When he first came to LA and had not yet established much of a social life, Shulman’s evenings, more often than not, were spent in pursuit of old movies. Instead of hitting a bar or vegetating in front of his television, he would drive his funky Volvo to the New Beverly to see classics by Sam Peckinpah and Sam Fuller, to UCLA for Fritz Lang and Jean Renoir retrospectives, to Cinefamily for films by Claude Sautet and Lina Wertmuller, and to USC for Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder marathons.
But his favorite destination was the LA County Museum. It was there, in a room with superb sight lines and great sound, amid knowledgeable and diverse filmgoers, that Shulman caught up with Orson Welles’ Chimes At Midnight, Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From A Marriage in its entirety, plus a touching and funny tribute to Jay Ward featuring June Foray and others who provided the voices for gems like Rocky & Bullwinkle.
Most importantly, it was also there that an unexpected door opened for him. Shulman had just gotten on line one Tuesday for a screening of The Sweet Smell Of Success when a stocky fellow in a work shirt and tweed jacket ambled up.
“Seen it before?” asked the man with an English accent that, to Shulman, seemed decidedly more East End of London than Oxford or Cambridge.
“A couple of times. You?”
With a nod, the Brit said, “Sandy’s a friend of mine.”
“The director, Alexander Mackendrick.”
“Mind if I ask how you know him?”
“We shared offices in London once upon a time.”
“And you are?”
Shulman did a double-take. “You wrote a couple of my favorite films.”
“Only a couple?”
“Just teasing. Your name is?”
“Ben. Ben Shulman.”
“You in the biz?”
“Trying to be.”
When Wolf noticed that the door to the theater was starting to open, he turned to Shulman. “Sitting toward the rear okay with you?”
“Sure,” said Shulman, surprised but pleased.
“So what struck you most?” Wolf asked as he and Shulman left the screening room.
“Other than that it’s brilliant? And incredibly dark?”
“Burt Lancaster. Aside from being an underrated actor—think Elmer Gantry, Atlantic City, and a film three people saw called Castle Keep—consider the guts in took to play a secondary role that’s loathsome. Got plans for Friday evening?”
Shulman nearly admitted that he had no plans for the foreseeable future, but instead shook his head.
“Some people come by every week at 7:30 to watch a film and gab,” Wolf stated. “Pop in if the spirit moves you.”
Tickled by his first encounter with someone with legitimate screen credits, Shulman rushed back to his studio apartment to learn more about Wolf. What he discovered was that like him, the Englishman was not to the manor born, nor to the arts. Raised in a working class neighborhood, his means of escape was as a professional bicycle racer, destined for the Tour de France until a career-ending accident in the Alps. Adrift after a painful recovery, he succeeded in talking his way into the film business as a go-fer, as in “Go for this,” or “Go for that.” Unimpressed by the screenplays produced in the low-budget world he managed to infiltrate, Wolf spent his spare time writing a script of his own. Then, when that went nowhere, another. And yet a third. It was his fourth effort, a comedy called Haunted Holidays, that tickled the fancy of a commercial director named Derek Harcourt, who happened to be dating Shulman’s cousin.
“Even if it’s without money, we’ll get this made,” Harcourt announced. When his so-called financier disappeared midway through an already under-financed shoot, it was with indeed without money that they somehow finished, thanks to incessant begging, pleading (and a bit of pilfering) for film stock, manpower, processing, favors, and even meager lunches for cast and crew. That determination, fortunately, was discernible on screen, helping to make the film a surprising success, and launching Harcourt as a director to be watched.
Summoned to Hollywood to helm a thriller, Harcourt brought along his screenwriter, which some took as a sign of loyalty, but others as a need for a security blanket.
The second film, though not a big hit, was visually striking, endowing Los Angeles with a distinctive look and feel that bumped Harcourt from filmmaker to auteur. The swelled head that resulted gave him license to take credit for structural ideas, individual scenes, lines of dialogue, and even specific shots that just happened to be in the script well before the first draft wound up in the director’s hands.
