What: Charlie Berns, has-been B-level (at best) producer, finds new energy when he options his neophyte nephew’s script on Benjamin Disraeli, Victoria Regina’s favorite Prime Minister, fully intending to refashion it into a script for African American Martial Arts Action Star Bobby Mason who wants to do something “Jewish.”
Who: Charlie Berns, washed up and broke, has decided that suicide is the only way out, so he is making the final preparations – sealing the kitchen windows, attaching 75’ of garden hose to the exhaust pipe of his Mercedes and threading it through the doggie door. So it was either his extreme focus or the volume of Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” that prevented him from hearing the doorbell. His sister’s son Lionel has arrived on his doorstep, having taken Charlie up on one of those random “come visit anytime” invitations. Even his suicide was a failure.
Lionel, script in hand, wide eyed and innocent to the ways of the world, especially that world called Hollywood, is intent on having Charlie read the script and introduce him to someone who would produce it. The script, entitled “Bill and Ben,” is about the relationship between Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone, his rival in 19th Century Victorian England, or, as Lionel explained it,
“They were kind of like Jules and Jim. I was thinking about Tom Cruise as Disraeli.”
But Charlie has other ideas. Having recently read that Bobby Mason, an African American marital arts performer and top box office draw, was converting to Judaism and was on the look out for scripts about Jews, Charlie pitches the project to Bobby’s spiritual advisor, Rabbi Seth Gutterman, who becomes interested in anything Charlie has to say, provided there’s a producer credit attached for him. Suddenly, for the first time in years, Charlie has a potential project, despite the disdain that acerbic D-girl (director of development) Deirdre Hearn expresses about the project, the producer, and the star’s commitment to Judaism. As she explains,
“This Jewish stuff’ll blow over. He was going to become a Black Muslim after Kareem converted. He did the whole number, changed his name, wore a dashiki, and then he started going out with Miss Finland. Five foot ten, blond from head to toe and Lutheran. Bye-bye Muslims.”
What Charlie needs now is a rewrite, which he needs to explain to his clueless nephew.
“If they buy the script, why wouldn’t they make the movie?”
At the moment Charlie didn’t want to confuse his nephew with too much insight into the abstruse practices of the movie business. He tried to keep it as simple as he could.
“You see, Lionel,” he explained, “this movie’s now what’s called ‘in development,’ which means, basically, that the script has to get rewritten while the studio thinks about whether or not it wants to make the picture.”
“I don’t get it. Why do you have to rewrite it if you like it enough to spend fifty-two thousand bucks to buy it in the first place?”
“Nobody really likes a script unless they’ve had a rewrite or two done on it.”
And rewritten it is, by no less than the biggest alkie has-been in the business, Madison Kearney, whose specialty was action, gore and sex – just the elements needed in a film ostensibly about Benjamin Disraeli and protective tariffs. In no time at all, “Bill and Ben” has been turned into “Lev Disraeli, Freedom Fighter.” Suddenly Charlie has a Go-project and a bankable star.
And it’s off to Belgrade they go, now with taciturn Polish action director Dinak Hrossovic (whose expiration date was decades earlier), and his girl friend Wilna (a former “massage therapist” who always travels with a feather, rubber gloves and handcuffs) in tow. As it turns out, the studio has millions of dollars locked up in the former Yugoslavia that can only be used in Serbia; but this is less of a problem than imagined in that a first rate crew, a brilliant production designer and a politically savvy production manager are all available to him. And, as was pointed out at the studio, Israeli locations are easy to cheat since most of Israel just looks like San Bernardino.
