Thursday, September 28, 2006


Allison Hayes in "Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman," 1958

Daryl Hannah in "Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman," 1993

I think this has something to do with the great circular dance of the universe, but I’m not absolutely sure. I do know it starts with a confession: When I was seven years old I was frightened out of the Westbury Theater by a resoundingly unfrightening movie. The film that drove me out into the sun about a minute after the credits was Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman, starring Allison Hayes and the vivacious Yvette Vickers. If I could have made it another minute into the movie I probably would have been all right, but I was seven and the sight of this large, glowing, almost opaque weather balloon of a space ship dropping down in front of the soon-to-be titular character was enough to send me running.

I caught up with the rest of Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman when it joined the regular rotation on a local TV channel’s Chiller Theater a few years later. It was then I learned how steadfastly non-horrifying it was as a movie. But still it fascinated me. There was something about a fifty foot Allison Hayes in a bed-sheet bikini walking through those bad composites, picking up obvious dolls, and ripping up the balsa wood ceiling of a tavern to grab her two-timing husband that got to me in a prepubescent, preintellectual way. But I was years from understanding the full impact this movie, made for $65,000 in eight days, was to have on me.

It wasn’t until 1988 that I decided to sit down and write my remake of Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman. I wanted to honor this strange little film with its James M. Cain meets The Amazing Colossal Man plot. I wanted to acknowledge the great, albeit not completely understandable, pleasure it had given me.

It took five years of blank stares, but I finally talked somebody into making the movie. In acquiring the rights to remake the picture I learned a little more about the man who wrote it. His name is Mark Hanna and you can find his name on some of the most distinctive low-budget movies of the late fifties. According to the Writers Guild his last credit was in 1972.

Because the movies Mark Hanna wrote were made quickly, instinctively, almost reflexively, they have more energy than any ten pictures made today. They’re more fun. They have a sense of joy you just don’t find at the multi-plex anymore.

A few months after my version of 50 Ft. Woman premiered on HBO, a letter was forwarded to me from Florida. I looked at the return address and saw it was from Mark Hanna.

He was writing to tell me he liked the remake. We started to correspond, spoke a few times on the phone, and met once at DuPar’s in Studio City where I got him to sign a version of the original poster to me and I signed a poster of my movie for him. We talked about writing, about how cheap Roger Corman was, about how he made the deal to write Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman with the Woolner Brothers in Schwab’s Drugstore.

Mark Hanna had a mango tree in his yard in Florida. Every summer he took mangoes from his tree, wrapped them in pages of the local newspaper, set them in cardboard boxes and sent fruit to his friends. I’ve received many a box of mangoes from Mark Hanna.

In 1958 I was scared out of a theater by a movie I would remake more than thirty years later, and then I get fruit from the man who wrote the original picture.

So you see why I think this is about the great circular dance of the universe, how things are stitched together in ways and to purposes we can’t quite comprehend, but I’m not absolutely sure. Maybe this is as sure as I’m supposed to get.

Mark Hanna died in October of 2003. He was eighty-six-years old.

The universe doesn’t let us in on the big picture, but if we pay attention we can pick up the clues that indicate we’re on the right path. If we stay balanced we can feel those little shifts in the magnetic field that help guide us to do the work we’re supposed to do.

I do know that when I felt the weight of one of those fresh mangoes in my hand, the universe didn’t make any more sense, but it did feel kind of right.

Mark Hanna's original and my remake. Compare and contrast. Show all work for partial credit.

Thursday, September 21, 2006


The St. Ignatius Showbiz Players performing "My Favorite Year."

I wrote the libretto for a musical based on the movie My Favorite Year, collaborating with Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens who wrote the music and lyrics respectively. The three of us worked on the show for more than four years, and in 1992 it opened at Lincoln Center. We were gone in thirty days, critically drubbed.

The show closed and we all went off to deal with our individual soups of disappointment, loss and the infuriating human need to make sense of an experience. Eventually you get perspective and start to become philosophical about this sort of adventure. But that’s all higher cortex stuff; the pain and fear come from an older part of the brain that’s not as easily conned.

Lynne and Stephen and I occasionally meet for lunch to talk and complain and to be seen publicly together in order to frighten people with the possibility of our doing another show. At one of these meetings, Lynn gave me a copy of a letter addressed to the three of us and forwarded by the company handling the stock and amateur rights to our show which had begun its life after Broadway.

The letter was from the director of a community production of My Favorite Year in Cincinnati. She was writing to let us know how much the play had meant to her, the cast and their audiences.

