Kiss and Tell
The middle-class blandness of Garland, Texas, with its great expanse of ticky-tacky tract houses, strip shopping centers, and wholesale stores such as Hypermart, is as far as one can get from the glamour and glitter of Hollywood.
Yet every Friday night for the past three years, aspiring local screenwriters, who work dreary jobs by day and write by night, gather at a weather-beaten Garland cottage for encouragement and inspiration. Pitchmen for air-conditioning companies, school teachers, students, broadcast announcers--they all share the dream of one day exchanging their drab day jobs in Dallas for the electricity of moviemaking in Los Angeles.
The person they turn to to nurture that dream, to stoke it and shape it, is the irrepressible Harry Preston--72-year-old author, screenwriter, literary agent, mentor, and raconteur extraordinaire.
"Just call me the Dorothy Parker of Garland, dear," Preston says of his role as host of the Friday-night screenwriting salons. He delivers the line with characteristic overstatement in his British-sounding South African accent, then follows it with a self-congratulatory cackle.
A dozen people have gathered at Preston's on this Friday night to read samples of their most recent works. Sean Stewart, a writing instructor at Brookhaven College, goes first. He's been working on his prose lately, he tells the group, so tonight, in place of a screenplay, Stewart reads a clever piece--resembling a New Yorker short story--about running into director Oliver Stone in a lavatory and agonizing over whether to talk to him.
"It's called Piss and Tell," Stewart tells the group.
"Sounds like the story of my bedroom," Preston cracks.
While pulling on a Player cigarette, the kind Preston smokes nonstop, he lambastes another writer for "gumming it to death"--taking too long to write it, taking too long to tell the story--and for dialogue that's too simplistic.
Preston then proudly announces to the group that one of its regular members, Eryc Pruitt, a 19-year-old Richland College student, has won a $500 local screenwriting prize for a taut, humorous short script he has written. It's a cross between Clerks and Fargo, about a convenience-store clerk who helps two bungling robbers escape a stickup gone awry.
"OK, sweetheart, let's hear it," Preston tenderly says to Pruitt, adding, "I'm terribly, terribly proud of you."
At 10 p.m. sharp, Preston serves everyone tea from a teapot dressed in a yellowed, crocheted tea cozy. Then the conversation turns, as it usually does, to selling scripts, breaking into Hollywood, and the unfairness of Hollywood making so many godawful movies while passing up some real talent right here in Dallas--and in Harry Preston's house.
"My resentment is that I have 32 scripts that are all good, and people like [Showgirls and Basic Instinct writer] Joe Eszterhas get their pictures made," says a visibly riled Preston. "God, I hate people who masturbate in public."
Harry Preston's house is not the Algonquin Round Table--unless the once-notorious Manhattan hotel was metamorphosed into a 1950s, yellow-walled, green-shag-carpeted shrine to a glamorous age long gone.
In Harry Preston's Garland home, tucked behind a wall of jungle-size shrubs, posters of Judy Garland plaster the hallway and big-band music wafts constantly throughout the rooms. Preston's study, tucked off the living room, is lined in movie biographies and mementos from his minor-league career. The walls are covered with posters from plays he wrote and produced for dinner theaters and nightclubs, and there are also a few black-and-white stills from his bad B-movies that bear such names as Honeymoon Horror and Blood of the Wolf Girl.
Harry Preston resembles Dorothy Parker only in his acerbic wit and lack of luck in everlasting love. With his relentless ambition but questionable success, and his utter love of show biz and ability to dish up the delicious anecdote, he is more a cross between horror-movie impresario Ed Wood and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper.
Something of a child prodigy--as a writer and performer in his native South Africa--Preston has written more than 90 books, most of which have been paperbacks ghostwritten for authors who self-published them. Few of the books made so much as a ripple, except for a sex guide he penned for teen-agers, which is remarkable in and of itself considering he is unabashedly gay and the book, done in question-and-answer fashion, is unbelievably frank. Take, for instance, this entry:
"I READ THAT SOMETIMES BOYS WHO GROW UP ON FARMS HAVE INTERCOURSE WITH ANIMALS. IS THIS REALLY TRUE? Yes. Some kids do it out of devilment, maybe to show off to their friends. We would classify this as the least desirable form of sex."
