May 13, 2010

THE BAD PLACE From the Author

So there I was, getting up seven days a week at the ping! of dawn, showering in ice-cold water to numb my nerves for the abuses the world hurls at us each day, dressing in drab khaki, eating my pot of mush for breakfast, writing for five hours, pausing at noon for a small bowl of lukewarm gruel, writing for another six hours, having dinner (usually squash or common tubers without seasoning), spending quiet evenings with my lovely wife, just keeping my head down in the hope that cruel Fate would not notice me and, for another day, would fail to dispatch a charging rhino, a runaway train, or a machine-gun wielding goldfish-rights activist in my direction. Then my novel, MIDNIGHT, exploded to number one on the best-seller lists, and Fate suffered a whiplash turning her head in my direction, and I knew that uncountable rhinos, trains, and maniacal goldfish advocates were at that moment sniffing the air and changing course, all mumbling under their breath, Get Koontz. (Most trains don’t breathe or mumble, of course, but the evil ones do.)

To foil cruel Fate, I would never again be able to sleep two nights in the same bed and would need to live under a new false identity every week for the rest of my life. These considerations weighed heavily on me as I arranged to purchase a thousand forged driver’s licenses and passports on the black market and as I took intense tutoring to become a master of disguise capable of deceiving even Fate. My greatest worry, however, was whether I would be able to write another book capable of rising to number one or whether I would become a one-shot wonder on whom even cruel Fate would soon not wish to waste a train or rhino. By the time MIDNIGHT was published, I was already at work on THE BAD PLACE, although it was titled ONE O’CLOCK JUMP. I loved the characters–Bobby and Julie Dakota, the sweet and funny Thomas, the hideous Candy and his weird sisters, the supporting cast; however, I was acutely aware that the story line, as it was developing, might be described as somewhere between crazy and cockamamie, though from my point of view, it was a distillation of various genres into a novel that was sui generis, in a genre of its own, with a surreal sensibility developed in realistic prose.

My point of view, of course, had no more value than a gallon of swill–or a pint of swill, for that matter. The opinion that mattered ultimately was the collective reaction of the audience that had put MIDNIGHT at number one. And the opinions that mattered in the short run were those of my publisher and agent. Because my publisher (at that time) and agent (at that time) had more frequently than not been exasperated with me for failing to write the same book over and over again–their prototype first being WHISPERS and later WATCHERS–the delivery of every novel usually elicited from them long-suffering sighs, grimaces, shudders of disbelief, impatient toe tapping, meaningful throat clearing, and the words “how could you?” spoken with that guilt-inducing tone of disappointment that wise mothers use to prevent rebellious children from turning into liver-eating serial killers by the age of nine, at once followed by “what were you thinking?” spoken in a tone that implied that I couldn’t possibly have been thinking at all.

THE BAD PLACE engendered even more consternation from agent and publisher than usual, including the dreaded words “is this supposed to be funny, young man?”(yes, in fact, there’s a lot of humor in this novel), “do you realize what an opportunity you may be throwing away?” (no, but I was learning), and the absolutely terrifying “you will be very sorry about this when your father gets home.” My agent seemed to be even more seriously disturbed by the novel’s cockamamie story line than was my publisher; we had two lengthy, solemn telephone conversations during which I was challenged to analyze myself and determine the reason for my stubborn insistence on writing books that violated every rule by which bestsellers had been created in the past half century. I underwent two months of self-analysis, but the hourly rates that I, as the analyst, was charging me, the patient, were so exorbitant that I couldn’t afford them, so I dropped out of therapy before I got any benefit from it.

To my great surprise, my agent did say that in the dismayingly original THE BAD PLACE, there was one element that, although reckless and utterly uncommercial, she felt to be “evidence of genius.” She was referring to the character of Thomas and the voice in which his scenes are written. She was smitten by the character, charmed, and moved, and she thought that the manner in which I had used his unique narrative voice to convey his inner world was “breathtaking.” Not accustomed to such effusive praise from those closest to me in my professional life, I might have been left speechless. Those who know me best, however, will tell you that speechlessness is not a response I am likely to embrace. Instead, I told my agent the truth–that I’d had so much fun writing Thomas’s point of view that I’d been toying with the idea of writing an entire novel from the perspective of a Down’s syndrome person quite like him. This revelation was greeted with a silence that I first took to be reverential but which I soon realized was a symptom of stunned disbelief. “Honey,” she said, “the scenes from Thomas’s point of view are pure genius, but too much genius is not a good thing.”

