By my count, I wrote seven “erotic thrillers,” a largely and justly forgotten genre that combined noir and softcore porn. It was a favorite of tight-fisted producers of the VHS era, since it rarely required special effects, aside from squibs and silicone breasts, and the action was easily confined to a few affordable locations. Much of Stranger by Night, for instance, was set in the apartment of a distraught cop and the office of the female psychologist who was trying to help him determine if he had murdered any hookers during his alcoholic blackouts. She helped him as psychologists usually helped their clients in erotic thrillers: she had sex with him. Her husband was murdering hookers to frame the cop. Spouses in erotic thrillers were almost always predators or prey.
Stranger by Night was directed by Gregory H. Brown, as he was credited on that movie. He was called Gregory Dark in his side career as a director of hardcore porn. We were introduced by his cameraman, a friend who knew I was in need of a job, and my first for Greg Dark was the screenplay for Mirror Images II, an erotic thriller about a hooker scheming to kill and replace her prim identical twin. Greg or one of his business partners wrote a paint-by-numbers outline for Mirror Images II, which none of them appeared eager to make, but the success of the original Mirror Images demanded a sequel and Greg dutifully cranked one out. Everybody in Hollywood seemed to crank things out, including me, so that lately I fantasized of moving to Montana, an anti-Hollywood where the overhead was low and I could focus on the novel I had started that winter. The novel was meant to conclude, in fact, with a disillusioned actor moving to Montana. I was so disillusioned with acting that I was no longer pursuing it.
Mirror Images II was just a paycheck, a way to finance my novel, but I cared about Stranger by Night, at least initially. I knew it was unlikely to turn out well, with its budget constraints and compulsory clichés, to say nothing of a director best known for New Wave Hookers, his hardcore apogee; but I was a writer best known for Friday the 13th Part VII, and if I wanted people to believe I was capable of better, it behooved me to believe it of Greg. He provided the premise for Stranger by Night and left the mechanics to me, though he approved and vetoed suggestions while refining his vision of a moody, gritty map of the soul of a sort of Raskolnikov character. So I inferred and sweated to deliver, investing that character and others with my own neurosis as I wrote from dusk to dawn, smoking and drinking while Bernard Herrmann’s ominous score for Taxi Driver played in the background. Maybe I won’t move to Montana to work on my novel, I thought. Maybe I’ll stay here and get back into acting, beginning with Stranger by Night. Of course Greg would cast yesterday’s news as Bobby, the Dostoevskian lead, but maybe I could play Troy, Bobby’s fellow cop and barfly. I was practically in tears when I wrote Troy’s death scene. Poor Troy. He was going to go over big.
Troy went over big as expected, but Greg and his partners were lukewarm on the script overall. “I don’t understand Bobby,” one of them said. “He doesn’t understand himself,” I said. “That’s why he’s seeing a psychologist. That’s what the movie’s about.” But that wasn’t what the movie was about. The movie was about hookers, I decided in subsequent meetings with Greg, who seemed concerned that there weren’t enough hookers in the script, if not in life, while his partners seemed to crave less angst and more action. I revised accordingly, but my next two drafts were also received coolly. Even so, the movie was rushed into production, and soon afterward, I learned from a friend on the set that the script had been rewritten by a former military man from the U.K. with no experience as a writer or as a producer, though Greg had appointed him co-producer and given him a credit for the script. I would share the credit, in other words, with a stranger to me and a relative stranger to Greg, who had only recently met the British guy, I was told, and fallen for his tales of international adventure. Tales of international hookers is more like it, I thought.
But the sting healed quickly. I was used to shabby treatment in Hollywood, and I had my novel, so that even if Greg had listened when I hinted that I wanted to play Troy, the shoot would have been a distraction from work that mattered. I heard that William Katt was playing Troy and the crew was really impressed with him, which didn’t surprise me: I had rigged that role for scene stealing. But that was unfair to William Katt, whom I remembered fondly as the surfing Vietnam vet in John Milius’s Big Wednesday. I remembered Steven Bauer, who was playing Bobby, from ¿Qué Pasa, U.S.A.?, a sitcom I watched as a teenager, mostly because I thought it was worldly to watch a show about Cubans who spoke half their lines in Spanish, and later, when I saw him on the street in New York, I had an impulse to approach him and say, “Hey, weren’t you on ¿Qué Pasa, U.S.A.?” I thought he might appreciate that, since most people knew him only as Al Pacino’s sidekick in Scarface, but I had laryngitis, so I said nothing. It was Halloween 1984, and I had just bought medicine at a pharmacy a block from the southeast corner of Sixth Avenue and 8th Street, where I saw Steven Bauer, who was dressed all in black and lighting a cigarette. Halloween helped to crystallize the other details in memory.
One day Greg phoned with a question about the script. “Where’s your limey rewrite guy?” I felt like saying. “I’m sure he can answer your question, if he isn’t too busy co-producing. Besides, I’m packing for a trip to Montana.” It was true, I was going to Montana, but I wouldn’t stay long, and I would shelve the novel I more or less completed there after judging it a hopeless mess.
