The first and last time I ever collaborated on a screenplay, I was confronted with the utter absurdity of the project. Actually, I misspeak: not a screenplay but a mere treatment. Which means a longish synopsis in the arcane form of Hollywood-speak: introduce your problem, create rising action (read car chase, car chase, car chase) to a climax, and then the tumble on the downward slope of resolution. It looks so neat on a line graph in Screenplay Basics, but what the hell does it mean? How does it really fit into the Aristotelian dynamic or even the “then what” of E.M Forster’s Aspects of the Novel?: “We are all like Scheherazade’s husband, in that we want to know what happens next.”
But Forster, the wise old dog, was not all about story. Plot is what sets the novel apart from circus entertainment: “The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died, and then queen died of grief is a plot.”
It wasn’t the story that was the problem. Or the plot. I grew rather fond of the tale, in fact, a swashbuckling swords-sands-sandals affair of Mamluk ascendancy in Egypt. My partner in crime had as his credentials an affair with a famous rock star who died in rather ignoble circumstances. We had first collaborated on her biography, a work quickly and ruthlessly usurped by overnight bios of other members of the defunct but famous Sixties band of which she was lead singer. Getting word of our proposed bio, they rushed into ghost-written print with their own tales of rock, sex, and drugs—not in that order.
So I should have known better. Should have realized there were powers at work unfriendly to our communal efforts, no matter if placed in Topanga Canyon or in thirteenth-century Cairo.
Hubris, another Aristotelian device. Mea culpa, I was guilty of it.
I should mention that my collaborator was of the Scientologist persuasion. Freshly returned from two decades in Europe, what did I now of –ists or –isms? So long as I was not proselytized, I would have written with Donny Osmond or even Beelzebub. The kicker was that this collaborator continued to talk of “friends in Hollywood.” That sounded just fine by me: after publishing a handful of heavily researched nonfiction titles and a couple of well-reviewed thrillers, none of which had earned anybody too much money, I was ready for the soothing balm Hollywood can provide. In short: my hills were attuned to the sound of money.
We labored, we toiled, we made the damn bestest hundred page synopsis (problem—rising action—resolution) that future money could buy. True to his word, collaborator buddy scared up a couple of fellow Scientologists out of the Bel Air woodwork, fresh from Down Under. They were not just excited about the project; they were “ecstatic.”
Mel Gibson’s name was bandied about; million dollar budgets with a couple more zeroes added were discussed. Via long distance.
Meanwhile, I did not quit my day job. But I did work long into the night, revising, revising, as new eyes perused our treatment. No worry of placements in this thirteenth-century world, but everybody seemed to have their own notion of Baybars’ physiognomy, of Spray of Pearls cleavage. My collaborator buddy disappeared into the sun-filled skies of Hollywood, there to bask in the glow of the soon-to-be millions our Down Under Scientologist producers would raise for the project. Former investment analysts, they were prepared to show Hollywood what they had; ready to introduce the film industry into the Scientology Spring.
A phone call at two in the morning. I could only think it was my aging mother. The long feared middle-of-the-night summons to her deathbed a thousand miles distant. But no. It was collaborator buddy. “We’ve found him,” he yelped down the line to my fog-bound ears.
“Who did you lose?’
“Not lose. Find. Found the backer. The boy with the cash to take this forward.”
I told him that was wonderful; perhaps we could continue the conversation in the morning. But his enthusiasm soon nudged me out of my cocoon of sleep.
“How much?” I asked.
“Enough.” He said it with a sort of smugness that made me want to order in pizza.
Over the next days and weeks, bits and pieces of our golden goose filtered down to me.
From Texas, Elmer (I do not make this up) had made his millions in the oil fields. A simple man, he had apparently married well—too well. His lady wife, twenty years his junior, had pretensions. She wanted to be part of the high life, the swinging life. She wanted, in short, Hollywood in their portfolio. Elmer—collaborator buddy spoke of him quite endearingly—did not want to disappoint Clarisse. Though he did not bring her with him to Hollywood, he never tired of showing pictures of this obvious graduate of Nevada’s Mustang Ranch—his sweet Clarisse. “He’s sort of cute about it,” collaborator buddy confided down the long distance line.
He kept the stones in a safety deposit box in Venice. “Clarisse advised it,” collaborator buddy told me, a cracking in his voice at this endearing bit of information.
The short of it was, the Down Under producers and collaborator buddy hopped on Air Italia with Elmer to go cash out these gems. To get this ball rolling.
Mel Gibson had been replaced with Sylvester Stallone. Older, but look at those pecs.
Calls came fuzzy and furious from Italy. “We’re so close,” collaborator buddy told me. “Just one more run through with the treatment. Barney at Metro loves it, but can’t we build up the rivalry more?”
I was calling in sick at my day job, working around the clock on revisions upon revisions.
“God, I’ve never seen a rock this size,” collaborator buddy told me in another call. “Elmer took one out of the bank just to give us an idea. Ten carats at min.”
Elmer Fudd and his carrots. Christ, I was thousands of miles away from the action. Just cash the stones, already, I wanted to say. But didn’t.
Comes the big day: gem merchants were all lined up. Elmer was going to force them into an auction. The damn rube’s got real savvy, the Down Under boys told me.
Collaborator buddy couldn’t figure out time zone differences; was always amazed he was dragging me out of bed in the middle of the night. “It’s eight, nine hours later there, man,” I pleaded.
“Wow, really? That’s sort of amazing.”
Okay, not the sharpest tack in the sewing box, but the boy had an uncanny scent for story.
So I got the tale in the middle of the night.
“Clarisse laid them all out with his passport,” collaborator buddy explained. It was 2:45 a.m. on my bedside clock.
“He put them in the wrong jacket. That’s Elmer for you. Thank God he put his passport in the right coat.”
That did not make me sleep well the rest of the night.
The climax and roll down to resolution occurred the next night.
“We can’t find him.”
“Now you’ve misplaced somebody,” I said sleepily. More awake, I would have made a better riposte.
“Not freaking funny, Syd. It’s Elmer. He’s gone. We don’t know where he went. The boys fronted him ten kay. He went out for a cappuccino. That was twelve hours ago. The Italian police don’t have anything. Now we looked in his room. His passport’s gone. His suitcases…they’re empty. There was nothing in them. They aren’t even real leather. That diamond he took out of the bank?”
“Paste?” I said.
“I stomped on it. It’s powder.”
I started laughing then. Couldn’t help myself. Couldn’t stop even as collaborator buddy started screaming long distance.
Good old Elmer, the Texas “rube.” A small-time con-artist and the only one to ever make a dime out of our sand and sandal epic.
You gotta love the guy.
But I don’t collaborate anymore.