a Brief Period of Experimentation
start a lot of books but dont finish them, and I dont watch a ton of
movies, because I dont want to water down or drown out the few that
really mean a lot to me.
One of those few was a movie
that came out in 1985, the year before I graduated from college St.
Elmos Fire. It was an ensemble piece about seven friends and the
unexpected turns their life took in the first year after they graduated
from Georgetown. Watching it, I thought, hey,
thats me up there. Along with Breakfast
Club, which showcased many of the same actors, it launched the Brat
Pack they were going to be my
generations actors. Rob Lowe played a drunk who tries and fails at
about a half dozen jobs before finally going off to New York to chase his
dream, playing the saxophone. Andrew McCarthy played a frustrated hack
reporter who wanted to write about the meaning of life for a change
something deep. Something real.
The screenplay had been penned
by Carl Kurlander, with lots of help from the producer Joel Schumacher.
Carl was 24 at the time, and the movie was based on a short story he had
written during his senior year at Duke. Carl wasnt enrolled in creative
writing classes when he wrote the story hed been taking pre-med
classes because all of his moms husbands had been gastroentologists,
and he was probably looking for her approval. He was rescued from that
fate when his short story fell into the hands of an English professor, and
the next thing Carl knew, he had won an internship to come out to
Hollywood for a year. During the filming of the movie, he went out for
sushi with Andie McDowell, and then drove her up to Mulholland Drive in
his Volkswagon Rabbit, where he parked in the dirt and showed her the view
of Los Angeles at night. Carl was already sensing that Hollywood was going
to betray his artistic integrity. Drunk on saki, he promised Andie that
when the shooting wrapped he was moving home to Pittsburgh, where he had
grown up, to write short stories about their generation, stories from the
heart, something deep, something real.
Carl didnt live up to his
know this not because I am a student of the movie, but because Carl
Kurlander was one of the first people who contacted me out of the blue
when I spread the word I was writing this book. I didnt recognize his
name and had never heard of him, but he was happy to explain it because my
topic fascinated him. It had been 17 years since hed made that promise
to Andie. Partly he was writing me out of concern that Hollywood would do
to me what it did to him. He was living above Sunset Plaza in a house
designed by the architect Robert Byrd, with David Schwimmer as one
neighbor and Richard Simmons as the other. He drove a Land Rover with the
vanity plate, CK Lander. C.K. Lander was the pen name he used for
that first short story he had created it to protect his identity and
integrity. The pen name was to be a kind of temple, used only for real
writing. What was once a temple had become a vanity plate! what had he
done? Id become an unlikeable narrator in my own story, he told
me with self-disgust. Ive become Holden Caulfields older brother,
the phony, who wrote one good short story and went to Hollywood and never
wrote anything else worth a damn. Carl had written the lucrative sitcom
for teens, Saved by the Bell. He
sometimes wasnt proud of this. By most peoples measure, he was a
success he was well-off, and he was well-known in his industry. But by
his own measure, Carl had turned his back on his purpose in life.
reiterated to me that it was always his fantasy to move back to Pittsburgh
and regain the writing voice hed lost along the way. I treated him
kindly and promised if he ever did it, I would come see him but I sort
of blew him off, because I thought, fat chance. Carl got the hint, and after awhile our correspondence
fell off. Seven months later, he copied me in on a mass-emailing, giving
his new coordinates. The area code and the address were in Pittsburgh. The
guy had finally done it! And I had to go see him. I waited three months,
until some of the novelty had worn off. I was dying to know what had
pushed him to finally take the improbable leap. I was also wondering if he
really needed to be in a different city to find his voice why
couldnt he write his stories from Beverly Hills?
should make clear that Carl wouldnt tell his story the way Im
telling it. He cant seem to keep endless movie references out of his
sentences as if his own real life is too muddled to make sense of
without allusions to popular culture (Its
like that scene in _____, or, Its
the same arc that was done in _____) Thats part of the bad habit
he needed to shake. He also cant seem to avoid talking about a woman he
long ago had an irrational crush on. Shes intersected his life a few
times since, but in a circumstantial way only, not in a meaningful way,
and Im not going to mention her again. Carls been married a long
time, and he has a two-year-old daughter.
