Confessions Of A Hollywood Nobody
Everyone has read biographies and memoirs of Hollywood celebrities—the lucky ones who have actually made it to the top. Dan Bronson’s book is different. It tells the story of all the others—the ninety-eight percent who’ve worked hard and well but below the radar, the “nobodies” without whom movies and television would cease to exist.
Dan’s fun, funny account of his wild ride on the rollercoaster of Hollywood is littered with stars, both behind the camera and in front of it—actors like Natalie Wood, Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Bateman and, yes, Tori Spelling; directors like George Seaton, Alfred Hitchcock, George Cukor, Gil Cates, Francis Ford Coppola and John McTiernan; executives like Dawn Steele, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Michael Eisner and Ned Tanen. And along the way, Dan provides behind-the-scenes glimpses of the making of films both big and small—everything from Galaxy of Terror to Godfather III and Die Hard: With a Vengeance .
But his real story is how the dream factory works and what it takes to avoid being crushed in its gears. A survivor’s guide to Hollywood, it is a must-read for anyone interested in film.
“What a pleasure to read. A smart, gallop-paced life story that had me smiling all the way. A classic show-business saga that is, at the same time, a compendium of contemporary American film culture.”
–Ron Carlson, Novelist (The Signal), Director of the Creative Writing Program at UC Irvine
“Few people can describe what it’s like to be in the Hollywood trenches with Dan Bronson’s knowledge and authority. One of the finest script readers ever to have worked for a major studio, he also has years of experience as a leading television screenwriter. Many people have told us what it is like to be on top; few how tough it is to be on the bottom, in the middle, and at the various stops along the way. Dan has seen the inside and the outside, the upside and the downside, and writes about them all with refreshing originality, passion and verve.”
–Stephen Galloway, Executive Editor, The Hollywood Reporter
A HOLLYWOOD HACK IS BORN or HOW I BECAME A SCREENWRITER
An exciting serial adventure filled with derring-do, spectacular action, and thrilling, edge-of-your seat cliff hangers.
Universal Studios. The Motel Building.
A decaying relic from the forties or fifties, it sits across the street from the studio lot, within view of the fabled Black Tower but worlds away from the glamour and power embodied in that show business obelisk.
It is early 1979, and I am sitting in the Story Editor’s office. Battle-scarred, institution-green walls. Battered, mismatched furniture. A sliding glass door, its glazing fogged with a patina of dirt.
I am a college professor who has secured an internship at the studio that gave the world Jaws. But I am also Wendy glimpsing Neverland for the first time. I am, at last, inside the world I’ve dreamed of all my life.
I am chatting with John Humphreys, the recently appointed Story Editor of Universal Pictures. We are talking about our favorite films, and I am hoping and praying that the gods will turn the conversation in the direction of a job offer. I promise my first-born to Jehovah, Allah, Buddha— whoever will listen—if only John will say, “Dan, you’re a bright, talented fellow, and you know a lot about the movies. How’d you like to join us here at Universal as a story analyst?”
“YES!” I’m ready to shout.
I wait for John to pronounce the magic words.
John, a white Humboldt County hippie with a black Afro, picks up the receiver and greets his caller with a soft, almost whispered “Hello?”
There is a pause as he listens, and I muse upon his quiet, controlled presence. It is, I suspect, a cover for the demons he seems to carry around inside him—speculation confirmed years later when he leaves the studio after flying into a rage and, I’m told, kicking down the door of a fellow executive.
Then, in his usual monotone, John breaks the silence. “Yes. Yes, Mr. Hitchcock, I’m familiar with your work.” Oh my God!
Alfred Hitchcock! The Shakespeare of the cinema! The man whose work, more than any other, propels my love of the movies! The genius whose films I’ve worshipfully taught in seminar after seminar!
My hero is on the phone!
As I silently engage in a spastic seizure of excitement, John continues his bland, colorless colloquy with our greatest living filmmaker.
