see how she looks in bra and panties, which is how Shel and I envisioned her first scene. See, she plays a Tustin typist who's into survival and thus lures The Hun into a war games date, which is when he takes a yellow paint pellet to the groin and begins to have grave doubts about his macho past life, the hinge to the entire picture. Shel wanted to introduce the typist just before she goes to work so that we realize she's an independent lady who sleeps in the nude. "Goes her own way, does her own thing, know what I mean?" but I said, "Hey, Shel, it's like life. The chase is more exciting. Let the audience work for it;" hence the Victoria's Secrets gag.... so I say to Tawny:
“Look, I've been to SC." I don't tell them I studied chemistry and flunked out; I just set the tone, intellectual then world-weary. "And I've been around the block in this crazy town. To me it's like cramming for finals. If you want to stay up all night to do these changes, then I'm here to serve the film."
Well. I mean, we were talking re-writing screams and gasps to what? Grunts and yells? Big deal. But if you suggest to an actress that you're going to stay up all night, it means puffy, red eyes the next day, and the camera takes 'em in like open cans of Sterno. I pressed the advantage by asking for an ashtray.
I admit it. I'm still a smoker. Two hours I'd been in Tawny's kitchen, and I could feel the holes opening in my head, which needed filling with nicotine before I called the wife to tell her maybe she should hold dinner.
Tawny joined me outside where her true colors came out. She lit up a joint. "Talk about addictions," I said, "talk about polluting the atmosphere, sheesh, lady, all I asked for was an ashtray and some bourbon." She demurred that she had heard I was an alcoholic, to which I was able to use one of my great lines. If you're into soaps, you heard it eight or nine years ago on Days. "Show me a fifth of Virginia Gentleman, and I'll show you an alcoholic. Anything else, I can handle."
Cut to interior. Tawny returns to the kitchen and comes back with the bottle of champagne. I commence to become invisible.
In case you think The Biz is all that glamorous, Tawny's brand of champagne is Trader Joe's house special. Tawny didn't drink much, occupied as she was with converting an entire lid of Maui Wowee into C02 and water, and fortunately, there was another bottle from The Trader.
Incidentally, inquiring minds soon discovered that the sultry Ms. Golightly had a refrigerator packed with Dom Perignon and clam dip, the secret to her quick weight loss diet. You see, I really don't run people down: I try to reinforce Mr. and Mrs. America's dreams.
Anyway, I was able to titrate ethanol into my bloodstream at a steady and I thought reasonably controlled rate. Enough to loosen my tongue and talk about myself for a change, not Tawny and what she thought the script needed "from an actor's point of view."
I discovered that Tawny had an ear for conversation. She seemed to sympathize with my philosophical problems about AA's "theology." I mean, Twelve Steps as religion, for Christ's sake, whatever happened to Limbo and Communion wine?
"It's so exclusive," she said. Then she said some other stuff, as if she'd been into Dianetics or Zen, or maybe just a lot of Oprah, mentioning with emotion that she believed a person could transcend dependency and co-dependency.
I don't know where it came from...the truth, I mean; from the heart, I guess...but I said, "You know, Tawny," I let my eyes swim with sincerity, "I've never heard those two terms defined by anyone I trust."
So she gave me a definition. I can't remember it. Maybe it was as circular as all the others. But at least it felt warm and real out on her patio with Wilshire traffic buzzing in the distance like background presence on a soundtrack.
Whatever she said must have made me trust her because I started spilling my innermost like that gutted wannabe Great White in the first Jaws. The usual woes of a writer. We're like architects and composers, but The Biz gives contractors and conductors all the say. All I wanted to say was something important and meaningful that would make people feel good about themselves.
Tawny jumped on the cue like a pro and asked what was I trying to say in Return of the Hun? If I'd been sober, I might have growled, "Can't you read? Or do you just move your lips when you got pages in front of your face?" Instead, I was on a left brain roll and pitched the concept that first grabbed Shel:
A barbarian can be at home only in a barbaric age. This is what two assistant professors without tenure discover when, during a period of unusual sunspot activity, a scientific experiment goes awry, yanking The Scourge of God from The Sack of Rome and dropping him in the middle of UCLA. The Terrible Tartar didn't get off the steppes by not being adaptable, so he immediately attracts a horde of admirers and enemies who keep trying to make him fit their preconceptions of who he should be. With the professors playing Miss Manners and Svengali, The Mad Mogul exchanges mammoth skins for Doc Martins and a sleeve of tattoos, causing screaming mallites to think he's the lead in a ska band. When Attila mistakes the intentions of an ROTC drill and, as one Vice President used to say, "Kicks a little ass," he's given a football scholarship. Unfortunately, The Hun's university application requires a Social Security number. As the can of worms to Attila's precise origin opens, undocumented aliens all over the southland take on The Hun as a cause celebre, which, of course, meets the community involvement requirement of a Rhodes Scholarship. That and The Hun's amazing grasp of early Oriental languages has him winging his way to Oxford, and the rest, as they said on the Hindenburg, is history.
