Given my uncanny way with luck and timing, it’s no surprise that the 9/11 attacks occurred just a couple of weeks before I was to start film school here in L.A. After being admitted, I hadn’t heard anything further about classes, schedules or registration, so I called the chair of the screenwriting program.
He’s a beloved figure throughout Hollywood, not only because he’s taught so many Big Deal Million Dollar Screenwriters over the last twenty-five years, but also because he’s a fun, Woody Allen kind of a New York transplant with a voice people can’t help but imitate. We'd never met in person, but he was a big celebrity to me, since I’d read his many screenwriting books—and even his best-selling novel about my favorite subject, life after film school. His late father was a famous orchestra leader; while his sister is the actress Jessica Walter, then best known as Clint Eastwood’s stalker in Play Misty For Me. She now plays the equally scary matriarch in Fox’s Arrested Development.
Let’s just say I was already a fan of the guy and his whole extended family. I remember him picking up the phone on about the tenth ring, skipping “hello” and going straight to, “Whaddaya want? I’m on the other line to New York picking over the bones of my dead friends and relatives.” I burst into nervous laughter and kept apologizing until he said it was always okay to laugh at his jokes, even the bad ones. We were instant friends, me and this legendary screenwriting rock star—who then began discussing the devastation in earnest.
Tuning into the desperate wreckage of New Orleans—a city I once called home—reminds me of how useless I felt back then watching all those firefighters return again and again into the rubble of the World Trade Center. Nurses, paramedics and law enforcement from all over the country rushed to the aid of their brethren—while we comedy writers, whose ranks I’d only joined a few days earlier, had nothing discernable to offer, other than the occasional tasteless joke.
One thing they will tell you in film school is maybe that’s the point.
When classes began, the Legendary Screenwriting Rock Star got up in a huge auditorium, miked up to play to his usual enormous crowd. Discovering me among the audience, he recounted the nature of our first phone call. “My eighty-five-year-old mother seems to missing, but hey, let’s talk about you,” he paraphrased himself in a gravely voice to a huge round of laughter. Even the briefest escape route from the madness, he said, is our burden to show the world. He reminded us that song, dance and storytelling stem from ancient, timeless rituals, foretelling how we aspiring crowd pleasers would bear a heavier responsibility than ever over the coming years.
Though entertainment is not quite as basic a need as food and water, I suppose it is profoundly human, even in the toughest of times. I know it’s a wonderful world and all that, and I guess there’s some relief that so do most of those New Orleans folk, deep down in their collective, funky, mystical soul. Even if that is why they call them the blues, I wonder how long it'll be until even they'll know how to sing again.