by Todd Walton, May 18, 2016
From 1978 until 1985 I was entangled in the movie business as a novelist and screenwriter hoping to get my creations made into movies. I was not greatly successful, but I made a few chunks of money and had many strange adventures with the habitués of Hollywood.
Now and then something will happen in the very non-Hollywood life I now lead, and I will be reminded of one or another of those odd adventures. For instance, Marcia and I recently dined at our neighbor’s house, loved her salad dressing, and inquired of the ingredients. Our neighbor’s enumeration of those ingredients reminded me of a supping experience I had in 1981 at a trendy Hollywood eatery.
One of my three supper companions was Laura Ziskin, who would shortly thereafter produce Pretty Woman and other big hits and eventually settle into making Spiderman movies until her recent death. In 1981, she and her producing partner Ian Sanders had optioned my novel Forgotten Impulses and cajoled Warner Brothers into hiring me to adapt the novel to the screen.
Ian was at the table with us, and so was Leslie Morgan, then a vice-president at Warner Brothers facilitating the Forgotten Impulses project. Leslie was an attractive woman in her early thirties, as was Laura. Ian was a fast-talking guy who said he had no doubt whatsoever that I would soon be taking home an Oscar for my screenplay of Ef Eye, as he referred to my novel.
So…our waiter, a lovely young woman, almost surely an aspiring thespian, came to our table to take our orders, and Leslie ordered first.
“I will have the broiled halibut,” she said, squinting at our waiter, “but please have the chef douse the fish with olive oil a minute before he thinks it’s done. And I’ll have a green salad with dressing on the side. Now for the dressing, I want two parts olive oil, one part seasoned rice vinegar, a good amount of grey poupon mustard, finely-minced onion, fresh parsley, no salt, and a dash of pepper.”
Laura was next. “I’ll have the broiled salmon, but I want the pesto on the side, and instead of mashed potatoes I’d like basmati rice, carrots, al dente, and asparagus, well-cooked. I’ll also have a green salad with dressing on the side and for my dressing I want balsamic vinegar, olive oil, a splash of a good cabernet, a large clove of garlic, minced, and I’d like that slightly chilled. Oh, and no big leaves of lettuce.”
Chagrined by the behavior of my companions, I was determined to make no such fuss when it was my turn to order. But first Ian had a go at our beleaguered waiter.
“Yes, I’ll have the sirloin steak, on the rare side of medium rare, but not absolutely rare. I do want the mashed potatoes but no gravy just lots of butter, and give me a bowl of pineapple chunks instead of vegetables. I want the Caesar salad, small leaves, and extra croutons. Those are fresh, I assume.”
“Yes,” said the waiter, writing as if possessed.
“I’ll have the halibut, too,” I said with a sigh. “And a green salad with blue cheese dressing.”
She waited for me to say more, but I had nothing to add.
When she departed, Ian said, “She’s cute. Great dimples. Walks well. We should audition her. I have a good feeling about her.”
A few minutes later our salads arrived. Laura and Leslie tasted their dressings, doused their salads, and ate ravenously, as did Ian. My salad was so thoroughly inundated with heavy blue cheese dressing, a single bite sufficed to quell what little appetite I had.
Two months later—I was living in Sacramento—Laura called to tell me Warner Brothers had offered the director Tony Bill a half-million dollars to direct Forgotten Impulses. He was thinking about taking the gig, but wanted to talk to me. Could I fly down pronto and have lunch with him?
The next morning I flew to Los Angeles and took a taxi to Tony Bill’s suite of offices in Venice. He was famed for producing The Sting and directing a quirky little film called My Bodyguard. A handsome boyish man with long hair, he greeted me warmly and said, “You like sushi? Sashimi? Good. You’re in for a treat.”
Tony and I walked a couple blocks to a Japanese restaurant overlooking the beach. We sat in a booth by the window, Tony had a beer, I had green tea, and Tony said to our waiter, “Whatever Inaba wants to make for us, I’m sure we’ll love it.”
Then we talked about my novel and screenplay and Tony said, “This is a dangerous movie. I can see why so many people want to make it, but on my third reading of your script, I realized the hero is actually the villain. In fact, all the characters are tremendously appealing, but then…no one is bad, no one is good. Who do we root for? We need at least one main character to root for?”
“I think we root for all of them,” I said, rooting for him to accept the offer from Warner Brothers so I could get paid to write two more drafts of the screenplay and have another movie made. “Their appeal is that they are believably complicated and we identify with them when they give into their passions.”
The sushi began to arrive—spectacular. Tony said he’d been to Japan several times, eaten at hundreds of sushi places, and never had sushi this good. I certainly had never had anything as good or in such quantity. Tony left a hundred-dollar tip.
Walking back to his office, Tony said, “I think we need to make Mackie more heroic and less of a bad guy. Maybe make his mother the villain.”
Two hours later, I was on a jet flying back to Sacramento.
Two days later, Laura called to say Tony decided not to make the film. “We’ll find somebody,” she said in her tough confident way. “Somebody who isn’t afraid of complexity.”
(Todd Walton’s website is UnderTheTableBooks.com)