In The Loop
From LA Style, 1990
“I was humiliated at Mortons last night,” Warren Adler says, sounding suspiciously as if he’s about to launch into a Rodney Dangerfield routine. “I had the worst table in the place. Facing the wall. They actually have a table like that. They just want to intimidate you. I’ll never go there again.”
Depending on how dark your view of the way writers are treated in Hollywood, you can decide whether the maitre d’ did or did not know that Adler authored the novel The War of the Roses, source of the surprise hit film, and, more important, is the guy who made front page industry trade paper headlines for selling his follow-up unpublished novel Private Liesfor a record-popping $1.2 million. To Adler, the incident is just one more example of the rotten manners that prevail in Los Angeles, and the lack of respect that exists, in particular, for writers.
It’s not that he isn’t happy with how The War of the Rosesturned out. He’s pleased to the point of heresy with how producer James Brooks preserved the essential Adler in the translation: “If they don’t retain the title you got trouble,” he explains. “If they don’t retain the ending, that’s a real slap in the face.” (They did – although “Brooks had to fight every single guy at the studio.”) “And if they don’t have the same basic protagonists, you’re losing out there too.” (It’s interesting to note that Adler’s novel was a straight-up tale, not a black comedy – that was Brooks and screenwriter Michael Leeson’s touch.)
But for everything Adler got on The War of the Roses, there was something he didn’t get; and as for the fate of other projects based on his books (such as the upcoming Random Hearts), he’s not all happy. The deal on the unpublished Private Lies was engineered to redress these grievances: “I feel like I’m leading the charge for writers,” Adler says. “I want people out here to recognize the importance of the writer.”
This strange combination of a Dangerfield and a Don Quixote for the rights of Hollywood writers stands out in stark relief from the crowd of downtrodden scribes whose interests he wants to advance. Adler has never scraped by on options or rewrites, never schmoozed over coffee and croissants at the Farmers Market. Rather, for the last four decades, he has risen early each morning, without fail (and has never experienced writer’s block), to get the obligatory five pages of fiction written before going off to run his various companies.
“I’ve been an entrepreneur all my life,” the 62-year-old Adler explains. “I’m an aberration as a writer. I didn’t begin to get published until I was in my forties. I wanted to be a writer since I was sixteen, but I had a family to support. I’m not good at accepting authority, so I created businesses. I ran an advertising agency, I owned television stations, radio stations, and I formed a publishing business.”
This background helps him enter into Hollywood negotiations with a sharper eye and cooler head than most writers: “I always wear two hats. And I know the forces at work. One of the things that defeats the writer is that the producer is street smart. They’re sharks out there. I’ve been dealing with sharks all my life. Usually the writer is so vulnerable, he has an image of himself as a creative type and doesn’t want to talk about business. He’s always defeated by the shark. I can stand up to the sharks. Business is for sharks and I’ve done business.”
So for Adler, the money part was the easy part. “I finished the book four months [before it was bid on], but I decided to sit on it, to see how The War of the Roseswould do.” When War hit big, he shoed the book to his publishing agent in New York, Peter Lampack, and his Hollywood agent, Todd Harris of Triad – “brilliant strategists,” Adler calls them. Anticipating a feeding frenzy, they decided to let studios bid on the book even before publishing houses looked at it – thereby avoiding possible leaks from the publishing world. “On a Thursday night they distributed it to a dozen of the top people in town. [On Monday] they decided to stop the bidding, because they were inflating the price – those guys have their relationships with the studios, and over $1.2 million was a lot of money for an unpublished book. I said, great, stop it, and give it to the highest bidder. And Tri-Star for the prize. I like them. They’re well financed, and Guber and Peters are pretty smart guys. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t have given it to Warners.”
For all that, Adler makes it clear that he finds the discussion of money mildly distasteful, but necessary: “Out hear they love that. I authorized the release of that [$1.2 million] number because I know how they feel about money here. I live in Jackson, Wyoming, where my neighbors are Laurance Rockefeller and Harvey Firestone, and showing money is the no-no of no-no’s there. I drive a Chevy Suburban back there, and I drive a Jaguar here.”
But for Adler, the movies are just a means to an end: “I want my books to last beyond my lifetime. No serious novelist can sit in his room day after day all alone and not want to make an impact, to hit some universal gong… I don’t write best-seller-type fiction – Danielle Steel, Sidney Sheldon. My characters are highly individualistic. So I have taken another route to bring a name-brand author.
“There is ego in it. I want people to read my books. One of the keys to my books being accepted in Hollywood is that they’re about something. You can describe each of my books in one word: War of the Roses is about greed, Random Hearts is about forgiveness. Private Lies is about manipulation. Maybe Hollywood is coming back to movies that are about something. Batman isn’t about anything. I’m sure that Dick Tracy won’t be about anything.”
Thus, to Adler, movies are the best route toward a greater readership for his novels. “Movies are the best promotion in the world. The marketing of movies is genius.” With this broad and, you must admit, original agenda, Adler understandably feels a need to participate in the development of his own promotional material, the movies made from his books.
“Here’s what I want,” he says. “Like a father, bringing up his children, I want to make sure that the material gets on its way properly. That means writing the first script.” This philosophy necessitated a recent switch from CAA to Triad. “It occurred to me that [at CAA] they were looking at me merely as a writer of novels. They were not pushing me to write the scripts, to have any other role in the making of my material. It was very difficult for me to convey to CAA that I wanted a stronger role. They were very nice, I liked them, but…”
Based on his Hollywood experience thus far, Adler is hell-bent on the terms of the deals Triad would make for him. On Random Hearts, which now has, like several other of the author’s projects, a new blast of heat on it, “I have the title executive producer, and I can’t get anybody to return my calls. I tried calling (producer) Ray Stark. He and (co-producer) Dan Melnick have yet to respond to a telephone call.”
Stark and Melnick haven’t even offended him at the level Twentieth Century Fox did on War of the Roses: “Contractually [Fox] didn’t want me in the loop. They don’t want the writer of original material around. They didn’t invite me to the publicity junket. I had to o publicity through the back door. And the reason is that they want to take the creative credit. They almost resent the novelist’s contribution in supplying the underlying material…I gave them a list of friends I wanted to invite to the premiere. They didn’t invite any of them. They said, ‘It’s too big,’ all of that…I got to the premiere and saw a whole room full of people who don’t have anything to do with anything – lower-level agents, secretaries. I was really pissed off. And they didn’t even invite me to the New York premiere. The next contract they’re gonna pay me to go to these premiers, and I’m gonna invite who the hell I’m gonna invite. I’m slowly but surely contractually getting rid of the irritations that writers face.”
If it turns out that Adler’s prose makes for consistently strong screen entertainments, the touchy author will inevitably compromise eventually and turn up again at Mortons. And on that visit, perhaps he will gaze up to see what other, meeker Hollywood writer is over at the table facing the wall.