by Alan Swyer
Year after year Tom Campbell longed to trade peddling for creating, a condition he playfully (but privately) claimed owed to “screenplay envy.” Even once his heart was no fully longer into agenting, he continued to sell scripts for movies he would never personally deem to watch. Among his putative triumphs: a thriller about a serial killer who turned out to be a beloved priest, a buddy film about a cop and his pet ocelot, an actioner featuring a vampire motorcycle gang, and a so-called comedy about a con artist whose heroics during a power failure saved lives at an inner city hospital.
Though he was convinced he could write what he called “real movies” – films like “The Hustler,” “The Apartment,” “Petulia,” and “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” that fostered his early love of cinema – he was always able to find reasons to put his dream on hold. First was the need to provide for his family. Next, tuition for his kids’ college education. Then, loans to his ne’er-do- well brother. Plus, as the years went on, financial assistance for his wife’s aging parents.
Pragmatism kept overpowering creativity until his younger son, whose initial attempts at forging a career resulted in a series of false starts, flew in unannounced from New York on a Thursday in October.
“I’ve been pounding my head against the wall, trying to be something – or somebody – I’m not,” Rick Campbell stated when he and his dad took their black Lab for a walk after a family dinner.
“First of all, I realize I’m West Coast, not East.” “And?”
“I’m not advertising, real estate, or the restaurant business.” “So what are you?”
“What I was around the entire time I was growing up: show biz.” “As an actor? Writer? Director? Producer?”
“Truthfully?” Rick asked. “Sure –”
“As an agent.”
Unable to sleep that night, Campbell had a revelation at 3 AM. At long last an exit strategy had presented itself. He could bring Rick into the agency, then silence any cries of nepotism by leaving.
Feeling as though he’d been granted a reprieve from a life sentence, Campbell slipped out of bed without disturbing his wife Joanie. Tiptoeing into his home office, he texted his partners to schedule a meeting at 9 AM.
“How soon?” asked a stunned Hal Weintraub once Campbell broke the news. “You tell me,” replied Campbell.
“No way we can talk you out of it?” asked Brenda Simon. Campbell shook his head.
“We need at least two or three weeks,” mumbled Ron Rothstein. “Two or three weeks it is,” said Campbell decisively.
Due to briefings with his partners, calls to clients, plus calls to assorted managers, attorneys, and studio execs, minutes felt like hours, and days likes weeks, until it was finally time for Campbell’s farewell party.
With the knowledge that Rick would report to work on Monday, an exhilarated Campbell took his wife on ten-day excursion through Napa, Sonoma, San Francisco, and Big Sur, then spent a week readying his home office for the start of the new chapter in his career.
When calls came in from the agency – Brenda Simon inquiring about a conversation Campbell had with a VP at Warners… Rothstein asking about the gruffness of a writer client named Jon Schecter… Weintraub wondering if he could persuade him to reconsider – Campbell willfully did not ask about the impression his son was making.
Meanwhile his own personal period of adjustment was proving to be awkward on some days, exasperating on others. Not until he was ensconced in his own private lair did Campbell begin to realize how addicted he was to non-stop calls, emails, and texts. Plus a schedule filled with breakfasts, lunches, dinners, screenings, and other assorted meetings and functions. Only when he was able to start work in sweats, shorts, or old jeans did he learn how easy it was to be distracted by ESPN, CNN, or anything needing attention around the house. Only when he was behind his desk in bedroom slippers was he tempted by a fully-stocked refrigerator just a few short steps away.
But above and beyond the myriad distractions was a more pressing problem. Though for ages scores of ideas had poured forth from his imagination – while driving, jogging, showering, or simply lying in bed – one salient fact was clear. It wasn’t ideas, plural, that mattered.
Instead, as he had often preached to his erstwhile clients, what he needed was one idea – one clear, strong, and compelling notion that could be sustained for the ninety or so minutes of screen time required for a feature film.
When, while raiding the freezer for a frozen banana on the third day of his struggles, his wife asked how things were going, Campbell had to fight to keep from erupting.
“Joanie, I love you,” he said, forcing himself to be calm. “But –”
“You look like ready to explode.”
