Name Dan Bronson
A closely guarded secret.
I could tell you I’m thirty-two, but I’d be lying. Almost everyone in Hollywood lies about their age. Why? Most people would guess that it’s vanity. While there’s plenty of mirror-gazing in the industry, the real answer is fear. Ageism thrives in the film business because the corporatized studios and their marketing gurus have decided that their target audience is the fifteen year-old kid. If your target is young, you want to make sure all the arrows in your quiver have been fashioned by the young. Young actors. Young writers. Young directors. (Young is also cheap. You have to pay more for experience.)
As a result, unless a writer has scored big in features or has become a show runner in television, his or her career is usually over by the age of thirty-five.
I defied the odds. A former college professor, I didn’t arrive in town until I was thirty-five, didn’t write my first screenplay until I was almost forty, and my career turned out to be a demonstration of the fraudulence of studio and network thinking. I was fifty when I wrote DEATH OF A CHEERLEADER, an MOW in which the primary characters were fifteen year-old girls. It was a big success—the highest rated television movie of the year, and the head of a rival network, who’d never met me or had a glimpse of my graying hair, announced that “Dan Bronson is the voice of teenage America!” This, much to the amusement of my two teenagers who were convinced that I was a hopelessly out-of-touch fuddy-duddy.
What the studio and network heads, who are often business school graduates or former agents, don’t understand is that writers write. We imagine ourselves into other people’s heads, other people’s lives. I am neither a girl nor a fifteen year-old, and yet the teenaged girls I created in CHEERLEADER spoke to the audiences of its day and continue to speak to today’s audience, which chats about it on the Internet. I understand that someone has even written a song about it.
The fact is that as you get older and more experienced, you get better, but try telling that to a studio or network exec.
Oh, by the way, I’m seventy-one.
Where are you from?
Pomona, California—a town named after the goddess of fruits and flowers. Fruits and flowers were pretty much a thing of the past in the Pomona of my childhood, which I spent in a housing tract built on the site of a former orange grove. The only sign of oranges left at that point in time? The road that bordered the tract: Orange Grove Avenue. A bit like the Monarch Butterfly grove in Los Osos, California—a grove local authorities tore out to build…what else? The Monarch Grove School! Like Wordsworth, I grieve to think what man has made of man.
A little about your self: Your education, family life, etc.
Remember the rolling hills planted with row upon row of identical houses in the opening of Spielberg’s POLTERGEIST? Well, if you eliminated the hills, you’d have some idea of my childhood world. The saving grace was the San Gabriel Mountains looming large on the horizon to the north of us.
You’d also have to eliminate the demons that tormented Spielberg’s suburban family. I had an ideal family life, basking in my parents’ love until eventually my brother came along and I reluctantly had to share. It was perfect…and from a biographer’s point of view, boring. No conflict. No drama. I came to regret this later in life when I studied the lives of famous writers like Fitzgerald and Hemingway and concluded that you had to be tortured, conflicted and seriously alcoholic if you wanted to achieve literary greatness. My life was just too sunny, easy and normal for me to have any hope of immortality as a writer.
One measure of this is the fact that I was not only born in Pomona but spent the first twenty-one years of my life there. Well, I did make one bold move: I decided to attend Pomona College, which is actually located in Claremont, nearly ten minutes from the house I grew up in.
Then I got really bold. I moved all the way across the country, to Princeton University, where I took both a masters and a doctorate. At the end of that experience, I went beyond bold to courageous (or foolhardy, depending upon your point of view): I turned down a job at Middlebury College, one of the most prestigious of Eastern schools, to accept a position at the newly established, quintessentially Western, Prescott College in Arizona.
I was, after all, a Westerner. The West was where I belonged.
Unfortunately, Prescott College was not.
I lasted two years, two years of turmoil and conflict with the administration.
Next up? Nearly a decade at DePauw University, a conservative Midwestern institution, where I had my share of conflict but managed to create a film program and to win a Lilly Endowment Fellowship to support me in an internship at Universal Studios. This led to stints as a studio reader, as Executive Story Editor at Paramount Pictures, and eventually, as an independent writer-producer.
Fiona: Tell us your latest news?
I’ve just published my first book. It’s a memoir that I call CONFESSIONS OF A HOLLYWOOD NOBODY. It is, I hope, a fun, funny account of my rollercoaster ride through Tinsel Town. A survivor’s guide to the business, it also offers a lot of behind-the-scenes glimpses of famous figures and gives the reader a good idea of just how the Dream Factory functions. The reviews, many of them from major players in the business, have been very encouraging.
