Could it be our boy’s done something rash?

– Bertholt Brecht, Die Moritat von Mackie Messer, or Mack the Knife, translated and sanitized by Marc Blitzstein, with thanks to Bobby Darin

If you want to cause a lot of trouble for yourself, you could do worse than to sit down and write a screenplay.

I know precisely nothing about writing screenplays, but as we know from the Dunning-Kruger Effect, the more incompetent we are at some activity, the better we think we are at it. When you’re dumb, you don’t know you’re dumb. And as to writing for the silver screen, “dumb” doesn’t begin to describe the depths of my ignorance.

But let’s back up. In those days I was working for a family that sometimes backed film projects, if the subject of the film was of social or cultural interest (as opposed to just entertainment). One day I received a call from a guy who was director of the Tate Gallery in London (or maybe he was chair of the Tate board, I forget).

The guy was calling to introduce me to an Exotic Eastern European Film Director who would be flying to LA in a few weeks and who wanted to stop in Pittsburgh to see me. The EEEFD, as we’ll call him, was looking for backing for a film about Jean-Michel Basquiat, the graffiti artist who made good and then died (of a speedballing overdose) at the age of 27.

When I say he “made good,” I mean that Basquiat made good. Less than two years ago a Basquiat painting sold at Sotheby’s for $111 million, the all-time record for an American painter and the sixth highest price ever paid for any painting sold at auction. (Yes, including Picasso, Warhol, the Impressionists and so on. So don’t wash that graffiti off your wall just yet.)

Anyway, the EEEFD showed up in my office and pitched me and, in spite of myself, I was impressed. I’d been fascinated by Basquiat and the EEEFD’s ideas for the film sounded sensible to my amateur mind. The movie could be, I thought, both an artistic and commercial success.

I told the EEEFD that we might consider backing the film, but that I would need to see a screenplay or at least a thorough treatment. Four weeks later a tattered package arrived in my office from an Exotic Eastern European Country, containing the completed screenplay.

I read through it, very much liking the plot, the action, the way the scenes had been blocked out. But the dialogue was something else entirely. The EEEFD’s grasp of the American idiom was, shall we say, tenuous. And as to his grasp of the American idiom as spoken by African-American graffiti artists and by the artsy crowd around Andy Warhol – well, words fail me.

I called the EEEFD and told him that before we would even consider backing the film, he would need to engage a skilled American screenwriter to do a serious rewrite, especially regarding the dialogue.

As you probably know, the egos of most film directors, to say nothing of Exotic Eastern European Film Directors, are roughly the size of the backlot at Universal Studios. As a result, the telephone call quickly degenerated into a shouting match, with the EEEFD ending the call by screaming, “You tink you’re so goot, Pittsburk, write th’ dam think your [deleted] self!”

That would normally have been the end of that, and the next few years of my life might have proceeded serenely. But I was annoyed with the EEEFD and, as it happened, I was just leaving for Zurich. Therefore, on the 14-hour round-trip flight I – fatefully – did a rewrite of the EEEFD’s script.

I kept the structure of film more or less intact, eliminated a few minor characters and got rid of most of the voyeuristic tourism aspects of the script – something the EEEFD remains addicted to to this day.

That may sound like a lot of changes, but actually it was minor stuff. At the end of the day, it was the EEEFD’s screenplay, except for the dialogue.

I sent the rewrite off to the EEEFD with a polite cover letter and… nothing happened. Months went by, during which I assumed the EEEFD was either sulking or had put out a contract on me.

Then one day I received a call from the EEEFD who, not bothering to say “Hello” or to inquire about my wellbeing, merely shouted, “So if I usse your scrip, Pittsburk, you back my film, no?”

I informed the fellow that I would much prefer that an actual screenwriter be engaged, but that as between the first draft and the current draft, yes, I preferred the current draft. I also pointed out that we would never provide full backing for a film, but might consider fronting half the cost if the EEEFD could raise the other half elsewhere.

To my amazement, the EEEFD replied, “No problems, Pittsburk,” and the next thing I knew the EEEFD and I were on our way to New York City to meet with an Internationally Famous Artist. More on that next week.

Next up: AONE and Me, Part 2

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