What: Western Avenue is the remaining decrepit, crime-ridden, rusted out, barren vestige of what was once a thriving ethnically diverse neighborhood, now bordered by luxury high rises and threatened with “urban renewal,” aka eviction of its citizens.
Who: Matt Harding, disgraced police officer who rolled on his partner in a sex and drug scandal, has been given one last chance. He has been assigned to the “Community Oriented Policing Service” – COPS – Western Ave. station. Conceived by the Feds to encourage “kinder and gentler” policing and taken by the local politicos because it came with a trunk-load of money, Matt is merely expendable as the program is viewed as a joke by everyone, including the residents of Western Avenue; everyone, that is, except Matt. His first patrol, though, is anything but inauspicious. Matt awkwardly introduces himself to the suspicious local merchants (including Julie, the barely legal prostitute).
He then meets Dr. Edward Jones:
EXT. WESTERN AVE. - CONTINUOUS MORNING
EDWARD JONES, a black, sixty-ish, over-worked, cynical man arrives at the [elevated train] landing. Under his arm he carries a brown grocery bag. He pays Matt a scant, silent greeting.
Ed pulls Wonder Bread from the bag and walks down the line of shelters, "knocking" on each with his foot. Matt follows. From each box emerges a homeless man. Ed tosses a couple slices of bread to each:
Matt: What’re you doing?
Ed: Little bread. Gives their stomachs something to chew on beside alcohol. Not much, but it helps. (beat; sarcastic) You the new sheriff here?
Matt: If that’s what you want to call me.
Ed: You don’t want to hear what I want to call you.
Matt: Try me.
Ed: Look, I don’t know you, okay? You from here? ‘Cause here’s how it is: they don’t give a damn about us. We’re a cancer, and they want to kill us.
Ed leads Matt a few steps from under the train trestle and gestures upward; up a steep, trash-strewn bluff rising a hundred feet behind the tenements…
ANGLE: Luxury High-Rise Condos line the top of the bluff.
Ed: They. You could hit 'em with a stone, and they don’t even know we’re down here. Their view does not include us. “Community Oriented Policing”?? Shit. A beat cop. What’d you do deserve this?
Matt: You still haven’t called me what you want.
Ed: You’re meat. On the hoof. And once you’re hamburger… this street is history.
Ed turns and kicks over the last box:
The startled vagrant pulls a nickel-plated revolver, aims straight for Ed’s face and pulls the trigger.
Matt draws his service revolver and—
—Fires: killing the vagrant instantly. The Vagrant’s gun clicks but doesn’t fire...
Matt has killed one of Ed’s “flock,” someone Ed deemed harmless; someone Ed knew didn’t have bullets in the gun. First day on the job and Matt has alienated almost all the residents of Western Ave.
After a mandated review, Matt returns to Western Avenue, behind the eight ball and under the thumb of the very sexy, very lethal Roberta Vargas, councilwoman of the district who has big ideas for the neighborhood—and it doesn’t include any of the residents. Her first command to Matt: serve an eviction notice on the “squatters” in one of the last buildings. The other surprise awaiting Matt is Officer George Nieves, fresh from the Academy, who voluntarily chose to participate in the COPS program and is eager to learn under Matt, despite Matt's reputation. Matt knows his first order of business is to rehabilitate his image in the eyes of Western Ave., and systematically begins that process when he stands up to a couple of gangbangers harassing the street's idealistic new lawyer in his storefront operation. Despite a few false steps, like mistaking the very comely blonde in the local bar as a prostitute rather than as the owner of the bar, Matt begins to regain their trust...
The monkey wrench in all of this will be Matt's ex-partner, now out of prison and looking for revenge...
No Meaner Place: The framework Mandel has conceived for his cop show is sheer genius. “Western Ave.” is the last remaining vestige of the lawless old West, that area controlled by the robber barons waiting to pick it up for a song. The citizens of these boulevards are deemed less-than, to be swept away like so much detritus; they are without advocates unless someone comes along to watch out for their rights, for they are owed no less than what the rest of us get in terms of protection. Matt is the Sheriff – he’s Gary Cooper in “High Noon,” Henry Fonda in “My Darling Clementine,” John Wayne in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” and even Cleavon Little in “Blazing Saddles” (granted “Blazing Saddles” is a stretch, but it is still based on all the fundamentals of a classic western, except it’s funny) because all represented the last remaining hopes for their respective towns and devised ways to redeem themselves and save their towns.
