A Cold Childhood
And what can I tell you my brother, my killer
What can I possibly say?
I guess that I miss you, I guess I forgive you
I'm glad you stood in my way.
- Leonard Cohen, “Famous Blue Raincoat”
When I think of my childhood, I see my father standing beside a big white truck with red lettering, and a sizeable dent above the front right tire where I had run my bike into one summer afternoon. On either side of the truck was written his original slogan, “If you can dream it, we can build it,” and as a result of this truck sitting in my driveway every day, I burned those words into my conscience so much so, that I grew up believing all of my dreams would come true.
Oscar Samuels was a man who burned his chest hairs with a cigar. It was a habit known best by the white plastic lounge chair in our backyard that had a sunken middle from carrying his weight, and and a smell of smoke from all their nights together. With a cigar in hand, my father would lay there on warm or snowy nights taking a long puff before toasting his chest hairs with an amber foot.
What I remember most about dad is the sound of his car. You know that feeling you get when you hear someone’s car coming closer and closer? There’s a moment when they’re not too far away, you ask yourself if it’s really them. You just have to be sure. And then you hear the gravel crackling like popcorn and you know they’re home. Your heart races as you wait for the knob to twist like the cap of a medicine bottle, clicking lightly and steadily as it gives way to the rust beneath its belly.
My sisters and I waited like this for dad everyday and as soon as he stepped inside the house, we'd run into his arms as grocery bags and fire logs tumbled to the floor.
When money wasn't too tight, he'd bring home a video from the used movie store near his office. I never cared which one, although my sisters were much more picky. Nevertheless, we all sat there- my mom, dad, sisters and me on a blue couch infront of the fire and we listened to sound of the tape rewinding until it went "click." Then we stared at the screen for hours until our bellies were full of popcorn and our heads full of dreams.
Winnipeg, Manitoba was a cold but peaceful place to raise a family. Temperatures got so low in the winter that you were lucky if you could feel half your body on a warm day. My dad’s business truck was frozen stiff most mornings. My sister Jen and I woke up early to pour buckets of cold water over the doors until they finally defrosted, and then we waited another hour for the engine to start running. Dad would drive off to work and we would all pray the tires would survive the icy streets and he wouldn’t die with his hands frozen to the wheel like our late neighbour, Eugene. But every so often, dad couldn’t drive off. His tires would be frozen to the driveway. That’s when he’d call me out of the house and the two of us would shake the truck back and forth until it came loose. It was one of our favourite past times. After saying goodbye to dad, mom would send me off to school wrapped so tightly in a parka, complete with snow pants, a toque and shall, that neighbors confused me for a girl.
“There goes Jen and her beautiful older sister,” they would shout from their porch. Jen would have defended me but her lips were glued together with ice.
We walked like robots down the street with the taste of cod liver oil in our mouths, and the wind beating against our faces so badly that we wondered if our eyes would freeze shut if we dared to blink.
There's not much more to say about my childhood because it was cut short. But what I really came here to talk to you about is my screenplay, The Enchanted Igloo.
It's about these two kids who run away from their suburban home to the Northwest Territories to live in one of the most remote, sparsely settled regions in the world. They're trying to escape growing up and they've got this crazy idea that living in isolation without adults will allow them to be children forever. When they first arrive, they build an igloo for shelter. It turns out the igloo has some strange superpowers - it cooks, cleans and tucks them in at night. But as the igloo’s magical powers slowly start to wear off, the children realise that they haven’t learned how to care for themselves and their chances of surviving in the Arctic begin to look grim.
The first person I showed The Enchanted Igloo to was my dad. He had tears in his eyes as he read it and he said it was because he was just so proud of me, but I knew that it was the story itself that got to him. It was one of those stories that could make you cry. He was so inspired by it that he went out that night and brought me home my first camcorder.
“What’s this for?” I cried when I saw the box.
“It’s for you to film your movie,” he smiled, “But first, I’d like an interview with the director.”
We set up a pretend stage in the family room. Dad and I sat on either sides of the fireplace while my sisters and mom sat on kitchen chairs in the audience.
“Welcome to Inside the Actor’s Studio with James Lipton,” dad said in a funny voice, “Thirteen years old. Author of a dozen short stories and two volumes of poetry. Creator of many things, including an innovative cheese sauce to eat with your macaroni. But his latest project will WOW you all, as he’s just written his very first screenplay to be directed and produced by none other than himself. Please welcome, Ryan Samuels.”