Working like a renegade, incommunicado with the studio, all is going well with “Lev Disraeli” until Bobby is kidnapped by Macedonian separatists, forcing a halt in production when they can no longer shoot around Bobby. When the studio gets wind of the kidnapping (which is from a CNN broadcast and not from Charlie), they send Deirdre to shut down production and close everything out. But Charlie has other ideas – why not shoot the original film about Disraeli. Industrious beyond belief, he cons two of the world’s leading actors into playing the roles of Disraeli and Queen Victoria; and they are back in business. Sets are remade, new locations found, but just as Charlie is about to abscond with the dinars from the bank, Deirdre arrives. Somewhat incongruously, given their previous relationship, Deirdre and Charlie sense a connection and, risking all, Deirdre signs on, provided she’s accorded a producer title; whereupon they flee, dinars and all, to their new secret Serbian location to make what is now called “Dizzy and Will,” a film that will win that year’s Academy Award and give much needed prestige to the studio which has just been sold to the Japanese.
No Meaner Place: As alluded to in the previous article about the sequel, Manhattan Beach Project, this was intended to be Lefcourt’s professional suicide. Not needing garden hose and a Mercedes exhaust pipe, Lefcourt’s weapon of choice had been his pen. But instead of a nephew arriving to interrupt the procedure, Random House intervened and a Hollywood cult classic was born. Whether the original objects of Lefcourt’s scorn ever read the book, we don’t know, but everyone else in town did. And his stalled career was once again on the fast track.
Getting the book made into a movie, and the compromises that eviscerated the concept are, for the most part, beyond the scope of my original intentions. Suffice it to say, that when the minor character of Deirdre becomes a focus as important as Bobby, Charlie, and Lionel, then an entirely new work took shape, for good or ill.
Life Lessons for Writers: Once you have it on the page, it’s up to everyone else to screw it up.
Neely: What are some of the similarities between you and the Charlie of both books?
Peter: One of the many incongruities of my career was that three years after I had won an Emmy in 1985 for “Cagney and Lacey,” I was completely unemployable. I went from the A List to the Shit list very quickly – mainly because I don’t suffer studio and network executives well. That is a skill you really need in this business. You need to learn how to absorb help, especially when you don’t want any. I’ve gotten a lot better over the years. It’s kind of a judo technique. You learn to absorb the blows with a smile. Anyway, back in the late 80’s, I had antagonized a number of very powerful people, including Les Moonves, unfortunately, whom I once called a dirty name in an elevator. But that’s another story. Anyway, I couldn’t get a job and my agent at the time said he didn’t know what to do because he couldn’t sell me anywhere. You’d think there would have been some shelf life involved in winning an Emmy. So I said to myself, “That’s it! I’m out of here. I’m going to burn my bridges down to the ground. I’m going to write the nastiest, darkest, blackest book I can think of about the film business; and I’m never going to be able to eat lunch in this town again, so this way I’ll never be tempted to come back. I’ll sell the house; I’ll move to New York; I’ll write plays.” So I write The Deal which is, in fact, a nasty, dark, black story about how movies get made, the insane arbitrariness of the process. Random House published it and it has a completely reverse effect. It becomes a cult favorite in Hollywood. Everyone starts passing the book around, especially at the cable channels. Suddenly my phone starts ringing; I’m getting offered work on HBO/Showtime projects. I rode that wave for another 10 years. So there I was, like Charlie Berns, trying to commit (professional) suicide, and it backfired.
It was because of that book that I got “Beggars and Choosers.” Jerry Offsay had just read The Deal when the late Brandon Tartikoff walked into his office in 1997 and said “I want to do a satire on the television business.” And Jerry pulls out this book and says, “This is the guy to write it. He’s written television and he’s very funny.” Interestingly, Brandon and I knew each other from the days when Brandon was the ABC current programming executive in charge of “Eight is Enough,” my first job in this business. Also, I had done a couple of movies for NBC (“Danielle Steel’s Fine Things” – don’t ask) when he was running NBC. But it was the serendipity of that moment when Jerry holds up the book and Brandon says, “Oh! That’s the right guy.” And that’s how “Beggars and Choosers” came to be. So go figure.
Neely: So far, of all your books, it’s The Deal that was made into a film, but it really isn’t the story that I read.
