The Cat’s Meow: A Classy Story of Classic Hollywood

Steven Peros is an award-winning writer and filmmaker with credits in Film, Television, and Theatre.

Ten years of research into a mysterious 1924 death on board William Randolph Hearst’s yacht (in the company of Charlie Chaplin, Marion Davies, and Louella Parsons), led to his screenplay, “The Cat’s Meow,” a work of speculative fiction which has been brought to the screen by Lions Gate Films, under the direction of Peter Bogdanovich, starring Kirsten Dunst, Eddie Izzard, Edward Herrmann, Jennifer Tilly, and Cary Elwes. It will be released theatrically April, 2002. As a television writer, Steven completed three episodes for “The Lot,” an Emmy Award winning half-hour comedy series about life in Hollywood in the 1930s, which premiered in January 2001 on American Movie Classics.

Tim Rhys, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): You said that your family isn’t in The Business. Where are you from, and how did you first get interested in moviemaking/screenwriting?

Steven Peros (SP): I was born in Brooklyn and moved to middle-class suburban Long Island when I was two years old. I’m a product of a public school education, whatever that means. I’m the youngest of three boys. The oldest, Mike, was a big movie buff. I scammed my love of old movies from him. He was the Warner Bros gangster film fan and I was the Universal horror film fan. Between us, we had a solid book and video library. In elementary school, I wrote, directed, produced, and starred in short plays
in my backyard. Even then, I learned that your real money was in concession sales. $1.55 in ticket sales, $1.65 in lemonade and cookies. I acted in all the school plays and am proud to say I won Best Actor in the Senior yearbook. In 10th grade I got a Super 8 camera and started making short films. I decided that I wanted to write and direct movies and theatre, and applied to only one school, NYU, because I knew I wanted to be in Manhattan. I got accepted and had a blast there. I can trace nearly everything I’ve achieved, every gig, large and small, to a contact or friendship forged at NYU. Even my introduction to Cat’s Meow producer, Kim Bieber, was through an NYU friend, Dennis Bartok, a screenwriter who also runs programming for the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles.

MM: There’s an old saying that goes something like “there’s many a slip twixt the cup and the lip.” That, of course, describes moviemaking in spades. Can you give us the Readers Digest version of how The Cat’s Meow came together?

SP: Well, I’ll be going into detail on this in your Spring issue of MovieMaker, but essentially, I wrote it as a spec screenplay right out of college. Back then it was titled Everybody Charleston! It was optioned in 1990, re-optioned, financed, had a start date, and then it all fell through. Someone else tried to get it made and had a stroke. Another company optioned it and then was absorbed by a bigger company who let it sit in a file drawer for eight months rather than give it back to me. Finally, I just wanted to tell the story to an audience-any audience. I turned it into a stage play in ’96, found a producer, and it was mounted in L.A. in late ’97 to some very nice reviews and good houses, allowing us to extend the run. This re-invigorated interest in the film script. The play’s producer, Kim Bieber, partnered with Carol Lewis, and they got it to Peter Bogdanovich. Within a year, Lions Gate agreed to co-finance with a German company, KC Medien.

MM: So, although your Cinderella story was delayed by about a decade, you got to live it eventually! Since man cannot live on advances alone, though, how did you make your living between the time you got out of school and the time The Cat’s Meow got made?

SP: Right out of NYU, an internship I’d had with Nederlander TV in NYC turned into a real job as their Director of Development and Associate Producer. We did Orpheus Descending for TNT and the GM Playwrights Theater on A&E, which won four ACE Awards. I wrote at nights and on weekends. After I got paid option and rewrite money, I decided to brave it as a full time writer and come out to L.A.. As a single guy living frugally, I figured the cash would be enough until the obvious big break that’s sure to be coming in the next six months. Well, the money ran out, the credit cards got maxed, I wore out the financial good graces of friends and family-a completely unique story, no? Anyway, the only “day job” I took was freelance script reading for William Morris, on and off for a few years. It was a great gig and got me to do something every screenwriter should do- READ SCREENPLAYS. I learned plenty from the good ones and even more from the bad ones. I was not one of those mean-spirited readers who would use a script report as a stand-up comedy routine, cracking jokes. That always seemed rather cowardly to me. I read for the top guys there and was able to make my own hours, so to prospective producers and development execs, I gave the appearance that I was a “full-time writer.” This, coupled with sporadic small-change writing gigs and options, got me by … barely.

