But that is the writer’s life. You write. You finish. You start over again. (Dunne, “Laying Pipe”)
After their remake of A Star Is Born, the IMDb pages of Joan Didion and her husband John Gregory Dunne list a single feature film, Up Close and Personal, which was released one day after the magic month of February 1996. Didion and Dunne were first given the project that became this movie eight years earlier, and in that time, they worked on or had in production or were paid for fifteen movies. Dunne’s memoir of those eight years, Monster: Living off the Big Screen, makes that statistic feel like everyday life and that’s why it may be the best book ever written about Hollywood.
Work on Up Close and Personal begins in 1988, in the aftermath of a writers’ strike. Dunne has heart trouble (which will kill him fifteen years later) and with so many projects cancelled because of the strike, they need to work on something to keep their coverage under the Writers’ Guild’s health plan. Their original producer on A Star Is Born (1973), John Foreman, offers them some work–“The main attraction of this embryo project was that it was the only picture we had been offered since the strike ended”–Golden Girl, a biography not yet published:
There had been a time in the late Sixties and early Seventies, the period of Darling and Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy, when the life of Jessica Savitch would have been an eminently feasible subject for a film, with the possibility of a considerable profit if the budget was strictly managed. Her story was a perfect cautionary gloss on the perils of the counterculture–a small-town girl with more ambition than brains, an overactive libido, a sexual ambivalence, a tenuous hold on the truth, a taste for controlled substances, a longtime abusive Svengali relationship, a certain mental instability, a glamour job [network news anchor], and then in 1983 a final reckoning, at age thirty-five, that seemed ordained by the Fates–death by drowning with her last lover in three feet of Delaware Canal mud after a freak automobile accident.
The first studio that gets interested in this potential movie (Didion and Dunne quickly rename it Up Close and Personal) is Walt Disney Pictures, because of course that sounds like a Disney picture. This beginning (just over ten pages) sounds all the themes of Monster: the persistence of relationships, the mixing of professional and personal needs and Dunne’s directness about both, the attention to details of craft, and the occasional weirdness of the film business.
Over the next eight years, the project moves from studio to studio, producer to producer, and moves in and out of their attention and goes through meeting after meeting after meeting and rewrite after rewrite after. . .you get the idea. Disney wants a happy ending with not so much death, which means it stops being about Savitch almost immediately (“if the character was not called Jessica Savitch, we answered carefully, then it was not necessary that she die,”) Didion and Dunne visit local news sets and pick up the language (“Tell him somebody has to be dead,”) deals go into turnaround, there are heart valve replacements, other projects, vacations, meetings, novels and journalism gets written, Up Close and Personal picks up new producers, first drafts get revisited, studio executives get fired, and Dunne recounts all of this with an evenness and directness that tells us that this is the game.
Dunne structures Monster as a series of anecdotes, mostly about the deals and production of Up Close and Personal but expanding to include his personal life, other projects, and Hollywood history. Dunne’s skill and insight here keeps this above the level of gossip and makes this a deceptively light read, the kind where you don’t realize until it’s over how much you learned. He’s always been a better writer of nonfiction than fiction; his language always had just a touch of the hardboiled detective novel and that touch makes it fun. It’s also free of the Didionisms that infect his fiction writing. (Joan Didion is one of the great writers of our time and absolutely no one should ever try and imitate her. It’s the kind of style that has to be done perfectly or not at all.)
Didion and Dunne come off here as without much vanity but with much ego; you can change the words of their screenplays but never of the contracts. A story about working as writers in 1970 ends wonderfully with “We settled for forty cents on the dollar. It was the last time we ever settled for anything less than our total deal.” Dunne details the way studios and producers will continually try and get free work out of writers and the faxes, phone calls, and negotiations by which writers fight back. He notes that studios usually get away with this because, simply, writers need the money; he also notes that he and Didion don’t, and I wonder if their willingness to tell producers to fuck off is the reason they have so few credits on IMDb. Not in Monster but in Dunne’s essay collection Crooning is the story of how they lost the job of writing George Roy Hill’s The Little Drummer Girl, where negotiations broke down over a difference of $50,000 on the first draft, on a film that would cost an estimated $20,000,000, which Hill wouldn’t have to pay, and which Didion and Dunne would have received anyway in the second draft. A studio executive tells Dunne “’I would never blow a deal for fifty grand.’ George Hill would, and so would I. It is something perhaps only another pain in the ass would understand.”