Mandel even sets the stage in a classic John Ford manner:
EXT. WESTERN AVE. – DAWN
The first rays of sun break over the tops of distant, ragged tenements. The urban silence is broken by the barking of a distant dog.
We’re down by the river and freight yards; the forgotten section of a rust-belt city. The dusty street and buildings are a patchwork of brick, cinderblock, corrugated steel, fading neon and cobblestones erupting from beneath the neglected blacktop. At the far end, the black steel trestle of an elevated subway arches over the street, a staircase descending from the woodframe station.
A tumbleweed of crumpled newspaper blows down the street.
A lone police cruiser drives slowly down the deserted street, passing a street sign: “Western Avenue.”
Did no one get this? Are we so saturated with police procedurals that there is no longer room for a character-driven allegory that is rooted in the most fundamentally American art form – the Western? Mandel has included all the beloved archetypes – the idealistic lawyer, the loyal deputy, the grizzled “doc," the saloon dame who watches over the town harlots, and black-hatted villains.
I desperately want to see this show, don’t you?
Life Lessons for Writers: “This is just a dirty little village in the middle of nowhere. Nothing that happens here is really important.” – “High Noon.” Read into that what you will.
Neely: Where did this come from?
John: It’s kind of a long story. When I was a kid growing up in St. Louis Park, Minnesota (that’s also where the Coen Brothers came from) I was a loner. I loved to hang out in deserted parts of town like the rail yards and the loading docks.
Neely: Your parents must have loved that!
John: They were incredibly loving people and were even supportive when I told them I wanted to be a writer. But continuing on… My father did business in Chicago and took me with him on occasion, letting me run around town on my own. I loved trains and used to hang around Union Station. In retrospect, since I was only about 12 or 13 at the time, I’m really surprised that he would just let me go off by myself and agree to meet him back at the hotel, the Drake I think, at a set time. Anyway, the approach for the railroad tracks came in around Western Avenue and I got used to that part of town.
So, the years go by and now I’m living in LA; in Hancock Park. I’m a collector of records, 78s, so I’m staking out all the second hand stores on Western Avenue in LA looking for records and at some point it occurred to me what a unique and isolated part of town this was; it had its own unique society with its own social structure within LA. The light bulb went off and I thought, wouldn’t it be fun to do a modern allegorical screenplay of a Western that takes place on Western Avenue. No one does Westerns anymore. Wouldn’t it be funny to do this – a comedy of sorts, which is how it first occurred to me. But I knew that no one would ever buy a Western, so, by using the “allegory,” I thought I could slip one by on them. In my mind the allegory for a sheriff would be a cop – a beat cop. I did some research and found the COPS program—a “kinder gentler policing.”
Neely: As an aside, I love that Western Avenue in Chicago is reputedly the longest “street” in the country. I actually went to the Western Avenue School (on Western Avenue, so there’s no irony there) in Flossmoor, a suburb 25 miles south of Chicago.
If you had to choose one or two influences, what and/or who were they?
John: “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” first and foremost, is a favorite of mine. “Bad Day at Black Rock”—a modern allegorical Western in itself—and the radio version of “Gunsmoke” that starred William Conrad because it’s still one of the most beautifully written shows ever made; the stories were incredible. The Western is the oldest American cinematic genre, our original film genre. Hollywood was built on the Western.
The writers who have most influenced me are Paddy Chayefsky, Billy Wilder and Robert Towne. And here’s the reason “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” is such an influence: there’s this scene where Jimmy Stewart is reduced to a saloon waiter, and John Wayne and Lee Marvin (who plays Liberty Valance) are eating at the saloon. Liberty is taunting Stewart’s character, and Wayne verbally defends him. There is incredible potential for violence in that scene, which is much more dramatic than showing any actual violence. That’s the kind of subtext that informs “Western Ave.”
Neely: You have an obvious love for cop shows and Westerns; what were and are your favorites?
John: As far as cop shows, for me the best was “Homicide.”