My introduction received a standing ovation from the crowd. I bowed to them before taking my seat.
“James Lipton,” I said, reaching out to shake my fathers hand, “Pleasure to meet you.”
“And you, Mr. Samuels. Tell me, is it true that you’re only thirteen years old?”
“If it wasn’t, I’d be at the bar right now,” The audience laughed.
“Your new screenplay, The Enchanted Igloo, is a fascinating tale of a brother and sister who run away from home to escape the inevitable incident of growing up. Have we seen this story before?” It was the first real question that I had been faced with as a screenwriter and I remember choosing my words carefully, emulating what I thought my idol Spielberg might say.
“Maybe we have. Maybe it’s the story of Hansel and Gretel, of Peter Pan. But I don’t see the harm in re-writing it because it’s a story that’s close to everyone’s heart, even you, Mr. Lipton, in your very old age can sympathise with these children.”
Suppressing a smile he asked, “What makes this story different?”
“I suppose it’s the location,” I said, “These children decide to move to the Northwest Territories because they hear in geography class one day that hardly no one lives there and it’s one of the most remote places in the world. I chose the location very carefully. I wanted something dangerous but mystical at the same time and for me, snow has always been a very enchanting thing. I can’t picture my childhood without it, and I feel like, if it were ever to stop snowing or if the snow was taken away from me, that’s when I’d know my childhood was over. I’d be all grown up. Snow is a child’s toy, and they can’t control when it comes or when it goes, or if it melts. They just wait and pray for it all day long and when it comes, the adults complain and they try with their snow blowers and their ploughs to get rid of it. They’ve got snowbrushes to dust it off their cars and shovels to take it off their driveways. An adult is forever trying to get rid of snow, but the children are trying to save it. And that’s what this story is about; it’s a fantasy in many ways. They escape to the snow and build an igloo because they love snow so much, but guess what, the snow loves them back. And it takes care of them until they’re ready to face the next chapter of their lives.”
“Viewers, if you are just joining us from home now, you’ve just missed writer/director Ryan Samuels give some insightful advice on why children refuse to shovel the driveway. Now Ryan, you’re thirteen and the characters in this movie are only a few years younger. How much of this story is based on your own life?”
“That’s a good question,” I paused to think about it. I hadn’t written the script with myself in mind, not consciously at least, but dad, or James Lipton as he was that day, was right. There were many similarities between the children and myself.
“Well I guess I can say that to some extent, I am those children. But I’m also the igloo.” James Lipton was speechless. I looked to the audience and my mother was wiping her eyes. Like I said, it was one of those stories that could make you cry.
I started filming The Enchanted Igloo the day after my interview with James Lipton. The first few scenes were shot around my neighbourhood, but when it came time for the big igloo scene, I needed to find somewhere remote. I decided on the park behind our school. We had received over fifteen centimeters of snow overnight so the field was a perfect canvas for our Arctic journey. Jen, Julie and I started to build the igloo around noon and we worked as fast as we could because we had to finish the scene by dark. Finally, around five P.M, the igloo was complete and I was ready to start shooting.
Before I could get very far, Mark and Leo Hayes emerged out of nowhere. They were a pair of evil brothers who we went to school with, and they were always picking on me. Once they tied me to a stop sign with duct tape during a snowstorm and left me for dead. I knew something terrible was about to happen as soon as I laid eyes on them that evening, but my sisters, always thinking the best of everyone, were less convinced.
“Hi Leo, hi Mark,” little Julie greeted them, “We just built this big igloo! Isn’t it cool?”
“It’s impressive,” said Leo, sizing up our igloo with his eyes, “Only a loser with too much time on his hands would be able to build that in one day,” he walked towards me.
“We all helped,” Jen cried, “And he isn’t a loser! If you don’t have anything nice to say then get lost!”
“Did you hear that, Mark? Jenny doesn’t like us very much.”
“Well I don’t like THIS very much,” Leo said as he started kicking at our igloo. My sisters cried out in vain as the Hayes brother destroyed our igloo. I grabbed my tripod and secured the camcorder around my neck, then I reached for Jen’s hand and she grabbed Julie’s, and we ran as fast as we could out of that park. Mark and Leo didn’t bother chasing us, they just stood there over at the broken igloo, screaming with laughter and destroying every last bit of pride I had left.
