What: ABC has a secret and secretive division for the development of extreme reality shows hidden away in Manhattan Beach, California. Because of insurance and legal difficulties they have yet to produce a show for broadcast although they did come close with their proposed abduction series entitled “Kidnapped.”
Who: Charlie Berns, former Oscar winning producer, has hit the skids. He’s car-less, lives in his nephew’s pool house, and, as part of a mandatory debt consolidation program, he must attend Debtor’s Anonymous meetings. Charlie is totally without prospects, considering suicide yet again, until Kermit Fenster, a putative CIA operative, approaches him at one of the DA meetings and proposes that they collaborate on a reality show concept: “Warlord,” the day-to-day life of a Central Asian warlord – “follow him around, film him with his family, getting tributes from neighboring villages, running guns, taking a cut out of the dope trade, consolidating his power.” Charlie’s proposal ends up on the desk of Norman Hudris, a desperate development exec at ABCD (ABC Development), a clandestine branch of the development department sequestered far from Burbank in a secret warehouse in Manhattan Beach.
ABCD’s specialty was the ERS, or extreme reality show, a primetime version of extreme sports, in which plausibility and taste were stretched to accommodate the kind of lower-than-the-lowest-common-denominator television that viewers would be unable to resist. Once these shows were developed and produced, they were to be test-aired on closed-circuit cable channels to see how people reacted to them – the TV version of doing medical experiments on mice to see how they would be tolerated by humans. If in the judgment of the ABCD research people, they were hitting their demographic targets, they would be slipped into the network’s prime-time schedule to jump-start the ratings.
The division’s work was still largely in the start-up stage. There was only one program that was remotely ready to be produced, let alone aired. It was a program called Kidnapped, in which an unsuspecting person was filmed being abducted and being kept sequestered at a secret location for twenty-four hours, while the victim’s family would be contacted for ransom demands. With the audience registering their opinions online about whether or not the person was going to be ransomed, the subject would learn just how his friends and family felt about him before being told it was all in good fun, set free for a tearful reunion with his loved ones and given a series of prizes for his or her sportsmanship.
The problem to be resolved with "Kidnapped" was how to avoid the victim’s pressing charges against the producers for abduction. The ABCD lawyers had proposed getting the victim to sign a hold-harmless agreement before getting the prizes, but they were concerned about the ex post facto nature of the agreement and the possibility that grand juries would indict in spite of the agreement. So the program lay in limbo while the lawyers went back and forth on it. Needing something to put on the air immediately to staunch the flow of red ink, ABC goes with “Warlord,” ending up with a sensational hit, but one with inherent dangers, dangers that will eventually knock it off the air, taking everyone with it.
Like all present-day executives whose primary focus is on job security, Norman does recognize the value of Charlie’s proposal, if only because the legal liability would be minimal from a “Stanish” warlord. Cautiously, he fronts the money to begin production on this train wreck with surprising results.
No Meaner Place: Lefcourt, has slyly taken the main character from his previous and equally enjoyable novel, The Deal, and delineated the events that have led him to sponging off Lionel, his nephew:
And it was Lionel’s script based on the life of the nineteenth-century British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli that Charlie had optioned, had a drunken hack named Madison Kearney rewrite into a Middle Eastern action movie called Lev Disraeli: Freedom Fighter, got the studio to invest fifty million dollars in against domestic box office after he managed to get a black action star with a fleeting interest in Zionism to commit to the picture, which started shooting in Belgrade, cheating Tel Aviv, until the action star got kidnapped by Macedonian separatists and Charlie had to shoot the original Disraeli script on a hidden location in Yugoslavia, cheating 1870s London, without the studio’s knowing where they were until it was too late and they realized they had a best-picture candidate in the beautifully produced, talky melodrama that eventually won the big one while Charlie sat in the Shrine Auditorium catatonic in his rented tuxedo barely able to make it to the stage to accept his award in front of a planetwide TV audience.