As someone whose entire working life has been possible by strong unions, I appreciate the emphasis Dunne places on the Writer’s Guild of America’s policies, put in place to make sure that writers get paid for what they do. The most common way of extracting work from writers looks to be the “please do just one more rewrite for free” technique, and Didion and Dunne get taken this way a few times. Dunne’s sense of himself as a union man goes all through Monster, and it reveals a lot about how he sees himself and his work as a screenwriter: not as an author but as a worker. He and Didion have a job to do; they don’t expect to embody their vision in a film, they expect to be paid for services rendered. It doesn’t matter to them that Up Close and Personal was largely forgettable and generic; at the end, Dunne calls it “that rare film in which the negative and the positive notices were equally accurate.” Much more memorable is the story of how they eventually got paid for a film (Old Gringo), where they got no credit and did very little work but did get their contract fulfilled; that is the real triumph, and the real subject here.
Although Up Close and Personal forms the backbone of Monster, the films that don’t get made make for more interesting stories. In an industry where the final product can cost tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, it’s not surprising that the unfinished products can cost millions, and that writers can make hundreds of thousands on them. There’s “a hurricane bank-robbery thriller”/Sylvester Stallone vehicle Gale Force [wallflower’s note: I’m not making this up], where the producers want “a combination Die Hard and Key Largo [still not making it up], with our job to supply the love beats and tortured Key Largo morality”; there’s the nuclear thriller Ultimatum, which they rewrite over eleven days (including Christmas) in Hawai’i, rename Ploot (everyone makes mistakes), and I think some stuff they wrote wound up in The Peacemaker; there’s Ice Queen, a Michelle Pfieffer vehicle about a woman who gets used in a DEA operation against a drug cartel (which sounds like the movie Traffic avoided being) which not only never gets made, but was most likely never going to be. Dunne faxes Pfieffer’s production partner “you seem to be in the business of making development deals, a tidy low-risk enterprise in which the equilibrium is threatened only by the actual delivery of a script.”
The most interesting story is that of Dharma Blue, a kind of proto-X-Files about an alien landing and subsequent cover-up, produced by Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer. Dunne has enough maturity and perspective not to be shocked or impressed by Simpson’s excesses (drug use, binge dieting, traveling with a gun) and can recognize the talent there. This is another project that goes through multiple rewrites, with Simpson never seeming to be clear on what he wants (“his notes appeared to have been dictated while he was buzzed on some upper of choice”) and they get paid off (about a year’s worth of income) and fired from the film, and, again, it never gets made. Dunne never makes a point out of this, just demonstrates it all through Monster: the professional value and self-worth of a writer in Hollywood has next to nothing to do with whether or not the resulting film is any good, or even if a film results from the writing.
Dunne’s anecdotal style allows him to do quick, effective sketches of personalities. Simpson is just one more in a long line of “bully boys” that Didion and Dunne deal with, going back to “the all-time top-seeded bully boy, Otto Preminger.” Dunne remarks that he and Didion “prefer doing business with the bully boys than the smoothies. . . .The bad behavior they seldom take the trouble to refute–a choleric reputation can be an edge in Industry interpersonal relations–rarely takes into account that they are usually smart.” Bullies won’t tie you up in endless meetings; they’ll tell you what they want and fire you if they don’t get it. (In addition to writing films that don’t get made, getting fired from films is part of everyday life in this business.) Dunne engages with the present but it’s his ability to involve that present with history that makes Monster valuable. In addition to the bully boys, there are also a lot of fun stories about other people, especially those who engage in the kind of reflexive dick-measuring so common among American businessmen: hearing about Dunne’s heart surgery, Michael Eisner (then CEO of Disney) replies “of course, mine was more serious.” Which, come on, is awesome, and even more so is Didion’s reaction: “Then I heard Joan, who has never been an easy fit in the role of the little woman, exclaim ‘It was not!’” That’s even better than her shoot-down of Warren Beatty, telling him back in the 1970s that it “is not. . .feasible” to have sex with him.
