My Day of the Locust

How a book I wrote got turned into a movie, and why I ain't rich

On the 13th of next month, a movie based on a book I wrote will be released in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and about 16 other cities not including Dallas. The birthing of this movie, a five-year process, was a big deal for me.

Called Bully, the movie is directed by Larry Clark, a renowned still photographer who was the director of the controversial independent film Kids in 1995. The screenplay was written by David McKenna (Blow); the movie stars Brad Renfro (Apt Pupil). A month ago, after I watched a preliminary version on videotape, I thought about changing my name and moving to Ohio at midnight.

The cast of Bully lounges on the beach in Fort Lauderdale. I ponder changing my name and moving to Ohio at midnight.
Tobin Yelland
The cast of Bully lounges on the beach in Fort Lauderdale. I ponder changing my name and moving to Ohio at midnight.

Then I admitted to myself that much of the really rough sexual content and violence in the movie is there because I put it in my book. In fact, the movie is so uncannily faithful to the book that I find I have little moral wriggle room in which to deny responsibility. I can't exactly sigh and swoon over this, in other words.

I'm square about movies. I have passed the tape along to Dallas Observer/New Times movie critic Robert Wilonsky so he can tell us whether this is a good movie or a bad movie, moviewise.

I found the sexual content of the movie very tough to watch. I have to say, there is no inkling of an effort to make the sex arousing or titillating, as in a porn movie. Probably you could show this movie to kids as a way of turning them off from sex. The director uses sex as an especially devastating window on the vacuousness of the characters' lives, but you definitely do not want to look through this particular window on a first date.

Don Murphy (Natural Born Killers) produced the movie. Fernando Sulichin, the proprietor of a prominent studio in Paris, was the money. In the money, there is truth. Allow me to give you my amateur theory of Hollywood.

My literary agent, Janet Wilkens Manus in New York, is a genius at the marketing, re-marketing and re-re-marketing of literary properties. She sold options for the movie rights to my book, Bully (William Morrow, 1997), half a dozen times.

The money goes like this: For an option, I get small money. If they make a small independent movie, I get modest but OK money. If someone had made a major motion picture, instead of this column from me you would be reading a postcard with palm trees on it.

My book was an account of the true story of a bunch of ne'er-do-well white suburban teen-age slugs in Fort Lauderdale who savagely murdered one of their own in 1992. I chose to write a book about it for a number of reasons, many of which were crass.

At that point in my life, I was writing "true crime" books for a living. It was a period when true crime books, if well-published by major houses, were able to cross over into the mainstream book-reading market. A few authors--Ann Rule, Jack Olsen, the Observer's own Carlton Stowers--wrote books that both sold well and achieved critical acclaim. I got some good reviews.

Manus, my agent, was incredibly good at keeping her ear to the ground for exactly the story line that both Hollywood and the New York book world were shopping for during any given week. And it did change, week to week. She told me at one point, "Young suburban white kids involved in an inexplicably horrific crime."

The phenom of the week! The mysterious story of suburban white kids gone wrong!

That night I found the Fort Lauderdale story.

The next morning Manus sold it like a hot cake: instant book deal at Morrow, instant movie deal (option) at Touchstone, which is Disney.

In addition to making the first of many trips to Florida, I also embarked on a small reading project in criminology, trying to see what the experts said about why white middle-class kids would behave in such an unexpected way. They said not to unexpect it.

For at least the last 15 years, the answer in just about everybody's research (see Michael R. Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi, A General Theory of Crime, Stanford University Press, 1990) had been coming back consistently the same: It's not about class, they found. It's not about ethnicity. It's not even about education. And it is not about physiology in any way anybody can prove beyond the level of ridiculous superstition.

The sociologists, who probably were all about my age and went to the University of Michigan and feared that people would think they had been kidnapped by the Christian Right if they used certain words, talked all around the one word that did answer the question. They talked about "lack of self-control," "lack of impulse control" and so on.