THE BAD PLACE was published as I’d written it–though not under my original title, ONE O’CLOCK JUMP. That is also the title of a famous big-band number by Benny Goodman, and big band music plays a role in the story. My editor on the book, Stacy Creamer, liked my title as much as I did, and because she was a good editor with her heart in the right place, she recommended that it be kept, but she was overruled, as was I. Desperate to avoid the tacky title Berserk!, complete with exclamation point, which my publisher wanted to use and which my agent endorsed, I came up with the mutually acceptable title that eventually appeared on the finished book.

Then came the movie deal–actually, ordeal. You better be ready for some really major glamour, because the saga gets disgustingly glittery from this point.

For a while, I had been having occasional lunches and telephone conversations with Don Johnson, who at that time had just come off his gigantic and revolutionary hit series, Miami Vice. He was a fan of my stuff, and he wanted to find a feature film that we could do together. Although I never told Don this, I’d never seen Miami Vice.

I didn’t realize what a blisteringly hot sex symbol he was until, at lunch, I watched half a dozen women come by our table to leave their names, addresses, and phone numbers with him. I’m not kidding. That old saying, “he’s so good-looking he has to beat women off with a stick,” was no exaggeration with Don in those days, though he was much too nice to hit a woman. I suspect he dispatched some of them with a small fire extinguisher and pretty much just succumbed to the rest.

Anyway, I found Don to be a down-to-earth, intelligent, and funny guy (funny ha-ha, not funny sleeps-with-artichokes-in-his shorts), and when I checked out examples of his acting, I saw that he was damn good and underrated. I was keen to work with him. After a year or so of this romance (during which he never sent me flowers), during which we couldn’t quite find a mutually appealing project, I wrote THE BAD PLACE and then a film adaptation of the novel for Warner Brothers. The script was received with great enthusiasm at Warner, and when I heard the rumor that it might be fast-tracked into production, I slipped a draft to Don, under the table.

At that time, on the basis of his TV series and his lethally charming personality, Don was one of the biggest stars in the world, and it looked as though he would score as big or bigger in films than he had on the small screen. Eventually, more because of the vicissitudes of the film business than because of any wrong choices on Don’s part, things didn’t work out that way. But when I slipped him the script of THE BAD PLACE, people in Hollywood were so eager to work with him that his attachment to the project would ordinarily have gotten it made even if everyone hated the screenplay.

As a beautiful bonus, Don and his wife at that time–Melanie Griffith–were looking for a movie to do together. Melanie was arguably at the peak of her fame, and the roles of Bobby and Julie Dakota seemed ideal for her and Don. They loved the script. They wanted to do it. My long sojourn in the darkest, smelliest alleys of the film world seemed at an end; the glorious spangled avenues of the mainstream glittered ahead of me. No more would I suffer the base indignity of having my novels strained through the pustulant sensibilities of the likes of Roger Corman; no, no–henceforth, respectability.

Well, not quite.

After getting my permission, Don went to the next-to-the-top executive at Warner Brothers, a personal friend of his, and revealed that I had slipped the script to him (technically a violation of my screenwriting contract with Warner), and suggested that he and Melanie were enthusiastic about taking the two lead roles if a deal could be made. Don reported back to me that he had been told that my script for The Bad Place, one of 290 scripts then in development at Warner, was suddenly the hottest property at the studio, that everyone thought it was exciting, fabulous, stunning, awe-inspiring, and a sure thing for fast-track production.

That was a Wednesday.

By Tuesday of the following week, all those high-powered studio executives who loved the script now found it “confusing,” “unclear as to genre,” “not commercial,” and “highly quirky.” The project quickly spiraled into oblivion.

What could have happened to turn everyone’s exuberant enthusiasm into bleak pessimism in such a short time? Well, gentle reader, you have to understand that fear drives the movie business.