Peter: Bill Macy made that happen. He and Steven Shachter, the director, approached me, saying they wanted to do the adaptation themselves. That was their condition and I said fine. At that point I’d been trying to sell it for 15 years, so I said okay and was willing to let go of it because I wanted to get it made. The story of making the film is very much like the storyline of the novel. Bill Macy was always going to be Charlie Berns, but Lisa Kudrow was going to play Deirdre and it was going to be filmed in Romania, doubling for Yugoslavia. That fell out about 2 months before start of production. Bill had raised the funding, mostly through private equity money in Florida - $8 million dollars. When Lisa Kudrow dropped out, they went back to Meg Ryan, who had originally passed, and they found additional funding in South Africa. The film business is very fungible. They rewrote it for South Africa cheating Israel cheating Victorian England. We went to Sundance with it in 2008. That, unfortunately, was the Sundance where several independent film distributors decided to fold their tents. There was a bunch of really good movies that went straight to DVD that year. Including “The Deal.”
Women in Film have a program called “Page to Screen” where they read a book and then see the movie. They read the book and then watched the movie of The Deal. I went to talk to them about the process. They felt that Macy’s character was a little too sleazy in the movie, that all he wanted to do was get into bed with Meg Ryan’s character.
Neely: I actually felt it was a very poor adaptation because it felt like a kitchen sink translation. There was no focus on what was the most hilarious or the most strident. In other words, it was too important for Charlie to be in everything. One of the biggest highlights that was squandered, due to a lack of focus, was the character played by LL Cool J. That was probably the most ludicrous of the storylines in the novel and was lost due to lack of attention. How should I put it? This was the snowball that turns into an avalanche that stops midway down the mountain.
Peter: That’s very well put. The reality was that in order to get the money, they had to get Meg Ryan; in order to get Meg Ryan they had to build up the love story. Although the love story is important in the book, it’s not primary. Deirdre disappears for a hundred pages or so in the middle. Instead, Bill and Steve kept that love story in the forefront. And instead of ending the movie, as the book, with Charlie getting up at the Academy Awards saying “It has always been a life long dream of mine to make a movie about Benjamin Disraeli;” now it’s Meg and Bill having a kiss. But that’s the reality of the film business, and as a novelist, you just learn to let go of it.
Neely: Adaptations are, as they say, a horse of a different color. We were in New York last winter and the day before I was to interview Nick Meyer about his pilot script for “nomeanerplace,” we were in a tiny restaurant on the Upper West Side and who should walk in but Philip Roth. Despite my husband’s pleas to the contrary (he’s always afraid I’ll embarrass him, and this is not without precedent) I went up to Philip Roth and mentioned that I was doing an interview with Nick who had done the film adaptations of two of his more recent novels. He was very polite and remarked that he had never met Nick. He said that when his books were bought, he just let them go. Adaptation is a different animal.
Peter: Roth’s work is so internal, so hard to adapt. I ran into that problem with The Dreyfus Affair when I was trying to find a way of capturing Randy Dreyfus’s voice. In that book, there is a lot of interior third-person monologue as Randy tries to figure out what is going on with his feelings. That’s hard to do; the voice of the author is elusive in a screenplay.
Neely: On a more personal level, do you have any memories that stand out over the years? Actors who were fun to work with?
Peter: I have my “life is too short list” but that’s better left unstated. On the positive side, there are many actors, directors and producers I loved working with, like Brian Kerwin, who played the lead in “Beggars & Choosers.”
Neely: Did you know I have a connection to Brian?
Peter: I didn’t know that.
Neely: Yeah. I went all through grade school, marching band, high school and catechism with Brian. I knew the whole family and have a special fondness for his older sister Ann who was always kind to me. His father was our family ophthalmologist. I got my first pair of glasses from him – in cat frames, and this was before cat frames had any cache; I was ridiculed mercilessly. Just another one of the many choices my mother made that sent me further into the abyss of unpopularity (well, that and my sarcastic personality).
Neely: Flossmoor, it’s a south suburb. I looked up David Mamet’s Wikipedia page once and was astonished to see that he was born in Flossmoor. He must have escaped early on because it wasn’t a town that gave rise to a lot of high art.
