Saturday, June 6, 2015

The Legend of William Hjortsberg

            It's always a pleasure to meet someone who isn't normally recognized and tell them you know who they are and that you're an admirer of their work. Tell Tom Cruise how much you admire his work and yeah, so what else is new. He's heard it a million times. But I was at a party and the host introduced me to someone named Gatz Hjortsberg. I asked him if he was any relation to William Hjortsberg, one of my favorite writers. "I'm William Hjortsberg," he said, "my friends call me Gatz." Nothing like getting a compliment from someone who doesn't even know that they're complimenting you.
            Yeah, we met cute, just like in the movies.
            Man oh man, have you ever read Gray Matters? Takes place in a giant repository of brains, the only remains of the human race. Since no one can move, the whole book is thought. An amazing, entertaining, and very serious piece of science fiction about the workings of consciousness. Then there's Alp, one of the funniest and most demented books ever written, featuring mountain climbing, dwarves, nuns, and cannibalism. His next book, Falling Angel was made into Angel Heart, a pretty good film by Alan Parker but, of course, not as good as the book.
            Hjortsberg lived on a ranch in Montana. He rarely came to Hollywood and was totally stunned to meet someone who had actually read his books, which sold dismally and were out of print. He had flown into town because Ridley Scott was making a film of his first original screenplay called Legend. I demanded a copy and damned if he didn't give it to me the next day.
            Still one of the greatest scripts I'd ever read, suckering you into this fairy tale fantasy world that gets progressively more bizarre, leading to a spectacular twist ending in which the hero goes to save his girlfriend who has been kidnapped by a demon from hell, only to find that the demon has changed her into a dog and is routinely fucking her, which is precisely what they're doing when he bursts in to rescue her. Not exactly what you expect to happen.
            We hung out a bit for the next few days and I couldn't help but ask. I looked him in the eyes. "Ridley Scott is making Legend?"
            "And the heroine gets changed into a dog and is fucking the demon when the hero finds her?"
            "Not exactly."
            Hollywood rears its ugly head. He didn't have to tell me. They were going to make his screenplay while incidentally leaving out the point, the whole Orpheus thing of saving someone from hell only to find out that they've totally lost the innocence that attracted you to them in the first place. It was truly an intelligent fairy tale for adults.
But then Ridley Scott came aboard and it was starring Tom Cruise and the budget was $50 million which was good news because it would look great and bad because no studio on the planet earth is going to put all that money into an R-rated fairy tale where the innocent, bright-eyed, unicorn loving heroine gets fucked not just like a dog but as a dog.
            Just like that, the entire project lost its edge, its irony, its depth, everything that made me want to see it. Hjortsberg agreed. Scott agreed. The studio didn't. They were asking him to rewrite the script so that all the kids who were coming to the film for the unicorns wouldn't be traumatized by the bestiality, integral to the plot though it may be. He did what I would have done. He took the money and ran. Hell, if he hadn't rewritten it himself, some studio hack would have done it for him.
            The film famously bombed and I picture him years later, a bitter old man complaining to the other octogenarian sharing a room with him in the nursing home. "Man, Hollywood fucked me over. Legend would have been a hit if they'd only ended it MY way."
            "And what way was that?" the tired old roommate would ask.
            And he'd tell them and they would slowly edge to the far side of the bed, pick up the phone, call the nurse, and demand to be moved to another room.

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