All that was water under the bridge. Though you would have thought, as Charlie often did, that the Oscar would have at least allowed him to skate for a couple of years, enjoying fat studio housekeeping deals while developing his next picture. But he hadn’t counted on the new lean and mean bottom-line studio management philosophy brought on by vertical integration and balance sheet accountability, his girlfriend getting shocked to death on his front lawn, the NASDAQ’s going south, or the general law of diminishing returns as he passed birthdays that progressively defined him as an endangered species in the youth-sucking ecology of the film business.
We don’t just know everything about Charlie but we also have a perfectly encapsulated vision of the film industry and the dilemma of every writer, actor and/or director that has been defined by a “use by” stamp.
As for the fictional ABCD, isn’t it within the realm of possibility? Was not the value of “The World’s Deadliest Catch” enhanced by the death of one of its fishermen? And the death of the crocodile hunter? Is Charlie’s conversation with Kermit Fenster so far fetched?
“I’m a CIA operative. Central Asian desk. Seventeen months in Tashkent. I’ve been all over the area – Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan – all the Stans, including Afghanistan. I helped kick the Taliban the fuck out of there.”
“Lots of interesting things going on over there these days. You got your shaky governments, you got your rebels, you got your Russian mafia, you got your Islamic fundamentalists, you got your drug cartels, you got your warlords. We got interests there because of the oil. The Russians think they still own it. Besides the oil, there’re gold reserves, there’s opium being transshipped from China. There are ecological disasters about to happen – the Aral Sea is drying up, losing 7.5 square kilometers a year from too much irrigation. So what do you think?”
“Central Asia, Uzbekistan in particular.”
“As a reality show?”
“Isn’t that what we’re talking about?”
“Well, I don’t know –“
“You don’t know? The place is perfect. It’s exotic, it’s dangerous, you take your life in your hands just drinking the water…”
“Do you have a concept?”
“What I was thinking was one of these reality programs about the day-to-day life of a warlord – you know, follow him around, film him with his family, getting tributes from neighboring villages, running guns, taking a cut out of the dope trade, consolidating his power. You call it Warlord. How can you not watch that?”
Kermit had a point, and Norman was able to sell the idea to his boss at ABC, Howard Draper. Draper, in turn, would have to sell it to the CEO’s insulators/isolators, affectionately referred to as Poindexter and North (Reagan’s go-to guys when he didn’t want to know who was going or doing).
“There’s a project in my division that’s ready to be funded. I need one point two right away against a thirteen-episode budget at four all in.”
Poindexter and North exchanged a look, pregnant with indifference, and then proceeded contrapuntally:
"The Sopranos meets The Osbornes in Central Asia."
"We can be testing six weeks from funding, on the air in three months."
"Watercooler show at three hundred per hour."
"Inexperienced producers, unpredictable talent."
"Most of the exposure is out of the country."
"Controllable in the editing room."
“Women or children?”
Poindexter and North shared another one of their coded looks. The buzzer had sounded on the word Moslem.
“What’s a nominal Moslem?”
“Someone who lives in Uzbekistan and makes his living as a warlord.”
“Guy pray to Mecca and wear a robe?”
“Not as far as I know.”
“Some sort of natural history documentary for the Archaeology Channel.”
“Pack up and leave in twenty –four hours.”
Damage control was North’s area. He was a vacuum cleaner, his job to suck up anything embarrassing to the company and dump the ashes in a toxic waste dump in Nevada.
Lefcourt takes us on a journey that is a dead-on, hilarious take on television conglomerates, development, reality shows, and present day audience preferences. Think Graham Greene’s “Our Man in Havana” set in Afghanistan, careening madly down a rocky slope. This book is knowing, cynical and optimistic at the same time. His strong suit in all of this is blurring the lines between “what is” and “what hasn’t happened yet, but probably will.”
Life Lessons for Writers: The lowest common denominator has become the common denominator.
Neely: I just love your work; period, the end. You are extremely versatile – You’ve had an incredibly successful career as a television writer/creator/showrunner, novelist and playwright. That’s more than a triple threat. What haven’t you done that you’d like to do?
Peter: I’d like to break 90 on the golf course.
Neely: 9 holes or 18?
