Ted Denenberg hadn’t wanted to take this meeting. He had all the ideas he needed. He wasn’t looking.
But a friend of a friend knew his friend, Cohen, who another friend, Freeman, knew from shul (until Cohen stopped going a few months back) and who Freeman thought could be coaxed back into the congregation with the right mix of kindness and business favors.
So Denenberg told the wayward Cohen that he, Ted Denenberg, a man to whom access was a kind of precious currency, would see this so-called “visionary” friend of Cohen’s for a story pitch.
Fifteen minutes was all he could spare. But he would listen. He would.
And now he was having trouble following through of his pledge. The guy was repulsive, Denenberg decided. His hair too long, his jewelry too loud, his voice too confident. He didn’t seem to fully understand that not just anyone got into this office. Your average pisher off the street didn’t walk into Planetary, sit across the desk of a Senior Vice-President, Creative, and blabber on and on about his allegedly brilliant idea for a movie nobody ever saw before.
Every time this clown, this aging hippie, repeated “it’s never been done before,” Denenberg had the impulse to tell him, “There’s a reason for that, you idiot!”
The average person, someone who hadn’t worked in the movie business for 23 years (nine in marketing, fourteen in production and creative), they didn’t grasp the number one rule in his industry: Don’t ever make something that hasn’t been made before. The idea was to find new ways of doing the same things, not to apply the same ways to a new thing. Why the hell would you want to sell something that you’re not sure people will buy when you can sell them something they’ve already proven they’ll buy?
Why was that not obvious to all the artistes who brought their cinematic fantasies to his conference room?
Denenberg peered at the man across from him, this greasy monkey, pitching hard, preaching with a fervor, as though he really actually genuinely cared about the stories he was trying to sell, as though he were oblivious to their higher use, as a commodity to be refined and packaged and sold to an expectant public who wanted – who needed, Denenberg believed – who needed their distractions.
“Here’s one,” Lenny Wizenberg continued, sensing that the executive across the desk wasn’t enthusiastic about (or even much interested in) what he was saying, despite the static half-smile and periodic nodding that were meant to indicate careful attention. “This would be animation. You know how we look at birds and always marvel at their ability to fly? Well, this movie is from the bird’s point of view: a bird who marvels at humans, at their ability…to walk.” Lenny paused to let the concept sink in. “Everyone tells him he’s nuts, stop dreaming. Just fly like everyone else. But he—“
Denenberg interrupted. “This is – what was the name? With the penguins. Dancing.”
“Well, penguins don’t fly.”
“They don’t dance, either,” Denenberg said. “What else you got?”
“OK. This one’s a comedy, but it’s dark. Maybe Ben Stiller? Jim Carrey?” Lenny hesitated. He didn’t like Mr. Ted Denenberg, despite Larry Cohen’s insistence that he was “good people.” The guy was smarmy. Superior. Another punk in a suit. And he was supposed to be deferential? He was supposed to give away his best ideas to a square-ass drone like him?
“Russell Crowe actually wants to do a comedy,” Denenberg said, amused. “Wants to expand his range.”
“Oh, he’d be good for this,” Lenny said.
“Very good actor,” Lenny said.
“Absolutely.” Hadn’t made money in one of his last seven movies, Denenberg thought, but they kept giving him awards.
“So, then, Russell Crowe is this guy, total nutcase. Insane. Mentally ill, maybe. This crazy dude prophesizes some sort of catastrophe, a natural disaster, maybe – and it occurs. Then he predicts something else, and that happens, too. And soon this mentally ill wacko is anointed, in a way. He develops a strong following –”
Lenny winced. “No, not – I wouldn’t use that word. Negative connotations. And, if you think about it, calling a movement, a new religion, or way of living – calling it a ‘cult’ is what the guys who got their product to the marketplace first do to hang onto their customers.”
“What?” Denenberg glanced at his watch. Five more minutes of annoyance.
“I’m sure Larry Cohen told you I’m one of the leaders.”
“Yes, he told me. Which is why I let – why we’re having this little meeting. Your ideas.” Denenberg made a circular hand motion indicating “go on, go on. Continue.”