When, in an interview for an obscure screenwriting magazine, the true sequence of events was described by Wolf, what had previously been a successful director-writer relationship came to an abrupt end.
Nonetheless, Wolf and his set designer wife Jenny decided to remain in sunny Southern California rather than return to the rigid class system and incessant dampness of London.
Carving a niche for himself as an exotic and larger-than-life figure among Hollywood screenwriters, Wolf continued to get writing assignments on a somewhat steady basis.
Shulman’s excitement about going to Wolf’s house faded moments after his arrival. The other invitees, all of whom were roughly his own age or just slightly older, proved to be acolytes who seemed to spend each second vying for attention, all while doting on their host’s every word. Not of a mind to compete, fawn, or use Britishisms such as “Super!”, “Smashing!”, or “I’m meant to be going,” Shulman went into silent mode after exchanging a few words with Wolf’s wife, then departed once Richard Lester’s Petulia was over.
He was understandably alarmed the next afternoon when, after taking a break to shoot baskets at a nearby playground, he received a call from Wolf. Instead of chiding or reproaching, however, the Englishman asked Shulman a question. “Not crazy about your contemporaries?”
“It was that noticeable?”
“I’ve got a keen eye for detail. Mind if I read something of yours?”
“You kidding? I’d be thrilled.”
After wrestling with which of his three screenplays to give him—one of the comedies he completed before coming to LA, or the largely autobiographical tale he had only recently finished—Shulman opted not to send it via email. Instead he drove to Laurel Canyon and, without ringing the doorbell, placed his newest script in Wolf’s mailbox, assuming he would hear as quickly as he had from numerous agents. Which in Hollywood seemed to mean never.
To his surprise, his phone rang early the following morning.
“I’m halfway through,” announced Wolf, “and it’s smashing.”
“Absolutely. Call you the moment I’ve finished.”
Less than an hour later, Shulman’s phone rang again.
“It’s really quite wonderful,” Wolf stated.
“If you don’t mind an unsolicited suggestion—”
“I think the real story begins where the script ends.”
Silence reigned until Wolf spoke again.
“Not that it’s not fine the way it is—”
“Food for thought, dear boy. So tell me, what are your plans for today?”
“Maybe fly to the moon, then prep for the Indy 500.”
“Settle for a pastrami sandwich?”
“So how’d you get such a knowledge of pool and poker?” Wolf asked once he and Shulman were seated for lunch at Langers Deli.
“Products of a misspent youth.”
“In New Jersey?”
“And not in the suburbs.”
“And the business of selling bags of catnip, oregano, and twigs as you-know-what to finance evenings in Greenwich Village?”
“I plead the Fifth.”
The conversation was interrupted when a waitress came to take their orders. Once she left, Wolf spoke. “Want to hear what I’ve been thinking?”
“Everybody in Hollywood gets typecast.”
“Actors who do comedy are seen as actors who do comedy. Directors who do action are seen as directors who do action. Then there’s yours truly.”
“Who’s seen as?”
“Can I get that in translation?”
“A quirky Brit who’s brought in to breathe life into mundane projects. A programmer that needs a rewrite … a less than uninteresting sequel … a film version of an undistinguished novel.”
“When instead you should be?”
“Writing—and hopefully directing—original screenplays.”
“So what’s the problem?”
“Too many years taking in laundry.”
“Relying on other peoples’ characters. And themes. And storylines. Which is why, at this point, I’m thinking a collaboration might make sense. If you’re interested.”
“But I’ve got no agent, no connections, no film experience.”
“All of which I bring to the table.”
“But why me and not one of those guys at your house?”
“I need a writing partner, not a member of my fan club. Plus, I’ve read their scripts.”
“A regurgitation of old movies. Give it some thought,” Wolf said as the waitress returned with sandwiches and cole slaw.
