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. "Your old boyfriend?"
"A guy who liked my story. Really liked it."
"That's nice," Alan says. "I like your stories, too. Especially the one that saved my bacon at Hamilton."
"Well. I didn't write it to save your bacon."
"I know," he says cheerfully. "What did this guy want?"
"He wanted permission to sell my story to a movie studio." I start to almost sing: "He's a screenwriter in New York -- a real screenwriter, not a wannabe with no day job. He does it all the time, like you teach all the time. Honey, the bottom line is, he thinks he can sell the story to a studio like HBO, or Paramount for all I know. At the worst it could be a network, like CBS or ABC. But I don't -- I mean, we don't -- have to do anything but say yes. I think." I pause. "Isn't that great?"
Alan nods very slowly. He digs up more granola, seems to weigh it in his hand. "What story does he want?"
"The story about how you and I met."
Alan frowns. The frown deepens into a glare and stays put. This is not a good sign. Alan can be either very indulgent or very resistant to things I want, and he's clearly feeling the latter. He's been especially resistant to advertising our relationship any more than necessary; he thinks it'll piss off lots more people than the parent group, especially black people. He says it could damage my career, marrying a white man. Especially the likes of him, a guy demonized by black people already.
"Wrongly demonized," I point out.
"That doesn't matter," he says. "Damage is done. Even if I wasn't demonized, it's still a liability for you. Hurts your credibility as a black writer. As a voice of the people."
I appreciate Alan looking out for my professional interests, and he frankly has a point. But I'm also discovering that my husband-to-be is about the biggest doomsayer I've ever met. The combination of passionate idealism and equally passionate fatalism is part of the quirkiness that I fell in love with. It's also a pain in the butt. Like now.
"I don't think this is a good idea," he says of the movie proposal. "I've had too much of my life exposed because of that business at Hamilton. I want to put it behind me. I don't want people poking around anymore, asking questions. Too many questions already, too many of them not valid."
"That's the way I feel about it. Sorry." He smacks the counter with his right hand, the hand without granola. "There are principles involved. This is just a movie thing. There'll be other opportunities."
Is he kidding? Other opportunities? But I have to keep my cool, play it right. Get Hollywood. This is where I think Alan and are a good match. He thrusts, I feint. He worries, I acknowledge his concern but don't get caught up. This is where the black-Jew dynamic actually works, like compatible signs of the zodiac. "You're right," I say sincerely. "I understand. Not worth it. It probably wouldn't be much money, not by industry standards. We can pass."
Alan freezes slightly. His eyes narrow: "Money. How much money?"
I tell him what Michael told me.
"I have to run to the store, honey," I say. "I need more cereal. See you later."
(Scene 3: Next morning, living room, the writer's apartment) Alan has an announcement. A development. This is after an hour or so spent on the calculator the night before.
"OK," he says. "Let's do it. What the hell. Why shouldn't we profit from this insane business? Plenty of people with less smarts and worse material get over. Hey, I wouldn't mind a piece of the pie."
He looks thoughtful: "All this time I've been a starving a high school teacher. Screw that. They can sell this story, as long as I get paid."
I'm relieved. Also a little surprised. In less than 24 hours, Alan has gone from resisting the status quo on principle -- the thing I first admired about him, the thing that got him attention -- to throwing in the towel for several thousand bucks and the chance to live out a kind of nativist's revenge fantasy against the mythologized Los Angeles. He's morphed overnight from romantic hero into craven opportunist. Our dynamic worked a little too well. I don't know that I quite like the change -- even if I had done a similar thing in a matter of seconds on the phone. Maybe he's more of an opportunist than I realize. Maybe this marriage isn't such a good idea. What happened to that good tension? I shake it off and call Michael the screenwriter.
Michael is thrilled. And relieved, like me. He's going to write a summary first, a synopsis.
"It's going to be general, broad-stroke," he says. "There'll be plenty of story and specifics later. The synopsis will be to get the studios' interest."
He already has a director in mind, a guy named Thomas Carter, the former actor who co-starred with Kevin Hooks in the '70s television basketball show "The White Shadow." Like Hooks, he took up directing when his teen-star days were over. Carter, who is black, has a particular interest in interracial and cross-cultural stories. I suddenly don't like the prospect of our story being "interracial" -- it sounds pat, cloying. More than a little fetishistic. Maybe Alan's initial resistance was right.
