Los Angeles – Late Summer – 2006 - David called me. David is this independent producer guy I had known for years from just being around. So, David calls me. He says, hey, listen, I’m working with this Russian producer … Boris.
Let me take a step back here. All names used tonight have been changed to protect the innocent, me, I’ve altered these names so no one kills me. I don’t mean kills me like, yells at me. I mean kills me as in pushes me off building, or sends me radio-active pie or something.
Anyway, David calls, very enthusiastic, and tells me that he is working with some Russian producers who are great, they are making an indy film based on a book, the movie is green lit, the money is there and it’s going to shoot in Moscow.
Boris wanted to see me --
I wanted to see Moscow --
I met Boris the Russian producer in his condo in Westwood, which he called a penthouse just because it was on the top floor.
He was chilly. Told me to come in and sit down. Boris checked me out like a horse he might purchase, would I perform, was I strong, could I be broken, would I run.
“So, you write dialogue fast?”
"Yeah, I write dialogue fast."
"Good because we need fast. And what you think of book?"
Oy the book. The book was an unpublished manuscript written by a high ranking member of the Russian government. The author was in his mid-fifties -- liked to hang out with lesbians in karaoke rooms. His unpublished novel was about two under-age girls who go on a journey to follow their idols, a girl band called, “Piercing.” While the two girls are following this band they lie, have sex with each other, have sex with different guys, shoot up, get raped, someone OD’s, they live in train stations, fall asleep in their own vomit, one of the girls kills the other’s girls mother, they ended up in a with two life sentences in the gulag where Piercing comes to play as they watch through their prison cell. BEAT It was like reading Bukowski squared to the Edger Allen Poe power with no skill except for the skills involved in being a huge fucking pervert
I told Boris the truth. I think, that there is no way, you can make a movie out of this source material that anyone is going to sit through.
Boris took a minute, looked at me like I was a dog and said, Yes, I agree. But what you do about it?
I launched into what I would do about it and ended my pitch with -- but I couldn’t write anything about Moscow without seeing Moscow.
"So, I send you to Moscow."
That’s how I ended up in Moscow, sitting at some small, broken down studio, think KTLA meets Compton, in a dinky, dim office at a long table surrounded by Russian producers, guys in their fifties. Boris, David my American producer and Sasha, who they called the fertilizer king because during Yeltsin’s reign he managed to acquire enough manure to become the one of the top three manufacturers of Russian shit.
And then there was, Rasputin. My arch enemy. Boris may have looked at me like I was a dog, but Rasputin looked at me like I was a cunt.
Rasputin was I’d say 6’5” easily, big man, big chest, big belly, pink faced, a self-proclaimed woman hater, alcoholic, chain smoking, narcissistic bully who talked in a voice so strained it sounded like his balls were tied together under his pants. He had white hair, the breath of someone whose liver is screaming get me out of here and eyes were so blue and sociopath you never knew when he would snap and go for the neck. He was some uber-rich fucking gangster who had made three B movies and thought he was Scorsese. I was under the impression I had been hired to lighten things up. Rasputin was having none of it.
"Shawn, you don’t know what you are talking about. This is love story. This is movie about relationship. The spectators who watch this film -- he meant “audience”, the spectators want sexy movie. Tragic movie. These girls kill commit murder to see their favorite band. You don’t understand, you are incompetent, this movie has meaning, and you have to develop meaning, but you do not understand meaning, so how can you write movie? You don’t understand this movie. I am the only one who understand this movie! Boris why you bring her? This is nightmare!"
At which point he threw up his hands and stormed into his office, no doubt to smoke his 97th cigarette and drink two bottles of vodka while David, Boris and the fertilizer king froze in passivity.
When I got back to my hotel room I cried. It was a big cry. A scared cry. What had I gotten myself into? I just wanted to see Moscow and write a quirky little movie.
David and I were taken to a French restaurant built to make you feel like you were entering another century and dining in the wine cellar of a castle. Tasteful, extravagant, and exclusive. Boris and Rasputin were there waiting for us. As soon as I saw Rasputin’s bloated, face loaded with broken capillaries, I thought about my two best girlfriends. I imagined how they might handle this unruly situation. I knew exactly what they would do.
