|Love Never Dies|
SHORT STORY by Willard Manus
Sandy Gerber was a Hollywood schlockmeister, a producer of B-movies that were shot on the cheap in places like Portugal and Uzbekistan starring wannabe or washed-up actors scuffling for a paycheck. Sandy did it all himself: raised the money, hired the creative team, arranged for distribution, oversaw the publicity and advertising. Sometimes he even got behind the camera and directed the action.
When I first met him he'd been a Hollywood fixture for some thirty years, turning out anywhere from three to six films a year: films about biker gangs, schoolteachers who became hookers after dark, inner-city punks fighting for control of the drug trade. He almost always made money out of these lurid melodramas which played in secondary-houses and rural drive-ins before being sold to cable and video outlets. Once in a while Sandy surprised the trade (and himself) by producing a film good enough to become a commercial and critical success, such as A Man Called Pinto, which dealt with a swift and intrepid Native American who outwitted and outran his white enemies in the Old West.
The film grossed something like forty million dollars in its initial run, giving Sandy his biggest score ever and enabling him to easily secure financing for a new slate of films. Unfortunately, most of these releases flopped and because he had guaranteed to pay all promotional costs himself, his losses were huge. In less than a year, he went from bonanza to bust.
"I'll be all right," he insisted when we met. "I'm an old club fighter. I've been cuffed around plenty, but I'm still in there swinging and if you don't watch out, I might just knock the shit out of you."
I had come to him with an original screenplay called City of the Dead. The story concerned a vengeful Egyptian mummy who comes to life in a European city--never mind how he got there--and proceeds to murder everyone in sight until he's hunted down by the authorities and destroyed in an underground cataclysm.
It was a second-rate, derivative script, but it was just right for Sandy, particularly in light of the fact that a director came attached to the project. Branko Jovanda was an experienced Croatian filmmaker who was teaching at UCLA on a fellowship and could arrange for City of the Dead to be shot in his hometown of Zagreb on an anorexic budget.
Problem was, Sandy was unwilling--or unable--to option the script. "I know it's only a couple of thousand bucks, but I don't have the gelt right now," he said. "However, I am serious about making the film and to prove it, here are the notes I jotted down last night."
Sandy, who was tall, broad-shouldered and handsome, a man who looked strong and healthy, suffered in reality from asthma. "Had it all my life," he explained. "Used to sleep sitting up as a kid. Now I rarely sleep more than three or four hours a night, which suits me fine. I can get lots of work done in the wee hours--and call my contacts in Europe and Asia."
He handed me a sheaf of papers which he had typed out, one finger at a time, on his old Underwood portable typewriter, a machine that jumped letters and had a faded ribbon.
The gist of his comments was that City of the Dead was a do-able project. He loved the idea of a mummy movie, if only because there hadn't been one in a decade or so, but he wondered if we shouldn't go against type and make the mummy a peace-loving, sympathetic creature rather than a psychotic killer.
Branko and I went off to discuss the changes over cups of coffee. "It means a major rewrite," I said, "a whole re-thinking and reshaping of the story and most of its characters."
Since Branko was leaving for Zagreb to visit his ailing mother, I would have to do all the work myself, which was okay with me, except for the fact that Sandy was still refusing to put up any front money. We had a paper from him, promising to pay $50,000 for the screenplay once it went into production, plus 3% of the net profits, but it wasn't anything you could pay your bills with.
Branko left the decision to me. Although my better instincts told me not to work for nothing--especially for a man who was high up on the unfair list of the Writers Guild--I went ahead and did a big rewrite anyway. Reason being I needed a break in Hollywood, a credit of some kind. It didn't matter that I had written and published a dozen books and survived as a freelance journalist for several decades. Here in Hollywood I was an unknown, an outsider, and right now Sandy was the only producer seriously interested in a script of mine.
And, if truth be told, I liked the guy, felt comfortable with him. We were both close in age and background; his father had operated a music store on the Grand Concourse, right across from the Loew's Paradise, a landmark Bronx moviehouse, and side by side with Krum's, a popular ice-cream parlor. Sandy and I joked that we had probably slurped away at many a chocolate malted together.
Sandy liked my rewrite but asked for more changes, especially regarding the team of paleontologists that discovers the mummy. "If the mummy is a good guy and there's less violence in the script, we need a stronger subplot, maybe a nice hot love story."
"Don't tell me you want the mummy to fall in love with a young girl, maybe even try to screw her," I said.
"Not a bad idea. We'd get the necrophiliac audience that way."
