When asked about his promotion at a Hollywood studio, Kaplan’s standard joke was that he’d reached the point of having “No” power. That meant that thanks to an ascent from free- lance reader to a position in what was known as the Story Department, then from there to Story Editor, and finally to the post of Development Exec, he had reached a place where the only real authority he had was to reject a project brought to him by an agent, a producer, or a screenwriter.
If, which happened all too rarely, he found himself truly enamored of a screenplay, a novel, or a pitch – or managed to discover something he didn’t particularly like, but was certain would be a hit – Kaplan’s options were limited. First he could do everything imaginable to make sure that what was known as the “coverage” (which meant a synopsis, plus a paragraph in which the project was likened to other films past and present, as well as suggestions for casting and possibilities as director) was strong and effusive. Then he could bring it to the attention of the studio VP most likely to respond favorably.
Since the bulk of “Go” projects came in at a far higher level – either as a “package,” which meant that stars and a director were already attached, or alternatively as a best-selling novel or hit play – Kaplan’s involvement in them was largely an exercise that, almost invariably, led to frustration or futility.
Instead of simply acceding to the barrage of business breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and drinks, plus screenings, pitch sessions, and phone calls that came with his job – as well as the endless array of in-house meetings, briefings, and confabs, not to mention the viewing of dailies of whatever films happened to be shooting at any given point – Kaplan made a point of maintaining two additional pursuits, which he performed with as much diligence and vigilance as possible.
First and foremost, despite the fact that his recommendations were almost invariably ignored – or worse overruled – was the ongoing quest for something that would prove that his taste, instincts, and acumen were impeccable. Whether in the form of a script, a set of galleys, or even a pitch, such a project would, Kaplan hoped, establish him not merely as a gifted evaluator of material, but also as a prognosticator who could sense what both the Oscar voters and the public at large craved.
While searching for that career-maker, Kaplan also did everything in his power to be what he called a “facilitator.” That meant providing constructive criticism and other input on projects that were not his own (or in some cases not even his own studio’s), sharing helpful information about who was looking for this or that around town, and above all being a “matchmaker.” That effort involved providing writers, and sometimes directors, with introductions to agents. Plus letting agents know which writers and directors were unhappy with their current representation. And above all, informing young people employed as readers, whether free-lance or in studio positions, with info about opportunities for advancement.
Much of that effort owed to Kaplan’s eagerness to give others the kinds of help that he wished had been available to him. But it also, he came to understand, served as a means of gaining currency in the movie biz “favor bank.”
In a town where seemingly everyone – waiters, kindergarten teachers, dermatologists, insurance salesmen, golf pros, and even towel men at the local car washes – had a screenplay (or at least a friend, lover, or relative with one) – Kaplan, not surprisingly, was continually besieged with overtures, requests, and pleas, not to mention unsolicited pdfs and manila envelopes bearing scripts that arrived at both his office and house.
Kaplan’s explanation of his “No” power helped to some degree with those he did not know, or only knew in passing. But it was less successful with those with whom he had a relationship or a shared past. With friends, relatives, plus people he knew in high school, or through Little League, summer camp, or another random piece of personal history, he made certain to include a reference to the enormous pile of scripts crying for his attention when invoking his “No” power. Then, always with more than a measure of trepidation, he at some point thumbed through enough pages to be able to sound somewhat knowledgeable before sending what he called a “Thanks, but no thanks” note – always with sufficient words of praise, plus euphemisms such as “Not quite what the studios are looking for at the moment,” to keep from incurring an overabundance of wrath or pique.
So it was with a sinking feeling in his stomach, on a Saturday morning when he was trying to avoid a pile of screenplays, treatments, and galleys, that he glanced at an email from an old friend who, as luck would have it, had just finished a script.
Pete Fisher was the very first person Kaplan met when he showed up as a nervous 18-year- old for orientation at college. Improbably, in addition to being assigned to adjacent rooms in their freshman dorm, both proved to be English majors, total sports junkies, collectors of vinyl albums – Kaplan leaning toward old R&B, whereas Pete favored Soul – and obsessive movie buffs.
For four years they wound up spending most of their vacation time together, occasionally at Kaplan’s parents’ place in Santa Monica, other times at Pete’s parents’ cabin in the Canadian woods, and occasionally on girl-chasing trips to Sweden, Thailand, or New Orleans.