I never did finish filming that movie, in fact I quit filming altogether after the igloo incident, but it had nothing to do with the Hayes brothers. When we arrived home that evening, dad wasn't in his usual white lounge chair. Instead, he was sitting on the stairs by the doorway - a scene completely unfamiliar to me. He rose slowly to his feet and without so much as a hello, asked us all to sit down.
We followed him into the living room and the three of us kids sat on the big couch. Dad stood stiffly in the hallway, avoiding eye contact.
“I’m not very good at these things,” he began.
All I can tell you next is what he told me, so I apologise for sparing any detail you may have been hoping for.
It was cancer.
We were moving to the states tomorrow to get her some treatment.
Kevin was only a baby but he would be alright.
She’s feeling positive.
We flew out the following morning to Inglewood, California where we stayed in a hotel until dad found us a house. Mom tested a new cancer drug for six months and it seemed to be working, but then they put her on a different treatment and she started to deteriorate again. The doctors said she was lucky to have survived those two extra years, but I saw how much she suffered and I’m not sure they were right.
One December evening, a couple nights before she passed, I laid beside her in the hospital bed, remembering our short time together and mourning my childhood as it came to an end.
“What am I going to do without you?” I asked.
She couldn't reply. She couldn't even remember my name, in fact she called me Julie. I tried not to resent her for it, but it brings little comfort thinking she died not knowing who I was.
And that was my childhood - cold and comfortless. So trust me, no matter what they tell you, all the good and all the beauty you could ever know, is wiped clean when winter comes.
The Tinseltown Garbage Man
15 Years Later…
If you wanna know what the Hollywood sign looks like up close and personal, it looks like a bunch of giant candles stuck in a black forest cake. I don’t know how we ever arrived at such an insipid image. Here was the sign that was supposed to stand for the American Dream, the hopes of every young person of becoming rich and famous and beautiful. The hopes of every artist, every writer, every actor to one day make it big. The hopes of an industry to win over the hearts of the entire world. You could make a cardboard cutout from the back of a cereal box and it would look more appealing than the actual Hollywood sign.
Needless to say I was disappointed the first time I laid eyes on it. I don’t know what I was expecting, something organic I suppose. The more I saw it, the angrier I became at myself for buying into the images and desires conjured by the very word, “Hollywood”. All I wanted was for my story to be told, but I never considered the cost until I saw that phoney sign stabbed into the hills, with each letter resting against a panel of white bars as if concealing a prison cell. This was the symbol of the entertainment industry that I aspired to be part of.
The Ugly Yellow is the kind of story that if you knew what it was about, you just wouldn't read it. That's why it would make a terrible novel.
But it made for a great screenplay. At the heart of it is Dr. Salvitore Nemensth, a world-renowned psychologist who runs a psychiatric institution that transforms crazy and deformed people in to beautiful, lavish celebrities. He lives by the philosophy that insanity is an essential element to stardom, for the world revels in stories about others’ misfortunes, and insanity is perhaps the greatest misfortune of all. What could possibly be worse than losing ones mind, he argues? But you can’t just walk up to his facility, he has to recruit you. He only takes the cream of the crop, the craziest of the crazy. Not everyone can be given the ultimate second chance.
I'm not all that proud of how I came up with it, laying on a pale grey couch in my doctor's office, awaiting treatment for my anxieties.
"You've got a lot of feelings bottled up," he said, typing notes about me into his computer and printing out a prescription for some drug that I couldn't pronounce, "You ought to do something with all of those feelings."
You know when Christmas dinner is over, and you look at all the leftovers thinking about what a shame it is to throw them out? Turkey bones, roasted vegetables, stuffing... You've got the makings of something great but they're wasting away on the table. I got the sense that's what my doctor was talking about.
The medication he gave me was alright but it wore off after a few hours. The thing about anxiety is it won't go away until you do something with it. So I took all the things I was worried about, and all the things I was scared of like people dying and losing my hair and getting eaten by a shark even though I don't swim... And I started writing, late at night, when there was nothing else to keep me awake but all of my fears.
I still get chills when I read the script. It is haunting and sensitive and sad all at once. I couldn’t separate myself from it for the longest time. I would think about it all day long and dream of it in my sleep. Dr. Nemensth became like a voice in my head, begging me to sell the script so he could start his work. Unfortunately, it wasn’t that easy. I knew I had created a blockbuster but the trouble was, I didn’t know what to do with it. Here was this whole new world that I gave life to, and now I was responsible for its fate. It was a lot to handle and I wasn’t ready for success or stardom. Failure was the only thing I could deal with, it just meant you had to try again. But with fame came the end. There was no going back once you made it, and living in California made me see this. People had so many expectations in Hollywood. You couldn’t just be good, you had to be great. And once they let you in, you weren’t allowed to let them down.
