Despite having moved up in the world from fledgling to promising and then to someone with actual screen credits, Cutler found himself stuck in one of what he called his Between Projects Blue Periods, funks that invariably started the moment he went from the precarious status of being Only the writer, Merely the writer, or Nothing but the writer to something far worse: No longer the writer.
He had been in Hollywood long enough to know that, with the exception of certain hyphenates — a handful of writer-directors, plus those fortunate writer-producers who happened to create a TV series — screenwriters were deemed at best a necessary evil, with the emphasis invariably on evil. Their importance, to whatever degree such a term could be applied, ended the moment their final draft was turned in, which meant an instantaneous cessation of the phone calls and lunches designed to support a work-in-progress.
Though he detested Polish jokes, Cutler acknowledged that one was definitely on target:
Q: How do you tell which actress in the cast is Polish?
A: She’s the one fucking the writer.
Despite years of emphasizing in the workshops he taught that Deus Ex Machina was a sure sign of bad drama, Cutler continued to pray for some sort of external intervention — an unexpected green light on a long dormant project, an out-of-the-blue request to do an adaptation, an emergency call to play Mr. Fixit on a quickie rewrite — that might roust him from his doldrums. Or, even more farfetched, a call from his agent reporting that someone new and hot wanted to meet.
Cutler knew, of course, that the real antidote was existential — that instead of moping and hoping, he should be initiating something of his own. It could be an original screenplay — one that was his, rather than what someone else commissioned or wanted. Or alternatively a short story. Or even something for the British music magazine for whom he’d written pieces on Ray Charles, Memphis Slim, and Charles Brown. But to be a self-starter would require not just motivation, but also an idea. And in the realm of ideas, notions, and concepts, Cutler felt not just bankrupt, but downright empty and depleted.
Knowing that the ability to overcome inertia usually arrived only after an extended period of licking his wounds and wallowing, Cutler was pleasantly surprised, on a Tuesday morning that found him moping around his apartment in sweatpants and a ripped t-shirt, when a phone call shook him from his lethargy.
“Lunch is on me,” a voice from his East Coast past bellowed. “So get your ass in gear!”
Seated across from an old high school basketball teammate in an Ethiopian restaurant on Pico, Cutler couldn’t keep from smiling.
“What’s so goddamn funny?” asked Walter Burns, still reasonably fit for a guy 6’8” who ate, drank, and smoked far too much.
“Seeing you here.”
“Then wait till you see the place I just rented.”
“Is there something you’re trying to tell me?” Cutler joked.
“Not what you think. The name Dolores Hayes mean anything?”
“As in the richest woman in the entire Northeast?”
“Not just there,” Walter stated with a shrug. “Some guy who was her personal assistant/secretary/confidant/and-who-knows-what-else made off with some money and jewels.”
“And New Jersey’s #1 private eye has tracked him down to get it all back.”
“It’s not what he stole that pisses her off.”
“It’s the book he’s writing about their time together.”
“I’m doubtful about the kiss part.”
“With her power, and money, and influence, couldn’t she –”
“Have it killed?” Walter asked. “No question. But that’s not enough.”
“She wants to drag his ass through hot grease.”
“So where do I come in?”
“You provide the grease.”
“Can I get that in English?”
“There’s got to be some show biz way of making his life hell.”
“Thanks to the producers, studio execs, and agents I’ve known, I could come up with fifty.”
“So name your price,” Walter said with a smile.
When going undercover, Cutler knew thanks to his friend’s tutelage over the years, the surest way to get nowhere fast was to ask too many questions. Instead of appearing inquisitive, nosy, or even mildly curious, it was far better to seem standoffish, even to the point of being downright surly. That approach came easily to Walter, who was skeptical of everyone except a handful of friends, one of whom was Cutler. Adding to that his overly conspicuous height, it was hard to imagine anyone other than a lunatic suspecting Walter of being a cop, a Fed, or a private detective.
Having temporarily taken residence in what seemed to be an almost entirely gay complex, Walter soon found himself, due to his size, his rough-hewn looks, and his Jersey accent, the subject of considerable chit-chat and conjecture. That led to repeated smiles, nods, glances, and attempts to strike up conversations, all of which were duly spurned.
Playing the loner whether at the pool, the fitness center, the garage, or even on the stairs, Walter spoke only when spoken to, and then in the most monosyllabic way possible.
