Friday, April 26, 2013

Shane Black

This week marks the release of Iron Man 3 written and directed by Shane Black. Shane's story is well known. At age 22 he wrote Lethal Weapon giving new life to the action, buddy film genre. In 1990 he sold his script The Last Boy Scout for $1.75 million. Writer Joe Eszterhas eclipsed this figure with his sale of Basic Instinct for $3 million but Shane's subsequent sale of The Long Kiss Goodnight for $4 million made him the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood. Shane continued to write screenplays into the 90's but then he seemed to disappear. As with most Hollywood stories, Shane's is complicated.

I was fortunate enough to live with Shane for a year while attending UCLA. In those days, Shane was a theater major who aspired to be an actor. He loved 70's character-driven film thrillers like The French Connection, Dirty Harry and Bullitt. He was an avid reader of the hardboiled detective fiction of Ross Mcdonald and John D. MacDonald. He carried a dog-eared copy of William Goldman's Adventures in the Screen Trade wherever he went.

I remember seeing Shane perform standup comedy at UCLA. He was frenetic on stage, trashing props and uttering punch lines about "anal probes" administered by UCLA security. Like many college seniors, Shane was uncertain about his future. He was always gracious and kind but he was also moody and intense.

One day I came home from class to find Shane typing in the living room. He was writing a satirical one-act play about the second coming of Christ. Shane's method of typing was unique. Using just his left and right index finger, he pounded the typewriter with intense force and amazing speed. I watched spellbound as he seemed to box with the typewriter keys, pages flying out of the carriage as if Shane were channeling the ghost of Ben Hecht.

Shane completed his play in two days. A week later he staged the piece at the UCLA Theater Department. Like his future films, the play was both dark and funny. Jesus returns to earth but people are oblivious to his message. He hires a Jewish public relations man who procures Jesus a "drink milk" tv commercial and books him on the talk-show circuit. The story ends in tragicomic fashion true to Shane's cynical view of life.

Shane spent most of his time in his college days with the Pad O' Guys. The Pad was a group of fledgling screenwriters and film students who lived, ate and breathed movies. Members included the future filmmakers Ed Solomon (Men In Black), Jim Herzfeld (Meet The Parents), Greg Widen (Backdraft), Robert Reneau (Demolition Man), Ryan Rowe (Charlie's Angels), David Silverman (The Simpsons) and Dave Arnott (The Adventures of Ford Fairlane).

A year after Shane graduated, he wrote Lethal Weapon in six weeks. One of Shane's Pad friends, Fred Dekker (Night of the Creeps) helped Shane find an agent and soon several studios engaged in a bidding war for the script. Shane sold the screenplay to Warner Brothers for $250,000 and his career formally began.

Shane was determined not to become a Hollywood A--hole. He continued driving his rusted Mustang convertible and he lived with several Pad friends in a Westwood apartment. As Shane's career flourished, he experienced jealousy and resentment from friends and fellow filmmakers. Critics lambasted his writing style and he was turned down for membership in the Academy. (New Academy members were required to have "two produced works of substance and merit.")

Shane struggled with his early success. He experienced self-doubt and began to believe his detractors who said he only made money, not quality films. When Warner Brothers hired Shane to write a sequel to Lethal Weapon, Shane's version killed off the Mel Gibson character. Shane's friends saw this as a symbolic suicide since the character was viewed as Black's alter ego.

After The Long Kiss Goodnight tanked at the box office, Shane's golden boy reputation took a hit. Producers were eager to end the spec script bidding wars that Shane had helped trigger and old friends seemed to gloat. Shane had an aversive reaction. He was burned out on screenwriting realizing the process was no longer fun.

Shane bought a beautiful home in historic Fremont Place in midtown Los Angeles. (The house served as the main character's home in The Artist.) Shane stopped writing and began an era of partying. The Halloween bashes at Shane's place were the stuff of legend. But the drinking and substance abuse took a toll. "I just sort of got lost. I drank too much."

With the support of filmmaker James Brooks, Shane began writing again. In 2003, he completed his comeback piece Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. This time, he wanted to direct as well. He showed the script around Hollywood but responses were lukewarm. Some producers didn't even bother to read the script. To Shane, the experience was humbling.

Shane turned to producer Joel Silver who procured $15 million from Warner Brothers to get the film made. Shane cast Robert Downey Jr., who at the time was nearly unemployable having just served time in prison. He also cast Val Kilmer who's career had gone cold. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was a mystery suspense film inspired by the writing of Raymond Chandler. The film was a modest success but more importantly Shane was back in the film game.

Shane stopped drinking in 2008. He again became serious about writing. Jon Favreau & Robert Downey turned to Shane when they needed help with the first Iron Man screenplay. Downey credits Shane for writing the press-conference scene after Tony Stark returns from captivity. (Shane asked to be paid in "blueberries and wild salmon.") When Favreau declined to direct Iron Man 3, Downey lobbied for Shane to direct. Shane had helped Downey resurrect his career. Now Downey was returning the favor.

Shane always admired the "old gunslinger" story.  A character falls into a dark place and must rise above his demons to redeem himself. It seems Shane has done the same. The initial reviews of Iron Man 3 are positive and Shane is ready to begin his second act. If we're lucky, we'll have many new Shane Black films to look forward to. Here's hoping Shane feels the same way. (6" x 7", black ink print)

Monday, April 8, 2013

Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe was known as master of the macabre. His gothic stories dealt with death, decomposition, reanimation and premature burial. He was the inventor of the detective fiction genre, an early contributor to the science fiction genre and one of the first know American authors to make a living strictly from writing.