Peter: Six. There are a number of things I'd like to do that don't necessarily involve writing, like learning to play the classical guitar, or surf.
But what I'd really like to do is a musical. I'm toying with the idea of trying to adapt my second novel, The Dreyfus Affair, as a musical. One of the qualities that you look for in a musical is interior monologue, which enables characters to express themselves in song. the Dreyfus Affair is about two baseball players who fall in love; their affair becomes a public relations Chernobyl for baseball. It is told from the point of view of this 6'4", blonde, blue-eyed star shortstop named Randy Dreyfus, who thinks he's straight - he's married to Miss California, has 2 kids and is living the perfect life. And then he falls head over heels in love with this black second baseman and doesn't know how to deal with these feelings. He goes to a shrink for help. The shrink - picture Ben Kingsley -- tells him to go with the pitch. Which he does. Causing a maelstrom in the world of Organized Baseball.
Neely: Have you thought of any prospective composers?
Peter: I'm just at the beginning. I got in touch with Harvey Fierstein, but unfortunately he doesn't like baseball, so I'm going to wade into this world of musical comedy people by myself. A lot of the people in the theater business are gay, and a lot of gay people know The Dreyfus Affair. It is probably my most commercially successful book; I've made a very nice living optioning it to movies - at least a half dozen times. The closest we got to getting it made was in 1997, and that already seems like ancient history. Betty Thomas optioned it when she had a deal with Fox, and she got it to Ben Affleck and Don Cheadle, who were going to play the baseball players. They were ready to go; they had it budgeted. But at the last minute Affleck changed his mind. I found out later that Harvey Weinstein whispered in his ear - "Ben, playing a gay guy is career suicide." So, of course, Ben took his guru's advice and went on to make "Gigli" and "Surviving Christmas." In the meantime Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger were getting awards for playing gay guys in "Brokeback Mountain." The conventional ignorance strikes again.
Neely: Look, if Bud Selig refuses to budge on some “made up” rule so he doesn’t have to acknowledge a perfect game, then I doubt he would be able to withstand the firestorm of an openly gay romance on the field of dreams of the "national pastime." Me thinks he doth protest too much.
Peter: Absolutely. Imagine if two major stars, say Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, were suddenly madly in love with each other. How would the Yankees, how would George Steinbrenner, how would baseball in general view the public relations of it? Baseball is more conservative than the Catholic Church. The historical Dreyfus Affair was a major event in France during the 1890's, in which the French army, fueled by a wave of anti-Semitism, unjustly convicted an innocent Jewish officer by the name of Alfred Dreyfus for spying, causing an enormous cultural rift. I asked myself, what is the analogue to anti-Semitism in France a hundred years later, and decided it was homophobia, this "respectable," low level bigotry that exists throughout our society, but especially in sports.
Neely: How did Manhattan Beach Project do? As compared to The Deal and some of your other novels?
Peter: Not terribly well, commercially. I'm not sure Simon and Schuster put a lot of effort into marketing it. They looked at it as a sequel to The Deal; in fact, they tried to discourage me from writing it. Publishers feel that sequels don't sell well because people won't buy the book unless they've already read the first one. I don't know if that's actually true, but it's one of those gospels that marketing departments believe, therefore it becomes true. There are a lot of these self-fulfilling prophesies in the publishing business.
The book got great reviews. I got a front page Arts and Leisure review by Janet Maslin in The New York Times. She raved about the book. I think her quote was "Peter Lefcourt does for Hollywood what Christopher Buckley does for Washington." But when the review came out, the books weren't in the bookstores yet. It took another month to get them out there, and by that time, the heat was gone from that review. You need to reach a critical mass in sales by a certain time, or you're dead in the water. The business model in publishing is very dysfunctional. They estimate sales, then print a certain number of copies. Often, they either print too many or too few. They really don't know much until the returns come in. There's a saying in publishing: "Gone today, here tomorrow."
Another reason for the book's underwhelming sales, I think, may be due to its complex comic premise. It's a hard thing to explain simply. The scam that Charlie Berns pulls off doesn't fit into a log line. Anyway, I'm glad I wrote it because that character is near and dear to me.
