This is a true story. My name (and Mr. Spielberg’s) are the only ones that haven’t been changed.
It started like this:
One of my classmates at film school was friends with someone who I believe was somehow related to Cubby Broccoli, who was in London at the time shooting another Bond film (A View to a Kill?), and the Broccoli relative told my friend that Steven Spielberg was in town shooting another Raiders film over at Elstree or Pinewood or maybe both and that he knew the name of the street on which stood the private hotel housing Mr. Spielberg whilst he was engaged in the production of the latest Indiana Jones sequel, and so that is how I came to find myself with a screenplay tucked under my arm in a size A4 envelope, waiting on a London street corner, staring at the entrances to five different private hotels, deciding whether or not to step up to each and every doorman until I found the one who would point me in the direction of the most famous film director of his generation.
It was getting close to the end of the semester, and twenty days of rain had at last given way to a week’s worth of glorious English May. Two other comrades from what was then known as the London International Film School decided to accompany me on my ridiculous and probably foolhardy venture. They were my American roommate Sharon and my new best friend Sacha, a warm and gregarious Eastern European and maker of psychodrama short films whose oeuvre fell somewhere between Luis Buñuel and David Cronenberg. The three of us watched from a raking angle, eyes darting from one centuries-old brick and pillar edifice to another, trying to put odds on which structure gave off the biggest Spielbergian vibe. Or whether or not we should just scrap the whole undertaking.
Sacha weighed in with a sentence laced with expletives, used strictly for emphasis to convey his belief that if I turned back now I would regret it for the rest of my life. Sharon couldn’t help but agree.
I don’t remember anymore what script I clutched in that envelope, an envelope more than likely getting streaked with sweat from my fingertips as I tapped it anxiously against my thigh. My best guess was that it was something called Perfect World, which I had co-written with my musician friend Theo, about a world where ugly people are kept in prison. You know, the kind of righteously heavy I-need-to-let-the-world-know-something-is-dreadfully-wrong-with-its-priorities script that you feel passionate about in youth.
Oh, it should also be noted that having worked in the entertainment industry for many years now, I realize in hindsight that in resolving to approach Spielberg cold and unannounced, I was being exactly the kind of pain in the ass moron that makes famous people need a phalanx of assistants to run interference for them. In my own defense, I was very young and pumped up on the American myth of how taking great chances just might turn one’s life around. I wasn’t leaving room in that myth for the fact that most such chances don’t involve bothering someone who doesn’t know you exist and may well wish you didn’t. That being said, it was pretty interesting how it went down.
“Well, I’m just going to come right out and ask,” I said to the doorman. “Is Steven Spielberg staying here?”
It has been decided between myself, Sharon and Sacha that I should head to the hotel directly at the end of the cul-de-sac, facing us, and hope for the best. As it turned out, the best happened.
“No,” the doorman said, “He’s in that one,” and pointed in a diagonal toward another porch with a gold plated establishment name on it. “Ask for Danny,” the doorman added, “He’ll help you out.”
Danny, as it turned out, was Mr. Spielberg’s driver, and, after I shakily croaked out my desire to see him to another inexplicably cooperative doorman, Danny appeared in the entryway.
“What can I do for you, mate?” Danny was the first of the three men to eye me with the proper amount of suspicion.
“I have a script I would like to hand to Mr. Spielberg.”
“Sorry, mate, no way.”
“Listen, now, uh, what’s your name?” I tell him who I am, feeling somewhat emboldened by his desire to establish a connection despite his apparently brusque introduction. “Listen, now, James, everybody wants to get a script to Mr. Spielberg. But he just can’t touch ‘em. Not after the world and his wife came out of the woodwork claiming they were the ones who came up with E.T.”
This seemed to make sense, and the logic of Danny’s argument began to deflate my resolve balloon. But he went on to add the icing. “Do you know,” Danny said, “that yesterday I had a geezer send up a gift for Steven? It was an aquarium. Inside the aquarium was a waterproof plastic bag with a screenplay inside it. Nah, sorry, old son, can’t be done.”
And I almost did walk away. But I stood there. I looked hang-dog and pitiful, shoulders slumped, the A4 envelope now tapping rather meekly against my twitching thigh. And, somehow, I just played my ace. “Well, Danny,” I said, “I guess I was just thinking, you know, I’m kind of the age Mr. Spielberg was when he started out and, well, somebody gave him a shot, right?”
And Danny melted. His eyes met mine with new compassion. Gone was the confrontational tone and in its place a respect born of acknowledged chutzpah. He held out his hand for my envelope. I felt a rising shudder of joy bubbling up from my solar plexus. I gave him the script.
“I’m driving Mr. Spielberg tonight, and I will show this to him then.”
“Thank you, Danny, thank you. I can’t ask for more than that.” We shook hands. He said, “Cheers,” I said “cheers” back.
And then I walked as contained as I possibly could be toward my friends, not wanting my posture to betray too much to those outside the private hotels that were now at my back. But Sacha and Sharon saw my beaming face coming as they poked their heads from behind the brickfront; their vantage point on my solo trip to an apparent new destiny.
We embraced each other by the biceps, in a moment appropriately reminiscent of a scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, in which Indy and Sallah do a little dance while gleefully chanting, “They’re digging in the wrong place!” I led our chant with, “He’s going to show my script to Steven Spielberg!”
The three of us legged it immediately to a pub, where we celebrated possibility and renewed our vows to the church of filmmaking. We loved movies, God did we love movies.
Four months later, I had moved to new digs near Notting Hill Gate. A call came into the common hallway phone. It was from my previous residence, a bedsit over in Swiss Cottage. A package had come for me to my old address.
Inside the package was my original A4 envelope, still unopened. Taped to the front of it was a small business envelope. Inside the envelope was a note bearing the letterhead of the private hotel I had stood outside not long ago:
This envelope was refused untouched by Mr. Spielberg. Good luck. Danny.
I have to hand it to Danny. He was a man of his word. He did what he said he would do. I can still imagine him reaching back across the front seat while he drove, showing his boss the A4 envelope and letting him know about the pitiful but perhaps a little bit brave young Yank who had shown up with it a few hours before. And of course Steven Spielberg did not want to see it. I wouldn’t have either, if I was him. But damn, back then, it almost felt like I could be.
James Napoli’s latest book is The Official Dictionary of Sarcasm.