I sat down next to Rasputin. I looked him straight in those psychotic blue eyes and I said, "Look, you’re not allowed to talk to me like that. You are not allowed to disrespect me. You are not allowed to tell me that I am incompetent, or that I don’t know what I am doing because I did all the research before I came here, I read the book, I made my notes -- and I’ve also had three films made, and mine, all of them, were hits, they made money, they were fiscally successful -- so don’t tell me I don’t know what I’m doing -- and do not disrespect me in front of other people."
Later that night when all the film investors had gathered, while everyone was chowing down on pate and steak, slamming vodka after vodka, chain smoking and laughing, Rasputin stood up. He made an awkward speech about how thrilled he was to have David and myself with them to celebrate the beginning of their movie and what a special American writer I was -- Rasputin, hammered and feeling generous, lifted his glass to me. He didn’t smile. Even when he tried, Rasputin lacked even the charm of well, let’s say -- Rasputin.
After dinner, I was thinking sleep, but no, these guys party like, look these are fifty-some-odd year old men and they party like bacchanalian heathens. It’s one club after the other. The producers and investors, drink vodka like crazy people. Shot-after-shot-after-shot-after-shot… Oh and by the way, if you’re ever in Russia, here’s a little tip -- don’t sip your vodka, you have to knock it back, because it you drink it slowly, people assume you’re an alcoholic. Isn’t that cute?
It was every night with these guys, huge gatherings for dinner, the fertilizer king always by my side ordering vodka after vodka., food and vodka, vodka and food and security guys sitting around in Armani suits carrying guns, Rolls Royces, tricked out, high end Mercedes, Jaguars, designer everything, stunning mistresses, conspicuous consumption and glory.
Days, I went location scouting in Moscow, that’s the reason I was there, to see it. The villages were bleak and desolate. The roads, if you could even call them roads, had been neglected, forgotten to the extent that they were severely cracked and rose up with the tension of the earth. The houses were small, fractured, dull and sinking into their foundations.
I wandered into what could only be described as a ghetto filled with communist-era apartment buildings, the windows covered in graying lace, dirty towels and bare clothing lines. There was an abandoned muddy playground. It had rusted monkey bars and benches with mold on them.
This was mother Russia.
The night before I was eating steak, slamming vodka, and being presented with decadent deserts, and the next day I was standing in a rat infested ghetto, where people wore second hand clothes, and looked at me with deadly suspicion. A little boy waved at me, dirty and pale. I waved back. Abruptly my driver whisked me into the car and told me the little boy was a gypsy and soon his people would come out of the apartments and take everything I had.
We drove back to Moscow, a city marked with rodeo drive wannabes, overshadowed by hundreds of tall, dank, filthy communist apartment buildings. The women walked to the train stations with their heads down. Men, drunk during the day, weaved on the streets. I guess they sipped their vodka.
Back at the tinker-toy studio, we sat at the long table beating out the third act of the movie, which was impossible because Rasputin had to disagree with everything. Even Boris was getting sick of it and they were starting to argue in Russian while the fertilizer king juggled phone calls. After a particularly heated argument, Rasputin sat down next to me and smirked.
"How would you like to die?" The other producers watched me closely.
"Um, are you asking me this as a theoretical question?"
"No, I want to know, how you would like to die?"
I had no idea how to answer this – I was freaked out – I said, "I guess shot in the head."
"Good. because if I don’t like what you put in outline I want to know how you would like to die."
Then -- the crazy motherfucker bursts into laughter. As does Boris, David and the Shit King as if it’s natural to threaten the life of a writer just because you’re a sociopathic control freak. It was high school.
They all laughed because the other guy laughed. They were not strong, virile men. They were bullies. Pussies -- Drifty sailors with a maniac at the helm.
Later, a friend said, I should have told them I wanted to die by being locked in a room with as much Vicodin as possible.
I had seen Moscow.
I was flying home first class per WGA rules. The seats turned into beds. Once the Xanax kicked in, which seemed like hours into the flight, I finally laid down.
I thought about those grimy-high-rise-communist-era-apartments that crowd Moscow like a plague, the looks on the faces of the women who worked menial jobs, joyless and tired, the faces of the mistresses, desperate to hold on to their rich men -- and the face of Rasputin -- a scavenger who had prospered by picking away at the fiber of his people so he could have more.
About halfway through the flight, in my spacey Xanax and Ambien state of mind, I had a thought -- a thought I’ve never had before when returning from my many travels abroad. A thought that really surprised me. It was this.
I cannot wait to get home. I slowly sat up, and I thought, I want to go home, to my friends, to my life, to my dog and to all the opportunities that lay before me.
I want to go home.