I racked my brains for a less ghoulish, more believable, angle. Finally I came up with it; we'd introduce a second mummy, a princess who had been mummy Number One's great love, maybe even his bride, back in the days of the Pharaohs. When they died, victims of some kind of plague, they were buried, side by side, in the same casket, a duplex (Sandy chuckled at the description).
To further capitalize on the Egyptian motif, I added another touch: in the opera house beneath which the mummies were entombed--back story explained how they got there--a production of Verdi's Aida was being rehearsed. The conductor was an Italian and therefore a womanizer, and the lead was a beautiful young African-American singer who'd been studying opera in Europe. Not only did the conductor covet her, so did one of the paleontologists, who was young, American and white.
"We'll have the black-white dynamic to play with," I told Sandy, adding that it also reflected the love story in the opera, the one between Aida and Radames. "The arc of the male mummy's story is that he is the first one brought to life by the paleontologists. He is overjoyed to find his beloved's body lying next to him, but freaks out when the body is stolen by grave-robbers. He sets out in search of her, a fish out of water in the 21st century. Eventually, he ends up on stage, in the third act of Aida, where he confuses Aida with his beloved and ends up dying in her arms."
"Beautiful," Sandy said. "I'm all choked up."
Because my deal with him specified that I was also to help produce the movie, Sandy began introducing me to some of his business partners. There was Hy, a stocky little guy in thick glasses who was a stockbroker, and Vladimir, a tall, pouchy, bushy-haired man who, according to Sandy, "was a cocksucker but had access to Russian mafia money."
Financial arrangements were never discussed in front of me; instead we sat around in Sandy's capacious West Hollywood apartment sipping drinks and talking about movies--which ones we liked or didn't like, which were doing well at the box office or had gone straight into the toilet. The meetings piled up and the weeks and months went by, but Sandy was unable to close a deal with his investors.
"They're squeezing me," he confided. "They're squeezing my balls so hard that my voice has gone up two octaves."
That didn't stop him, though, from drafting a release to the Hollywood trades announcing the formation of a new company, Film Global Group, which would produce six pics a year for the next three years.
"I want the mummy film to head the list, but think we should come up with a better title than City of the Dead," he said.
"It's a good title," I protested. "It suggests the world we're dealing with, bodies coming to life in an underground crypt."
"But we've turned your horror movie into a love story. We need to suggest that in the title."
We argued back and forth. Finally I gave in and began tossing out ideas. The best one I could come up with was Mummy Dearest.
"Hah! I love it," Sandy laughed.
But he didn't have
the nerve to use it, settling instead for
A few days later, Sandy called and asked, "What do you know about Georgia?"
"Well, I once drove through it."
"I'm talking about Georgia as in Russia, you putz," he said. "That's where we'll be shooting the mummy film."
Sandy had been invited to Tbilisi, the capital of the country, to take a look at a film studio that had just opened there.
"It's a helluva city," he reported when he got back a week later. "Turns out Stalin was born there, he's still a hero to the people. Looks like California too--sunshine, mountains, lots of flowers, trees and fresh fruit. The studio's well equipped and they're dying to have us come and shoot."
He handed me a picture book given to him by the Georgians. "Go through it and mark the locations you'll need for your rewrite."
"Wait a minute, the script has been written for Zagreb and Split, places which Branko knows well."
Sandy dropped his eyes. "I've had second thoughts about Branko," he said finally. "I looked at his sample reels again, studied his pacing, the way he positions his camera. He's too European, too artsy-fartsy, to direct a movie like ours."
I argued as strenuously as I could on Branko's behalf, but Sandy was adamant. "I won't make the movie with him as director."
I called Branko in Zagreb to bring him up to date. He was surprisingly accomodating, if only because he had been offered all kinds of work there--a feature film, two television documentaries, even some commercials.
"I just asked UCLA for a year-long leave of absence," he said. "So I couldn't direct Love Never Dies right now, even if asked. Just leave my name as co-writer of the script, is all I ask."
No sooner did I complete my Georgian rewrite did Sandy summon me to his apartment to meet Nicholas Guerdain, a French writer-director.
"I like his work and he has access to European funds," Sandy said.
"Europe? What happened to Georgia?"
"Too dangerous with all that's happening in that part of the world. The bonding companies won't insure us."
Nicholas turned out to be small, precise and didactic.
"Your script is okay," he said, "but its second and third acts need deepening, strengthening."
"Could you be more specific?"
"We need to make more of a philosophical statement with this film. It needs to be lifted out of its B-movie level."
"But it is a B-movie," I said. "We have two fucking mummies coming to life."
"It needn't be superficial or banal," he replied testily. "We must rethink the statement and the premise."