“It’ll be worth it,” Dr. Nemensth hissed, “We’re going to make them famous.”
The film industry was a name-dropping, social elite, man-eat-man kind of business, which basically meant you had to know someone in order to get in. Fortunately for me, I had one connection.
When my family first moved to California fifteen years ago, we didn’t know a soul. I wasn’t interested in meeting anyone because I heard that Americans were rude and Californians, in particular, had a reputation for being superficial and egotistical. Despite my every attempt to ignore people, there was a pudgy kid who lived across the street from us. I pretended not to notice him, but one day he came knocking on our door.
“Good morning, Mr. Samuels. My name is Raymond Ross and I live across the street. I noticed your son is around my age, and I was wondering if he would like me to show him around.”
“That sounds lovely,” dad said. I hid in a corner waving my hands back and forth to express my displeasure in the idea.
“Oh, uh, Ross,”
“Raymond,” the boy corrected.
“Right. Ross Raymond,”
“It’s actually Raymond Ross,” he said with a smile on his face. Dad was starting to get frustrated.
“Raymond Ross! Ryan isn’t home right now. Maybe come back tomorrow.”
“I sure will!” Raymond Ross chimed, and then he skipped on home. Understandingly, I gave my father a hard time for encouraging him to come back,
“Why would you even suggest it?” I complained, “You should have said I moved out or something. You don’t have a son named Ryan! He must have been seeing things! Any of those alternatives would have been better than, “Come back tomorrow!” What were you thinking?”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” he said sarcastically, “I guess I was thinking that my son would like to have a friend, someone to spend time with instead of sitting in his room alone all day!”
“I don’t have time for friends.”
“Everyone has time for friends,” dad said before walking away.
I ignored Raymond Ross for the first month of living in Inglewood and it wasn’t hard to do because I never left my house. My parents decided to homeschool me so I could spend more time with mom while she was sick. That’s another reason why I didn’t want the burden of having friends because then I’d have to let them come over and they’d see how sick mom was. She wanted everyone to keep her illness a secret because she hated getting sympathy. Unfortunately, Mrs. Ross found out somehow and she kept sending us food, every day for a couple weeks. She also sent flowers. It made mom so sad,
“Why is she sending flowers already? I’m not dead yet.”
One night dad gave me twenty bucks and told me to go to the theatre. I refused to leave the house. Mom and I were having a Star Wars marathon and there wasn’t anything at the cinema that I wanted to see. I complained so much that he offered me thirty dollars.
“I don’t know why you want to get rid of me so bad, but it’s gonna take a lot more than that,” I bargained. In the end, he gave me fifty.
Even though he seemed to be throwing his money away that night, my dad always taught me how to be frugal. If I went to the big theatre at the mall and saw a new release it would cost me six bucks, so I went to the Lincoln Theatre instead, which was this run down newspaper building that they turned into a “dollar” theatre. Dollar theatres were becoming obsolete, which was a shame for families like mine who didn’t have a tonne of money. What they did was they played movies that had been out of the regular theatres for a couple months, but weren’t yet available for retail sale. And because they were so old, they were able to only charge a dollar for admission.
The 70th Academy Awards had just finished and James’ Cameron’s Titanic wiped them out with eleven wins out of fourteen nominations. I had yet to see the elusive film since I was too preoccupied at home, so I was ecstatic to see that the Lincoln Theatre was showing it that night. I bought my ticket and waited in line at the concession stand for some popcorn.
“Hey buddy, what movie are you going to see?” I recognised the voice from my hallway. It was Raymond Ross. I couldn’t hide from him anymore.
“Oh, hey there. Fancy seeing you here,” The uncomfortable thought occurred that he may have stalked me.
“I come here every Friday night. How else would I spend my allowance? What size popcorn should we get? I think the large is the best value. Or we could order the family deal: Two large cokes and an extra large popcorn for ten bucks. That’s only five dollars each. What do you say?”