I just wanted to hug him and say, this
is your story, Carl, not the sequel to some movie, and not some
is a building on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh that is so
tall it can be seen from almost anywhere in the city. It is called The
Cathedral of Learning, and at 535 feet, it is the second-tallest
educational structure in the world. It was built in 1937, contains forty
floors of offices and classrooms, and is truly a cathedral
the ground floor chamber vaults up in classic Gothic architecture,
with a labyrinth of chapels and belfrys separated by equilateral arches.
If you grow up in Pittsburgh, this building becomes an indelible symbol of
all-things academic and pure.
Carl had come here to teach
for the year. His office and his classes were in this building, and he
rarely left it during the day. To me, this building is as glamorous as
a studio lot, he said. I wanted to bathe in something altruistic and
clean, and I think its having the desired effect. For years I told
people in Hollywood I wanted to come back here, and they always said
Being in a different place isnt going to make you any happier.
But it has. Im happy. I like
the feel of the city. When it rains here, Im even happier. Maybe
itll wear off, but Im reveling in the genuineness of what I feel
here, and the power of my memories.
He was realizing his real
journey had just started. Would he really be able to regain his voice?
What would he do when the year was out? If he moved back to Hollywood,
would he ever write movies about the meaning of life? Carl was panicked
and obsessed with these concerns. He looks like a blonde, curly
haired-version of Seinfelds
George Costanza, and he talks like Woody Allen, rambling, repeating
himself, zigzagging with his doubts. Thats his natural vocal style, and
he wants to see himself writing in that voice again. Movies dont get to
ramble anymore. But his students love his digressions, and every hour he
spends on his feet in front of his class is like an hour of voice
workshop, this is your voice
loves his creative writing class in particular, and like so many rookie
teachers who arent yet burned out, he has an incredible gift of raw
energy for the students. Hes fresh meat. They call him by his first
name, and they all laugh at his jokes, and when he asked what they did
over the Thanksgiving weekend, they let out with some incredibly honest
and idiosyncratic stories. Real life! Carls loving it. Pitt is no
Harvard; many of his students are the first generation in their family to
go to college, which means Carl feels needed these are students for
whom he can make a difference.
Thats the bright side.
Undergrads. But the Cathedral of Learning has 20 floors of graduate
students and professors who belong to the canon of Academia, one of the
only cultures with a higher bullshit quotient than Hollywood. It turns out
that since Carl went to college, academia has come up with something
called the FreyTag Triangle, by which all short fiction can be diagrammed
and piece by piece leeched of all mystery. Its very important that the
FreyTag Triangle be drawn on the chalkboard a few times during every
class. It resembles a regular old 3-sided triangle in many ways, but
apparently it requires a Ph.D. to tell the difference.
night Carl had to deliver a colloquium for the graduate students in the
Film Studies Program. On the way over, he kept wondering aloud,
Whats a Colloquium? How does it differ from a lecture? To make
fun of academicians manner of over-titling, hed billed his speech as
An Anecdotal Analysis Inside a Post-Classical, Increasingly Globalized
Hollywood, 1982-2001. Nobody got the joke. He tried to conform to their
conventions, following an outline and draining his analysis of any
personal stories, but eventually he couldnt help it and busted out the
old scrapbook for some Show N Tell. Carl would tell a funny story, and
the graduate students would nod knowingly with recognition that Carl had
clearly never been to graduate school.
speech was interesting though. Carls thesis was that he was able to
make St. Elmos Fire because
he arrived in Hollywood during a brief period of experimentation. Studio
executives had put out some expensive bombs, and it would be two years
before the studios would figure out how to quadruple their revenue by
exploiting soundtracks, video, foreign markets, and product tie-ins.
