07.01.07 11 years ago 11 Comments

[From Chapter 14 of CYGAWA]

I went out there [to Hollywood] for a thousand a week, and I worked Monday,and I got fired Wednesday. The guy that hired me was out of town Tuesday.  – Nelson Algren

By way of Hollywood backstory: 

John Cusack Makes Quantum Leap in New Movie
January 10, 2001 1:55 am EST
By Claude Brodesser
HOLLYWOOD (Variety) – John Cusack, last in theaters with “High Fidelity,” has committed to star in and produce “Cosmic Banditos.”

Based on the soon to be republished novel by A.C. Weisbecker,
“Banditos” follows the adventures of some Colombian marijuana
smugglers on the lam in the jungle – one of them an American
expatriate who would be played by Cusack. The tome will be
republished in March by the New American Library trade imprint.

The book will be adapted for the screen by “Sid and Nancy”
scribe Abbe Wool and Jimmy Fishman, the producer of 1999’s
“Desperate But Not Serious.”

“It’s just really original,” said Cusack, adding, “It deals with
quantum mechanics in a gonzo, gung-ho sort of way.”

The picture concerns what Fishman, a former solid-state
physicist turned producer-screenwriter, calls a group of smugglers
“whose chaotic and random lives are suddenly given meaning by
the laws of subatomic physics.” The expatriate has what Fishman
calls “a quantum epiphany” about how their lives are governed by

Cusack said he first became interested in physics while shooting
the 1989 picture “Fat Man and Little Boy” in the New Mexico desert
when he was 21. The film allowed him to spend time discussing
the Manhattan Project and the Los Alamos labs with numerous
physicists consulting on the picture.

“Those first atomic physicists were real cowboys,” he explained,
“like mystics, only they dealt with numbers instead of language.”
The project will be developed by New York-based independent
producer The Shooting Gallery.

    Know how I found out that this major star intended to produce and
star in a movie version of my book? (Keep in mind that the article is from
January, 2001, two years before the email from Cusack offering me the
adaptation.) A friend read the above Variety piece and emailed it to me,
several days after publication. Then the Hollywood writer I refer to as a
shitball motherfucker called to say he saw Cusack on TV, talking about
how great the book is and how he was going to make a movie from it. The
shitball motherfucker was trying to sound all rosy and happy for me but I
could imagine his green-with-envy complexion and forced grin – imagine
a seasick jackass chewing on a swarm of yellow jackets. See, he already
knew about the Captain Zero movie deal, Sean Penn wanting to play me.
Now with Cusack joining the ranks of movie stars wanting to play me,
we’re talking about an envious shitball motherfucker here.  

    But the point being: Does the above strike you as odd? Like maybe I should
have known about the deal before it appeared in the trade publications,
and Cusack himself blabbed about it on the tube? 

    Here’s how it went: Around June, 2000, the guy mentioned in the above
article, Jim Fishman, calls me and then my agent (my New York book agent,
not my Hollywood movie agent) about optioning the book. Fishman says
he’s a buddy of John Cusack, who loves the book, and maybe he could get
Cusack involved in the future, but he doesn’t have a lot to spend on an
option, blah blah. I say, Okay, why not, and Fishman coughs up $1,500 for
a year option. A clause in the contract states that if Fishman makes a deal
with a third party – any third party – he’d immediately owe me another

     Months go by. It’s now January of 2001 and I’ve haven’t heard anything
from Fishman. Suddenly and without warning, according to the above
article and the interviews Cusack has done on the tube, deals have now
been struck (by Fishman) with three third parties: screenwriter Abbe
Wool, the production company called The Shooting Gallery, and Cusack

    To repeat: No one, not Fishman nor Cusack nor The Shooting Gallery
notified me about the deals. If you’re thinking that this is incredibly rude,
and completely unprofessional, you’re absolutely right. It’s out there, even
by Hollywood standards. But you know what? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

    So my agent (my book agent) makes a flurry of phone calls to the people
involved. Nobody will take her calls or return them. How could this be?
They owe me money, the fifteen grand, that’s how. I know: By the standards
of the movie biz, chump change – although it isn’t chump change to me.
Plus I’m pissed off at the insult, the lack of respect. Not surprised, just
pissed off.

