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My Time with Frankenheimer

My Time with Frankenheimer

Articles - Crossing the Line

I opened the sunday times and
there they were—the
piercing blue eyes staring back at me with that “let’s-get-it-right” gaze.
The headline read “Filmmaker Frankenheimer dies at 72.” Front page,
not tucked away in the obit catacombs. He would’ve approved. Not
that I know for sure. Not that I can speak for him. I’d never really
known the man. I certainly can’t be counted amongst his friends.
Even so, one thing is certain: In the span of three short months,
he impacted my work and my soul in a profound way.

Eight months prior, I’d parted ways with my collaborator
of several years and was striking out on my own. As always, my timing couldn’t
have been worse. Money was tight, bills were piling up, a strike was looming
and jobs were scarce. I was staring down the barrel of an exciting career
at Starbucks when, out of the blue, I got the call from my manager: “Dust
off your dancing shoes. He wants to hear the pitch.”

Twelve hours and a half dozen lattes later I was driving
up Benedict Canyon, glancing at the scribbled directions that ended with “Buzz the tennis entrance
and someone will let you in.” I parked on the street, worried that my piece-of-crap
car would leave some unsavory stain on his driveway. I rang the bell and his
assistant appeared, leading me inside. “He’ll be right with you,” she said,
depositing me in the study with a smile before disappearing to answer a phone.

I looked around, trying to savor the moment—trying to burn it into my memory.
Of course, it was all a blur. My mind was reeling with the reality of what
was about to happen. I tried to focus, taking in the room, the furniture, the
framed photos. Faces I recognized, famous faces, sharing a moment with the
man I was about to meet. Then, behind me, a door opened. I turned, and there
he was, holding his hand out as he approached: “Hi. I’m John.”

In the span of three months, says author John Weidner,
John Frankenheimer “impacted my work and
my soul in a profound way.”

And that’s when it hit me: Okay, we share the same manager and we share the
same first name. But other than that, we have less than nothing in common.
Me, a struggling screenwriter with nary a produced credit to my name. Him,
a living legend, director of The Manchurian Candidate, Birdman of
Alcatraz
, Seven Days in May and my personal favorite, Seconds.

He waved me to a couch and settled his long, stooped frame
into a chair. I sensed this was my moment, and began. Two sentences later,
I decided to risk it: “I, um, just have to tell you, John, that I’m, uh… your biggest fan.” I
brace myself for the possible backlash. You never know with these
legend types. Much to my relief, he smiled, genuinely appreciative,
even taking the time to ask me… about me. Where did I grow up? What
school did I go to? Who were my favorite writers? Like I was
more than just some guy—some stranger—sitting in his study with my hat in my
hands.

Again, I launched into my pitch. My mouth was cotton and
my eyes saw white—that
make-believe realm where characters perform on your command. Fifteen minutes
later, it was over. I waited, trying not to hyperventilate. John sat there
silently, deep in thought, a cipher. I instinctively rose to my feet, figuring
I could make it to the door before his assistant threw me out. But then, to
my complete amazement, he began to backtrack through
the entire story, beat-by-beat, offering detailed commentary as he went along.
In a town where ADD is epidemic, he had heard every word—every nuance—retaining
each and every moment as if he’d already committed it to film. And then the
impossible happened: he agreed to direct my project.

Months later, even as he spent long, exhausting days toiling on what would
be his final film, Path To War, John found the time to accompany me
to several meetings. I recall each of them in vivid detail. I’d do my pitch;
then John would dazzle the entire room with the places he had been and the
people he had known. I recall one such story about an Afghan warlord who, during
the making of The Horsemen, offered John a parcel of land if only he’d
promise to take up permanent residence when filming was complete. As always,
these anecdotes were the highlight of the meeting. As we headed back to our
cars after one of them, I asked John why he’d never written any of it down.
These were gems, life adventures that would make for a great book. John looked
at me and half-smiled: “Maybe someday, but I’d have to write it myself. Those
kind of books never get it right; people wind up getting hurt. I don’t want
that to happen.”

“He put his faith, his reputation, his complete
confidence in the hands of a relative unknown…”

A few weeks later, we hit our stride, closing in on a home
for the project. And that’s when everything came to a screeching halt. “Back surgery, nothing
serious,” my manager assured me. One week later, the trades reported that John
had pulled out of his latest project, and a few weeks after that, I saw those
piercing blue eyes in the Sunday Times.

Thinking back on those days, there are so many moments
I’ll never forget, but this one keeps coming back: John had arranged a meeting
for us with a producer he knew—someone he felt should hear our pitch. En route, John called me from
his car phone: “What can I do to make it easier for you? What can I do to help?” I
struggled for an answer, amazed that this master moviemaker—this blossoming mentor—would defer to my
judgement. Of course, I didn’t have a clue what to say, but
offered this: “If I miss anything, John, feel free to jump in.” Without a moment’s hesitation, he
firmly replied: “Don’t worry. You won’t miss anything.”

John Frankenheimer never doubted my ability to do my job,
to hold up my end of the bargain. He put his faith, his reputation, his complete
confidence in the hands of a relative unknown. For that—and for so much more—I
will be eternally grateful. MM

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