When I was about to publish my novel, Banned for Life, I had a number of exchanges with Jonathan Evison, whose counsel I sought with regard to promotion, among other matters. He was aware of certain aspects of my past, and he advised me to be forthcoming about them, since to do otherwise, he said, would amount to breaking faith with readers.
Jonathan is a wise man, but I regarded Banned as my child, and so wanted to shield it from the sins of its father. I imagined dismissive reviews based less on the book and more on my rap sheet, as well as sneering remarks posted on message boards. Paranoia? But I’ve been the target of such remarks, and I wanted to give Banned a running start before falling on my sword.
Now, I figure, the time has come. Banned has barely been noticed since it appeared more than six months ago, and I’ve tested the waters with friends made since, and none have responded as feared.
So ready the rotting fruit, as St. Francis of Assisi might have said before stripping in public, and cue the flashback ripple effect, or anyway a row of asterisks.
A little over twenty years ago, I was an actor living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. There weren’t many actors living in Williamsburg at the time, but I considered myself an unusual case: a hip kid (I would never have copped to being a “hipster”), as opposed to my colleagues, who overwhelmingly struck me as squares. The most happening neighborhood in New York was the Lower East Side, and that’s where I was usually found, raising hell with the likes of my friend Morphine, whose nickname owed (I forget how) to his slamdancing days at punk clubs such as A7. I studied with Mira Rostova, a creased but still-beautiful Russian who’d famously coached Montgomery Clift, and did a lot of fringe theater—a far-out staging of Richard II, for instance, in which the actors, cast in multiple roles, carried leather masks to designate which role was being played. You would have to ask the director why we carried the masks instead of wearing them. I never did understand.
One spring night, recovering at home after dropping acid with Morphine, I got a call from a movie director who wanted to know if I could fly immediately to L.A. to star in a Roger Corman movie. I’d appeared in one of the director’s student shorts at NYU, and Corman had given him carte blanche in the casting department. The movie, I was told, had no screenplay, even though production was slated to begin in a couple of days. Corman, the legendary, so-called King of the Bs, was known for rushing projects into production in order to make use of standing sets at his converted-lumberyard studio. No screenplay? Take the weekend to write one and report to the set first thing Monday.
Well, of course I boarded a plane for L.A., where I was met at the airport by a production assistant whose car promptly broke down on the freeway. A symbol of things to come? Yes, it would seem. This was obviously before cell phones, so we hiked till we found a pay phone, after which another production assistant drove us to Roger Corman’s office. I had seen Corman interviewed many times on television, and knew he’d launched, among others, Jack Nicholson and Robert DeNiro. And I hoped to be next. I resolved to have as much input as possible in the way my part was written.
Here I’d like to note that I was a serious, if uncredentialed, student of literature. I read so much, in fact, that one of my exes used to complain that I spent all my money on booze and books, which inconveniently couldn’t be bought at the same locations. At any rate, I left Roger’s office for a Mexican restaurant with the director and the screenwriter, and within a few hours I’d arranged to have the screenwriter fired. He was too plodding, too conventional, and none of his ideas jibed with mine. The director and I collaborated on the screenplay together—or we did before I took over the writing alone. It helped, of course, that Roger liked me. I was told by one of his assistants that I put him in mind of himself as a young man. I was certainly ambitious, as my ruthless behavior indicates.
One day, between takes on the set, Roger announced that he wanted me to write another screenplay for him. I wasn’t interested. I wanted to establish myself as an actor, not a writer, and people have a terrible way of insisting that you’re one thing or the other. Renaissance men are anachronistic. We live, and have for some time, in an age of specialization.
But people told me I was being foolish. This was a great opportunity, they said. I had a chance to earn my keep by writing movies—a chance denied so many others. I decided to go forward, thinking I could create more parts for myself, not realizing that most directors would cast anyone but the writer. An old Hollywood saying applies: A screenwriter on a set is like a whore sticking around for breakfast.
So I remained in L.A. after production wrapped and took an apartment on Beachwood Drive, in the shadow of the Hollywood sign. My driver’s license had lapsed while I was living in New York, so I walked everywhere; and since I couldn’t yet afford a phone, I would head numerous times daily to a pay phone outside the Beachwood Market. And it was there, on that corner, on that phone, that I learned that someone at Paramount, based on fast-traveling reports of my work at Corman, wanted to hear my ideas for the latest Friday the 13th sequel.
