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Hello Stranger

By D. R. Haney

Movies

The doorway scene in Stranger by Night

By my count, I wrote seven “erotic thrillers,” a largely and justly forgotten genre that combined noir and softcore porn. It was a favorite of tight-fisted producers of the VHS era, since it rarely required special effects, aside from squibs and silicone breasts, and the action was easily confined to a few affordable locations. Much of Stranger by Night, for instance, was set in the apartment of a distraught cop and the office of the female psychologist who was trying to help him determine if he had murdered any hookers during his alcoholic blackouts. She helped him as psychologists usually helped their clients in erotic thrillers: she had sex with him. Her husband was murdering hookers to frame the cop. Spouses in erotic thrillers were almost always predators or prey.

Stranger by Night was directed by Gregory H. Brown, as he was credited on that movie. He was called Gregory Dark in his side career as a director of hardcore porn. We were introduced by his cameraman, a friend who knew I was in need of a job, and my first for Greg Dark was the screenplay for Mirror Images II, an erotic thriller about a hooker scheming to kill and replace her prim identical twin. Greg or one of his business partners wrote a paint-by-numbers outline for Mirror Images II, which none of them appeared eager to make, but the success of the original Mirror Images demanded a sequel and Greg dutifully cranked one out. Everybody in Hollywood seemed to crank things out, including me, so that lately I fantasized of moving to Montana, an anti-Hollywood where the overhead was low and I could focus on the novel I had started that winter. The novel was meant to conclude, in fact, with a disillusioned actor moving to Montana. I was so disillusioned with acting that I was no longer pursuing it.

Mirror Images II was just a paycheck, a way to finance my novel, but I cared about Stranger by Night, at least initially. I knew it was unlikely to turn out well, with its budget constraints and compulsory clichés, to say nothing of a director best known for New Wave Hookers, his hardcore apogee; but I was a writer best known for Friday the 13th Part VII, and if I wanted people to believe I was capable of better, it behooved me to believe it of Greg. He provided the premise for Stranger by Night and left the mechanics to me, though he approved and vetoed suggestions while refining his vision of a moody, gritty map of the soul of a sort of Raskolnikov character. So I inferred and sweated to deliver, investing that character and others with my own neurosis as I wrote from dusk to dawn, smoking and drinking while Bernard Herrmann’s ominous score for Taxi Driver played in the background. Maybe I won’t move to Montana to work on my novel, I thought. Maybe I’ll stay here and get back into acting, beginning with Stranger by Night. Of course Greg would cast yesterday’s news as Bobby, the Dostoevskian lead, but maybe I could play Troy, Bobby’s fellow cop and barfly. I was practically in tears when I wrote Troy’s death scene. Poor Troy. He was going to go over big.

Troy went over big as expected, but Greg and his partners were lukewarm on the script overall. “I don’t understand Bobby,” one of them said. “He doesn’t understand himself,” I said. “That’s why he’s seeing a psychologist. That’s what the movie’s about.” But that wasn’t what the movie was about. The movie was about hookers, I decided in subsequent meetings with Greg, who seemed concerned that there weren’t enough hookers in the script, if not in life, while his partners seemed to crave less angst and more action. I revised accordingly, but my next two drafts were also received coolly. Even so, the movie was rushed into production, and soon afterward, I learned from a friend on the set that the script had been rewritten by a former military man from the U.K. with no experience as a writer or as a producer, though Greg had appointed him co-producer and given him a credit for the script. I would share the credit, in other words, with a stranger to me and a relative stranger to Greg, who had only recently met the British guy, I was told, and fallen for his tales of international adventure. Tales of international hookers is more like it, I thought.

But the sting healed quickly. I was used to shabby treatment in Hollywood, and I had my novel, so that even if Greg had listened when I hinted that I wanted to play Troy, the shoot would have been a distraction from work that mattered. I heard that William Katt was playing Troy and the crew was really impressed with him, which didn’t surprise me: I had rigged that role for scene stealing. But that was unfair to William Katt, whom I remembered fondly as the surfing Vietnam vet in John Milius’s Big Wednesday. I remembered Steven Bauer, who was playing Bobby, from ¿Qué Pasa, U.S.A.?, a sitcom I watched as a teenager, mostly because I thought it was worldly to watch a show about Cubans who spoke half their lines in Spanish, and later, when I saw him on the street in New York, I had an impulse to approach him and say, “Hey, weren’t you on ¿Qué Pasa, U.S.A.?” I thought he might appreciate that, since most people knew him only as Al Pacino’s sidekick in Scarface, but I had laryngitis, so I said nothing. It was Halloween 1984, and I had just bought medicine at a pharmacy a block from the southeast corner of Sixth Avenue and 8th Street, where I saw Steven Bauer, who was dressed all in black and lighting a cigarette. Halloween helped to crystallize the other details in memory.

