"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Topics: Entertainment News
I stand in the center of my apartment. The room glows with the lowest-grade white copy paper. I have covered every surface available. First the coffee table, then the floor, my bed, finally my desk. For a brief moment, I conjure the image of myself as Lawrence of Arabia, staring out into the great, clean expanse of the desert. The image is fleeting because I am nowhere near as cool as Peter O’Toole and because these pages aren’t simply grains of sand. They’re too significant to form such a comparison. Each page on that floor marks a moment in my life. Each page, even in the smallest way, explains who I am today. As a whole, these pages symbolize a decade of work, at least 25 drafts of the very same script. They define most of my adult life. They are more me than anything else I can think of. And while I’m fishing through these pages trying to remember whether Sal is or is not wearing his toupee in the third act, I stop and look around and I think about what all of this means. I say, out loud, What have I done? Then I sit down on the floor, on top of the pages, and start to sob.
I doubt that I would have cried if I were sitting on a novel or an epic screenplay or even a hard-to-crack thriller. But they were the pages to a mob farce. There is no self-help group out there for people who have wasted a decade of their life doing that.
It goes something like this: Fran Maloni, a mousy bookkeeper, is trapped in indentured servitude to her brother-in-law, Jo Maloni, to pay off her late husband’s gambling debts. Jo is a small-time gangster specializing in designer impostors (don’t ask). After a raid in a clothing warehouse, Maloni thinks Fran murdered their three assailants and subsequently promotes her to hit man. Fran, unable to kill her assigned prey, kidnaps the men and, for lack of a better idea, drives them from New York to her estranged brother’s house in Florida. As you can imagine, when the thugs in tow — Donnie, Raymond and Sal — take over the tidy home of the obsessive-compulsive brother, pure zaniness ensues. There has been much debate throughout the years as to whether the Florida drive was perhaps too unrealistic and, well, long. I liked Florida for the sheer contrast to New York. But I caved as I would many more times and wrote several drafts of the script where the drive is edited to the Hamptons. My general opinion was that if we were really concerned with realism, wasn’t there an inherent problem with a mobster expecting a woman with no criminal credentials to single-handedly dispose of bodies twice her size?
I wrote the first draft of “Plan B” the summer after I turned 21. I am prone to comment that it would not have been possible without alcohol. I say this partly because it reads like I was drunk when I wrote it. The very first draft opens with a 10-page scene in which my bookkeeper heroine and her mob boss discuss interior design and fashion. No shootout, no car chase, not even a heated discussion, just a chat about drapes and dress socks over drinks and mixed nuts. The original draft also includes at least four extended scenes involving bathroom breaks, because I feared that people would find it unrealistic that my characters were able to make a 12-hour drive without peeing. (Many years later, when I voiced this concern to one of the producers, he told me that the peeing was implied and firmly suggested I stop talking about it.)
I worked on the script intermittently over the next few years, trimmed the decorating talk and finally showed it to a friend, a screenwriter. She told me that it was good, but needed to be rewritten. Three rewrites later, I have an agent. Not your average slick, Hollywood sort. He smokes rolled cigarettes, has a voice to match, sports long, unkempt hair that doesn’t belie the fact that he got married at a Grateful Dead show. He too likes the script, but tells me that it needs to be rewritten.
Four rewrites later, there’s some interest from independent producers and it is beginning to look like “Plan B” might have a future beyond my computer screen. I sign a one-year option for $1 (though I never saw the $1) with a deferred payment, and complete some more rewrites. Finally, I’m recognizing that rewrites aren’t some cosmic punishment for childhood wrongs, but the nature of the business. Within the year, the producers secure a development deal with a small studio and I am instructed to quit my job and subsequently quit school. I fly myself from San Francisco to Los Angeles because I’m too damn impatient and stupid to wait for that first-class ticket I’m supposed to get. I buy a cellphone and camp out at my parents’ house, spending my days cycling through meetings, my nights looking for something decent to eat in the fridge. I wrote my first screenplay on a lark, because it was a storytelling format that felt like a familiar shorthand — we all watch movies, don’t we? But even though I grew up in Los Angeles, my family was entirely unconnected with the movie industry and I never truly believed that it would one day be my fate. Simply, getting to this point was unexpected and when it finally happened, my naiveti was as obvious as my jokes.
Six years after I wrote the first draft of “Plan B,” I received my first paycheck as a writer. It included both the $3,000 in deferred option money as well as half the fee for performing the initial rewrite. The amount was scale according to the Writer’s Guild guidelines, but a lot, according to me. I had never made more than $18,000 a year to that point, so to be paid a figure in the low 20s for a single rewrite, in my mind was not unlike winning the lottery. I made the decision early on that I was going to be a sellout. I actually used those words to describe it to myself. Of course, when you write this kind of fluff, hanging on to artistic integrity would feel like foolish posturing. I figured monetary compensation was incentive enough to turn me into a yes man. This was going to be my M.O. I would be the cooperative screenwriter. Jump, you say? How high?
