25 Years in LA Part 3: Showtime, the Silverado, and the rise of Ain’t It Cool

06.11.15 2 years ago

Dreamworks

The first and most important thing that happened as a result of the staging of “Sticks and Stones” at the Met Theater as part of the Act One Festival was that Scott Swan and I got our first agent.

Barbara Baruch worked for Ambrosio/Mortimer, a smaller boutique agency at the time, and from the moment we met her, she seemed like what I imagined an agent to be. She was nurturing, she was a cheerleader, she was a ballbuster, and she was always, always, always in our corner. Our time with her was unfortunately too short, and by the time the agency imploded in accusations of embezzlement, we were already repped by Gersh out of New York. Barbara was first, though, and she was the first one to start pushing people to come see our show and to read our work.

The strangest thing about those early days is that Scott and I had spent so much time working on scripts that were, truth be told, deeply derivative genre exercises, and that's really not what people were expecting when we walked into the room. They would see “Sticks and Stones” onstage and expect us to come in pitching certain types of projects, and then these two 25 year old “Star Wars” nerds would roll in talking about giant monsters and other such nonsense.

There was one milestone that mattered more than any other though…

11. Adapting “Sticks and Stones” for Showtime

… and that was joining the WGAw.

The day I was able to call my parents and tell them that I was a member of the Writers Guild of America was the day I felt like I had truly accomplished stage one of the goals I set for myself. At that point, I wasn't just telling people I was a writer. There was an entire guild that I belonged to that PROVED I was a writer.

The reason we were able to join was because we were hired by Showtime to develop a feature-length version of our play, with Jerry Levine attached to direct it. We were thrilled by the opportunity, and we felt like it was an easy thing to do, at least conceptually. There was plenty of story to be told by expanding the play, and we chose a way that meant breaking up the one act into three big sequences set inside Klein's office, three scenes where we'd pretty much include the entire text of the play within the larger film.

What happened was educational in so many ways. It was our first time taking notes from executives, and we got some doozies. One of the executive producers on the film was best known for producing the Barry Manilow TV movie “Copacabana,” so he was obviously the right guy to produce a piece about race language and police violence. I remember sitting in his office and having to struggle to contain comments about his notes. At one point, he got hung up on a plot point. There was an old woman in the script who was stabbed after withdrawing money at an ATM, and the executive got hung up on the idea that the old woman pulled a $20 bill out of the machine.

“Would she really pull that much out? I mean, she's an old woman. She's probably poor. Maybe she's just got a couple of ones. That's even sadder, right?” I tried to explain to him that, for the most part, the smallest bill you could take out of an ATM was a $20 bill. His reply? “Oh, really? I've never used one.” These are the people who give writers notes on scripts. This is a person who never used an ATM, and yet he's giving notes about what is or isn't realistic and what does or doesn't ring true. That's just an example, but it was like that every single time we turned in pages or a draft.

Looking back at the experience now, I wish I'd understood the studio process better. Because we were writing about race language, Showtime was nervous. The LA riots were still fresh in everyone's minds and the OJ trial was in the news, and we found ourselves writing draft after draft, getting shuttled from a white executive to a black executive and then back again. We learned a lot about the language of writing contracts as well, because none of those drafts were “accepted” as “delivered” because the network wanted to make sure it got its “full input” on the record before we turned in the script. We were contracted for two drafts and a polish, the standard deal at the time, but because of the way they handled things, we did at least six drafts before we turned in. It was our first time being paid, and everyone told us over and over, “This is how things are done.”

I also wish I'd had Jerry Levine's back more. He had real faith in us, and he was determined to get the film made. At 25, I was sure that every single creative battle was worth winning, and that it was important to make sure that everyone was creatively pure. Compromise was for pussies, and I wasn't having it after a certain point. In my defense, we were at least seven or eight drafts deep when Jerry was at our place one afternoon for what seemed like the thousandth conference call. This time, Jerry Offsay was on the call, a reaction to our first official turn-in, and some comment was made that had been made in about eight hundred of the previous thousand calls, and Jerry told everyone it was a good point, and then we hung up. And in that moment, it felt like we were back at the start and Jerry had sold us out and I just… snapped. And on the other side of that snap, Jerry was in the hallway outside, our work on the feature version of “Sticks and Stones” was done, and I had set us back in a huge way for absolutely no reason whatsoever.

I've run into Jerry a few times since then, and he's always been perfectly lovely, but what he said as he was walking away from our place that afternoon is always in the back of my head. “Hubris, buddy. You've got hubris.”