Neely: Manhattan Beach Project was kismet for me. How could I not read it? I live in Manhattan Beach and worked at the Manhattan Beach studios. Believe me, I looked everywhere for ABCD. I loved the play on “the Manhattan Project,” which, of course, underscored the self importance of the developers and executives who fool themselves into believing that they are creating high art for the masses (as long as it gets a 15 share), although in most cases they are constructing bombs in the truest sense of the word. Any real life “inspirations,” besides yourself, in the book?
Peter: I found myself wondering what Charlie Berns, who had won an Academy Award in The Deal, written 12 years earlier, would be doing at the moment. You create good characters and you want to know what's happened to them. So I figured that, given the Darwinian nature of Hollywood, it's perfectly plausible that three years after the Academy Award this guy would be out of luck. So I posited that Charlie would be broke and out of work again and that he would, with delicious irony, be living in his nephew's guest house - the nephew who had become a big star, the nephew he had "discovered" as a screenwriter in The Deal. Career success in Hollywood is a greased pole. You can go down very quickly.
What would Charlie get involved in? It was obvious to me that if there were a Dodge City - a wide open town - in the entertainment world, it would be television. At the time I wrote the book, in 2003, reality television was the new hot thing. It was perfectly feasible to me, in view of the enormous pressure to provide ratings at any cost, that a television network could have a secret division responsible for producing outré reality programming - a kind of covert skunkworks, like "The Manhattan Project," in World War II, secretly developing an atom bomb.
The other theme I was exploring was "plausible deniability" - a skill perfected by the Reagan White House in the 1980's when the President kept himself deliberately out of the loop with regard to any questionable policies - like the whole Iran/Contra arms funding - in order to be insulated if things blew up. My version of this phenomenon was ABCD, this covert branch of ABC, working out of a bunker in Manhattan Beach, developing these outrageously manipulative reality shows to which they wanted no tangible attachment. The network would create a series of buffers to distance themselves from the operation. I'm convinced that it is possible the TV networks have projects in development that they are not terribly proud of but that they wouldn't hesitate to air if these programs could deliver the eyeballs. They'd probably air the Crucifixion if they could get away with it.
I decided to set the story in Central Asia because it is one of the most fucked places on the Earth. You have an Islamic culture that gets 75 years of Soviet rule grafted on top of it; then the Soviets leave and you have this gaping vacuum. The "Stans" are these strange cultural hybrids, where you have post WWII neo-Soviet architecture, the ugliest things in the world, right beside crumbling mosques and bazaars, all of it in a terribly ecologically-challenged environment. The place is a mess; it has no economic viability; it's run by warlords. I thought this was a great place to find a warlord who essentially ran the country or part of the country and do a reality show about this guy's day-to-day life.
What makes the comedy work is the brainstorm that Charlie has to change the story by using subtitles. Nobody understands Uzbek, or at least nobody with a Nielsen box, so what difference does it make what the people are actually saying? They construct a "fictional" reality show. The banality of real life evil isn't as interesting as the concocted version. In Uzbekistan, the real warlord has a son who's joining the Taliban; the wife hasn't talked to him in 4 years; his daughter is a lesbian. So Charlie punches up "reality," using the same footage but rewriting the dialogue by translating the Uzbek into English subtitles meaning entirely different things. Now the son is going to college; the daughter is looking for a husband; the wife is away in Bishkek getting a face lift. Everything gets changed into a very soapy type of story that becomes catnip for American viewers. "Warlord" becomes a major hit until it causes international repercussions and the State Department gets involved and the whole thing blows up in Charlie's face.
There's a third book in this trilogy called Le Jet Lag, set at the Cannes Film Festival. In this book, Charlie is only one of five characters. I was at Cannes in 2004 with a short film that was based on one of my stories. The place blew my mind. It's essentially a meat market pretending to be a film festival full of people, jet-lagged to the teeth, making deals for projects that they don't even control. All these different languages going and cell phones ringing constantly. I thought it would be a great placed for Charlie Berns; just his type of place. I filled out the cast of characters with a studio publicist, a journalist, a very ambitious intern, and an actor who shows up and ends up spending 12 days never sleeping in the same bed.
