Update: Allan has promised a free Zen and Zero DVD to anyone who forwards this interview to twenty friends – just CC email@example.com on the emails and add your mailing address (US only – sorry foreigners).
This is part one of my interview with Allan Weisbecker – surfer, author, screenwriter, and former drug smuggler – a man who physically threatened John Cusack and to whom Sean Penn once wrote “I encourage you to stay (in Central America) until something that resembles death.”
“One assignment I turned down was based on a studio executive’s idea that a great white shark befriends a young boy. The great white is severely misunderstood; in the end the boy saves his buddy from the evil shark hunters. Sort of a cold-blooded Free Willy. The exec’s solution to the problem of how to make this believable was the following: ‘We just have to make the shark… you know… fuzzy…’”
To put it in Hollywood shorthand, Allan Weisbecker’s life story is like The Endless Summer meets Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas meets Blow meets The Player. The best part about it is that he’s survived to tell the tale (barely), and tell a tale he can.
It took years of working in Hollywood and a critically acclaimed novel (a hilarious farce about the intersection of outlaws, quantum physics, and tequila), Cosmic Banditos, before Weisbecker wised up and realized that, even without making anything up, he was his own best character. Ten years ago, he sold everything he owned to drive to Central America (surfing along the way, of course) in search of an old friend who’d disappeared years earlier, his last correspondence a cryptic postcard signed, “Captain Zero.” What followed was a harrowing journey into the heart of darkness, a memoir full of swashbuckling tales of drug-running and thumbing his nose at polite society (and the consequences thereof) called In Search of Captain Zero.
In 2006, he wrote another another memoir (after its first run in the U.K. was suspended due to legal troubles, Weisbecker created his own publishing company and re-released it in August 2007), Can’t You Get Along With Anyone: Writer’s Memoir and a Tale of a Lost Surfer’s Paradise. In it, he relates the characters he deals with in the film and publishing business (who turn out to be more duplicitous than any in the drug world), the real-life thugs and murderers that have invaded his piece of paradise past the end of the road in Costa Rica, his own love problems, and the sorry state of dishonesty and denial in the world today that ties them all together. His pain is our gain when he’s pursued on all sides by lawyers, Hollywood morons, sociopaths and assorted snakes before finally writing the book that almost killed him thrice.
I emailed him out of the blue one day, and aside from proving how accessible he is to fans, the conversation that followed provided further insight into a man who’s always chasing what Hunter S. Thompson called “that maddening delusion that a man can lead a decent life without hiring himself out as a Judas Goat.”
The following is a final note from Allan Weisbecker. Though this seems to sum up his feelings equally well:
A Final Note From Weisbecker
Since I fired all my agents and lawyers and editors (and would have fired the above interviewer, had he been working for me) and have otherwise alienated most of the studio executives and producers and movie stars and coverage writers, plus publishers, on planet earth (add Bob Woodward to the list), but would still like to see the adaptations of my books (the adaptations I wrote) produced, I’m providing links to the screenplays. My (faint, faint) hope is that there is a Hollywoodite somewhere out there with no cranial/posterior disorder, and who will actually read (as opposed to look at) the fucking things.
CLICK ON THE THUMBNAIL TO READ THE SCREENPLAY. DOUCHEBAG.
Although the screenplays are owned by third parties, based on the extensive research I’ve done my theory is that it’s entirely possible that these third parties would not notice if someone else produced them. It might just slip by under whatever radar, so to speak (an in-joke), they may have. If this sounds iffy from a legal or ethical standpoint, the other alternative would be to buy the rights from the third parties. However, still another catch-22 rears here: If a movie then gets made and it’s a hit, the third party will look foolish (for having sold the rights). Since the real job of the third parties involved is the avoidance of looking foolish (or cultivating and maintaining the denial that they in fact look foolish), a sale of the rights is unlikely.
See what I mean?
In the case of my Cosmic Banditos adaptation: I’ve been waiting for someone to read it for about eight months now, and would appreciate some feedback. It might be a fun exercise: Pretend you coughed up a bunch of money to the screenwriter (me) and fire away with “notes” on how he should approach the revisions. (On the other hand, maybe it doesn’t need any fucking revisions. Maybe it’s just fucking right the way it is. Know what I mean?)