Steve Bauer in Stranger by Night

One day Greg phoned with a question about the script. “Where’s your limey rewrite guy?” I felt like saying. “I’m sure he can answer your question, if he isn’t too busy co-producing. Besides, I’m packing for a trip to Montana.” It was true, I was going to Montana, but I wouldn’t stay long, and I would shelve the novel I more or less completed there after judging it a hopeless mess.

But there was no advantage to feuding with Greg. Despite his misgivings about my script for Stranger by Night, there was a tentative plan for me to write Animal Instincts II, and a shared credit was one thing and money was another, and so far I hadn’t lost a penny to the British guy. Not that the subject of the British guy was ever broached by me or Greg. I asked how the movie was going, anticipating praise for William Katt, but the actor who seemed to please Greg most was Jennifer Rubin, who was playing Bobby’s shrink. He was calling from the set of Bobby’s apartment, which was in or near Westlake, not far from my place, and he invited me to drop by. It wasn’t my first invitation to the set, but it was my first from Greg, and now I decided to risk the awkwardness of running into the British guy. Naturally, I was curious about him, and I wanted to say hello to friends on the crew, and it might be fun to meet William Katt. That’s right, I wrote Troy for myself. No, it’s cool. I’m really a novelist anyway.

Unfortunately, I missed William Katt, and fortunately or unfortunately, I also missed the British guy, but Steven Bauer and Jennifer Rubin were hanging out by the craft-services table behind the apartment building. I had met Jennifer Rubin at a party in Los Feliz four years earlier. She didn’t remember me or the party, but remarkably, when I mentioned to Steven Bauer that I had seen him in New York on Halloween 1984, he remembered standing that day at the corner of Sixth Avenue and 8th Street. I believed him. I saw the lights come on when the memory came to him. We talked about ¿Qué Pasa, U.S.A.? and a movie I had wanted badly to do, The Beast of War, which starred Steven Bauer.

“You know,” I said, “my agents in New York were always sending me out on bullshit, some commercial for the Army or a soap opera or some shit, and I was like, ‘Goddamn, man, get me an audition for a movie.’ Then they got me an audition for a movie, and I get the script, and goddamn, it’s actually good.”

“It was a good script,” he agreed. I didn’t ask what he thought of Stranger by Night, which hadn’t been my script since the first draft, and even that draft wasn’t altogether mine.

I had never seen Greg as upbeat as I did that day, and I would never see him so upbeat again. He banished me after Animal Instincts II.  We didn’t quarrel, exactly. He wanted the protagonist to be a hooker, an untenable idea to everybody but Greg, so that he was never satisfied with the script, and at a certain point, I refused to rewrite it. Nor did the British guy rewrite it. He took his credits for Stranger by Night and ran, but if he thought they would do more for him than tales of international adventure, they were the Hollywood equivalent of Monopoly money, as I would guess he soon discovered.

The bedroom calls

Montana beckoned, but I lingered to watch Greg shoot a scene. It was a short scene of Bobby opening his door to the lovely Dr. Richmond, who knew he was in particularly bad shape, otherwise he wouldn’t have interrupted her cocktail party a scene earlier. Hot sex would follow in the bedroom, but this scene was in the foyer, while the camera was in the living room, where I was sitting next to Greg on a black leather sofa, Bobby’s sofa, though it didn’t look like the sofa of a cop, and for that matter, the apartment didn’t look like the apartment of a cop, but realism was hardly the point. The room was filled with grips and production assistants and makeup artists and so on, and Greg was flirty with some of the girls and they were flirty back; jokes were made and laughter was heard, so that the set had something of a party atmosphere, which is so often the case on sets. I wasn’t immune. I was joking and laughing too, and I may even have gone on talking after an assistant director announced a rehearsal and called for silence, and I watched the foyer as Steven Bauer, now dressed all in black as he had been that Halloween, walked to the door and opened it and said to Jennifer Rubin, “It is me,” meaning that was he was murdering hookers. Then he walked past the camera and up to the sofa, where Greg and I had resumed joking and laughing, if we had ever entirely stopped, and he leaned down and began to speak in a low voice to Greg. He was very serious, and Greg also became serious now, leaning forward to listen to Steven Bauer as he tried to explain something, stumbling and stopping and starting again, so that it all came out like: You know, it’s…it’s like that thing where you’re…you’re half like this, you know, but you’re half…you sort of want to but you’re also… He was looking at Greg while looking through Greg—he had a thousand-yard stare—and I thought, What in the world he is doing? What is he trying to say? Yet it also seemed weirdly familiar. I’ve done this, I thought. I used to do this all the time before I moved to L.A., and occasionally I did it now, but I had never seen myself do it. Is this, I wondered, how I looked and sounded when I was rehearsing scenes for acting class and sorting out my feelings, or the character’s feelings, which will finally be the same? And is this the way I look now when I’m writing something that asks me to dig as deep as I can dig, and would I sound like him if I spoke my mind aloud while writing? Yes, I knew now what he was doing, but it had caught me off-guard because I hadn’t expected to see it here, today, on this set, or any set. I couldn’t even remember the last time I had seen it, it had been so long, so that I couldn’t locate the word for it. Was there a word for it? And I sat there searching my memory while watching him search his soul, and finally it came to me.