Campbell took a deep breath. “One favor, okay?” “Sure.”
“Please don’t ask how I’m doing.”
Still frustrated the next day, Campbell took a drive to Venice Beach. Wandering along Ocean Front Walk, which was populated as always by a melange of tourists, vendors, musicians, and folks with no visible means of support, he had a realization. Though it should have been self-evident, before he could actually be a writer, he had to learn to think, feel, and act like a writer.
Based on all those he had known and/or represented, that meant, above and beyond a tendency toward manic behavior and depression, a blend of diligence and determination. As he often reminded screenwriters, novelists, and playwrights, to complete a work was more a marathon than a sprint, and required perspiration as well as inspiration.
Other than the few times Rick had a specific question about the agency, the world of film and TV, or a contract, an unwritten law went into force in the Campbell house: no probing into the new ventures undertaken by both father and son.
It was only when one of his former partners called to check about a deal point, or a potential client, or simply to pick Campbell’s brain about something or other, that an unsolicited comment about Rick was made.
“Your son’s a quick study,” Brenda Simon said on a Monday morning. “Rick’s going to go places,” Weintraub reported one Wednesday after lunch.
“I thought I’d seen ambition,” Rothstein announced over bluetooth while driving home on a Thursday. “Then I got to see your kid.”
In contrast to the usual progression in which an entry-level employee at an agency starts in the mail room, then progresses to assistant, which means manning an agent’s calls and correspondence, Rick Campbell was plucked in record time by a powerhouse agency – one that excelled in presenting packages of their stars and directors to studios – and given a promotion to junior agent.
At the celebratory dinner with his parents, Rick added an additional piece of news. Thanks to a hike in salary, he was going in with a friend on an apartment in Silverlake.
With the house quieter than before, Campbell at last committed to a story. His opus would be about a small-time New Jersey hood who’s in trouble with both the Feds and the Mob. When busted, Mickey Rose bluffs his way into making the FBI think he knows far more than is actually the case, then bargains for admission in the Witness Protection Program. Instead of accepting a move to some godforsaken place, he successfully gets relocation to San Francisco. There, to the agents’ chagrin, he reinvents himself as a wealthy WASP, dressing at Brooks Brothers and infiltrating high society, until the mobsters to whom he owes money track him down. Then it’s time to call upon his street smarts to save his neck.
Working six days a week, Campbell experienced periods of exhilaration, stretches of frustration, days when he was blocked, and nights when his mind was racing with additional bits of dialogue. Through it all, his script grew by increments until a first draft, which he titled “How The Other Half Lives,” was done.
Determined not to be manic, Campbell put the project aside for a week before attempting to reread what he had created. When at last he did, he was pleasantly surprised, but not quite satisfied. A week’s worth of rewriting followed, then additional days of tweaking, before he gave the script to his wife to read.
“I love it!” Joanie gushed when she joined her husband in the den. “Honest?”
“Cross my heart and hope to die.”
“Guess what,” Campbell told Hal Weintraub when the met for coffee the next morning. “My script is finished.”
“So when do I read it?”
“I think we’re both better off if it’s repped by someone else.” “Because?”
“Optics,” said Campbell. “I don’t want anybody thinking you’re doing it as a favor, or because you have to.”
Weintraub shrugged. “Whatever you say. But I’d sure love to see it.”
With screenplays he represented, trying to be patient was never an issue for Campbell, in part because he was not the writer, but also because no single project was ever his sole focus. Having sent the script to three different agents he knew, he did his best to ignore the sound of the phone not ringing. But that failed to diminish either his curiosity or his mounting nervousness.
After granting himself a week-and-a-half to decompress and catch up on reading, Campbell realized that to be in control of his own life and destiny, the only way forward was to start a new script.
After several days of soul-searching, he settled on another tale, about a down on his luck LA rocker who hoped to be the next Springsteen or Jagger, but is scraping by with occasional gigs, plus participation in a Kiss tribute band. Owing money to Russian mobsters, Kyle Phelps dresses as a woman to audition as a backup singer for an over-the-hill country singer, assuming no one will ever know. But when he/she is pressed into service to sing lead while a very drunk Wakefield Skillet is readied for a gig in Alabama, the performance goes viral.