Hollywoods studio system today is not broken; it books more revenue
than ever, and thats the standard it measures everything by. Box
office. It doesnt need writers to experiment.
I do? Carl asked, as we were walking out. It was a load off his
shoulders to have it done. Somewhere during the hour, he and I both
figured out that the difference between a colloquium and a lecture is that
you deliver a lecture to just students, but in a colloquium other
professors show up and sit in judgment.
we reached the car, I asked, Arent you afraid youre going to swap
Hollywoods voice for Academias voice? The Three-Act Structure
replaced by the FreyTag Triangle? Trying to impress lesbian erotic poets
rather than studio executives?
paused, and took his response in a different direction. See, how can
you do that? Somehow you can not idolize a place like this.
How come I cant? Youve been here one day, and you can see into the
shadows better than I do after three months.
just dont want you to lose track of why you came here.
I wish I had your sincerity. Really. Youre like Gary Cooper.
idolize me now.
pause. How do I do it? he asked.
live for their approval. Dont live for anyones approval.
they do. But you can take a break from it. Not forever, but a while. I
told him about a recent year, in which I was trying to heal after my
divorce. Remorse and guilt had nearly paralyzed me. I realized one of my
problems was my parents were viewing my divorce through the lens of their
own. Both thought I should handle mine the way they handled theirs. So for
a year, I insisted my parents not express any judgment approval or
disapproval. About anything. I wanted them to know me, not to fix
me. It was exceedingly
difficult to get the habit of, but I found I wanted to share with them a
lot more. I shared out of desire, not responsibility. Because one of my
books came out during this same year, I didnt read any of its reviews.
This had nothing to do with hostility towards reviewers, and nothing to do
with that book. I needed a year where I could listen to my own inner
voices and rediscover who I was.
found this experiment inconceivable. But he understood the concept. He
said back in Hollywood he would sit by the phone, waiting for it to ring
with business. If it rang a lot, it meant he was wanted and needed. If it
didnt ring, he would start to feel like nobody loved him anymore.
said, The phone doesnt ring much here. But that doesnt scare me
and I were uniquely uncensored with each other. His story didnt reveal
itself to me like a mystery, one clue at a time. Because of his rambling
style, the whole story jumped out from our first minutes together. Time
was flattened; events that occurred 21 years ago were as immediate as his
hunger for lunch today. Long sentences would connect his parent-child
relationship with producer Joel Schumacher to his mothers multiple
absent-husbands to the rarity of long-lasting marriages in Hollywood to
the way hes raising his daughter today. Since Id had a bit of a
broken childhood too, he viewed me as his alter-ego, and said so often. He
was eager to read the stories Id written of my childhood. Where are
the novels in which carpools appear? he lamented. Why is nobody
writing about this stuff!? (Of course, plenty of writers are
writing about that stuff, and so his rant feels like a call to himself
Why have I not been writing about
went out for some Chinese cuisine with his daughter and wife Natalie, who
had indulged Carls need to return to Pittsburgh with grace, but she let
it be known that one year here was more than enough for her.
$40,000 in Pittsburgh feels like $400,000 does in Beverly Hills, Carl
said, after he paid for our dinner with a twenty dollar bill.
to me it doesnt, Natalie offered. I miss cable.
just have to adjust our expectations, Carl suggested.
know. Its good for us.
was like hed dragged his family camping.
Carl and I went out into the neighborhood. It was quiet and dark and
peaceful. The rain had stopped. A few houses had already strung Christmas
lights along their windows. The feeling was timeless. It could have a been
any November night in the last 30 years. We were high schoolers out
looking to score beer. We were grade schoolers out past our bedtime. We
were parents looking for our kids. His rental house overlooked the
elementary school playground where he used to get beat up by schoolyard
bullies. Not far away was the apartment over a garage that he moved into
with his Mom and little brother, after she got divorced (the first time).
would send me out to the bar around the corner at night to buy her a pack
of smokes, he said.
went around the corner, and there was the bar, now a storefront.
was another time of experimentation. The institution of the nuclear family
was breaking down just as the working-class economy in Pittsburgh was
breaking down. People thought, hey, lets get divorced. They had
no idea about the consequences, they were just trying something different.