I sent a reply, thanking the director for letting us know the show had worked for her group. I wrote that her letter was like getting a note from a son or daughter away at college and finding out they’re doing will and making new friends.

She answered my letter and sent me some snapshots from her production, informing me that they were extra prints and I could throw them away if I wanted to. I have not thrown them away. They’re on the mantel now, just left of the Emmy.

Looking at the pictures I see what appears to be the stage of a high school auditorium; neutral beige curtains at the back, a proscenium of pale cinder block. There are some rented costumes, but it’s mostly invention and approximation. The same thing goes for the handful of props and set pieces. One of the shots is from the finale with the whole cast playing out to the audience. There they are, the good people of “The St. Ignatius Showbiz Players” singing out for all they’re worth.

For a while I carried the pictures in my jacket pocket, taking them out to show unsuspecting friends the way parents take out the genuine leather and Indian bead wallet their kid made at camp. I kept them with me as I tried to work out why they seemed so important, so valuable. Eventually I realized what about the pictures makes them so precious.

Writers spend their lives at the edge of the sea, putting messages in bottles, throwing them into the ocean and hoping they’ll reach someone somewhere. The messages aren’t for critics. Critics are those pasty-faced people watching you from under their big beach umbrellas and loudly discussing you bottle throwing technique and how the tide and wind are against you and your messages don’t stand a chance.

Those snapshots of people performing for their families and friends…singing Lynn and Stephen’s songs, telling my jokes…are vital evidence; solid, irrefutable proof that at least one bottle got through. And if one bottle got through, then who’s to say more haven’t made it past the breakers?

The pictures remind me of the gawky medal the crew gave Mr. Roberts after he threw the Captain’s palm tree overboard. I plan to keep them close by, the way Mr. Roberts kept his Order of the Palm on proud display. Like the medal, they are lovingly handcrafted things, forged in recognition of victories over petty tyrants.

Thursday, September 14, 2006


“For the very nicest thing Hollywood can possibly say to a writer is that he is too good to be only a writer.”
–Raymond Chandler, 1945

Many years ago a feature writer who’d made the successful move to directing his own scripts asked me if I intended to direct. I tap-dance about how I wasn't sure if it was something I wanted to do. He listened, nodded, and said, “You will. You may not want to, you might not enjoy it, but you will. Simply to protect the work.” He said this so calmly I thought he was tossing me a cliché. Later I realized it was a cosmic truth.

Writers wail about the loss of control when a director goes to work, but I wonder if this loss is actually part of a silent bargain. We give up control in exchange for not having to do all the hard work of directing. Especially the need to confront, cajole, praise, reproach, motivate and discipline a large number of widely different people, often very early in the morning. Directing entrails social and political skills many of us became writers expressly to avoid ever having to develop.

I’ve worked with directors who were my creative partners. I’ve worked with directors I wouldn’t trust to mow my lawn. And I’ve been shown the door when a director comes on board and begins making “A Film By…” by throwing out the writer.

The good experiences have been with directors who understood their job was to interpret the text. They were smart, hard-working, secure individuals who taught and encouraged. The bad experiences let me to another cosmic truth: “I’m as qualified to screw up my scripts as any stranger.” With this bold affirmation, I moved toward directing.

One thing that made it easy for me is that the business expects writers to want to direct. Many assume the only reason someone becomes a writer in the first place is to become a director, as if being a writer were some kind of wormy, larval state directors had to pass through before becoming Monarch butterflies.

I write slouched in a comfortable chair, the room quiet and dim, a yellow pad propped up on my knees. My first day as a director, I didn’t feel like Preston Sturges, finally becoming “a Prince of the Blood.” I felt like Boo Radley, yanked out of his warm basement and put in charge of the landing at Omaha Beach.

Directing is the hardest work I’ve ever done. It’s a sophisticated and stressful management position in the service of intangibles requiring a different set of muscles and a different set of verbs from those normally used by writers.

Writing and directing are both about esthetic choices; the difference is in how those choices are realized. When you write there’s nothing between you and the page–the work flows out of your head and onto the paper. But directing requires other people and processes to make the esthetics real. The beautiful thing about directing is how it takes art and breaks it down into a sequence of technical tasks and clearly defined goals. So many decisions have to be made so rapidly that you’re compelled to lean on your Zen without excessive intellectualizing. For the muse to survive it has to operate on an almost subatomic level. Depending on the kind of artist you are this can either destroy or liberate you.

