The Crack of Dawn
The Crack of Dawn
I moved to Hollywood in July, 1976, America’s bicentennial, a month shy of my eighteenth birthday. I got an apartment at 666 N. Van Ness, kitty-cornered from Paramount Pictures, for $65 a month, including utilities. I purchased 1,000 pages of typing paper and vowed to type all over every page, which I proceeded to do.
A couple of buildings down from me was an old apartment building similar to mine that had a cracked plaster plaque on the wall. It was a bas relief of Jack London in profile wearing a sailor’s cap with a pipe in his mouth. The inscription read: “Jack London, world-famous novelist, journalist, short story writer, adventurer, war correspondent, and photoplay scenario writer, lived in this house during the 1914 production of William Selig’s motion picture version of The Sea Wolf.”
A year later I had indeed typed all over those 1,000 pages. I had started writing many screenplays with enthusiasm and great intention, and fizzled out on all of them, except one. It was about a Civil War veteran who goes to Africa on a hunting safari called The Prey. Having no clue how to write a screenplay, I wrote in every camera angle – MEDIUM LONG SHOT, GORILLA, TILTED, TRACKING SLOWLY TO AN EXTREME CLOSE-UP OF . . . When it was done it was about 60-pages long, mostly in caps, had almost no dialogue, and didn’t look like any screenplay I subsequently found in the Hollywood library. The key word here is subsequently. I wrote the script first, then did my research. If nothing else, I learned that research comes first.
I then attempted to adapt Kurt Vonnegut’s book, Mother Night, into a screenplay and had absolutely no idea what I was doing. When it was finally made into a movie twenty years later, they had no idea what they were doing either.
I did write several short stories, all of which were rejected by Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Analog Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Playboy, of course, because they paid the most. And yes, I still have all of the form rejection letters, one with Hitchcock’s logo.
I also wrote a lot of poetry that’s really the best stuff I wrote during that year. However, having now actually read several screenplays, as well as a couple of books on screenwriting, I understood the form.
So, I wrote an 18-page screenplay called The Final Round with the intention of actually shooting it in Super-8. Here was my conundrum: shoot it in Hollywood or shoot it in Detroit?
At that point I had made several early, bumbling Super-8 movies in Detroit, and I’d worked with Sam Raimi who lived around the block. I had made a couple more movies in Hollywood and found that Super-8 was not taken seriously there at all. Mention of Super-8 brought scorn. Both of my L.A. Super-8 productions had gone poorly.
What to do? I was eighteen years old. Everything seemed incredibly important. What if I made the wrong decision? I might fuck up my whole life, and what would I do then?
So there I was, seated on the toilet at my cousin Eric’s house in Bel Air. Among the many Charlie Brown paperbacks was a hardcover Time-Life book called The Alaskan Wilderness. As I looked at the pictures of Alaska I thought of the Jack London plaque. Adventurer. Jack London had gone on the Yukon gold rush in 1896. Many of his stories were set in the Yukon, like his book, Call of the Wild.
And I felt like the universe was telling me something. Go to Alaska. If I went to Alaska, I’d go through Dawson City, Yukon, where Jack London lived for a while, but I’d also go through Whitehorse, Yukon, where Robert W. Service, who wrote my favorite poem, The Cremation of Sam Magee, had a cabin. It all made sense. How could I possibly write if I’d never done anything? Yes, getting a GED, graduating high school two years early, and moving to Hollywood was slightly bold, in a rather common sort of way; but it wasn’t goldmining in the Klondike, and having to cremate your best friend, or mushing a dog-sled, or building fires under snowy trees. I’d spent a year predominately locked in a tiny apartment wrestling with screenplay form, story structure, and the English language. That was fine, but now I had to live. There was no gold rush, but hitchhiking had so far proven exciting. Nobody else was talking about hitchhiking to Alaska from L.A., which was a straight shot north, over an historically famous road, the Al-Can Highway, a 2,000-mile dirt road across British Columbia, the Yukon Territory, and into Alaska, built by black U.S. soldiers during WWII because the army didn’t know what else to do with them, and wouldn’t let them fight. There’s a wonderful PBS documentary about it. None of these Canadian people had ever seen a black person before . . . and were very nice to them. It’s a good story.
Therefore, I had a plan. I’d pack all my shit in my Mazda rotary wagon, park it in my buddy’s backyard on Lanewood St. in Hollywood, and hitchhike to Alaska. That was my whole plan. I figured it would take me a few weeks to get to Alaska. I mean, hell, it’s about 3,000 miles, the length of the United States.
I see it’s 6:00 AM. I opened my shade, and alas it is still night.
I have no doubt that a fresh new day will soon follow.