25 Years In LA Part 1: Gene Hackman, Eazy-E, and Albert Brooks defending a film

When I left Tampa, it was the crack of dawn. I was in the passenger's seat of the Chevette that Scott Swan owned, and we were on our way to California to be rich and famous.

I was 20 years old. I thought I had all the answers. I had a screenplay called “The President Must Die!” with me that I was sure was going to be produced by the following summer with an all-star cast. We had all of them picked. Harrison Ford, Robert DeNiro, Robin Williams. Scott and I had spent the entire spring writing it, and we were done. Absolutely, completely, positively done. It was perfect. It was going to be a huge hit. This was the logical next step.

This wasn't our first script, either. We had written a script together called “Moondance” during my first year of college, and a script called “A Weekend Away” during my second year of college. They were both comedies featuring the same main character, Jerry Salmon. We had tried to raise the money to make “A Weekend Away” during the spring, while I was finishing school, and we had come up dry. We were looking for just under a million dollars, and we just didn't knock on the right doors.

It couldn't have been the scripts… right? I mean, that's what you tell yourself at the time, and when I look at the material now, I am both impressed and embarrassed in equal measure. I had a hell of a lot of energy in my early writing, and I cranked it out, but a lot of it is straight-up derivative, and frustratingly so. There are some great moments of behavior in the writing, and that's what I think holds up, if anything does.

I used to write everything longhand… I still do that throughout the process now, often feeling more comfortable working something out on paper before I open up the actual screenplay software. But when I was first starting to write screenplays, I'd lay on the carpet in front of whatever TV I had access to, movie after movie playing, turning out pages. Scott and I met when we were fifteen, at school, and we'd done a ton of video work together. That's the entire reason we went to Armwood High School. My parents had read the same literature that his parents read, promising them a school that had some very progressive programs, including a working television studio. My parents were starting to worry about me and school, as well they should have. I was very good at anything I decided to be very good at, and I was terrible at everything else. I had no problem failing a class that rubbed me the wrong way, which used to make my father justifiably insane. He fought his own personal battles with school that he eventually conquered in style, and I think he just wanted to save me a certain amount of pain. When he saw a television production program, he knew that he'd found the right bait for the hook, and we moved to Tampa.

Sure enough, I flourished there. And for three years, I worked to produce daily video content. Very quickly, Scott and I were teamed on things, since he'd also moved to Tampa to attend this school and this particular program. Our teacher, Tom Crowe, was the one who put us together to see what would happen, scheduling us for the same class and intentionally seating us side-by-side.

But even he couldn't have guessed that Scott and I would decide that the best way to work was as a screenwriting team. As I went to school in one city and Scott in another, we were breaking things into sections and writing and sending them back and forth. Longhand. Because that's what we had. E-mail? Nope. Not remotely. I kept notebooks that went into envelopes, and he sent typed stacks of pages from his own end. And by the time I was done with school, we had about five or six things, scripts that he wrote or that I wrote or that we wrote. And we had that video, all that footage of us from high school, and the shows we did and the short films we made. We were armed, I thought.

Someday, I'd love to get my hands on a tape and watch those shorts again. I haven't seen some of it in almost a quarter of a century now.

Because that's how long I've been in LA.

We came here in the summer of 1990. That wasn't originally the plan, but then one morning I woke up to the news that Jim Henson had died, and it changed everything. I felt like if he could die, if someone who burned as brightly as that could just disappear overnight, then I wasn't going to wait for anything else. I was going to get moving, get started, get working.

I worked my multiple jobs right up until I left town, and Scott and I both had a basic idea of where we'd be working when we got to LA, but nothing firm. I worked at movie theaters and video stores in Tampa, and sure enough, I worked at movie theaters and video stores in Los Angeles. Those early days, Scott and I were in it side by side. We found a place to live. We found the job together. We changed jobs together. We made jumps from place to place looking for the right situation, going through a small parade of roommates in the first three years.  

And we worked on the scripts together. That was always in the works. We moved restlessly, writing quick. At that point, Scott Swan was 20 years old, and when he took the right picture from the right angle, he was Orson Welles. It wasn't close; it was spooky. So of course, we wrote a movie about Orson Welles, and he would star as Orson Welles, and the most Orson Welles thing that Orson Welles could do would be to write and direct the film as well, so of course that's what we wanted to do. And we wrote “The Making of Orson Welles.”

Our strategy was simple. We took pictures of Scott, we put them in the cover page, tucked in, and we did everything we could to get those scripts to people. We pulled the Spielberg trick of sneaking onto the Universal lot and leaving scripts everywhere. We even used the copy rooms at Universal to make the copies that we distributed. And in those early days, I was fearless about walking up to anyone and asking them to read something I wrote.

Here, then, are 25 stories about my time in Los Angeles:

1. “I'd like an agent, please.”

Our first night in LA, we stayed at a motel right at the 5 freeway's Buena Vista exit. The next day, we went out in the morning to see various landmarks, and we got as lost as we could possibly be. It was our first time on the LA freeways, and it all just seemed overwhelming. Finally, afraid we were going to waste our entire first day in town, we found a pay phone and I called the front desk at CAA, which was at the time the biggest talent agency in the world.