No one has ever accused me of having my own best interests in mind when I act, and as we get further into this series, you'll see a pattern emerge, I suspect.

12. Avalon Films and our New York adventure

There was a second year of Act One, the theatrical festival, and we were asked to submit another play as well as be part of the steering committee. We were determined to work with Willie Garson, who almost played Alan Klein for us in “Sticks and Stones,” and we wrote a role with him in mind in a play called “Broken Bones.” Because of the ease our first submission made it through the process, we figured the same thing would happen in the second year.

There was nothing easy about “Broken Bones,” though, and the play was better in the end because of it. We wrote about a moment of domestic violence, and when we went to the first meeting of the steering committee after turning it in, people started opening up about their own personal experiences. We heard some fairly harrowing stories about actual incidents, and it was a stark reminder of how privileged our perspective was as 25 year old white dudes. Don McManus signed on to direct the script for us, and we started rehearsals with Willie Garson, Michelle Joyner, and Ming Na-Wen. By the time the play opened, Ming Na-Wen had to drop out because of a family thing and Debra Jo Rupp stepped in.

At the same time we were doing this, we were writing drafts of “Sticks and Stones” as a feature, and we were starting conversations with a couple of guys who seemed sold on the entire idea of the Drew McWeeny/Scott Swan brand.

During the first year of the Act One festival, Michael Cerenzie was heavily involved in the production end of things, and we got a chance to know him a little bit. He took off, though, heading back to New York, and it seemed like a pretty sure bet that we'd seen the last of him. He showed back up, though, with a new partner in tow named Domenic Casillo, and they told us that they were starting a new company to produce independent films. Michael asked us what other one-acts we had or finished screenplays and said they were actively interested in gearing up quickly.

What happened next was a blur, and I think one of the reasons I felt like I could indulge my hubris with Jerry and with Showtime was because we had these other things happening. Very quickly, they optioned one of our one-act plays from us and signed a deal that would have us adapt it ourselves. They wanted it to be a New York movie, and to that end, they told us that they would bring us to New York to research the film and write it.

You know that thing they say about “if it seems too good to be true, it probably is”? Yeah, well, that. We went to New York. And we researched and we wrote. And at the time, it was amazing. After all, we spent our days working at an office on the top floor of the Tribeca Film Center, with a wall that we had in common with Robert De Niro's private office. We put up pictures of De Niro on what we officially dubbed the “Wall Of Bob.” At night, we would move our base of operations to the Silverado, a strip club that Casillo co-owned at 20 W. 20th Street, halfway down the block from the infamous Limelight. When you're a 25 year old guy and you're given a stack of funny money by the owner of the club, it is very different than just walking into a club and paying for things out of your own pocket.

The script took place over one long dark night as two characters lead a third one through an increasingly ugly tour of New York's underbelly, and part of the research process involved Domenic setting us up with a bodyguard, a car, and various tour guides to take us to bondage clubs, after-hours speakeasies, peep shows, and things I'm still fairly sure I'm not allowed to legally mention. Little by little, we got a sense of just how crazy New York could be, and the more we saw, the more we added to the script.

Even before we were done with that project, though, we pitched them another script called “Odeon Pope,” and this time, they signed a deal with us to both write and direct. It felt like we had found our patrons, the guys who were going to underwrite every crazy thing we wanted to do. And make no mistake… those projects were crazy. By the time we locked our script for “Behind The Eyes,” it was almost 150 pages long, and it would have been impossible to make as anything less than an NC-17. If anything, “Odeon Pope” was set to be even crazier.

The longer we stayed in New York, living in hotels on the company dime, taking Domenic's private car everywhere we went, the more we started to believe that we had already become the filmmakers we wanted to be. After all, we were living the high life all the time. We worked at the strip club so often that it actually got boring. To 25-year-old guys. We'd been accepted into Casillo's home, into his private life, and Cerenzie talked constantly about where we would all be in two years, in five, in ten.

We started meeting with directors for “Behind The Eyes,” and for a little while, it looked like Abel Ferrara was going to do it. One small problem I saw was that Abel was completely insane. We went to the west coast premiere of “The Addiction” as his guests, and for the first half-hour of the film, he talked loudly over everything, chattering away at a million miles an hour about everything but the film being shown. Finally, someone in front of us turned around and ordered him to shut up. Abel began spitting obscenities at the person, and by the time I realized we were face to face with Madonna, she was spitting obscenities right back at him. It was so surreal that the only logical reaction was to start laughing.