It was decided that James, Fran’s brother, should have dogs. Lots and lots of dogs. I’m still not sure why, but when I questioned this point, it was suggested that he had dogs because he was in the pet supply business. I said OK, wanting to ask, once again, Why does he have dogs? Instead, I made James the inventor of the Pet-Stay Collar. What is the Pet-Stay Collar, you ask? It is an electronic device that shocks animals if they leave their invisible cages and tracks them down should they escape. James also invented the invisible cage. The Pet-Stay Collar was a plot device to keep Raymond, the most escape-prone prisoner, in line. To punctuate the absurdity of this development, I have a scene where Donnie notices the Pet-Stay Collar on James’ prized Great Dane, is apparently familiar with this device and gushes with admiration for the invention. As you might notice, I was cleverly providing both necessary exposition and a bonding moment for my characters.
At no point did anyone ask me if I was feeling all right. But how could anyone be concerned with my mental health when there were more pressing matters at stake: The script needed a prostitute because Raymond had to have sex.
How many times? was my first question. Three times, was the answer. I’d like to point out that generating three separate sex scenes for a character who doesn’t appear until halfway through the script and for the most part is kept prisoner in a dog cage, wearing a high-end dog collar, is stultifying. But I played along. And since James resided in an exclusive residential neighborhood somewhere in sunny Florida, the best hope that Raymond had for getting laid was with a rich neighbor. I invented a bitter debutante (garbed in ball gown for all scenes) desperate to disappoint her parents as Raymond’s love interest. She catches Raymond as he’s trying to escape through the fence that divides the two estates and invites him home with her where the butler serves him (who still can’t get that collar off) drinks and finger sandwiches. Raymond has sex once (well, maybe twice), but then Fran and Donnie succeed in tracking him down through his dog collar.
Sadly, the debutante saw only the inside of my trash can. I was instructed that she needed to be a prostitute, plain and simple. I stopped short of saying that I didn’t quite see the difference between debutantes and prostitutes — when it comes to extraneous characters added for the sole purpose of titillation, that is.
However, these headaches were minor compared to what would come. The powers that be decided to eliminate a significant supporting character to streamline the story, ignoring the fact that this character was the catalyst for the main plot point and provided the only sound ending that the script had to offer. I performed my instructions blithely, but with an underlying sense of doom. Something wasn’t quite right.
Approximately four months after I began my “first” rewrite and two months after I submitted it to the studio, I was replaced and someone else was brought in to do yet another rewrite. I had prepared myself for this. The fact was mitigated by the knowledge that this is standard fare. But it was still a blow. A blow, however, that was eased when I read his rewrite a few months later. While my replacement peppered the script with amusing mob speak — like “Don’t piss on my leg and tell me it’s raining” — the changes were minor as far as I could tell. And he failed to do the one thing that would have demonstrated my own inadequacy — get the green light we needed from the studio.
I received the second half of my rewrite money, approximately $10,000, and used it to pay back all the zero-interest loans from my friends and a few credit cards. The rest went toward basic room and board until the film went into production and I was paid in full for the script, which I considered a question of when, not if. I didn’t return to my old job — having already been replaced — instead, I pretended to be a professional writer and worked on other scripts. However, nine months later virtually all the money was gone. Then, just as I started my new day job as a substitute teacher, I was brought back into the fold and asked to do an unofficial rewrite. Translation: free rewrite. We do these things because if we don’t it is made clear that the movie will not get made. It’s strong-arming, plain and simple. But writing for free, at that point, came quite naturally to me.
There were a number of issues for me to tackle. While I managed to plant a hooker next door at the home of the wealthy and ancient Samuel Hayes, the bit still fell flat. It was suggested that a rock star move into the adjacent mansion. I decided a rap artist would be more fun. I called him the Doctor. Why the Doctor, you ask? Because his grooves heal all pain. Raymond hooks up with a woman whom I call a prostitute in the script, but believe in my heart to be a groupie, and he joins her at the Doctor’s house where there just happens to be a raging bash taking place. Fran and Donnie track Raymond next door — thanks, once again, to the Pet-Stay Collar — and crash the party. Amid introductions, Donnie is confused by our rap star’s stage name and attempts to solicit medical advice. He and Fran find Raymond screwing the prostitute (groupie) in the closet. Then Raymond and Fran do the hustle as they negotiate his rights as a prisoner. “This is so bad it’s good” was the standard compliment I could expect. I lived for such flattery.
Of course, the ultimate problem was that the script didn’t have an ending. It didn’t until I received a fax from the studio instructing me that Jo Maloni would die by being eaten by an alligator. Hmm. OK. This did solve some ethical issues. None of the cute characters had to do anything nasty, like commit murder, and still the bad guy would get his due without a long, expensive trial. There goes the sequel.
At the time, I considered the note outrageous, but after seeing “Adaptation,” I determined that death by alligator is a sadly underused denouement. I turned in the rewrite, and eventually it became clear that this was not “Plan B’s” time, nor mine, nor the alligator’s. I planted myself back in San Francisco, hopped between a desultory string of low-paying odd jobs and continued to write. The option ran out, and over the next few years there were a string of phone calls from producers, some minor rewrites, and then complete silence.