Neely: I love cop shows and would kill to see Joseph Wambaugh’s “Police Story” again. Apparently the rights were tied up with David Gerber, and presumably now with his estate, but it is positively criminal that no one has re-aired those episodes (with the exception of one episode with Raymond St. Jacques, who I love). But as much as I love cop shows – comedies like “Barney Miller” and “Bakersfield P.D.” and dramas like “Police Story” and “Homicide” or features like “The Naked City” (not to be confused with “The Naked Gun,” based on the very funny, short-lived "Police Squad!") and “Detective Story," the Western is a purely American created art form, much like jazz.
I became addicted to TV in the late 50s and early 60s and it seems like every episodic drama on TV was a Western – “Bat Masterson” starring Gene Barry; “Wanted Dead or Alive” starring Steve McQueen; “Have Gun Will Travel” starring Richard Boone; “Wyatt Earp” starring Hugh O’Brian; “Wagon Train” with Ward Bond; “Gunsmoke” with James Arness (an obvious influence in the structure of “Western Ave.” with the grizzled Doc and the good hearted Miss Kitty); countless others like “Sugar Foot” and “Cheyenne” and “The Virginian”; but most of all “Maverick” starring James Garner. Having recently re-watched all the Bret Maverick episodes, I was pretty amazed at the serious tone of the first couple of episodes, all directed by Budd Boetcher, a very famous Western features director. It wasn’t until about the third episode that any comedy really started showing through, and it took a few more before it settled into the tone it’s known for. “Maverick” sort of started out as a morality play. Have you seen any of these older Westerns? Many of them have shown up on the “Encores Westerns” channel.
John: I’ve seen most of the shows you mention and loved most of them. So many of the ones you mention were great. Those were days when audiences hung on every word, and those shows actually told stories. Don’t forget “The Rifleman” and “Branded.” “Branded” was about a disgraced man looking for redemption, which is a very important theme for me because we're all looking for redemption to one extent or another.
Neely: Tell us a little more on how this all evolved. Who did you take it too and what was the reaction? How close did it come to being made?
John: I had what I thought was a pretty good idea. I pitched it and… everyone hated it. No one got it. They looked at me with blank eyes. My manager at that time (now my ex-manager) forbade me to pitch the idea ever again. I sat on it for a long time but still thought it was a great idea. Now—I’m terrible at pitching and I know it, so I just sat down and wrote it. It was so fully formed in my head that it only took two weeks. I then sent it out to my new manager and my new agent and they all went nuts over it. They got it – really got it.
Within short order CBS bought it and then we began the rewrite process; rewriting to make it more of a CBS show... and it got watered down a bit. I loved working with them. They were crazy about it, but they didn’t greenlight the pilot. They had choices to make and this just wasn’t one of their choices. The script went on the CBS shelf and I moved on to other things.
Then, miraculously, last year Fox TV Studios discovered the pilot, loved it, and bought it from CBS as a possible international co-production.
Neely: Had you thought of any prospective casting or directors?
John: We’ve thought of a number of directors, and Fox wants to go with someone special. As to casting, I’m often asked who I wrote this for. I don’t write for actors, I write for characters. I respect actors enough to know that whoever is cast will slip into the role. That being said, I know what the characters look like, act like, and should sound like—but if you’re writing for an "actor"... then you don’t really know your character.
Neely: Any other plans for this material? This is actually outstanding feature material if there ends up being no television market for this (something I still can’t grasp). The parallels to “High Noon” or “Gunfight at the OK Corral” (which is “My Darling Clementine” with a different cast) are awesome. And what you could do with cinematographic parallels is also mind boggling.
John: I might consider it as a feature but my fear is that it would be considered derivative or a parody. I don’t want this to end up a “Blazing Saddles” (much as I loved that film). As a feature it might be a one trick pony. In TV you can develop the characters better. If it got into the feature world, would I go with it? Of course! But Fox is very excited about it and I appreciate that a lot. So I hope this goes, but obviously I’d never turn down a feature offer.
Neely: I noticed that you had a couple of “major” film credits. So tell me... how did you get from “Anaconda” and “Kung Fu Killer” to “Western Ave”?
John: Ah, “Anaconda.” “Anaconda” came along at a time when I was starving. I don’t know who picked me for this. It had been a very good spec script written by Hans Bauer. The producers had a deal with Columbia, but Columbia declined to produce the script, so the producers started looking for a rewrite and—for reasons unknown—they came to me. At that point in my career, I’d written 3 or 4 screenplays for various studios around town and had built up a lot of good will, so that may have been it.