Michael reads my mind: "Don't worry," he says again. "This is going to be a really good project. It has a real shot." Project. I feel a creeping excitement again. This thing is real. It has legs, even if it is interracial. And we don't have to beg or sell our souls to go Hollywood, I tell myself. Just our consent.
ACT II: Movie in the Making
(Scene 1: Living room, the writer's apartment)
Everybody knows that when it rains, it pours, but the corollary is that when the sun shines, it stays hot for a while. A couple of days later, I get another call. His name is Michael, too, and he's a book-to-film agent. His clients include Elmore Leonard, who wrote "Get Shorty" and "Jackie Brown." I'm impressed. Michael wants to represent us, too.
"Michael Siegel!" Alan shouts upon hearing the name.
It turns out that Michael S. did time as an English teacher at Hamilton almost 20 years ago. After the triumphant flush of recognition, Alan's mood changes. He gets a little dark, brooding.
"He was smart," he says of Michael S. "He didn't stay a teacher. He left and made some real money."
I move to cut off what I know will be a speech about not making enough money. I've heard the successful-Jew lament before. How Alan should have been a lawyer, property owner or Hollywood bigwig. Preferably all three. This is part of his fatalism that I truly understand -- I'm a chronic underachiever, too -- and can't stand at all. I love my husband-to-be and hate when he beats himself up for not being something other than what he is. After all, the list of what you aren't is so much longer than the list of what you actually are.
"But you never wanted to make money that way," I say. "You like teaching. You love teaching. You'd hate agent-ing. All that networking, kissing up, cutting deals. You've said so yourself."
Alan looks at me strangely. "That's not the point. The point it is, he's successful. I'm not."
"Because you're not an agent?"
"Because I'm poor," Alan says. "I'm not supposed to be poor."
"That's ridiculous," I say, more than a little impatiently. "We're not poor. We have two cars; we eat out almost every night. We take other people to dinner. How is that poor?"
Alan throws up his hands. "Forget it. It depends on how you're measuring things. By the measurement of my people, believe me, I'm poor."
The fatalism is running amok.
"Well," I shoot back, "by the measurement of my people, you're doing really well. You've got a full-time job, advanced college degrees and good benefits. And you're doing what you love to do. You know how far ahead that puts you in the statistics of black folks?"
Alan scowls. "I'm not black."
"Too bad," I snap. "It'd solve a lot of your problems. Being black doesn't usually do that. It creates problems. But you'd be an exception."
I stomp off.
(Scene 2: Same room, later)
Alan enters, looking not sullen -- his usual reaction after a fight -- but inspired. He's no longer fatalistic, but energized. He says this whole exchange might be good material for The Project. He goes off to jot something down. I don't know whether to feel uneasy again or equally inspired. My soon-to-be husband is looking at our fledgling life through the lens of a movie, which is either the worst thing or the best thing that could happen. Maybe both. I'm still sorting out all of Alan's contradictions. It'll take time. It might take a lifetime.
"I know you don't like that 'interracial' thing, and I don't either," Alan explains. "But we might as well realize that's the hook here. We might as well make that work for us. Right? This is our deal now."
He says he's going to e-mail Michael M. with the idea. He wants to make this deal fly as soon as possible, as high as possible. He makes a full confession: His own big Hollywood strategy -- cooked up overnight, of course -- is to make a racially themed movie about us that's so melodramatic and so wide of the mark, nobody will recognize us in it at all.
"I don't care if this thing is 'Homeboys From Outer Space,'" he says, almost gleeful. "As long as we get paid. We can always say, 'Well, we told them the real story, the important issues, but they didn't want it. They weren't interested. They took our story, and we trusted them and then they distorted it, like Hollywood always does, especially with racial stuff. American ignorance. What can you do?'"
Alan smiles a deep, satisfied, almost diabolical smile: "Plausible deniability. It's great."
He might be right about the path not taken. He would have been a good agent after all -- too good. He has talents I'm still learning about.
The deal is cut, and signed. First with the two Michaels. Then with HBO. Michael M. will write the screenplay, and Michael S. works out payment and such. It's also agreed that this movie will be "based on a true story," as opposed to "inspired by real events." It's a higher standard of Hollywood truth that I think is flattering. Alan isn't exactly happy -- it kind of blows his "Homeboys From Outer Space" scheme. But overall, the deal seems too easy. We both agree we're happy. For now.
(Scene 3: A restaurant in Santa Monica.)