In Pittsburgh, we were like the first. It was scandalous, for a prominent doctor to get divorced. Nobody
lived in an apartment.
a few blocks later stood the house where they moved a couple years later.
I was fifteen, I walked home from school one day and there was a moving
van in the driveway.
were moving again?
My Mom told us she was running
away to New York to be an actress.
of the blue?
enrolled my little brother and me in Shady Side Academy, a prestigious
boarding school outside of town, real old world conservative, the place
where the Heinzs and the Carnegies all sent their kids. He got
distracted for a moment talking about the school. They have a three
million dollar ice hockey rink, but no stage theater, which tells you
where their priorities were.
heard about Shady Side Academy on my way in from the airport, and learned
it didnt board on weekends. I asked Carl where they went on Fridays
had signed me up to be the babysitter for the kids of a wealthy Arab man
in town. He looked out for us. And in the summers, he took us to Chattaqua,
a couple hours away, where he owned the St. Elmos Hotel. I worked as a
bellhop. I developed the most abnormal-sized crush on a waitress. That was
the basis for the short story I wrote at Duke that won me the internship
in Hollywood. Again he started to ramble about his years at Duke, his
Marxist phase, going to Washington to protest
but I kept cutting him
off, because I thought this stuff about his mother running away was too
important, and it explained a lot of why he could never leave Hollywood,
which placated him with its artificial affection. So we went back to his
office over his garage, and he dug out his boxes of photos and mementos
from his years in Hollywood. Carl had spent years of his life idolizing
that waitress, and it was obvious to me that this self-generated illusion
came from a deep longing created by the absence of his mother.
Hollywood, that void was filled by Joel Schumacher, who became both the
mother-figure and father-figure Carl needed. We cant be a minute
late! Joel would order him, hustling him out the door. Then in the car,
Joel would offer inspiration, Nobody writes as good as you, Carl.
While writing St. Elmos Fire, Carl was living in the laundry room of
the Anarchists Collective. The pledge he made to Andie MacDowell was
not the only of its kind many times he told Joel that as soon as
hed made $50,000, he was moving back to Pittsburgh. He told everyone
who asked, and many who didnt, that he wasnt going to stay in
Hollywood. When the filming of St. Elmos Fire wrapped, Carls agent
brought him a project that some studio wanted him to write. It was about a
man who thinks he knows what babies are thinking. Carl had no interest. He
was going to write the stories of his generation!
them Im going back to Pittsburgh, he instructed his agent.
this is how we say no in Hollywood, the agent explained. We ask for too
much money. You get the same result, but you dont insult anyone
about the integrity of their project. Hollywood has developed elaborate
customs by which nobody ever quite has to say no
or yes. Nobody wants to offend someone who might end up winning an
Oscar or running a studio. The unfortunate result is people have a
terrible time being direct. When new writers arrive in Hollywood, they get
the impression their career is about to really take off, because it seems
that everyone loves me! This
partly explains why box office results have become the measure of success
all other forms of praise have lost their currency. Praise is cheap
Carls agent asked for too much money, and the studio said okay, and
paid him. Carl was on the hook for writing a movie about a man who could
read babies minds.
much was too much money? I asked.
hundred thousand. That was a lot of money back then.
be so hard on yourself, Carl. No young writer could say no
way! Are you kidding? At 24?
you turned down a lot more than that.
be a salesman! Not to write!
this from me seemed to alleviate some of his guilt.
began writing the talking baby movie. He soon learned that getting hired
to write a movie is still a huge leap away from that movie getting made.
It was suggested that he might improve his movies chances if he did his
research by hanging out with the babies of important studio
executives. So C.K. Lander, great writer of his generation, became a
babysitter again, schmoozing 8-month-olds and newborns, hoping they might
put in a good word with Daddy or Mommy. All this did was humiliate Carl
and destroy his self-respect; the project was shelved.
there were other producers who wanted to hire Carl, other people eager to
tell him how much they loved his work. Pittsburgh wasnt going anywhere.