Wolf’s plan was for the two of them to have a series of casual get-togethers. Over lunch, over coffee (though Shulman preferred tea), and while strolling through different neighborhoods, he and Shulman would chat until they settled upon a premise that intrigued them. If and when that happened, instead of trying to will or force a script into existence, they would continue to meet and gab in the hope that the characters, the tone, the story, and even the theme would come to life organically.
Though flattered, Shulman nonetheless had to fight his New Jersey skepticism. To his dismay, he came to understand that Wolf was not joking. Nor, for the Englishman, did the endeavor prove to be a lark or the kind of gambit that would perish the moment they happened to hit an inevitable impediment.
Over their first lunch, at an Indian place with a buffet, the two men decided to focus on a thriller set in a world not often seen on screen, but that Shulman knew well: industrial North Jersey. At the second meal, which took place in Thai Town, they established that it would be about two men vying against the Russian mob that had systematically replaced the Mafia.
Pleased by their progress, but hoping to insure that their effort would not seem in any way generic, Shulman found himself tossing and turning for three consecutive sleepless nights, all the while searching for something additional to distinguish their buddy film from countless others.
Only while getting set to meet Wolf for lunch at an Ethiopian restaurant did a notion finally emerge: that the two main characters should be father and son. Better yet, Shulman thought while driving toward Little Ethiopia, they should be an estranged father and son who are drawn together to save someone who played a key role in each of their lives—as in mother of the son, and ex-wife of the father.
For Shulman, who had previously done his screenwriting in limbo, with no certainty that anyone would ever so much as peek at the result, or that there was even the slightest chance it might some day wind up on screen, the work was thrilling in more ways than one. Not merely was he collaborating with a seasoned pro—and being taken seriously—but on top of that he, the first born in his family, had found the surrogate big brother he had always longed for, with whom he could discuss film, women, travel, sports, politics, and everything else imaginable.
With a measure of confidence and hope partially supplanting his gnawing fear that the pursuit of a film career was an act of folly, Shulman had an enjoyable fling with a belly dancer named Lydia, followed by a hot and heavy three weeks with an aspiring comic who had changed her name from Fern to Gypsy.
Even more unexpectedly, while allowing himself the extravagance of some gelato one afternoon he found himself face to face with one of the Friday night regulars at Wolf’s. Fortunately, instead of being jealous Jerry Medoff made it clear he was delighted by the collaboration.
“I’ve been worried about Tony,” Medoff admitted. “He’s so much better than the crappy gigs he’s been getting, which barely ever make it to the screen. Plus, he absolutely raved about the script of yours he read.”
“Which he said should start where it ends.”
“That’s what he always says.”
“Tony’s great, but he’s got a certain schtick. The better you know him, the more you’ll recognize stock lines and quirks.”
Having gotten nowhere with his own attempts at reaching agents, Shulman was stunned when Wolf’s, having received the newly finished collaborative effort on a Friday, called on Monday morning to schedule a session on Thursday at 11.
Once that meeting was underway, Shulman’s nervousness quickly gave way to indignation when, after an obligatory handshake, he found that no attention whatsoever was being paid to him.
Then at last came the moment during which, after chatting with Wolf about the Dodgers, the Clippers, plus some movie biz gossip, dapper Kyle Hastings suddenly announced, “So let me tell you what I’d like to do with the script.”
Before the agent could go on, Shulman held up a hand. “How about what Tony and I would like to do with it?”
“I beg your pardon,” said Hastings.
“Ben didn’t mean to interrupt,” Wolf said apologetically.
“Says who?” replied Shulman. “This is not just a script the two of us want to sell. It’s one we want to make.”
“Make how?” asked a stunned Hastings.
“With Tony as director.”
“You didn’t have to be so assertive,” Wolf said as the collaborators stepped into the hallway.
“If not me, then who?” was Shulman’s response. “Wasn’t that our primary purpose?”
While the script went on to generate a fair amount of interest, the only entity willing to consider Wolf as director was a French company hoping to expand into the US marketplace.
