Thursday, January 26, 2017
“So here’s the idea,” said Manny Kant. “It’s the ‘Big’ trope – boy wakes up in adult’s body – but with a twist.”
“Seen it, done it, took a bath on the action figures.” That was The Movie Mogul’s clipped retort. He’s a big, imposing guy, so he’s The Movie Mogul because, if I told you his name, he might punch me in the nose. He’s the big boss of a small film studio – some production, mostly investment and distribution – lots of indies, lots of awards – and they throw dollars around like blocks of ice. He said, “What else ya got?”
Manny was caught short – and it could be he’s losing his edge. He’s certainly grayer than I’ve ever seen him: Not just the threads of gray in what used to be jet black hair, but gray in his skin, too – gray in his soul, maybe. Wearing a gray sharkskin skinny-suit didn’t help. He might have seemed merely desperate in Lower Manhattan, but he was a man out of time in the sculpted greenswards of a suburban Los Angeles office park. “But you haven’t let me tell you the twist!”
“You came to me with one idea?” The Movie Mogul demanded. “You finagled this appointment, and all you had to pitch was one tired, played out gimmick? Fine. Hit me with your twist and get out.”
Manny stood up, but I don’t know if that helped his case. The Movie Mogul’s office might be in an unimposing location, but it’s a very imposing space. Huge, for a start, with The Movie Mogul’s desk, a sitting area and a conference table all surrounded by vast wide-open spaces. The soaring windows look out onto the greensward, with a view of the freeway in the distance. The furniture is Danish Modern, black and chrome. Standing up seemed like a misstep to me, because the chairs are so low and deep that you sit in them by falling into them, and, as Manny demonstrated, you get up by clawing your way through empty space.
Anyway, Manny clawed his way to his feet in order to say: “The adult he wakes up as is president of the United States. The president is a thirteen-year-old boy!”
Manny fell back into his chair and The Movie Mogul leaned further back into his own. Rubbing at his chin, he said, “You’re talking about Trump?”
“Loosely. Call him Biff Tannen, to give him a name.”
“Got it. The bad guy from ‘Back to the Future.’”
For the moment, at least, Manny had the floor. “The kid is riding his bike home in a storm when he gets struck by lightening.”
“Is this the presto-chango?” The Movie Mogul asked. Looking at me, he said, “Just write in brackets, ‘Presto-chango to come.’ You can figure it out later.”
I knew there was a look of confusion on my face, and he responded to that: “Aren’t you the screenwriter?”
I could feel Manny straining to butt in, but before he could interject, I said, “I cannot imagine how that could be so.”
The Movie Mogul just smiled at that, but Manny piped up anyway: “He’s a colleague I like to bring along to troubleshoot new ideas.”
That’s a lie, of course. Manny brings me with him, when he does, to show off. Why that matters to him I don’t know, but it always has. Manny Kant waxes and wanes in my life like the moon – with the same predictable periodicity.
But the trouble with telling a lie to a man like The Movie Mogul is that he’ll hold you to it. So to me he said, “What do you think about this gimmick?”
Manny was by now in full squirm, but what could he do? Even so: You dance with the one that brung you, and it is only Manny Kant who invites me into these hallowed confines.
So I said: “I hate the ‘presto-chango,’ so you know. I hate magic in every sort of movie, but I hate it most when reality is all the way real except for the extra-special magical event.”
“But…” I went on, holding up a finger to stay objections, “I like the idea of a boy emotionally arrested at thirteen who then goes on to be America’s first adolescent president. So what if Act Two were Biff’s back-story, how he came to be the man he wakes up as. You keep the mystery in the first act, then gradually, with hinted flash-backs, you show why it’s no mystery at all.”
To this The Movie Mogul said nothing, just leaned further and further back in his chair, rubbing his chin.
Manny tried to take back the floor by saying, “Guys, guys. Remember, we’re talking about a comedy. Fart jokes, maybe. Shakespeare, not so much.”
