Chapter 1: Finding Home
As he drove his aging green Jaguar through the Hollywood Way gate and onto the Warner lot, a bit of movie business folklore bounced through Henry Wearie's head: If you have a hit when you're young, you'll never leave. The business was full of homemade salami like that. Because most everyone was flying blind, any ten-cent aphorism that had been around for a while took on an air of biblical infallibility.
The Jaguar was about two dings away from being a used car that once was fashionable. Henry didn't need reminding that he was once a fashionable writer who came to work through this gate every day. The guard didn't recognize him and gave him a parking assignment that Henry judged to be a half mile away. Might as well park in Glendale and take the bus. Make it as hard as possible for the writers, Henry thought. That was the real Hollywood way. Just as well. It wouldn't do for some studio pirate to see him driving a beat-up car. Henry was going to Projection Room Ten on the old part of the lot, the section that still looked like the 1940s with low-slung vanilla buildings and red tile roofs. The guard had offered a map to the distant parking space and directions to Room Ten. Henry passed on that and left the car in the first empty spot he saw. The hell with it. What were they going to do, arrest him for illegal parking?
Henry knew well enough where Room Ten was and he climbed the outside stairs at the rear of the building. It might have been easier to go through the front door but using this shortcut would demonstrate his familiarity with the place in case anyone like the guard at the Hollywood Way gate was watching. Oh, me-oh, my-oh, he thought. Coming here is making me unhinged. Madeleine, his ex, used to say that Henry thought too much about things that didn't matter. It never seemed like a fair complaint to him. He stopped for a moment and contemplated the cast-iron stairs of this fire escape, or whatever it was meant it to be, because the little ridges and bumps in the steel reminded him of a serrated bread knife. Oh, dear. Maybe later he could call Madeleine and tell her she was right after all, except they weren't speaking. Maybe he could send her an e-mail and then pretend not to notice if she didn't answer. Oh, me-oh, my-oh.
Henry found his way to the booth and asked, "Do you have Finding Home?" The projectionist was a young guy who looked eager to please. That was new. When Henry first worked at Warners, the projectionists, who sometimes called themselves engineers, were a prickly bunch, usually older men, lifers at the studio who were only too glad to tell you how they used to run dailies for Ronald Reagan. The booth looked the same, though, still piled high with film cans and cartons and old paper coffee cups.
"Got the studio print," the guy said. "From the original neg. I'm cued up."
"Did you check it?" Henry asked.
"Color's perfect. You could eat it with a spoon."
"I'll remember that if I get hungry."
"Mr. Desantis is on the way."
"Thank you." Ah. Held up once again by a studio executive. No doubt because he's busy writing cheesy notes for somebody's script. Easy, Henry, he thought. Desantis is just acting like what he is. Don't get your dukes up over any of this stuff.
Henry let himself into Room Ten, a little theater with a red curtain in front of the screen that was more ceremonial than useful. Henry knew it would groan as it opened. He sat down in front of the control panel. It was one of the old-fashioned kind. Just a few buttons and switches. He tested the intercom and fiddled with the volume dial. Henry liked these old panels. He never did more than adjust the sound or tell the projectionist to skip to the next reel, but operating it made him feel as if he was in control. It wasn't a feeling screenwriters often had on studio lots. Henry glanced around, feeling like a burglar in an old Warner Bros. picture. He was casing the joint, stealing a look. There were twenty well-padded leather chairs, though the leather was starting to crack in the ones next to the control panel. The screen was big enough to handle any format. The place had been painted since Henry was last here but other than that, the room looked as he remembered it, which was essentially the way it had looked since the days of Ronald Reagan and his dailies. The air had a damp and clammy feel. Henry remembered that as well. Probably from all the years of scared, sweaty people watching their fortunes rise or fall in all those formats on the screen in front of him. Now Warners was going to put Finding Home out in a DVD that would include an interview with Henry. Finding Home had been his first public success. At the time it felt as if it would be the first of many. Henry had arrived in Hollywood to join the parade when he had just turned twenty-one, young enough to squander a few years without noticing. He kicked around for a while writing scripts that didn't get made and rewriting other people's scripts until Streets of New York. He'd written it without a deal because no one had wanted it enough to hire him to write it. It wasn't his first spec script, but it was the first one he sold. Henry was paid $250,000. He had repeated that sum to himself again and again. He'd find himself in traffic or at a screening and $250,000 would float into his mind. Sometimes he would think, $100,000 two and a half times in a row. Other times it would be, A quarter of a million. For all that, the script never became a movie, which was a great disappointment at the time. Despite that annoying detail, Streets of New York was a hit of sorts, though its reputation didn't go past the city limits. Still, it took Henry from the fringes and put him in business. "A hit when you're young" drifted through his mind again.