Scott Rudin, the producer who takes Up Close and Personal out of production limbo in 1993, comes across as not exactly the hero of Monster, but as its most characteristic and charismatic figure, “the bully boy’s bully boy,” a producer who usually has five movies going at once and who has the best sense in the book of how to make money. Dunne asks him what he sees the movie as being about, and he replies “it’s about two movie stars.” Rudin is the force that finally gets Up Close and Personal made and into theatres, landing the stars (Pfieffer, Robert Redford) between projects, negotiating the tensions between Didion/Dunne and director Jon Avnet (who they at first seriously don’t like and later, through the endless faxes, do like), relentlessly talking up or talking down Dunne (and everyone else) to get what he wants. Unsurprisingly, Rudin is still active and prolific now, twenty years later.
Didion and Dunne often quote F. Scott Fitzgerald’s line “we don’t go for strangers in Hollywood” as the most insightful guide to it, and Dunne is extremely good at showing and discussing the social codes. In Monster, it’s clear that the film industry is a place where people fuck each other over on a regular basis; it’s also clear that there are acceptable fucking-overs and unacceptable ones. Signing a contract to work on a movie and then bailing on it is acceptable (Dunne to Nora Ephron: “how do we get ourselves out of this? You don’t, Nora said, as if she were talking to a not quite bright child. Your agent gets you out, that’s what you pay them 10 percent for. To do the dirty work”); criticizing other members of the community behind their back isn’t. (“I did, however, chide him gently about the public badrapping at Morton’s. Memories are long, I noted, which is why protocols need to be observed.”) Someone once said that the problem with movies as an art form is that they’re a business, and the problem with them as a business is that they’re an art form; they’re also a community, the real subject of Monster. And, without ever making it a point, or really caring about it at all, Dunne makes clear the insularity and inertia of this community, how bound by race and class it is and how much it resists change.
Monster has what has remained the definitive Hollywood story for me, in its understanding of rules spoken and unspoken, the egos, and the sense of community above all: Didion and Dunne get contracted by producer Frank Yablans to write an adaptation of the novel The Gold Coast, do a single draft, and then keep getting paid even though they don’t do anything further. “Our agents explained: there had been a change of studio management, and the new executives, we were told, had an unpleasant history with Yablans” and presumably have tanked the project just to piss him off. Later, the rights get adopted by another producer (Martin Bregman), who tells Dunne that he’s never read their draft and will start from scratch. “We wished him well, and told him we would see him at the credit arbitration”; I believe the sincerity of both parts of that sentence. That’s the business.
In the first paragraph, Dunne tells us that this is a story about “the writer’s life, and finally about mortality and its discontents.” Without any emphasis, Dunne conveys the sense of passing time through the eight years here, most effectively by everyone who dies: John Foreman, Tony Richardson, Andrew Kopkind, Don Simpson. Dunne writes so movingly about this, but never emphasizes it any more or less than anything else, not the meetings or the faxes or the surgeries. Live long enough as a writer, he’s saying, and all of this will happen to you; Monster communicates not just a sense of Hollywood history but of moving into the future, and not everyone can do that. And of course in the time since Monster was published, more people have died: Natasha Richardson, the daughter of Tony Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave, who has her wedding in Didion and Dunne’s old apartment, divorces, and is about to remarry Liam Neeson in the course of Monster (she also gave what is still the best performance I’ve ever seen in a movie in Patty Hearst); and Dunne himself, killed instantly by a heart attack one month before his fortieth wedding anniversary in his favorite chair between two Scotches with a book in his lap and in the company of his wife and screenwriting partner. I mention this because it makes Monster more touching and more honest, and because I can’t imagine a better death.
For all the (sometimes literal) behind-the-scenes detail, Monster never feels like an exposé or like gossip; although this is a world not many of us know about, Dunne never reads like he’s trying to shock or impress us with that. The tone is that of everyday life, how two people did their jobs over eight years and who they met and worked with and how those people lived and died in that time. Monster strips the film industry of its glamour, even the glamour of the dirty little secrets, and leaves something better, just maybe even noble: the sense of professionalism and of history, of a community that comes together, does a job, and moves on.