My agent called me and asked if I wanted to rewrite a script about a big snake. As I previously mentioned, I was starving at the time, so I said “I'll write anything.” I got the script and decided to go balls-out and write the craziest crap I could think of: crazy action sequences. I figured it was going to be the end of my career. I'd never written anything about a big snake, so I had nothing to lose. I wrote a big finish where the snake goes up a chimney and gets blown up.
After I finished the script, I told my wife my career was finished and I had better think of alternatives to writing. Unbelievably, Columbia greenlit the film only days after I turned in my draft. My agent was amazed – the producers called him and raved about how much they loved it. It’s what bought me my first house in Hancock Park – the "house that Anaconda built."
Then the re-rewrite process began and that’s the point at which we parted. Originally it was about high school teachers on a summer getaway in the Amazon. Columbia thought that the public wouldn’t embrace teachers and they wanted it to be a group of lawyers. Lawyers? Well, I tried, but I couldn’t do it and we parted ways. At that point Jim Cash and Jack Epps, Jr. were brought in and they made it a group of documentary film makers.
Neely: In the interest of full disclosure and amusing coincidence, Jack Epps is now the chairman of the writing division at the USC School of Cinematic Arts where I teach. Did you receive credit on the film?
John: No, it went to the WGA for credit arbitration and they removed my name, but not before thousands of posters had already been printed with my name – I still have a couple.
Neely: I’m thinking that you’ve had to take on other jobs between your writing gigs, as there is quite a time gap between projects.
John: No, there weren’t as many gaps as it looks like. There was always some kind of project in the works and I definitely got by. A writer’s resume doesn’t always accurately reflect what he or she is doing. You don’t always put on your resume all the things you got paid for but didn’t go anywhere. From the day I arrived in Hollywood until today, I’ve made my living as a writer; it just doesn’t all show up on the resume.
After “Anaconda” I did a couple of more features that didn’t get produced and I had started doing some TV movies, including one called “Saved by the Light” with Eric Roberts. That TV movie was very well received. I’m still really proud of it, and, because of that, I got offered a lot of TV movies. They became my bread and butter for quite a while. Of course that was back when they were still making TV movies, which was also a time when there were still independent producers. For a couple of years there I was the king of MOWs.
I also did a couple of TV series. I think some of my best work was on an ABC Family show called “Higher Ground." It was one of my luckiest breaks. I love writing for series television. To be in a writers’ room with other writers—to be in that family—it’s the most enjoyable experience a writer can have; the energy. Constructing a series is a joyous experience. The writers’ room is the most amazing place in the world. I was also Executive Producer/Showrunner on a Disney series – “So Weird.” Being a Showrunner is 1) the most terrifying experience possible, and 2) the best experience you can ever have – it’s frenetic and exciting to witness the creation of something.
Neely: What brought you out here and how did you get started?
John: I went to film school at NYU wanting to be a director. But I was forced to take a screenwriting class—it was a requirement—and that’s when I discovered that the real creativity took place on the page. I fell in love with writing. It was a lot easier for me than directing because I could do it in my pajamas. I started writing and working nights as a proofreader at a law firm. And then I won a WGA Foundation award. The WGA Foundation is a wonderful organization.
Within a couple of weeks I was repped by the William Morris Agency and my career was off and running, ready or not. Things moved quickly and soon my LA agent at CAA (my agents kept switching agencies) gave me the “Beverly Hillbillies” phone call: saying “Californy is the place you oughta be.” So I loaded up my car “and moved to Beverly—Hills, that is.” Well maybe not Beverly Hills, but you get the idea.
Despite what people think, it’s much more difficult to be a screenwriter in New York – it probably just isn’t going to happen there. I moved to Los Angeles and within a week I had a meeting at Warner Brothers and they gave me an assignment on the spot. I felt like Dorothy plopped down in Los Angeles, writing for Warner Brothers on the lot. It was the Land of Oz – everything I’d ever dreamed of.
Neely: What else do you have percolating?
John: I have two new spec pilots that I’m writing because I’ve found that the best way to sell something isn’t by pitching but by writing it and sending it in. For me, I'm a lousy pitcher but I can come alive on the page. Those 45-50 pages work for me. You don’t have to explain – they read it and either love it or they don’t.
Neely: I will definitely watch for more of your scripts and hope for the birth in some way of “Western Ave.”.