Though their time together understandably diminished after graduation, especially when Pete left California to take a job at an advertising agency in Montreal, it was he whom Kaplan chose to be the best man at his wedding. And named godfather when Kaplan’s first daughter, Amy, was born. And it was Pete who flew in immediately when daughter #2, Evelyn, who quickly became known as Evie, joined the family.
Terrified that Pete’s script might cause an important friendship to be impaired – or worse, lost – Kaplan dawdled for as long as he could before finally taking a peek one Saturday morning while his wife was at yoga, and his daughters were watching cartoons. Prepared to peruse only a few pages, then skim the rest, he quickly found himself immersed in what proved to be a touching, largely autobiographical tale about boy whose parents’ marriage explodes just as he’s set to enter middle school.
Filled with keenly observed behavior, plus bits of unexpected humor amidst the sturm und drang, such as when the main character, Teddy, sneaks into a local brothel, then attempts to blackmail his father with in flagrante delecto photos, the hundred-and-five pages proved to be an absolute joy.
Instead of being relieved, however, Kaplan found himself in a pickle, which meant that he delayed the call he was obligated to make. When, finally, he reached out to his friend, he began with a couple of minutes of small talk, then, as was often said in Hollywood, “Cut to the chase.”
“Let’s talk about your script,” he announced. “Which, I must tell you, I really like a lot.” “That’s great news!” Pete exclaimed.
“Except,” Kaplan found himself saying with uncharacteristic regret, “it’s not quite what the studios are looking for at this moment.”
“So it was a waste of time?” “I wouldn’t say that.”
“But if it’s not what they’re looking for, what good is it?” “If you were somebody who was here – ”
“– And wanting to make it in the movie business, instead of being far away and happy with what he’s doing –”
“I’d say it’d be a great door opener. And writing sample. And calling card.” “What if I’m not happy with what I’m doing?”
“And willing to relocate?” “But –”
“Let me put it to you this way. The ad campaign I just finished was for a wretched tasting coffee, where the tag I came up with was: “It’s got the grinds to blow your mind!”
“And before that, I oversaw a TV spot with dancing carrots!” “Pete –”
“If I don’t make a change soon, I’ll wind up with either a life sentence or a trip to the loony bin!”
Thanks to introductions provided by Kaplan, Pete emailed the script to three agents, two of whom loved it, while the third complained that instead of being “high concept,” it focused, of
all things, on people. Before signing with either of the agents who responded positively, Pete flew to Los Angeles in order to meet with each one in person. His key question in both get- togethers was simple: “Will it help my career if I move to town?”
Not surprisingly, the answer was the same: a resounding “Yes!”
After choosing the woman who regaled him with a story about her recent healing session (whatever that was) over the guy who showed up forty minutes late saying, “You know how those Ferrari dealerships are,” Pete bade farewell both to advertising and to Canada. Three days later he signed a lease for an apartment in a part of LA called Mar Vista.
There, when not scurrying to meetings in which the praise for his script was, as he told
Kaplan, the equivalent of being “Patted on the head,” he started work on a second screenplay.
Though his agent suggested – gingerly at first, then with increasing vehemence – that he come up with “something commercial” to pitch, Pete resisted. His goal, he explained, was not to pitch, but to write scripts that he, himself, cared about and would indeed like to see on- screen.
As a result his life, in part by choice, but also because he knew so few people in town, was strangely monastic. Other than a Saturday morning basketball game that he discovered, his non-writing time consisted of early morning jogs on Venice Boulevard before traffic built up, countless hours on Netflix watching episodes of TV series from around the globe – “Spiral” from France, the Italian series “Crime Novel,” England’s “Peaky Blinders,” and the Irish “Love/Hate” – late nights pouring through mystery novels by a Cuban named Leonardo Padura Fuentes, and occasional breaks throughout the day throughout the day in which he listened to the likes of Ray Charles, Nina Simone, and Solomon Burke. Then, on Sunday evenings, there were dinners with Kaplan and his family, who referred to him as Uncle Petey.
Two months passed, and then another script was ready to face the world. Once again, Kaplan was effusive, even while adding that without star casting the tale of a couple who break up but remain living under the same roof for financial reasons was likely not studio fare.
