Louise Marcus: Okay, now let me see if I can get this straight. You come from another planet, and you're mortal there, but you're immortal here until you kill all the guys from there who have come here... and then you're mortal here... unless you go back there, or some more guys from there come here, in which case you become immortal here... again.
Conner MacLeod: Something like that.
... (Highlander II)
"If life were fair, Elvis would be alive and all the impersonators would be dead."
* * *
I should have known that in the end the feces would be flung at our personal fans when we walked into the production office in Paris and saw the Magic Marker writing on the wall.
It was displayed on a big pull down roll of poster paper, sort of like an oversized window shade. And here's what Chris and I saw:
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
Unsuspecting innocents that we were, we laughed.
I said, "Who'd a thunk it? The film business summed up in a French nutshell."
Chris said, "For that, I'll even forgive them the fucking genius medal they gave Jerry Lewis."
Then we heard an "ahem, ahem" - like the witch from the Ministry Of Magic in Harry Potter - and we moved aside to let Marla Ginsburg sweep into the room.
She turned to Chris, hands on hips and a challenging look in her eye, and asked, "What's wrong with Jerry Lewis?"
I stepped in before Chris could enumerate the many reasons why he despised Jerry Lewis - starting with that he wasn't funny and ending with the rip off of crippled kids. After all, Marla had flown us to Paris, France, put us up in a nice Froggy hotel, and was about to pay us big bucks for a TV series we had come up with based on Doctors Without Borders, the international relief organization. If Marla wanted to defend Jerry Lewis' honor, have at it, kid.
To divert the budding argument, I said, "I've been wanting to ask you, Marla. The exchange rate at the hotel is lousy. Where's a good place to swap our dollars for francs?"
Tugging on the dollar signs attached to the mysterious organ that producers claim to be a heart worked a charm. Marla - who had recently been named Exec Producer of what was to become The Highlander TV series - marched over to a phone, called a quavering dogsbody in accounting, barked orders in French, then hung up.
She said, "The Business Office is sending up an advance on your per diem to tide you over. When your translator shows up, I'll ask her to swing by a bank with you when you're out."
I felt clever. Two problems solved in one go. Little did I know, Gentle Reader. Little did I know.
You are probably wondering about now what our series proposal about Doctors Without Borders had to do with The Highlander. The song says "There's No Business Like Show Business," and I suppose that's sort of true. However, the one thing that Show Business has in common with all other business is that the answer to just about everything involves money. Who gets it? Who doesn't? And how can we screw more money out of the deal?
In this particular case I'm talking about International movie-making type economics, whose rules are deliberately confusing so as to fool entire nations, corporate rivals, profit participants, and the business representatives of twenty-million-dollar-a-picture stars.
PAUSE SCENE FOR A FASCINATING ASIDE:
I don't need to bore you with the details to tell the tale. If you are hungering for more information however, the best layman's book about the subject is The Insider's Guide To Film Finance, by Philip Alberstat. The book is $32.39 (Kindle version about 28 bucks), so just for you, Gentle Reader, I'll sort of steal one of the examples from Mr. Alberstat's tome and bend it to my purposes. (A bad writer plagiarizes. A good writer steals.)
Say you wanted to make yet a third Laura Croft Tomb Raider movie - not so bad an idea when you figure the first two grossed around 600 to 700 million dollars. Now, you're gonna want Angelina Jolie for Laura Croft again, right? Never mind that's what the worldwide audience of adolescent popcorn-inhaling boys in lust wants. It's also what the banks will demand to pony up the millions it will take to make the picture. (I read today that somebody is actually thinking of making a third Tomb Raider - but without Angela. Wow, man! That's like The Skipper without Gilligan. Or, worse - The Scooby, without The Doo.)
Now, in our more sensible Angelina-starring sequel, the Star would probably want something like $20 million... maybe even $25 million... to do the movie. And why shouldn't she? We'll be using her name, talent, and fabulous looks at the bank to secure loans of maybe 200 million dollars. But, our Chief Bean Counter is telling us that when all costs are considered, including accommodations for the concubines of various Studio bosses, we'll be fifteen million short of what the lovely Ms Jolie requires.
What to do? Answer: Promise the German government we'll put some German filmmakers on the payroll. Tell the French something similar. Make a deal with the Romanians - where we'll be shooting - to borrow their army for extras, and bingo! We've got the money we need to cross Angelina's pretty palm. That's after coming up with a million to get her trainer to skim through the script.
