THERE IS A DOWNSIDE TO LIVING IN LOS ANGELES, AND THIS IS IT: THE certainty that sooner or later one of the vast horde of screenwriter wannabe types out there will wind up living in the apartment adjacent to your own and suck you into reading one of his miserable scripts.
The neighbor was Joe. Joe had a master's in theater arts from UCLA, and as a grad student briefly interned for some studio hotshot. One day at the hotshot's house, with the hotshot in the can, Joe rifled the Rolodex to score a few names and numbers that he later called. In this manner he sold an option on a treatment for $7,000. He was on his way -- or so he thought.
Time passed. He wrote more scripts and treatments and made a few bucks from time to time but nothing that could be called making a living, and he was forced, poor man, to take a job teaching English as a second language.
Time passed. More scripts, more script rejections. He "fired" his agent. He was 43. He had written 18 scripts in 15 years and made $43,000.
We bumped into each other from time to time on the stairs. It was Los Angeles. We talked about movies. It was movies, movies, movies. If you can't make a living in the movie biz, you can at least talk endlessly about it.
Joe and I did. He gave me his all-time Top 10 and I gave him my all-time Top 10. We each had our favorite cult-type films -- he told me about Life Is Sweet, I told him about Colonel Redl. There we stood between floors with one foot up and one down, and in this way we could go for two hours.
One day Joe asked me to read a script. Why do writers ask people to read something they have written? Writing is written to be read by an agent -- not by a neighbor who would rather have his fingernails pulled out one at a time.
But -- he was the neighbor. I said okay.
I read the script in bed, and when I finished I lay there staring at the ceiling in a state of paralysis. My head was spinning. This wasn't writing; it was the literary version of Lou Gehrig's disease.
The story was this: A savvy dishwasher -- a Gene Hackman type -- decides to blackmail a gorgeous millionaire -- a Faye Dunaway type. The action occurs in Los Angeles. One night the Faye Dunaway type, while driving her Mercedes, greases a Mexican cleaning lady in a hit-and-run that is witnessed by the Gene Hackman character. Now, this Gene Hackman character suffers from a seething resentment complex relating to rich people, and he seizes upon this incident to devise a sinister extortion scheme.
But it isn't money he is after -- it's humiliation. It's a social-reform/redemption-type situation. He decides the time has come for this rich broad to get a taste of life as it is actually lived by the masses -- the un-rich -- such as the Mexican cleaning lady she greased in her Mercedes.
I won't bother with the details. The details are: A phone call followed by a meeting, and the Gene Hackman character reveals his scheme -- for her to move in with him at his fleabag hotel in downtown L.A. and go to work as a waitress at the pupusería where he has nailed down this dishwashing job.
That is correct, a white guy working as a dishwasher in a Mexican restaurant in downtown Los Angeles. It's hilarious. She says: okay. Between shifts he keeps her locked up in the room chained to the bed. The movie continues. She falls in love with him -- of course. The movie continues.
At some point the Gene Hackman character is tracked down by a business associate of hers, and he is busted on a kidnapping rap. But the Faye Dunaway character intercedes on his behalf, and he is spared 25 years in state prison.
It was something like that.
I was in shock. It wasn't even the absurd narrative line or the two turnip-heads Joe devised to handle the action. It was the sheer staggering, dismal sappiness and lifeless tone of the writing. There was no energy -- balls -- the exact thing the Gene Hackman character was perceived to possess in abundance.
And now I had a thought: In what way did this vile script of Joe's differ from all the others that daily find their way onto the desks of agents and producers and proceed to be made into actual movies with huge budgets, featuring the hottest stars, massive marketing campaigns, saturation distribution and all the rest of it?