After few minutes, he hangs up and tells me in his matter-of-fact manner that Hitchcock, whose current film Short Night has just fallen apart, is looking for a new project and wants John to help him find it.
OH! MY! GOD!
This is why I came to Hollywood. To participate in the creation of great cinematic art. If only I were the Story Editor. If only I had been the one to receive the call from the legendary Hitch.
John, who has a commanding knowledge of books and publishing, decides to send the famous filmmaker the manuscript of an upcoming novel by a genre writer with a cult following. The novel is Whispers, and the novelist is Dean Koontz.
He entrusts me with a copy of the typescript the same afternoon he sends it to Hitchcock. It is long. A stack of pages almost six inches high.
I carry it home and start to read. I can’t stop. At three in the morning, drugged by the desire for sleep, I place the sacred pile of paper on the edge of my bed, kneeling beside it so the pain in my knees will keep me awake until the end.
It is an amazing book.
Hitchcock concurs in my opinion. (Well, actually, he doesn’t even know I exist. But he likes Whispers too.) He calls at the end of the next day and asks John to negotiate an option on the film rights for him.
His reward? Lunch with Hitch in his private studio dining room followed by a personally guided tour of the storyboards for Short Night.
I turn a deep shade of green.
Then the studio gets wind of the deal. John receives a call from Ned Tanen, President of Production at Universal, and the phone explodes with Ned’s anger.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Ned screams. “You be nice to that old man! You say yes to that old man! But you never, ever do business with that old man!”
What John—stunned, trembling in fear for his job—did not know but now learns is that the studio cancelled Short Night because Lew Wasserman, the god who presides over Universal from the uppermost regions of the Black Tower, has decided that his old friend Alfred Hitchcock, the best-known of all the studio’s directors and the third largest stockholder in its parent company MCA, is too old and too arthritic to make a picture in Finland in the dead of winter—in fact, in too bad a shape ever to make another film.
Uncle Lew does not intend to spend another dime on this famous relic. Hooray for Hollywood! Whispers goes away. And the following year, so does Alfred Hitchcock. He dies without ever making another film.
But I am obsessed. Through many career ups and downs…(yes, John does eventually speak the magic words and offers me a job, but more about that later)…I follow the ups and downs of Whispers.
A big best-seller, it is optioned by CBS Theatrical, which, in its infinite wisdom, hires the writer of Brother Sun, Sister Moon—the story of Saint Francis of Assisi—to write what should have been Hitchcock’s second Psycho. They spend three years and $300,000 developing an unusable script. And then they let their option lapse!
I am ready. Now a story analyst at Paramount Pictures, I partner with film executive Donna Dubrow and aspiring producer Rob Kenneally.
I’m the story guy. Donna is experience, credibility and contacts. And Rob, bless him, knows Ted Field, the heir to the Marshall Field’s fortune who has turned his back on Chicago and the world of department stores to enter the magic kingdom of the movies by establishing a production company he calls Interscope. (No produced films yet. But many are on the way—among them, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Three Men and a Baby, Mr. Holland’s Opus, and on and on and on.)
Rob gains us entrance to the inner sanctum, where we meet Ted. Handsome, confident, a racecar driver whose right hand is permanently in a glove-like brace as a result of a crash, Ted is a man who likes life out on the edge. He and Peter Samuelson, his head of production, welcome us. And then, as the story guy, it’s up to me.
Am I nervous? No.
Am I intimidated by the heavyweights in the room? No.
I’m too excited.
I give the first and best pitch of my life. (In Hollywood, you don’t tell a story. You pitch it. I like to think the idea is that you throw it at the exec so hard that it knocks him senseless enough to say yes.)
Whispers is about a talented young screenwriter who has just achieved every Hollywood writer’s dream: a contract to direct her next script. She returns home from the meeting where the deal was finalized, soaring as she opens the door…
…and she discovers A MAN INSIDE HER HOUSE!