Our TV series - titled Angels Of Mercy - was being bought by the venerable French company - Gaumont Robur, which owns, or controls, pretty much all the film production and television channels in Froggyland. As it happened, the Doctors Without Borders organization was based in Paris, so the tax bennies and other government inducements are self-evident.
Now, put Doctors Without Borders aside for a sec and let's bring in Production Number Two.
As I mentioned, Gaumont had purchased the TV rights to The Highlander - two very bad films that made a whole lot of money. Chris Lambert, who couldn't act his way out of a haggis, starred along with Sean Connery, who did his damndest working with lousy scripts. As our old producer/mentor buddy Al Godfrey used to say, "A great actor can't make a bad script good - but he might make it barely tolerable."
Gaumont intended to partly shoot The Highlander TV series in France, for reasons already explained, and also - to pick up some money from Canada, where the Frenchy French crew could (theoretically) work easily with the Canadian Froggies in Quebec. (They also thought they could double New York, Boston, and - heck - maybe even Houston in Quebec.)
But, wait! In order to make the really big bucks, the series had to be sold to the U.S. market, where dubbing never, ever works. So, it had to be filmed in actual English. And by English, I mean American English, not the lesser version of the language. (British actors playing Americans tend to put in words like "I Reckon" to show how American they are. Okay, it's the British writers who actually commit the deed, but you get the general idea.)
With me so far? No? Too bad, because I'm going to confuse things even more by throwing our Doctors Without Borders back into the mix. (Chris and I had already won the promise of cooperation from DWB in a series of expensive phone calls and faxes from Venice Beach to Paris.) You see, all the things that applied to The Highlander, also applied to our series. Except, with two TV series going - with crews and writers and guest stars and locations shared between them - the whole thing started to make financial sense. Which is not to be confused with good old Common Sense.
Oh, yeah. Did I forget to tell you about Zimbabwe? Shit, I did. Apparently there were all kinds of bennies to be scooped up if a deal was made with the representatives of a cat named Robert Gabriel Mugabe, then Prime Minister, soon to be President Forever And Ever of Zimbabwe.
Nobody was interested in Zimnotes, of course - although they were almost worth something Back In The Day. What they did want was all that dough and good (read free) publicity from international humanitarian organizations - including the UN. And what better means to shake the money tree than a TV series based on Doctors Without Borders, whose presence in African relief camps is legend.
And with a good Movieland Bookeeper, you could spread all that largesse over two weekly series. One set of books trumpeting a big success. The other set - the one meant for outside profit participants - mourning hopeless failure. And telling them lies about how it was really All For Art.
Okay. I've explained it all the best I can. We have our TV series - Doctors without Borders - on one side, and the very bloody Highlander TV series on the other. Put them together, and with a lot of luck, a lot of finessing, and Bunch & Cole would be lighting Cuban cigars with 100 Franc Notes.
Now for the fly in the ointment. Or, in the case of Marla Ginsburg, a big damned buzzing Wasp.
Since an American sale was crucial, Gaumont put Marla - an American fluent in Swiss Finishing School French - in charge of The Highlander and our budding series. We'd first met her in LA several years before when she was repping James Keach, the younger brother of Stacy Keach. We had a movie script the younger Keach was hot about, and so on and so forth.
FLASHBACK TO: ABOUT A MONTH BEFORE MARLA ENCOUNTER NUMBER (ahem, ahem) TWO
Chris and I had just sold a big fat four-book contract to Del Rey (The Far Kingdoms Series), but as usual the publisher was woefully late with the start-up money. The bellies of our bank accounts' were rumbling and we were ensconced in our Venice Beach office tossing about ideas to make a fast semi-honest buck. These conversations were always free flowing, almost stream-of-conscious sessions, where we just tossed anything that occurred to us into the pot, stirred, then waited to see what came out.
A pinprick of a notion flickered in my mind. I said, "Kathryn has this really interesting new client. He's a doctor - a professor of medicine - at UCLA." (At the time, Kathryn owned an escrow company - Escrow Revue - at Wilshire and Bundy in West LA. If you were watching the slow-motion OJ Simpson car chase, you might have seen his white Bronco pass by her office.)
Chris said, "Yeah? What about him?"
"The guy was with Doctors Without Borders. Just finished a two-year hitch. Has some chilling tales about the refugee camps in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. They're really a ballsy group of men and women. Braving war and famine and disease and terrorists and adolescent soldiers ripped on booze and drugs. Ratcheta, ratcheta - ping go the strings of my heart - and so on.."
Chris saw where I was going. "Make a helluva TV series," he said.