Poe was born in 1809 in Boston. His mom died shortly after his birth and his father abandoned the family. He was taken in by John Allan, a wealthy tobacco merchant from Virginia though he was never formally adopted. He was raised to be a businessman.  Instead, Poe dreamed of being a writer like his hero the British poet Lord Byron.

Poe attended the University of Virginia but was given little money by his foster father to pay his bills. He turned to gambling to survive and he quickly accrued large debts. He was so poor he burned his furniture to keep warm. Poe dropped out of college after one semester. He returned to Richmond to find his fiance engaged to another man. Heartbroken, he joined the army.

In 1827 Poe published his first book of poetry, Tamerlane and Other Poems, attributed with the byline "By a Bostonian." Only 50 copies were printed and the book garnered no attention. Poe traveled to Baltimore and moved in with his Aunt Maria Clemm and his young cousin Virginia.

By the early 1830's, Poe began publishing short stories. His work slowly gained acclaim but he remained in poverty. Poe turned his attention to prose and literary criticism. His literary criticism was so scathing he gained the nickname "Tomahawk Man" and he was said to write with "prussic acid instead of ink."

In 1835, Poe married his cousin Virginia. (He was 26, she was 13.) Poe became editor of several journals and his literary output increased. In 1845, Poe wrote his most famous poem The Raven. He became an overnight success though he was only paid $9 dollars for the poem's publication.

In 1847, Poe's wife Virginia died of tuberculosis. (Tuberculosis claimed his wife, his birth mother, his older brother and his foster mother.) Despondent, Poe was unable to write for months and he turned to drinking. He moved to a cottage in the bronx and continued to struggle financially. His stories were more popular in Europe than America and they were translated into French by Charles Baudelaire.

By 1849, Poe was drinking heavily and wandering the streets delirious. Though the story of Poe's final days is complicated, he disappeared for five days before he was found in the bar room of a public house wearing clothes that were not his own. He died at Washington College Hospital surrounded by strangers. The exact cause of his death is unknown. (His death has been attributed to alcohol, cholera, heart disease, rabies, tuberculosis and suicide.)

The Mystery Writers of American present an annual prize called the Edgar Award named after Poe for best writing in the mystery genre. (6" x 7", black ink print)

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Finance Director

Steve Rose is Director of Finance at a Fortune 500 architectural, engineering and design firm in California. I met Steve during high school and we became great friends united by our love for sports, baseball card collecting and the movie Caddyshack.

Steve excelled in all sports but his great love was golf. He competed in numerous Junior Golf Tournaments and during one match he took future PGA Pro Duffy Waldorf to a sudden death playoff before losing on the second extra hole.

Steve and Duffy became great friends and drinking buddies. (Steve would be Best Man at Duffy's wedding.) As Duffy's golf career began to take off, Steve asked if he could caddy for Duffy in a tournament. Surprisingly, Duffy said yes.

Their first tournament together was the Winnebago Classic on the mini-tour. The environment was casual and relaxed and Steve's lack of caddy skills posed no problem. At least until the second round. Duffy was on pace to set a course record. As they reached the 18th green, Duffy had a 10-foot putt to set the record. Steve reached into the bag for the putter but it was gone. "You don't have your putter do you, Duff," Steve asked. Duffy stared back. "No."

Realizing he'd left the putter on the previous hole, Steve sprinted to the 17th green, grabbed the club, ran back to the 18th hole and watched as Duffy calmly drained the putt. Duffy went on to win the tournament and Steve earned $750 for his 3-day effort as caddy.

When Duffy joined the PGA Tour Steve again asked to caddy in a tournament. Duffy offered Steve the 1992 Phoenix Open. The PGA environment was different. Most of the caddies were pros themselves and caddying was how they made their living. They didn't take kindly to outsiders coming in for a weekend of casual fun.

Duffy gave Steve a few tips: where to stand, when to tend the pin, make sure to avoid the eye line of other golfers. "Return the club to the bag after I'm done with it. I don't need you sprinting through the course for forgotten putters." Steve viewed his job primarily as cleaning clubs, carrying the bag and keeping Duffy loose and relaxed. Their chemistry was effective. As they played Round 4, Duffy was tied for the lead with 9 holes to go. Mark Calcavecchia went on a birdie run to win the tournament but Duffy took second place earning him $108,000. Steve's share as caddie: $2,500.

Steve would caddie for Duffy numerous times over the next few years. Duffy's playing partners included some of the game's greats: Phil Mickelson, John Daly, Rocco Mediate. At one tournament, as Steve stood on the green Duffy yelled out, "Don't move. You're standing on Mickelson's mark." Duffy walked over and instructed Steve to press down hard then slowly lift his foot. If the ball mark were to move, Duffy would suffer a two-stroke penalty (costing him thousands of dollars). Fortunately, the mark did not stick to Steve's foot and Steve was able to resume breathing again.

Caddies are not allowed to wear spikes. During the 1994 Kemper Open in Maryland, the tournament was interrupted by rain. As play resumed, Steve was carrying Duffy's bag up a steep hill when he lost his footing on the slick grass. The bag went airborne and Duffy's clubs were thrown into the rough. The gallery gave Steve an ovation as he collected himself and gathered the clubs.

Though Duffy finally hired a permanent caddy in 1998, Steve would have one last stint as caddy. Golfer Paul Stankowski, who Steve met through Duffy, needed a caddy for the 1998 Los Angeles Open. On the second hole, Stankowski asked for Steve's feedback on a putt. Steve studied the break then said "the putt will break 6 inches right to left." Stankowski struck the putt.  The ball started right, as Steve predicted, then it broke even further right far from the hole. Steve didn't realize that all greens at Riviera Country Club broke toward the ocean.

Steve no longer caddies but his love for golf remains. He is still friends with Duffy. More important, he makes sure to return his club to the bag after each use. (5" x 7", black ink print)