    January goes by, then February, then we’re well into March and still no
money. I call Fishman myself, whom I already talked to once, about the
adaptation he and Woole are doing. Fishman tells me to call The Shooting
Gallery about the money. Okay, I say, figuring to play his game for the
moment. I do remind him about our contract, which has no assign-the-debt
clause. In other words, he owes me the money, not The Shooting Gallery.
From his response, I can’t tell if Fishman is simply a moron or if he’s
stonewalling me, trying to make me believe there’s something wrong with
me in expecting him to live up to our agreement. Anyway, although he
admits that there’s no assign-the-debt clause in our contract, he still insists
– without logic or explanation – that he no longer owes me the money and
that I should deal with The Shooting Gallery. Talk to Amy at The Shooting
Gallery, Fishman says.

    So I call this Amy, one Amy Nickin, a lawyer at The Shooting Gallery.
Nickin chit-chats a streak, saying how much everyone at The Shooting
Gallery loves my book and respects the material and how it’s going to
make a helluva movie and so forth.

    I go along with this until I can’t stand it anymore and ask, Where’s the

    Oh, that, Nickin says. No problem. Says they’ll pay me in 30 days. Can’t
pay me right now because The Shooting Gallery is merging with some
big company and has a cash flow problem. Just be patient and I’ll get my
money. To this I ask Nickin if they’re telling, say, the electric company that
The Shooting Gallery has a cash flow problem and that the light bill can’t be
paid but they’ll get their money if they’re patient. Or if her own paycheck
is being held up.  

    Nickin, of course, says That’s different.

    I surprise her here, I think, given my query about the electric company
and her salary check, which queries had sarcastic subtext, although my
tone was pleasant. I say, Don’t worry about it. I tell her that Fishman owes
me the money anyway, not her company. 

    She tells me that Fishman doesn’t have the money either.

    I know a rip off coming when I see it, from my old smuggling days. There
is now no question in my mind that Fishman and The Shooting Gallery
have no intention of paying me the 15k. But why would they do this, rip me
off for a measly 15k when the movie will cost millions?

    I have a theory. Based upon the conversation about the adaptation
I already had with Fishman, I’m thinking that there is zero chance that
the screenplay being written by Fishman and Woole will be shootable. In
other words, there will be no movie, no millions spent. This is obvious to
everyone involved, I figure, especially to The Shooting Gallery, which is
stalling payment after being nearly three months late to begin with. (The
Shooting Gallery probably agreed with Fishman to shoulder the 15k debt,
but that had nothing to do with me; that was between them and Fishman.)
Cusack himself, I’m figuring, doesn’t give a shit about me getting paid or not
getting paid – there’s no way he’s made himself liable for any outlay. He’s
free-riding it on this, as movie stars do, based on Hollywood entitlement,
as with Sean Penn and my other book.

    Why do I figure the screenplay is unshootable? During our conversation
about the adaptation Fishman informed me that “one change” was being
made from the book to the screen story. What change is that? I wanted to
know, and yes, my writer’s queasy gut was already flaring.

    The change was that they made José, the Full Blown Bandito, the Cosmic
Bandito of the title, a woman…

    If you happened to have read the book, and if you happened to be dead
right now, you’d be spinning in your grave. And while spinning in your
grave you’d maybe be concocting variations of catch-22s about dumb
people and movies not getting made. But I have to assume you haven’t
read the book. So imagine this. Imagine that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance
was originally a book. Imagine that a movie producer options the book
and then tells the author that he loves and respects the book, and the one
change they’re making is that Butch is going to be a babe.