The book sold more than 100,000 copies and went into seven printings.
A former rewrite man and script analyst for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer during what is often referred to as the Golden Age of Hollywood, Preston went on to write--or rewrite--hundreds of screenplays, only a handful of which were ever produced. His credits include what he refers to as "Dallas' first and the world's worst Western," Fatal Double Cross.
Preston's career has been one of near-misses and what-ifs. There's the MGM gig that ended prematurely because of a writers' strike; the Gothic horror novel that should have been a best-seller had it not been marketed poorly by his agent; and the movies that would have been oh-so-much better if only the budgets were bigger.
"No more low-budget shit films for me," he says now. "If only the business people in this town would get behind the film industry and provide us a respectable budget!"
"He would have greater success had he stayed in L.A. longer," says Dorothy Malone, who won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 1956 for Written on the Wind. Preston met Malone, who lives in Dallas, in the late 1970s, though neither of them recalls the circumstances. They became good friends, and Preston's "pet fantasy" is to write a screenplay for Malone for which she would receive top billing--"where her name belongs, goddammit," Preston insists.
A decade ago, Preston was asked to write a 40-minute promotional film for cable's Nostalgia Channel that would be used to launch the channel; Preston's film was actually shown at the National Film Society convention in New York City that Preston attended with his dear friend Dorothy Malone.
"Harry's a delight in my life," the aging screen star says. "He has such great potential, more than Dallas would ever admit."
Preston believes he knows enough and has accomplished enough to be the voice of experience for younger aspiring screenwriters. Preston's detractors in the industry sneer, saying that those of his students who have gone on to gain some notoriety have done so despite Preston; others are sincerely grateful to him for giving them encouragement when they almost gave up and for providing the only forum in town in which to read their work regularly.
Preston also believes his life is important and interesting enough to justify his writing a 500-page--and as yet unpublished--autobiography provocatively titled Omar Shariff Loved My Cheesecake.
The title refers to Preston's brief stint as a butler to the swarthy, bridge-playing Egyptian Lothario, whose sexual exploits are explored in a tome that offers up the dishy tidbit that Shariff was--shall we say?--less than well-endowed.
Preston's book is nothing if not spicy. His exploits are well documented: He left home at 19 to join a South African circus; got a blow job from the married friend of a Highland Park oilman for whom Preston worked before becoming, in his words, "one of the Dallas film pioneers"; and was hit on by a drunk Margo Jones, the erstwhile grande dame of Dallas theater, while she was reading one of his plays. Those aren't even the highlights.
"If it was a novel, it would be one helluva story!" Preston trills. "Just give me five minutes on a talk show, and I'll sell 100,000 copies."
Preston is a unique character in a city that could desperately use some more. He is a character study in self-delusion, generosity, and, ultimately, in survival.
"He is both tragic and noble," says Ed Brickell, one of Preston's former students. "He really hasn't given up, and you can characterize that as delusional or optimistic."
Preston is a guy who knows he has never really made it but refuses to stop trying, a guy who still dreams of winning an Academy Award. He even has an acceptance speech written just in case: "Ladies and gentlemen of the Academy, Harry Preston plans to accept the Oscar...on behalf of Judy Garland."
On a tropical day in early May, Preston--a tall, rangy, animated man with hair like white cotton--ushers a visitor into his memorabilia-filled study. Among the faded black-and-white photos and yellowing posters, a special photo spread, hung in all its glory above the couch, stands out. It is a four-color pictorial of a naked, dark-haired hunk with a penis that would have made the late porn star John Holmes jealous. The man in the pictorial was Preston's neighbor in San Clemente, California, and Preston--always on the lookout for new young talent--discovered him and wrote about him for one of the early issues of Playgirl.
The young man, Preston explains sadly, met a tragic, untimely death after breaking up a barroom brawl and getting hit on the head. The incident led to a fatal tumor.
Stories--Preston's got a million of them. And if they are proof of anything, it's that Preston's life toiling on the fringes of show biz has been anything but ordinary. And Preston shows no signs of turning provincial anytime soon.