“Hi, I'd like an agent, please,” I said, happy as could be.

The poor switchboard operator on the phone proceeded to laugh for about 45 straight minutes. When she finally composed herself, she managed to say, “Oh, sweetie, that's not how it works.”

She went on to explain networking to me, how I'd need to get a job, meet people, gradually start showing my work to those people, and then someone would either introduce me to an agent, or an agent would read something and contact me. That turned out to be exactly how it happened, but that afternoon, all I could really hear was the laughter that greeted my question. Embarrassed, I thanked her for her time, hung up, and informed Scott that we had some serious re-thinking to do.

2. Gene Hackman is the nicest guy

My first job in Los Angeles was working as a theater manager in Sherman Oaks at the GCC. It was a five-plex at the time, with two theaters on one side of the street and three in the building on the other side.

Right around the time we arrived in LA, there were headlines about Gene Hackman having a near-miss with a major heart attack, and he decided to take the rest of the year off from working to be with his family. Hackman lived within walking distance of our theater, and every Friday morning, he would stroll down before the first show and see whatever was playing. The first time he showed up, I was so excited I almost didn't know what to say or do. At that point, I was still keeping an actual written list of famous people that I'd met, and very few of the names on that list were as amazing as Gene Hackman. After all, this is the guy who gave some of the most impressive performances of the '70s and the '80s, a guy who could be equally great in “Superman: The Movie” or “The Conversation,” and suddenly he was standing in front of me asking for a ticket.

The second time he showed up, I gave him an employee ticket, refusing his cash when he offered it. He tried a few times, and I just smiled and gave him the free ticket. That became the Friday morning tradition. He showed up, I gave him an employee ticket, and sometimes we'd chat for a few minutes. He and his son were building a plane together during his time away from movies, and we talked about his progress on that project. We would also just talk about the movies opening each week. Hackman's a genuine movie fan, and he would try to see everything.

What impressed me most about him during that time, though, was watching what happened when people approached him in the theater. I saw him sign some autographs, and there were a couple of people who asked him for a picture. Most common of all were the people who would walk up to talk to him about films they'd worked on, and in every single one of those encounters, what blew me away was the way he would immediately know who they were, what film it was, what they did on it, and often even details like family members and their names. Every single time, the person who had walked up to him looked stunned at just how sharp Hackman's recall was, and many of them were visibly moved at how nice he was when asking after them and their loved ones.

It taught me early on that you're never too big to be kind, and that when you're working on a film, you should try to get to know all the people around you. They're not just faceless crew, and seeing how Hackman treated them has stuck with me, especially when I see people far less talented and legendary treating crew members poorly. It says a lot about who you are.

3. Albert Brooks defended 'Defending Your Life'

One of the first things I did when I moved to Los Angeles was go to a test screening. It was for the John Milius film “Flight Of The Intruder,” but it could have been anything and I would have gone. The entire idea of being able to see a film in rough form and offer feedback to the filmmakers was enormously exciting to me. The version of the film I saw was pretty much what came out in theaters with one massive difference. In the version I saw, Ed O'Neill showed up near the end of the film leading a court martial, and as soon as appeared onscreen, people started yelling, “BUNDYYYYYYY!” This was at the height of the success of “Married With Children,” and it was clear that some of the people in the theater simply couldn't see him as anything but Al Bundy. By the time the movie came out, he had been surgically excised and Fred Dalton Thompson had been dropped into his spot in the film.

The theater where I worked was used for test screenings at least twice a week, sometimes more, and I got to see every aspect of the process up close. It led me to feel that every filmmaker should have the right to test their films if they want to, but it also led me to believe that the process was broken, a rigged deck that wasn't working for the filmmakers. More than anything, it looked to me like they were used to take control away from filmmakers and to order them to make changes they didn't want to make.

One of the most remarkable things I ever witnessed at a test screening happened towards the end of the process on “Defending Your Life,” the amazing Albert Brooks comedy about the afterlife. It had tested three or four times already by the time they booked a Wednesday night test using both of the theaters side-by-side. On one screen, they tested one version, and on another, they were testing a fairly different version. Much of the source of contention revolved around the original opening of the film, which took almost fifteen minutes to get to the afterlife.

About fifteen or twenty minutes into the screening, the doors to one of the theaters flew open, and David Geffen stormed out, Albert Brooks about two steps behind him. “… not even a question anymore. We cut it.”

Brooks sputtered, furious as he replied. “We are NOT cutting it! You're talking about cutting out everything that defines who this guy is.”

For the next five minute, they raged at each other. Full blown, no punches pulled, yelling, and at first, I couldn't believe how mad they were. But listening to the two of them, it was clear that they both felt like they had a great movie on their hands, and they were just trying to figure out the best way to hook the audience up front. Geffen wasn't trying to randomly cut things out; he honestly felt like the faster you got the audience to the afterlife, the quicker the movie could get its point across. He wanted to open the film with the actual crash, cutting everything before it.