But there was no advantage to feuding with Greg. Despite his misgivings about my script for Stranger by Night, there was a tentative plan for me to write Animal Instincts II, and a shared credit was one thing and money was another, and so far I hadn’t lost a penny to the British guy. Not that the subject of the British guy was ever broached by me or Greg. I asked how the movie was going, anticipating praise for William Katt, but the actor who seemed to please Greg most was Jennifer Rubin, who was playing Bobby’s shrink. He was calling from the set of Bobby’s apartment, which was in or near Westlake, not far from my place, and he invited me to drop by. It wasn’t my first invitation to the set, but it was my first from Greg, and now I decided to risk the awkwardness of running into the British guy. Naturally, I was curious about him, and I wanted to say hello to friends on the crew, and it might be fun to meet William Katt. That’s right, I wrote Troy for myself. No, it’s cool. I’m really a novelist anyway.
Unfortunately, I missed William Katt, and fortunately or unfortunately, I also missed the British guy, but Steven Bauer and Jennifer Rubin were hanging out by the craft-services table behind the apartment building. I had met Jennifer Rubin at a party in Los Feliz four years earlier. She didn’t remember me or the party, but remarkably, when I mentioned to Steven Bauer that I had seen him in New York on Halloween 1984, he remembered standing that day at the corner of Sixth Avenue and 8th Street. I believed him. I saw the lights come on when the memory came to him. We talked about ¿Qué Pasa, U.S.A.? and a movie I had wanted badly to do, The Beast of War, which starred Steven Bauer.
“You know,” I said, “my agents in New York were always sending me out on bullshit, some commercial for the Army or a soap opera or some shit, and I was like, ‘Goddamn, man, get me an audition for a movie.’ Then they got me an audition for a movie, and I get the script, and goddamn, it’s actually good.”
“It was a good script,” he agreed. I didn’t ask what he thought of Stranger by Night, which hadn’t been my script since the first draft, and even that draft wasn’t altogether mine.
I had never seen Greg as upbeat as I did that day, and I would never see him so upbeat again. He banished me after Animal Instincts II. We didn’t quarrel, exactly. He wanted the protagonist to be a hooker, an untenable idea to everybody but Greg, so that he was never satisfied with the script, and at a certain point, I refused to rewrite it. Nor did the British guy rewrite it. He took his credits for Stranger by Night and ran, but if he thought they would do more for him than tales of international adventure, they were the Hollywood equivalent of Monopoly money, as I would guess he soon discovered.
Montana beckoned, but I lingered to watch Greg shoot a scene. It was a short scene of Bobby opening his door to the lovely Dr. Richmond, who knew he was in particularly bad shape, otherwise he wouldn’t have interrupted her cocktail party a scene earlier. Hot sex would follow in the bedroom, but this scene was in the foyer, while the camera was in the living room, where I was sitting next to Greg on a black leather sofa, Bobby’s sofa, though it didn’t look like the sofa of a cop, and for that matter, the apartment didn’t look like the apartment of a cop, but realism was hardly the point. The room was filled with grips and production assistants and makeup artists and so on, and Greg was flirty with some of the girls and they were flirty back; jokes were made and laughter was heard, so that the set had something of a party atmosphere, which is so often the case on sets. I wasn’t immune. I was joking and laughing too, and I may even have gone on talking after an assistant director announced a rehearsal and called for silence, and I watched the foyer as Steven Bauer, now dressed all in black as he had been that Halloween, walked to the door and opened it and said to Jennifer Rubin, “It is me,” meaning that was he was murdering hookers. Then he walked past the camera and up to the sofa, where Greg and I had resumed joking and laughing, if we had ever entirely stopped, and he leaned down and began to speak in a low voice to Greg. He was very serious, and Greg also became serious now, leaning forward to listen to Steven Bauer as he tried to explain something, stumbling and stopping and starting again, so that it all came out like: You know, it’s…it’s like that thing where you’re…you’re half like this, you know, but you’re half…you sort of want to but you’re also… He was looking at Greg while looking through Greg—he had a thousand-yard stare—and I thought, What in the world he is doing? What is he trying to say? Yet it also seemed weirdly familiar. I’ve done this, I thought. I used to do this all the time before I moved to L.A., and occasionally I did it now, but I had never seen myself do it. Is this, I wondered, how I looked and sounded when I was rehearsing scenes for acting class and sorting out my feelings, or the character’s feelings, which will finally be the same? And is this the way I look now when I’m writing something that asks me to dig as deep as I can dig, and would I sound like him if I spoke my mind aloud while writing? Yes, I knew now what he was doing, but it had caught me off-guard because I hadn’t expected to see it here, today, on this set, or any set. I couldn’t even remember the last time I had seen it, it had been so long, so that I couldn’t locate the word for it. Was there a word for it? And I sat there searching my memory while watching him search his soul, and finally it came to me.
He was being creative.