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26 June 2024

Down and Out: the Movie – in cinemas not quite yet

A film project based on these columns could change my life. Or not…

By Nicholas Lezard

Beep! Beep! It is a call, an actual phone call, via WhatsApp, from my old friend S— . When I say “old”, I mean it. We have known each other since Harold Wilson was having his first shot at being prime minister, the Beatles were recording Revolver and England were about to win the World Cup. Eight years ago he flew me over to Los Angeles and locked me up in a cabin in the mountains near Lake Arrowhead and didn’t let me out until I’d written a screenplay based on the first selection of these very columns, called Bitter Experience Has Taught Me. He’s a film producer so I didn’t mind too much, and the confinement wasn’t too bad: the cabin was actually luxurious and he poured Californian wines down me and did most of the cooking; in the evenings he would chuckle over my work in progress and we would look at MSNBC covering Donald Trump on the campaign trail.

“Christ, what a clusterf**k.”

“He’ll never win.”

I wrote the script in five days, which isn’t bad considering I hadn’t written one since before the Berlin Wall had fallen – in Communist Hungary, as it happens. There I met Marcello Mastroianni in the lift on the way to the set, and you know what? He was a real gentleman. But that’s another story for another day.

The film I wrote based on these columns never materialised, not only because most films never do, but because my script did not follow the template that studios demand these days: a three-act character arc.

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“This is all very funny. But what does Nick learn?” asked S—. (To save time, I had decided not to change the names. I could do that later.)

“What do you mean, ‘What does Nick learn?’ I thought you’d read the book. Look at me. I haven’t learned a thing.”

“At the moment it’s too much like Withnail and I.”

“What’s wrong with that? It’s my favourite film.”

So after that we dropped the subject and just met up on his visits to the UK for his parents’ birthdays and Christmas.

But this time around he had news: he wanted to get the film off the ground again. He had a director, and access to locations in Marylebone, where most of the inaction takes place. And one evening – morning LA time – I found myself in a three-way Zoom meeting with S— and the director, M—. Poleaxed by both a cold and a hangover, and unable to make the camera on my phone work, I limply agreed to all their suggestions about what my character should “learn”. I also said I would finish the rewrite by the end of next week. This, as I write these very words, means two days from now. I realised, as soon as I heard their delighted reaction to this timetable, that I had made a serious miscalculation.

“We’ll pay you £X up front and £X on completion.” I should say that X is a three-figure sum, and not a particularly high one. Rarely, if ever, has Hollywood paid less for a rewrite. But, because in real life Nick has not learned anything, especially in the area of financial management, it was practically a life-changing sum.

The upfront part has all gone now. I spent it on cakes and ale and also, most significantly, on repayment of the money I owe my brother.

“Blimey,” he said.

“Bet you didn’t see that coming.”

Other good news: a publisher wishes to do another selection of these pieces. But this time they want me to put some work in: maybe put a character arc into it. Have me learn something. The advance I will get for this will be slightly less than what I get paid for each column here; the advance for the screenplay was slightly more.

Of course, if either of these projects is a roaring success, then I will no longer be down and out and we will have to give this column another name. However, even if you like a flutter at outrageously long odds, I wouldn’t put so much as a fiver on this happening. When I say most films in Hollywood never get made, I mean it; and of those that do, you only get to hear of the tiniest fraction of them. The whole industry survives on a state of churn invisible to the public eye. As for the publisher – which is very well regarded, and has been going for over a decade – its MD said to me, while apologising for the pitiful advance, something along the lines of: “All it takes for a publisher to do well is one big book. Unfortunately, we haven’t had one yet.”

What’s that famous line from the film Clockwise? “It’s not the despair, it’s the hope.” I have learned not to hope any more; to never put my faith in Fortune, which, as Evelyn Waugh once noted, “is the least capricious of deities, and arranges things on the just and rigid system that no one shall be very happy for very long”. I wonder how long it will be before I have to borrow that money back off my brother.

[See also: The cheering sounds of childhood]

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This article appears in the 26 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Lammy Doctrine