The CEO, Claude Gallaird, flew in ten days later and, together with his aristocratic lady friend, charmed the two screenwriters with a dinner in which Shulman got his very first taste of caviar, sweetbreads, and a dessert called ile flotante.
Based on the buzz generated by the French company’s LA publicists, Shulman began to receive overtures from several other agents, including two who conveniently forgot his earlier unrequited inquiries. During the round of meetings that ensued, a troubled Wolf called.
“Hastings is perturbed,” he told Shulman.
“Don’t you think it’s appropriate for you to sign with him?”
“After the way he treated me?”
“But how does it make me look?”
“Ask you a question?”
“If you must.”
“Which one of us had to tell him our script was for you to direct?”
Once he signed with the one agent who was able to discuss all his scripts—a go-getter named Audrey Pearl at a small but enterprising agency—Shulman was delighted that his previously ignored work was suddenly engendering a surprising number of meetings. All that activity led to his first development deal when, having being asked what he would might like to write next, he pitched an idea about a TV evangelist who makes inroads into the world of politics.
Despite the trifecta of a sale, a new project, and an agent, Shulman did not immediately lease a BMW, buy beachfront property, or hide his affection for films by Godard, Cassavetes, and Howard Hawks.
Nor did he turn his back on people he had gotten to know before his escape from obscurity, which was why, when Gypsy called, he agreed to a lunch. The two of them were enjoying a soup called Samgyetang at a place in Koreatown when in stepped Wolf with a bald-headed companion.
Excusing himself from his lunch date, Wolf approached and immediately gave Shulman a hug.
“Tony, say hello to Gypsy,” Shulman said by way of introduction.
“Ariel,” she interjected.
“What?” asked Shulman.
“I’m thinking of changing it.”
Instead of responding, Gypsy, aka Fern, aka Ariel turned her attention to Wolf. “Ben says great things about you.”
“It’s nice somebody does. And what do you do?”
Before she could answer, over came Wolf’s impatient lunch companion.
“Guess who’s starving,” the bald-headed guy grumbled.
As his script for hire progressed, Shulman got more and more of a taste of what having a writing deal can mean. Between lunches with the producer, the development exec, or both, plus constant calls about the script, potential directors, and possible casting from them, his agent, and a couple of newly interested managers, there seemed to be less and less time for the people who had come to be part of his LA life.
Four weeks had gone by when he got call from Wolf, who began by teasing him. “Long time no hear.”
“So how’s it coming?”
“I honestly don’t know.”
“I’m too close to it.”
“And the reaction thus far?”
“I haven’t turned in any pages.”
“Want me to take a look?”
“You wouldn’t mind?”
Early the next morning, Shulman got a call from Wolf. “I’m halfway through, and it’s lovely. Call you when I finish.”
An hour later came another call. “Dazzling,” said Wolf. “There’s a part of me that feels it should start where it ends—”
“Which is not what the studio bought or wants to hear.”
“As I understand completely. Look, instead of giving you notes, I was thinking—”
“About maybe doing some tweaks, then handing you the results.”
“With them clamoring? I don’t know if—”
“Give me two days. Three at most.”
Two-and-a-half days later, having sent over a revised version of his ex-collaborator’s script an hour-and-a-half before, Wolf’s phone rang. Spotting Shulman’s number on his caller ID, he answered eagerly. “Read it already?”
“No, nor do I think I will,” Shulman stated.
“What’s your name doing on it?”
“Why don’t you read it first, and then we’ll talk?”
“How about you explain first, then we’ll see if we’re still talking?”
“Look, I think you’ll like the changes—”
“And with the French thing taking forever—”
“Plus I’m leaving Jenny.”
“Which has nothing to do with you giving yourself co-credit.”
“Then how about you owe me?”
“Bringing you in on my thriller.”
“That’s how Hastings sees it.”
“And obviously you, too.”
“Okay if I mention something?”
“If you must.”
“Our script might well be in production already if we’d been willing just to sell it.”
“By which you mean?”
“Has it helped to have you attached as director?”