As always, I couldn’t say no to a deal. We sat in top row of the theatre, eating our jumbo popcorn and watching the epic disaster/romance film unfold before our eyes. Three hours later, we watched as the sold-out theatre left broken hearted: half from the fact that their legs and buttocks had fallen asleep, and the other half depressed that they killed off Leo’s character. I heard a lady whining to her friend, “Why did they have to kill Jack Dawson? He was so lovely. James Cameron just has to spoil everything!” Raymond, being his overly-friendly, eavesdropping self just had to get his two cents in,
“I know,” he interrupted, “So much for a happy ending!”
As we headed home, Raymond asked me what I thought of the movie and if, in particular, I think the ship should have sank. Annoyed by his ignorance, I couldn’t help but use his frankly stupid remark as an excuse to scream in his face for a solid minute or two,
“What do I think? I think that obviously some people in the audience, yourself included, are blissfully unaware that it was based on the real RMS Titanic, which collided with an iceberg and sank, killing over 1,500 people in one of the deadliest maritime disasters in modern history. What do I think? I think you shouldn’t be waiting on a sequel!” Raymond scratched his head for a minute.
“Sounds like you liked it,” he said.
“It was okay.”
When I got home, I went to tell mom my verdict on the eleven-time Academy Award winning movie. Her hair had all been shaved off.
Raymond proved a good distraction for me in the years that followed. He was there for me when my mother was dying, he was there for her death and long after she passed. He also became my biggest fan. He read everything that I wrote although he wasn’t the greatest at giving criticism, because everything I did in his eyes was perfect. Soon after we met, Ray went into business with his father and became a garbage man. The company grew to be very successful and it was the most trusted garbage collection amongst the stars. One of his regular routes featured a very rich, gated community, where several famous actors were rumoured to live.
One night in late September, Raymond stopped by my place after his shift with a kid-in-the-candy store grin.
“What’s that smile for, old pal?”
“Buddy, today is your lucky day. From this moment on, you’re going to owe me for the rest of your life.”
“What’s so lucky about that?” I wondered. He took a card out of his pocket and said, “James Cameron. I have James Cameron’s business card.”
I held it in my hands for what felt like hours, with my mouth wide open, waiting to wake up from the dream.
“It was sitting on a curb outside a huge estate, I heard Rachel Leah Cook lives there. You know, the girl from She’s All That.” I nodded my head, it was a pretty good movie.
“I wonder why she threw it out?” Ray asked.
“That’s not important, pal. Look at this!” I jumped out of my chair and shoved the card in his face, “This is fate! I’ve gotta call James Cameron!”
We didn’t know where to begin. Neither of us had any experience in phoning celebrities, but we assumed there were guidelines, a certain etiquette fit for the rich. I practiced throwing my voice for hours, trying to sound important.
“Alec Baldwin, pretend you’re Baldwin!” Raymond shouted.
“Hello,” I said in my deepest voice, “I wish to speak with Mr. Cameron. Who am I? I’m Alec fucking Baldwin, how could you not know that? Yes, I’m pouting my lips as we speak.”
“No, no, do Donald Trump!”
“James Cameron, I’ve got something for you and it’s going to be ‘uge! That’s right, ‘uge!”
The imitations took the pressure off of me for a while, but the second I sopped pretending to be everyone else, I was left with a feeling of sheer hopelessness. I was stuck with myself, this was who had to call James Cameron- not Alec Baldwin, not Donald Trump, none of those confident, likeable people. Just me.
“Raymond, what if he doesn’t like the sound of my voice?” he was sitting on a beanbag chair with the cordless phone in his hand, eagerly waiting for me to call.
“What a silly thing to worry about,” he said, “Besides, it’s not your voice that he’s after. It’s your writing.”
“But my writing has a voice too. What if he doesn’t like that voice? What if he doesn’t like the way I sound or the way I write? Or worse, what if he so despises the way I sound that he refuses to read anything I write? Oh, this is a disaster. Let me keep practicing. I have to change my voice, surely I can sound better!”
Then Raymond gave me some advice that sounded like it came right out of a Dr. Seuss book, but somehow, it always stuck with me. He said,
“Some things about yourself you can’t change. If you could, you wouldn’t be you.”
So I picked up my phone and I called him, and when he answered, I said in my own voice,
“Hello, Mr. Cameron? This is Ryan Samuels calling. I have this script that I think you would just love. I mean, it’s a masterpiece.”
“I think sometimes that if I were only well enough to write a little it would relieve the press of ideas and rest me.” Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper
The first thing James wanted to know was how I got his number. The second was what did I think of Titanic.
