by Alan Swyer
At first Adam Lerner didn’t know whether to be stunned, dazzled, or simply jealous about Colin Nichols’ rapid rise in Hollywood society.
Both having arrived on the West Coast thanks to a producer assembling a stable of young writers at his building in the beach town of Venice, the two seemed initially to be on equal footing – newcomers with small development deals.
But whereas Lerner began cobbling together a social life commensurate with his fledgling status – screenings at revival houses, get-togethers at funky coffee houses, lunches at all-you-can-eat Indian buffets, plus Saturday morning basketball games at a local park – Nichols swiftly soared into the realm of the great and near-great.
In record time, foreign auteurs coming in for meetings took to including him in their social gatherings, as did aging stars, the wives of high-powered agents and execs, plus comedy writers with big credits and even bigger coke habits.
While Lerner’s life was comfortably conducted on the fringes, amidst aspiring filmmakers whose dreams still exceeded their credits, plus hustlers, scammers, and those living with no visible means of support, Colin spent non-working hours (and many what-should-have-been-working hours) in a world of Klieg lights, valet parkers, private screenings, high-powered bridge games, and celebrity-laden soirees.
In a town where England was synonymous with culture and sophistication, to the point where a Mercedes dealer used a British voice for its radio commercials, Colin’s patrician accent was a perfect social door opener, while his Ox/Bridge (Lerner never knew which one it was) education provided reinforcement, and his often-referenced body of work at an unreadable film journal (which Lerner came to consider putative, since he never saw any of the articles) was the piece de resistance.
Though Lerner’s access to the rarefied circles in which his on-again-off-again friend did most of his hobnobbing was non-existent, he was at times offered entree to a second-tier Colin group: graying eccentrics he came to think of as The Waxworks. Comprised of a New Zealander – Cameron Harwell – who wrote seamy bios of headliners from once-upon-a-time, an odoriferous Frenchman publicist – Yves Ronet – who claimed to have been a driving force in the Nouvelle Vague, and above all an epicene director of cult horror films – Percy Carrington – they, and their circle, were obsessed with the sort of film trivia and gossip that held zero fascination for Lerner. To him a starlet of yore’s putative relations with a farm animal, or an over-the-hill hunk’s supposed affection for stunt men and Marines, had little meaning or importance.
Clinging to the hope that hard work and talent counted for more than social ties, Lerner’s career advanced incrementally. Though it never made it to production, the largely autobiographical script set in industrial New Jersey that he wrote during his stint in Venice led to another assignment, then yet another. The ascent was slow, but it allowed Lerner to pay his bills while indulging his fondness for third-world food. More importantly, it also enabled him to think of himself not as a novice screenwriter, but as a pro – especially after being courted by an agent far superior to the sleazebag who first deigned to represent him.
Because his own life consisted of more grind than glitz, Lerner still got an occasional pang when, over one of their less and less frequent lunches, his English friend dropped names like Beatty, Bertolucci, or Bruce (as in Willis, of course), or casually referred to Mick, Jack, or Shaq. Still harder to take were allusions to projects allegedly discussed with Stephen Frears, Dickie Attenborough, or Ken Branagh, even though none of them ever made it to the screen. But one constant that never failed to be introduced into the conversation was the top-secret indie Colin claimed to be prepping with Percy Carrington – which, in addition to scripting, Colin would, as he put it, Of course produce.
While he still found Colin amusing in a peculiar kind of way, Lerner, over a period of time, came to acknowledge a troubling pattern. Every four to six weeks would come a We should get together. Followed by a lunch. Then, two or three days later, a request to borrow money.
Never mentioning the discrepancy in their relative social standings, Lerner, for reasons he never fully understand, almost invariably allowed himself to be a soft touch. Yet, since the amount rose each and every time, he couldn’t help but wonder if he – and others like Harwell, Ronet, and above all Carrington – were being set up for a burn if and when Colin’s stint in Tinseltown happened to go belly-up.
While laboring dutifully on a re-write he’d been coaxed into accepting – an adventure yarn set in Africa that confirmed his belief that he should only write about what he knew, rather than toiling on projects that were either contrived or simply derived from other movies – Lerner had his sense of justice and fair play shaken by a Thursday afternoon phone call.
Thanks to an intervention by an unnamed well-placed friend, Colin had landed what he termed a high-priced studio deal – complete with on-the-lot office space, a research assistant, and a secretary, plus a generous sum of money – based on a story he had concocted, then pitched.
“Congratulations,” Lerner forced himself to say to the gloating Brit, taking the high road by not yet requesting a return on his last loan.
Only when the conversation was over did Lerner allow himself first a measure of doubt, then a twinge of churlishness. The doubt was more vexing, since it necessitated a questioning of his own approach, even though he had neither the accent nor the access to those with whom Colin mingled socially. But the churlishness also engendered a funny thought. Now, he found himself thinking, every doorman, head waiter, and maitre d’ will be asking Colin about a project that, in his rendering, will take on a higher profile than anything being developed by Spielberg, Scorcese, or Lucas.