Today Preston is particularly giddy. "I've been soooooo busy," he says, pouring his guest some tea. "I am at it almost every minute. It's exhausting, but it's definitely better to be busy."
At this moment, Preston is juggling several projects, the origins of which he is not really certain Ron Porter, for example, a wealthy entrepreneur from Scottsdale, Arizona, is paying Preston a tidy sum to help him write a screenplay based on an unpublished book Porter wrote about three women--best friends from childhood--sitting in a New Mexico bar reminiscing about their lives.
Porter says he found Preston through the Writers Guild of America, with which Harry is registered as a screenwriter and literary agent. Porter approached screenwriters in Hollywood, but they said the quickest they could deliver a screenplay was in six months. Preston told him he could do the job in six weeks, and, according to Porter, it looks like Harry's going to make his early June deadline.
"Harry had a good grasp of the story and really learned the characters quickly," says Porter, a retired car dealer.
Preston's literary agency, Stanton and Associates International, which is based out of his home, is presently trying to market about 30 screenplays to Hollywood. Preston says he started the agency to market his own screenplays, and that Stanton is a figment of his imagination. "Let's just say Stanton is my silent partner," Preston says. "I couldn't talk to him if I wanted to."
Preston also admits, quite freely, that in the five years since he started the agency, he has yet to sell anything.
The phone rings. It is a friend of Preston's who wants to schedule a meeting to talk about raising money to rescue one of Preston's movies.
In 1994, a guy claiming to be an oilman looking to back a B-horror movie found Preston--who has no idea how--and asked if he had any properties lying around. Preston happened to have just the screenplay--Blood of the Wolf Girl, a cliche-ridden tale of a country girl who wants to be a star; she heads off to the big city where she works as the headlining act singing and stripping in a nightclub. When the proprietor, with whom the woman is sleeping, refuses to give her a raise, she quits, saying she will seek her fortune in New York.
Preston possesses a copy of the finished film, which he begrudgingly shows his visitor.
"I'm tired of working for peanuts," snorts the stripper in this particular piece of cinematic profundity. (The actress Preston hired is a pudgy former beauty queen from Alabama who can't act, but worked cheap and was willing to take off her clothes. To make matters worse, she gained 20 pounds between the time the movie was cast and began shooting.)
"Don't forget all the fringe benefits," her smarmy boss replies, referring to his sexual acumen.
"Like I said--peanuts," she replies, holding up her pinkie finger. ("I've used that line three times before," Preston confides with a chuckle. "It always gets a laugh.")
Her spurned lover and boss orders his henchman to kill her, but before the assassin has a chance, she turns into a hairy werewolf--a $12,000 costume made by Larry Aeschlimann of Lancaster, who designed the Robocop costume--and turns him into a bloody pulp. The same fate awaits her lover.
The man raised $150,000 from local investors, and Preston wound up directing the movie. Six months after the movie was finished filming, the investor fled town, owing money to most of those involved, including the lab where the master tape of the movie is still being held hostage.
Preston not only has a copy of the finished movie, but also a 15-minute trailer he has sent to distribution companies in the hopes one of them would buy it so he could get the film out of hock.
"'Not enough tits, not enough blood,' they've all told me," Preston says.
If he raises enough money, he plans to reshoot some scenes and turn it into total camp. He'll call it The Case of the Fat Werewolf.
This is just one of several movies Preston has done that ran out of money and were never released--just an occupational hazard, he shrugs: "It is not an easy business."
Preston's not going to let such details get him down, at least not for now. Today, Preston has been recruited for a new project that is perilously close to becoming a reality.
A new local production company called Dallas FX Inc. found Preston's name in the Texas Association of Film and Tape Professionals directory and approached him about writing the script for a TV series on golf that would include interviews with some golfing legends, a look at the world's best courses, and information on different equipment. Initially leery about the company, whose owner didn't seem to have much in the way of credentials or an abundance of knowledge about how the industry works, Preston has just returned from another meeting with the firm during which he got a partial payment. Best of all, the check cleared!