He was being creative.

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D.R. Haney D. R. HANEY is the author of a novel, Banned for Life, and a nonfiction collection, Subversia, the inaugural publication of TNB Books. Known to friends as Duke, he lives in Los Angeles.

26 Responses to “Hello Stranger”

  1. Eve Michaels says:

    Golden Mr. Haney, simply golden.

    • D.R. Haney says:

      Thank you! I’m embarrassed that you read it before I found a couple of typos. As much as I proof, and that’s a lot, I always manage to miss a few.

  2. Eve Michaels says:

    You didn’t miss the gold. Bullseye. Bonsai too!

  3. Peter Winkler says:

    “He took his credits for Stranger by Night and ran, but if he thought they would do more for him than tales of international adventure, they were the Hollywood equivalent of Monopoly money, as I would guess he soon discovered.”

    I love that, as well as the rest of this mini-memoir of working in that part of Hollywood that’s so under the radar it’s subterranean.

    As much as I disliked Scarface, I really liked Steven Bauer in it, and then he seemed to disappear, himself going under the radar. He’s now playing an ex-Mossad agent who’s an arm and leg breaker for Liev Schrieber on the series Ray Donovan. It’s nice to see him around again.

    • D.R. Haney says:

      Thanks, Peter.

      I didn’t get his drug problem in the piece, but I later heard that it was pretty bad at the time he made Stranger by Night, and for a while afterward. Heroin. I don’t know when it started, however, and whether that had anything to do with his career stalling in the eighties.

      When Alfred Hitchcock Presents was revived in the eighties, he did an episode with his then-wife, Melanie Griffith and her mother (I know I don’t have name the mother for you) and John Huston and Kim Novak, which I saw at the time and really liked. I’ll have to see if I can dig that up. Also, around the same time, he did this:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uhpu2N4rQZM

  4. mary guterson says:

    Duke, man. How I love waking up to a piece from you. I’m late for work as I write this, but who cares, it was so worth it to read this and so worth it to read those final lines and oh dear lord, I wish I could write like you.

    • D.R. Haney says:

      Well, since I’ve made you late for work, you’ll have to return the favor. You can make me late for work any day you choose, which is another way of saying that we should have coffee or somesuch.

      And in the “I wish I could write like you” department, do you know how many times I’ve thought about your Civil War battlefield story? Probably not. But I’ve thought about it a lot, and I wish you would post more stories. When you posted that one, I hoped it was the start of a trend.

  5. Oh! I just realized Steven Bauer was Don Eladio on Breaking Bad. Which is a series I love and know you don’t watch. (I’m telling you, though, TV is beating film these days in a lot of ways. Submit!)

    Also, just to reiterate on the discussion board — while we spoke a little of this story before, I love delving further into the experience here. I think your idea of intercutting the new work with short pieces like these is a great idea (though I’m always up for long-form Duke). Can’t wait to read the finished product!

    • D.R. Haney says:

      Well, here it’s a little more detailed than the version I gave you on the phone, which I hope is a good thing. It’s so often about speed these days.

