In 1991 or so I was hired to do research on a film about Joan of Arc. I’d been working for James Cameron at the time, reading scripts. Mostly SF. Or novels like Marge Piercy’s “Woman on the Edge of Time,” which clearly had an influence, shall we say, on “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.”
His wife at the time, Kathryn Bigelow, who’d just come off the now iconic “Point Break;” was going to direct. (Now iconic = early box office pretty low). It was going to be called “Company of Angels” but none of us knew that at the time. At the time it was just the Joan script. Top secret. Eyes only. Sinead O’Connor would play Joan. And maybe Keanu Reeves as Dunois?
(There’s a huge long story about that which must wait for another time – suffice it to say it was rather dramatic as these things go. Keanu was a sweetheart but in the heat of the moment, underneath the burning klieg lights, poor Sinead kind of lost her shit. I would have too. I don’t blame her at all. She’d just bit off more than she could chew. She was a champ though – a real trouper. Also she told me a poem I wrote about Joan made her wet. I nearly drove off the 405. She was probably just fucking with me but I loved it. She asked Jay to give her five classic films to watch: I don’t recall them all but two of them were “The Red Shoes” and “The Third Man”).
(So yeah I sat in my office in Warner Hollywood and became obsessed because that is the meaning of research and that ended up becoming my first book of poems ten years later, BURN. Thank you Joe Amato and thank you Charles Alexander. Another story for another time.)
Most folks don’t understand actors or what the art of acting is – about what it is like to live so close to your emotions. To put yr face on the line – to be so luminous and vulnerable and porous. Poets are the antennae of the race sd Pound. Wrong – actors are. They put themselves on the line in ways most of us would have a hard time imagining. As I tell my students, the close up is still the greatest special effect ever invented. Not sure they get it.
But as it turned out, as charismatic as she was, Sinead did not really know how to act. We put this sweet tiny woman astride an enormous Clydesdale on the soundstage at Raleigh Studios (the old RKO I think, where Welles shot Kane, across from Paramount and my beloved Nickodells, now gone). The horse was pure grade mega-fauna – srsly whose idea was it to order this fucking beast? But the horse was cool. I wondered vaguely about the wrangler—who would wield the broom? Not my problem.
In the event, things went south or sideways or some other undesirable direction. Just another day in the office.
But Jay turned out to be, out of all that welter, one of the rare and truly decent human beings I ever met in Hollywood. Or anywhere else for that matter. A genuine class act. (Leslie Whitney being the other one). (And of course Jay’s late wife, the amazing actor Verna Bloom, full of North Shore sass. I adored her).
Jay and I bonded over our mutual love of James Agee. Which startled me because in my innocence and arrogance I had already decided that screenwriters were clueless – lightweight epigones. Then I read a few scripts and realized, this shit is hard – it’s pure form. It must be as tightly constructed as a sonnet. It can kill you if you’re not very careful.
Over Jay’s desk (location undisclosed) hangs an enormous B&W photo of David Lean. It’s a production still from “Ryan’s Daughter.” Lean and his crew are struggling with a large light array precariously perched on a rocky coastline. He’s wearing a trench coat and the wind is whipping it around and like King Canute he seems to be commanding the elements to stop. The sea – yeah, the Irish Sea – is not hitting its marks. It’s epic. It’s heroic. It’s beautiful. This is how you make movies. You do crazy shit but also you look like David Lean.
It’s 1991 and we’re in a story meeting. Mulholland Drive, 90210, early spring sunlight streaming in, Richard Serra prints on the wall. Originals (KB knew Serra – and Philip Glass – and Mapplethorpe. From her days at the Whitney. There was a stunning BW photo portrait of her by Mapplethorpe that sat on Jim’s desk – I walked by it everyday and little by little I fell in love with it – or her – I could not be sure which).
But everything else is beige. The walls are beige, the couches are beige – I am slowly seeping into a sea of beige. It is inescapable. Even the smog is beige. A beige apocalypse. LA in the early 90s.
Kathryn’s enormous but very sweet German Shepherd Bodhi is lounging about. Bodhi would occasionally go into a barking frenzy and then the next door neighbor, a singer-song writer named Johnny Rivers whose chief claim to fame was having written the lyrics to “Secret Agent Man,” a song (and show) I loved as a boy, would complain. Loud and long. It got to be a regular thing. I was tasked with trying to mollify him. I did not succeed. Jay’s response was to write a hilarious parody of one of his songs. I don’t think KB was amused.
Kathryn and I are interviewing Jay for a bigtime screenwriting gig. We’d just talked to David Peoples (Blade Runner. Unforgiven) – David is great but yeah, no. KB did not dig him. He made a point of telling us that he hates flying so he drove – drove, mind you – to LA from Berkeley. I think this was what sealed his fate. He did not meet K’s threshold of cool. But then I was like, you can write scripts and live in Berkeley? I dropped a lot of acid in Berkeley. Some of it was actually real.