EMAIL YOUR NOTES TO ALLAN@BANDITOBOOKS.COM
The other possibility is that if you’re a buddy of John Cusack, you could forward the screenplay to him, then, if all goes well, demand an executive producer credit and a back end piece. (My advice is to tie it to the box office gross as reported in Variety, which is a concept I concocted for my contract; “net points” are of course a howler of the first order.)
The Zero screenplay is iffy in terms of your getting an executive producer credit (by forwarding it to the producer), since in our last communication the producer (Sean Penn) wished me death, or to quote him verbatim, “something that resembles death.” (I’ve pondered the question of what could possibly resemble death, aside from the Big D itself, but have come up empty.) In other words, the whole Zero deal is a sore point with Sean: even mentioning it to him could result in your getting your lights punched out.
One last thing. It occurs to me that in the above interview there’s one person I did not completely alienate: Michael Mann. (Just kidding about the dick-size issue, Michael!) If anyone out there knows Michael, maybe suggest that Foreign Policy is a movie whose time is ripe. An exec producership looms!
"If you’ll remember, in the book I’m no kinder to the publishing business than I am to Hollywood. Do you think either Random House or Penguin (my last publishers) are going to rush to publish then promote a book that outs them as duplicitous, incompetent, arrogant scumbags?"
FD: Okay, so what’s the story on the documentary you’re going to shoot on your upcoming road trip to Mexico?
But a repetition of the past, creatively or otherwise, is not what I’m interested in. I will try to define and (mostly through visual imagery) convey the changes I’ve gone through in the last ten years, since the writing of the two books, and due to the writing of the two books. Yes, another memoir of sorts, but using a different medium.
Although a loose point of view/narrative structure is beginning to form, the film will define itself as it goes – as with CYGAWA and to an extent Zero, the story will unfold in real time. (After all, film is the ultimate present tense medium.)
I’ll be interviewing random people I meet on the road. (Did you know that there’s a culture of RV travelers who stay at… Wal-Mart parking lots? Whoa! I’m thinking Fellini meets The Public Access Channel!)
I’ll be using a lot of my archived still photographs to deal with the backstories of Zero and CYGAWA. I may even work in some old super 8 footage from the 1970s.
I’ll probably spend some time at truck stops out west, researching a novel I have in mind. Its tentative title is Truck Stop Whore.
In my many cross country road trips over the years, I became interested in truck stops – especially those big ones that are self contained mini-communities in the middle of nowhere; how truckers will get to know the people who work there, always ‘passing through.’ There’s some sort of grand metaphor here, although I’m not sure what it is and don’t want to think about it consciously, so enough said.
If I don’t go with some version of the whore’s story – if I go in a different direction – I may call it Always Open. Sounds like a good title for a big-mouth like me.
FD: Tell me about publishing CYGAWA yourself – first the why, then the how.
AW: If you’ll remember, in the book I’m no kinder to the publishing business than I am to Hollywood. Do you think either Random House or Penguin (my last publishers) are going to rush to publish then promote a book that outs them as duplicitous, incompetent, arrogant scumbags?
There’s another catch-22 around here somewhere, I think.
Plus, in being my own publisher, I’m secure in the knowledge that the next set of fiascos and catastrophic shit I’m hammered with will be my own doing. A comforting thought.
But on the other hand, my theory of how to secure a readership for whatever my company, Bandito Books, publishes is unique and so far is working: My partner and I have created an online magazine that is unique and edgy and enlightening and funny, plus it’s free.
Our theory is that readers will come to trust us, so when we publish a book and say it’s good, they’ll buy it. Key is that we will only publish books we would read, then we’re honest about them, what they are and so forth.
Banditobooks.com. Give it a look. See if I’m suffering from the HUYA Syndrome, like everyone else.
FD: HUYA Syndrome?
AW: Head Up Your Ass.
FD: Was I naïve to have thought your first two books would give you the clout to write anything you want?
“It hit me what the life’s work of Hollywood people is: To avoid looking foolish. That’s it. That’s their job. Not making good movies or any movies or using investor’s money wisely or making a profit. None of that stuff. To avoid looking foolish.”
FD: In CYGAWA you mentioned that the Zero deal rested on a certain catch-22.
AW: “No one who wants to make a movie out of my book is smart enough to get it done.”
FD: Right, because, as you say, there’s no movie in the book.
AW: The book is a memoir, nonfiction, a reasonably accurate portrayal of my real life. Problem is that real life, almost by definition, is not dramatic. The drama, the turning points, in the book are internal, not translatable to the screen. No one involved in the deal, aside from me, noticed this. The studio head who okayed the deal didn’t notice it, for example, because he hadn’t read the book either. He no doubt based the deal on coverage of the coverage.
