October 26, 2014

Rolling Toward Oblivion


I was first contacted in 2006 by a young filmmaker from Austin, a kid I came to think of as the Kid, who wanted to make a movie out of one of my books. Although he’d done plenty of commercials and music videos, this would be his feature film debut, and being in his mid-twenties at the time, he was mighty excited at the possibility. I couldn’t really understand anyone getting quite so excited about the book in question, but figured maybe he was doing a lot of drugs or something.

            Well, I’d been suckered into that ugly “movie option” trap before. Couple of times. And each time the experience dwindled to its inevitable and pointless end, I vowed I would never be suckered by the movie people again. Most of them, it’s been my unfortunate lesson, are slick, arrogant, lying simpletons. Given that in only about one in ten thousand cases does anything at all come of it, who needs the aggravation of putting up with lying simpletons in the meantime?

            But there was just something that leaked through in the Kid’s note. It wasn’t just his youthful enthusiasm—that I could take or leave. He had the right attitude, and better still he got the jokes. Most important of all, I’d been canned a couple of months earlier and really needed that check, so I agreed to sell him the option.

            Over the course of the next year or so, we became good friends as the Kid and his writing partner came up with an incredible script, one I thought was even better than the book it was based on. Unfortunately it was also a script that would cost $100 million to film. No one in his right mind was gonna hand over that kind of cabbage to an untested director and the Kid knew this, so he had a quick change of plans. Instead he decided to make a low-budget quickie first, and use that one as a way of raising the funding to go back and make the one he originally wanted to do. Fortunately I had another novel out there that fit the bill—a grimy, sloppy little crime number called Noogie’s Time to Shine (which sold, I believe, twelve copies). All you’d really need to make it was a van, a couple of laundry bags, some decent actors and a well-trained cat.

            More time passed and there were assorted complications and convolutions and roadblocks, but in the past few months it began looking more and more likely the damn movie might actually get made. That’s one thing about indie filmmakers: there’s only a driblet of the money you find at the major studios. On the other hand you don’t have the sort of dumb-ass meddling and rampant corporate assholery you run into at the studios. When you’re dealing with a single obsessive with a vision as opposed to six levels of bureaucracy (each packed with graphpaperheads), things have a way of careening toward a goal. It may take some time, but chances are far better an obsessive indie filmmaker will actually get something in the can.

            The Kid had the crew, the guy who would play Noogie, and a script. He was ready to go, beginning with some simple exterior shots. That’s when he brought up something I’d conveniently put out of my head.

            “So how’s the week of October 24th to the 31st looking for that road trip?”

            My god, the road trip. I never thought he was serious about that. He’d brought it up as what I assumed was a passing notion shortly after we’d signed the contract about three years back. Even though he’d mentioned it a few times since, I was still working with the (generally accurate) assumption that none of this was ever going to happen. Now it was staring me in the face and asking a few tough questions.

            Since a good chunk of the book involves our hapless criminal mastermind hero, Noogie, driving the back roads down the East Coast from New York to Miami in a battered old white van, the Kid thought it only made sense that he, his star, and a cameraman get in a white van and make the same trip so he could steal plenty of authentic exteriors along the way. (The landscape looks a little different around central Texas, where they’d be shooting most of the rest of the film.) Oh, and by the way, for some reason it was absolutely imperative that I come along in the van with them. The Kid seemed to be working with this cockamamie notion as a simple assumption from the start.

            Yeah, I dunno. Ornery old blind guy climbing into a no-frills van to take a week long road trip with three excitable guys half his age? For some reason it just didn’t sound like that hot an idea, especially with the back roads teeming with crazed hillbillies and serial killers and anacondas.

            As I pondered all the dreadful possibilities, the Kid began working out the details. “I want to keep this as cheap as possible,” he wrote. “Hope a bunch of home-cooked meals on the road are okay with you.” I began envisioning what this whole tawdry exercise would involve, a picture that included shitting in the woods, cans of beans over an open campfire,  sleeping on the metal bed of the van, and hitting that bump that would blow my back for good. Not to mention the aardvarks. Those suckers can be mean.

            I bounced the possibility off my wife, assuming and hoping, given she was the logical one, she’d be mortified and put the kibosh on the whole idea right there. That would be that, right?

            She didn’t. In fact she seemed kind of excited at the idea, and said she thought it was a good thing to do. Maybe that week I was away she’d finally get a good night’s sleep without all my flopping and snoring. “Do what you think is best,” she said. “But just make sure one of them keeps an eye on you so you don’t get hurt.”

            I called my mom next, again hoping she’d be sensible and freak out at the image of her crippled only son crawling into a van for a road trip with some wild hop-headed youngsters. Instead she got excited too, thought it was hilarious and thrilling, and began telling all of her friends. This was simply not going as planned.

            Meanwhile the Kid was mapping out the route and scouring Craigslist for a battered old van he could pick up on the cheap. (One, I’m assuming, absolutely guaranteed to break down in the middle of Deliverance country.) He was plotting out the shots he wanted to get and picking out the star’s wardrobe.

            Thing is, I knew all these guys. I’d been drinking with them more than once. They were funny and smart and yeah, more than a little wild. The guy playing Noogie’d even been a Macy’s Santa a few years back, and you don’t get much sicker than that. And we’d all seen way too many grindhouse backwoods horror films (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Macon County Line, Poor Pretty Eddie, House of 1000 Corpses, Wrong Turn . . . ) not to know exactly what kind of nightmare we were in for.

            With everyone so flippy-floppy about my going on this road trip so I could annoy someone else for a week for once, what choice did I have? So I dropped the Kid a line and told him to count me in, then started making a mental list of all the things I’d need to bring along. Toothbrush, seizure meds, pain killers, socks.

            “Which one of you will be packing heat?” I wrote him to ask. “Because we’re sure as shit gonna need it.”

            As I write this, the date of our departure is slamming toward me fast, and everything’s still a go. I do not honestly expect to survive. So why the hell am I doing it? It was sheer folly, and like them or not, I had little patience for the youngsters—and after a day or so I suspect they’d have little for me, either. But as the man said, buy the ticket, ride the ride. And there are far less interesting ways to die, I suppose.


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