A major Hollywood production costs a great deal of money, tens upon tens of millions of dollars, and most films never recoup their costs. Only a relative handful make a profit, and those must carry the failures.

Occasionally a single film with a runaway budget has been such a megaflop that it brought down the entire studio. In such a volatile business, where the risks are so enormous, even the most arrogant, swaggering executives are driven by fear. By the standards of any other industry, film executives are paid extravagant salaries, and they know that if they ever slip down and–horrors!–completely off the Hollywood ladder, they will never land another job half as financially rewarding. Besides, no other business is as glamorous, as sexy, as tolerant of empty-headed fools as is the film industry. Holding on, avoiding risk, covering one’s ass–that’s more important than making worthwhile or even interesting movies. Everyone has known enormously powerful studio executives, producers, and other top-tier players whose names were on the front page of Variety almost weekly–but who two years later were gone, out in the cold, no longer able to secure a table of high visibility in the trendiest restaurants, all because they were closely associated with a remake of A Christmas Carol as a violent action film starring Anthony Hopkins as Scrooge Lecter, a serial killer and miserly moneylender, Bruce Willis as Bob Cratchet, a kick-ass accountant, and Haley Joel Osment’s younger cousin as Tiny Tim, a crippled boy with supernatural gifts, who has the power to transform this heartless world into a place perpetually in a buoyant Christmas spirit–but who may be possessed by a demon.

Consequently, no executive wants to champion a film and guide it through production unless he can share the blame for a possible failure, which he can do only if the executives above and below him on the food chain are on record as sharing his enthusiasm for the project.

Here’s what happened to The Bad Place. The numero uno at the studio, after hearing all the buzz about the script, wanted to read it. He was not fundamentally a creative executive; he didn’t really understand how to put together a story; he was the guy who understood the financials of deal-making and studio budgets. Nevertheless, he took the script home with him that weekend. Monday morning, he came to the office in a state of bewilderment. “What is this story? It’s not in any single genre. It’s suspense, it’s science fiction, it’s horror, it’s a love story, it’s a little bit country and a little bit rock-‘n’-roll. How can we make a movie that’s in more than one genre? Aren’t critics going to be confused? Aren’t audiences going to be confused. I’m completely, profoundly confused. Aren’t you confused?”

Shifting at once into survival gear, every executive under the uber boss immediately confessed to being every bit as confused as he was. As if coming out of a waking dream, as if they had been hoodooed by that old devil Koontz, all these people who had been passionate about the project were, one week later, handling the script with meat tongs just long enough to drop it into whatever vat of acid, pit of fire, or nuclear-waste dump was handy, terrified of being re-contaminated by its mind-bending evil mojo.

This ordeal might have had a happy ending if I could have taken the screenplay elsewhere. Of the three other studios that had seen copies of it, two were eager to make a deal for it. After Warner had tried to develop the project with another writer and with a then-hot director, after this new route had led them to a dead end, and even after deciding never to film The Bad Place, the studio would not sell my script back to me. The reason? If another studio bought it, made it, and had a great hit, the uber boss at Warner would look foolish for having let it slip away. This same thing had happened to them with John Hughes’ Home Alone, which they had not understood and which had become a monster hit at a rival studio, and they were not going to risk such humiliation ever again.

The uber boss who was confused by The Bad Place is no longer in the film business. All the executives who did an about-face when told of his confusion are either out of the film business altogether or, though still working in that sucking slough of glamor, hold positions of much-diminished power.

I’m still here, eating my mush every morning, my lukewarm gruel for lunch, keeping my head down, writing my cockamamie, confusing books, which you dear readers have continued to make bestsellers for all these years. As for Fate–she has not yet hurled at me either the rhino or the runaway train, or the goldfish-rights activist with the machine gun, but I now realize that she works in more subtle ways to administer her cruelties and to have her fun. Thus far, I’ve written twenty novels since The Bad Place; I have moved on. Yet some nights in my dreams, I live an alternate life in which I wrote a novel titled ONE O’CLOCK JUMP, wrote a screenplay based on it, directed the screenplay myself–and, in my oscar-acceptance speech, thanked God, my wife, my dog, and the uber boss of the studio whose passion for the project inspired all of us to achieve our very best.

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