Are you off the schneid yet? Even better, do you even have a clue what the schneid is? It’s a sports riff often used to describe a person or team that has yet to score. The etymology of the term is a bit dubious as is the spelling. But if you want to know, a curious Google search ought to get you close enough.
The context I’m trying to get at is about attaining that first legit credit. Be it as a writer, actor, producer, or director. It can feel like a Herculean hurdle that, if you’re to call yourself a professional, you must somehow accomplish. It can be as unusually easy as writing your first script as a Masters thesis (Amanda Silver’s Hand that Rocks the Cradle.) Or more than likely, a steep and treacherous trail that can wind for years through the Hollywood Himalayas with seemingly no end in sight.
My shneid-shattering moment was that little ditty known as Die Hard Deux. And to say it was a relief would be a gross understatement. But before that, when I was burdened with that scarlet U (standing for “Unproduced”) I’d been close only once before.
The script, Honor Bright, was about a crew of undisciplined American soldiers that gets trapped in an international situation while operating a radar base on a small Caribbean island. It was a back-pocket spec I wrote while interned at Warner Brothers. Producer Robert Shapiro (Empire of the Sun, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure) had taken it over to New World Pictures which, at the time, was trying to shake off its reputation as an exploitation factory—while still retaining pride in the scores of filmmakers who’d gotten their start under the company umbrella: Ron Howard, James Cameron, Joe Dante, and my pal Amy Holden Jones to name a few. The mini-studio had just received an infusion of cash from foreign investors. And my picture was on the slate, complete with one-sheet art and trade ads for the famed Cannes film market. All we needed was cast and a director. First on board was Paul Michael Glaser, fresh off directing Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Running Man. While I was feverishly revising the script for Paul, he jetted off to Mexico to scout locations. Though still relatively young in my career, I was chuffed about how quickly I was gonna put the fabled schneid in my rear view mirror.
Then Paul Michael Glaser returned from Mexico with quite possibly the worst survivable case of Montezuma’s Revenge known to man. Paul had spent days in a Mexican hospital before journeying home, declaring he never wanted to move so much as a hangnail outside the U.S. ever again. Budget and financing constraints were going to make shooting Honor Bright in the U.S. an impossibility. Paul withdrew from the movie. And I remained on the screenwriting schneid.
Ah. But New World believed in my little action movie. Soon another director was aboard, TV veteran Jeremy Kagan (Roswell, The West Wing). A big personality with a gentle soul, Jeremy and I got along famously. I was back to making script tweaks for my director while Jeremy went about casting. The studio followed up with a start date. And then another. And then another. It appeared that New World’s financing had some leaks in it. And while the company scrambled to stem the flow of cash, Jeremy Kagan did what most directors do who need to pay their mortgage. He took another gig.
Now, if the schneid had any actual form, my image is that it would look something like a prison barrier with multiple fences topped in razor wire. And in between, a no man’s land patrolled by an oversized and underfed pack of Rottweilers. I must admit that New World’s money woes along with Jeremy Kagan’s sad exit left me feeling hung up, caught in the middle, with a bulls-eye painted on my back.
That and I pretty much feared Honor Bright was ready for a body bag.
Who’d have thought a bunch of tax-dodging Australians would come to the rescue? Suddenly, both their economy and film and TV industry had found its stride. They had cash to invest in American movies with but one simple caveat—most of your picture would have to be shot in the Land of Oz. New World was speedy fast to declare their affection for all things Aussie. And of the two movies they signed on to make Down Under, Honor Bright was one of them. All we needed was a cast and a director. Thusly, producer Robert Shapiro went about seeking candidate number three.
Enter Abel Ferrara. Yes. That Abel Ferrara (Ms. 45, Bad Lieutenant). French favorite and New York enfant terrible had signed on to direct my contained, tropical war drama. Now, nothing in Abel’s ouvre would’ve led anybody to believe that the cult filmmaker would be apt, let alone the least bit inclined to direct a movie which could’ve been described as Stripes meets Die Hard.
Yet there I was one afternoon, driving over Laurel Canyon, on my way to the Chateau Marmont Hotel to meet my newest director. The man who held a promise in his helmer’s hand. Abel Ferrara was going to be the man to at last assist me in getting off the bloody schneid.
Yet then again, considering the movies this man was known to unspool, what the hell kind of ideas would he bring? From what I could gather, based on what bios I could get my mitts around, Abel had barely travelled outside of New York City–and that was merely to promote his purely Gotham-centric pictures. What the hell was he going to bring to the party? And would his name be Nicholas St. John? …a fellow New Yorker and screenwriter with whom Abel was known to not just collaborate with, but rely upon.
The front desk announced my arrival, gave me some indiscernible directions up to Mr. Ferrara’s suite, which I followed only to get lost more than once. When I at last arrived at his door, I knocked, waited, and was greeted by quite possibly the most simian-like human I’d ever encountered. Thin, with a short trunk and long, languid arms, the director invited me in, and folded himself into a big, comfy lounge chair.
“Anything to drink?” he asked me.
“Water, if you got it,” I said.
“Kiddin’ me? This place is stocked,” said Abel. “Anything you want. Beer. Booze. Probably can order up the same speedball that killed Belushi.”
We laughed, then both openly wondered if the suite where we were about to chat was the very room in which John Belushi had famously OD’d.”
“I never come out west,” said Abel. “Fuckin’ hate the place.”
“That so?” was all I could think to ask.
“Hell,” he said. “I hardly ever leave New York. So what the fuck am I doing about to direct some war thing on some tropical island?”
“Answer is, I don’t know. Musta been your script.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said. “And suppose I gotta get the hell outta the city sometime. May as well be someplace with a beach. You know where we’re shooting it?”
“Australia, I heard.”
“Where the money is.”
“Australia, man. You been there?”
“No. You? Or is that a stupid question?”
“Yeah. Like I never leave New York. Not really good with open spaces.”
“How are you with palm trees?”
“Dunno,” he said. “Suppose we’re gonna find out, huh?”
Yes. I suppose we were.
NEXT WEEK, THE REST OF GETTING OFF THE SCHNEID.