But the word here is moral. Crime flows from moral choice. Crime is an expression of evil. And whatever is wrong in this country, if there is something wrong, it operates at a level far deeper than class or ethnicity or geography. Ain't nobody got no morals worth bragging about, rich or poor.

That's what I found in the Florida story. There was no excuse for these kids. It wasn't the parents' fault. It wasn't society. They used their inherent gift of free will to choose to do and to be evil. Because they could.

Hollywood hated it. Studios would buy the option to my book, because it was about young, good-looking white surfer kids on the beach with hardly any clothes on most of the time who did a scary thing, in between having sex a lot. Then, in a dismal process they call "development," the studios would try to think how to make my story into a movie.

Development is really the process of pitching the story to a star. Stars sell tickets. Stars bring money into the deal. Back then, everyone wanted to pitch this one to Drew Barrymore. But Hollywood stars always play the same basic character in every movie. The way you "develop" a story, then, is to change the main character into Drew Barrymore, so that you can say to her agent: "Lisa, in Bully, is totally Drew."

Six weeks into every option, some twentysomething would call me from a Quonset hut in Culver City. I had the timing down. Six weeks? They've reached page 160 of my book: the murder, in which the kids try to shoot their teen-age beach buddy, then stab, gut, slit his throat, crush his skull with a baseball bat, drag him still gurgling and alive into the Everglades to feed to the alligators, then leave him to be eaten alive by crabs.

The development people were always irate: "Drew would never do this!" "That bat thing is so totally un-Drew!" "What were you thinking?"

To be fair, they live in a place they honestly believe to be reality. And I bite my tongue. I wanted them to make the movie so I could write the postcards.

In the instances in which studios actually commissioned full screenplays to be written, they all insisted--until Don Murphy got the project--that the screenwriters invent excuses for the kids. But you don't call it an excuse in Hollywood. You call it "motivation."

Believe me. It's an excuse. The goal is that you, dear viewer, shall say to yourself after the movie, "Gosh, Drew shouldn't have allowed that poor young man to fall headfirst on that oddly up-ended baseball bat and then stumble into the Everglades and accidentally plunge into the gaping jaws of an alligator like that, but she's so darned cute, I forgive her, and I will definitely go see her next movie."

The excuse-making doesn't express a philosophy. That gives it way too much credit. It's part of a market-driven business logic that happens to rest easily on the audience's mind.

One poor young screenwriter kept calling me, begging me to come up with a "motivation" that did not have the words moral or evil in it, which, in spite of trying, I never could do. He lived on a houseboat somewhere and was very serious about organic food. Finally, he decided the kids in the story probably had done what they did for chemical reasons linked to food additives. He wound up with a formula that always reminded me of the poisoned apple scene in Snow White, but in this case it was Mom, cackling and whispering to Drew, "How about a little microwave pizza, Dearie?"

Munch-munch. Up with the scary music, out with the bats and knives.

The theater owners, who make all their profit at the concession stand, would have nixed it. Never got made anyway.

Don Murphy, who finally did get this movie made, had produced a wonderful movie in 1998 called Permanent Midnight, starring Ben Stiller as a heroin-addicted screenwriter. That movie manages to tell a very tough story without any preaching, with great humanity and even humor, and with no excuses.

In order to get Bully made, Murphy had to go to Sulichin in Paris and get French money. This is really a French movie. The Hollywood money just would not do it.

Beyond writing the book, I wound up with no creative influence on the movie at all, which I offer as fact not "motivation." I think the movie Murphy et al. have made is ferociously honest. Larry Clark has given the film a raw literal focus from which he allows absolutely no escape. My book was tough. This is tougher.

I firmly believe that the truth this movie tells operates in fundamental opposition to what we insist on telling ourselves about crime in our society and about ourselves.

This movie is a moral horror story. It tells us that the real horror of our dilemma cannot be posited safely on the other side of some social railroad track. The horror is in us all.

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