It was only one morning when he saw someone struggling with a flat tire in a space not far from his own rented Mustang that Walter broke his extended silence. “Need a hand?” he asked the epicene guy fretting over a wounded VW convertible.
“Yes, please,” said London-born Andrew Wickham, never realizing that it was the man coming to the rescue who had actually slashed the tire not long before.
“James Carr,” said Walter, introducing himself with one of several pseudonyms for which he had multiple forms of ID and credit cards, each an homage to obscure Soul or R&B singers such as Benny Spellman, Jesse Belvin, and Ernest Kador, the real name of his personal favorite, Ernie K-Doe.
“And here I thought chivalry was dead,” replied Andrew, failing, like most people, to recognize the name of the legendary singer of “At The Dark End Of The Street.”
Several days later, having finally received the go-ahead, Cutler girded himself, took a deep breath, then dialed a number.
“Andrew Wickham –” said the mellifluous voice at the other end.
“My name is Cutler, and James Carr says nice things about you.”
“Which means you’ve just made my day.”
“He also says you’ve got a story that’s a natural for the screen.”
“I certainly like to think so.”
“Then how about lunch one of these days?”
“Smashing,” Wickham responded.
Though known to favor third-world spots — Haitian, Indian, Oaxacan, and the Ethiopian joint where he met with Walter — or alternatively a Creole place deep in the ‘Hood — Cutler purposely chose the opposite extreme, the Beverly Hills Hotel, for their rendezvous.
Having bribed his way to a choice table, he was thumbing through the sports pages of the New York Times when Wickham was led toward him in a white linen suit and bow tie.
“Hope you don’t mind my luring you from your work,” Cutler said after they shook hands.
“Consider me eminently lure-able,” Wickham quipped as he took a seat.
The two of them exchanged pleasantries until a waiter approached for their drink orders.
“Champagne suit you?” Cutler asked.
“I won’t protest.”
“Moet & Chandon?”
“As my French friends say, Ca se boit sans soif.”
The two men watched attentively as a wine steward arrived with two flutes plus a bottle, which was proudly displayed before being opened with a flourish.
Cutler then lifted his glass. “To fame and fortune?”
“And indulgence,” Wickham added.
Small talk about LA, the weather, and their mutual acquaintance was the sum total of the conversation until they were midway through their meal. At that point, having consumed a good amount of lobster salad, Wickham grew pensive.
“If I may be so forward, is there anything in particular that you’d like to ask about my book?” he asked.
“For openers, has anyone bought the rights?”
“No, and I’ll tell you why. No one has yet seen it.”
“Then what would it take for me to be first?”
“Why a producer, rather than a publisher?”
“What’s more likely to make it attractive to a publishing house than a movie sale?”
“James Carr says that your producing credits thus far are — how shall I say this? — far from abundant.”
“Is that all he said?”
“He did make mention of a fund you’ve put together.”
“I assumed that might come up.”
Wickham reflected for a moment, then took a sip of Champagne. “So that’s my incentive to consider a deal with you?”
“Money is known to be a motivator. Assuming, that is, the book has, for want of a better term, interesting revelations.”
“There are revelations galore,” Wickham said proudly. “But I must warn you that it’s still very much a work-in-progress.”
“Then ask yourself whether a deal — plus a stipend — would provide sufficient incentive to make it a fait accompli.”
“May I think about it?”
“Think about it, sleep on it, ask a shrink, an astrologer, or even your neighbor James, then call me if you’re interested. And now that your main course is history, dessert?”
“I shouldn’t,” said Wickham.
“I take that as a yes.”
Having learned from his own experience how troubling the sound of the phone not ringing can be for a writer, Cutler was able to imagine Wickham stewing — waiting, hoping, praying that the potential buyer would show his eagerness or desperation by calling. But since every negotiation is in effect a poker hand, Cutler sat tight, curious to see how long it would take for the Englishman to crack.
It was on the morning of the fifth day that the phone rang.
“I’m mildly intrigued by your proposal,” Wickham said in what Cutler took as the understatement of the week.
“Consider it more an overture than a proposal. But if you’re ready to talk terms and conditions –”
“I think I could be swayed.”
“Then how about same place, same time tomorrow?”
“Does that also mean the same Champagne?”
“Unless we move on to Dom Perignon or Cristal,” Cutler said, surprised at the way largesse came so easily when spending someone else’s money.
It was a bottle of Dom Perignon that was brought to them the following afternoon, with the understanding that if and when they were to rendezvous again it would be time for Cristal.