As Lerner feared, the studio deal hit Colin harder than a cocktail of steroids and crack. Instantly he became the movie biz’s great pontificator, passing down all sorts of judgments and pronouncements. Arrogantly, he presented himself as a self-styled oracle of insider knowledge, with the sole and supreme right to dictate what was, or wasn’t, good. Worse, he made it seem that he and he alone, far more than mere mortals such as producers or studio heads, should determine which films should, or shouldn’t, get made.
Uncomfortable with swelled heads, especially on those still lacking any screen credits, Lerner did his best to avoid his erstwhile crony, which proved to be not particularly difficult once high-flying Colin was blessed with an increased cash flow.
It was thus by chance, certainly not by design, that their paths crossed on a drizzly Tuesday afternoon. Having been approached about a project that seemed too good to be true – a proposed bio-pic about a Harlem playground basketball legend Lerner had seen play while growing up – he was walking from the studio parking lot toward an office building when he heard a familiar, well-bred voice.
“You will not believe this!” a clearly indignant Colin Nichols exclaimed. “You know Claire Stone, I assume,” he continued, referring to a high-ranking exec Lerner knew only by reputation. “I went to see her because one of the producers on my project – my project, which I initiated, created, and sold – wasn’t treating me or my work with sufficient appreciation or deference.”
“The bitch had the audacity to tell me I was Only the writer, merely the writer, nothing but the writer. Astonishing?”
“But what do you think she was really saying?”
“Truthfully? That if you’re not cool –”
“You’ll soon be No longer the writer.”
The glacial silence from Colin that ensued increased from weeks to months while Lerner was immersed in the drama generated by the basketball project first on the page, then in the realm of finance. Not for the first time, what started as a studio production became, after a certain point, an indie – albeit one that was warranted to be fully financed. But that, too, changed when the money source did a Houdini-like magic trick and disappeared. So it was only when the producers, at Lerner’s urging, deigned to approach a cable network that the film found a real home.
Among the consequences when the deal was announced was a congratulatory call from Colin, who sounded surprisingly humbled. That led to a lunch, during which Colin acknowledged that Lerner’s words had been prescient. Less than a week later, having complained once too often, he had indeed become no longer the writer. Only partially chastened, he then jumped impetuously onto a project slated to be directed by the girlfriend of an Italian auteur. But that proved to be even more of a false step, resulting in a film that aside from being miscast, was then incompetently directed, which resulted in it being laughed off the screen at two different European festivals.
But the good news, per Colin, was that the long-gestating oeuvre with Percy Carrington was at last on the verge of being funded. So, if Lerner could “perhaps lend a small sum of money to hold me over until then…”
Having been named an Adjunct Professor of Screenwriting at the American Film Institute, which meant teaching a three-hour seminar one morning a week, Lerner found himself stressing certain principles in class that were drawn less from books than from his own experiences. First and foremost was what he called the difference between plot and story. Plot, he explained at length, owed to events designed and orchestrated by the writer, whose characters – often of the two-dimensional variety – were manipulated by contrivance, resulting in films that were basically theme-park rides. Story, in contrast, was seemingly propelled by the characters themselves: their choices and decisions. Since those choices and decisions were based on their wants and needs, rather than on the arbitrary whims of the writer, the drama that resulted had the potential to be both moving and exciting.
The easiest and most discernible means of distinguishing between plot and story, Lerner would add, was what the Greeks called deus ex machina – a term he defined as “an inept and out-of-the-blue device that has no internal logic and destroys any previous suspension of disbelief.”
Yet it was exactly that kind of deux ex machina – or bad drama – that described Colin Nichols’s life from the moment Percy Carrington unexpectedly died due to a heart attack.
Having been named trustee of Carrington’s surprisingly large holdings, Colin greeted the press like an Oxford don, relishing every opportunity to expound not merely on his departed friend’s career, but also on his own personal views about both Hollywood and life itself.
Where Colin waxed most eloquently was on the subject of Percy’s desire, as expressed in his will, to endow a scholarship fund for aspiring filmmakers. That, he stated in interview after interview, was something that he, himself, would personally oversee so as to make the wish come true.
Yet despite the media coverage that came thanks to the combination of Carrington’s magnanimity and Colin’s accent, the funding that was promised never quite materialized.
Questions were ultimately raised, followed by inquiries that gave way to a full-fledged investigation.
Instead of responding, Colin ducked the authorities by slipping, with a first-class ticket, onto a London-bound plane.
Stunned, yet by no means entirely surprised, Lerner went so far as to check out the extradition laws as they related to such matters.
Though it turned out that Colin could not be forced to give up the scholarship money he had filched, it was clear his cherished dreams of moguldom were over. For the reality was that despite his friendships to the great and near great, with a warrant out for his arrest, he could never again return to Hollywood.
Even as Lerner moved up the Hollywood food chain, serving as what’s known as a showrunner on a surprisingly successful TV series, then directing a thriller, music videos, and documentaries, he thought periodically about Colin.
But it was not their on-again-off-again friendship that came to mind. It was that Colin was the centerpiece in a cautionary tale.
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.