While at work on the new project, the responses to Campbell’s first effort at last started coming in. “It’s interesting,” an agent named Sol Glastein began one Monday morning. “But in today’s market, I’m not sure how commercial it is. So if you want, I’m willing to test the waters by sending it out to three people or so. How’s that sound?”
“Thanks, but no thanks,” Campbell responded. “Because?”
“Sending it out that way is like saying, I’m not so sure about this, but take a peek and see if I’m wrong.”
“C’mon, Sol. I’ve done the same thing.” That ended the conversation.
The next call came that afternoon from Gene McBride. “Fun piece,” he said. “And?” asked Campbell.
“What do you mean?” “Where do you see it going?”
“That’s what I was gonna ask you.”
“Which means you’d be what?” Campbell asked, knowing he was putting an end to that back-and-forth as well. “An emailing service?”
Two days later Campbell heard from Esther Simms. “Because we go back, I was hesitant,” she acknowledged. “What if I hated it? What would that do to our friendship?”
“Once I started reading, I couldn’t put the damn thing down.” “So?”
“Cards on the table?” Esther asked. “I’m a big boy.”
“It doesn’t have a superhero. Or a bunch of horny kids trying to get laid.” “Or a dead rock & roller,” added Campbell.
“But if you’re willing, I’d love to try to find a home for it. Maybe as an indie. Maybe at Netflix or Amazon. What do you say?”
“Be my Valentine.”
“Great! So tell me, how involved do you want to be?”
“I’m here if you need me. In the meantime I’ll be working on a new script.” “Music to my ears. But if people want to meet?”
“Count me in.”
The meetings that ensued were strange for Campbell, who was accustomed to being a seller, not a creator. “You surprised me with the character, the caustic humor, and above all the bizarre look at our nutty society,” said a producer named Harry Bromberg. “Great energy,” remarked a development exec named Sarah Sullivan. “You had me laughing out loud,” exclaimed a director who signed his films simply as Boz. Each asked not merely for an exclusive to run with it, but also whether Campbell had any other ideas he was inclined to pitch.
Each time Campbell stated that he preferred to keep at his new work-in-progress rather than go slogging on the pitch trail. Then, after conferring with Esther Simms over lunch at a decidedly non-show biz Indian restaurant, the choice was made to let Bromberg shepherd “How The Other Half Lives.”
Even stranger than the meetings about the script were the occasional dinners with Rick, who was suddenly full of pronouncements about the movie business. “Character-driven films are over,” he declared one evening at a Thai place.
“You mean no ‘Casablanca,’ no ‘Annie Hall,’ no ‘Chinatown’?” replied Joanie. “Ancient history,” Rick stated emphatically. “What matters today is branding.” Though tempted to respond, Campbell bit his tongue.
Even worse was the pontificating that took place one night at Campbell’s favorite Jersey- style pizza place in Santa Monica. “Auteur cinema is yesterday’s news,” Rick announced.
Again it was Joanie who spoke up. “You mean Cuaron, Scorcese, Soderbergh, and Woody Allen don’t matter?”
“Anecdotal in today’s Hollywood. No more relevant than gas guzzlers or flip phones.”
“Our younger son has become Mr. Know-It-All,” Joanie said to Campbell as they were driving home from yet a third awkward meal.
“It’s a phase,” her husband stated. “He’ll get over it.” “You’re surprisingly charitable.”
“He’s trying to fit in with today’s business.”
“Says the guy who’s writing character-driven scripts. And I suppose there’s no Oedipal component. Right?”
Campbell simply shrugged.
Doing his best to not to be caught up in the roller-coaster ride of “How The Other Half Lives” updates from Esther Simms and Harry Bromberg, Campbell continued his six-days-a- week effort on the new script he was tentatively calling “Country Sweetheart.” Some days were a breeze, others a slog. But like a fungus, page count grew and grew until a rough draft was finished. As before, Campbell took a brief hiatus, then readdressed the screenplay with fresher eyes. Some rewriting followed, then a fair amount of tweaking, until it was deemed ready to be seen by Joanie.