The project may not be Citizen Kane, but it pays the bills, which is always Preston's first and foremost concern. "I'm a literary whore, dear," Preston says. "I do this for the money. Of course, we write because we have to, because of our God-given talent. But what you write is to make a buck."
But behind Preston's bravura there clearly is ambition, pride, and a longing for respectability.
"What I would really like," he says, "is a best-selling book. Or one good film. Something I could be very, very proud of. Something I wouldn't have to make excuses about."
Harry Preston, nee Pimm, was an only child, born to a doting mother, whom he adored, and her dour, much older husband. Harry's father was a rich South African chemist and businessman who made a small fortune with the invention of the South African answer to Ex-Lax; he also owned a chain of pharmacies.
The family lived in the beautiful area of Natal on a large estate with several Zulu servants--including a cook named Isaac who had four wives, all of whom lived in the servants' quarters on the estate. Much to the chagrin and jealousy of the other wives, Isaac took a fifth wife, a young teen-age girl from a neighboring village.
The other wives did not have to worry for long. Unaware of the custom that wives were to be seen and not heard until after their husband finished eating, the new wife made the fatal mistake of talking during dinner. Isaac picked up a traditional Zulu weapon and hit her on the head, shattering her skull. She died instantly--at least according to Preston's autobiography.
Harry's father would ultimately experience financial reverses. The family moved to a more modest home in the seaside village of Durban, and Preston's mother helped support the family by opening a bakery.
Three things stick out about young Preston's life: He always wanted to be in show business, he loved to write, and he was always attracted to men. He sang and danced in numerous variety shows throughout his youth; when he was 13, he wrote his first book, Mosheshu the Leopard Boy, which was serialized in the local newspaper; and he and his best boyhood friend began pleasuring each other orally when they were 8.
"I was one of these awful, dreadful child prodigies," Preston says.
At 19, Preston left home to play bass and guitar in the band for South Africa's largest touring circus. It was Preston's first indoctrination into the illusion of show biz and its inhabitants. Each night, he would watch with awe--and more than a little lust--as the beautiful, muscular lion tamer Zoltan walked fearlessly into the ring with 12 lions and six tigers. From the man's swagger and stature, Preston assumed he was a strapping heterosexual. Then one night, Zoltan appeared backstage wearing a satin sheath, high heels, and mounds of eye shadow.
As Preston recalls of the moment in his autobiography: "'Remember, darlings,' he said in a sultry voice, 'a lady's a lady, no matter what.' He wobbled off down the corridor, his high heels clacking loudly."
After two years with the circus, Preston settled in Capetown, where he wrote his first musical revue, called Bubblegum, which abruptly ended its run of several months up and down the Cape peninsula after Preston upset the lead performer, a female impersonator, who, in a fit of pique, chased Preston around with an axe.
Over the next few years, Preston became a founding member of a repertory theater company and was chosen to dance for the British royal family, which included a teen-age princess named Elizabeth. (He has the souvenir program to prove it.) He then got hired on as an assistant drama critic for a Capetown newspaper.
Still, the stardom he desperately sought eluded him, so he set his sights on America, where he was determined to make it as a performer or writer. After failing miserably in New York, he wound up as a book salesman instead and traveled the country for 18 months. Tired of being a salesman and tired of the road, he decided to settle in Dallas after a kindly travel-agent secretary to whom he was trying to pitch books convinced him of the city's opportunity for writers.
The peripatetic Harry Preston still harbored the nebulous but nagging dream of some kind of show-biz stardom. After leaving the employ of the late oilman Ned Mudge in Highland Park, he went to West Texas to work as a program manager and announcer at several radio stations. He returned to Dallas in 1952 and landed a job as a writer and director at Big D Studios, one of Dallas' early film-production houses.
Preston came on board as a writer, and his first job was to pen the script for a short feature--a pilot for a proposed television series on juvenile delinquency--commissioned and bankrolled by a minister who wanted a morality tale directed to teen-agers about the dangers of alcohol. Preston was to learn his own lesson, this one about the unscrupulous nature of many of the people associated with the film industry. The minister raised $5,000 from the Baptist Church to fund the feature, but when it came to paying Preston and the cast and crew, he pleaded poverty.