Tactfully, neither man broached their reason for being together until they were finished with their main courses — Dover sole for Wickham, shad roe for Cutler.
“I suppose you’re wondering about money,” Cutler finally said.
“Not that money is important in this world of ours,” Wickham teased.
“My thought, as I mentioned, is first and foremost a stipend until the book is finished.”
“Please go on.”
“But in order to make progress in the realm that matters to me, I’d also like to commission a treatment — which would supersede the work on the book until it’s deemed ready.”
“Deemed by whom?”
“Yours truly, since I’m the one entrusted with selling it.”
Wickham took a sip of Champagne, then carefully wiped his lips. “Would it be gauche to ask how much we’re talking about?”
“Not gauche, but premature. I’m a businessman, not a patron of the arts.”
“Would you trust — or have even the slightest bit of faith in — someone who’d buy a diamond, or a vintage car, or a manuscript such as yours sight unseen?”
Wickham thought for a moment, then smiled. “Guess what just happens to be sitting in the trunk of my car.”
It came as little surprise to Cutler that Walter was pleased by the progress being made, and even less of a shock that Dolores Hayes was jubilant. What was unexpected, however, was that Cutler found the two hundred pages of what promised to be perhaps a four hundred page book easy to read and, for the most part, fun.
While the breathless descriptions of furniture and other décor left him cold, and the obsession with jewelry and furs resulted in entire sections that he barely skimmed, Cutler found himself both fascinated and amused by the description of the ever-changing dynamic between Dolores Hayes and Wickham.
Far from the typical employer-employee relationship, theirs seemed to veer from a bizarre kind of sisterhood into something akin to sadomasochistic game-playing. Above all there was an ever-shifting balance between love and hate, which led first to screaming matches, then to periods of teary reconciliation, and finally to an array of taunts and jokes that induced, in Cutler at least, a strange combination of laughter and pain.
Despite himself, Cutler couldn’t help but giggle at the image of Dolores, hoping to soothe her aching limbs after a fox hunt, climbing into bathwater that, under the top layer of bubbles, had congealed into Lime Jello. Or of the heiress eating what she presumed to be chocolate-covered nuts, only to discover that the real contents were fried bumblebees and ants.
And he marveled at the combination of imagination and cruelty involved in forcing Wickham to accompany his boss, who was done up as Marie Antoinette, to a masquerade ball dressed as a walking Tampax.
Rather than calling Wickham right after reading the pages, once again Cutler waited. And waited. And waited some more, all the while getting two xerox copies made — one for Walter, the other for Dolores Hayes.
A full week had gone by by the time Cutler broke the silence by calling the author. “Seems to me we’ve got a basis for discussion,” he said. “Shall we see if a celebration is in order?”
The deal Cutler proposed was both richer and more elaborate than anything Wickham had imagined. As promised, it began with a stipend for finishing the book — one that while far from lavish, was doubly attractive for not being recoupable in any way, shape, or form. That meant that even if Wickham, for whatever reason, never finished the writing, the money that had been advanced would remain his. But before he could make further progress on the manuscript, the author would be required to pen an acceptable screen treatment — with acceptable being determined solely by the Producer, aka Cutler. For those services, Wickham would receive yet another non-reimbursable sum. Then, if and when a final draft of the book was completed, a payment for a year’s option of the screen rights would be forthcoming, together with a provision for an extension and payment for a second year, plus a bonus upon what’s known as first day of principal photography, should the movie go into production.
Stressing that the offer was eminently fair — to the point, he noted, of perhaps being overly so — Cutler stated that it was being presented as take-it-or-leave-it. Simply put, that meant there was no wiggle room, which precluded any negotiating or tweaking.
“Take as much time as you need,” Cutler stated. “Then, as Fats Waller used to put it, tell me If you is or if you ain’t my baby.”
As Cutler expected, Wickham inevitably accepted both the terms and the first of what promised to be a series of checks, which led in turn to yet another series of expensive lunches. At the initial one, Cutler explained both the purpose and mission of a what in Hollywood is known as a treatment. Then he handed the man he now called his writer several examples — ranging from good to not-so-good to downright awful — to peruse. At the following get-together, he got Wickham to discuss the key events that were likely to appear in the parts of the manuscript not yet been written. At the third, the two men discussed what Cutler termed a through-line — the narrative that would drive the treatment, then hopefully the script, and finally, if and when they got there, the film itself. At the fourth, they explored the two key characters — Dolores Hayes and Wickham — selecting what Cutler called defining moments that would illuminate not just their personalities, but also their relationship.
