“I bought the rights to a book you know,” said the voice on the phone from Hollywood.
“What book is that, Joe?” I asked.
“The Day of the Triffids” he replied.
I paused. And could feel, as the cliche has it, the hairs rise on the back of my neck. Wow, I thought. “That’s a helluva book, Joe,” I said “make a good film.”
“I want you to make it for me,” said Joe.
Wow,! Wow! Wow! This is it, at last, a film that could help make my name as a film director. “Thank you, Joe. That’s wonderful,” I said “can’t thank you enough for – “
“Yeah, yeah, yeah” he interrupted. “Now here’s what I want you to do.”
He outlined a plan. I was to get a co-writer – my own screen writing credits being not yet quite extensive enough to impress financiers – and write a screenplay. A space was to be found where we could work.
“How long d’ya think it’ll take?” asked Joe.
“Well, with re-thinks, re-writes, say two months.”
“Make it six weeks,” said Joe
“Okay.” I said.
We agreed on terms. The co-writer and I were to get £600 each. A worthy sum in those days.
“Y’call me if you need anything,” he said. “Good luck, Al.”
I never liked being called Al. A diminishing nomenclature in every sense. Joe knew that.
London production associates of Joe’s found a setting for creative writing. A house in Eaton Mews. “Everything else was crap.” one said. I was amazed, amused and pleased. This fashionable house was not only confirmation of Joe’s seriousness in the project but indicative of the financial support he could provide.
The house came complete with all the things one expects in such a house in central London, including – wait for it – a snooker room. Except for the daily visit of a cleaning woman or an occasional delivery, the Mews was an alley of tranquility. perfect for writers.
As my co-writer I hired Phillip Mackie. I had directed one or two of his plays on television. We got. on well. More importantly he had many screen credits. including Hollywood credits.
We met diligently every morning at 9 am at the house and worked through to 5 or 6. Every Friday a cheque was messengered to us for £100 each. The moment it arrived Phillip would insist we drop everything to taxi our way to the issuing City bank that alone could cash our cheques. Phillip wanted his salary in his hands. His experience with producers in Hollywood had left him scarred.
For those who don’t know, Day Of The Triffids is about a species of mobile man-sized plants planning to take over the world by violently killing all its occupants. A well-written graphic book. But not easy to adapt to the screen. Triffids killed by lashing out a poisonous ten foot long green tentacle.. Contact with bare skin killing instantly.. Scary, yes. But also in danger of being laughable. Think of a rose sticking out a tongue at you. “N’ya, take that!”
Phillip and I agreed not to show the lash at work too early in the story. But to show first the horrific results the killer plant achieved. The pain, the cuts, the bleeding, the screaming agony of sufferers – men, women, even babies in prams – and once its prey has been stung the Triffid roots itself next to the victim to feed on the decomposing body. As if gloating in victory. An enemy determined to destroy mankind. The Triffid. No longer laughable.
We finished the script in two and a half weeks.
“I’ll call Joe, “ I said.
“No you don’t” said Phillip. “I know these guys. Two and a half weeks. He’ll think he’s been cheated. We wait until the sixth week. Or else he won’t believe he got his money’s worth.”
My snooker playing improved measurably in the next few weeks. Each morning we would arrive, remove coats, jackets, purposefully head for the pool table. Phillip and I were evenly matched. Made it more enjoyable. In the hours of the week when the cleaning woman would appear – she may have reported to Joe – we were sure to be found at our desks, clattering on typewriters. Same routine whenever the doorbell rang with messenger boy or meter reader or whatever – a mad scramble took place from the snooker table to our desks. .
On the Wednesday of the sixth week, Phillip and I sat and read the script. Out loud. Word by word.. All of it. Camera instructions. Action descriptions. Dialogue – playing each part – badly. Each and every word. Made changes. Surprisingly few changes. “Yeah, that’s better”’or “No, leave it, it was better before.” Took us until midnight.
The next day, Thursday, Phillip decreed, “Okay. You can phone Joe.”
The fastest way to get a script of 120 pages across the Atlantic in those days was to ignore the post office or specialist services but head down to the airport, scrutinise the queue of first class passengers waiting to board, choose one and ask him – never her – to please deliver the envelope to a waiting recipient. Worked every time.
Joe confirmed that a member of his large team would be at Los Angeles airport to pick up the script.
“It’s good? You’re happy with it. Al? “
“Well, you’ll see. But I think it’s more than good, it works because….”
“Can’t wait. Can’t wait!” he shouted down the line. “Gonna make a fortune. A fortune. I been talking to Jimmy – y’know Stewart, yeah, Jimmy Stewart. And Billy Holden. We’ll get one of them for sure. Gonna make a pile. Thanks kid. Thanks Al. Gonna make a fortune.”
It wasn’t until the Saturday I heard from him again. He was breathless. I thought with excitement.
“I read it,” said Joe. ‘Yeah, then I read it again. I can’t believe it.” Then shouted, ” I can’t believe it!”
“It’s good isn’t it Joe? I like the way we found…”
`His voice was louder. ”You’ve written a script about vegetables that move?!!!”
‘That’s right, Joe,” I said. “About Triffids. A giant plant than can kill – “
He was now not speaking, only shouting. “`it’s a picture about vegetables that move?!!”
“Yes, i said, “that’s what …” A thought struck me. “Joe, have you ever read the book?”
“”Books! Who’s got time to read books? Vegetables that move! VEGETABLES THAT MOVE!! ???“ By now he was screaming. “No.I never read the bookI. And I ain’t makin’ no picture about FUCKIN’ VEGETABLES THAT MOVE!!”
He hung up.
I never heard from Joe again.
A film was eventually made, 1962, of The Day of the Triffids presumably by a producer who read the book. Nothing to do with my script. Starred Howard Keel. Was moderately successful. The adapters made considerable changes to the story line. The BBC has done two television versions of the book.
How my work would have compared to these versions, I don’t know. A copy was never kept of my script.
I have told that story about my experience with Triffids many times. To friends or to the usual cluster at parties or to the family – chastised by my wife for using the f word in front of the children – always getting a laugh. One day at one of those gleaming restaurants on the south Italy coast, my family was lunching. My daughter Sasha, not quite 5 – all cute, covered in blonde ringlets – was spearing an undercooked whole carrot. The carrot slithered away from under her fork, off the plate, across the table, onto the tiled floor and travelled until finally stopping several tables away.
Sasha raised her head and said, “Fuckin’ vegetables that move!”
I’MJUSTTHEGUYWHOSAYSACTION (c) blogs by Alvin Rakoff
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