Two-and-a-half weeks later, Shulman was surprised by a call from Jerry Medoff. “True you and Tony aren’t speaking?”
“See the Dodger game last night?”
“Somebody’s ducking. Hear that he left Jenny?”
“And is living with someone named Ariel?”
Though stunned, Shulman tried to maintain his cool. “This why you called?”
“Actually, I just finished a spec script.”
“I’m hoping you’ll take a look.”
“Instead of Tony? Or in addition to?”
“Do I have to answer?”
“Send it over,” Shulman said.
At a few minutes before five that afternoon, Shulman called Medoff. “I’m halfway through your script.”
“So far it’s wonderful. Call you when I finish.”
Shulman counted to ten, then hit redial. “Just finished,” he stated.
“And I think it should begin where it ends.”
“Jesus!” Medoff screamed, exploding with laughter. “So what do you really think?”
“Let’s talk face-to-face.”
“You really won’t tell me what happened between you and Tony?” Medoff asked when they met at a non-Starbucks coffee house with a no cell phones rule, plus music by Slim Harpo, Django Reinhardt, and Big Mama Thornton.
Shulman merely shook his head.
“He won’t tell me either. But you might want to know he doesn’t seem well.”
“Because the French company is still dragging its heels?”
“That’s part of it. But I sense there’s more.”
“The marriage ending?”
“Not just that. By the way, have you seen this Ariel?”
“I guess I’m the guilty party.”
“He first met her through me.”
“Let’s talk about your script, which—kidding aside—I really do like.”
Not quite three weeks after that, with a basketball in hand, Shulman was headed toward the playground near his building when a well-travelled Rav-4 screeched to a stop.
“This saves me a call!” yelled Medoff through the window. “I owe you a big thanks!”
“Your notes were a big help.”
“And your agent wants to meet.”
“Way to go.”
“But I’ve got news that’s less good. Ready?”
“Remember I said there was something going on with Tony?”
“He’s in the hospital.”
Medoff nodded. “And he’s hoping to see you.”
Shulman spent the rest of the day, then most of the night, reflecting upon all the emotions that figured into his relationship with Wolf: the elation, the excitement, the joy, the disappointment, the sense of betrayal, the rage, and the sadness.
That led to thoughts, as the first signs of dawn peeked through his windows, about two quotes that had stuck with him from a paper written during his college years.
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff, from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” seemed to describe not merely Tony Wolf, but far too many of the people he had met in Hollywood.
Even more frightening was an aphorism by E.M. Cioran, a Romanian philosopher who lived in France: Ambition is a drug that makes its addicts potential madmen.
Recognizing that everything in its own way can, and probably should, serve as a life lesson, Shulman suddenly knew what he had to do.
The woman formerly known as Gypsy was standing in the hallway outside Wolf’s hospital room when she saw Shulman approach. “I wasn’t sure you’d come.”
“Neither was I. How is he?”
“The way it had metastasized, they’re stunned he was even functioning.”
“But is there hope?”
Ariel’s only answer was a shrug.
Propped up in a bed replete with tubes and drips attached, Wolf’s eyes opened wide at the sight of Shulman.
“I hear you’re the hottest guy in town,” the Englishman said.
“But I still haven’t written Haunted Holidays or The Sweet Smell Of Success.”
“That’s kind of you.”
“My only question is what I’ll get to do first, race in the Tour de France, or get that movie of ours made.”
Wolf started to laugh, but the chortles quickly turned into a hacking cough that brought Ariel into the room.
“I’ll get the nurse!” she stated.
“Like hell you are.”
As Ariel ran out toward the nurses’ station, Shulman faced his erstwhile writing partner. “Anything I can do for you?”
“Don’t tell anyone I’m here.”
“It might keep me from getting another assignment.”
As Wolf’s coughing resumed, a nurse burst into the room to attend to him.
“Tell Tony I’ll see him again soon,” Shulman said softly to Ariel, sensing correctly that he would never again see him alive.