Eventually, we approached them and said we wanted to direct the film ourselves, and they committed on the spot. So of course, shortly afterwards, the company folded. We were talking with them at the time about writing a third movie and we had just done a quick pass on a possible HBO pilot about the Silverado strip club, and then we were informed that they simply weren't going to be able to keep the dream going. Casillo had made all of his money in other ways, and filmmaking was something he saw in very romantic terms. He and Michael made a genuinely passionate team, and if they'd started with just a little more money and just a little more momentum, they might have made a real go of things.

I ran into Michael years later when he was one of the producers on “Before The Devil Knows You're Dead,” and I see him around from time to time at the cigar club on Canon where we used to meet. I don't begrudge those guys anything, but that experience and the sudden collapse of all of those projects left us reeling.

It felt like that hubris that Jerry Levine warned me about had landed after all.

13. The birth and rise of Ain't It Cool

Oh, boy.

How do I even begin to encapsulate one of the things that most clearly defines who I am today? How do I tell a story as big as the story of Ain't It Cool?

I could tell you about how I first met Harry Knowles. We had just upgraded to our own computer for the house, complete with internet access, and from the first time I heard that screechy tone as we signed on, I was hooked. Newsgroups were my first passion, and I found it hard to believe that I could talk to people all over the planet about whether or not Deckard was a replicant. It really was that simple. “Oh, my god, there are other people who are just as nerdy about this as I am. Yay!”

I remember coming across a newsgroup post where some guy was talking about how great the script for “Independence Day” was, and how it was going to be a huge monster hit and amazing and just wait and see, and my first reaction was, “Who is this dumb-ass?” I had read the same script, and I had also read the shooting script for “Mars Attacks!”, and it was clear to me that “Mars Attacks!” was going to be the weird, fun, insane version of the dull, familiar “Independence Day.” I fired off a response to the guy, he fired one back, and we had ourselves a righteous little flame war.

And that was Harry.

I could tell you that when a friend of mine gave me a VHS copy of the very first trailer for “Star Wars: The Special Editions,” that release was still just a rumor. I was so blown away by seeing the first new moving “Star Wars” footage in 13 years that I decided I had to find a way to get that footage online. By that point, Harry had started the very first early version of Ain't It Cool News, the single page that you would just scroll down to see all the stories at once. We figured he might know how we could get the video online, and he steered us to a contact of his in Australia who was willing to post the footage in hopes of avoiding US copyright law.

It was the Wild West. And considering my feelings about the industry and the increasing dissatisfaction I felt towards parts of it, Ain't It Cool seemed like an exciting way to stick it to “the enemy” and tell some truth that simply wasn't being told at that point. My own experiences around the test screening process had convinced me that Joe Farrell, the owner of NRG, which handled those screenings, was a very bad man. He loved to tell the story of how he was the one who saved “Fatal Attraction,” and I saw the way he would lie to a filmmaker in favor of the studio, over and over and over. When I saw how angry test screening reviews got the studios, I made the decision to be a professional pain in Joe Farrell's ass. Ain't It Cool was a tool to that end at first.

I could talk about what happened to me the first time I went to Austin. We drove 24 straight hours, and the moment we got to town, we went straight to the Alamo Drafthouse and straight into a Quentin Tarantino-programmed double feature. It was the promised land, and by the time we drove home a week later, I left my heart there. I loved the people. I loved the food. I loved the film culture. And year after year, that has remained true. There will come a point where I no longer live in LA, and I am sure it's Austin where I'll land. I'm not sure how soon or how long that will be, but it will happen, and it's because of Ain't It Cool that I ever visited the city in the first place. Some of my best friends live in Austin, and I never would have known them if I hadn't started sending in bits and pieces of information to this movie website.

In the early days of Ain't It Cool, I wasn't paid at all. I also wasn't working as a screenwriter as much. We'd done a little rewrite work, we were still members of the WGAw, but after Avalon imploded, we found ourselves in a slow period. We'd taken meetings all over town, and it as clear that people expected us to be interested in writing totally different things than we were actually interested in writing. It was hard to find that next good fit like we'd had with Jerry or with Michael and Domenic, and I ended up going back to a day job. Or, to be more accurate, a night job. I got hired as a closed-captioner by a company called VITAC, working the midnight shift in their Burbank offices. For about two years, that was my every day routine. I became a vampire. I would go to a test screening and then go straight to work. I was miserable. I had just broken up with a woman I was going to marry, and I had moved in with a married couple in Hollywood. I felt like I was back to zero on a personal level. Meanwhile, I wrote for Ain't It Cool and slowly got more and more invested in the mythology of being “Moriarty.” It was nice to be feared. It gave me a sense of having some impact on an industry that felt like it was passing me by in some ways. The movies I wanted to see weren't being made, and when they were, they were being made in ways that tied me in knots.

