"NO MONKEE JOKES"
Davy Jones (1945-2012)
The news of Davy Jones dying today was sad to me.
One of the great things about working in the entertainment business is you get to meet people in the public spotlight. You even meet people whom you grew up watching, and whose work you have enjoyed.
I never met Davy Jones, so I debated whether to write what you are reading. But here it is: I’m writing about the only one of The Monkees I did meet, because it will help me get over the sadness of Davy’s death.
Growing up, I was a fan of The Monkees. Probably because their show hit at the perfect point in my life – I was young, loved music, loved TV, and The Monkees were a combination of TV and music.
I’ll skip all the criticism other music gatekeepers have had about the worth of The Monkees and their contribution to music. I skip it because I think music is one of those arts where you can’t convince someone what they like is not worthy of being liked. Sometimes a song, an album, a band is all yours and no one is going to take away the adoration you feel with any kind of arguments like -- “The Monkees didn’t play their own instruments; write their own songs; and they were a rip off of Beatlemania.”
Hey, I liked The Monkees!
After I became established as a screenwriter, my agent called one day to tell me (and my writing partner at the time, Jim Bonny) that someone read a script we had written and wanted to meet. It was Mike Nesmith.
“Mike Nesmith of The Monkees?” I asked.
“Yes… is that good or bad?”
It took him awhile to figure out my answer because I screamed.
The meeting was a week later, out at the Santa Monica airport. In an airplane hangar. It was like we were meeting Howard Hughes. And in some ways we kinda were – similar to HH, Mike Nesmith is strange and brilliant.
For those who need a primer, Nesmith is pretty much the grandfather of music videos. At the very least, he was the one who saw the possibilities of matching pop songs with video as a format and putting it out there for fans to consume. Prior to that, any film shot of a band performing a song was part of a larger “project” or “production.”
And if you need any more evidence of Nesmith’s brilliance, he was able to segue into producing movies. This part of his career ended up being a financial success, but more importantly, he kept that same off-kilter creative spirit in the movies he produced. Probably everyone has seen at least one of the films Nesmith produced – Repo Man.
It was the producing movies angle that prompted him to call our agent. He liked our writing and wanted to talk to us about a project he had in his mind that he was interested in developing.
Jim and I made our way to the Santa Monica airport. We were buzzed into an airport hangar, and eventually shown to Mike’s office. The place was tastefully decorated with zero memorabilia about the past. And I mean zero. Not even some photos of him hanging out with Jack Nicholson (who wrote the Monkees movie Head).
Indeed, the only sign of Nesmith’s past was a little wooden sign on his desk that read: “No Monkey Jokes.”
We were kept waiting in his office a few minutes after the appointed time before he showed up. To this day I believe Mike Nesmith probably kept everybody waiting a few minutes past the appointed time… long enough that anyone who came to a meeting with him would get a chance to read that sign.
And that’s why I decided to write about Mike Nesmith on the day the first member of The Monkees has died. It has something to do with what one of the Beatles said during Beatlemania. Something about no one ever truly knowing what it was like to be a Beatle except for four people. And I maintain paraphrased quote is also true about the four people who were The Monkees – Peter, Mickey, Mike and… Davy. Those four also went through something that only they will ever understand – the highs… the lows… the “I can’t believe this happened to me…” to the “what if this had never happened to me… who would I have ended up becoming?”
On the day we met with Mike Nesmith, he lived up to exactly how I imagined he would be – a total Texas gentleman. He was polite, complimentary of our work, and humble about his accomplishments. We talked for a while and at a certain point, he moved to a chalkboard where he wrote some of the ideas he wanted us to consider for his project. And for the life of me (and my writing partner), we didn’t have a clue what the hell he was talking about. It was so over our heads… so obtuse… abstract… and just plain… out there, that we both just listened to him talk about his ideas as if we were junior high school dropouts.
We didn’t end up working with Mike Nesmith, which I’ve always regretted. Very rarely do you get the opportunity to work with people whose creative work you admire.
But I regretted not working with Nesmith for another reason.
If we had produced a movie together, there usually comes a time, often it’s late at night, when the crew is wrapping things up, and beers have been served to mark the end of a successful production week. It ends up being just you and the producer drinking and talking. The perfect time to say something like, “Hey, I wanted to wait for the right moment to say this – I was a real fan of yours. When I was growing up… you really meant something to me…”
"DESIGNING MOVIES AND HIS LIFE"
J. Michael Riva (1948 - 2012)
He was nominated for an Oscar for his work on The Color Purple, but was still on top of his game when he died. Besides doing stellar work on the two Iron Man movies, he was the production designer for Quentin Tarantino’s movie Django Unchained.
I met Michael years ago when he fell in love with a script I wrote and wanted to direct. I’m writing about my experience with him not only to confirm what a wonderfully kind and creative person he was, but also because my dealings with him ended up teaching me something about the industry.
For those who don’t know, Michael was the grandson of the actress Marlene Dietrich. His mother, Maria Riva, was a successful actress, but she also achieved fame by writing an acclaimed biography about her mother.
When we met for lunch to discuss his interest in my script, we talked for several hours about the project and his ideas for directing, all of which were wonderful.
We concluded the meeting with his request to option the script so he could officially start putting things together to get the project set up for financing. I enthusiastically agreed.
Later that day he talked to my agent and made an offer. When I heard the offer, which was generous, I still had a counter demand -- part of the deal was that he had to get his mother to sign a copy of the biography she wrote, and Michael had to spend at least one hour talking to me about his grandmother.
The next time we met, Michael showed up with a signed copy of his mother’s book. He pushed it across the table, saying, “I’m just fulfilling my contractual obligations.” And then we proceeded to talk for several hours about the great Marlene Dietrich.
I continued to meet with Michael, probably half a dozen times, but there were gaps in our meetings because he would go off and work as a production designer in big Hollywood movies. When he broke the news to me that he was leaving a third time during the development of our project I said to him, “You know, Michael, at a certain point, you’re going to have to turn down one of these jobs so you can focus on getting our production off the ground.” He agreed. When the first option lapsed, he felt he was backing up his commitment by optioning the material again at even more generous terms.
As it turned out, Michael could never resist an attractive job offer, a necessary step if he was going to focus on directing our project.
And I could never blame him.
If people like Steven Spielberg, Rob Reiner, or Richard Donner are calling you to work with them on their next project… how do you turn down those offers?
My experience with Michael did teach me a lesson about those who end up distinguishing themselves as directors -- Those who direct end up doing it because they will simply die if they can’t direct. Directing is what they need to do to express themselves.
Michael already had a way of expressing himself through his work as a production designer, and I discovered that he didn’t have a “need” to direct.
I also discovered J. Michael Riva had something else… very rare for people who grow up in the midst of famous people. He never seemed like he had anything to prove. Michael was talented. He was sought after for his talent, and he achieved acclaim for his talent.
When you sat there having lunch with him, just talking, you realized… he was happy.