Hollywood creates insecurity at a slightly higher rate than it fills the
void with money and love. For every movie shot, there are a fifty in
development that dont get made, and for every two new television shows
there are seventy writer-teams getting paid to write pilots that will
never make it. Its not just possible
to make a decent living in Hollywood without ever having a movie in a
theater or a TV show on the air its commonplace. Writers are cut
off from the feedback of the audience; they rarely get exposed to what
real people think of their work. Well-paid writers like Carl end up
starving for recognition and have to live off the crumbs of flattery from
executives, who tell them repeatedly that what gets their movie made is
having stars attached to the project. So the writers are asked to rewrite
their scripts with a certain famous actor in mind.
got really good at imitating the voices of the stars, Carl explained.
We chase success. We write in the style of last years Oscar winner.
I could write in everybodys voice but my own.
Carl described all this, I started to understand why he had to move away
from Hollywood to regain his voice. My curiosity swung to wondering how
hed ever managed to leave.
you do it, Carl?
not sure, he said. It still amazes me.
do you think was the first trigger?
was writing a script about Silicon Valley, the Great Gatsby reset in
Sunnyvale, and I was allowed into Yahoo for a couple days to research the
arrived expecting to see an incredible ostentatious display of wealth. At
the time, a full three-quarters of the employees were millionaires. But
they were still working in cubicles. Even the founders! And they were so
nice! One moment that stood out: an assistant had to get lunch for
David Filo and Jerry Yang. She grabbed two pre-made turkey sandwiches from
the cafeteria and threw them on the table in the conference room. Carl
couldnt believe she hadnt asked them what they wanted, or let them
customize their orders. When Carl was her age, he had to get lunch one day
for Joel Schumacher and another executive. Joel ordered gazpacho with no
croutons, no sour cream and chopped egg on the side. The other executive
ordered a hamburger with grilled onions on the side. But the burger came
by accident with the onions on
the burger. The executive refused to eat it, and chewed Carl out for not
checking the order to make sure it was accurate before presenting it.
few days at Yahoo really put Hollywoods absurd values in
perspective, Carl said. Id assumed wealth ruined everybody,
but it wasnt everybody. They were all millionaires, and still had their
script died a slow death like all his others, but he became hypersensitive
to his life in Beverly Hills. Thats when I realized what Id
become. Like the vanity license plate I suddenly wanted it off my
reached into a file drawer and pulled out the embarrassing culprit, C K
Lander. He said, I used to think this was so cool. Now it
the time Carl first contacted me, the Writers Guild appeared determined
to strike. It was narrowly avoided, but in the approaching months, every
writer in Hollywood was facing the possibility of not working for awhile.
Carl pined for Pittsburgh. As he does every year, Carl filled out the card
from his old high school that requested donations. He put down his credit
card number beside a donation amount and mailed it off. Right after that,
he lost his credit card. So he emailed Shady Side to provide his new
credit card number, and after a woman there dug out his card and learned
he worked in Hollywood, he wrote that he always had this fantasy he would
come back there and teach. She emailed back that one of their English
teachers was going on sabbatical they needed a teacher for the year.
She also knew the head of the department at Pitt, who invited Carl to
visit and meet with some of the faculty.
we sold the house and moved here, I thought that was it, fade out, end of
story. Man overcomes temptation, moves home, roll credits. I thought we
would get here, and it would all click, and the rest would be easy. I
never thought through what Id do once I finally got here. But now Im
really aware that moving was only the first step. Im kind of embarrassed. It took me seventeen years to
take the first step.
you going to stay?
have no idea. What do you think?
whats going to happen to me?
you been writing?
just started something.
story or a script?
its a memoir.