      You must have seen, when you read this yesterday, that I misspelled Bernard Herrmann’s name. Honestly, I checked to be sure I had it right, and the Internet, the first time around, gave it as “Hermann,” which was how I remembered it. Anyway, it’s corrected now, but you know I have a horror of such mistakes. Also, I have a thing about serialization, which is one of my problems with television programs, though it’s true, of course, that movies these days are poor, generally, unless you’re twelve, in which case it’s a golden age. But I’m still making my way through all of the great movies of the past. I’ve missed quite a few. Two days ago, for instance, I watched “Summer with Monika” — can you believe it’s take me this long to see it? It was worth the wait.

      I know you’ve had a lot on your plate, and then some, so you’re very kind not only to read this thing, but to comment on it. And of course you helped to inspire it, so thanks again on that account.

  6. Jason Stern says:

    Loved the piece and miss you, my friend.

    • D.R. Haney says:

      Thanks, Jason. I hope all is well with you in NY. I very recently related that story you told me about your childhood, in the context of a conversation about my summer-camp experience. You may remember the one.

      If I were going to the city for the holidays, as I often do, I would propose that we get together, but alas, it appears I’ll be stuck out here in the tar pits, along with the other mastodons.

  7. Brett says:

    I like this in part because it’s a first-person look into Hollywood (in MN, I’m about as far away from that scene as possible, at least culturally), but I really love this because at the same time, it’s goddamn literature. This isn’t just a tour; we see them as actual people. Great stuff, as always, D.R.

    • D.R. Haney says:

      Prince, when asked once why he remained in Minnesota, said, “The cold keeps the bad people out.” If that’s so, I wish it were colder in L.A., which still attracts every kind of fortune seeker. Anyway, I was concerned that I may not have made the people here as vivid as I might have made them, so I feel a little better on that account, Brett; thanks. Now I think I’m going to head to Goodreads and sign up for a giveaway of your Minnesota-trivia book.

  8. Apparently I missed this… I have to admit that I don’t check in here very much these days.

    This is a fascinating glimpse into a world I can hardly imagine. Though, despite being unable to quite place myself in Hollywood and that sort of work, I do entirely emphasize with the desire to flee to someplace rural. I understand that very well.

    Oh, and I agree with Cynthia entirely – Breaking Bad is a true masterpiece and TV, in general, now surpasses the cinema. There have been some shows on in recent years that are genuine classics of the screen – and while I hate waiting a week or more to see the next one, if watched consecutively they are certainly worthwhile.

    • D.R. Haney says:

      What a pleasant surprise! I was thinking of closing the comments on this piece, only to discover yours.

      Over the weekend, I saw a friend who plans to move to Washington State early next year, precisely because he wants to live someplace rural. As it is, I can imagine myself being driven out of L.A. by the cost of living, if nothing else. L.A. is fast becoming almost as expensive as San Francisco and New York. It’s absurd, really.

      I remember when people thought electronic dance music and rock & roll were antithetical, and a similar attitude has prevailed much longer, of course, about television and movies, but I wonder if that isn’t a bit old-fashioned. I mean, Kieslowski’s Decalog was made for television, or originally shown on it, and so was Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, and so was one of my more recent favorites, The Best of Youth. I suppose eventually I’ll watch Breaking Bad, but I must say, I wasn’t convinced by The Sopranos or Mad Men that it’s a golden age of television. They were fine, what I saw of them, but I wasn’t blown away, after being assured that I would be, and I haven’t been in a great rush to see any of the other heavily touted television shows since.

      • I think people naturally come to be underwhelmed by the things they’re told they’ll love. I certainly am. Yet I keep building up Breaking Bad for people because I enjoyed it so much. And I’m really, really not a TV person.

        I took a job in the countryside back in 2010 but such is the growth of China that the place I lived is now part of the city – in fact, the city centre has moved twice and is now further out than my old apartment. It’s absurd. Now I live 100km away from the city and I’m just waiting for the moment I look outside and see it has arrived.

        • D.R. Haney says:

          Yes, well, now you know something of the way the inhabitants of wild-west boomtowns must have felt. I can imagine a hermit tacking together a shanty on the edge of, say, Tombstone, Arizona, only to find himself in the middle of Main Street six months later. Then again, such a shanty might have been condemned as an eyesore before the plans for the upscale whorehouse had been finalized.

          L.A. is undergoing a building boom at the moment. Absolutely hideous apartment/condo complexes are being erected all over town, in anticipation of the droves of young techies that the city believes it will attract in the years ahead. The only people with worse taste than the monsters responsible for these complexes may, in fact, be techies. Another building boom in the late seventies/early eighties produced the faux-adobe minimalls that have already made L.A. a city of renowned ugliness, so what the hell, it may as well be further disfigured with apartments for the new breed of humanoid.