I am so in over my head I have no idea. I have this absurd amount of power. Except it’s not real power. That’s what fucks with yr head. It just looks like real power. And Jay is just so relaxed --- I think to myself this guy doesn’t care if he gets the job. He’s just sitting there with his legs crossed and he honestly does not give a shit. He’s from New York. He tells stories about writing film reviews for TIME. About meeting John Wayne and Kubrick. He is maybe the best raconteur I’ve ever known (the other being Anselm Hollo) – he has the journalist’s eye for the telling, colorful detail but he never goes on too long, never wears out his welcome. He doesn’t take himself or any of the Hollywood glitz seriously. He just seems hugely amused by it all.
Also, Marty is his best friend.
Also, he loves movies.
KB and I had just read the script for “Age of Innocence,” (which was released later that year and subsequently earned Jay an Oscar nom) and we were over the moon about it. Later I asked him about it and he simply sd, with a modesty that I came to know as typical of him and truly unfeigned, “it was all Miss Wharton.” Yeah, sure it was, pal.
(The script is credited to Jay and Marty. But to my eye the only contributions from Marty seemed to consist of inserting directions for camera angles – how to set up or shoot certain scenes. Everyone knows this is the worst kind of amateur mistake in script writing. They’ll storyboard it later anyway and you are who to presume to instruct the director about camera placement? In this case you just happen to be Marty so it’s all jake.
The brief camera instructions are revelatory, though --- Marty, like Hitchcock and Ford, had worked out the visual design well in advance. He’s got the whole freaking movie already storyboarded. He sees it in its totality before a single shot has been taken. You start to learn to see how he sees – will this be a CU? An MCU? A tracking shot? What’s Daniel doing? Where is Winona? Like that).
I realize slowly that I am in high cotton. But only because I have just read Darryl Pickney’s brilliant hugely entertaining memoir of the same title. The chapter on his working for Djuna Barnes is priceless. I, too, am working with genius-level people.
KB leaves the room to "take an important call." From her phalanx of agents -- maybe Ken Stovitz at CAA? Maybe Paula Wagner in her black Armani power suit? Paula Wagner is formidable. I have great respect for her. She really knew her stuff. A great agent is like a great director or producer: a master psychologist. She can work the room. She can command the flow of the conversation, the very pulse of the room, the outcome of the deal. It’s an art form I suppose and even though I sometimes cursed them under my breath I realized they held amazing super powers. (On the other hand Jay had some very funny stories and quip about agents which I shan’t repeat here)>
Then there was that whole phone protocol thing: every call prefaced with a "please hold for a call from X..." Did I do that for KB? Yes, so help me god, I did.
While she is out Jay and I get to talking. He is so nonchalant, and just so cool and down to earth I find it easy to chat with him. Also, he pays me the major compliment – he takes me seriously – he actually wants to hear what I have to say. He is, as Ingrid would later say (her ultimate compliment) “no bullshit.”
Somehow we find ourselves talking about Agee and “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.” I tell him I’ve just read it for another production company but though I love this book as much as anything in American literature I could not figure out how anyone could make a decent movie from it. The rural adventurism has a hook -- sure. But Agee comes off as a fawning creep and the best parts of the book, the stuff everyone loves, are the lyrical passages – “All over Alabama the lamps are out.” Or, “slowly they diminished along the hill path, she, and her daughter and her three sons, in leisured enfilade beneath the light.” You’d have to be a genius to make a good film from this book and anyway hadn’t John Ford already done it in “Grapes of Wrath”?
Later, after the Joan of Arc movie deal fell apart, I left LA, went to grad school, became a scholar of sorts and thought mostly about poetry and not much about screenplays. I moved to Boston. I got back in touch with Jay. We went down to see him in NYC where he graciously received us and then later invited us to come visit him and Verna at their beautiful home in Maine. We ended up honeymooning there and even though the marriage didn’t last I did write some good poems sitting on the deck of their guest home, overlooking a Maine fjord.
Over endless cappuccinos we talked about “The Wild Bunch” and “Random Harvest” and a bunch of other films I’d never seen before. He showered us with DVDs – almost all B/W Hollywood Golden Age classics. I was getting schooled, again.
I suppose at this point I should just state the obvious. If this sounds like a love story, it is.
CODA: Jim Cameron used to live in the house on Mulholland with Kathryn. You can bet he did not care about the beige. There was one personal trace of him remaining and it made me love him – a mimeographed four-paneled cartoon of some astronauts walking on a desert planet. I think it was dated 1965? This was exactly the kind of stuff I did back when I was a boy. I would look at it from time to time and think, “Emerson was so fucking right.”