To sum up: Two of the main people who wanted to make a movie out of my book hadn’t read it, and, meanwhile, another important person, the one writing the screenplay, me, knew there was no movie in my book.
FD: Hooray for Hollywood. Was it normal for you to get the chance to write the screen version of your own book at that point?
AW: That was my caveat. I write it or no deal. Screenplays are where the money is.
FD: How were you going to write the screenplay if there’s no movie in the book? Weren’t you subject to the same catch-22 as everyone else?
AW: I was going to reinvent the story based on the premise. Chuck the book and have some fun fictionalizing. Which I did.
AW: It of course got more ridiculous from there. In getting talked into the option deal I had been told multiple times that “Sean gets involved early in the script stage,” right? So I work for two years trying to come up with a reinvention of my book that works for the screen. I finally do, and guess what? Aside from not reading the book, Sean doesn’t, won’t, read my screenplay either.
I’m so desperate to relate to someone who isn’t a complete dumb ass – which everyone else involved in the project is, via my catch-22 — that I all but beg Sean to read… sorry, look at… my draft. (Sean wasn’t subject to my catch-22 because he hadn’t read the book and so had no reason to know that there was no movie in it. On the other hand, Sean is a good example of several other H-wood catch-22s, too many to go into here.) In fact, in our last communication I asked Sean to look at just the first 30 pages, act one. I said if he doesn’t like those pages, toss it, no problem, I won’t bother him again. Keep in mind that Sean is the contractual, paid producer on the project. And I’m relegated to begging him to read… shit… look at the screenplay he’s producing.
Well, old Sean gets way uppity with me, writes this three page email explaining why he’s not going to read my 30 pages. In my reply I suggested that it would have taken less time to read the fucking first 30 pages than to concoct his ridiculous explanation of why he was not going to read it.
Thing was, with my reply, including with the above point, I fucked with Sean’s denial, which is a no-no, with anyone in H-wood, but especially a movie star.
FD: How had you fucked with his denial at this point? Weren’t you just asking a producer to read the script of his own project?
AW: Exactly my point. Listen, I had another epiphany during all this. It hit me what the life’s work of Hollywood people is: To avoid looking foolish. That’s it. That’s their job. Not making good movies or any movies or using investor’s money wisely or making a profit. None of that stuff. To avoid looking foolish.
This is a tough job.
The avoidance of looking foolish in H-wood being a tough job, the people out there usually fail at it, at which point their job becomes cultivating and maintaining the denial that they in fact do look foolish.
Sean got so outraged that I’d fucked with his denial that he issued a death threat, or at least a death wish, against me. (I reproduce our correspondences in the book and on the adjunct website, in case anyone doubts me, figures I must be making this shit up.)
FD: I suppose the next question would be How’s the Cosmic Banditos movie deal with John Cusack going?
AW: The good news is that Cusack actually read the book before he optioned it.
FD: Amazing. What’s the bad news?
AW: Everything else that happened, starting with my having to threaten Cusack, physically, to get money owed me. Actually, though, that wasn’t his doing. Long and bizarre story, it’s in the book, but suffice to say that a duplicitous Hollywood lawyer was involved. Sorry for the redundancy. Come to think of it, “duplicitous Hollywood lawyer” is a triple redundancy, if there is such a thing.
Let’s see. How to sum up this deal in the fewest possible words?…
As with Zero, I agreed to the option deal because of the involvement of a star I admire for his choices of material.
FD: Such as?
AW: Being John Malkovich comes to mind, not that I thought it was a great movie, but it was so out there that I figured Cusack’d relate to a story about a bunch of lunatics (plus a dog) on the hunt for The Meaning of Life. In fact, when Cusack originally contacted me about the project in 1992, he told me that Cosmic Banditos was the funniest book he’s ever read. Good sign.
Add the fantasy of Penn and Cusack both up on the silver screen playing me, plus of course the money. So the deal goes down. As with Penn and Zero, Cusack is the contractual producer of the project; he blabs to Variety and other showbiz mags about the book he’s making a movie from, even goes on one of those entertainment shows talking about it, all that.
So after some ridiculous other shit, including Cusack hiring a writing team to do an adaptation that turned out to be The Worst Screenplay in the History of the World (I shit you not), I get a crack at it.