If I was a snob about books—and I was: no guilty pleasures—I was equally snobby about films. In New York I haunted the art houses, where I would sometimes tangle with other snobs, arguing the merits of this auteur over that one. Horror movies, which I had liked to the age of fifteen or thereabouts, were irrelevant as far as I was concerned; so I was only dimly aware of the Friday the 13th phenomenon, which seemed to involve witless fornicators being subjected to unsought surgery by a hulking mute in a hockey mask. No thanks.
Still, never thinking I would get the job, I rented every Friday movie and watched them on a neighbor’s VCR. I had been told that the Friday producers wanted Jason Vorhees, the hulking mute, to square off in the seventh Friday with Freddy Krueger, the razor-fingered pickle of the Nightmare on Elm Street series, and though the deal had (for the moment) fallen through, a variation was clearly desired. I had the formula down by the end of Part 2 at least, and I walked to the Beachwood Market pay phone and called the Friday development person and pitched my ideas. No, she said to each one. Uh-uh. No, that’s not for us. On the phone she struck me as a mythical creature incredibly proving to be real: the hard-as-nails, bottom-line Hollywood exec, as encapsulated in the back-cover copy of airport novels. I shuddered at the idea of having to deal with more of her kind. I never had in New York, aside from casting directors, who on occasion revealed traces of mammalian warmth.
Then I came to an idea she liked. She proposed that we meet, and a few days later I walked to her office on the Paramount lot, where I waited while she finished her meeting with another writer: a lauded playwright who was working on a script for a drama featuring Keanu Reeves, whose star was just starting to unaccountably rise. The furniture in the office was universally white. The receptionist, waitresslike, offered me a bottle of water. I watched the playwright leave in a bit of a huff, and the development person at last emerged to welcome me.
“He’s annoyed,” she said of the playwright, “because we told him to change the script, and now we told him to change it all back.” She laughed. In person she didn’t seem hard at all, but her laughter was unsettling. “Aren’t my whims amusing?” it seemed to say. “Today I want it in red, and tomorrow I’ll want it in green, and who knows how I’ll want it the day after that?”
In fact, once the job was mine, she would change her mind repeatedly. By then I had moved to a house in Silver Lake, where I camped on the porch, and when I wasn’t writing, I would drink with friends, usually sleeping late and often woken by a call from Paramount. Can you come over and meet with us? We’re not happy with the last draft. I was working on two scripts at the time—the second was for Roger—but I didn’t have a computer and the Friday people did, and they wanted new drafts immediately. This meant that after the meeting, which involved sheaves of detailed notes, I would be extradited to a trailer on the lot, where I was expected to produce a page-one rewrite by the start of the following workday. Then I would return home and crash and, two or so days later, get another call from Paramount, and head with a hangover to the lot and bang out another draft.
Some nights, treating myself to a break, I roamed the sleeping lot, imagining the greats who might have worked on this or that stage. W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, Marlene Dietrich, Carole Lombard, Gary Cooper, Rudolph Valentino, Edward G. Robinson, Mae West, Barbara Stanwyck, William Holden: all made movies at Paramount. Of course, nowadays people don’t care about any of them. Not that they cared much in the late eighties.
I also read letters from Friday fans, which were tacked to the bulletin board in the trailer where I worked, and struck up a correspondence with an Ohio teenager whose letter was precociously clever. I thought he’d appreciate hearing from the writer of the forthcoming sequel, but he didn’t—not particularly—and the correspondence soon lapsed. Still other letters, undisplayed, were described to me as cries for help from kids claiming to have been permanently traumatized by Jason Vorhees. I could sympathize, having endured panic attacks in my teens that were induced, in part, by violent movies. Now I was writing one. Go figure.
I probably produced around fifteen drafts for Friday the 13th Part VII, when I was contracted for four. My agent decided I should get more money and contacted the producers, who responded by hiring another writer for the final tweaks. This writer, whom I never met, used a pseudonym, which I should’ve done also. That I didn’t is something of a mystery to me. I think I had an idea that a pseudonym would be dishonest and cowardly. Plus I didn’t take the movie at all seriously, and figured my amused attitude toward it would be shared by others. We all do silly things, I thought, especially in our salad days. Surely people would cut me slack.