Peter: Do you still keep in touch?
Neely: I’ve lost contact with him. I saw him in “August, Osage County” and talked to him briefly. Our first reconnection after high school was actually through my youngest brother who was an actor at the time and, in one of those turns of fate, was in a play with Brian at a small theater in LA. Brian made the connection from my brother’s last name (Neely – and no, Neely isn’t really my first name, it’s my maiden name and as I stated in my conversation with Chip Johannessen and stealing a line from Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide,” we’ll go into that another day). It was one of those random questions that starts out like “Where are you from?” “Chicago, well actually a suburb.” “Which suburb?” “You’ve never heard of it.” “Try me.” “Flossmoor.” “You’re kidding. I’m from Flossmoor too. Did you have a sister named…?” “You’ve got to be kidding.” I love how those things can happen.
Peter: If I ever get The Dreyfus Affair off the ground as a film, he’s going to play the Commissioner of Baseball. I told him that he won’t have to molest a young woman in this one. Poor Brian, between “How I Learned to Drive” and “August Osage County”…
Neely: He told me that one of the highlights of his career was when Meryl Streep went back stage after the opening of “August Osage County” and came up to him and told him he was positively vile. It really is a great play and he was really effectively vile.
Peter: Another person I liked working with was Tyne Daly. She’s a very professional actress, exigent in the best sense of the word. I’d sit with her and we would go over dialogue, down to the prepositions. She would sometimes say, “This is not how Mary Beth would say that.” But she always came from a very respectful point of view. She made that character great. When you do episodic television -- and you know this from having worked with David Kelley -- you share the character with the actor. I’m sure David did with James Spader and William Shatner. You begin to understand that actors have some ownership in a character they play twenty-two times a season, and that you need to listen to them. Good actors make you look better. When it’s a good collaboration, it’s great. When you start fighting with them, either because of script or performance, that’s when it falls apart. I believe very much in the potentially positive nature of that relationship. I have had a lot of great experiences.
“Beggars and Choosers” was a mostly delightful experience. It was 44 episodes with almost no creative interference from Showtime. The only problems I had with them involved money and nudity. We made the show for very little, shooting in Vancouver, and we were always having to save a dime. And Jerry Offsay kept asking me to add naked people, because we were on cable and we were supposed to show tits. And I kept saying, “Jerry, this is about the television business. No one walks around without their clothes on.” So that was a humorous conflict. “No tits?” and I’d say “Maybe next episode.” But they were great. They lost money on that show because they couldn’t sell it abroad, but they still kept it on for two years.
Neely: No secondary market.
Peter: You can’t make money in television without that secondary market. It was a bit too sophisticated. We did sell it to Poland, Israel, and Ireland; but the major overseas markets didn’t bite so they had to cancel.
Neely: Shows about the inner workings of Hollywood are a very tough sell outside of Hollywood. It oftentimes doesn’t play well in the Midwest, so I can see how it might not play overseas, although I’m very surprised about Great Britain.
Peter: So was I. That was the one market I thought we’d get; but all we got was Ireland. The ratings we had on Showtime were better than most of what Showtime and HBO are getting now on series like “Hung” and “How to Make it in America.” Their ratings are miniscule compared to what we got ten years ago, but that was in 1999-2000. What I am disappointed about is that the DVDs aren’t available. Actually they’re owned by Buena Vista. For very abstruse reasons, Disney owns the DVD rights.
Neely: That makes no sense whatsoever, but very little in this business makes sense.
Peter: What happened was that Showtime had a previous deal with Disney, and one of the “throwaways” was that Disney would get, at no cost to them, the domestic DVD rights to Showtime’s next series, which, as it turned out, was “Beggars and Choosers.” Disney didn’t put a dime into the production, and they wound up with 44 hours of television that not many people saw. You’d think that this would be an ideal DVD release. You have a cult series that hadn’t been widely exposed, with no cost except the minimal cost of production and some marketing expense. We actually did commentary for these DVDs in 2006. Brian and I, Richard Lewis and Terri Hanauer went to the studio and made background commentary, but just when they were ready to release them, the DVD market softened. They’re lying in a vault somewhere in Burbank. I keep talking to them and they keep saying “well, maybe next year,” but they’re not going to put it out. And they won’t give it back to me because the worst thing that can happen to you in Hollywood is not losing money, but someone else making money on something you passed on. That is death.