I decided the silence was fortuitous. I decided that my “Plan B” years were over. I decided to stop writing. And just when I decided I was done with movies, “Plan B” sold. Yes, sold. No option, paid in full, with a promise that the movie would be made within the year. The price of the sale was $50,000, which seemed appropriate since it approximated my negative worth at the time. There were other offers brewing at this point, which would have resulted in more money and ultimately a bigger-budget film, but nothing was set in stone and no offer was made. I remember struggling with the decision to sell, until I voiced this dilemma in front of a number of friends and then realized that I owed half of them money. Suddenly, the idea of turning down $50,000 bordered on absurd.
I accepted the deal and eagerly awaited the wire transfer. I remember thinking how fun it would be to look at my account balance and see $50,000. However, my account was overdrawn, so when the money was wired, upon checking my balance I saw the slightly less satisfying $49, 922. Still, it was a lot of money for someone not used to money, and not good with money, to have. I remember feeling nervous at the time, having all that cash in my account, like I would black out one night, run to Vegas and lose it all. Over the next few weeks, I ensured that wild gambling losses were not in my future. After my agent got his 10 percent, I took care of all my personal debts, paid off a student loan, two high-interest credit cards and my computer. I blew about $5,000 on god knows what, which left me with approximately $20,000. I got a financial advisor, opened an IRA, invested in some stocks and set aside the rest for taxes. I put the remaining funds designated for the IRS in a Money Market account and then explained to my financial advisor that one day I might call him and ask him for the money, but under no circumstances should he give it to me, unless it is in the form of a check made out to the United States Treasury.
With all the financial dissemination going on it was a miracle that I kept my day job. But I did, which I considered the pinnacle of responsibility at the time. However, four months later I quit, finding it impossible to compartmentalize my double life. I had to field a number of “Plan B”-related phone calls on a daily basis, and offering line changes like “You better take insurance out on your ass, because there’s gonna be none of it left” while you’re sitting in the reception area of a law office is, simply, unprofessional. When I received approximately $11,000 as payment for another rewrite, I quit my job and dedicated myself completely to “Plan B.” Contractually it was pay for a single rewrite, but it implied that many rewrites were necessary. Considering the projected budget was a lowly $2 million for this production, I was already overpaid. Money was no longer an issue.
During the next eight months, I performed so many rewrites I finally stopped counting. It was only then that I realized how natural it had become to me. “Plan B” was my skill set. Some people learn carpentry, bookkeeping, plumbing. Some people go to law school. Some people go to medical school; I wrote “Plan B.” It is at once my greatest point of pride and my finest shame.
I remember waking up one morning after a long night of “Plan B” rewrites, blanketed under a pile of papers. As I pulled bits of script out from beneath the sheets I thought for a long while about what I might have become had “Plan B” never been. Would I have made more of my life? Would I ultimately be a more substantial human being? Well, yes. But then I realized I didn’t care. I am the kind of person who invents the Pet-Stay Collar, I’m the kind of person who sleeps with 8 1/2-by-11-inch paper, I’m the kind of person who doesn’t think that peeing should be implied, and I’m the kind of person who looks for the joke first and figures the substance will follow. Humor is as meaningful and as substantial as anything else; it just has a better front. And while I loathe discussions of character arcs, I must provide one for you here. This is my arc.
“Plan B” was shot in the summer of 2000, with Diane Keaton playing Fran and Paul Sorvino as Joe. Our first West Coast premiere was scheduled for Sept. 11, 2001. We had a week-long limited theatrical release in Boston and Los Angeles. I attended one of those screenings with four complete strangers, and even followed a pair of women into a restroom afterward hoping to overhear their review (they were already on the subject of footwear). And that was it.
Other than a couple of small film festivals, “Plan B” has not been seen in the rest of the United States. It is, however, available in Bulgaria and Vietnam. Recently, Warner Bros. purchased the video rights to the film and I have been assured it will be on DVD one of these days, possibly this summer. This is good, because now I finally have an answer to the question I’ve been asked repeatedly over the last four years: What happened to “Plan B”? But long ago I stopped thinking about when “Plan B” would be in theaters, on cable or in your local video store. “Plan B” isn’t about the DVD I plan on giving as Christmas gifts ad infinitum; it is about the hours, days, weeks I spent sitting alone in a room, trying to find the joke.
In the final draft of “Plan B,” Raymond wears snow chains instead of a dog collar. And there is only one dog, thankfully. Donnie, the first and sweetest prisoner, falls in love with Fran — Stockholm syndrome at its finest. In the end the gangsters try to prove their deaths by splattering themselves with ketchup and lying still in an open grave. I made one final, valiant attempt to make the prostitute a maid. I even suggested that she come from a topless cleaning service called Got It Maid. But the answer was no. And this time, I learned my lesson: Sometimes a hooker is just a hooker.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)