With the help of Jimmy Thompson, a script girl from Big D--who, as it turns out, was Judy Garland's sister--Preston not only wrote, but also directed, the film, which was called The End or the Beginning. The movie played almost every Baptist church in the country, but Preston says he and the company never saw a penny. According to Preston, the minister had asked them to defer their salaries because of unexpected costs associated with the film production.
A few months later, one of the film's actors called Preston to tell him the movie was playing at the Gemini Drive-In. The minister had blown up the picture from 16mm to 35mm and spliced it with another "Bible-thumping epic," and released a full-length feature under the title The Flaming Teenage.
A B-movie industry was hatching in Dallas, and Preston was destined to play a small part in it. At Big D Studios, he worked on several horrible movies that have become, according to Preston, cult classics, such as The Attack of the Killer Shrews, which Preston says is shown on late-night TV from time to time.
Some sagas surrounding these movies were to become better tales than the movies themselves.
There was the time that Brownie Brownrigg, who specialized in drive-in horror dreck and is still living around town, almost got an X rating (for violence) for the film Don't Look in the Basement until Brownrigg talked his way out of it. Regardless, Brownrigg's movie failed to get distribution, and in desperation, he sold it to legendary low-budget-horror-film producer Sam Arkoff for $25,000.
"By the time it played itself out, Mr. Arkoff wound up making over 12 million bucks off this turkey," Preston writes in his book. "Which only proves how sensational advertising and promotion can entice the unsuspecting public into theaters to turn a godawful film into a cult movie and ultimately a money-maker."
Such a fate would elude Preston, even though he admittedly has a few turkeys to his own credit. Shortly after wrapping up The End or the Beginning, Preston was sitting in Big D Studios when another would-be Dallas film producer walked through the doors.
Ollie Jones, an Oak Cliff woman, had requisitioned a movie script as a starring vehicle for her daughter, Norma, who had been a child performer in vaudeville. The script, a Western called Fatal Double Cross, included a tap-dance number for Norma, who had unfortunately grown up to be a gangly, 6-foot, untalented woman, according to Preston. Ollie and Norma could not be reached for comment because they are both, unfortunately, dead.
With a script and directing job to his credit, Preston figured he was up to the challenge. He revised the script in a week and started shooting, but it was hopeless. The script was beyond repair, and the cast was, for the most part, abysmal.
"It was amateur night in Dixie," Preston says. "We premiered it at the Peak Theater. Everyone in the local film industry came to see it. It was supposed to be a drama, but the audience was in hysterics."
The only known copy of Fatal Double Cross resides in the Southwest Film Archives housed at Southern Methodist University, where it languishes on a shelf marked "miscellaneous."
In the late 1950s, Preston made a radical departure in his love life. After a long love affair with an acting student ended when he entered the Navy, a despondent Preston fell in love--or so he thought--with the vivacious, red-headed sister of his best friend. He promptly asked her to marry him. She accepted. On their wedding night--the first time he ever made love to a woman--he realized he had made a terrible mistake. But his wife made an honest go of it for several years, and the union even produced a baby girl.
By now, Preston had turned his hand to newswriting at WFAA-TV and playwrighting after that. He wrote a one-act play called Time for Madness, about a Broadway star who marries a Dallas oilman and plans a comeback on stage. It was produced at the old Knox Street Theater and ultimately won a Texas Playwrights Contest.
The theme of stardom surfaces frequently in Preston's oeuvre, and by the late 1950s he decided he wasn't just satisfied writing about Broadway and Hollywood. He wanted to be in it.
Preston moved to Hollywood in 1959 with his wife, daughter, and mother--who had moved to the States after Harry's father died--in tow. He promptly got a job analyzing scripts and doing rewrites at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Asked if he worked on anything memorable, Preston demurs. He quickly changes the subject and tells a story he's fond of sharing with his Friday-night screenwriting workshops.
He was in the commissary at MGM and ran into Rod Serling of Twilight Zone fame. According to Preston, Serling told him how he had written scripts for 10 years before he finally had one accepted. Then suddenly, the studio wanted to see everything Serling had ever written and declared them all brilliant. The studio promptly bought them all.