I found a visceral excitement in directing completely unlike the joy of writing. While there’s nothing like the nearly audible “click” in your head when a scene comes together, there’s an altogether different, and possibly more intense, feeling when you stand behind a camera during the shooting of that scene, watching and listening, reassessing what works and what doesn’t from one moment to the next. It is a feeling of satisfaction and completion.

In this way directing is a logical extension of writing, and the writer who wants to direct is interested in finished the job, not wrenching power from the Princes. Well, not primarily interested. Beyond that, directing makes you a stronger writer, a better collaborator with the good directors, and makes it harder for the bad ones to put anything over on you. You’re in the club and you know the secret handshake.

The quote at the beginning is from Raymond Chandler’s great vodka and vinegar cocktail of an essay, “Writers in Hollywood.” Go out right now and find a copy. Chandler talked about the casual abuse of writers and the “deliberate and successful plan to reduce the professional screenwriter to the status of an assistant picture-maker, superficially deferred to (while he is in the room), essentially ignored.” Perhaps, finally, that’s the real motivation behind writers seeking to direct: We simply want to stay in the room a little longer.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Bread Crumbs

The author's father, apparently struck by the muse.

I was watching a movie I wrote, and I heard my father. Not his voice, just one of his favorite phrases. I’d given it to a character and almost twenty years after he died, my dad’s favorite expletive made it to HBO. My father’s word: “bollixed.” As in, “all bollixed up.”

This wasn’t intended as a memorial. It simply showed up in my mind as the right thing for the character. But it started me thinking about all the other peculiar bread crumbs I’ve dropped along the trail as I’ve written. I’ve casually used the names of friends and family, given a special character my birthday and another one eyes just like those of a girl I knew in college. I’ve named apartment complexes after people I know, forced character to watch my favorite Ed Wood movie, and I once included in a script a discussion of “Chicken Oh-My-Gosh,” a dish which has meaning to maybe ten people on the planet. I’m not talking about major events and big themes. I mean that Breughel writing you do to fill up the canvas.

And we all do it. After you learn Rod Serling grew up in Central New York, it dawns on you The Twilight Zone is crowded with characters getting off buses from Binghamton, or rushing home to Syracuse. It’s not restricted to writing either. N.C. Wyeth multiplied his wife Carolyn a dozen times in the book illustrations he did for Scribner’s at the beginning of the previous century, turning her into a battalion of heroines, including Maid Marion.

Over the years I’ve dotted the landscape with thank-you notes and postcards, fossils of my personal archeology. Writing is an aggregate of details, so whose details am I supposed to use? It’s just business. But lately I’ve started to think there might be more to it.

This thinking is a factor of maturity and age. Maturity, because it comes at a point when I’ve done enough work to be able to look back and detect patterns and moods. Age, because I’ve reached that point where things become finite and you start thinking in terms of legacy.

Writing is something we do alone and I believe these personal invocations are a way to warm the empty room a few degrees. We put familiar faces at the edges to make things less intimidating. Neighbors and lovers smile up at us and scenes become snapshots; things are manageable again. “Sure, this scene will work. Look, that’s my dog over there in the corner.”

It reminds me of how builders like to sign secret places behind the plaster and wood of a house. You’re not aware of it, but all around you are signatures and signs, like benign ghosts helping to hold the walls together. One of the great secret pleasures of writing is knowing that the connective tissue of a script is alive with all those people, all that memory. And nobody knows it but us. Just the writers, dropping bread crumbs and carving our initials in the beams.

Which brings us to the question of immortality. A lot of writers duck the issue, but we all know it’s there. It was there when we were too young to be embarrassed by the sheer hubris of hoping, thinking, in some cases assuming what we were doing was forever. Some life, some experience, and we learned this isn’t a topic one discusses in mixed company. But it’s always there.

We have no control over what lasts and what doesn’t. For what it’s worth, history seems to favor “popular” over “official” art. That’s why it’s always the commonplace things, the bowls and household gods, that survive and keep telling their stories. There’s no way of knowing for certain, but that doesn’t stop us from thinking about it. Somewhere in the back of our hearts there’s the hope that what we write will survive. This time we’ll get it right and say something that sinks into the gene pool and outlives us.

Scary business, setting off on that kind of quest. So we look for ways to make the journey less daunting. What say we take along some company? How about everybody we love? They’re nice folks, they’re entitled to a crack at immortality. Let’s bundle them together, their names and words, quirks and passions. We’ll hold them close and start the trip.

When we do this, when we pepper the page with our lives, it connects us to the ones we love. But it also connects us as artists; as people who know details are the things that breathe. Forgotten or remembered, at least we won’t be alone.