The studio had sent Henry a tape of Finding Home but he had refused to look at it, telling Desantis that videotapes were tiny and blurry and not worth his time. Then, in case Desantis had missed the point, Henry told him videotapes looked like lousy impressionist paintings. They could interview somebody else for the DVD, which was no way for a screenwriter to talk to a film studio. It was just that anything to do with Finding Home still irritated him, all these years later. Desantis offered to set up this screening, saying he would watch it too. Henry stopped being so cranky and said, sure. Later, when he thought about it, he realized that they needed him because he was the likeliest suspect who could put a few coherent sentences together. Art Lesser, the director, would be interviewed. If Henry didn't participate, whatever self-serving lies Art came up with would become the record. Henry knew Warners would edit whatever he said, but a screenwriter ought to be able to work around that. Art Lesser had been hired when the picture was already in preproduction. He shot it, but that was about all. Still, the press always wrote about "Arthur Lesser's Finding Home." It irritated Henry, but it also amused him. Art was doing television now and whenever Henry ran into him he made a point of calling him Monsieur Auteur. Morty Elfman, who had produced the picture, would be interviewed. He'd do okay. At least he wouldn't make any excessive claims for himself. The other candidate was Blake Porter, who played the lead in the damn thing. The picture had made Blake an even bigger star. DVD viewers would expect to hear from him. Even if Blake wasn't stoned, without a script he'd just babble. He was probably in some other time zone anyway. They'd find him, they'd interview him. They'd interview the whole pack. Henry knew he'd best calm down and participate because whatever future life the picture might have would be in this DVD. The thought that Art Lesser would have the final word was appalling. So despite his unease with the movie, Henry was back at Warners, if only for a few hours.
Bob Desantis finally rolled in, fifteen minutes late. He had been the executive on the picture and here he was, still at Warners, still tall and geeky, though now with a bit of a paunch that looked as if it had been strapped on, like a little pillow. "Henry, Henry," Desantis said as he plopped down. "So. 'Sup, bro?" Oh, me-oh, my-oh, Henry thought. He's still using street slang. It worked for him twenty-five years ago when such terms were thought arcane and certainly unknown to studio executives. Now, for a movie executive, a season running with the Crips was as good a credential as the USC film school. Still, it sounded bizarre coming from middle-aged, pale-faced Bob Desantis. "Roll when you're ready," Desantis barked into the intercom. As the lights went down and the credits came up, he said, "So here we go. Our triumph."
"Yeah," Henry muttered, keeping his eyes on the screen. He knew he should be blasé about seeing his credit, but he couldn't help feeling anticipation. He knew he'd be tense until he saw it up there.
"People really like this picture," Desantis said. "Beaucoup rental numbers with men twenty-five and up." Henry knew that was true because the residual payments were good and because Warners was spending money, not something they tended to do if they weren't assured of a return.
"My old song," Henry said as he watched Finding Home again, trying to let it unfold anew for him. It was about a cop who put a man on death row and then discovered the guy was innocent. The cop worked to undo his great success. For the first time in all the years since he had written the movie, Henry saw that it could have been about himself. Not literally -- Henry wasn't a cop and the only killers he knew were more along the lines of Bob Desantis -- but he saw a parallel that wasn't there when he was writing it. Had Henry worked to undo his own great success? When the cop was on the screen, Henry felt uncomfortable. Handsome, sinewy Blake Porter as Lionel Detweiler. He had to laugh at that. Henry had spent a lot of time with the real Officer Detweiler and even brought him to Warners to meet Desantis. That little escapade was what closed the deal.
"This thing's not bad," Desantis said. "That was a time, huh?"
"That it was."