It's stories like that one that keep Preston going.
There's another Rod Serling story Preston is fond of telling, one about a speculative script Preston wrote for The Twilight Zone that he gave to Serling to peruse. Serling never got back to him, but a very similar story line appeared on the show a year or two later. Preston thought about suing, but he had never registered the script with the Writer's Guild of America, a precautionary measure to protect against plagiarism.
Preston's Hollywood stint was cut short by an industrywide writers' strike, which lasted seven months. Preston remains bitter. He went off to Detroit to write and direct at a company that made industrial and training films.
By now, Preston was divorced. He left his ex-wife and daughter behind in L.A. But there was no love lost. Preston callously admits that his daughter was always a disappointment to him, because she had not one whit of acting or singing talent. What's more, she would grow up to be fat and unattractive, which Preston could not accept. Plus, Preston adds, she was "a constant reminder of the mistake I made marrying her mother."
He doesn't even know where his daughter is now, and he doesn't want to know.
Harry Preston always wanted to write about the beautiful people of Hollywood, the rich and pampered who jet around the world wining and dining and spending obscene amounts of money. He thought the best way to do it was to live with them, so when he left Detroit shortly after the riots of 1967 and landed in L.A., he contacted a friend in a personnel agency and offered himself up as an English butler.
The friend got him a two-month job working for Omar Shariff, who was in L.A. shooting the film Che.
"My two months working in that house turned out to be a lot of fun," Preston writes. "However, I was surprised when I first met the famous Egyptian movie star. Only having seen him on the screen, I had expected a tall, virile leading man, which he certainly appeared to be in his films back in the '60s. But when he walked in that first day, I was frankly disappointed. Omar was fairly short, with a sallow faded-tan complexion and a slender body that was anything but muscular.
"Several days later, I was taking a quick swim in the pool when Omar wandered down in a brief Greek bikini. I realized then he was short in every respect...
"My dinners were always a great success. On the first evening, I had baked a cheesecake for dessert. The real thing, from an old recipe given me by some Jewish friends in Detroit. The following morning, I glanced in the refrigerator and saw half of it gone. As Omar hurried through on his way to the limo, he stopped and grinned at me. 'I love your cheesecake,' he said. 'Keep one in the fridge at all times.'"
During the early '70s, which Preston spent in California--except for one nostalgic year he lived back in his native land until the political climate drove him away for good--he concentrated on books and training films for the U.S. Air Force.
He wrote diet books and 14 women's romances under the name Vanessa Cartwright, completing each formula bodice-ripper in less than a week--about the length of time it used to take Ed Wood to turn out his own trashy pulp fiction once his own film "career" did a Bela Lugosi. Preston now refers to his masterpieces as "200 pages of erotic stimulation for frustrated women."
In 1976, Preston also wrote what he considers to be his best work, a supernatural horror novel called Queen of Darkness, about a South African witch who heads a menacing coven and plots to bring back Satan to rule the world. It is lushly written, menacing, and even a little erotic if not a lot overwrought:
"Nkozi waited a few more minutes, smiling to himself as he did every time he thought about her," Preston wrote. "He could understand the old woman's enjoyment of his body when they lay together in the dark, but for her to leave her warm bed and stand naked on the clifftop, just to watch him bathe every morning...maybe that was why so many said she was crazy Tagati. Bewitched by the Evil One that she and her followers worshipped in that secret room upstairs. Whatever she was, Nkozi could not complain of her treatment of him. She had given him a home when he had nowhere else to go; she took care of him, and in return, he gave her much pleasure, in so many ways."
Queen of Darkness actually got some good reviews: "Has the same fascinatingly satanic elements as The Exorcist and The Omen and should make a terrific movie," Morna Murphy wrote in The Hollywood Reporter, and Mike Carlton, the Dallas Times Herald book reviewer, said that "Harry Preston has written a novel for our times."
The book went nowhere.
According to Preston, his literary agent at the time included the book in a package of 49 others sold to a publishing house called Manor Books for a $5,000 advance. Preston says he and the other authors never saw a dime.
