Suddenly last summer

Hal LaCroix describes what really goes on at a festival for wannabe film-makers in Nantucket, Mass.

Published June 12, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Coincidence? Or Life-Changing Omen? I saw the newspaper ad pointing me toward the Second Annual, Famous-Since-1996 Nantucket Film Festival on the same day I opened a blue form letter from one Vince Ducette, J.D., Director of Operations, The Film/Publishing Group of 11684 Ventura Blvd., Studio City, Calif.

It read: "Our sincere, abashed apologies for our response delay to your query regarding representation of your literary work. By sheer happenstance I found your letter today behind a moved file cabinet!"

Abashed Vince christened my movie synopsis, which fell behind his file cabinet during the Bush administration, "viable for sale in today's growing market for this genre story." Then there was the matter of the $90 reading fee.

Well, Momma did, in fact, raise a fool. And I was born at night, maybe even last night -- but I ain't plug dumb enough for that dodge.

Still, I liked the shameless hucksterism of the appeal -- what twist of fate induces a man, even an agent, to mass mail the sheer-happenstance-behind-the-file-cabinet letter? -- and in a peculiar way it nudged me, more than the prospect of sand and celluloid and intellectual babes, aboard the ferry to Nantucket, where I started building a new set of dreams custom-made for shattering.

It was exactly one year ago. Think of one of those old-movie calendars with the months flying off like leaves in a high October wind.

The three-hour ferry ride to Nantucket -- the slow, crowded ride for yokels; the rich and/or celebrated take the jet foil -- is a beautiful, journeying kind of thing. A lot of people sit up top, breathing the salt air, staring overboard. There's nothing much to do. The sky's big, it's sunny. Your nervous system throttles down to island speed. Maybe when you disembark you won't vibrate like a city rat. You may even pause on the dock and look around.

I had a screenplay -- a sci-fi romance -- in my backpack. You never know. A previous script, the one that fell behind the file cabinet, made the rounds years ago, but, truth be told, it was pretty lousy and my putz-agent insisted on changes that made it worse. This one, though, was a property. Mean and lean. Maybe a bit pricey, all those special effects, but I had other ideas, too. Like this bit of dialogue I heard in a North Carolina convenience store: "C'mon, Wayne, let's burn one." One clerk said it to another clerk, the aforementioned Wayne. She wanted to smoke a cigarette, and her dadgum gusto, "Let's burn one," has stuck with me.

I see the lady clerk murdered, a grisly business, and Wayne, well, his character arc is a beautiful parabola; he's a mysterious figure, maybe ex-hit man/ex-altar boy, that type. What's more, I've got a comedy brewing about this 500-square-mile fungus under Michigan's Upper Peninsula. It's the largest living organism on the planet, no fooling. Hi-jinks ensue when "Fungy" communicates with folks via our appendixes. And we thought they were useless. Also: "Jesus, the Early Years." Befuddled boy-savior hits road, identity crisis in tow. Greece, Rome, Turkish dens of iniquity. No one's even thought to do it.

"You see, there's a bottleneck." That was the word according to James F. Robinson, writer/producer/director of the independent film "Still Breathing," much acclaimed at the 'Tucket Festival. Sitting on a panel of made-its during a "Morning Coffee With ..." session at the Cambridge Street Restaurant, Robinson documented said bottleneck to a throng of good-natured wannabes -- fringe actors, clueless screenwriters, mellow souls who fashioned themselves, I suppose, associate producers. Sponsored by Bank Boston. Coffee provided by Chock Full o' Nuts. Bagels, the Einstein Brothers.

It was a small joint, so some people didn't get in. They loitered outside. One thin upper-crusty fellow who should have been sailing, the kind of guy who uses moisturizer on his eyelids and wears faded Izod tennis shirts and sports a $50 haircut, each follicle clipped solo with just-sharpened scissors, this Brent Jr. crouched awkwardly and listened with his ear jammed to the screen door.

So many talented people with great ideas, Robinson said, but only a little bit of opportunity. A bottleneck. OK, sure, and yet I wanted to gently inquire: Yo, Jimbo, what the hell is getting through? The good stuff by the smart people? Really? So why are so many movies so bad? So chase-scene, so weak dialogue, so TV-mediocre? Why aren't movies wildly good and wildly bad at the same time -- and hey, Mr. Robinson, aren't you just another schmuck-schmoozer who does not know? I mean, it's true, isn't it, when it comes to making movies and knowing the next big thing, nobody, like they say, knows anything?

The festival ran for six days. I came for less than two. I packed in food and slummed at the hostel on the lee side of the island and still managed to blow 150 bucks. But in that short time I connected. I networked and heard buzzwords and bizwords brushing from my lips. I made friends, sorta, with actresses and producers and writers, and I had weirdly animated conversations with my future collaborators. Oh, won't we laugh about this some day! One brassy, middle-aged Brit stomped like a horse on the cobblestones of old Nantucket Town as she described her latest script: "Ghost" meets "Indiana Jones."

I made the scene. It felt swishy.

