September 14, 2006
Michael Tolkin takes on L.A. excess, family dysfunction and private-school politics in sequel to his
Hate the game, love 'The Player'
All hail Griffin Mill and "The Return of the Player," by Michael Tolkin. Eighteen years ago, in "The Player," Tolkin introduced us to Griffin Mill, a studio executive who gets away with murder -- literally. Tolkin's successful novel was followed in 1992 by a Robert Altman film version, for which Tolkin wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay.
Since then, Tolkin, who is now 55, has published two other novels, "Among the Dead" and "Under Radar," directed two movies, "The Rapture" and "The New Age," for which he also wrote the screenplays, and he has received credit on several successful produced movies, including "Sudden Impact" and "Changing Lanes." He's also written and rewritten many other screenplays.
Now Griffin Mill is back, and despite his past crime, he wants to bring people together -- to have them connect honestly and ethically. He says, "I know you, and I know what you want." Griffin Mill has changed.
If "The Player" was very much a novel of manners, of the customs of Hollywood, "The Return of The Player" is a novel of ideas, with Tolkin taking creative leaps to express his many thoughts and theories on everything from teenagers (and yes, he has read the work of clinical psychologist and author Wendy Mogul, his wife), family love, marriage, Moses versus Homer (or that "the structure of Greek legends make good movies and the structure of Jewish legends make mediocre TV series"), to what Bill Clinton could and should have said.
I sat down recently with Tolkin in his Hancock Park office to talk about the return of "The Player," and I found that, like Griffin Mill, Tolkin has a lot on his mind.
Our conversation veered from the state of the movie industry and movies to Abu Ghraib and the end of the American myth of a code of honor, to Tolkin's experience with a Wexner fellowship studying Judaism, to changes in Reform liturgical services, to reasons for optimism in a world of pain -- or, at least, reasons not to despair.
Tolkin's insider cred is both earned and inherited. His father, Mel Tolkin, wrote his way from musical theatricals and summer Pocono Camp Tamiment sketch revues to head writer of Sid Caesar's "Show of Shows," where his now-legendary writing staff included Lucille Kallen (Mel Tolkin's former writing partner), Neil and Danny Simon, Mel Brooks and Woody Allen. Michael Tolkin's mother was a vice president of legal affairs at Paramount.
The Tolkin family moved to Los Angeles from New York when Michael was 10. He became bar mitzvah at Temple Emanuel and graduated from Beverly Hills High School. Tolkin then went back east to attend Middlebury College. After graduating, he returned to New York, where he worked as a journalist for such publications as The Village Voice, before returning to Los Angeles to embark on a screenwriting career.
By the late 1980s, Tolkin was a working screenwriter. His script for "Gleaming the Cube" (released in 1989 and now a skateboarding cult classic) was about to be made when he got an idea that, as he recalled , "didn't feel like a movie." "I had never had that happen before," Tolkin said. He explained that within the first few pages he had a character in a dilemma, and that the way it works for him, in the four times he has had ideas for novels, "the dilemma becomes a question and then an organizing principle."
"The Player" reads today, much as it did when originally published, as a polished literary effort -- more like Daniel Fuchs' "The Golden West" than Nathaniel West's "Day of the Locust" -- a novel by someone who knew the lay of the land and despite it was going to stay in Hollywood.
What "The Player" had going for it was a sense of the real -- it took for granted that this was the way the game was played and was neither dismissive nor critical; it just told the facts. Yet by putting Griffin Mill in the center of the story, it presented Hollywood as a world that stood apart from morality, a concept that met with no resistance. Griffin Mill came to embody Hollywood in his day, much as Ari Gold on "Entourage" does today.
So imagine my surprise when Tolkin revealed that "The model for Griffin was never anything in Hollywood." Turns out Tolkin found his inspiration in Washington, D.C.
"It was Eliott Abrams lying during the Iran-Contra hearing," Tolkin confided. "That's who it explicitly was -- but only to the degree that watching Eliot Abrams lie at the time, I wondered: What had happened to guilt? How can this guy sleep at night? Then I started to think about the ways in which 19th century guilt was a matter of the soul; early 20th century guilt was a matter of psychology. Now guilt had become more a neurotic tick than anything profound. Some people really didn't have it. We were a sociopathic culture. And then I went from there."
"The Return of the Player," is a sequel only in the loosest sense. First of all, it has very little to do with the Hollywood of studios and movie making. But it has everything to with living in Los Angeles at this particular moment in the 21st century, and that is intentional.
Tolkin explained that the idea for "The Return of The Player" came to him about four years ago, when he was having a conversation with a producer about an executive who was broke. Although Tolkin understood broke to mean out of money, somehow the phrase "down to his last couple of million" came into the conversation. Later, as Tolkin sat in the chair in his office, the opening sentence came to him, "Griffin Mill was broke; he was down to his last $6 million."