Michael Blake
Academy Award Winner
Best-selling Author
Dances With Wolves

Like A Running Dog

Volume II

Los Angeles, 1979 - 1982

Better Than Food

Once settled, I phoned Mitchell Brower from Jerry's kitchen one morning, telling him that I had landed and was "ready to go."
Michael had read my new screenplay Mexico and was reserved in his praise, primarily because he didn't quite know what to make of it. It was a bit offbeat. He had good news however. A meeting had been arranged with a fast-aging giant of Hollywood writing named Walter Bernstein. I had never heard of him but when Mitchell began to reel off his credits, I knew most of the movies... The TrainThe BetsyParis Blues etcetera. Mitchell was so excited that he even delved into Walter Bernstein's non-credits, saying that long ago he had written a screenplay about the Black Death that was so great it would never get made.
It was my first real encounter with the illogic that is world famous an is peculiar to Hollywood.
After a moment's thought I countered.
"Well, if it's great why doesn't someone do it?" (I was yet to grasp the Hollywood axiom that movies are "made," most often by directors, stars, producers, sometimes all three).
"Oh, there have been several attempts," Mitchell explained. "People have been trying to get that picture made for years. But there are always problems."
I hung up wondering what mysterious problems could keep a great screenplay from being made. I would only learn later (long after it was too late) that making great movies was not the point of Hollywood. My perceptions about the movies were (and probably always will be) on the other side of the moon from commercial reality.
The meeting came off on a predictably rainy afternoon in the upscale ' village' of Westwood. The three of us had lunch together in a booth at a Good Earth restaurant.
Mitchell tried (with limited success) to be a moderator between Walter and me, peppering the old man with well-framed questions and pleas for anecdotes about this or that. It was an agenda I didn't understand. The chit-chat approach to Hollywood connections is about the only way they can be made.
There was no way to know if Walter Bernstein shared my feelings because for the entirety of lunch he took every opportunity to stare out at the incessant rain. He seemed morose (actually a mandatory condition for the Hollywood writer) and uncomfortable, seeming to regard me who sat across from him as some distantly-related and needy family member.
When Mitchell finally seemed to have exhausted his repertoire of darts, feints, and probes it seemed appropriate that I cut to the chase, leaning forward earnestly.
"I want to write for the movies and I sure would be grateful for your advice."
Perhaps I was hunched in unconscious fealty but I distinctly recall the hairless, bird-like figure of Walter Bernstein looking down at me through a thick set of glasses, his tone doleful and vacant.
"My best advice is to try television."
He turned again to the window and studied the rain-streaked traffic.
A few weeks later Mitchell called with more exciting news. A top agent at a prestigious literary (have they no shame at all) agency had read Mexico and had agreed to meet with me.
"What do you mean 'he agreed'?" I asked.
"Well, he's going to make some time for us."
"Make some time?"
"Let's just take that meeting and see what he has to say. Be positive Michel."
The agent (whom I shall call Billy Fine) worked for a firm called Adams, Ray and Rosenberg whose offices were situated in a tower on Sunset Boulevard at the Western edge of the strip.
On yet another of those rainy afternoons wee met with Billy in his corner suite. I was immediately thrown off by a physical specimen wildly at odds with anything I had imagined. Though relatively young, he was already going bald and was tripled-chinned. His shapeless, gigantic body spread behind his desk like a multi-tiered, hot fudge sundae.
Billy had one of those oval mouths, almost fish-like in those of corpulence, and tended to wear his reading glasses constantly, peering imperiously over them when making eye contact. Like the rest of Hollywood, which gets right to the point on matters if no importance, Billy Fine wasted no time.
"Well, I've read your script..."
"Uhh, huh..."
"In fact I've got it here somewhere..."
Billy swiveled slightly in his chair (in our single encounter I never saw him out of it) and started a stubbly finger down one of the stacks of scripts on his desk.
When he had my story in his hands, he continued.
"Well, you see... I'm just looking at the title and... Mexico?..."
He peered over his glasses at me.
"What does that mean?"
"It just means Mexico."
"No," Billy struck back, "it doesn't mean anything. It has to mean something."
I suddenly craved invisibility. My spirits sank deep into the chair. Something really bad was coming but there was no escape.
Billy began to leaf through the screenplay's pages. Shortly, he stopped and began to read in silence.
"You see, this is the same thing."
He read a portion of exposition (usually description) aloud.
"Now that's not bad writing. In fact I think it's quite good. There's talent there but again... " Billy peered over his glasses for emphasis. "What does it mean?"
This went on for an hour. Billy Fine, important agent, instructed me in the commercial art of writing 'scripts.' (How I hate that term.)
Long before he began to suggest dialogue I had clammed up, my single, silent emotion an obsessive compulsion never to meet this person again. Mitchell had clammed up too and when mercy appeared in the form of an exit, we carried our silence down the hall and into an empty elevator. Finally, we looked at each other.