Fiona: When and why did you begin writing?
I grew up reading before I was able to read. It was a gift from my grandmother, who read Walt Disney Comics to me from the age of consciousness. I spent my early years with Donald Duck, Huey, Dewey and Louis, and Uncle Scrooge, fascinated by the myth-based stories and their exotic locations and by the genius of Carl Barks, the anonymous creator of these wonderful tales.
Then I fell in love with science fiction. My first effort came in seventh or eighth grade when I wrote perhaps fifty pages of a wretched sci-fi adventure with elements shamelessly (and ineptly) stolen from Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. It was absolutely dreadful.
After that, I discovered Steinbeck, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner. Determined to join them in the literary heavens, I enrolled in some creative writing classes at Pomona only to discover that I was just as dreadful a writer then as I had been back in junior high, so I decided to teach my love of literature rather than practice it.
Fiona: When did you first consider yourself a writer?
The moment came late, and it was forced upon me. After years of trying, I managed to set myself up as a producer of a film project based on Dean Koontz’s WHISPERS. The production company forced my partners and me to hire a writer who was talented but was clearly not right for this job. He started handing in pages that were beyond bad. My reaction? Even I can do better than this! After we handed the production company his version of the story and found that they hated it as much as we did, we turned around and gave them my script. This led to a writing deal and to membership in the Writers Guild of America.
That was the moment. I was actually being paid to write! I could henceforth consider myself a professional.
Fiona: What inspired you to write your first book?
My children…and their lack of interest in anything I’ve done. I don’t take it personally. In fact, most parents I know have had the same experience. But I thought it might be fun to leave them an account of my life–that perhaps, after I was gone, they might actually want to know something about me and my wife. As I got into the project, I realized it could have more general appeal—to anyone interested in a film career or even to anyone with any interest in Hollywood and how it works.
Fiona: Do you have a specific writing style?
I design my screenplays to play out across the page the way they would on the big screen—nothing but images, action and dialogue, all presented in a terse, minimalist way.
My memoir is different. Chatty, personal, almost as if I were having a conversation with the reader. (In fact, the reader actually becomes a character in the course of my telling the story.)
The novel I’ve undertaken is a bit like my screenplays—objective, present tense, lots of hard images, minimalist in style. The difference is that I actually reveal what’s in the heads of my point of view characters, something that’s not possible, except in the most indirect ways, if you’re writing the screen. It’s a great luxury, and I try not to overindulge in it.
Fiona: How did you come up with the title?
I’m not sure.
I’m a huge fan of Billy Wilder’s SUNSET BLVD. Do you remember William Holden saying to Gloria Swanson, “You used to be big in pictures”? I love her response: “I still am big. It’s the pictures that have gotten small.”
Well, I was never big.
Oh, I played with the big boys when I was exec story editor at Paramount; I once had a very hot spec script; I had a greenlight for a picture with the director of DIE HARD, a greenlight that eventually turned red; and there was the immense popularity of DEATH OF A CHEERLEADER.
But the real bigtime escaped me.
Am I bitter?
Not at all.
I’ve had wonderful ride and worked with some extraordinary people, and I take immense satisfaction in the characters I’ve created. They are as real and important to me as my closest friends. And I always remember what I learned from Norma Desmond’s fate—it doesn’t matter how big you are, eventually you’ll be forgotten. It happens to all but the very lucky few.
My experience is, in fact, the experience of most of those who work in Hollywood: lots of ups and downs, moments of triumph and moments when that very hungry wolf is indeed at the door. I wanted to speak for the unrecognized majority, the nobodies who keep the town running.
Then, of course, there’s the Emily Dickinson poem that serves as the epigram to the book: “I’m Nobody—Who are you?/Are you nobody too?”
Fiona: Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
I’m distrustful of the word “message” when it’s applied to literary fiction. Do my screenplays have themes? Yes. They deal with the chasm between appearance and reality, with the dark heart that beats inside all of us, with the irreconcilable conflict between romance and reality. But I tend to agree with Sam Goldwyn—“If you want to send a message, call Western Union.”
Fiona: How much of the book is realistic?
It’s an accurate account of my life.
Fiona: Are experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?
Yes. On someone I’ve gotten to know fairly well through the years: me.
Fiona: What books have most influenced your life most?
Shakespeare’s tragedies—especially that quintessential line, “A man can smile and smile, and be a villain.”
Dickens—primarily GREAT EXPECTATIONS, which was the working title of my memoir and which dramatizes the way Pip marries his romantic longing to the wrong dream.
