Hooray for (books about) Hollywood

Posted: July 1, 2013 by shawnfury in Uncategorized
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We spent the weekend unpacking and building a bookcase, the type of project that is routine for any 9th-grade shop student but turns into a few hours of sweating, cursing, back-breaking work when it takes place in the confines of a New York city apartment on a warm June day. Still, the thing got built — nails here, brackets there, one board in the wrong place but that’s because it was mislabeled by the company and the entire apparatus stands just fine so let’s put it down in the living room. Filling it took another few hours, as I transferred a portion of my books from old shelves to the new spiffy bookshelf. We have another bookshelf coming next week, and after that all we have to do is find a spot for the 8 boxes of books that are still sitting in my parents’ basement.

I organized them by subject, with Louise’s help. Anthologies get a shelf, humor books get some space, the sports books — god, all those sports books — will have to wait for the next bookcase, as will all the fiction. One shelf in particular proved troubling for Louise, who was in charge of deciding if the books would go flat or vertical and had to choose the best way to present them, in case a home decorating magazine ever stops by upper Manhattan.

“Another Hollywood book?” she asked at one point and all I could do was nod. Although I never wanted to be an actor and might be the only published writer in the country who doesn’t want to be a screenwriter, I’m a bit obsessed with books about movies — the people who create them, the stories behind their productions, tales about failures, profiles of strange directors, drug debacles, all of it.

There’s something about these behind-the-screen books — similar to the books about the creation of magazines and newspapers, another genre I love and that is putting our craftsmanship of the bookcase to the test — that is forever appealing to me. Sometimes it’s simply about the business of showbiz, how things get made and why, and other times it’s fascinating tales of the finished product. Some recommendations from the library:

* WHAT HAPPENS NEXT and TALES FROM THE SCRIPT. I know writers, big-name writers with credentials that are the envy of lowly scribes everywhere, who dream of nothing more than writing a screenplay that gets produced, even though the thing will get rewritten 15 times by maybe four other people. It’s the dream of big bucks and seeing words turned into pictures. I don’t have that desire, but maybe it’s because I know I don’t have the ability to create something out of nothing, or the discipline to be concise with narrative and dialogue. Still, stories about screenwriters fascinate me. What Happens Next is a look at the history of screenwriters, from the early days of silent movies to the days in the 80s and 90s when they were routinely raking in a million bucks for spec scripts. Tales from the Script, which is also a documentary, is presented in an oral history type form, with interviews with 50 screenwriters, who detail the business from the concept of an idea to dealing with studios to rewrites to getting screwed on deals. A bit dry — I usually prefer narrative to oral histories — but great insight.

* BASED ON A TRUE STORY. Highly recommended for anyone who’s ever thought, “Just how true is this movie,” when it claims to be a true story or is inspired by a true story or based on one. Extremely funny, it’s also a good history lesson for those who want to know what William Wallace was really like.

* FINAL CUT. The late Steven Bach was an executive involved with Michael Cimino’s infamous Heaven’s Gate, and Final Cut is the story behind the debacle, which ended up destroying a studio and several careers, including Cimino’s. In many of these books, suits are maligned as know-nothings who do little but interfere and pass around embarrassing notes to the creative geniuses. Final Cut is written by one of those suits, but Bach is an outstanding writer and more than willing to take some of the blame for Heaven’s Gate’s failure, all while detailing Cimino’s ego-driven insanity.

* THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN TOUCH. Unless you love British spies who enjoy quips, sex and ridiculous gadgets that are used to thwart the plans of madmen bent on the destruction of the world, you might avoid this book. But James Bond fans will like it, as Sinclair McKay presents a history of all the Bond movies and looks at the books that started it all. McKay’s writing is filled with humor and he’s not afraid to tweak some of the bad Bond movies. But as a passionate fan he knows as much about the famous character as anyone and unearths incredible details.

* EASY RIDERS, RAGING BULLS and DOWN AND DIRTY PICTURES. Easy Riders is Peter Biskind’s most famous book and one I’ve recommended before. It’s the story of the star directors from the 1970s and is about their movies, their love lives and all the drugs they consumed. It’s an amazing book. Down and Dirty is slightly less amazing, though still decent. There, Biskind tells the story behind Miramax and Sundance and the backroom machinations just can’t compete with the coke-fueled parties that generated so many great movies in the 1970s, stories that are littered throughout Raging Bulls.

* MONSTER. John Gregory Dunne and his wife Joan weren’t known for their screenplays but Monster is a quick read about their work on the 1996 movie Up Close & Personal. Yes, the Robert Redford movie. Over several years the Dunnes worked on dozens of versions of the movie and the finished product was absolutely nothing like the one at the start. Another book about screenwriting but more about the insane process that goes into making a movie. After reading Monster you’ll wonder how any movie ever gets made, though you still might not want to see Up Close & Personal.

THE MAN WHO HEARD VOICES. M. Night Shyamalan. Remember him? The Sixth Sense? Signs. Trick endings. His career has now fallen so far that it wasn’t even really publicized that he directed Will Smith’s After Earth. In the Man Who Heard Voices, Sports Illustrated writer Michael Bamberger reports on the making of Lady in the Water and the stories in it rival Biskind’s from Easy Riders, though there are no drugs involved. You’ll be amazed by Shyamalan’s ego and if you’ve ever actually seen Lady, you’ll chuckle at the idea that it was going to be any kind of masterpiece. It’s a fascinating story about a guy who had everything going for him, right up until he started losing his grip on the magic that made him great — if not his sanity.

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