Sandy agreed and asked Nicholas for a rewrite, but when the Frenchman demanded money upfront, Sandy quickly terminated his relationship with him.
The script would remain mine, but we would shoot in Istanbul rather than Paris, he announced. Hy had come up with Turkish money and we would be setting up shop there in the fall.
"They've put aside a villa on the Bosporus for us," Sandy said. "It used to be an elaborate brothel, which is just right for a couple of whores like us. We'll all stay there-- cast, crew, the whole mispocheh. We'll have a ball."
Before flying off to Istanbul for pre-production talks, Sandy borrowed a thousand dollars from me. "I'm a little tight right now," he explained, "but I'm due a couple of residual checks on A Man Called Pinto. I'll be able to pay you back in a couple of weeks, for sure."
That he did, but by then Istanbul had been dropped as a destination--"the Turks turned out to be a bunch of lying cocksuckers"--and replaced by Bulgaria.
We would not be shooting in Sofia, though, but the port town of Plovdiv. "It's cheaper and I know my way around the city, having shot a couple of features there about ten years ago. Everyone's more cooperative, including the women. I got laid on my last visit. Not with an actress, either--she was a professional women, a doctor. Of course, everyone's a doctor in that part of the world, even the plumbers and electricians."
Sandy's trip to Plovdiv was his fifth overseas trip of the year. When I commented on how hard that must be on him, he demurred. "I love to fly because it's the only time I can escape the telephone."
Sandy spent the entire day on the phone. For a producer with a phantom slate of films, he was inordinately busy, talking nonstop to the East Coast, the West Coast and overseas. He saved the middle of the night for the reading of scripts and the typing of his endless memos. Because he couldn't afford anything but part-time help, he also had to answer the phones, do the zeroxing and filing, all by himself.
His only free time was in the early evening, when he liked to pour drinks for his friends. Sometimes he invited one of his numerous girlfriends over to watch a video.
"I can't even invite anyone out for dinner these days," he said. "Money is just so hard to come by. I don't seem able to close a deal. Me, one of the best closers in the business, I'm striking out every time up. It's as if I were Mickey Mantle--and batting .220 in September."
Had he screwed too many investors in the past or was he simply asking too much of them this time around? Since I wasn't privy to his negotiations, I couldn't say. All I knew was that I was dealing with an icreasingly desperate and driven man--a once rich, powerful executive who could barely keep his car payments up.
To save money, Sandy moved out of his luxurious pad and into a small, one-bedroom apartment in a shabbier section of Hollywood.
He also sold off some paintings and furniture--and the rights to twenty of his past movies.
Suddenly, though, his fortunes seemed to improve. After not hearing from him or having a phone call returned for more than two months, he rang me up one morning.
"How are you, Sandy?"
"Not bad for an old Jew," he said, adding, "listen, how would you like to run a studio for me?"
"I'm thinking of buying this sound stage in Valencia, just north of L.A. It was built ten years ago and has state of the art everything and could become a real money-maker."
"Fair enough, but I don't have that kind of managerial experience. I'm a writer, not a businessman."
"Doesn't matter. You're like a brother to me, you're one of the few people in the world I can trust. I know you'd make a go of it."
He mentioned a starting salary of a hundred thousand dollars a year, plus bonuses. "How does that grab you?" he asked. I said that it sounded pretty good.
In the meantime, he added, could I do another rewrite on Love Never Dies and set the story in southern California?
Back to the computer I went, changing locations from Plovdiv to Valencia, replacing foreign names with American, altering dialogue, realigning scenes. It was difficult, grinding, dispiriting work.
After I turned the rewrite in, silence. No phone calls came from Sandy; no faxes, notes, or casting suggestions. Neither could I find an announcement anywhere of his taking over the Valencia sound stage.
I decided to forget about Sandy and the movie business itself, and to start a new novel. I had just about finished it six months later when an invitation to a wedding party came in the mail--Sandy Gerber's.
Much to my surprise, the party was scheduled to take place in Sandy's old West Hollywood apartment. There I met Sandy's wife, Valerie, and her 25-year-old daughter, Elyssa. Valerie was dyed-blonde, slim, and titanium-hard. She was dressed in elegant, expensive clothes and jewels. Sandy had obviously married money.
"Been a bachelor all my life," he confided, "but I couldn't pass up this opportunity with Valerie, even though it means I'll never get laid again."
But even with his wife's help, Sandy could not put a deal together. Valerie was paying the rent and giving him pocket money, but was unwilling (or unable) to finance a slate of feature films.