“OK. Well, that’s sort of it. Crazy dude, homeless guy gets lucky with a few prophesies and he becomes famous and powerful. And we, the audience, start asking ourselves, hmm, maybe he’s not crazy after all, maybe it’s everyone else! See? That’s it. It’s a comedy.”
“With Russell Crowe.” Denenberg smiled with his lips pursed. “What else?”
Lenny Wizenberg thought about walking out, right then. Right there. Telling this smug motherfucker that the least he could do, the least, would be to give some courtesy and respect. Not deference. Not hero worship. Not – nothing worshipful. No, just some decency, at least as much as he would show to someone who was a member of his club, Denenberg’s cabal of geniuses who decided what movies got made and with whom, and who got to be famous and rich.
But then Lenny thought of Larry Cohen, who made such a big deal out of what a big deal it was to get to see his big deal friend. And Lenny also thought of Doug, who actually came up with half the ideas, including the bird one, and who coached him in how to sell the ideas to a big deal movie executive.
Lenny had suggested that it would be better (wouldn’t it?) if Doug made the pitch, since he seemed to know what he was talking about, possibly after consulting with T-Baby and other entertainment industry insiders.
Doug disagreed. “No. Len,” Doug had said, “you’re in all the magazines. Your photo. Movie people are more interested in projects involving people with buzz. People like you. You bring your buzz with you to the project. It’s more exciting that way. Plus, come on, man, you’re the best salesman ever. Much better than me.”
So it was decided. And now Lenny didn’t want to disappoint his friend.
Doug, though, you had to be careful about. That was a whole different relationship.
So Lenny stayed in his chair and censored his objectionable comments and looked Ted Denenberg in the eyes. “Drama. Pretty serious. But erotic, also. And violent. Sex and violence.” Lenny thought he detected a faint, flickering, glimmer of interest in Denenberg’s round face, an involuntary flaring of the nostrils, which was hard to miss given the size of his nostrils, almond-shaped and cavernous. “A husband – Brad Pitt it could be. Or Tom Hanks. Not Travolta or Cruise.” He didn’t want to work with those people.
“No Scientologists?” Denenberg joked.
“Don’t get me started. Anyway, this husband disappears from his suburban home. But he leaves behind a diary with, like, a catalogue of all his misdeeds. It’s like a confession, for his wife, who he’s too ashamed to face. So she’s reading it, and everything she’s reading about we’re seeing as a flashback, with Brad Pitt or Tom Hanks as the husband. He confesses to an affair with a prostitute – and we see it playing out. Nudity. Then another affair, but this time with someone the wife knows. A business colleague. We see it. Bad enough, but now – uh-oh! – he’s having an affair with someone really close to her, like her best friend, or her sister. Something really upsetting. And remember: We’re seeing all these affairs, how they happened, how they came to be, as she’s reading about them in her suburban kitchen.” Lenny stopped. Denenberg was nodding.
“And?” the arbiter said. “Go on.”
Lenny was taken aback and delighted at what seemed like authentic attention, but tried to disguise his surprise. He sniffed. “Well, so now the wife – and by the way, I’m seeing Michelle Pfeiffer, Renee Russo, someone older, a MILF type – the wife, she’s totally aware now that her husband is not a nice man. Sex addict, cheater — and of course that’s going to be fun to watch. Ticket seller. But wait. Get’s worse. Right? She keeps reading his confessional and now – uh-oh — he’s admitting that his problems go beyond strange pussy, if I can be so crass.”
That was the word, Deneberg thought. This guy was crass. That’s what rubbed him the wrong way. OK. Good. Now he understood, and he felt a little better about the whole situation. And, also, his story was pretty good; in fact, he thought he might have heard it last week. Or he could be getting it confused with a couple of other recent things, and that was a good sign.
Lenny held up both his hands, each with an index finger pointed at the stucco ceiling, which Deneberg had put in when he moved in from across the hall. Lenny looked as though he were measuring a fish. He said, “He’s killing people. The husband is a serial killer. And now his wife is reading his confessions.”
“Huh,” Denenberg grunted.
“Yeah. And of course we see all those played out, too. Raping, killing, going back to his suburban home, washing his hands, and kissing the kids while they sleep, and climbing into bed with the wife. Who has no idea that she’s married to a monster.”