In a word, I liked it, and that was more than I could say for most of the films that year: My Best Friends Wedding, Men in Black, Flubber, for god’s sake. I liked it, but I didn’t love it. I loved Spielberg’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park. Now that was a movie!
Unfortunately, there’s an unwritten code in Hollywood that says you should kiss whoever’s ass you want to work with, but I could tell right away that James Cameron wasn't the kind of person who wanted his ass kissed. One look at this guy and you could tell he welcomed the truth; he thirsted for it. He reminded me of Tyler Durden from Fight Club; an unreliable narrator trapped in this impulsive, seductive shell. Instigating fights, sabotaging companies... Never certain whether he was the protagonist or antagonist. But who's to say my first impression was worth anything? It's just a hinge I got.
“So what didn't you love about it?" he asked, rising from his desk without lifting his eyes off me, "Was it the casting? Was it Leo? Did you hate Leo?”
Yes, I hated Leo. I hated him in What's Eating Gilbert Grape and every other subsequent role he's had. But that's not what irked me most about Titanic.
“It was more the directing,” I admitted, squirming in my seat. Maybe I had gone too far. Surely honesty has its limits? But why should I care if I've made him uncomfortable? I'm the one who had no sooner stepped foot in his office than was interrogated about Titanic, as if I had just fumbled through his door on my way out of the theatre.
“You do know I directed the entire screenplay myself?” He said, unamused.
“Yes, I know. And it was very well done.”
“But it could have been better, is that what you’re saying?”
“I’m not sure that you could have directed it any better, I think you did the best that you could…But one can’t help but wonder if it could have been improved upon, had, say, Spielberg directed it.”
At this Cameron cracked a smile, the kind that suggests wanting to kill someone.
“Ah, Steven Spielberg,” he chuckled, “You know he’s had some of the highest grossing films of all time. Jaws, E.T., Jurassic Park. But do you know what’s in the number one spot today? Hmm?” I cleared my throat,
“That’s right,” he grinned, “And before I made Avatar, it was Titanic that held the spot for twelve years. Twelve whole years, just think about that. Steven Spielberg had twelve years to try and top me, and he couldn’t. Oh but it’s not like he didn’t try, he made plenty of movies. Unfortunately, none of them made as much money as mine. So are you really gonna sit there and tell me that if Steven Spielberg had directed Titanic, it would still be the number one grossing film of all time? Is that the point you’re trying to make here, kid?” He planted his hands firmly on the desk and hunched over me. I remained silent until he relaxed his shoulders and confidently backed away.
“Good. Now listen here. I like Steven Spielberg, I like him a lot, and what’s more is I like you. So let’s just forget you ever made that ridiculous comment and I will ask you again: What didn't you love about it?”
I looked him straight in the eyes and I kissed his ass,
“Nothing, nothing at all sir. It couldn’t have been directed any better.”
The scary thing about James is he didn’t have those expression lines that most people do. You know the veins that pop in your forehead when you’re really angry, or the curves around your cheeks that emerge when you smile? He didn’t even have the wrinkles around your eyes that crepe when you squint because you’re frustrated, or confused or even surprised. For this reason, talking with James was somewhat of a frightening endeavour, as I tried to navigate his expressionless face to gauge his inner thoughts. Because most of what he said, as I was quickly learning, was bullshit.
If you took his word for it, Steven Spielberg had a bad rep in Hollywood, mainly for being unapproachable. At this stage in his reputable career, he was very select with the projects he took on and the people he mingled with. Even when he did find a movie that suited his caliber, he worked mainly behind the scenes, not wishing to interact with actors or producers that were beneath him. If you took James’ word for it, the main difference between the two blockbuster directors was that Spielberg forgot the little people when he reached his astounding fame, whereas Cameron still willingly lived amongst them. I guess the main point of him telling me all of this was so I understood why such a successful man would even take an hour out of his demanding day to talk to a simpleton like me.
“I can tell you really like this Spielberg guy, Ryan, I could tell from the first line of your script that you had written this with him in mind as the director. You’re only in it because of him. He inspired you to write this kind of shit, or whatever. But Spielberg doesn’t give a damn about you, kid. Even if you won an Oscar for this film one day and you stood up and thanked him, if you said he was your hero, he wouldn’t even look at you. He wouldn’t watch the film. He doesn’t give a fuck. But me, I made time for you today. I read your script and I saw potential in it, and now, I’m gonna make a name out of you.”