Conrad—HEART OF DARKNESS (“The horror! The horror!”) and LORD JIM, the sotry of the impossible romantic who cannot come to terms with his own dark heart.
Steinbeck—OF MICE AND MEN and THE GRAPES OF WRATH—for their immense humanity.
Faulkner—THE SOUND AND THE FURY—for its passion and originality.
Fitzgerald—THE GREAT GATSBY.
Fiona: If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?
John Steinbeck—for his love of the craft.
Fiona: What book are you reading now?
I just finished Michael Connelly’s THE GODS OF GUILT. A great read but not a great novel. Connelly’s early works—like THE BLACK ECHO and THE CONCRETE BLONDE— are much more substantial achievements: stunning in style, complex in characterization, filled with moral conflicts and ethical dilemmas. He continues to write irresistible page-turners, but the newer books are thinner in every sense of the word. He simply writes too much.
Fiona: Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest?
Malcolm Brooks, author of an amazing book called PAINTED HORSES, and former actor Jameson Parker, whose AN ACCIDENTAL COWBOY and THE HORSEMAN AT MIDNIGHT are among the finest books I’ve read. Check out HORSEMAN. It’s Cormac McCarthy in John Steinbeck country. I finished it in awe of Jameson’s talent.
Fiona: What are your current projects?
An erotic thriller set in mid-twenties New Orleans. I call it MASQUERADE.
In the planning stages…a series of noir novels.
Fiona: Name one entity that you feel supported you outside of family members.
A group of extraordinary friends.
Fiona: Do you see writing as a career?
Only for the last thirty-five years.
Fiona: If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?
No. That’s the wonder of it. After a quarter century of working in Hollywood where everyone knew better than I what was wrong with my work and how to fix it, I’m thrilled to be in control of my own material. That’s not to say that it couldn’t be improved. I’m sure it could, but it’s exactly what I want it to be, and that’s a rare thing in my experience.
Fiona: Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?
It was probably the fault of those Walt Disney Comics and Robert Heinlein’s novels for young readers—things like ROCKET SHIP GALILEO and THE ROLLING STONES.
Fiona: Can you share a little of your current work with us?
Here are a few pages from the opening of MASQUERADE…
Darkness and the babel of a thousand voices.
A smoldering arch of yellow light bulbs throbs on and off, on and off, emblazoning the night with its message…
Then a shout.
As an enormous mule-drawn float parts the turbulent crowd of Mardi Gras revelers gathered outside the House of Desire, a sleazy Bourbon Street strip joint with a garish yellow sign.
A lovely woman—blonde, blue-eyed, and very frightened—emerges from a door under a wrought-iron balcony.
She hesitates before stepping into the crowd, her eyes darting up and down the street as a jazz band displaces the float and the “Basin Street Blues” blends with the voices of the revelers.
Terror as the woman’s eyes lock on a uniformed cop!
He turns and glances in her direction, but she is gone.
She has slipped into a mask shop where the heads of rabbits, bears and pigs hang like trophies on the wall.
After handing the proprietor a few coins, she dons the rabbit mask she’s purchased and steps back into the street, where she now passes the cop unnoticed.
THEN SPOTS A SECOND COP STARING RIGHT AT HER!
The cop starts to push his way toward her, and she tries to run, but the crowd is shoulder-to-shoulder around her.
The cop keeps coming, the swarm of celebrants parting in front of him. He steps up to her…
…and addresses someone directly behind her: a well-endowed teen sitting topless on her boyfriend’s shoulders, sharing her splendors with the crowd in a dazzling shimmy.
“They’re beauties, Miss. But I’m gonna have to ask you to put them back in your blouse.”
The woman in the rabbit mask slips away, pushing past a family of Red Devils and a corpulent man in diapers with a sash identifying him as “1926.”
…an inebriated alligator staggers up to her and checks her progress through the crowd.
“Kate! I been lookin’ everywhere for you, darlin’.”
The woman stiffens.
“I’m sorry. But I don’t know you.”
“Sure you do, sweetheart.”
She tries to get around him, but he blocks her path.
“What’s the matter?” he asks. “Oh, it’s the outfit, isn’t it? Well, you can relax ‘cause, you see, I’m not really an alligator.”
He tilts back his mask, revealing his drunken face.
“See! It’s me. Beau.”
“I told you. I don’t know you.”
“Come on now, Kate. Don’t play hard to get.”
Once again, she tries to break away. But he reaches out and PULLS OFF HER MASK!
