|The Cat’s Meow|
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 (TR): 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.
TR: 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.
TR: 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.
TR: 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.
TR: 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.
TR: 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
TR: 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.
TR: 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.
TR: 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.
TR: 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.
TR: 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.
TR: What’s the best place in LA to have
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.