There was a big-damned helicopter overhead and the sounds of crackling gunfire and wailing sirens were too close for comfort when the phone rang. We almost missed it in the din.
Chris was on edge. The gunfire didn't faze him, but the sound of the helicopter doubtless took him back to the jungles of Vietnam twenty some years before and he was probably reliving a drop from a gunship into a hot Landing Zone. If I had shouted "incoming," he would have vaulted the desk and hit the floor, scrabbling to bring up his non-existent grease gun and return enemy fire.
It was a Friday afternoon when Marla called us from Paris, and it was May Day! May Day! May Day! all around as we weathered Day Three of the Rodney King riots. My Associated Press machine in the corner was spitting reams of bulletins and updates and a few minutes before we had flipped on the TV set to see President Bush (father of The Shrub) pound on the podium and warn all evil-doers in Los Angeles that "This will not stand."
"Sounds like he's going to bomb fucking Iraq again," had been Chris' comment.
And this was no joke, because the governor had already called out the National Guard and they were setting up machinegun posts in the Safeway parking lot down the street. (How weird is it to see a couple of kids in cammies, flak jackets and desert boots, trying to look like bad MF'ers while sipping Perrier Water? That's California, brother.)
Then the Army helicopter moved away to hunt bigger game and the sound of the ringing phone came through. I picked up, worried that it might be Kathryn, or my son, in some difficulty.
It was Marla Ginsburg. She said, "You know, Allan, a telephone isn't really a telephone unless you either pick up, or at least have the courtesy to switch on your answering machine. I've been calling you for ages!"
With the rattle of gunfire a couple of blocks away, the constant wailing of sirens, and the whop, whop, whop of helicopters, I was a bit discombobulated. My personal reality stretched. It was brought on by the Elder Bush proclaiming - "This will not stand!" - while listening to the sounds of the riot coming through the living room windows behind me. Was this all real, or were we watching a scene out of a movie unreeling in quadraphonic sound and smell-o-vision - did I mention the acrid odor of smoke from burning buildings?
I said, "Sorry about that, Marla, but Chris and I were a little distracted, what with the riot and all."
Marla said, "Riot? What riot?"
I said, "I know you've been out of town, Marla, but surely you've heard about the asshole cops beating the bejesus out of a cat named Rodney King. And how an all-white jury of not-his-peers let the bastards off. And now people are understandably pretty damned pissed off."
Marla laughed. I mean, she actually laughed. And she put a mocking edge on it too. "Oh, come now, Allan," she said. "It's not like you're in the middle of it, or anything."
As it happens, we were. My home - which did double duty as our office - was in the Walk Street area of Venice Beach on the very edge of neighborhoods where righteously pissed off people lived. That morning I had seen some fellow home owners gathered near my gate, and I'd gone out to see what was up. These were middle-class and middle-aged white dudes sporting elaborate comb-overs standing around doing their best bad ass imitations. You know, sucking in their guts like a girl in a bikini had just walked by, spitting on the sidewalk to emphasize every word and standing with their legs spread as if they actually possessed enough equipment to test the thread count of their tighty-whities.
They pitched their voices low and made manly threats about what they would do if "those people" came into our neighborhood. Everybody could boast of at least one gun, of course. I mean, this was LA, where people were California mellow, but would shoot your lights out if you fucked with their serenity.
Anyway, this bunch - The Baldy Bunch - reminded me of Adam Rich and the Beach Ball Street Gang (See Episode #32 - The Hawks Take Care Of Their Own) in Code Red and I soon became disgusted and went back inside to wait for Chris to show up.
I'd been through riots and violent urban unrest when I was a kid. Several times in the Middle East (See Lucky In Cyprus) and a couple of times in the Far East. (Coming soon - Lucky In Okinawa). Closer to home, I'd covered the Watts Riots as a baby reporter and remembered listening with growing alarm as LAPD cops in the squad rooms bragged about clubbing those (you know who) down. At the Inglewood cop shop, one guy boasted to his mates that he'd busted the stock of his shotgun over the head of some fucking (you know what.) Anyway, I'd had enough of that group, who now felt quite free to display their bigot medals on their wheezy chests.
A little later Chris arrived, and things got meaner as the day progressed, and then Bush said what he had to say, and then the helicopter chased some of "those people" through our neighborhood and Marla called and said in as dismissive a tone as only Marla was capable of, "It's not like you are in the middle of (the rioting), or anything." She added some Upper-Middle Class-White-People remarks about the crisis and she was really starting to get my goat when she made an abrupt about-face.