Everything he said was a threat. He was demanding and cruel and completely self-serving. I struggled to find my voice, to tell him that I’m not sure I wanted to work with such a jealous prick anyway. But this man’s power was riveting. With one single stare from that hard, impassive face, he could get you to sign your life away and suck his dick while you were at it.
“Well then,” he poured himself a glass of scotch, not offering me anything, and said, “let’s get started.”
James’ first major problem with my script was the title, The Ugly Yellow.
“It’s just a colour, you see. I’m not convinced that it’s powerful enough,” he said, running his fingers through my script like a deck of cards.
A lot of people would wonder why I chose that title for the script, and what I meant by it. I felt that it was self-explanatory - yellow is just an ugly colour.
“If it helps you understand, sir, I got the idea of it from a short story called The Yellow Wallpaper. It’s about a woman who goes crazy in a room adorned with yellow wallpaper. Her husband puts her there to try to cure her insanity but she only gets worse.” Cameron looked intrigued.
“Why? Because of the yellow wallpaper?”
“Kind of, yes. But she was also forbidden to write, and it was the only way for her to relieve pressure. Imagine being stuck in a room where your only stimulus is this ugly, yellow wallpaper. You’d go crazy too.”
“But wasn’t she already crazy? Isn’t that why her husband put her there?”
“No, see that’s the whole point of the story. She was never sick to begin with.” Cameron stared pensively at me.
“Ah, I get it,” he smiled.
“It’s like all those celebrities who go to rehab. Everyone gets worse when they’re diagnosed with something.”
“Yes, yes,” he rubbed his chin.
“But what if they didn’t get worse? What if they got better? What if we took some crazy people and put them in an asylum and they came out into the spotlight as a young, beautiful, sought-after celebrity, like Jennifer Lawrence or Emma Stone.”
“I like them,” he muttered.
“They go in there as a crazy person, trapped inside of this room. They’ve got a case of the ugly yellows,”
“The ugly yellows…” he repeated.
“But when Dr. Nemensth is done with them, they’re completely cured. The ugly yellow has turned to gold.” He jumped out of his chair and clapped his hands.
“Gold! I love it! It’s spectacular! It makes me rethink the most simplest things in life, like the meaning of a colour.”
“That’s the idea,” I exclaimed, relieved that for once we were both on the same page.
“Yellow is so revolting,” James said, “Jaundice, dirty fingernails, urine… They’re all yellow.”
“That’s what I’m talking about!” I cheered, “What about Rain Man, 1988, do you remember it? Dustin Hoffman is on the cover wearing an ugly yellow raincoat, and Tom Cruise is walking beside him like an arrogant son of a bitch.”
“Of course I remember,” said Cameron, “Cruise plays the retarded boys brother. How ridiculous. You can’t get a guy like that to play such a sensitive role. Levinson really fucked that one up, but I’ve never been a fan of his anyway.” He pushed himself back in his chair and flapped his hands back and forth against the armrests, as though he were mopping a floor.
“James, I think people will get it, I think they will see by the end of the film what a horrible colour it is. That’s my aim, James, can’t you see it?” Why I decided that it would be okay to start calling him James at that very moment is a mystery but he seemed to be ok with it, as his fingers twirled carelessly through the script, eyes fixed on the table.
“I can see it,” he whispered, “And it makes me feel blessed to not be one of those poor people with a case of the ugly yellows. It makes me feel grateful for all of this… this gold!” He extended his arms outwards. An assortment of impressive awards and trophies were displayed on the shelves behind him. He lit a cigarette and I turned my face as the smoke blew towards me.
“Ok, we’re good with the title. We can keep the title.” I rejoiced under the guise of a simple smile, not wanting Cameron to see that I valued his approval.
“But as always, there are bigger fish to fry. These people that Dr. Nemensth reforms, are they just crazy or just ugly, or both?” James was apparently a very “black and white” kind of person. Either you were good or bad, smart or dumb, in or out, that’s the way he saw you. It bothered me to know that he read my script with those kind of lenses, perhaps overlooking the complexity I wrote into my characters. But there would be time to open his eyes to these sorts of things, I told myself, so long as my patience didn’t run out.
“I’m not sure how to answer that,” I started.
“What kind of bullshit answer is that, you wrote this script, didn’t you?”