We all meet for lunch to celebrate -- me, Alan, Michael, Thomas Carter and a producer friend -- at one of those Hollywood-on-the-Westside eateries Alan would ordinarily avoid like mudslides.
Not this time. "It's free," he says in the parking lot. "They're paying."
Carter is a serious but genial sort with a slightly distracted air that I imagine to be common among Hollywood directors. He spends lunch repeating our story back to us, or his cinematic understanding of it. We listen. It sounds interesting. It sounds ... sellable.
(Scene 4: The living room.)
I'm beginning to catch Alan's agent fever. I've moved down off the romantic high of our love story being a Project, and am now imagining the product -- shot, wrapped, sold, distributed, marketed. I don't want to jump the gun, but I don't want to set my sights too low either. I've done that too many times in my life.
So has Alan; that's another one of our connections. We both had big dreams for ourselves that we didn't exactly realize, but that shaped our lives anyway, that led us to each other. Maybe it's the inexorable Hollywood influence, but we still carry dreams. Now we've both got this one dropped into our lap that we can live out any way we want, because absolutely nothing is at stake. We're taking a Hollywood ride on a ticket that we didn't pay for. It is, as Alan says, free.
Michael M. works on his script. He calls us almost daily, asking questions about exactly how we met, how it felt, who said what to whom. He's being a journalist.
Being a subject -- that is, consultant -- isn't as easy as I expected. Alan and I have to agree on details. I try hard not to embellish, but it's an effort. I can't remember everything exactly. And even the simplest version of the story feels big and unwieldy as a film script. I try to focus on something else.
"Who's going to play me in the movie?" I ask Alan one day. Michael M. is already talking about casting.
"Halle Berry," Alan says promptly. "Or Angela Bassett."
I consider. "They're both petite. They make me look like a hockey forward."
"Honey," says Alan, looking the way I do when he does his successful-Jew routine, "it isn't you. It's a movie. Remember that. HBO would be lucky to get a big name. It would really sell the movie. It'd be good for us."
"Yes. But ... Halle Berry can't play me. She doesn't have the weight. The intellectual weight."
Alan, judiciously, says nothing.
"And Angela Bassett's too tough," I say, looking in mirror. "I'm not tough."
"Honey," says Alan. "It's not about you. It's about the movie. You're not in the movie."
But I want to be. I should be, somehow. Maybe I could have a walk-on. I have not told Alan about really milking this Hollywood free ride for everything it's worth. About my own closeted dream of success and stardom I'm hoping this movie will serve, just a little bit. I change the subject.
"Who's going to play you?"
Alan shrugs. "Paul Reubens."
"Oh honey, no! Pee-wee? I always thought you reminded me of Ron Silver. He's a little too old to play you. But he's a good actor."
"I hope it's somebody who doesn't look like me at all. Matt Dillon would be good. Who cares?"
"It won't be Matt Dillon."
"Honey," Alan says again, exasperated. "Calm down. There isn't a movie yet. Let's go one step at a time."
"Michael Maren says the whole thing has a better than 50 percent chance of being made now. He says that's pretty damn high. That's closer than most projects ever get."
"Right," Alan says. "Which is why, if it all ended right here and now, I'd feel like we won. We're so far ahead already."
He looks solemn. He puts on his reading glasses and fixes me with a gaze. "It's like with you, honey. If it all ended right here and now, I'd feel like a better man. Like everything that's happened so far has been to my benefit. It's all gravy. There's no way to lose."
I smile through a certain anxiety. My almost-husband with the big mouth and penchant for pessimism also has a gift for saying exactly the right thing. I hope he e-mails that to Michael. But I doubt it. Too close to truth.
(Scene 5. The wedding, in an outdoor garden.)
It's the fall, and we're getting married on a postcard autumn day. Of course, the movie comes up. People hear about it, and they practically swoon. It's all so fitting. So L.A., so Hollywood!
Of course our pairing was like a movie, they tell us. It's a natural. Will the wedding be in the movie, they ask?
A few drinks into the reception, they ask more pointed questions like, will they be in the movie?
People are surprisingly divided on the issue. My father is a public figure, a community activist who's used to a spotlight and is a pivotal character in Michael M.'s synopsis. But he, like Alan, is leery of Hollywood and of anything that smells like superficiality. My mother is opposed to being made public at all, and she makes me promise to cut her out entirely. (Michael M. obliges, and writes the father character as a widower. My mother is satisfied.) My younger sister, the attorney, is pivotal, too, because she had once been a strong-willed student in Mr. Kaplan's class -- and had to re-cast the teacher she once butted heads with as a brother-in-law. The teacher who loomed largest for her in high school was now going to loom even larger for her within her family (like I said in the beginning, all roads lead back to Hamilton).