So I stupidly put my name on the movie, and only started using a pseudonym later, after the Internet Movie Database had oozed from the River Styx and my every embarrassing credit could be, and was, instantly accessed. The years after Friday weren’t kind ones. I was nearly killed when a car mowed me down in a Hollywood crosswalk, and had to have numerous surgeries to reconstruct an arm and leg, all of which triggered the return of the panic attacks that scrambled my brain as a kid. I was dumped by my agent and, unable to find another, relied on word of mouth for work, and some of the results made Friday look like The Battleship Potemkin. I continued to act, but movies in general had gotten so bad, and my so-called writing career had indeed hurt my prospects as an actor: Are you a writer who acts, or an actor who writes? I felt more and more like an interloper—certainly a renegade. I barely socialized with industry people. I went underground, living as I had in New York, hanging with musicians and bohemians of all stripes, and almost never mentioned how I paid the rent.
Yet people knew. Movies would turn up on TV, prompting shocked phone calls: Why didn’t you tell me you were an actor? I wasn’t so easily Googled, since my new friends knew me by the nickname I’d acquired after the accident (Duke, short for Iron Duke, which refers to the titanium that holds my shattered limbs together), but they learned that I was a screenwriter as well as an actor; I was never sure how. I was friendly with …And You Know Us by the Trail of Dead, for instance, a band that appears in Banned for Life, and while they were on tour in Australia, they posted a message at their Yahoo! group, to which I belonged, asking which Friday movie I’d written. This led to a flurry of messages from other group members. Did you write the sleeping-bag kill? My God, that’s my favorite Friday kill ever! I was for a fact responsible for that scene, but I hadn’t realized it had become fairly iconic.
Yet, elsewhere on the Internet, some geek accused me of ripping it off from a movie unknown to me. I was often attacked online, especially after I gave a couple of interviews in which I spoke about my Friday experience in appropriately negative terms. Somebody said I should die for that—“with a red-hot poker up [my] ass.” Still others, on seeing some other horrible movie I’d done because I was broke, would spare the director (and producer and cast and so on) and blame me for the movie, based on my de-facto resume at IMDb. It had to be my fault, what with stuff I’d done. But I was only doing what I was told to do—what I had to do in order to get paid. I probably would’ve been better off with a so-called real job, but I was an exceedingly poor candidate for one after being out of the market for so long. Funds would dwindle, and I’d scramble for a writing job before my landlords hit me with a Pay Or Quit notice, and I always managed to find one—or I did until recently. I’ve now written more than twenty feature-length produced screenplays, which is quite a record, though I’m not proud of it, and a few of the movies turned out okay. The best of the lot may be Life Among the Cannibals, a black comedy in which I had a prominent role as a serial killer, but it never received any distribution in the U.S.
As Brando, whose heir I once aspired to be, said in On the Waterfront: I could’ve been a contender. Instead of a bum. Which is what I am.
Well, perhaps not entirely. In 2000, while on location for a film in Belgrade, I came up with the idea for Banned for Life, and later moved to Belgrade to write it, returning to the States with a first draft. Then, for years, I refined and polished it, working harder than I ever had at anything, because I hoped to establish, once and for all, that I did have talent; that I’d been badly served by the movies; that I deserved to be taken seriously.
Ironically, I didn’t feel I could put my name on it. I’d destroyed my name, or so I thought. At the same time, it would’ve killed me to use a pseudonym. How could I use a false name on a work so close to my heart?
Some suggested that I call myself Duke Haney, but my nickname could be learned at IMDb. So, in the end, I became D. R. Haney; and to further distance myself from my actor-screenwriter identity, I submitted a report of my death (by heroin overdose) to IMDb. They required proof, so I doctored my Wikipedia bio, which was soon corrected by a meddling stranger. Enraged, I deleted the bio, but yet another meddling stranger restored it. I don’t know why I have a Wikipedia bio in the first place. I don’t warrant one.
In any case, IMDb never reported me as dead. I hate IMDb. It’s full of inaccuracies—an ex-girlfriend, for instance, is erroneously said there to be the daughter of Bobby Kennedy—but the world regards it as the authority. Meanwhile, this all goes to show how desperate I was to hide my past.
But no more. I’ve done what I’ve done. And now I’m free to tell stories I couldn’t tell before, since to do so would be to give myself away. And I am bloody well going to tell them.
Oh, yes. There’s much to tell.
A reedited version of this piece appears in the nonfiction collection Subversia.