It was the spring of '99 when Harry asked me at the last moment to go to ShoWest, the annual theater owner's convention in Las Vegas. I had enough vacation days built up that I was able to negotiate the time and I went. I had to stay in the shittiest, cheapest motel I could find, I had no idea what I was doing, and I'd never really worked an official press event before. At that point, my identity was still a secret, technically, which made getting my credentials a strange process. In one of those moments of odd synchronicity that sort of define every era of AICN, the guy who was in charge of handling all of the press at ShoWest was a guy who later became Hercules The Strong, a role he still fills on the site today. Over the course of that week, I ended up side by side with far more experienced press, and I saw that some of them were excited by what we were doing, just as some of them hated what we were doing. What was apparent was that all of them were aware of it. Whatever Ain't It Cool was, people were reading, and it really hit me during that trip. I got back to LA, I served my notice at VITAC, and I decided I was going to make Ain't It Cool into something more, a real job, a chance to build something I believed in.

14. Aaron Kaplan, my patron saint

I got an e-mail from a UTA address, something that was not uncommon in the early days of Ain't It Cool. I'd set up an e-mail address specifically for people to be able to reach me, and it was amazing seeing who reached out. Filmmakers, agents, executives… there were people who wrote to me who I knew as Drew, and they had no idea they were contacting me when they wrote to “Moriarty.” It was thrilling to have a secret identity.

When I opened the UTA e-mail, I had no idea I was being introduced to someone who would change my life. Aaron Kaplan was, at that point, a junior agent, working for someone else, and starting to cultivate his own client list. He asked me point blank if I was also a screenwriter. “The way you talk about things, I get the feeing you've worked or that you are working. Who are you with?”

As it happened, when Aaron reached out, Scott and I had just finished a script that we felt made the case for who we wanted to be moving forward as writers. “Amusements” was designed to be a big summer movie that would allow us to do some horror, some action, some big stuff, some little stuff. It was all built on the idea of a theme park so high-tech that visitors could not tell how any of it was accomplished. They simply stepped into these amazing other worlds. Our main character was hired by competitors to figure out how the Park worked. That was it. More than anything, it was a chance to write a bunch of different types of set pieces within one structure. We wanted to write bigger films than we'd written in the past, and we looked at “Amusements” as our chance to do that.

Aaron was the first person to read it, and he decided to get behind it. When the script went out as a spec, it went to several different places at once, the first time we'd ever been part of that kind of process. It didn't sell, but it opened doors for us immediately, and it was clear that Aaron was someone we were going to want to work with, someone we could trust.

When he left UTA, it wasn't to join another agency. Instead, he started a management firm with his friend Sean Perrone, and they asked us to join them in their first batch of clients. At the time, UTA was the biggest agency we'd ever had represent us, but we believed in Aaron. We believed that he would work his ass off to get our scripts in front of people, the right people. We pitched him our next script, and we started work on it, our first time taking notes from him as we went through the process. It was such an easy back and forth that by the time we were happy with “Noel,” we knew he was, as well.

As of right now, Aaron's still my manager. Scott and I aren't currently working together as a writing team, and it's been a while since I've had something new to give to Aaron, but his ongoing interest and belief has kept me sure that there will be a next thing. Every major success I've had since meeting him, I feel like he's been a key part of making that thing happen. His real gift is figuring out who to put in a room with his clients, like when he introduced us to David Goyer. We had a pitch we wanted to take to all the studios, and Goyer signed on as a producer. It was an incredibly easy working relationship, and it was one that Aaron believed would work. When we were having trouble with our own pitches, he put us together with Todd Komarnicki, a writer who was amazing in a room and who did a great job of teaching us how to best represent our material.

Even when scripts haven't sold or haven't worked, Aaron was there to help us figure out when it was time to let something go. And when I've shot myself in the foot… and we'll get into that in tomorrow's piece in a major way… Aaron was there to tell me that we'd figure it out and keep working. I've given up on myself at times, but Aaron never has, and in this town, there is no greater currency than the sort of deeply felt loyalty that has always defined our relationship. On the short list of the people who have made this 25 years of my professional life worth living, Aaron Kaplan sits very near the top.