"That's what I was thinking," I replied. Then I straightened up. "Shit, I maybe even have a title - Angels Of Mercy."
Chris nodded. "Smarmy, but upmarket."
Then reality struck and I sighed, "Not a chance. Networks would never go for a foreign shoot. And that's the only way to make it right. Doubling the backlot at Universal for a teaming African refugee camp just won't work."
Chris was about to agree. In which case, we'd toss the idea back into the pot and keep stirring. But then he said, "Wait up!"
And he pulled the wastebasket from under his desk and fished out that day's LA Times. "I saw something here," he said, "that I meant to mention. Probably nothing... but you never know." Then he said, "Here it is."
Chris scanned the article, then look up. "Remember Marla Ginsberg?"
After a minute, I said, "Yeah. Marla was the lady that put us together with Stacy Keach's brother, right? James. Yeah, that was his name. Nice guy. "
As it happened, Chris and I had once hung out a little with Stacy and Cheech And Chong, when we were at Columbia Studios. ((See Episodes #29 - Code Dead; and Episode #32 - The Towering Toupee Throws Up)
We told him stories - some of them even true - about how much fun we had. As things turned out, Jimmy liked us, we liked him, and we ended up making a little option money on that deal. Not much, but it was better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick."
Chris tapped the newspaper. He said, "Well, Marla's mentioned heavily in a story here about film companies in Europe hiring Americans. They're hoping to learn how come zillions of people all over the world watch our stuff, and in comparison, almost nobody watches theirs."
"Why do you think that is?" I said.
Chris shrugged. "Easy," he said. "Americans are better bullshitters."
I said, "So, what's Marla up to?'
Chris said, "She's been hired by Gaumont Robur to head up their television production department. Marla says in the Times that she's living in Paris and loving it." Chris glanced at the article. "She says she's really enjoying the creative freedom, blah, blah, blah, blah... Oh, here it is. She says Gaumont's looking to break into the American market."
I could see the gears whirring in Chris' head. "What're you thinking, Partner, Mine?"
Chris turned to his computer and fired it up. "I'm thinking of writing old Marla a nice letter of congratulations. Shit like that."
"And mention Doctors Without Borders?" I asked.
"Just a little tease," he said. "Nothing to give the store away."
He wrote the letter, doing his usual masterful job, and we punted it into the mail. A little over a week later the phone rang. Chris picked up, eyebrows rising as he listened.
Then, he hit the speaker button so we could both hear, and said, "Sure, we'll hold for Ms Ginsberg."
A second later I heard a woman's voice that I vaguely recalled. "Bunch and Cole," she said. "What a treat."
We said something similar in reply. And exchanged pleasantries for a couple of minutes - we got to brag on our big time book deal, she got to brag on her big time job at Gaumont. Telling us, almost as an afterthought it seemed to me, that, oh, yeah, she'd had a baby a month or so ago. Beautiful kid, blah, blah. Changed her life, blah, blah. How hard it was to find a good Nanny, blah, blah.
And then she got to the point. "Guys, about that Doctors Without Border idea..."
Chris jumped fast. "Well, it's a little more than an idea, now, Marla." Then he lied through his teeth. "We've got a nice rough draft of the treatment. Twenty five, thirty pages worth."
In reality, we hadn't written one thing down except this note: "Doctors Without Borders. Series? Maybe title: 'Angels Of Mercy.' Hit up Marla. Wait & See."
A slight beat from Marla, then she said, "That's great, guys. Really great. I've told some of the people around here and they're all excited about the project. Do you have any pages you can fax me? Just the idea in a nutshell, not the whole thing."
It was my turn in the lie-like-hell barrel. I said, "Sure, Marla. We've got to meet a guy for lunch. But that won't take long. Soon as we get back we'll shoot some pages to you."
More nice noises. We got off the phone. Chris turned to his computer and ripped out something lightning fast. Gave it to me. Maybe five pages. I rewrote it. Within two hours of talking to Marla we were faxing a mini-treatment to her office.
Now we would see what we would see.
The following morning. Working on the second cup of coffee. Phone rings. Surprise, it's Marla.
"Wonderful pages, guys," she said. "Everybody loved them."
A short pause, then she spoke the four magic words: "Who's your agent, boys?"
After we got off the phone, I remember looking over at Chris, a little numb.
"Well, kiss my Irish ass," I said. "It fucking worked!"
NEXT: WHERE WERE YOU SPIC AND SPAN MAN, WHEN... (ahem, ahem)