Yet another true tale from the trenches of Hollywood
HOW I PARTED THE RED SEA
I really did not know how easy I’d had it breaking into the working ranks of screenwriters until years later when old friends who knew-me-when-and-well pointed it out. I’d never thought about it one way or another. It came about by a batch of random decisions not a focus of vision. Nonetheless, having Jennings Lang as your sponsor was like having a Navy Seal at your side in a bar fight. Jennings Lang was a Great White. I just didn’t know it, yet. We’d met, and, yes, there was now a three picture deal – think very low five figures. That was then (actually, it could still be now, only now I’d welcome it), but I’d never been to Hollywood until the day he called to tell me a manuscript would arrive. “Read it. Tell me what you think.”
“The Journey of August King” by John Ehle. Within the hour a messenger had it in my hands. And it was wonderful. Great story with guts and fervor. Pre-civil war. North Carolina. Mountains. Slavery. I wished I’d written it.
That’s what I told him. Then he told me:
“I gave your script to George Roy Hill.”
“You mean the one Billy Wilder never read?” Thought it, thought better of it. Jennings went on.
“He wants to talk to you about ‘August King’. You interested?”
Forget the SEALs. This was like having Baron de Rothschild give me market tips.
I still wasn’t a movie buff at that point, but The Sting had recently swept the Academy Awards. Fine. That was one thing, but “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” continues to be one of my favorites ever, an authentically great American movie from an authentically great American screenplay. Butch and Sundance. Thank you, William Goldman.
Universal Studios flew me out and put me up at the Sheridan Universal Hotel, the only hotel, then surrounded by no development whatsoever, no amusement park, no electronic billboards - just the Black Tower, a single iconic monolith of brute strength, looming over a seedy landscape of rundown motels, liquor stores, fast food joints, gas stations, a freeway ramp, and a peaceful pocket park across the street where I ran laps. Traffic? Where? Seriously impressive, that Black Tower.
I was to meet George after lunch, so Jennings took me into the studio commissary to eat. Ostensibly. So, I thought, thought so because I was so damn dumb, blind stupid. The man had my script under his arm, and we weren’t eating. He was talking to people. You stand there thinking you’ll probably get a burger, maybe fries, not seem too greedy. He’s a busy guy. Hey, dummy! Your script is under his arm, and you don’t get it, jackass? By now Jennings had walked over to a man already seated at the counter and said, “Sam, you oughtta read this guy’s script. He’s meeting with George after we eat.” Jennings introduced me. We shook hands. Jennings handed him my script. Just left it with him.
Wow. Easy. That’s how I thought it worked. Nothin’ to this. What’s with the bad press? Could Faulkner have been wrong? Y’know, maybe, just cranky? Bad day?
George Roy Hill had a suite of offices in the very new, very elegant office building adjacent to the Tower. Only three floors, I think, and it looked as if it had been molded out of sand. Understated. Tasteful. A stark contrast with that warrior’s keep next door.
So, here we go, me and Jennings, crossing the lot to meet George. George! We took the steps.
“You read it, right?” he asked.
I assured him I had. Three times. True. Count the plane ride. When we got to George’s office – we’re at his door - Jennings says,
“He’s gonna want to know how you plan to handle the back story?”
“Wait. What?” All in my head. I wouldn’t dare admit I didn’t know what he was talking about. Back story? The words were foreign to me. Handle it? Huh? What’s a back story?
Door opens. We’re ushered in. I’m still trying to process this. Back story. We’re Introduced. What’s a back story? Maybe he won’t ask. Jennings exits.
Very smart. Very proper. George complemented me on my work, chastised my sentimentality, and, as we spoke, putting ideas out there, just saying things, another way to tell the story came to me. He read my expression and said, “Tell me.” I did, and he liked it. “The Journey of August King” became my first gig for hire.
Oh, yeah. When I got back to my hotel room much later in the day, probably, after dinner, there was a message waiting for me from that agent. Sam? The one to whom Jennings gave my script? The guy at the counter at the commissary? His agency wanted to represent me.
Nothin’ to it.
Knowing what I now know, my friends must have been some kinda pissed. I’m grateful they kept it to themselves for all the years they did. You know who you are.