Pete’s agent, Susanna Brand, after telling him first about her deviated septum, then her boyfriend’s habitual impatience with foreplay, also gushed, vowing to send the screenplay to what she called “discerning producers.”
Another round of “Let’s get acquainted” meetings ensued, during which names like Jake Gyllenhaal, Emma Stone, Joseph Gorden-Levitt, and Zoe Kazan were bandied about. Yet once again there proved to be a total absence of what Pete thought of as “cause and effect.”
Despite mounting frustration, plus a diminishing bank account, Pete not only embarked upon a third script, but also took a different sort of leap into the unknown. Fed up with his hermit-like existence, and hoping for a way to overcome his intrinsic shyness, he sought out something that might add additional depth to his screenwriting, while also enabling him to meet women. In other words, he signed up for an acting workshop.
Two-and-a-half months, plus a couple of so-so relationships and three somewhat forgettable one-night-stands later, Pete Fisher announced to the world – which meant Kaplan, Susanna Brand, plus the aspiring actress named Victoria whom he was then dating – that his best script ever was finished.
Though both Susanna and Kaplan concurred with his judgment , the impact within the Hollywood community was surprisingly negligible. Despite positive feedback about the writing, no one, it seemed, had the slightest bit of interest in a yarn about an inner city high school teacher’s success in inspiring a bunch of disaffected kids. And in contrast to his previous experiences, this time no producers or studio execs bothered to request a meeting.
At lunch with Kaplan the following Tuesday, Pete was understandably downhearted. “Know what I’d like?” he asked while munching on an ahi tuna salad.
“Instead of hearing how well-written my scripts are, once – just once – I’d love to hear somebody say, The writing’s only so-so, but I really want to buy the damn thing!”
“Sounds like somebody’s down.” “How could that be?”
Instead of returning to his lair that afternoon, Pete drove out to Venice Beach. There he checked out his favorite mural, an homage to Orson Welles called “Touch Of Venice,” then wandered aimlessly along Ocean Front Walk before strolling to the water’s edge.
Gazing out at the waves, he made a decision. Instead of pouring his heart into another personal script, he would give himself a week in which to come up with a notion that in “industry” terms was both High Concept and Commercial. Then he would allow himself two weeks or so – but three maximum – in which to write a draft.
It was the following night, while listening to Victoria complain about a rotten audition, that an idea almost magically asserted itself. Excusing himself, Pete got up from his girlfriend’s living room couch, drove home, and feverishly scribbled notes.
The next morning, as if in a frenzy, he started scripting. Taking fewer breaks than ever before, he wrote, and wrote, and wrote. Not knowing whether it was inspiration that propelled him, or some kind of strange manic energy, Pete kept pounding away, not worrying about nuance, style, or the quest for the perfect turn of phrase.
Ten days later, to his amazement, he had a draft. Foregoing his customary meticulousness, Pete did a bit of perfunctory proofreading, then sent pdfs to both Susanna and Kaplan.
“This is so not you!” Kaplan responded two days later. “But do you like it?”
“You know what? I really do.”
“I didn’t know you had it in you!” Susanna proclaimed the following morning. “So what’s next?”
“How about if I send it out to two or three people to test the water?”
“Not two or three,” Pete replied. “Ten, minimum. Or even better, twenty.” “But it could be dead overnight.”
“In contrast to my other three scripts? No less than ten producers, and I want to be copied on each submission.”
“And if I disagree?”
“Then I ask Kaplan to find me another agent.”
Though Pete spoke more out of pique than true confidence, the following Monday a bidding war began. Whether it was because of a belief in the project, or simply due to the innate competitiveness that existed among producers, seemingly everyone in town was suddenly vying for a script described by execs as having a Killer Hook! and Franchise Potential!
Even as he brought in a lawyer to help set the terms, then spent much time monitoring the torrid negotiations, Pete Fisher stole a moment every so often to peek at the loglines of the coverage that came his way. Bumbling rookie cop, began the one that soon was his favorite, becomes the star of the local police force thanks to an unlikely mentor: a street-smart talking dog who sounds like a mix of Snoop, Samuel L. Jackson, and the late Richard Pryor.
Once a headline-generating deal was finalized, instead of exulting in his new-found glory, or thanking his lucky stars for the financial stability that was suddenly his, Pete found himself sinking into a kind of depression he had never before experienced.