Nervously, Campbell printed it, then handed it to her.
An hour later, she joined him in the backyard. “My husband the screenwriter,” she said proudly. “It’s really fun.”
“Truthfully,” she said, kissing him. “So what’s next?” “Esther, I guess.”
After receiving “Country Sweetheart” on a Friday, Esther Simms called on Monday morning. “I wish every writer started something new instead of waiting for a miracle. Good work.”
“Even though it doesn’t fit into branding?” teased Campbell.
“Branding, tentpoles, franchises! Whatever happened to good movies? Okay for me to go out with this one?”
“How about if I quote James Brown?” “Meaning?”
“Please! Please! Please!”
“If it’s all right with you, I’d like to hold off on Harry Bromberg,” said Esther. “So that he stays focused on ‘How The Other Half Lives’?”
“So what’s next?” Joanie asked that night while she and Campbell were having a glass of Beaujolais.
“I’d like to say a trip to Paris or Rome.” “But?”
“I’m going to tell you what I used to say to my clients. A lot of people can write a script. If it doesn’t sell right away, some can write a second. But the real test of a writer is whether, if that one doesn’t get bought right away, they can start a third.”
“Got an idea?” Joanie asked. “I’m working on it.”
“I’m proud of you.”
Two weeks later, Joanie was surprised by a call from someone who identified herself as Mr. Campbell’s assistant. “We’d like you and your husband to attend a celebration,” the woman announced.
“Celebrating what?” Joanie asked. “Rick’s promotion to full agent.”
About a month after the party, which was held at a trendy Hollywood watering hole, with people touting his son Rick as hot, on fire, and a guy who will run this town, Campbell was pounding away on his new tale – about an internist from New York who tries to recover from an acrimonious divorce by taking a temporary gig as house doctor at the Beverly Hills Hotel – when a call came in from Harry Bromberg. “You know Steve Hirsch, don’t you?”
“Only for twenty years or so.”
“What would you say if I told you he loves ‘How The Other Half Lives’?” “That he’s got impeccable taste and judgment.”
“He’s hoping to package it in-house, which begs another question. Since everything at his agency that doesn’t involve somebody like Spielberg or Cruise pretty much needs a unanimous vote, got any enemies there?”
“Not unless I cut somebody off one day without realizing it.”
“Then think good thoughts, ’cause this can be the break we’re hoping for.”
Hanging up, Campbell pondered long and hard whether he would be jinxing things by telling Joanie about the call. But since he had never withheld anything important from her, he mentioned it to her over dinner.
“Since he works there,” she then said, “should I ask Rick to keep us posted?” “No,” replied Campbell. “If it happens, it happens.”
Pleased that he could focus on his new tale rather than spending all his time wondering what was going on with “How The Other Half Lives.”
But on a Tuesday afternoon, he was stunned to find Joanie looking downhearted when he returned home after a jog through his neighborhood. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
Campbell took a seat, as did his wife. “Esther called while you were out.” “And?”
“Despite Steve Hirsch’s efforts, your project was torpedoed at his agency.” Campbell winced. “Somehow life will go on.”
“Not the way it used to.”
Campbell studied Joanie for a moment. “Can I get that in English?” “Who do you think nixed it?”
“Please don’t tell me –”
Joanie nodded. “Remember when I used the word Oedipal? It was our lovely son Rick.” Campbell took a deep breath.
“Know what I hope?” asked Joanie rhetorically. “That he’s got somewhere else to go for Thanksgiving and other holidays. Because unless things change, he’s no longer welcome here.”
It was some solace to Campbell that “Country Sweetheart” was optioned three weeks later.
But the good news was not enough to cure his wounds.
About the Author:
Alan Swyer is an award-winning filmmaker whose recent documentaries have dealt with Eastern spirituality in the Western world, the criminal justice system, diabetes, boxing, and singer Billy Vera. In the realm of music, among his productions is an album of Ray Charles love songs. His novel ‘The Beard’ was recently published by Harvard Square Editions.