John Estes: Density

Patrick wanted some room to let the story stretch its legs a little, didn’t think a screenplay would be enough, not with five main characters and the memory of a dragon lady. After finishing the course at Bennetville Community College, with the approval of Mr. Leonard Strichnine in hand, however, he felt amply able to tackle whatever might come. Mr. Strichnine had seen three of his screenplays optioned over 20 years, and one of them green-lit for two weeks before its plug was pulled (the lead actor plug). He liked to say that every film had twenty-five plugs, and most of them leaked, any one of which could doom the project if left untended. This is why he chose to praise and categorize films by their producers rather than their directors or stars, because it’s these “industrious souls” that get movies made, that quite literally stand guard over the plugs and tend to their maintenance (he credits Gary Kurtz, and not George Lucas, with making Star Wars, for example). Strichnine had a story from when he interned in Los Angeles for six months and got to serve as a gaffer’s assistant on the set of Back to the Future, how he was able to fix a broken down DeLorean one day because his father had been a Chevy mechanic with a DeLorean fetish, and would actually go around and seek out their owners, give out his card, and offer to work on them for free. Through this charity work that seemed to excite him more than anything else he did—his shop at home was decked out wall-to-wall DeLorean paraphernalia—he was actually responsible for identifying a systemic weak point at the exhaust manifold, due to some crimping that would occur due (he theorized) to a few poorly aligned gasket screws. For finding this, a design flaw they corrected in time for the ’82 model year, they flew him to Dunmurry and he had his picture taken with John DeLorean, as did five others who’d made similar contributions of useable constructive ideas. Anyway, it was knowledge of this issue in the ’81 model that allowed him to offer the mechanics on set some pointers how to get one of the cars up and running, and for this he was given a personal thanks from Robert Zemeckis (and Bob Gale, even better) and, after a short conversation about his graduate school work and career plans, an offer to join him as a unit assistant on his next to-be-named-later project.

But just as pre-production on that film was beginning (Roger Rabbit), his father fell ill back in Chicago, and he had to bow out and move back to help his mother. Strichnine liked to use this as an example of how anything can happen in the movie industry—he peppered most of his lectures with movie quotes from Zemeckis films, mostly obscure jokes nobody got (“You wouldn’t have a match by any chance would you?” was a favorite), and it was clear he still stung over the missed once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—as a cautionary tale of how the very thing that makes you can also undo it all. Patrick couldn’t tell exactly how Strichnine felt toward his father, but it seemed a mix of residual anger, pathos, and resignation. Through these stories he came to recognize how his own father had held him back with his negativity, and swore at this point he’d break free and not, like his mentor, lose his momentum—which took him a decade to get back—thanks as well to his getting married (he liked to name-drop his wife Jeanie, who had an IMDB entry for a speaking part she inadvertently earned as an extra on Steve McQueen’s The Hunter) and having some babies. He’d had to work three adjuncting gigs plus freelancing just to make ends meet. “Don’t get married and don’t have babies!” was a regular refrain, advice that Patrick took to heart, breaking up with Mason, his girlfriend of seven years, who had loved him all the way through high school, college, and rehab, before moving to Brooklyn, only to realize that maybe he should have moved to L.A. It was at this point, working on his interlaced stories of Vietnam veterans returned from the war, that he decided he needed to enroll in a course on novel writing, or maybe a Ph.D., to help him solve some problems he had with structure and backstory, as he wondered whether the dragon lady and the brothel she ran—where these five guys first met in Saigon—shouldn’t in fact be it’s own dedicated book (and later movie, naturally), or maybe if he didn’t have a trilogy on his hands.

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