Good for you.
its not my memoir.
do you mean?
you know Louie Anderson?
comedian? The host of Family Feud?
but he also wrote that book, Dear
Dad. The publisher wants the prequel, all the rich stuff about his
childhood. A lot of amazing stuff happened to him.
what the hell does this have to do with you?
a close friend, and he asked me to write the book for him.
suddenly understood, and I was simultaneously deeply disappointed and
frustrated and sorry for Carl. Youre writing Louie Andersons
memoirs, I repeated in a hushed, astonished tone.
wont take me more than a few months, he said. Right?
pretty optimistic. Usually you get sucked into the editing cycle and it
consumes twice the time you anticipated.
was afraid of that.
why do it at all? Why give even three months to someone elses story
when you sold your house and moved across the country to write your own
story? Any other writer, Id say sure, take the work, its a paycheck.
But you dont need the money. You only have a year here. Its not why
wife had joined us, and I got the feeling she had made the same obvious
point several times.
couldnt turn him down, Carl said. He needed me.
him you cant do it, I insisted. What kind of friend asks you to
write his book when everyone
knows you need to write your
book? If you were an alcoholic, Id call him an enabler.
admitted hed grown scared whether he could really write his own story,
and he thought this might be a good bridge it would be a book, not
another script, and it would be about early family material, which Carl
also wanted to mine in his own story. Carl kept insisting he could write
the book quickly.
said, I dont know what to tell you, Carl. Since I write books, I
find it kind of insulting that you believe you can just dash one off for a
friend, not recognizing the amount of work that will be involved.
was a hard moment, because until that time, I was implicitly giving Carl
my approval. Id flown across the country, and we were fast becoming
friends, and I could see this meant a lot to him. None of his friends in Hollywood had come to see him,
and few probably would. Suddenly I was the Voice of Disapproval. In the
moment, I just wanted to brush it away and be friends again, but in the
back of my mind I was trying to remember, This is the guy
who wrote St. Elmos Fire! This is the guy who inspired me! Look out for
him! Help him regain his courage!
how? I didnt want to insult him. I told him the stories of others who
had put their nose right up to their destiny, only to get sidetracked by
last minute temptation, or in Carls lexicon, the Third Act
Complication. We are our own worst enemies. I grew weary quickly, and I
had to call it a night. I could have taken his extra bedroom, but I went
to a hotel, where I proceeded to stare at the ceiling for about three
hours. Why was I so worked up about this? Why did it matter? I dont
know. The stories of others had been brainwashing me, surely. I had been
surrounding myself with acts of courage. Was I pushing Carl when really I
needed to do something for myself? Had I betrayed my own artistic
integrity? I lay there, working through the choices Id made the last
nine years. Id resisted a lot of offers, but not always. I still had a
long way to go. I woke up in my clothes late the next morning, wondering
whether I should walk over to the Cathedral of Learning for another day.
My sadness was gone. Carl had mentioned several times he would have lots
of time for me today, because his students would be filling out teacher
evaluations and grading him. I suddenly thought, its his Day of
Judgment! And I knew what his students thought of him would matter a
little too much to Carl. I called him at home, let it ring a few times,
and then wavered and hung up.
moment later my phone rang.
just called you.
know. I Star-69d you.
just wanted to say
What was I trying to say?
It means so
much to me how youve let me into your life, Carl. Into your classes,
into your marriage, into your past, into your house. I wasnt sure if I
should even say this, because I dont want you to care what I think. But
I think your story will mean something to people. You have a good story.
Your story I think its important.
always thought it was meaningful.
is, Carl, whether you write it or I. And
I was rambling. And I want you to know that what those students think
of you doesnt matter, Carl. Youre a good teacher, Ive seen it.
You keep doing what youre doing, itll be all right.
I dont care what those kids think.
promised to come back to Pittsburgh with my wife and son that summer. Carl
promised to not spend much time on Louie Andersons book. And in this
way, our future was again bound tight in our hopes for it. It wasnt
wise to make these promises they would be hard to live up to but
we seemed unable not to swear to them.