Virtually immobilized, he was urged first by Kaplan, then by Victoria, and ultimately by Susanna as well, to seek help.
Ignoring their entreaties, he remained indoors day after day, munching on deliveries of Chinese food and pizza while alternating between fitful naps and old episodes of “The Wire.” Even when Kaplan popped by in an attempt to roust his friend with talk about the Dodgers, the NBA, and Soul legend Howard Tate, Pete was inconsolable.
“What’s so wrong with success?” a stymied Kaplan finally asked.
“What kind of success?” Pete countered.
“They bought your script.” “No they didn’t.”
“Then what in hell did they buy?”
“More dancing carrots!”
A week-and-a-half into his doldrums, a call came that Fisher initially took to be a prank. “This is Brian McKeen from Toronto,” announced a deep voice at the other end, “and I’ve made a couple of low-budget films up this way. I don’t know if I can afford you now that you’re hot, but I’d love to produce that script you wrote about a kid whose parents are divorcing. If, that is, I can do it at a price.”
“Is this some kind of joke?” “I beg your pardon?”
“I’m going to my computer. Tell me your name again, plus the titles of your films.”
The caller did as requested, bringing about an instantaneous change in Pete after the info given to him checked out on a site called imdb.
“Money’s not an issue,” Pete then stated. “If, that is, you do something that makes it appealing.”
“Let me act in it.” “B-but –”
“Not as one of the stars. In a supporting role.” “I don’t know what to say –”
“I’m not trying to force you. But what you should know is that I’ve been in an acting workshop for a while. How about I fly up there – at my own expense – and do a screen test? If I stink, it costs you nothing. But if you like what you see, we’ll find a way to make things work.”
To Kaplan’s dismay, Pete Fisher made a quick trip to Toronto for the screen test later that week, then flew again to Canada three-and-a-half months later for his screen acting debut.
Once shooting was finished, Pete returned to LA, where he announced to Kaplan over lunch that the Canadian film was so amateurish that there was no chance in hell it would ever be released.
Instead of waiting for shooting to begin on what was initially titled “A Dog’s Tail,” but during the months of pre-production had become first “Woof!,” then “Mutt & Jake,” Pete mentioned as their tuna poke was being served that he was going use the windfall that had come his way to fulfill a lifelong dream of moving to Paris.
“Okay if I play business adviser for a moment?” Kaplan asked. “Be my guest.”
“With the spec script of the year soon to go into production, plus a Canadian film in the can – good, or not good – you’ve got the kind of heat that can help you get a directing gig – or, if you’d prefer, a pilot deal at a network. Why in hell would you leave now?”
“To figure out who I am.” “Pete –”
“Or at least who I want to be.”
Though Kaplan and Pete vowed to remain in close touch, the frequency of their Skype calls and emails soon dwindled from every few days to every couple of weeks, and from there to once in a blue moon, which ultimately came to mean on New Year’s Day and each other’s birthday.
Rarely, when in contact, was work ever discussed, which meant that Kaplan’s rise to studio VP was mentioned only in passing. The same was true about the short stories Pete placed with literary magazines he assumed did not even factor on a studio exec’s radar. Nor, did he dwell on the publication deal he made on a novel, except to note that being thinly-veiled autobiography it was likely neither “high concept” or “commercial.”
Some months later, on a Saturday morning when Kaplan’s plan to take his daughters to the park was temporarily delayed by a seemingly endless business call, he was angling for a way to get off the line when he heard the girls shrieking from the den.
Frightened, he raced in there to find the two of them pointing at the television. “Daddy!” both Amy and Evie screamed. “What’s Uncle Petey doing to that girl?”
“H-he’s… umm… helping her get rid of an itch,” Kaplan mumbled, only then remembering that in doing a re-write on the low-budget Canadian film, his old friend Pete had taken the liberty of giving himself a torrid love scene with the gorgeous actress who was cast as the mother.
ALAN SWYER is an award-winning filmmaker whose recent documentaries have dealt with Eastern spirituality in the Western world, the criminal justice system, diabetes, boxing, and baseball. His stories have appeared in England, Ireland, Germany, India, and in several American literary journals. His novel “The Beard” is will be published in March by Harvard Square Editions.