“Yes, but I mean it’s not as clear cut as crazy or ugly. You’ve read it yourself, surely you’ve noted that some are absolutely crazy. Others are just told they’re crazy. Some are ugly and crazy. Some are beautiful and crazy. But despite what they look like, they all believe they’re hideous, both inside and out. We can convey this with body dysmorphia in the film.” Somewhere along my explanation, I had lost his interest.
“Make them all ugly and crazy. Make them so ugly that Dr. Nemensth can’t even look at them. Make it so they feel like they can’t look at their own reflection. Make it so they want to die, they’re that ugly. Do you understand?”
I didn’t understand. This was my script. This was my creative integrity that James was stomping all over. How could he demand that I change it? Finally, the voice I had stifled since I told him how I really felt about the Titanic, was back.
“James, I’m fine with you giving me feedback, but I’m not comfortable with you ordering me around.”
“Ordering you around?” he repeated, “Ryan, what did you come here for?”
“Well I suppose I was hoping you would be interested in buying the script.” In an unexpected move, Cameron started laughing. He laughed so hard that he choked on the smoke that he was inhaling and dropped the cigarette on the floor. He put it out with his shoe and lit another one immediately. I stared at the obvious brown spot that was carelessly burnt into the cream carpet.
“So you think that’s how it works, do you? You think people can just walk into a big shot's office at Universal and say, “Here you go, I wrote you something. Now direct it!” That’s what you thought?”
“Well isn’t that kind of how it goes?” I asked timidly.
“NO!” he banged his fist on the desk and ashes from the cigarette lightly scorched my arm. “That’s not how it goes around here. I’m not gonna put my name on something unless I am one hundred percent happy with it. What are the chances that you’ve just brought me something faultless, something I’d be one hundred percent happy with?” I stared at him blankly.
“Here’s a hint: Pretty fucking slim!” I stared down at my hands, desperate to avoid eye contact. I couldn’t understand why the guy was so worked up. What did he think I came here for, to autograph my copy of Titanic?
“But it has potential,” he said as he calmed down and took a seat, “The Ugly Yellow. It’s already claimed a piece of my heart. It’s a condition of the human mind. It’s the American Dream on Xanax. And I will buy it, but on my own terms. That means we’ll need to make some changes before I make you a deal.” I put my pride aside for the moment and was willing to hear him out.
“What kind of changes?”
“Major ones. Character changes, plot changes, the ending. Don’t look so distressed, this is your first script. It’s to be expected.”
“It’s not my first,” I corrected, insulted that he had taken me for an amateur. He looked amused.
“So you’re a professional?” he laughed.
“Look, I’m not saying I’m the greatest but I’m very happy with this script and I’ll agree to some revisions but nothing major. I stand by it, James. It’s perfect.”
“Perfect,” he chuckled, “Maybe if Spielberg had written it?” I stood up and frantically grabbed all of my things. I could handle him undermining me, but not my script.
“Never mind any of this, it was all a big mistake. It’s not going to work.”
I opened the door. He ripped the script from my hands and held it against his chest. Despite his deadpan face, the action itself seemed apologetic, if that was a possible emotion for a man like Cameron.
“Ryan, in this industry, you need to learn how to take a joke or two,” he smiled and gestured towards my empty chair but I wasn’t ready to sit down again.
“Now what did you expect when you came into my office this morning? That I would just buy your script off of you for a billion dollars and that would be it? I’m sorry to burst your bubble, as they say, but Hollywood is a tough place to break into. And I don’t wanna sound harsh, but for a first-time writer, it’s nearly impossible to make it on your own. So what I am going to suggest is that we work together. I’ll co-write, I’ll give you all of my suggestions, we’ll re-write the entire script, and then when we’re both happy with it, I’ll buy you out and direct it.”
“Buy me out? You mean, I won’t have a say in how the movie is made after that?” Cameron laughed.
“I’m sorry, are you also a director?” he asked. I shook my head negatively, “Or if you prefer, you can always go chasing after Spielberg. I’m sure he’d love to direct The Ugly Yellow. Trouble is, no one really knows where to find him these days. He’s seemed to have flown off the radar… So what do you say, sport? Shall we co-write this together or not?”
He extended his hand out to me and I struggled to take it, overcome with a sudden fit of anxiety. It was too much to think about. Standing in a room with James Cameron. Talking about making my movie. Changes to the script. Co-writing. Hollywood. I stood there for a while, just thinking, and when I looked down, I was shaking his hand in a trance.