Simon & Schuster, who published my last three books, was not interested in this one, so I sold it to Macadam/Cage, a boutique publisher in San Francisco with a good list. They bought it in January of 2008 and then went belly-up. The book was in galleys when they pulled the plug on their entire list. I have the rights back, and I'm looking for a new publisher. So there is a Charlie Berns trilogy, but the third one, Le Jet Lag, is not presently available.
Neely: That answers several of the questions that I was going to ask, because I knew you had been working on a third book and I was hoping that Charlie Berns wasn’t dead to the world. Now I understand why you haven’t had the book signing you mentioned a couple of years ago. Tell me a bit more about the premise of the book.
Peter: In Le Jet Lag, Charlie Berns has two thirds of a movie that he made in Canada, funded by a consortium of periodontists from Edmonton. He's made this elaborate World War I love story but he's missing the middle part of the movie, the battle sequence, because he doesn't have enough money to shoot it. So he goes to Cannes with two thirds of this movie and is trying to get money to finish the film. Things get complicated when the periodontists come over to party, and Charlie has to spend his time trying to get them laid, while he's looking for production money. He winds up with money from a gay Nigerian email scammer, who wants him to put his boyfriend in it. So Charlie has Lionel fly over to rewrite the entire middle of the movie into a gay love story. Once again, he puts on his tap shoes and comes out still breathing.
Neely: Peter, you really do have one of the strangest minds that I’ve ever encountered, triggered by the fact that you are absolutely the master of both the “pin prick to the balloon” and the “snowball into an avalanche” style of storytelling.
Peter: Have you ever read Abbreviating Ernie? That’s my weirdest book. It’s about a cross-dressing urologist in New York named Ernie Haas, who loses a vital organ while screwing his wife, wearing one of her dresses, while she's chained to the refrigerator. The event becomes a media maelstrom. It was published in 1997. To date, no one has evinced the slightest interest in filming it - except Eric Bogosian, who wanted to play Ernie.
Neely: I just finished it, and the question that comes to mind is this. Did you have a disturbed childhood?
Peter: No, I had a very nice childhood.
Neely: At what stage of your career did you begin novel writing? Were you already a TV writer, or did you start writing novels first?
Peter: I was living in New York in the 70's driving a cab, a great apprenticeship for a young writer. It's like you have a new one-act play in the back of your cab with every fare. You just sit there and listen to people talk. If you ask me, it's much more valuable than a PhD in creative writing. Anyway, I had a relative who told me that I should write television. I remember thinking, "I can't write that shit - I can't even watch it." I was a big time intellectual snob. But I needed the money, and I had a screenplay - a porno script that had an interesting Gothic story to it. The logline was: "Hitchhiker gets picked up by two sisters who chain him in a barn and make a sex slave out of him." I thought, why not? That's a good Gothic story. I'll just take the hard-core sex out. This would be about 1972, and my relative had a contact at Universal, so I put it in an envelope and sent it to Universal and, much to my surprise, they bought it. They flew me out here; I was very excited. they gave me $2,500. I had never had that much money in my life at one time. In 1972 that was a lot of money.
Neely: I know. In 1972 I was making $400 a month before taxes.
Peter: Of course they never made the movie. It got rewritten to death. I stayed out in L.A. and eventually got my first television job, a project called "Let's Switch" with Barbara Eden and Barbara Feldon; a 1973 television movie about two married women who decide to switch roles. It got rewritten to death, too. I stumbled along writing episodes of shows like "Petrocelli" and "Kate McShane" and got my first steady job on "Eight is Enough." But I never stopped loving fiction. Hollywood to me was always a day job. I published one novel in 1976 called Deerhunt which sold about 80 copies, 79 of which were to people who thought it was The Deerhunter. It's completely different, and not very good.
Neely: What was your most successful novel and was it your favorite?
Peter: I’ll answer this question backwards. I think asking any novelist what his or her favorite is --
Neely: I know, it’s your child.