"What the fuck was that?"
"That!" I moaned jamming a finger toward the ceiling.
"Well... he was off base."
"Off base?"
"He was trying to help you and got carried away."
"Yeah he did... Mitchell, he was trying to rewrite the whole story."
"I know, I know."
I was parked on the street and we finished our conversation sheltered from the rain under the eave of the tower's front entrance. Mitchell tried to explain again that Billy Fine may have been out of line but that he was only trying to give me an idea of what Hollywood was looking for. After all, Billy Fine was in a position to know.
"But I am the writer... I wrote the story."
Some of the fight seemed to go out of Mitchell. He fixed me with his small, lively eyes and might have put a hand on my shoulder.
"Michael... there's an old Hollywood saying, scripts aren't written... they're rewritten. And you know what?"
"It's true."
Twenty years later that old Hollywood adage still turns my stomach. When they came out of Mitchell's mouth they resonated in me like the tolling of the bell. Though I knew something was wrong it would take me years to learn (not accept) the staunchness with which Hollywood insists its bromide be honored.
The fact is that everyone from the craft service person to the gaffer to the star, director, producer and studio chief believe their own ideas (which come to them in gyms) carry far more weight than any screenwriter's work. The authors of screenplays are quickly reduced to high-priced scribes, copying down the foolishness with occasional exception, of pretenders. That is the function of the written word in the American system of making films.
The initiatives Mitchell had spearheaded for me were dismal dead-ends and, though we saw each other for meals once in awhile over the next few months, out business association drifted into nothingness. Eventually I heard that Mitchell had left the movie business and re-located to San Francisco. I have not seen or heard from him since then.
I greeted my early reversals as I always have. I kept writing. I had read Mark Twain's Roughing It (a journal of his first trip west) and had been fascinated with a real life character who Twain met at a stage station in Colorado. Throughout his trip, Twain had heard "Slade" (the name of a near-mythic killer) mentioned over and over. He was shocked to find that the charming man serving coffee to the passengers at the station was Slade in flesh.
That someone so agreeable could instill the coldest fear in the hearts of strangers made me jump with ideas and launched me into a spring and summer of intense research at the Santa Monica Public Library. Mornings I researched and afternoons I typed, standing up in the garage.
My entry into Hollywood seemed to have been put on hold but that all changed with a phone call from an unlikely source... Joe Graydon. Jojo had left the band and scored a job. He was working in the mailroom of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences and asked if I wanted to come by and 'check it out.'
I made a beeline for the imposing edifice on Wilshire Boulevard that housed (for better or worse) the most important film organization of earth. Though the cynicism that pervades Hollywood is just as alive as the 'Academy' as it is anywhere else, the place itself lives up to its billing. The entire premises are maintained like shrine. Even the mailroom where Joe toiled was far more orderly than most.
When I sat around the mailroom shooting the breeze with Joe, he introduced me to a friend as sweet as he was sad. Chuck had just started as an underling in the public relations department (over the years he would work his way to the top spot). He wore extremely thick-lensed glasses and was in severe, self-destructive bondage to alcohol. He seemed hopeless in his addition but he must have made some adjustments through time to keep from drowning. As far as I know he is still in the world.
Like a number of alcoholics I've known, Chuck's nature was gentle and kind. He and Joe started sending me care packages. Every two or three weeks, a box would arrive at the garage bearing the Academy's logo and return address. Inside were reams of paper, tape, scissors, binders, three-hole puncher and on and on. It was like having my own stationary store. It was better than food.
At Oscar time, Chuck (who worked the door) would let me into all the screenings for the Academy members. I couldn't get in at night but on many afternoons I was there watching amazing documentaries and sentient foreign films in the sanity of the Academy's large, comfortable theatre where no food, and especially no talking was tolerated. For a person who loves movies as I have loved them it was several hours a week of pure paradise.
My Academy connections never amounted to anything in terms of business but it counted tremendously with and ago that was plagued with a chronic slow leak (and explosive blowouts from time to time). I took great pride in my Academy affiliation. Surreptitious though it was, access to such a vaunted place, reinforced a belief that I was doing the right thing.
As far as I know, no 'Hollywood' connection has resulted in the wholly bogus 'relationship' which is supposed to shower the lucky insider with the special opportunities the public believes are essential to entertainment success. It has taken me a long time to understand that, in my case, success has depended on what I am able to create individually and the quality of my conduct in being with people.
The lasting value of Joe's call was that it lead to connections with a group of borderline outcasts who assembled every Sunday at a diamond in Venice's Penmark Park to play co-ed softball all afternoon.