Kirsten Dunst and Eddie Izzard in The Cat’s Meow. Image courtesy of Lionsgate

MM: Can you talk about working with Peter Bogdanovich, and about the nature of the screenwriter/director relationship?

SP: The man’s made arguably five great films: Last Picture Show, What’s Up Doc, Paper Moon, Saint Jack, and his little seen debut, Targets. I thought long ago he’d be the perfect director for this film, given his love of the period and knowledge of these characters. That said, I’d also heard the legendary tales of the egos these ’70s directors had. Peter, and also Scorsese, Coppola… All I can say is that in Peter’s case, I believe personal and professional tragedies have made him rediscover what’s important. He and I got along great. We saw the same movie from the start. He asked me to be on set during rehearsals and throughout the entire shoot. I wasn’t just sitting watching. We worked on the script throughout the shoot, usually for aesthetic reasons, other times for production reasons. He allowed me to have his ear, which I did not abuse. He often asked my opinion and counsel on set. It was a real working relationship. We solved problems together, often with the input of the actors, and there was never one argument between us, not one, during the entire process. I learned a helluva lot about directing, the politics of it as well as the aesthetics, from hanging by Peter’s side.

MM: Tell me about your habits as a screenwriter. For instance, do you have many projects going at one time, or are you totally focused on one project? And, more particularly, what are your physical habits– i.e. do you write in the middle of the night, do you write on a 1930s manual typewriter? What?

SP: Okay, I have always been way behind the curve with technology. No computer in college or out of college. I used an electric typewriter, then a Brother Word Processor with a daisy wheel printer. Three noisy hours to print one script. I retired that for a monolith IBM from a junk heap, then used the old Mac of my then-girlfriend (now wife). Finally, I’m using a state-of-the-art laptop! I have arrived! Anyway, I can work on more than one project at once, but only if circumstances force it. Generally, when I am in writing mode, I write from rolling out of bed until I cry uncle before dinner. If I’m really good, I’ll jump back in after dinner, but not too often. I’m not one of these 6am writers, nor am I one of these wake-up-at-noon and work into the wee hours. I’m a nine to sixer. I enjoy writing. It allows me to get lost, playact, play God. For me, it’s far from misery. I write at home, with classical or some form of non-lyric music playing quietly. People are telling me it’s good to change the environment-parks, coffee shops-but there’s too many people around, too many distractions. And, in all honesty, it’s a bit of a cliche to be a screenwriter in LA sitting in coffee shop with your laptop. I’d spend all my time giggling at myself.

MM: After The Cat’s Meow experience, what are your thoughts on the merits/drawbacks of an ensemble cast?

SP: The merits are that you have roughly six cast members who all feel, in some way, that it’s their film, or at least that it becomes their film at certain moments. This has the potential to be a bad thing, but in our case, it created a sense of unified focus-a “we’re all in this together” vibe. As a writer, the challenge is not only creating balance, but equal levels of interest for the audience. You never want them to say, “Oh, we’re on this guy now? I don’t like his story so much.” I remember feeling that way with Altman’s Short Cuts. Mostly great segments, but some not so great. I think we licked that by having every character so interconnected with each other. It’s an ensemble piece, but not episodic. There’s one central story being told.

MM: The film is quite conventional, in that the style plays like a traditional, timeless Hollywood movie. For instance, there are no special effects or bizarre camera angles and gratuitous Steadicam shots, etc. Do you see yourself continuing to write stories where this kind of filmmaking would be natural? Or do you see yourself writing in various genres that would lend themselves to a more experimental style?

