Friday, December 26, 2008

Carver Country, Part 2

I sent Raymond Carver a VHS copy of the film but didn’t hear back from him. Maybe he was just busy. I didn’t want to contact him again and be further disappointed with no response. I also didn’t want to hear that he hated my film or was in some way offended by it. I decided not to agonize over what the silence represented.

During the winter of ‘88 I went to work in Manhattan on a low budget feature film called On The Make. I was a second assistant film editor and, later, assistant sound editor. There were a few interns working on the editing of On The Make. One of the interns was a film student working on his senior thesis film. It turned out that he had based his film on a Raymond Carver story. Not only that, he had also chosen "Why Don’t You Dance." It was beyond coincidence that two guys working together on some random B-movie editing in the dank bowels of Ross-Gaffney Editorial on 46th Street would choose the same short story to adapt. I had to ignore any higher implications beyond serving to remind me that my own finished film sat languishing in a film can in my bedroom closet.

We compared notes. He was shooting on video; I had shot mine with an Arriflex 16BL film camera. His rough cut clocked in at 20 minutes; my finished film time was 6 and a half. I had received permission from the author to adapt it, he hadn’t. I had cast my sister and her future husband; he had cast Eszter Balint, the actress best known for starring in the Jim Jarmusch film Stranger than Paradise.

But I had a finished film. And with other students nipping at my heels, I needed to take action. My next step was to find out who represented Raymond Carver to try to obtain commercial film rights to this story. It didn’t take much digging: she was a maverick agent representing many of the younger, exciting authors of the eighties: Donna Tartt, Bret Easton Ellis, Mona Simpson, and Jay McInerney, as well as Richard Ford, Toni Morrison, and Cormac McCarthy. Her name was Amanda Urban. Nickname: Binky. She was often mentioned when one of her authors was written about.

She worked at ICM, one of the largest and most powerful agencies in the country. I called her New York office on a weekday morning from the On The Make edit suite. An assistant answered, asking who I was and what this was in regards to. I gave my info and was told that Amanda Binky Urban was not in and that I should call back that afternoon. I called back later that day and I left my information again.

“I’ll give her the message,” the assistant told me.

I was beginning to be the fly in Binky’s appointment book. She would eventually have to talk to me. I called again the next day and left a message. That afternoon, after I returned from lunch, the assistant film editor told me Amanda Urban had called. I immediately called her office back. After being on hold for a minute, Binky came on the line.

“Hello?” she said.

“Hello, is this Amanda Urban?” I said.

“Yes. What is it?”

It took me a couple seconds to register that I was talking to the woman I’d been trying to contact for the past few days. I shook it off and said, “I’ve been trying to reach you regarding the film rights to a Raymond Carver story. I’m a film student and he gave me permission to adapt 'Why Don’t You Dance.'"

“He did.”


“But not commercially.”

“Right. That’s why I’m calling—” I should have just laid it out in black and white: I’m calling because I need your blessing so I can sell this puppy to cable or some late-night special on NBC. To be honest, I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do with it. It was my calling card, but I wanted it to have a life beyond an erstwhile film student’s reel.

“Oh no. No. All those stories are sold.”

“So nothing can be done commercially with…”

“Correct. Is that all?” She was not interested in helping me with the rest of my problems that day, but only in ending this non money-making conversation.

I said no, and hung up.

That’s an approximation of our conversation. I had my answer: Raymond Carver, or rather his agent, had sold the rights to his stories. At least to "Why Don’t You Dance." I wondered who else wanted to make this into a film. How many filmmakers had the same idea? And why weren’t we just writing our own stories?

I continued work on On The Make through July of 1988. My last week of work was the first week of August. I was living in Fairfield, Connecticut and commuting into Grand Central on the Metro-North commuter rail. Each morning while waiting for the train I bought a medium regular coffee and a glazed donut at the Dunkin’ Donuts kiosk on the platform. Occasionally I bought the New York Times.

One morning after boarding the train I sat sipping my coffee, reading the paper, and about half-way into the city (probably around Cos Cob) I came across an obituary for Raymond Carver. He had died of cancer on August 2nd. He was 50.

Urban had sold many of his stories to filmmaker Robert Altman, who went on to direct Short Cuts. It was a long and difficult film to watch. Nothing joyful about it. The characters were unlikable, ditsy, and in many ways, mean. Carver wrote about hard-working people. Smart people with problems making stupid choices. In Short Cuts, Altman chose to connect these stories, letting his actors traipse around Los Angeles (anti Carver country), acting like shrieking morons in perpetual arrested development. Would Carver have wanted this?

A search of Raymond Carver on the online Hollywood database IMDb reveals that, in 1988, a short film called They Haven’t Seen This was directed by the screenwriter of The Elephant Man and Frances. It was based on "Why Don’t You Dance." 1988 was a big year for that story. Many of Carver’s stories have been adapted, some in other countries (Nos veremos mañana and C'était le chien d'Eddy anyone?), and many after Carver’s death, including "So Much Water So Close to Home" and "Cathedral."

I had wanted to use Carver’s story because it was visual, short, a little weird, and, to me at the time, straightforward. He was just being nice when he gave me his permission. He was probably flattered that someone out there, especially a student, liked his story enough to commit time and money to adapt it. I’ll never know if he ever saw it. At six and a half minutes I tried to achieve the story’s simplicity. Carver may not have agreed. But, at three hours, I don’t think Short Cuts was what he had in mind either. Upon rereading I see how rich his stories were.

In the end, my film’s biggest achievement was that it was finished. If Carver did see it, along with the other short films based on his work made before his death, I hope he appreciated mine if only for its brevity and economy.


Cynthia Sherrick said...

It's a fine achievement to finish an ambitious project like a film --student or otherwise. Congrats to you and your crew!
Thank you for letting me be part of your projects. I was proud to be in both your films. :)

Dell Smith said...

Well, both films were great experiences. I'm glad I had family around me when I shot the films; made it easier.

Robin said...

Hi Dell -- I remember seeing your student film on a late-night cable station many years ago, so it did have a second life! I think the back story to its making is so interesting and poignant, too, because of Raymond Carver's untimely death at age 50.

Liz's Mom said...

This story is very touching.
It is also interesting and well told.

Dell Smith said...

Hi Robin. I used to have a vhs of that late-night interview. Yeah, it was on a show called Nightshift. Channel 5 in the Boston area. They showed it at, like, 3 in the morning. You're not the only person who actually saw it. Strange. Maybe I should youtube myself and see what comes up...
Hi Liz's Mom. Thanks for reading.