And Brooks? He had a reason for every line, every joke, every shot. He could articulate exactly what impact each change would have. His passion was amazing, and considering how much I loved his work already by that point, it was educational to hear him talk about joke structure and story development, even if it was at top volume and punctuated with some creative cursing. He wanted the entire opening sequence there.

In the end, the version of the film you saw in theaters is shorter than the original version, but Brooks found a way to condense most of that into a sharp and spry opening sequence, getting to the crash by the end of the closing credits, a compromise that seemed to satisfy Geffen's notes without gutting what Brooks had done. The point of this isn't about who “won” or “lost.” Instead, it was obvious from that particular encounter that sometimes, there is no right or wrong in a creative fight. Everyone can be defending a good position well, and the ultimate goal is to take all of that input and use it to make the best possible movie.

4. Eazy-E was easy to deal with

Nine times out of ten, when I walked up to someone to introduce myself and talk to them about their work, they immediately knew what I was going to talk to them about. I'm sure most celebrities can tell as soon as they walk into a room who knows them and who doesn't just based on the looks they're given. Every now and then, though, you can surprise someone completely.

One night I was working, and Scott (who worked at the same theater) was off for the evening but hanging out so we could talk between films. As we were talking, his eyes grew wide at something or someone he spotted behind me.


He said it low so I was the only one who could hear, and I turned to look over my shoulder where, sure enough, Eazy E, one of the founding members of N.W.A., was over by the pay phones.

I'm not going to pretend I was particularly dialed in to the rap world in 1990, but there was a co-worker in Florida who wanted to be a professional rapper, and Reggie had lost his mind when “Straight Outta Compton” first came out. He played it for us constantly, and we got fairly familiar with them as a result.

He walked back into his theater, and I assumed that was it. About fifteen minutes later, though, he walked back out and went to the pay phones again. He checked a beeper on his belt, dialed a number, and talked for a few minutes, then hung up. Instead of going back into the theater, he started looking at posters, and I decided I had to take the opportunity.

I walked over, smiling. “I really like what you do,” I said.

He regarded me for a moment, then smiled as well. “What is it that you think that I do?”

“You're Eazy-E.”

“You're right!” By this point, Scott had joined me, and we started talking to him about his work and what we liked, and he burst out laughing in the middle of one of our sentences. “You guys are a trip,” he told us. “Wait here.”

He walked out to the parking lot, then returned with an armful of stuff, tapes and LPs and even a hat. He was so entertained at our enthusiasm that he stood in the lobby chatting for another half-hour or so before finally going back into the movie (“I don't even know what this is… I just know she wanted to see it.”), and he said good-bye again as he was walking out. It was nice to be able to shake a celebrity's notions of who their audience is, and to see such a human side of someone who played such a particular character in his artistic life.

5. Clint Eastwood put me on the spot

One of my other main duties at the theater was handling trade screenings for theater owners and people who did the booking for the different chains. They were typically early in the morning, well before our first scheduled show, and I would set out breakfast stuff and coffee and drinks, then make sure our projectionist was ready and all of our guests were there. Normally, for the trade screenings, it would just be someone from the studio to introduce the movie, but one morning, I got the bonus treatment.

I had only been at the theater for about five minutes before there was a knock on the door and I went to open it. Clint Eastwood stood there by himself. No handlers. No assistants. Nothing. Just Clint Eastwood, Living Legend.

I let him in and told him I still needed to set up. He started a conversation as I worked, and I was amazed how easy it was to talk to him once I got over my initial adrenaline burst. As the guests for the screening started showing up, Eastwood took the time to speak to each and every one of them. It was impressive watching this man work the room, making each booker feel special, making all the theater owners feel like real partners. There's a reason Eastwood has had an unbelievably long career that has gone through so many stages and changed so many different ways, and it's because he is 100% involved in the films he makes. He worked that room like it was his very first film and everything depended on their reaction to it.

When it was time for the actual screening, I started to clean things up, but Eastwood asked me if I wanted to watch the film instead. That was a really kind offer, so I said I'd love to, not understanding quite what was being asked. I followed him into the theater, and he led me directly to my seat. Which was directly next to his seat.

And then we watched “The Rookie.”

Which I haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaated.

And during the entire thing, I had Clint Eastwood, Living Legend, sitting there about six inches away from me, occasionally glancing over. To this day, it remains one of the most surreal ways to see a film that I've ever experienced, and the fact that scene after scene just made me hate the film more only made Eastwood's proximity even stranger. By the end, I felt like I was on a prank show, and I was thankful for the rush of activity that took me away while he was still talking to the other people at the screening afterwards.

Tomorrow, we're going to start getting into some very specific movie memories, and the first thing I ever saw produced. It's going to be a great one, and I hope you're back here for it, as well as the other three articles I'll be publishing after that. This was just about the early days in LA when I was still getting used to running into famous people or working around them. I didn't move to LA to work in movie theaters, though. I moved to LA so I could make movies, and I had work to do.