“You don’t have to, if it’s too much,” said Lenny.
“No, it’s fine,” Denenberg said, frowning. It was better than fine. It was excellent, at least according to his Research people. Rape was hot. It got people talking about your movie, and that led to built-up demand. In fact, the closest they could come to an NC-17 while still keeping their R, the better. Maybe some women’s group would do a protest (or they could hire someone to get that started) and the Media would do their marketing for free, publishing soul-searching stories wondering Have We’ve Gone Too Far?, and How Real Is Too Real?
Denenberg felt his heart-rate accelerate, and a subtle vibration in his balls. Rape. He wouldn’t do it, of course. Not that he didn’t have the impulse; all males did, right? The urge to just take what you wanted, removing ‘no’ from the vocabulary. You saw it in nature all the time. But that’s what made him a man of God, a higher being. He wouldn’t do such a thing. Of course not!
But would he like to watch it, vicariously as it were?
Yes. He would, and so would a few million other movie lovers. Especially if it was presented properly, as an unfortunate twist in the plot, so no one could say it was gratuitous. People would watch it.
“Maybe we call it Little Black Book. I don’t know. I don’t really have a title yet,” Lenny admitted.
“Or an ending,” Denenberg joked, warmly, he hoped. Just joshing.
“Oh, no, actually, I do.” Lenny said. “His confession, in the book, the husband claims that he’s going to kill again, that he’s got a sickness he can’t control, and only she, his wife, can stop the killing, so please, he begs her, please bring his book to the authorities, and to the Media, and get a nationwide manhunt started, and an email campaign. Viral marketing, they call it. Make it so there’s no one who doesn’t understand the threat of Brad Pitt, looking like a regular suburban dad with a normal life, of him killing, and killing, and killing –“
“And raping,” Denenberg reminded.
“Killing and raping. Monster on the loose. We could also make the husband a master of disguise…” Lenny pondered. “Anyway, he concludes his confessional book with something like, Don’t let this story go unnoticed. It’s your only chance.”
Denenberg didn’t hide his disgust. “That’s your ending?”
“No,” Lenny snapped, holding up an index finger. “This is the ending: We come to discover that the book is actually just that, a book. A book that the husband is trying to get published.”
Denenberg looked at Wizenberg quizzically.
“A publicity stunt. Brad Pitt, the husband, he understands that the way to get rich, to have a best-seller, is to cause a sensation. Is what you’re selling real? Is it honest? That doesn’t matter. That’s not the question. The question is, Can you get jillions of people to pay attention to your product? Can you cut through all the noise and be heard? I mean, obviously, you know something about that concept,” Lenny said, guffawing. “And so do I, you might say.”
“I don’t know,” Ted Denenberg said, uncomfortable and disconsolate, wondering how he was going to get the freak and his idiotic ideas out of his office without causing too much fuss.
“But this being the movies, there’s a twist,” Lenny said, tilting his head portentously. “A zinger.” He paused. Denenberg said nothing.
Lenny continued, “Right at the end, after the family is celebrating their new fame and fortune and celebrity, and just when the wife is congratulating her husband for his cleverness and ingeniousness and all that, she discovers in his sock drawer, or something, or in the garage. Wherever. It doesn’t matter. She finds…a collection of women’s panties. Blood-stained panties. Just like in the book.”
“So he did it,” said Denenberg.
“Maybe. Probably. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. Probably he did. But maybe it’s all part of his radical marketing concept.”
Lenny nodded. “See, everyone wants to sell their customers certainty. I’ve built my business around uncertainty. We embrace it.”
“I think it should be pretty clear that he did it,” Denenberg said.
“OK. You’re the expert. I just sort of like the little thought in the back of your head that won’t go away, the thought that, wow, maybe this dude is just some kind of amazing marketing genius playing his wife and the publishing business and all of us sitting in a movie theater with our popcorn and soda, willing to do anything, doing whatever it takes, to have a hit. A best-seller. To make it.”
Ted Denenberg looked at the photos on his desk, his two boys, his wife. He scratched his chin. He closed his eyes. When he opened them, they were faintly moist, glistening.
“It’s OK,” Lenny said, reassuringly. “It’s cool.”
“I have allergies.”
Lenny said, “I understand. We all do.”