When I’m not tilting at windmills here or on Twitter, I write movies and screenplays. And a book (which I’m now agent-shopping by the way…).
I’m going out as we speak with a huge TV series called City Of Angels — the story of how Los Angeles became “Los Angeles” starting in 1906 (and then going decade by decade telling the almost completely true, completely insane story of Los Angeles — a city like no other on the planet). There’s a reason noir was invented in LA.
The first season (running from 1906 – 1910) ends as the film business arrives on the scene. The rest of the first season tells the stories of William Mulholland, Edward Doheny, Griffith J. Griffith, Virginia Rappe, Roscoe Arbuckle, William Randolph Hearst and Ricardo Flores Magon — the intellectual architect of the Mexican Revolution (which was planned in large part in Los Angeles) among many, many others.
But I digress… A project I worked on eons ago — that I thought was dead — showed signs of life tonight — and I am thrilled. And I needed to shout about it a little — if only because it’s such a cool project and doesn’t deserve to die in total obscurity.
My wife and my therapist are asleep so — it’s gonna have to be “you”.
My friend Roger Harrison got the idea for “Cousins”. Roger’s an amazing producer with a great eye for material. For instance — Roger found, developed, backed and produced the musical “Louis & Keely Live AT The Sahara”. Roger wanted to put together a concert for charity. That concert would have reunited three great boogie-woogie piano players who also happen to be cousins.
These three men — their story is absolutely true — were all born in 1935 in Ferriday, Louisiana and all three cousins grew up in a swirling gumbo of music (blues coming up from the delta, hillbilly coming from the Ozarks, gospel coming from everywhere else), religion (hard core, fire-breathing Assemblies Of God fundamentalism that believes absolutely in heaven and especially hell) and family dynamics as only happens there in Louisiana.
They became three very successful men. One became country star Mickey Gilley (whose gigantic roadhouse bar Gilley’s was the setting for “Urban Cowboy“. The next became famed-but-twice-fallen-from-grace televangelist Jimmy Swaggart. And the last became rock n roll’s “killer” — Jerry Lee Lewis.
They’re all first cousins. Jerry Lee and Jimmy are first cousins on both their mothers’ AND their fathers’ sides — cos it’s Louisiana.
Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmy Swaggart are flip sides of a very twisted coin. Both men envy the hell out of each other. They love each other but cannot (as of the last time I was involved with the story) stand each other. There are “issues”, shall we say.
Standing between these two men is their other cousin Mickey. Mickey genuinely loves his two cousins and wants them to reconcile. That is what the movie’s about — Mickey’s failed attempt to reconcile his two famous but ornery cousins — told against the backdrop of their larger story (what formed them all and caused their estrangement).
Running through it all is a shitload of incredible roots music — everything the three cousins were listening to and inspired by.
I was lucky enough to spend time with Mickey who shared a lot of wonderful stories and insights about his two cousins and what made them all tick. It was a window (in addition to my own research) into an amazing world. I didn’t get to talk to Jerry Lee or Jimmy. I had always hoped that, had the project moved further along, I could soften up Jimmy; I was told to forget about talking to Jerry Lee. Just as well — it was Jimmy Swaggart who I most wanted to talk to. I still want to sit down with that guy if I can.
Here’s the thing: I don’t want to judge Jimmy in any way. I want to tell his story. I want the audience to understand what it was like to be him — to be groomed from the age of five to be a preacher — to be this “character” outside of who he really was. He had to start doing that before he even knew who the hell he was — and the character he had to play was a denial of half the things he felt. It was impossible not to be damaged by this.
Jimmy, Jerry Lee and Mickey were all excellent boogie-woogie piano players. But early on, something touched Jerry Lee. He was always the wild one, taking risks. He attributed his talent and success to a deal he said he’d made with the devil. He claimed that when he was 6 or 7, he was playing outside the sharecropper shack of a young black playmate when he heard Robert Johnson’s voice — singing “Terraplane Blues” — coming from the Victrola inside the shack. Jerry Lee asked his friend about the man on the record.
His young friend explained (his daddy had told him, he said) that the man playing the guitar and singing — Robert Johnson — made a deal with the devil just so he could sound like that. Jerry Lee, in his head, made the exact same deal. Jerry Lee got early fame and it was huge. Though his penchant for marrying young cousins brought him back to earth again, Jerry Lee remained one of the essential gods of early rock.
No one resented that fact more than Jimmy Swaggart. Jimmy wanted every last bit of Jerry Lee’s fame. But, on the flip side, Jerry Lee wanted something that Jimmy had. Jerry Lee envied Jimmy the relationship he had with their idea of god more than the relationship he had with their idea of god. That’s literally what Jerry Lee envied.
Jimmy pointedly judged Jerry Lee for every one of his failings. When Jimmy Swaggart fell from grace — he got caught with prostitutes not once but twice (never mind what he did or didn’t do with them) — Jerry Lee did not get his cousin’s back. He never called to lend any support whatsoever — and that failure was duly noted.
Like I said — flip sides of one very twisted coin. And in the middle of them — find Mickey — a very good man who just wants everyone to get along.
Hope in the film-TV business is a dubious thing. It’s like setting yourself up for failure — hoping about a project. In my mind, “Cousins” was never going to happen. That it most likely still won’t is the status quo.
That it might could find a home (the money) at, say, a Netflix (not a possibility because it didn’t exist when we first started working on the project eons ago) or other streaming service — well, that’s reason for genuine hope. In this town, “No” means “not this second but, if circumstances change, ask again”. And “No” doesn’t mean what you have isn’t worth a fortune.
William Goldman’s maxim — “Nobody Knows Anything” — is eternal. Don’t forget: every single studio in Hollywood said “No” to George Lucas when he pitched “Star Wars”. When Fox finally gave in and ponied up the dough for production, they thought so little of their investment that they gave Lucas 100% of the film’s merchandising.
That chunk of change is now called LucasFilm, LucasArts and Industrial Light & Magic.
Anything can happen. The trick is getting the words under the right noses. And therein lies another Hollywood tale — I sincerely hope.