FD: Worst Screenplay in the History of the World – that you have to elaborate on.
AW: How about this for starters: This writing team decides to make José, the Cosmic Bandito of the title…. a babe. A babe who is still named José, by the way. Figure that one out.
If you happened to have read the book, and if you happened to be dead right now, you’d be spinning in your grave, plus concocting catch-22s about dumb people and movies not getting made.
FD: Is that just an example of someone having a narrow conception of what a screenplay should look like? Like, they had to squeeze in a female lead/love interest because all movies have to have one?
AW: That’s another example of how dumb making José a woman is: there was no love interest. In fact, they make this… Cosmic Banditrix… a complete fox, Selma Hayek, say, then nothing happens between her and our hero. How fucking dumb is that? They just made José a woman (still named José) and then there was no pay off. Hey, they could have changed the story to a musical set in Harlem in the ‘20s and that would not have been as dumb.
But okay. My turn. I kick ass with the adaptation. I know I kicked ass because I gave it to some other writers whose judgment I trust, and who I know will not stroke me. They all say the same thing: I kicked ass.
And guess what? Cusack will not read the screenplay. Déjà-fuckin A-vu! Why won’t he read the screenplay? Because his development executive will not give it to him.
When I asked her why the producer of the movie is not going to get a copy of the screenplay he’s producing, she told me she understands my confusion about this, and of course the producer should read the script, but… “that’s not the way it works.” That was her explanation, exact words. By the way, as far as I know the exec never read the screenplay either.
I turned in my draft last April. I’ve been waiting for over half a year for “notes,” so I can do the contractual revisions. The only positive is that so far the checks they’ve sent me haven’t bounced.
William Goldman, in his memoir, Adventures in the Screen Trade, claims that in Hollywood, “Nobody knows anything.” Absolutely true, and one reason nobody knows anything is that nobody readsanything. I know this for a fact. I’ve done the research.
FD: Can’t you get the script directly to Cusack? Email, fax, carrier pigeon – is it really that hard to get a script directly to a guy who bought it from you?
AW: Lacking his home number or email, no, I can’t do that. Any communication through his company would be intercepted by the same executive who won’t give the script to him. Besides, remember what happened when I tried to get the Zero Script to Sean Penn directly?
Here’s a thought, though. How about you post the script here, and anyone who knows Cusack and likes the script could send it to him? Although this didn’t work with Penn, who knows? An added plus is if this happens, and Cusack likes it, his development exec will look foolish for not giving it to him in the first place, and for not reading it either. I love outing Hollywoodites in their foolishness. An aspect of my life’s work.
On the other hand, I’d probably get subjected to a multi-page treatise from Cusack on why he’s too busy to read the script, and which took more time to compose than reading the script he’s too busy to read.
FD: No problem – here it is. Get on it, FilmDrunkards. Someone has to know someone who knows Cusack’s email address, right?
"Early on, Sean [Penn] and I had an amusing conversation about the book [that Penn's production company optioned]. The fact that Sean had not read the book was not outright dealt with in our talk but in reply to one of my ideas Sean said, ‘I’m missing a little information here.’"
FD: There’s been a rash of graphic novels getting optioned recently [Ed. Note: Not to mention a fucking painting] – FilmDrunk’s theory is it has something to do with movie execs not being able to read books without pictures in them. Having written for TV and movies and had your own books optioned, what do you think?
AW: Your picture book theory is an understatement in that no one in H-wood actually reads anything to begin with. Screenplays come in, what they do is look at them. “Drop your script off and I’ll look at it” kind of thing. In 25 years out there I don’t believe I’ve ever heard the word “read” uttered by anyone. And of course even then they don’t actually look at your screenplay. They look at “coverage” of it – some sap’s summation, a sort of Cliff Notes for studio execs.
You want an example of why a good movie getting made is a miracle, the whole coverage system is it. The coverage writer is the bottom of the H-wood hierarchy, an entry-level position, like mailroom clerk. I mean, where they get these people, what their bona fides are supposed to be, is beyond me, but they are the filter through which everything must pass. I don’t care who you are as a writer or how your screenplay arrived at the studio: the last Paddy Chayefski screenplay, say, still warm from the printer, hand delivered by Ovitz in a Brinks truck… that screenplay will drop through a trap door under the studio exec’s desk and slide down a chute to the Coverage Department in the bowels of the place. What resurfaces for the execs to look at is a one-page summation.