Very sweetly - and with no pause in between - she said, "I need a favor, Allan."
If I were the gasping type I would have done so. My inclination was to tell her to shove her favor. If the conversation had been on the speaker phone and Chris had heard, that's what he would have said, except not so nice. But she owed us a lot of money and we still had hopes that her company - Gaumont Robur - would make our TV series about Doctors Without Borders.
So, I said, "What kind of favor, Marla?"
As I explained in Episode #70(The She-Devil Who Scared Hell Out Of The Highlander), Marla was an expatriate Hollywood exec who had been hired by Gaumont - a huge French film company - to break into the American television market.
To that end they'd purchased the TV rights to the Highlander movies, and also our budding series, titled "Angels Of Mercy," based on the international relief organization Doctors Without Borders. Gaumont had flown us to Paris, where we interviewed doctors and nurses who toiled in the world's refugee camps fighting diseases most medical people in Europe and the U.S. had only read about, but never seen.
The people and the accounts of their work had been stimulating, Paris had been - well, Paris - and we had even had a lovely day and evening with our old friend Science Fiction Master Norman Spinrad and his then-wife, Lee. (Their apartment was in a converted monastery of impressive age and pedigree that was directly across a spice-garden from your friendly, neighborhood 3-Star restaurant. "May I borrow a cup of truffles, Henri?")
We had met Marla before and she seemed pleasant enough, and our estimation of her had soared after she bought our TV series. (Writers tend to confer sainthood on anyone who likes their writing enough to pay for it - a disease common to all the Arts.)
In our temporary Paris production offices we had even seen a poster that should have warned us, but we foolishly took as a joke. In case you missed it, here's what it said.
THE NINE STAGES OF PRODUCTION:
1. Wild Enthusiasm
2. Total Confusion
3. Utter Despair
4. The Search For The Guilty
5. The Persecution Of The Innocent
6. The Reward And Promotion Of The Incompetent
7. Erection Of Walls
8. Disillusion And Suicide
9. Oscars! Return To Step #1
The first days we were too busy taking notes and being impressed with the people who dedicated their lives to Doctors Without Borders to notice Marla's flaws. Their world was an exotic and deadly place where food, shelter, clean water and sanitation were non-existent but where diseases like Cholera and Typhoid were endemic. A bleak joke from one medical man: "Instead of Doctors Without Borders, it should be Diarrhea Without Borders, because that is what most of our patients succumb to."
Surgical instruments were scrubbed with sand instead of soap and water and laid out to be sterilized by the sun. The sick and the injured, the very old and the very young lined up for hours for treatment. The medical personnel were so overwhelmed that they had been forced to act like Gods, choosing who they would treat and maybe save, and who would wait and probably die.
In short, there is no way I could possibly exaggerate the human worth of that group. Our TV series, which we had tentatively titled "Angels Of Mercy," was not misnamed. (Click here if you want to make a donation to this worthy organization.)
Then our awareness of Marla began to creep in and it soon became apparent that she was a bully. And that she wasn't satisfied until everyone around her dropped to their knees and offered their necks. Chris and I were also underwhelmed by her business and management practices.
An example to illustrate both points: Besides a translator, Chris and I were assigned a young French writer whose only purpose was to hang around long enough for the company to claim tax bennies for hiring a certain quota of French film people. He could have been a good writer, or bad writer - I don't know because he never did any writing around us.
This wasn't particularly bothersome: that's how the economics of international filmmaking work. And the young guy seemed nice enough. For Marla's purposes, however, he was way too talkative. One day, after lunch with the top brass of Doctors Without Borders, he let slip that in the evening he was going to attend a cocktail meeting with the head of an upstart organization that was trying to horn in on DWB's turf and scoop up some of their funding.
Back at the office I pressed him on the issue. "Marla told us we already had the cooperation of Doctors Without Borders," I said. "Total access to everything... Locations... transport... the camps... everything. Just as long as we don't get in the way."
The kid nodded. "That is quite accurate," he said. "But, you know, we have to pay them for this cooperation."
Chris said, "Damn right. Hell, if I were the boss I'd pay them double. These guys are fucking incredible."
The kid tried to look worldly wise. "Marla has this saying - 'It's nothing personal. Only business.'"
"Yeah, yeah," Chris said. 'That's what they always say - right after they fuck you."