Black Eyed Susan's on India Street serves a great breakfast. I sat
at the counter next to this kid, a real Xer; he was unbelievably calm
like all of them, and he was writing tiny script on a blue airmail
letter-envelope. Later I observed another Xer at the hostel. He said
the audience didn't react well to his short film, "Road Movie." It
featured, according to the festival catalog, "Dorothea Lange-like
shots of gorgeous, gothic America." This Young Director was way too
unbelievably calm, considering his film bombed and he was staying at the
hostel and nobody remembers Dorothea Lange.

After breakfast I waited in line for "Hugo's Pool," directed by
Robert Downey Jr.'s father, but it sold out. Then I met Heidi, an
actress with bare midriff, permanent sunglasses and a 24-hour pose.
It seemed she did a bit of everything: voice-overs for industrial
training films, poetry, house painting, regional theater, astrological
readings. Then I met her friend Meagan, some kind of line producer.
She was full of marvy ideas and upper-class angst. I kept forgetting
her name.

Then everyone met Rosemary, a babe actress living in Manhattan, via
Peabody or Worcester or some provincial burg in Massachusetts. So I
told her this lie, shoot me, that I was a playwright looking to cast my
one-woman thing about the life of Amelia Earhart. Her eyes bugged. She
vibrated. If we weren't sitting under a 100-year-old chestnut tree
outside the Methodist Church, I swear she would have recited from
"Antigone," stuck her tongue down my throat or, worse, showed me her

Our group took in a seminar on creating characters. I sat next to
the dazzling Rosemary. She just couldn't
stop networking with jerks, and then she Barney Googled Marla Maples
two rows down. The girl was thin, twig thin, hospital thin, trying to
rebuild her life after The Donald Dump. She sucked on bottled water,
and I forgot Meagan's name again.

And so on. On the third try I got into a movie, "Eye of God."
Typical indie -- wonderful characters, visually striking, incredibly
disturbing and absolutely no chance of connecting with a mainstream
audience. Sponsored by Cape Cod Potato Chips. Then drinks, talk,
schmoozing with Heidi & Co. Had I been to Sundance? Then another
movie, "Star Maps," about a desperate young person trying to make it
big in Hollywood against all odds. I could relate. It was also about
Hispanic male prostitutes and a father pimping his son. I could not

More swishiness. More drinks, more debate, more half-true stories.
Business cards spinning around till the wee hours, but I didn't hear
much because I'm tall and I was standing in this really loud bar where
the voice stream swirled at shoulder level.

Nantucket is very nice. The place remains charming despite the
tourist biz, no fast food is allowed, and it's too expensive for riffraff and gawkers from Ohio. The island is still mostly woods,
containing the state's densest population of deer.

I took a taxi full of drunks back to the hostel ghetto.

Sunday morning I scrambled myself bodysurfing in huge waves at
Surfside Beach. On the walk back I wandered onto someone's property. A
fat and hairy man emerged and ordered me to turn around, use the
goddamn public path.

"You people are always doing this," he yelled, shaking his fist,
and I was thinking, I would feel really foolish shaking my fist in
anger. It's so clichéd. But then I'm a writer, minor league variety,
and I'm always twice removed from experience -- once, observing what
I'm doing; the second time, grading the quality of that observation --
and I was also kinda pleased to be part of the "you people" group. It felt
nice to belong.

Which is how I felt, but even more, a few hours later at Sunday's
"Morning Coffee With ..." Robinson explained the talent bottleneck. A
fat-cat entertainment lawyer named Harris Tulchin talked about
financing small projects. He looked almost normal, like
your Uncle Fred the insurance underwriter. And this writer named
Dave, sitting next to me, said he had a script about cloning in his

Good timing, I replied. "I write lots of 'em, but I don't sell
'em," he said. He said this without a trace of self-deprecation. Just
fact. No sale. Was this pure stupidity? Ram your head against the wall
over and over and over again. Or was it determination?

"Relax," said Heidi on the other side of me. Whoa -- you talking
to me? Hadn't I throttled down yet? No, I was still vibrating, and
this vagabond vamp felt it like rain. Tulchin talked. "He's got the
power," whispered Dave.

That was the galling thing. It was all in plain sight. The rich,
the powerful, the filmmakers practicing the dominant art of our time.
And they're just like us. It was all in plain sight. We glimpsed the
machinery behind the breezy summer curtain. And yet for 99 percent of
the people assembled here, nice folk, really, for 99 percent of these
overeducated souls who had crossed the very ocean to make this scene,
success in movies would forever elude them.

The ferry pulled away from Nantucket, the sky an endless screen of
blue. I sat up top again, across from a lovely young woman in a yellow
sundress. She stretched flat on a metal bench, eyes closed, not
asleep. Her red, crinkled hair fell through the bench's slats, and she
had a tattoo, some kind of rune or cross, on her right ankle. Her
yappy dog looked like the old RCA mutt.

Who was this woman? Actress, con-gal, waitress?

Trust-fund muffin, film-school grad?

Later, when she sat up and said hi, I made sure not to ask her. We
will meet again, I will return to Nantucket every year and she will
star in my first feature film.

By Hal LaCroix

Hal LaCroix is a writer living in Belmont, Mass.


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