February 8, 2007
Our Hollywood moment: An article in three acts
One of many things that I've learned over the last several years is that many roads in L.A. lead to Hamilton High School. Hamilton sits at the strange but fertile delta of Beverlywood, Beverly Hills, Culver City and a couple of markedly less fortunate neighborhoods. It is a school at a crossroads, much like Alan Kaplan was himself. A founder of the school's humanities magnet, Kaplan had run into a critical mass of trouble. His fiery teaching style and philosophical emphasis on racial inequality as a foundation of American history had always fueled admiration among most students and consternation among some parents. The parents most unsettled were African Americans who felt that Kaplan's focus on slavery and its modern legacy was inappropriate and ultimately demeaning. By the spring of 1999, a group of about a dozen parents had organized and charged Kaplan -- a Jewish man -- with racism, calling for the school district to take action.
The newspaper I worked for, the L.A. Weekly, dispatched me to Hamilton to see what I could find out. Kaplan did not want to be interviewed, but I kept asking.
Finally he agreed to talk, on a Sunday afternoon. I thought for a moment he wasn't going to open the door when I rang the bell at his place in Encino. I found him blunt, wary, impolitic, impulsive, bull-headed, but also gracious and idealistic, fascinating and fiercely committed to his students. I decided he was not a racist. I wrote my story. He kept his job.
That initial meeting, as it happened, was the start of something entirely unexpected. Within a year, we were engaged. That was the fairy-tale ending of one story, but the prelude to another -- our Hollywood moment.
Erin Aubry Kaplan -- a writer, black
Alan Kaplan -- a schoolteacher, Jewish
Michael Siegel -- a literary agent
Michael Maren -- a screenwriter
Various skeptics and supporters
ACT I: The Proposition
(Scene 1: A cubicle at the L.A. Weekly)
The phone on my desk is ringing. It's late. I don't want to answer. I have an uneasy, semi-permanent feeling it's the parent group that once wanted me to write about the awful transgressions of Mr. Kaplan. The Mr. Kaplan who is now my fiancé. The parents are probably still fuming, and objectively speaking, I don't blame them. I hardly understand it myself. When I first met him, I could see right off that Mr. Kaplan -- Alan -- had a roguishness and rough-edged charm that hooked pubescent students, but I didn't think it would work on me. Of course, I didn't think I would work on him. The last person he wanted in his life was a black reporter. The last impression I thought I'd get was of a sincere, sensitive but remarkably unguarded white man who offered me dinner in the middle of a very tense interview at his place in Encino. The dinner -- a large cube of lasagna and a salad -- turned out to be the only food he had left in the house. He set the table and everything. He didn't eat, just watched me. I was moved. That was the first movement of many, the first movement of an entire symphony. Now we were engaged.
"Erin Aubry? Hi, this is Michael Maren."
It's not the parent group. I relax a little.
"I know this is sudden, and that you don't know me. But I'm a screenwriter, and I live in New York. And I read your piece in Salon magazine today, and I thought it was really terrific."
For Salon.com, I'd written, "The Color of Love," a concise account of my unlikely romance with the guy who was falsely cast as the West Coast incarnation of David Duke. Alan was not a mercenary like David Duke, plus he was a lot more chivalrous. I thank Michael for his feedback. Nice way to end the day.
"There's something else." Michael pauses. "I think this would make a great screenplay." Another pause. "It's got all the elements -- love, race, conflict, story arc, resolution. And it says a lot about L.A., things that don't normally get said. I'd like your permission to shop it around."
"Shop it around?" I hear myself say the words. I'm sitting up straight. I glance out my window at the Hollywood Hills. I listen.
"Yes. You know, pitch some studios and networks. I'm thinking HBO would be a good bet. They do original ideas, and I've written for them before...".... He's a former journalist, now a full-time screenwriter, a real one, who wants my story. Our story.
I start to feel floaty, giddy. A tiny bit self-important.
"I think that'll be fine," I say. "But I need to talk it over with Alan. It's his story, too."
(Scene 2: The kitchen of the writer's apartment)
I have to break this to Alan the right way. My future husband is an idealist who likes movies but hates Hollywood, at least as a concept. Parties, paparazzi, Oscar fashions, actors dating models, models dating actors, celebrity hangouts, production trailers that screw up street traffic -- he hates all of it.
Like me, he's a native Angeleno. That's part of our connection. He grew up in Sepulveda, a rarely filmed part of town; I grew up in equally unglamorous South Central. His favorite places to eat are old-line diners like Norm's, which has twilight meal deals and takes coupons. He also likes the eternal two-tacos-for-99-cents special at Jack in the Box. To Alan, the pretensions of Hollywood and the film industry exist purely to threaten a better, simpler, more straightforward L.A. that's disappearing by the acre, like the Amazon rainforest. One of his biggest fears is that one day, Hollywood will discover Jack in the Box and make it chic.
"Honey," I call out, "you'll never guess who called me at work today." Alan looks at me over his reading glasses. He's in the kitchen, a newspaper spread on the counter, his fist in a box of dry granola. He hates milk.