InCan’t You Get Along With Anyone? I talk about Writer Hell being a publisher’s office; manuscripts stacked up like the corpses in those old concentration camp newsreels. I was talking about Book Writer Hell. Screenwriter Hell is the coverage department of a Hollywood Studio.
And what’ll happen – I know this for a fact because I witnessed it once – is the studio exec will order coverage on a screenplay and when it arrives on his assistant’s desk, the exec is too busy to read… sorry, to look at the coverage… and will tell the assistant to sum it up. Right: Coverage of the coverage.
FD: Care to give details about where and when you witnessed it?
AW: I think it was at Disney when I was up for an assignment on the origins of the Iditarod dogsled race. I’m not quite sure because I had so many meetings with studio executives that their dumb ass shit sort of runs together.
FD: Did you get the Iditarod assignment?
AW: Yeah… which reminds me. I got it based on a spec script I’d done about commercial fishermen that everyone in town loved. To Hollywood shorthand it: It was Field of Dreamsgoes fishing. I kept getting assignment offers based on it. Everyone would go on and on about how great it was, then would come up with some dumb ass idea they had that they wanted me to write a movie from.
One assignment I turned down was based on a studio executive’s idea that a great white shark befriends a young boy. The great white is severely misunderstood; in the end the boy saves his buddy from the evil shark hunters. Sort of a cold-blooded Free Willy. The exec’s solution to the problem of how to make this believable was the following: “We just have to make the shark… you know… fuzzy…”
Anyway, when this Disney exec started in about how great my fisherman script was – about the hundredth exec who’d done this – I couldn’t take it any more. I said, “If First Light (the title of my spec script) is so brilliant, why don’t you just make that?”
This exec says, “Well, it’s a small story and it’s…” Here she wrinkles her nose. “And it’s… fishy.”
A story about commercial fishermen and she has a problem because it’s fishy.
Speaking of small stories, imagine how the coverage, or the coverage of the coverage, of, say, Tender Mercies probably went: “Small story, nothing happens.” Boom, and a great screenplay is gone to the screenplay crematorium, which is just down the hall from the Coverage Department in the bowels of every studio.
By the way, do you think I could make up this Hollywood shit? Christ, I wish I had the imagination.
AW: Early on, Sean and I had an amusing conversation about the book. The fact that Sean had not read the book was not outright dealt with in our talk but in reply to one of my ideas Sean said, “I’m missing a little information here.”
Another beaut of an understatement.
FD:In Search of Captain Zero was your second book. How did Cosmic Banditos, your first book, the rights to which were bought by John Cusack, come about?
AW: I wanted to write about my smuggling antics and one day in 1983 I started doodling in one of my notebooks (I wrote in longhand for the first ten years). Suddenly I was writing a scene in prose – as opposed to a screenplay preliminary outline, which I thought I was doing – about a guy holed up in the jungle in South America, on the run from the law. Then there was a dog hiding out with him (dogs have surfaced as a motif in my writing) and a full-blown bandito named Jose – based on the “We don’t need no stinking badges!” guy from Treasure of Sierra Madre. Then out of the blue José was mugging a physicist and his family…
The title Cosmic Banditos popped into my head and I was off and running. A goofball comedy about a search for The Meaning of Life. Wrote the book in about five weeks, with no outline or plan whatsoever. I was writing these bizarre story turns that somehow paid off later, but with no plan, no outline, no nothing. Writing like that is not supposed to work. I should have taken the hint that I should have been writing from the inside, as it were, writing what I wanted to write, what I needed to write. But I kept taking screenwriting assignments that I had no interest in. I was whoring, writing for the money and for the “hat” of being a Hollywood screenwriter.
Anyway, it took me a long time, but I finally figured out I was wasting whatever talent and creative energy I had, so I bolted the biz, sold or chucked all my useless shit, loaded my surfboards and dog into a pick up truck/camper and hit the road for Central America, my loose goal being to track down an old cohort from my smuggling days who’d disappeared down there in the early 1990s. I had no plans to return, and almost didn’t.
FD: Which became In Search of Captain Zero.
AW: Right. The book comes out and next thing I know I’m talking to Sean Penn about making a movie from a book he had not read. In other words, H-wood was back on my case, with a surreal vengeance as it turned out.
What was that line in Godfather III? Michael Corleone talking about the mafia… “I thought I was out, but they keep sucking me back in.”