  9. I’ve been through LA a few times. I recall the unique ugliness of it. And all across California I remember those faux adobe malls… Weird.

    As for size, LA was inconceivably massive to me. Then I visited Shanghai… Jesus. Those places just on until they meet another city, and it all blends together into some fucking nightmare. I detest cities, honestly, so that really is my worst fear – the moment they all finally join together and we look around and realize that there isn’t an inch of countryside left and we’re all stuck as neighbours.

    • D.R. Haney says:

      Well, I still have a little romance about cities, which has somehow survived, though it’s based on nostalgia, really. City centers increasingly feel like suburbs, with their chain stores and “restaurants” on every block, and it’s increasingly hard to distinguish the population of one city from the next. The notion of an urban adventure, of some new experience that could unfold or erupt at any second, seems quaint now, and I don’t think I feel that way because I’m 2,000 years old. I tire of that explanation in general. Too much is explained lazily by way of age.

      I’m a big fan of the photographer Peter Beard, as you may or may not have seen on Facebook, and last year I treated myself to the massive Taschen book of his work, which has often featured his beloved Africa, and this quote about Africa from the book’s preface seems to corroborate your sentiment: “Millions of years of evolutionary processes were interfered with, cut down, fenced-off, shot out, losing authenticity, rural-integrity, the diversity of nature and, most importantly, quality of life. The italics are his. He concludes the preface with: “Let’s just welcome it all and take notes while the world destroys itself.”

  10. Hmm… I think I’ll stick to my constant state of running, thanks very much. The world can destroy itself, and I will doubtless see it, but I try not to pay too much attention anymore. Like you, I feel old. And caring is a young man’s game.

    I was sort of aware of your thoughts regarding cities because of your street photography. I’ve more or less given up writing – at least temporarily – in favour of photography, but more rural. Chinese villages fascinate me – even the big ones that have a million people living in them.

    • D.R. Haney says:

      Are you posting photos on Facebook? You don’t seem to come up much in my feed for some reason. Anyway, I’ll keep a lookout.

      The manmade ugliness of L.A. is a photographic asset, in my opinion. If I’ve ever managed to take a good photo in L.A., it’s in part (at least) because I’m provided with such good raw material.

      You’re going to realize one day just how young you were at a time when you felt “old.” I felt the same at twenty-nine. Hell, I felt old at eighteen. You know: “I’m legally an adult now! Wow, that was fast!” Meanwhile, the world will go on without the human race and the many other animals we manage to take out alongside ourselves. But you know that, so I’ll shut up.

  11. Facebook is actually the only place I post photos. I’m not sure why.

    I know I’m not old, but like you say, you often feel old when you’re not. I felt old years ago, but I felt really, really, really old this year after my wife took off and I lost everything. Starting a whole new life is one way to feel fucking old.

    And yeah, I agree. The world will go on. When the humans are gone, it will flourish. Until then it’s fucked – the beauty of urban cityscapes aside.

    • D.R. Haney says:

      Well, you are pretty young to, as you say, have lost everything, though not so young compared to a war orphan. But I think life amounts to constant fresh starts, which continue long after we imagine, as young people, we’ll have to start fresh. You know, marriages dissolve, kids leave home, jobs are lost, we pass milestone birthdays and realize the world will no longer accept us as we used to be and we’ll have to “reinvent” ourselves, since time had already begun the process anyway. Meanwhile the earth will flourish only until it’s inevitably struck by a comet or an asteroid, but even that can make for a fresh start. But when the sun goes…

      I have a Flickr account, but I don’t think anyone has ever looked at anything I ever put up there. I’ve been lazy about Instagram, which is funny, because I’ve attributed the success of Instagram to people too lazy to read the little they’re forced to read on Facebook. I mean the name itself suggests that it’s like a telegram except without those boring words. Anyway, like you, I post photos on Facebook, obviously, though I always feel weird about it for whatever reason. I feel weird about everything I do on Facebook. It’s an ongoing cycle of guilt (“I shouldn’t self-promote so shamelessly”), annoyance (“Why are they self-promoting so shamelessly?”), despair (“Everything is going to hell because this is all people think about”), and emotional blackmail (“I guess I have to like this picture of his/her cat/baby/dinner because he/she liked my picture of a homeless person”). A happy day for me a day when I ignore my Facebook page, but I keep one because — well, I suppose because I’m expected to keep one. Yeah, I’m a rebel.

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