How My Screenwriting Career Led to a Film Noir Musical About a Singing Frog

Sunday, June 5, 2011

I wrote my first screenplay, the ensemble college drama, Falling from the Sky, soon after I moved to New York City in the mid-1970’s. It was a series of seemingly unrelated stories, thinly disguised portraits of people I knew at the University of Wisconsin, that are all linked by an active of violence: a bomb that was set off by a student radical group that resulted in an innocent grad student being killed. (This really happened.) Many people responded to some of the characters and scenes in it, which parodied the contradictions of the way “radical” politics and love intersected in that time and that place.  The one thing I remember about it is that the character based on me was called Shmotsky.  The first line of the script, uttered as the bomb went off in the middle of the night, is:

Wake up Shmotsky, it’s the end of the world.

Script number two was called The Naked Truth, about this crotchety old director named Foosweenkle who was a genius, but couldn’t get work anymore because he was an alcoholic and impossible to work with. The hero devises a scheme to produce one of Foosweenkle’s brilliant scripts with Foosweenkle secretly directing it, using a young theatre director as a front. When the film is done, the critics are astounded by the talent of this “brilliant” first-time director, and all this success goes to the ringer director’s head. Foosweenkle rages and is on the verge of exposing the fraud. Guess what happens then? That’s what I could never figure out, and that was the problem with the script.

Something for Nothing was a heist movie co-written withmy friend Jane Hammerslough. It was inspired by the Marla Maples/Donald Trump story, unfolding at the time. In the movie, the Maples character gets tossed out of a Trump Tower high rise and has nowhere to go. She falls in with a slackerish guy (I was thinking Bill Murray), who invites her to move in with this group of eccentric men and women people who live in his loft in Chinatown. “Outraged” by her treatment and always looking for cash, Bill Murray and his gang to plan the robbery of the Trump guy’s most precious possession, a gem worth zillions of dollars, and protected by state-of-the-art equipment.

The twist was that Bill Murray’s gang was going to purchase everything they needed to snatch the gem on Canal Street. I was endlessly fascinated with all the crap you could buy on Canal: broken pieces of plastic, unidentifiable motors, weird toys from Asia, knock-offs of expensive products, computer circuit boards, etc., the wretched refuse of a homeless person’s garage sale. Bill Murray and his gang of shmos put all these things together in unexpected ways, and with a little inside help from “Marla,” they actually [SPOILER ALERT!!!] do get in and snatch Trump’s gem. Afterwards Bill Murray escapes out the window riding a huge dinosaur blow-up doll inflated with helium.

For screenplay number three, What’s What, I reached back to my adolescence for a tale of Jewish teenagers on a weekend retreat, accompanied by their Rabbi. The movie revolves around a joke told by Catskills comic Mickey Katz which is told many times:

A guy goes to his father and says, “Dad, I wanna go to college” and his dad says “Do you know what’s what?” (pronounced VAT’S VAT?) And the thinks about it for awhile, but just can’t come up with a compelling answer, and eventually he says, “Dad, I don’t know what’s what,” so his Dad says, “alright already, you shmekel who doesn’t know vat’s vat, you’re joining the family business and we’ll forget about all this college nonsense.” So the guy does this and after many years he has worked all the time and never been out on a date. When he finally works up the nerve, she invites him to her place and she says she wants to go and get comfortable. When she comes back in the room she’s not wearing anything but a leather strap. “WHAT’S THIS?” he cries out. And she says, “What’s what?” and he says, “IF I KNEW WHAT’S WHAT I WOULDA GONE TO COLLEGE!” Badumbum.

There were a series of other Jewish jokes that flowed through the story, but the main thread was a L’Avventura-type plot: a girl runs off into the woods and the various students break off in groups and look for her. Much is learned along the way about the meaning of life and how to tell a joke properly, which was of course the deeper meaning of the title: the kids learn what’s what.

The response to What’s What was encouraging, so, with some trepidation, I gave it to Adrienne for her feedback. Needless to say, she was not anxious to read it, as she obviously worrying about whether she’d hate it or not.  But she did like it.

What’s What changed our relationship in a very important way. After that, Adrienne saw me as someone who wasn’t just a publicist, but as someone who could be creative in his own right.  As I had no confidence about my writing, I sought her approval with every subsequent script I wrote. If Adrienne said something I did was good—then it was good; if she said it wasn’t good—then I had to change it. While this was my problem, not hers—it proved to be a big problem when I wrote and directed a short film called Tiger: His Fall and Rise, in which Adrienne starred opposite Thomas Jay Ryan (Henry Fool).

This film, a film noir musical about a singing frog, brought me to the brink of financial ruin. More about Tiger next week.