"I didn't know that in the trade the company was referred to as Manure Books," Preston says. "I was so pissed at [the agent]. It should have been presented to the major houses instead of sold at a fire sale."
Preston says he sued Manor Books and received $896 and the rights to the book. In between other projects, he has updated the book, renamed it Satan's Cradle, and tried to resell it. "They tell me that the suspense-horror market is soft now," he says.
And so Harry Preston's career goes--long on ambition and short on luck.
Spooked by the 1976 California earthquake, Preston moved back to Dallas to rejoin a film community here that seemed to have suffered a case of arrested development. He filled desk drawers with screenplays he couldn't option. He got funding for one screenplay, The Trouble with Hello, whose cast included Ruth Buzzi of Laugh-In fame. (Preston even has a picture of himself and Buzzi on the set.) Two-thirds of it was shot in Denton before the backer ran out of money.
In the early '80s, Preston completed the one movie of his that actually remains in circulation today. The film bears the title Honeymoon Horror, but Preston describes the experience of making the film as its own horror story. Once again, the producers ran out of money, this time when he was two months into editing the film. The producers "diddled" around with it for four years, recut a lot of it, and changed the ending. "I just feel it could have been so much better," Preston insists.
Honeymoon Horror was eventually distributed as a video by Sony, and the local Blockbuster stores have one copy of it--available at the Garland store at I-30 and Belt Line. For some reason, as of last week it was checked out.
When you ask film-industry people in town about Harry Preston, a man who without a doubt has devoted his life to their chosen field, they have only the vaguest notion of what he's ever done.
"He's sort of a mentor and runs a screenwriting workshop and therapy session," says Roger Burke, director of the North Texas Film Commission. "Right?"
Preston believes he plays a valuable role guiding young talent. Two writers who attended his Friday-night sessions--an outgrowth of a noncredit screenwriting class he teaches at Richland College--recently won the first Lone Star Screenplay Contest, in which more than 800 people entered.
One of those writers is Sean Stewart, who teaches developmental writing at Brookhaven. He applauds Preston for "being so generous with his time" helping screenwriting neophytes.
So how did Preston help him?
"Actually," Stewart says, "Harry didn't like much of what I gave him."
Preston's detractors say he is someone trading on his past accomplishments, the merits of which they say are questionable. "He has a lot of people snowed," says one local screenwriter who recently gained some national recognition. "Writing can be a lonely craft, and just having someone open their home can be a nice thing. I'm just not sure how beneficial he is."
Ed Brickell has a more charitable view of Preston. A public-relations person for Lennox Air Conditioning and Heating, Brickell took Preston's Richland course five years ago after having completed his first screenplay.
"It was like being thrown into the deep end of the pool," he says of Preston's seminars. "He wasn't interested in teaching theory and structure. He wanted you to write, to turn out 20 pages a week. That was pretty intimidating. But Harry found out pretty quickly who had writing skills and who would work to develop them. By the end of class, only two out of 15 or 16 students were left...Harry minces no words. He invites everyone and spares no one."
Brickell recently won a playwrighting competition; his screenplay called Common Sense, a romantic comedy about a poet who comes to America on the eve of the American Revolution, received a staged reading at Theater Three. He recently sent the screenplay to 80 Hollywood agencies and studios, but only six have looked at it. One has actually asked for a second draft.
Brickell still occasionally attends Preston's screenwriting sessions and is grateful for his help. "People think he's a joke," Brickell says. "They laugh at the mention of his name. But he's done some things that have really helped people. I wonder, if I hadn't found him, would I still be writing now?"
There is something both pathetic and heroic about Preston, Brickell believes. "Here's a man living in a little house in Garland with dreams much bigger. What has he accomplished? The short answer is nothing. But he has never given up. He gets by doing what he loves doing. And I get by just wishing."
Preston does not deny he still hungers for genuine recognition, for a major success. Maybe Omar will be his ticket to the big time, he says. Or maybe his idea for a talk show for senior citizens--which he will host, of course--will catch fire.
"I would love a big success," he sighs, draining a cup of tea.
But what if it doesn't come?
"Well then," he says, "the next time around, it will.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.