15. “Anchorman” and “Inland Empire”

Today being the actual anniversary of my arrival in LA, I've found this particular installment of this series to be particularly bittersweet. I've made plenty of mistakes along the way, and I have plenty of regrets. There have been periods of my life here in this city where I've been so unhappy about where I was in my career or in my personal life that I have become self-destructive, and I've absolutely taken it out on others, too. There are good women who I have hurt in the years I've lived here, and there are people who have hurt me as well. There are broken friendships that I feel terrible about, and there are people I hope I never encounter again in any context. I was twenty when I moved here, which means I've lived more of my life in this city now than I lived before I came here. Who I am is defined largely by Los Angeles at this point, and there is plenty of sweet and sour in the mix.

So let's end today on two stories that make me purely happy.

When I read “Anchorman,” it was at the insistence of Kevin Biegel, now better known for his shows “Cougar Town” and “Enlisted.” Kevin was a contributor to Ain't It Cool when he was still in college, and when he first moved to LA, he enjoyed some really great experiences while starting to build his own writing career. He and I went to Sundance together in 2001, and it was one of the best trips of my life precisely because of how off-the-cuff it was and how it felt like we were just running on a pure movie high the entire time we were there. That is still the reason I'm here, still the reason I do any of this, that amazing feeling when you find something you love and you want to share it with someone else.

With “Anchorman,” Kevin couldn't get over how insane the script was. “No one will ever film this,” he told me when he gave it to me. And when I read it, I was pretty sure he was right. It made laugh like a maniac, but I couldn't imagine any studio giving Will Ferrell money to make something so pure, so lunatic. I wrote a piece about the script, mourning the fact that it seemed to have stalled out in development, and thought that was that.

But the real magic of what Ain't It Cool could do in its best moments was that simple passion for movies could make things happen. It could get people's attention, and sometimes, that's all it took. In this case, Adam McKay and Judd Apatow and Shauna Robertson were all still working to get the film made, and that article created just enough of a spotlight at a moment when they were already gaining some momentum, and suddenly the project roared back to life and Dreamworks ended up having to buy it back from themselves in turnaround. I didn't know any of those people at that point, and I've written before about how I later ended up on the set of “Elf,” only to learn all of this from Will Ferrell. I am in no way responsible for “Anchorman,” but I am responsible for writing something that nudged someone that made someone else decide yes instead of no, and in some small way, when I see the enormous ripple that “Anchorman” has made in the 11 years since it came out, it makes me feel like all of that energy spent at Ain't It Cool was a good thing.

A friend of mine named Jeremy Alter worked on “Anchorman,” and later worked as a producer on another project. He called me about it one afternoon. I had just had a roommate move out, and my soon-to-be-wife was moving in, and for a few days, there was one empty bedroom in my Hollywood apartment. “Is that bedroom still empty?” he asked. I told him it was. “Can I bring someone by to see it?” he asked. I told him I'd be home. And I really didn't think about it again until there was a knock and I opened the door to find David Lynch standing there.

Jeremy introduced us, and then the two of them walked into the empty bedroom. I was stunned. I can't really quickly sum up what Lynch's work means to me, but he was suddenly just walking around my apartment. They walked out a few minutes later and David asked if I could wait two day before doing something with the room. “Sure. Absolutely.”

Two days later, he showed up with a small crew and a small cast, and when I say small, I mean him, two guys, and his wife and editor Mary Sweeney. Laura Dern was one of the actors who showed up with him, which just made the whole thing even more surreal. In the finished film, “Inland Empire,” there are about three minutes of footage from the shoot that they held in my apartment, and it's just Dern and a few Eastern European women talking. They shot for about two hours, and for much of that time, Sweeney sat on the couch in the living room, watching “Pretty Woman” with my girlfriend, totally unfamiliar with the movie. It was impressive to see how loose Lynch was, trying totally different things with the cast before finally wrapping for the evening.

I've got a “Special thanks to” credit in “Inland Empire” as a result, and again… I didn't do anything to actually make the film, but being able to have a filmmaker whose work is part of my DNA suddenly in my apartment, directing a scene that ended up in something he released, is one of those moments that makes me realize there's nowhere else I would have wanted to live these last 25 years, no matter how hard it's been, no matter how hard it still is. I fell in love with movies living thousands of miles away from where they were made, sitting in the dark, imagining all these worlds these movies gave us windows into, and somehow, I pulled a “Sherlock Jr.” and stepped into that screen.

But no matter what, I remained frustrated, working as a writer but with no finished film to show for it, just as I remained frustrated on a personal level about where I was going. Both of those things were about to change in major ways, and we'll pick up there tomorrow with “'Masters Of Horror,' Revolution, and getting Foxed.”

Check out part two, “'Sleepwalkers,' 'Shawshank,' and 'Sticks and Stones'”

And make sure you read part one, “Gene Hackman, Eazy-E, and Albert Brooks defending a film”

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