SP: Oh, there are a lot of Steadicam shots. Peter covered an entire three-page scene between Chaplin and Davies with a single Steadicam move. It’s rather invisible-as it should be-because the same shot moves from two-shot to close-up to wide, but it’s there and in some other places as well. As far as writing in various genres, I like to watch all kinds of movies, and as a result, I like to write all kinds of movies. As far as the story-telling, The Cat’s Meow is “traditional” in that it adheres to a basic three act structure. I think most films, even those that appear “experimental,” actually, at their core, follow this tradition. Bottom line-it works, yet it’s not a formula and not limiting. On the surface, Darren Aronofsky, especially in Pi, would appear to be “experimental,” given the stylistic directorial choices. But as a script, the story is developed classically, and very effectively. The same script could have been shot in an entirely “traditional” style. Similarly, The Cat’s Meow, in another director’s hands, could have been shot in an entirely different, “experimental” way, perhaps using the camera/editing to stress the decadence or the sense that things were getting out of control, akin to Fosse’s work in Cabaret. I feel if you have a good script-a good story, with intriguing characters and conflicts-you can inspire five great yet disparate directors who would then do great work in their own distinctive style, whether its Aronofsky or Bogdanovich.

Peter Bogdanovich directs Kirsten Dunst on the set of The Cat’s Meow. Image courtesy of Lionsgate

MM: What are you working on now?

SP: Right now I have two scripts being shuttled around town. I completed a working-class Greek American comedy set in the suburbs of Boston in 1979. It’s called Car Trouble, and will be Olympia Dukakis’s feature film directing debut. I laugh a lot when I read it, but I love all my children, especially when they’re first born, which is a blessing and a curse. I’m also Exec Producing a feature I wrote for indie director Dean Pollack, whose first feature, Show & Tell, took Second Prize at Austin. It’s a darkly comic contemporary tale involving upper middle class suburbia. One of my Cat’s Meow producers is involved, as well. That’s one that that could lend itself to an experimental shooting style, but again, not intrinsically.

MM: Do you want to direct, eventually?

SP: Definitely. My major at NYU was Film and Television Production. I’m proud to say that my half-hour student film, Old Clowns Don’t Bite, won a record five awards at the school’s festival, including Best Director. I have two scripts I wrote which I would like to direct. One of them, Karlaboy, is based on a stage play I directed in L.A. in ’94. Like The Cat’s Meow, it involves old Hollywood, but in this case it’s entirely fictitious and set in flashback, in the 1950s. It’s both a supernatural and psychological ghost story that takes place in a dilapidated 1950s Hollywood mansion. I’ll start to get it out there as more awareness grows of The Cat’s Meow.

MM: How do you like living in LA?

SP: It’s a great town, but you have to do more work to discover it than in a city like New York. It’s very spread out and you need wheels, although the new subway is a kick. But there are neighborhood watering holes, great old restaurants, fantastic movie theatres, including many revival houses and museum programs. It’s a short drive to either the beach or the mountains. It’s less than two hours to snow in the winter. LA, like anyplace, is about the people you spend your time with. If you hang with miserable people who are single-mindedly riding the reckless emotional rollercoaster of the next acting/writing/directing gig, then you, too, will be miserable. My advice to anyone who comes to live in L.A. is Get a Life, keep at it, and be damn patient.

MM: Do you think the film industry as hazardous to a serious relationship as we’ve all heard?

SP: I met my wife in L.A. and we’ve been married four years. She was born and raised in Orange County and she is as perfect a match as I ever dreamed of. Again, there are a lot of miserable people who think L.A. is Oz and then get pissed off at the world-and the opposite sex-when they learn it isn’t. Sometimes you’re on a date with such an angry beast, and sometimes you’re the angry beast yourself. Trying to find someone you’re in sync with is the trick. But it happens. I know a lot of happy film industry couples. But we all paid our dues.

MM: What’s the best place in LA to have a drink?

SP: Excellent question! I like the “Old Hollywood” atmosphere, so there’s The Dresden Room in Los Feliz, which suddenly got very crowded after Swingers came out. The martinis at Musso and Frank-the oldest restaurant in L.A. -are the best and every waiter is at least 50. The lobby bar down the block at the Roosevelt Hotel-home of the first Oscars-is also a kick. The Red Lion in Silver Lake. None of these places are “in,” but they’ll still be there in 10 years. MM

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