Neely: Case in point for Disney – “CSI”.
Peter: “ET.” Frank Price, when he was running Columbia, passed on “ET” and never recovered.
Neely: Keep it in a vault rather than have someone else…
Peter: I am disappointed that that work is not available to people. I think it should be. I’m not going to make any money on it – it was cable. But not just for me, but for Brian and Charlotte (Ross), Tuc Watkins, Paul Provenza, and a lot of good directors like the late Michael Ritchie, who did the pilot, Richard Lewis who did 5 episodes and went on to be a producing director on “CSI;” Joanna Kerns directed a few, as did Stuart Margolin, who also was wonderful playing a megamaniacal Showrunner. We had some amazing people come up to Vancouver for an episode or an arc for virtually no money. They would come out and have fun. Beau Bridges did a 5 episode arc; Jim Belushi did a 9 episode arc as a crazy guy who inherited the network and drove everyone crazy; Carol Kane, Eric Bogosian, Shelly Long, Lolita Davidovitch, to name just a few. Carl Reiner was nominated for an Emmy as a guest star. We even got Ivana Trump to play herself. She brought her own wardrobe
Neely: On a completely unrelated topic, but we share a love for things French and especially Paris. How did that come about for you? Have you worked there? How’s your French?
Peter: My French is relatively fluent, depending on how much wine I’ve drunk. The back story is that I was in the Peace Corps. I went to Togo in the 60s. We were the first group to go there, and French was the national language. I spent two years exclusively speaking French and a West African language called Ewe, so my French has a Togolese accent -- at least that’s what my Parisian friends say. After I got back, I spent a year in Quebec, and so I added a Quebequois accent to the mix. And then in 1980, just when my career was taking off, my then wife and I decided to do something very impractical and very wonderful. We went to Paris and plunked down some money, when Paris real estate was very affordable, and bought an apartment in the Marais when no one wanted to live there. For eleven years, from 1980 til 1991, I would go there April, May and June of every year. I have a lot of French friends. My son, Lucien, who was born in 1980 and speaks even better French than I do, is now working for CARE in Chad. He’s a very interesting kid. So, I’ve always been a Francophile. I go to Paris on behalf of the Writers’ Guild.
One of my big disappointments is that none of my books has been translated into French. Japanese, German, Dutch, but not French, and I’d love to work with a French translator. I got close with The Deal. Presse de la Cité, when Jean Nabokov, Vladimir’s son, was running it, was very interested, but getting American books published there that don’t have very clear storylines, or best-selling authors, is tough. But I’m hopeful that if I can get Le Jet Lag published here, maybe they’ll do that one. That book takes place during The Cannes Film Festival. In the middle of all the plot machinations there’s a series of labor actions – you know how the French go on strike at the drop of a croissant. First the taxi drivers go on strike, and then the hookers go out; and then in support of the hookers, the hotel workers go on strike. So you have all these film people living in hotels with no service; they have to make their own beds and there are no cabs. It’s a typical French situation.
Neely: That’s so fun (unless you’re in the middle of one) and so true.
Peter: What is your French connection?
Neely: I have French relatives. My mother was raised in France before and during the war. She was actually Romanian but moved there with her parents when she was four years old. I have a lot of second and third cousins who live there. I’m fluent. I just love Paris; I think it’s the most wonderful city in the whole world.
Peter: Did you live there for any extended period of time?
Neely: I have never stayed in Paris for more than two or three weeks. I did do what was supposed to be a year abroad in Strasbourg, although it turned out to be a semester instead. But I just feel an enormous connection to the cultural life and the physical beauty of Paris.
Peter: You could exchange your house with someone in Paris and do your blog from there.