He’s huge, and he clearly intends to rape and then kill her. She runs. He pursues.
Close behind her as she flees up the stairs.
Closer still as she races through her bedroom door. AND HE IS ON HER!
Slamming her back, spread-eagle, on her bed. Mounting her.
But she manages to reach inside the drawer of her nightstand and shove a pistol in his groin, shouting for him to back off.
He gets off her. She grabs the phone to call the police. And he starts to walk out the door!
Where, she asks him, does he think he’s going?
He coolly replies that she’s not going to shoot him as long as he’s not threatening her.
He walks out, and she calls the police.
(I have some experience as an actor, and I use every trick I know to manipulate Ted, my voice going from intense whispers to sudden shouts. Ted is my puppet, leaning forward, jerking back, responding beautifully to my every tug of his strings.)
The police arrive and quickly learn that she knows her attacker. His name is Frye. He owns a winery up in Napa, and she interviewed him as research for one of her screenplays.
The police are immediately suspicious. (It’s the early 1980’s, sexism is alive and well, and law enforcement automatically questions the story of any woman who claims to have been attacked by someone she knows.)
They call the Sheriff in Napa, who tells them that Frye couldn’t have at- tacked anyone in Los Angeles. He’s there in Napa, 400 miles away.
Clearly dismissing her as a disgruntled lover, they also learn that her license for the gun she used to stop the attack is no longer valid.
They confiscate it and leave. She is terrified. Frye is out there in the dark somewhere. He could return at any moment. And she’s defenseless against him.
She goes to her kitchen. Pulls out a knife. Takes it upstairs to her bedroom. Locks the door. Pulls a heavy armoire in front of it. And sits up all night, the knife clutched in her hand, her body rigid with fear.
Of course, nothing happens.
The sun comes up. The birds begin to sing. It’s a beautiful new day. She gets out of bed. Slides the armoire back. Opens the door.
AND HE IS ON HER!
(I shout this out and slam my fist on Ted’s desk. He nearly backflips out of his chair.)
He rushes her.
And impales himself on the knife she still clutches in her hand. He staggers off, collapses in a pool of his own blood, and dies.
The cops investigate, and the dead attacker turns out to be exactly who she said.
…HE ATTACKS HER AGAIN!!
He attacks her again, and he isn’t dead. No zombies here, thank you very much. This maniac is very much alive.
The back cover of the paperback gets it exactly right. At the top of the page: “HE IS BACK” in small print.
Then some text and a larger “HE IS BACK.”
More text and finally, in huge letters, “HE IS BACK.”
An unstoppable force. A juggernaut.
He cannot be killed. He cannot be stopped. I nurse Ted through the rest of the story. And then…
…I refuse to tell him the end. He is hooked.
I did it! I pitched so hard I have indeed rendered him senseless enough to say yes!
The official word does not come until a day or two later. But I know.
I know I have sold him.
I am so excited that I rear-end a car on my way back to Paramount.
It has taken three years, but I am now on my way. I am going to make a movie.
Reality, as it so often does, soon rears its ugly head.
Rob, Donna and I are on as producers of the Whispers project. But Ted and Peter are unwilling to consider me as the writer to do the adaptation. I am unknown. I am inexperienced. I have too little in the way of samples of my work to prove that I am up to the task.
Worse yet, they settle on a writer that my partners and I are convinced is the wrong choice for the job.
His name is Chris Bryant. He’s a talented fellow with impressive credits—among them, Nicolas Roeg’s brilliant horror film Don’t Look Now.
Donna and I feel that Chris’ forte is historical romance. That Don’t Look Now is its director’s film—Nic Roeg’s achievement, not Chris’.
I’ve always hated being wrong. I take it very personally. It’s a long-standing character flaw. But this time I hate being right.
Chris—affable, courteous, cooperative—just doesn’t “get it.” He feeds us pages as he writes them, and we grow more and more depressed as we read them.