"We go back, Henry. We do. The battle of the Oakdale." Henry and Desantis had been neighbors at the Oakdale Apartments while they were going through their divorces. All this bonhomie and talk of old times was fine, but when Henry had last called Desantis to pitch ideas, he had been fobbed off on an assistant so young that Henry thought the guy should have had a permission slip from his parents. Finding Home and the breakup of his marriage were jumbled together in Henry's ragbag of unpleasant memories. He tried to dismiss his ruminations and settled in to watch the picture that once was the center of his life. Desantis was already talking on the phone and only occasionally glancing up at the screen. Henry could see the mistakes in the movie, the overwriting and reaching for effects. It was as if he had wanted to put in everything he knew for fear that he'd never get another chance. Despite that, there was a passion in the script that still felt vital and that overcame some of the florid writing. Blake Porter was good. He couldn't have done it without the script, but Porter had breathed life into the movie. Henry always thought of Blake as a dimwit, but on screen he came alive, his every thought and hope clear. A real star turn. Watching the picture now was like seeing himself again in a distant time. It fascinated him and yet it also rattled him to sense the presence of the young man he once was. What ran through his mind was that this picture was an early draft of himself. The beginnings of what he had become were now visible, though at the time the picture was made, they couldn't be seen. There were some ad-libbed lines that made Henry wince. Blake's changes sometimes had grammatical errors along the lines of "between you and I," which made the character appear illiterate. Henry had argued with Art Lesser about it at the time. Art had said not to worry, they would fix it in the edit or dub it later but of course that never happened. It irritated Henry no end. The quality of the picture wasn't the problem, nor was it that his career hadn't been as big as this picture would have suggested -- hell, he lived with that fact every day. It was thinking about Lionel Detweiler again that was bothering him. The circumstances of their temporary alliance had been difficult. Recalling it now broke Henry's concentration. To calm down, he reminded himself that there was at least one promising possibility ahead for him. He was to have lunch soon with Maggie LeMay, a studio executive who was interested in an idea of his. Maybe he could winkle the story of this screening into an anecdote for Maggie. Charm her. Amuse her. Remind her that he was in business -- well, sort of -- and ease his way into the script idea he was pushing. The lunch was to be at La Plume. A good sign. The thought of Maggie brought on more memories of his divorce, which made him think about the Oakdale. Then, with his movie and his younger self washing over him, his mind leapt from the past to the present and the studio's parking arrangements and the Hollywood Way gate and this damp screening room, all of which led back to Finding Home. Everything turned in on itself, each thing reminded Henry of something else. His mind felt like a movie, though not a studio picture, more like an independent film.
When the action on the screen lagged, Henry snapped his fingers as if that might help the actors pick up the pace or perhaps restore his concentration and bring his meandering mind back to the present. Desantis, still yakking on the phone, glanced up thinking that Henry was snapping his fingers at him. If Henry was impatient with anything besides his old dialogue, it wasn't Bob Desantis. As Henry watched with his thoughts ricocheting across the years, he felt like he was in the picture, not one of the characters, but a sort of presence hovering over the story trying to steer it and keep it under control. He tried to focus again on the actual movie in front of him and to push all the other thoughts from his mind. He was going to have to think of something clever for the DVD interview. No dust on it, he would say. Screwed me up for years. It was one of the reasons my marriage went bust. Well, maybe he wouldn't put it quite that way. He'd mention the no dust and then he'd trick up something about Lionel Detweiler's moral choice. He could use the same salami he had used to sell the movie in the first place. He wondered if Desantis would remember any of it.
"Great to see you, dude," Bob said as he finally put down the telephone. "You're looking way fine. I have to boogie."
Henry was tempted to say, you're putting on weight in a really unattractive way. Instead, he turned down the volume, let the picture run, and said, "Nice to see you, Bob." Alone again, Henry rewrote some of the dialogue in his mind, perking it up here and there, well aware that only a writer looks at a movie this way. Henry knew that except for the occasional clever bits, the dialogue was like wallpaper to an audience. Henry knew he couldn't change the dialogue any more than he could change Desantis's unthinking rudeness or repair his broken marriage. It was the past that he couldn't change. Maybe that feeling of impotence was why he was so unsettled and out of season. Desantis's exit had broken Henry's reverie. He told the projectionist to skip to the last reel because no matter how many years had passed, no matter what memories were evoked and no matter how good the color was in the studio print, Finding Home still gave Henry the creeps.
Copyright © 2004 by David Freeman