I said, "So, what are you telling us? That Marla wants to rewrite the deal with DWB? That she's going to play the two organizations against each other... wagging the promise of all the free international PR they'll get from the series to force a lesser charitable donation?"
The kid suddenly looked not so wise. Blushing furiously, he said, "I had no part in this. I am a writer - you understand? A writer... not a boss."
From the doorway I heard a distinctive - "Ahem. Ahem." The kid jumped like he was snake bitten and then Marla marched into the room. She was furious. Stood before the young man and berated him up one side and down the other.
"You ungrateful little twerp," she said. "I've given you a big chance. Everyone advised against it, but I thought you had something special. And that I could trust you. Now, here I practically hand you the opportunity to break into the American market, and you go behind my back. Telling tales about the Company's private business."
I looked over at the poster, paying particular attention to Rule #5 - Persecution Of The Innocent. Glanced at Chris, who I could tell was thinking the same thing.
It went on from there. Marla going a mile a minute, steam coming out of her ears. The young writer was a thin, undertall person, who wore a wispy kid's goatee in an attempt at manliness. But his eyes were as big and soulful as an orphan in a Keene painting and right about now they were brimming with tears. Although Marla was fluent in French, the whole time she lit into him she used English - not sparing his complete humiliation in front of us. Finally, she dismissed him and he slunk out of the room, quivering like a whipped pup.
Chris and I were embarrassed for him, and although it wasn't my fault, I felt a little guilty for getting the kid to tell all. And Chris, who never could hide his feelings, looked grimmer by the minute as Marla went on. At one point, he gave a sigh, leaned back in his swivel chair and plopped his boots on the desk. Marla paused for a beat - eyes cutting quickly to the boots on the desk, then back to the kid again.
When he was gone, she turned, hands on hips, glaring at Chris and said, "Get your feet off that desk!"
Chris just looked at her. Then, with elaborate sincerity, he placed a hand over his heart. He said, "Marla - my reply comes from deep within me."
And with that he lifted one butt cheek and let loose a very long, very loud and very stinky fart.
Marla's eyes went wide and her mouth fell open and she said, "Oh!" And again, "Oh!" And then her jaws snapped shut - you could hear the teeth click like a mouse trap - and she turned and exited the room.
Chris looked over at me, boots still propped on the desk. "Well, Cole," he said, "Here's another fine mess you've gotten me into."
I steepled the hair on the top of my head and made Stan Laurel blubbering noises.
We both laughed, then Chris said, "If she gets fresh, at least we have a ride home." He meant the return Air France tickets.
I said, "Why don't we get back to work on the treatment and see what develops."
And so we did. After the interviews with the doctors and nurses we had all kinds of ideas for character adjustments, new characters with new backgrounds, and a ton of personal reminisces and descriptive information to make our treatment come alive. (A treatment is more of a sales tool than anything else. Used to impress a producer, then a production company, then a whole damned network, if you can.)
About an hour later Marla tapped softly on our open office door. Chris glanced up and waved her in, but she avoided his eyes and looked at me.
She said, "I've been talking to (and she named her boss) about the project." I braced, figuring we were about to get the ax - and was already thinking fuck you and the horse you rode in on - but instead she said, "We both think that at this point we should move on from the treatment stage and have you guys do a full Bible for the show."
After what had happened a short time before, this was a huge surprise. The difference between a Series Bible and a treatment - besides being much longer - is that a Bible sets up every little detail of the show: the characters, standing sets and locations, regular equipment and vehicles and at least a dozen or more story premises. It's not a sales tool, but a full out production tool. (Could actually exposing film to light be far away?) The other difference was that although a treatment for a TV series paid a lot of money, a Bible paid a helluva lot more.
Chris said, "That's great news, Marla."
Marla ignored him, keeping her attention on me. "What do you say, Allan?" she said. "Should I call your agent in LA and make a deal for the Bible?"
I looked at Chris, who nodded, then back at Marla. I said, "Sounds good to us, Marla."
And so the next step was taken down the road to who knew the hell where. One thing, though. From the fart on, Marla spoke only to me - which didn't bother Chris one bit because he'd come to loathe the woman, and he hated talking to people he didn't like.
FLASH FORWARD TO: VENICE BEACH - THE THIRD DAY OF THE RIOTS.
The phone rings. It's Marla. She says, "Riot, what riot?" And so on.
I buzzed by my inclination to deliver a verbal swat and veered into - hopefully - safer territory. I said, "What's up, Marla?"
And she said, "I'm need a favor, Allan."