Neely: That would be great if my husband didn’t need to work. He’s got a sabbatical coming up, but I think he’s going to do it in New York.
Peter: He does what?
Neely: He’s at USC; he does brain research. We’ve talked about it, but he doesn’t speak French. Unlike most other countries, even established researchers run into problems because most of the labs just won’t speak English.
Peter: I thought the scientific community wasn’t like that. I have French friends who work with computers whose English is quite good.
Neely: It doesn’t really have anything to do with whether or not they speak English. I’m still going to try to sell it because he too loves Paris more than any other city in the world, even though he can’t speak French.
Peter: You know De Gaulle said: “Personne, meme pas les français, ne parle bien le français” (Nobody, not even the French, speak French well.). I’ll tell you a story that kind of sums up the French character. I was living in Paris in the 60s, a student with no money. There I was, in my twenties, living in a 7 franc hotel room on Rue Monsieur le Prince. I used to go to the Piscine Deligny (a swimming pool where showgirls would hang out during the day) to try to pick up girls. I met this very upper crust French girl - very “seizieme” (90210) - who lived in Neuilly. She invited me to Sunday lunch (an institution in France). So I show up in the sport jacket that I got at the Marché aux Puces (flea market) for like 7 francs and my one pair of black jeans. I get introduced to the family, and I could tell right away that her parents are not very happy that their daughter has taken up with this penniless, poorly dressed American, and a Jew no less, which triggers that pervasive, low grade anti-Semitism that exists among the upper classes in France. So we survive the apéritif (with the foie gras and the mousseline de porc) and then sit down at the table. The conversation is very crisp and strained, like in a Buñuel movie. No one is comfortable and I’m trying to make conversation in my (at the time) atrocious French. Finally they get to the cheese course, and as the guest of honor they offer me the “plateau de fromage” (the cheese platter). So, as a typical uncivilized American, I take my knife and I cut off the end of the brie -- a major no-no in France, like farting in church. The father, who up til now hasn’t said one word to me, looks at me and says “Monsieur, que vous baisiez ma fille, ça m’est égal; mais il faut jamais découper le nez du brie!” – “Sir, I don’t care if you are fucking my daughter, but don’t ever cut off the nose of the brie.”
Neely: So, if you had it all to do over again, what, if anything, would you change?
Peter:Well, I wouldn’t call Leslie Moonves a dirty name. It cost me 10 years of my career. He was working at Lorimar at the time and I had written a script that he purported to loved; but when we went to ABC to get notes, and it was apparent they didn’t share his enthusiasm, he bailed on me. Suddenly, he hates the script. On the way to the elevator, after the meeting, I used a term usually reserved for people who sell their bodies for money. When he moved to CBS and wound up running the network, he declared a fatwa against me. That turned out to be a very expensive remark.
Neely: I understand him to be extremely loyal to his friends but also a dangerous enemy to make.
Peter: At the end of the day, I’m delighted that I’ve been able to do this for as long as I have. I’m financially comfortable; I don’t need to work anymore on anything that doesn’t please me. And I’ve done this for 37 years. I’ve never had a day job during that time. Obviously there have been a couple of tough times, but I’m proud of it. I have 37 years in the Writers’ Guild pension plan, which means I’ve made at least the minimum that you’ve had to make for all those years. Not one interruption of service, except during the two strikes, and I think that may be pretty close to a record. I’m proud of my longevity; that I’ve survived in spite of my arrogance. I’ve managed somehow to roll with the punches and enjoy the lifestyle. I’ve gotten to travel quite a bit, to live part of the year in Paris for 10 years. You can’t do with most jobs. And it sure as hell beats working for a living.
Neely: I can’t wait to read more Peter Lefcourt; and, as a matter of fact, I just finished The Dreyfus Affair. Thanks for spending the time.
For more great reading, check out The Dreyfus Affair and The Deal and his other great books. See Peter’s website for information on how to order his books (and get a dose of his humorous asides) at http://www.peterlefcourt.com.