She blanches, her eyes wide with fear.
The alligator stares at her…and fails to recognize her.
But a bystander with a lean, hungry face clearly does.
He gives her a slow, thin smile and steps toward her, holding a half-concealed knife close to his body.
Fiona: Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
Yes. To force myself to sit down at my desk and stare at the blank page until something comes to me. I’m an absolute genius when it comes to finding excuses not to write.
Fiona: Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?
I’m assuming that you’re asking about contemporary authors. I’d have to say it’s Cormac McCarthy. Why? The darkness and authenticity of his vision. The originality of his style. His uncanny sense of place and time. You don’t read McCarthy’s novels. You experience them.
Fiona: Do you have to travel much concerning your book(s)?
I often travelled in researching my screenplays. Sometimes it was a grand adventure, exploring the backcountry of Mexico, the off-shore oil rigs of the Gulf, the rugged coast of Alaska. I like to meet the sort of people I plan to write about; absorb as much of their lives, values, attitudes, and backgrounds as possible; and get an intimate knowledge of their worlds. The last is particularly important because I try to make setting a character in everything I write. This is particularly true of MASQUERADE, which involved extensive research in New Orleans.
Fiona: Who designed the covers?
Fiona: What was the hardest part of writing your book?
Writing a memoir was a completely new experience for me.
With screenplays, I had a rather rigid process: I did extensive research; I travelled to the setting of whatever piece I was writing and interviewed as many locals as I could; I did extensive character sketches and outlines. All very left brain. Then I put it all away, isolated myself on our boat, and waited for the characters to start talking to me. When that happened, I’d walk the beach with a tape recorder, acting out each scene, returning to the boat to transcribe the dialogue I’d written, filling in the images and the action, revising as I went.
With the memoir, no research was necessary. It was my life, and I worked primarily from memory, checking facts from time to time by visiting my archive of manuscripts. For the first time in my life, I worked without an outline, without any clear sense of direction, without an ending. And I wrote directly on the computer keyboard, something I’d never been able to do in the past. When I finished, I found there was very little I wanted to change.
Fiona: Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
Well, I discovered that my life has perhaps been more interesting and eventful than I realized.
Fiona: Do you have any advice for other writers?
Not really. Each of us has to find his or her own path. If pressed, I might say, learn from those who came before you, find your own voice, write every day, and never give up.
Fiona: Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?
Fiona: Do you remember the first book you read?
Aside from Carl Bark’s remarkable Duck Tales, a child’s picture book called SCUTTLEBUTT about a dog injured in wartime.
Fiona: What makes you laugh/cry?
It’s impossible to generalize.
I laugh at everything from adolescent bathroom humor to sophisticated comedy from Noel Coward or Woody Allen.
I cry when confronted with genuine tragedy—say, the fate of Lennie in OF MICE AND MEN. But I blush to admit that I lost it…on a crowded plane, no less…over the shamelessly sentimental ending of LOVE STORY. “Love means never having to say you’re sorry?” Please!
Fiona: Is there one person pass or present you would meet and why?
Alfred Hitchcock, the Shakespeare of the cinema.
Fiona: What do you want written on your head stone and why ?
Haven’t given it much thought. It’s probably a moot question because right now I’m inclined toward cremation and the scattering of my ashes in California’s High Sierras. Perhaps Emily Dickinson’s “I’m nobody—Who are you?”
Fiona: Other than writing do you have any hobbies ?
It used to be boating the Pacific coast. Now it’s backpacking the Sierras. And of course, it’s always been road trips—I love travelling what William Least Heat Moon called “Blue Highways,” and I’m supported in this by my wife, who never met a road she didn’t want to take.
Fiona: What TV shows/films do you enjoy watching?
MAD MEN and almost anything by the Coen Brothers.
Fiona: Favorite foods / Colors/ Music
Chicken fried streak with biscuits and gravy. (I have little patience with health food or political correctness.)
Probably blue. To my wife’s complete chagrin, I wear blue jeans and a blue work shirt every day. I do compromise with my boots, however. They’re brown.
As for music, classical, country, and old standards. Gershwin most of all.
Fiona: If you were not a writer what else would you like to have done?
My secret self has always been an actor.
Fiona: Do you have a blog/website? If so, what is it?
Buying link for CONFESSIONS OF A HOLLYWOOD NOBODY http://www.amazon.com/Confessions-Hollywood-Nobody-Dan-Bronson-ebook/dp/B00L4INYKK/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1414619419&sr=1-1&keywords=dan+bronson