And then there are the people who are nowhere in our story at all but who assume they are -- friends, acquaintances, hairdressers.
"Tell that screenwriter to call me anytime," they say conspiratorially at various points. "I know the real story."
Alan and I make mental notes never to bring up the movie with these folks again.
"You were in the movie, we swear," we'll tell them. "More than a couple of scenes. But there was this jerk of an editor/producer who was counting pennies and took it out. We fought for it, but they took it out. "
It's an old trick I learned as a reporter to appease sources disgruntled by the absence of their quotes in a story.
We wait till December to honeymoon, in Maui.
(Scene 6: A car, driving along the Maui coast)
It's balmy here. Back home, Michael M. is still writing. HBO is waiting. Driving along the miles of highway that hug this scenic coast -- black sand, blue water, burning orange sunset -- is exactly like driving in a movie. Ours.
"We should e-mail Michael," Alan remarks from behind the wheel, sweeping a hand out of the window. "This would be good."
"No," I say, sitting back. "This is good."
ACT III: The End
Months pass. Michael still writes. He rewrites. He says it's normal, part of the process. A year on the contract is up, and HBO renews. Michael S. says this is expected -- nobody finishes a full-length movie script in 12 months, at least not to everybody's satisfaction. We sign on bottom lines again. We talk to Michael M. less and less, but I understand his need to hole up and write after all those interviews -- I do it, too. It takes time to put together a story as complicated as ours. He wants it to be quality. I trust him. I trust that HBO trusts him. We're all a team.
Alan slowly turns back into the old Alan. He's not talking so brashly about the movie, about "Homeboys From Outer Space" and about getting his. He's stopped running the whole thing by people we meet at parties and such ("Yeah, we're doing this movie. Can you believe it? Craziest thing..."). He's losing faith. "Why doesn't Michael e-mail us?" he says. "I don't have a good feeling about this. I think the movie is dead, and he's not saying."
I assure him that can't be the case.
The second year passes. HBO doesn't like the script and doesn't renew the option. Alan is right.
The story rights revert to me and Alan (like we really need them), and everybody -- Michael M., Michael S., Thomas Carter, HBO -- goes home.
Michael S. says the script was lousy: "But don't worry. This is actually a good thing. I never thought HBO was the best place for it. We'll sell it somewhere else. It's a natural for a TV series. There's a lot more money in that anyway." I'm not reassured. I don't know what to think because I never read the script. Maybe the opposite is true and the script was too good, too nuanced for the likes of HBO or for any other place. Maybe HBO wanted more than a bit of "Homeboy" in the mix and Michael M. refused to give it to them.
Alan sides with Michael S.
"It probably stank," he says.
His tones changes, though not for the worse, as I expect; he actually brightens, straightens up. Like I straightened up more than two years ago when somebody pitched the movie for the first time, and it sounded like music.
"Don't worry, honey. We can sell it somewhere else. It is a good story. It's a great story. It's better than 99 percent of stories out there. Somebody will want it. Trust me. It's just a matter of time."
I do trust Alan. I trust him more than I should have ever trusted any of the Hollywoodites, who, after all, all wanted something from me. Alan wants nothing except me. He's talking up the movie/TV series now as a timeless, can't-miss project -- a metaphor all along for us. I should have known.
I'll take us.
Of course, Alan wouldn't mind the money, but that's not really it. He sincerely believes that we deserve a shot in Hollywood because he believes that we deserve a shot. And because that shot is working out so far (we've been married six years now), because it was last thing that was ever supposed to happen, Hollywood looks like a cinch. A nice extra. Gravy. The money you win after you've won it all. The real payoff is learning that my husband is, in fact, the intractable dreamer and idealist I fell in love with. As Hollywood as they come.
He has his dark moments, his doubts. But they're just the underside of all that glitters. The rope that ties up the hero for a while before he breaks free and saves everybody in the end. I married the hero.
"Our story," Alan says wonderingly now and then, apropos of little. That's all he says.
I get the wonder. Every year our story gets bigger, more fantastic. It's going to sell any day.
Erin Aubry Kaplan is a regular Op-Ed columnist for the Los Angeles Times.