Peter: I was going to say that you love your children in different ways. People will say that "my first child is a little bit special" and it's a cliché, but true. That being said, for me, it's probably The Dreyfus Affair because it connected with a wider readership. It wasn't a political diatribe against homophobia but it had a message that people related to, without my having to get on a soapbox. It's a gay love story that doesn't involve AIDS; it has a happy ending. There's very little explicit sex in it. My gay friends tell me they're disappointed with the lack of sex -- but what is it they say? Write what you know. It has a very gentle message of tolerance, made more palatable through humor. Straight women like the book as much as gay men.
Neely: You know, that’s not an unusual dynamic.
Peter: I'm disappointed that it hasn't been made into a movie. I think it's a very commercial movie. It's gotten so close, so many times. David Frankel was going to do it at one point; Barbra Streisand, Jody Foster, Garth Brooks all expressed interest at some point or other. It's a puzzlement to me, especially after "Brokeback Mountain" seemed to dismantle the canard that people would not walk into a movie theater if they thought they might see two guys kissing. "Brokeback Moutain" was commercially successful. And though a beautiful movie, it's very dark and sad at the end. The Dreyfus Affair would be a movie with a happy ending. Probably the least successful of my books was one called Eleven Karens (Note: besides Deerhunt), which was the one before The Manhattan Beach Project. It was an attempt to write a book along the lines of Flaubert's Sentimental Education, told from the point of view of an older man looking back at the loves of his life. One of the peculiarities of my particular sentimental education was that it involved a number of women named Karen. I don't know why, but it was just the serendipity of life. In the book the narrator has had relationships with eleven women, all named Karen, beginning in the 5th grade; each one of them is a separate chapter. The thru line is that he keeps falling for women named Karen. It was mostly fictional, but some of these women were amalgamations of real women. I keep hoping to get sued; it might help the book sell.
Neely: I think Manhattan Beach Project is something of a hybrid in terms of feature possibilities and might best be served by the kind of films that HBO does best; the kind that Larry Gelbhart used to write for them.
Peter: Sure, like “Weapons of Mass Distraction.” But when “The Deal” went straight to DVD, it certainly didn’t help get Manhattan Beach Project off the ground as a feature, especially since Bill Macy, who made “The Deal” said he didn’t want to go to Uzbekistan. “Come on,” I said. “There are great hookers there.” But I couldn’t get him interested.
Neely: I thought that the warlord storyline was among the most hilarious I’ve ever read – the machinations and heightened reality jump off the page – but one of the most interesting aspects for me was the plausibility of the inane actions by network officials in trying to stretch the envelope to ripping; where the only concerns are the legal liability issues, which as any business affairs executive will tell you are the primary concerns in producing reality television – to the point that contestants are required to sign book-length “hold harmless” agreements and psychologists are hired as exit therapists for the losers. But let’s talk more about your experience in the business. Any mentors?
Peter: Not per se, but I had a lot of people that I admired. I was a great fan of Paddy Chayefsky, because I loved his voice. I love screenwriters whose voices survive the filming - people like Chayefsky, Alvin Sargent, Robert Towne. As for my experience in television, Barney Rosenzwieg, on "Cagney and Lacey," was not a mentor exactly, but a great collaborator. He ran interference with the network; he fought battles for me and didn’t get in the way. But I can’t really think of anyone who took me under his wing. I think you have to feel your own way; there is no due process in Hollywood. There is no logic to it. When I could no longer get work back in the late 80s and early 90s I decided to write a novel, The Deal, that would burn my bridges to the ground; a novel that would ensure that I could never eat lunch in this town again, forcing me to return to New York and other types of projects. That the book, perversely, turned out to be a great career boost is almost like a plot of --
Neely: -- one of your novels.
Peter: Exactly. Just like Charlie's resurrection, when he tries to commit suicide and his nephew shows up with a script about Benjamin Disraeli and he’s off and running with it. It’s one of those things that both frustrates and amuses me – that there is no logic to career paths. It all seems like a crap shoot masquerading as a business masquerading as an art form. That’s really what it is. Every time I go to a film festival and we talk about art, and yes, it is art at its best – there are beautiful films that get made, managing to survive somehow at the intersection of commerce and art.