    Now try to imagine how the movie would go… instead of one of the
classic buddy movies of all time… instead of that great scene at the end
when Butch and Sundance are all shot up and about to be slaughtered by a
thousand Bolivian soldiers and they’re arguing about where they’re going
next… instead of that climactic scene now imagine they have a lover’s spat
about… about that time Sundance was insensitive when Butch was PMS-
ing. (Butch would be the babe, I figure, since a babe who robs banks is
going to be… well… butch.) 

    Hearing the above about José now being a woman, I was too astounded
to respond. All I managed as a stalling tactic while I regrouped was a query
about what the babe full blown bandito was now named. 

    Still José, Fishman said.

    I don’t understand. José is now a woman but she’s still named José?

    Yes! Fishman said. As if this is some sort of subtle stroke of genius. A

    Maybe Fishman was also comparing the scenario to Butch Cassidy and
figured that if Butch could still be called Butch if Butch was a babe, he
should call José José even if José was now a babe. 

    Or maybe he kept the name José out of respect for the material.

    Boy, I’d like to read the screenplay, I said. I was curious, in the morbid
sense. (Right: It would turn out to be The Worst Screenplay in the History
of the World.) 

    Sure, Fishman said, but first he wants to give it to The Shooting Gallery,
see what they think, and then give it to Cusack. My theory at the time
was that Fishman gave the screenplay to The Shooting Gallery and The
Shooting Gallery wanted to save 15k by ripping off the author of the
original material, me, since the screenplay was unshootable. 

    As it will turn out, I gave The Shooting Gallery too much credit by
assuming they even realized the screenplay was unshootable. As it will
turn out, the reason The Shooting Gallery intended to rip me off was less
subtle and imaginative, albeit sleazier.

    After talking with The Shooting Gallery’s lawyer, Amy Nickin, the lying
slug, I call Fishman back and get right to the point. I tell him if I don’t get
the money by the next day I’ll come out to L.A. and deal with the problem
in person. I add that since I don’t like dealing with lawyers – or even being
in close physical proximity to the shitball motherfuckers, even Steven, my
Hollywood one – I have no intention of suing him. I then muster a tone
best described as…. demented… and say that I’m really looking forward to
meeting him, if he gets my drift. Thinking about the Men’s Journal guy’s
reaction to this sort of thing, I’m figuring a FedEx-ed check will arrive the
next day. 

    Fishman tells me Great and that he’s looking forward to meeting me and
lunch will be on him. I swear to God that’s what he said. I have it right here
in my contemporaneous notes.

    I don’t want to fly out to L.A., I’m thinking, especially with Mom so sick
and all. Plus, beating up Fishman would probably not get the job done;
I’d just get in trouble, or maybe get myself beat up. The guy didn’t sound
tough, but who knew? The thing about dumb people is that sometimes
they’ll surprise you. All that unused brain power can surface in weird,
unexpected ways.

    So I ponder my options.

    Who should I turn my attention towards?

    Why not Cusack?   

    So I call his company, New Crime Productions, and speak to the executive
in charge of the deal. To my chagrin, she’s very nice, seems really genuine
and concerned when she tells me that she understands my frustration at
not getting paid, and at finding out about all the deals that had been struck
through articles in Variety and calls from envious shitball motherfucker
Hollywood writers, words to that effect.  

    Before she can get too nice and genuine and concerned – which would
cause me to lose heart in my mission – I muster a tirade to the effect that
I’m coming out to L.A. to look up her boss Cusack and confront him for the
money since it was he who blabbed all over the TV and to the Hollywood
trade papers that he had control of my book and was now a producer on
the project along with the dumb-ass Fishman and since producers are
responsible for seeing that writers get paid I don’t care who my contract is
with so I’m coming to L.A. and I’m really pissed off. I may have worked in
my outrage over my Full Blown Bandito José character now being a woman
who is somehow still named José. If I didn’t, I should have.

    An added plus here is that the main source of humor in Cosmic Banditos is
that the narrator is pretty much out of his mind (if not outright demented);
he is the drug–addled perpetrator of rampant criminality, blatant and
unapologetic nihilism and all around chaos and destruction. And keep in
mind that the narrator is based on me. This is all anyone involved in the
deal really knows about me. I haven’t yet met any of them.  