“Sophocles,” The Movie Mogul said absently, and it was my turn to smile. Looking directly at me, he said, “Tell me Biff’s back-story.”
I shrugged. “His dad’s a successful businessman and a mean drunk. Mom keeps up appearances. An older brother bullies him even in the crib, and he grows up to be a bully himself – first with his siblings, later with school kids, later with the less ambitious bullies at school, who he organizes into a poor-little-rich-kids gang. He’s a terror to the kids – and to the teachers, too. His dominance of the social scene results from his willingness to act up far more outrageously than any of the other wannabe bad kids. Do you understand what’s going on?”
The Movie Mogul said nothing, while Manny looked like he was dying to say something, anything.
“It’s a frustrated display. When you see the same behavior over and over again, you’re seeing a display that is not eliciting the desired response. Those things tend to escalate. With each failure, the display gets a little bit louder, a little harder to ignore. Every bully is telling you that his home life is horrifying, and Biff is trying desperately to get his father’s attention – trying and failing again and again. He wants limits, boundaries – walls – but no one will rein him in.”
I held out my hands, palms up, then turned them over. “So he slugs a teacher. Thirteen years old and plenty big enough, and nothing he’s done so far has garnered any sign of daddy’s love. So he hits a teacher and then does papa take notice – just long enough to ship him off to military school. And this is huge – yuuuge – you see that, right?”
The Movie Mogul was leaning all the way back, his eyes closed. He said, “Tell me why.”
“It’s worse than murder to a kid. He’s not just being shunned by his father, tragedy enough, he’s being submitted to a forced-shunning by his entire family. Political correctness is life with a mean drunk. No one dares to contradict dad. Meanwhile Biff has to find a way to reject his father’s rejection.”
“How does he do it?” Manny asked, swept up in the story even despite himself.
I shrugged again. “With bigger and more-outrageous display behavior. Daddy never delivers, and eventually daddy dies, but the show must always go on. Big fake businesses. Big fake buildings with the only thing of his being the name over the door. A big fake ‘reality’ show about how wonderful it is to kiss Biff Tannen’s ass on TV week after week. A big, loud, fake life. So big, so loud, so fake that he ends up as president of the United States. And yet he’s still that angry, lonely, unloved thirteen-year-old boy. He keeps trying and failing to get his father’s attention and ends up a world-leader-pretend for real, an accidental übermensch.”
“Accidentally like an übermensch,” said The Movie Mogul. “Kinda high-brow, but it’s a funny title.”
In a basso-profundo movie-trailer voice I intoned, “He could never kill his father enough – and look where it got him.”
“That’s a good tag line for a poster. What’s the third act? How does the story end?”
I smirked. “You tell me. Aristophanes says he wakes up and does better. Sophocles says otherwise. What do you think, Manny?”
That was me being small: Had I taken over his meeting? Or had he brought me along to pinch-hit his pitch? Whatever. The man is a great salesman, regardless, and a great salesman sells what the buyer is buying. He said, “I like what I’m hearing. I’d like to hear more.”
The Movie Mogul grinned at that response. “Coward. Tomorrow morning at ten we can map out a plan of attack.” Looking at me, he said. “He’ll be here. Will you?”
I said, “I cannot imagine how that would be so.”
His grin deepened. “Have you ever deposited a seven-figure pay-check?”
I grinned in return. “Not so far.”
“A little event like that can change the way you look at things.”
And that’s that, for now – and probably forever. Meetings about a movie and money for that movie are two different things. But if you see my name – William F.X. O’Connell – on some screen, big or small, you’ll finally get to find out how things turn out for Biff.
Either that, or you could watch the TV news. Pretty much the same story, either way. Here’s the key to understanding both plots:
How does Biff top this? What display is bigger and more-outrageous than being president of the United States? Where can he go from here – and what will happen to us when he gets there?
Now that’s a show worth watching…