Neely: Are you working on anything else, besides Le Jet Lag?
Peter: Actually I’m working on another book. I decided that I wanted write something besides comic fiction. The genesis of this new book is a beautiful Italian movie called “The Best of Youth.” It was developed for Italian television, a 10 hour mini-series that they consolidated into two 3 hour movies when they released it internationally. It is the story of two brothers over a period of 40 years. I liked the canvas of a family relationship over time and decided to convert it to a miniseries using an American family, half Irish, half Italian. For time frame, I created a parenthesis, beginning the series the day Kennedy was assassinated and ending it on 9/11. Originally I created a family with five siblings, all born in the 1940's and 50's, growing up outside of Chicago in Evanston, a city that's very middle America. CAA got me meetings with Spielberg’s people and Hanks’ people to pitch it as a high end mini-series. And they all said that it was fascinating, that if only the idea were based on a book. So I decided, fuck it, I'll write a book. But I'll write what I know. I'm a Jew from Long Island. So I translated that concept to a Polish Jewish American immigrant family living on Long Island, but used the same parenthesis, from 1963 to 2001. The kids were all born in this country but the father was born in Poland. I wrote this long manuscript, 938 pages, which I’m now cutting because it’s too long. I’m trying to cut it down under 700 pages. And I'm looking for a new publisher. This book is special, and I don't want it put out by a company that publishes five hundred books a year. And then, after I have a publisher, I want to develop it as a mini-series because I think it’s a natural for long form TV. Five siblings, we meet them in 1963, the youngest is 13 and the oldest is 21. It’s about their lives and the changes they live through in the zeitgeist: Viet Nam, the women's movement, gay rights, sex drugs and rock'n roll -- all the things that happened culturally. It is a kind of cultural autobiography, with fictional characters.
Neely: What are you reading right now?
Peter: I’m reading a biography of Madame de Stael, a fascinating woman who survived the French Revolution. What a resourceful woman.
Neely: That is so obscure and so intellectual and so cool. I almost used one of her famous quotes as my announcement last week: “The more I see of men, the more I like dogs.”
I know this is something of a non-sequitur, but I’d like to touch on a subject that is very sensitive to writers. What’s your feeling on getting notes on your work?
Peter: I hate it, always have. I can never get used to the presumption of guilt. As soon as you submit a piece of work, they make an appointment for notes. As if it were, ipso facto, deficient. It's different getting notes from a director or an actor: They have to go do it. So if somebody says to me “I don’t know how to film this or play this," I respect that problem and try to address it. Even when I get notes from a producer who says “I can’t afford to do that,” I respect that also. But when some film school graduate hits me with one of those clichés - "amp up the stakes," "what's the character's arc?" etc., I tend to tune out. I wrote a piece in the April/May edition of “Written By” magazine about notes called “First Do No Harm.” I think all writers have this incredibly ambivalent feeling toward notes. We need them and yet we hate them. (http://www.mydigitalpublication.com/publication/?i=36445&31&p=21)
Neely: There’s so much more to talk about. Let’s continue our conversation in another article for next week, where we can talk some more about The Deal, the prequel to The Manhattan Beach Project. In the meantime, for anyone who hasn’t read The Manhattan Beach Project, go out and buy it or order it from your local library; but preferably buy it – it’s a great reference to keep and have in your home library. Check the following sources, or, if you're lucky enough to have an independent book store, order it there. Or from Peter's website: www.peterlefcourt.com. Which, besides containing links to his books, has a series of personal apologies to various people wronged over his life, and some amusing anecdotes, such as his doing a miniseries with Joan Collins in the south of France, in which he kept her in the same wardrobe for 35 pages and lived to tell the tale. *The Manhattan Beach Project - Google Books Result
Take a look at her most recent Studio System blog entitled "Cabbages and Kings: The Year of the Rom Com." (http://www.baselineintel.com/research-wrap?detail/C8/cabbages_and_kings_the_year_of_the_rom_com_in_tv_pilots)