Donna calls me in a panic after Chris delivers a thick sheaf of material. “Where’s the love scene?” she asks. “Oh, it’s there,” I tell her. “But I can see how you missed it. It’s only one sentence long.”
I speak to Chris about it. “Chris, you wrote what may be the best love scene in the history of film.” (I am referring to the romantic encounter between Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland in Don’t Look Now. Played entirely in the nude, it cuts back and forth between an intense, frankly realistic sexual collision and the lovers getting dressed afterward!) “How did you describe it on the page?” “Oh, I just wrote, ‘They make love.’ Nic filled in the rest.”
Rewritten and expanded, I believe, to two sentences, the love scene does not improve.
I am so frustrated that I think to myself, “Even I can do better than that.” And so, unbeknownst to Donna or Rob or the folks at Interscope, I begin to write my own adaptation of Whispers.
We hand Chris’ script to Peter and Ted. They hate it as much as we do. I hear the sound of flushing. Our movie is about to spin down the toilet.
So I show my screenplay to Donna and Rob. Donna’s response? “I don’t believe it. Dan Bronson is a writer.” (It may not sound like much, but it’s certainly music to me.)
She slips my script to Peter. And I get a call.
Peter tells me he’s looked at my version of the story. You’re not really much of a writer, he says. (I’m paraphrasing. He may have been kinder than that.) I’m not crazy about your characters or your dialogue, but that one attack scene has some sizzle. So, out of the goodness of our hearts, we’re going to offer you two dollars and fifty-three cents (it may have been a bit more, but not much more) to amalgamate the best of Chris’ script and yours.
The sum is so low it couldn’t bankroll a dinner in Beverly Hills. It is beyond low. It is humiliating.
So Peter and I have the classic Hollywood “Fuck you—Fuck you” call and hang up on each other.
I crash, appalled at the wreckage of three years’ work strewn around me. But the gods take pity.
Donna, who is working on a high-profile project with a major ICM agent named Frank Wuliger, tells Frank about our situation. He simply says, “Donna, tell Dan to take the deal.”
Frank picks up his phone to call Peter at Interscope while Donna phones me on a second line, and I listen as this man I’ve never met pulls my deal out of the toilet and boosts my fee high enough to qualify me for membership in the Writers Guild.
OH MY GOD!
Dreams do come true. It’s official.
I am now what I’ve always wanted to be: A WRITER!
But the dream quickly threatens to become a nightmare. I am very unpopular with my friends at Interscope. Peter is beyond pissed at me. I am doggie-do under his feet. He gives me a two-week contract to complete a task that is ordinarily allotted twelve weeks.
And I am so mad at him that I do it in two weeks.
I hand it in on a Friday. On Monday, my phone at Paramount rings. A woman’s voice: “Peter Samuelson calling.” Oh god, he’s read it, and he hates it! I want to throw up and have diarrhea simultaneously.
Peter gets on the phone. “Dan, I’ve read your script…”
A long pause.
About as long as Erich von Stroheim’s cut of Greed. I hang, twisting slowly, slowly in the wind.
“…and it’s absolutely fucking wonderful!” I CAN’T BELIEVE IT!
I want to ask, “Hello? To whom am I speaking?” But I manage to blurt out a sincere “Thank you.”
And when I return home that evening, there’s a knock at the door: a bottle of Dom Perignon by special messenger from Peter himself.
A few weeks ago, I was doggie-do. Now I’m a…well, if not a genius, at least a major talent.
I HAVE ARRIVED!
Since childhood, I’ve stared longingly at that dazzling sidewalk along Hollywood Boulevard, imagining it as a magic carpet dusted with stars. And now I find myself riding it to the heavens themselves, to that secret place where, like Gatsby, I can suck on the pap of life and gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder.
Or so I think.
Confessions Of A Hollywood Nobody has its own site!