Silence again after that. I worked on my novel and some articles and forgot about Sandy --until he phoned me several months later, sounding excited, even giddy.
"I've finally got some good news. One of the TV networks came to me, they want to turn A Man Called Pinto into a weekly series. You'll be the story editor, you can write all the scripts you like. And guess what, this is a union deal, everything above-board and kosher."
Then he asked for another loan, this time for two thousand dollars, which he needed immediately--this very morning. Could I please help him out again?
"Sandy, why are you coming to me? Can't you get it from your wife?"
"Valerie said I've reached my limit with her. She's cut me off."
"I don't know--money is pretty scarce over here."
"Look, you're my brother, I would never screw you. I'll give you a couple of post-dated checks in the amount of 2500 dollars. You can collect on them next week. By then, I'll have closed the deal on Pinto and I'll be back in business, Sandy Gerber will be a working producer again, a fucking force to be reckoned with!"
In the end, I said I would give him the money. He came over to the house for it, giving me two post-dated checks as promised.
Then off he flew, to take a meeting with the TV people.
On the date the first check became due, I went to cash it at Sandy's bank. The teller reported that there were insufficient funds in the account.
I called Sandy and left a message. He called me back two days later, apologized for the fuck-up, promising to have not just the first check but both of them covered by Friday.
On Friday the teller told me that Mr Gerber had closed the account two days earlier. Angrily, I called the Fraud Squad of the Hollywood police. The sympathetic sergeant wanted to know how Sandy had endorsed the checks.
"Both read 'For re-payment of loan,'" I said.
"Too bad," came the reply. "If you had instructed him to write 'For script payment,' we could have nailed his ass to the wall, something we've been wanting to do for years. As it is, this is just an unpaid debt and there's nothing we can do about it."
Sandy remained incommunicado after that and once again I forgot about him--only to receive another invitation from him. Or rather, from his wife, Valerie. It was an invitation to his 70th birthday party.
This was rich, it was wonderful in its outrageousness--a man who had screwed me out of two thousand dollars was inviting me to his birthday party!
At the party, Sandy embraced me warmly and unselfconsciously.
"You're still my brother," he said, "and I still intend to produce your script, I swear it."
"Wonderful, Sandy. Meanwhile, I would appreciate it if you would pay me back the two thousand dollars you borrowed. Forget the interest. Just give me my two thou."
Sandy stared at me. "Two thousand," he said, incredulously. "Did I really borrow two thousand bucks from you?"
"Do you really not remember or are you bullshitting me?"
"I swear to you on my mother's grave, I have no memory of it."
I showed him the two, now dog-eared checks.
"Holy shit, I am so fucking embarrassed. Why didn't you tell me sooner? I'll come to your apartment tomorrow with a certified check, I swear it. Now drink up and let's celebrate my becoming an alter cocker."
Needless to say, Sandy did not come to my apartment the next day, nor did he send a certified check in the mail. Someone suggested I take him to Small Claims court, but not long after I had him served came a notice from Sandy's lawyer stating that he had filed for bankruptcy. I was listed as one of his creditors, to be paid back if anything remained after his estate was liquidated.
I never saw a penny from Sandy or his lawyer. A few more years went by and I forgot all about him until a friend of mine reported having seen Sandy at the Motion Picture Home, the institution where aged and infirm members of the movie industry could spend their last years in comfort and fraternity.
"Why don't you go and make a last pitch for your money. What have you got to lose?"
The Home was large and attractive: a sun-filled main building surrounded by tree-shaded cabins and recreation centers. Birds sang and brightly colored flowers bloomed everywhere.
I found Sandy sitting on a bench near his cabin. He looked as strong and healthy as ever, just a little greyer and heavier. His eyes were bright and his grip was firm as we shook hands, vigorously.
"You look good, Sandy," I said. "Surprisingly good."
"Do I know you?" he asked, peering intently at me. "Have we met before?"
I eyed him, trying to judge whether he was kidding or not.
"Love Never Dies," I said. "City of the Dead."
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"I'm talking about the scripts I wrote for you. And the money you owe me."
"Did we do a picture together?"
I had no answer to that. All I could do was sit back and reflect on the irony and import of it all.
Sandy, meanwhile, was still gazing at me, waiting for me to say something. Finally, I spoke up.
"You are such a prick," I said, keeping my voice down. "You're a liar, a scam artist and a goniff. But do you know something, you fucking lowlife scumbag, I still like you."
Sandy sat back, startled. Then, slowly, a smile spread across his face, a smile that soon gave way to laughter-- hard, unabashed laughter that rang out around the grounds, loudly enough to scare the birds out of the trees.