    In the wake of my mustered tirade the woman executive is still nice
and genuine and concerned so I do what I have to before I lose heart and
apologize for my ranting hostility. I hang up.  

    I wait to see What Happens Next.

    It’s spectacular.

    The phone will not stop ringing.

    First my then-literary agent calls wanting to know if I’m crazy or what
and then Amy Nickin, the lying slug of an attorney for The Shooting
Gallery, calls, all irate that I’m “behaving unprofessionally.” Fishman calls
saying… I don’t remember; I have no notes or recollections on the call.
Maybe something about our upcoming lunch, whether I have any dietary

    The phone keeps ringing, various Hollywoodites wanting to know if I’m
crazy and accusing me of unprofessionalism and so forth. Sitting by the
kitchen phone at Mom’s house in North Carolina, I’m rather enjoying all
the fuss and dismay.  

    Mom is toward the end of her life during all this; she will die in a few
weeks, in late April. She’s weak but still lucid. She says she’s worried about
me threatening people but has faith that I know what I’m doing. I tell Mom
not to worry, that I do know what I’m doing, and that the situation and how
I’m handling it is the usual with Hollywood deals. This isn’t strictly true, of
course. I say it to un-worry Mom.

   Late that same night Cusack himself calls, wakes me up. He’s affable,
chit-chats a bit, asks how Mom is; I’ve made no secret that I’m taking care
of her in her illness. (The image of a demented writer taking care of his
dying Mom may be a source of further worry about what I’m capable of — I
think Jeffrey Dahmer loved his Mom, too.) He seems genuine, mentioning
something about his own Mom. Then he gets to the point, says he didn’t
know about my treatment by Fishman and The Shooting Gallery. He’s off
promoting his latest movie and out of that loop. He doesn’t blame me a bit
for my behavior and promises that my money is forthcoming, and soon.
Says he’ll be personally responsible for the payment.

   Okay, I say. Great. Thank you. I definitely believe him on all this. I didn’t
threaten the guy because I figured he directly had anything to do with the
problem; I just figured it would work. I tell him this and we laugh. I even
apologize if I’ve upset anyone other than Nickin or Fishman, although
in my opinion I haven’t upset Fishman since Fishman apparently doesn’t
realize that I have threatened anyone. Fishman isn’t the brightest bulb on
the Hollywood marquee, I say, words to that effect. Cusack laughs, but
with a little edge to it; I’m talking about his producing partner here. But our
conversation winds down naturally and quite cordially.

    The guy’s all right, I’m thinking. Provisionally. I wait to see if the money
shows up.

    The check arrives by FedEx the next day. Issued by The Shooting

    But one last thing. I wait to see if the check clears.

    It does.

As I say, I was wrong in my theory that The Shooting Gallery was refusing
to pay me because they knew the movie was not going to get made (due to
the script being unshootable), and they were trying to save the 15k. They
were trying to save the 15k but for a different reason.

    I monitored the situation to see What Would Happen Next. 

    Less than a month later The Shooting Gallery went belly up. Chapter 11.
Poof. Gone. 

    Remember Amy Nickin’s promise that I’d get my money in 30 days? 

    Right: They had no intention whatever of paying me before running for
the bankruptcy hills.

    But why did they pay me? 

    Because everyone involved in the company figured they’d soon enough
be back working in Hollywood (maybe they’d immediately start another
company fresh and debt free) and therefore did not want to alienate John
Cusack, who no doubt made an irate call to them, demanding that I be

    I was crazy and unprofessional but I got my money.

    Mom loved it that all this worked out.  She even saw the humor in it, my
threatening a movie star and so forth. But she worried, too. She worried
about all the problems I was having with people, like my demented Zero
editor, who by now had cut off communications with me, partially due to
treachery on the part of my then-book agent. 

    But the main thing Mom worried about was that I’d find someone to love
in this world. 


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