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Adventures in Hollywood!

October 9th, 2008
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After my lengthy series of posts about Star Trek novels from last month, I bet people think that’s all I read.  And, its true, sci-fi novels make up the bulk of my regular reading list.  But every now and then I do branch out, and I’d like to share several great books I’ve recently read that peak behind the scenes of Hollywoodland.

What Just Happened?, by Art Linson — Mr. Linson has been a producer in Hollywood for a few decades now, and this book covers a period of several years in the late ’90s in which he went to work for 20th Century Fox and proceeded to produce a large number of bombs.  Now, did these movies bomb because of bad luck and ridiculous studio politics and lack of support (as Mr. Linson contends), or is Linson just bereft of talent?  Well, I don’t know the man, so I can’t really judge.  But either way, this book is relentlessly entertaining as Linson takes us through the making of several movies that, to put it gently, did not do well.  Linson is a good storyteller, and in the book he focuses on anecdotes — putting the reader right in the middle of a series of hilarious (and painful for the people involved in them) situations.  We join Linson as he tries to deal with Alec Baldwin who, tapped to play the young and handsome photographer in the David Mamet-scripted The Edge, shows up to the set overweight and bearing an enormous mountain-man beard which he refuses to shave.  We see him trying to respond when studio head Tom Rothman asserts that they absolutely positively cannot cast Gwyneth Paltrow in Great Expectations because she has no chin.  We see him flummoxed the day he finds out that a central scene in that movie, that of a young man sketching his female paramour in the nude, is also a centerpiece of another soon-to-be-released Fox movie, James Cameron’s Titanic.  And we’re right there with him the first time he and David Fincher screen Fight Club for a room full of horrified Fox execs.  

If there’s any weakness to the book, its the framing device that Linson uses for these anecdotes — that of a series of lunches he has with a former studio head.  There are some funny interactions between these two, but each time the book cut back to their lunches, I kept thinking “let’s get back to the real stories!”  Despite this, Linson’s book is really engaging — and at less than 200 pages, you’ll breeze right through it.  Its a lot of fun.

By the way, this book is being adapted into a film starring Robert DeNiro.  (This is very amusing, since in the book Linson makes a number of references to his friendship with DeNiro, and to his many failed attempts to get DeNiro to star in one of his pictures.)  Two trailers have been released — you can see them here and here.  It looks from the trailer like the movie is a fictionalized story of the making of a film that incorporates many of the real-life stories that Linson detailed in his book.  By the way, they’ve also released the version of the Alec Baldwin beard-shaving argument, in which it is Bruce Willis who is refusing to trim his locks.  Check that out here.

Billion-Dollar Kiss: The Kiss That Saved Dawson’s Creek and Other Adventures in TV Writing, by Jeffrey Stepakoff — Since Dawson’s Creek isn’t exactly the type of TV show that I watch (to put it mildly), one wouldn’t think that this book would be of any interest to me.  But there’s much more to this book than just stories from the Creek.   It is partly a memoir of Stepakoff’s twenty years as a TV writer, freelancing scripts as well as spending several seasons on staff at TV shows as varied as The Wonder Years, Sisters, and eventually Dawson’s Creek, and partly a history of the TV industry during that time.  We first meet Stepakoff as a completely inexperienced college graduate who heads to LA right at the start of what he describes as a Hollywood gold-rush for writers, in which the studios began to throw huge amounts of money at any writer they felt had a hint of buzz.  We follow his early efforts at writing spec scripts, getting an agent, and finally winding up as a staff writer on The Wonder Years.  Stepakoff takes us through the explosion of writers in the late nineties and the collapse of the market for writers in the early aughts, as the number of writers all competing for a limited number of staff positions on TV shows reached its breaking point at the same time as the networks began having great success with reality programming that did not require highly-paid union writers.  Stepakoff balances stories of many of his bizarre and wonderful experiences working for various shows with a detailed but easy to understand description of the various ins-and-outs of the industry.  This includes details about the salaries available for writers at various levels of the staff writers’ totem pole, the way studio and network politics can impact the quality of a new or established series, and the structure of the Hollywood year from pilot season onward.  

Stepakoff is a skilled writer, and he is able to write well about various background topics (salaries, contracts, etc.) that might otherwise seem dry.  And he has lead quite an interesting life for the last twenty years, working on a number of successful and not-so-successful shows, so he doesn’t have to work too hard to make his stories interesting.  I will admit that there were some times, when he would go into great detail about the enormous amount of money he was making as a “baby writer” in Hollywood, that I started to lose my connection with his stories.  How could I empathize with someone making such an insane amount of money??  But the exorbitant sums thrown at young writers in the ’90s is an important part of the rise-and-fall-and-hopefully-rise-again story of writers in Hollywood that Stepakoff is telling, so I suppose those details are important.  Overall, its a great work.  I’ll definitely be paying attention for his name as I read  the credits for current and upcoming shows.

After reading What Just Happened? and Billion-Dollar Kiss, I decided to revisit one of my very favorite works about adventures in Hollywood:

Fortune and Glory, by Brian Michael Bendis — Mr. Bendis has become, over the past few years, one of the pre-eminent writers working in comic books today.  He’s one of the top stars at Marvel Comics, responsible for writing books such as The Avengers, Ultimate Spider-Man, the current company-wide crossover Secret Invasion, and many others.  Bendis started out in the world of independent publishing, writing and illustrating several (really great) black-and-white crime comics: Goldfish, Jinx, Torso, and others.  Fortune and Glory is a graphic novel written and drawn by Bendis (it was originally published as a three-issue series by Oni Press in 1999-2000), that follows his experiences trying to get his series Goldfish (and, later, his series Torso) made into movies, in hilarious detail.

Well, needless to say if you’re thinking to yourself, I don’t remember seeing Goldfish or Torso playing at my local google-plex, well, that’s ‘cuz they never got made.  (Maybe someday???  One hopes!!)  But the story of how these films sort-of-almost-nearly got made is the subject of this fall-on-the-floor-laughing work.  From Bendis’ opening explanation of what it means to be in alternative comics (“alternative to what?  I don’t know…alternative to popular?”), to his initial contacts with Hollywood (“Pauly Shore is Goldfish!”), his attempts to pitch Goldfish (“Is this one of those comic books?  Man, I hate those comic books!”), his attempts to pitch Torso (“This Elliot Ness.  Who owns him?”), and lots more fun and ridiculous goings-on in between, this is a tough work to put down.  (It’s also got a terrific title.)

If Billion-Dollar Kiss helped me understand why there are a lot of crappy TV shows out there, then Fortune and Glory helps me understand why there are a lot of crappy movies.  The comic is — I say again — absolutely hilarious.  I can’t recommend it higher.  Check it out!