With each of the sessions separated by several days — plus several postponements followed by rescheduling — more and more time kept passing.
Knowing, thanks to Walter, that every detail he reported was conveyed to Dolores Hayes, Cutler was aware that each and every episode brought a significant amount of gloating. That thought, occasionally, caused him a pang of uneasiness or guilt — until, that is, he remembered that Wickham, though surprisingly good company, was a schemer, a tattle-tale, and above all a thief.
But any remaining doubt was allayed in perpetuity once Wickham became completely comfortable with his new employer. For only then did he begin, as he phrased it, To share his personal feelings. The first such incident, which did not thrill Cutler, had to do with art and culture, about which Wickham’s views managed to be frightfully middle-brow yet with an elitist edge. Even worse were his politics, where he proved, even in Cutler’s more or less apolitical eyes, to be unpleasantly reactionary. But what Cutler later came to term the squirm factor reached unprecedented heights when Wickham began to voice his reservations and judgments about minorities, specifically blacks, Latinos, and Jews. Though the Brit caught himself when he realized in whose presence he had thoughtlessly let the last remark slip, it was clear that damage had been done.
Not that Dolores Hayes, the more Cutler learned about her from sources as disparate as Wickham’s manuscript and Walter’s comments — plus, of course, the internet — would ever be mistaken for Mother Teresa or Mahatma Gandhi. Aside from relentlessly indulging her every want and whim, with no concern whatsoever for any other person or creature on the planet, she was also reported to be mean-spirited, condescending, and, to Cutler’s disgust, to the right, politically, of Attila the Hun.
Which meant, Cutler decided, that in far too many ways she and Wickham were two wretched souls who had fully deserved each other.
It was really once the writing of the treatment was underway — after a series of pitches and re-pitches — that Cutler was able to put into operation even more of the mistreatment that had come his way in Hollywood. First up were questions he posed to Wickham involving jargon such as character arc, tone, and the ever-deadly three-act structure. Then it was on to terms such as reverses, denouement, and even buttons, one that he, himself, had never fully understood.
That led to a thousand what ifs, plus development-speak cliches including re-conceptions, rewrites, revisions, and tweaks.
As days turned into weeks, then weeks into months, Cutler found the novelty of playing mogul wearing thin, then even thinner. As it waned, so, too, did any last vestige of fun.
Even with evenings spent hanging out with Walter, frustration was mounting, and not just for him. Walter was antsy at having to spend so much time 3,000 miles away from his wife and kids. And Wickham, despite the lavish lunches and checks, was exasperated because of how slowly progress was being made.
After a certain point all Cutler could think of was an old-time joke heard on film sets for years: Who do I have to fuck to get off of this movie?
Fortuitously, relief came thanks to Dolores Hayes, whose attention span proved to be shorter than her ire.
Having found a new obsession — rehabilitating New York City police horses who had outlived their usefulness to the force — she decided to sever her arrangement, again using Walter as the intermediary as a party sum was handed over. That, in turn, made it possible for Cutler to cut off all ties with Wickham, in much the same way that he himself had too often been abruptly dropped by producers.
After a parting meal of gumbo, fried chicken, and bread pudding with whiskey sauce at his favorite Creole place, Cutler bade farewell to New Jersey-bound Walter, then prepared for a return to a simpler life: listening to Ray Charles and Solomon Burke records, shooting baskets, reading French novels, and waiting for inspiration.
But fate intervened in the form of an unexpected caller: his agent.
Only after babbling about topics of little interest to Cutler, all of which revolved entirely around her — foremost a healing that, in classic LA style, she termed fabulous — did Suzanne remember why she was reaching out to him.
“I hope you won’t make me a liar,” she stated.
“What would you say if I told you Stan Landow called?”
“I’d say, Who’s that?”
“A hot young producer that Paramount loves.”
“He’s looking for a thriller — cop thing, private eye, or some shit like that — and he loves your writing style. So what do you say?”
“That he’s got impeccable taste and judgment.”
“Smartass as always! But do you have an idea, or a pitch, or even a concept you can tell him?”
With no sense that the proposed meeting would kick into motion a series of events that, in a circuitous fashion, would ultimately lead to his directing first a low-budget indie, then music videos, then documentaries, Cutler thought momentarily about the recent events in his life.
“Do I ever!” he then told his agent, anticipating a call that Walter Burns would appreciate. “Do I fuckin’ ever!”
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