Once again I noted that she was trying to skip Chris out, and - with extra emphasis on the pronouns - I said, "We'd be glad to help anyway We can, Marla."
I tucked the phone between shoulder and ear to free both hands to type notes. I figured she wanted another adjustment on one or more of the characters, or to spell out one of the story ideas more fully - stuff like that. Stuff involving our project - Angels Without Mercy.
Instead, she said, "It's about the Highlander."
Both because I was surprised and because I wanted Chris to hear, I repeated: "The Highlander?" Chris straightened. Gave me a quizzical look. And I added, "What about The Highlander?"
Marla said, "I know you're on good terms with Fox, Allan."
I said, "We sure are, Marla." Emphasizing the "We" again. "They love Us over there."
It wasn't much of an exaggeration. We'd worked as story execs for Fox, had written for some of their other shows, and had partnered up with Fox producers to pitch various notions, some of which had paid actual money.
She said she was talking to two key people there and when she named them, I nodded in recognition. "Great guys," I said. "Did a Route 66 kind of thing for them - except on motorcycles and set in Europe."
"They told me about the project," Marla said. "And they said were thrilled with your work." She paused, then said, "Look. We almost have a deal closed for Fox Studios to be our guys in America for The Highlander."
"Congratulations," I said. "That's a major step." I wasn't exaggerating. At the time the Fox Network was just starting out and they were hot to try out new ideas and people. Important actors - like Johnny Depp - were launching their careers there.
"Well, it's not a for sure deal yet, Allan," Marla said. "There are concerns about the writing. You see, we're relying on a few English and American expatriates here in France, for the English version. And some Canadians, of course, over at our Quebec office. But the guys at Fox aren't completely convinced that our writers will know how to appeal to an American audience."
"And so?" I pressed.
The next part came in a rush. "I told them that you were going to write one of the very first episodes of The Highlander for us."
I was flabbergasted. Chris could tell and was making What The Fuck? motions. I waved him down, for no reason other than to give my hands something to do.
Finally I said, "Marla, no disrespect. But we're concentrating on Angels Of Mercy. Which we all think is going to be not just a successful series, but an important one. I don't see how we can write-"
She jumped in. "Wait, wait, Allan," she said. "You don't understand. If we can move Fox forward on The Highlander, that gives us a big leg up to get them behind Angels as well."
I still didn't like it. Fast excuse needed. I said, "We've never even seen the movies, Marla. We don't have the faintest idea what they are about, except guys with swords try to chop off each other's heads."
"Don't concern yourself with that, Allan," Marla said quickly. "I'll call the LA office this minute and have them messenger over the show's Bible. Plus, videotapes of the movies."
I was still hesitant, worried that by turning down one thing, we'd imperil the other. Even so - I was reluctant to be pushed off course. I said, "Geeze, I don't know. I really think-"
Once again she pushed in. "Don't make up your mind now, Allan," she said. "Watch the movies. Read the Bible. Then get back to me. And here's another thing. Because this is a foreign production, we're buying out all the residual rights. Meaning, you'll make one and a half times the WGA minimum."
This gave me pause. But still... But still...
Sensing this, Marla said, "But for you, Allan, we'll pay double. Double Guild minimum. And it'll be worth every penny."
I needed to talk this over with Chris. So, I said, "Okay, we'll take a look at the material. But, no promises, right?"
She agreed. Then said, "After we talk tomorrow, I'd really appreciate it if you called (she named the two execs) and tell them you're writing one of the debut episodes of The Highlander."
Jesus. This lady wouldn't let up. But, I couldn't fault her for that. It's one of the attributes that go into making a successful producer. Being a bulldog and a pain in the ass is what gets things made.
I said, "Send the stuff, Marla. We'll get back to you tomorrow."
I hung up and sagged back in my chair. Chris had been thoughtful enough to make us a couple of stiff scotches.
He let me honk down about half of mine, then said, "Well, tell me Mr. Spick and Span Man. Where do you think we'll be when the Marla hits the fan?"
And so I told all.
As we talked the smell of smoke drifted through the window, the sound of gunfire and sirens grew louder again, and then that big damned LAPD chopper came thundering back to chase a woman down the street carrying a towering stack of disposable diaper boxes.
We broke off, watching.
Chris said, "Man, haven't the pigs figured it out yet? It's just a free day in LA, that's all."
NEXT: OFF WITH THEIR HEADS - BUT THE CHECK FIRST, LADY!