Tawny was pouting thoughtfully. "But what's my character arc?"
Tawny Golightly has a body that doesn't make you think of character arcs. If you were born in a cave, put a couple of Loral Corporation nosecones on a pair of long legs and you'll get the picture. Nonetheless, inside that pretty, wide-eyed head of hers, I sensed a mind with synapses glowing. I said that her character was The Hun's love interest. Forget the cheerleaders in the script; the Tustin typist's job is to teach Attila how to share other peoples' pain. The typist shows him that he can't just light torches whenever he wants and treat woman like chattel or sex kittens then litter the roads with beer cans.
“But it's not there," she said.
By now we were back in Tawny's kitchen where, not just the tilt of the room, but the emotional geography had changed. Tawny would grab my arm to get eye contact, and it was OK to smoke inside. I was breathing in her second hand dope like it was hair spray on a prom date during a slow dance, and as if looking for another partner, I was going through her cupboards because, well, it's a simple fact of life. Everybody keeps cooking sherry. I had my tape recorder spinning too, because now I really was creating speeches for her, like some kid harmonizing "I Honestly Love You" into the ear of his high school steady.
I had Tawny's character telling The Hun about Greenpeace and Save The Whales, trigger locks and The Right to Choose; beautiful stuff, all there on cassette, with Tawny's voice repeating my words, smooth as warm honey, making me fall in love.
Yeah, Barney, you heard me. Love not lust. It happened when she murmured, "You know, there's just one other thing."
"I'm forty-one years old."
Damn, I could have spit up the Nyquil. I had figured, maybe thirty-six, and she was looking younger by the minute, and now without batting an eyelash, Tawny Golightly was confessing that she's entered mid-life hell just a few years behind me.
“I suppose I could talk to the director and the cameraman..."
Jeez, not Bruno. Bruno would eat her alive.
"...but it would be less embarrassing to just have the writer put it in the script."
“The actor and the writer, they're really the creative force," I said.
She nodded gravely, then said with a slight smile, "Well, with all the lying down and all.... I mean, I sag a little."
"Gravity," I explained huskily. "I know gravity.
"I shoot better if I'm standing up or sitting."
“Dear lady, that's as good as in the script."
I suspect I was true to my word or else Tawny did have it out with Bruno because there was never a close up of her lying down in the final cut. At least, I think there wasn't. Something about Shel not paying back taxes and the Feds confiscating his assets, including the negative.
The reason I'm not quite clear is that I more or less had a blackout about the time I knew I was falling in love with the woman behind the star. The woman who was simple, honest, vulnerable and asked a pretty hardboiled guy for a favor. As for the blackout, well, AA keeps saying, if you slip, put it behind you, forge ahead.
There are noises at the tail end of the tape that sound like Thumper in rut. I like to think what we were doing on the Conglolium was pretty special. Subsequently, too, I'm sure, even if we never got to the beach. Again, I don't really know because I didn't come to my senses until three weeks after the wrap party.
The wife was gone. They do that from time to time, and I'm not one to speak ill of a lady who didn't ask for alimony. Slow dissolve to Tawny refusing to talk to me ever again.
I don't think it's because of the item she caught me feeding to the print media about our being the new millennium's Miller and Monroe because, first, I gave her age as twenty-nine, and afterwards I offered, "Hon, I'll call back and give you top billing." No, I know Ms. Tawny Golightly and believe it was merely a matter of putting others before herself. Seeing how she married Shel after her divorce and as he's in Lompoc for a while, he might go nuts wondering whether the flame still flickers between Tawny and me.
Truth be told, there's warmth there. I've just been too busy to get in touch with it. A friend of mine got promoted at Turner and made me a development exec. Television's not so bad when the pay's good and you have the power to tell a Nazi like Bruno to jump a rolling doughnut. I'm here, after all, to reaffirm the human spirit and do my little bit for the planet. That sounds goody-goody, I know, especially from a guy who's had his nose bent in this crazy town, but Show Biz folks really have a heart for people, and I for one am not ashamed to say how big it is.