San Francisco

Into The Badlands Chapter 5 

From the Frozen Yogurt Parlors To The Tenderloin

 

"The movie of Hammett? I'd give it a B plus.  Francis Coppola bought that from the manuscript and hired Nic Roeg as director. I did two scripts with Nic, the second of which is one of the best scripts I've ever written and then Nic quit because they couldn't cast it. They looked around for other directors, one of the guys they went to was Truffaut who read the sript, said it the best script by an American he'd ever read, but he coudn't do it. So it ended up that they hired Wim Wenders. Wim didn't want to work with a script done for anohter director so we went back to square one. I did three scripts for Wim at which point I said 'that's it guys I've doen two versions of this novel and five versions of this script and that's it.'"

 

"Wim was a...I love Wim, I think he's a very funny guy, a very interesting man. But he's very Germanic and so I'd gone to Las Vegas researching a script on guys who try and beat 21 at Blackjack, card counters, it was gonna be for Richard Gere, never got made. I was there researching with my wife and I got a phone call. It was Wim saying 'Joe, ve haf to do another version of the script' I said , 'Jeez, I'm sorry Wim, I'm in Las Vagas... ', 'I vill come down there', I said 'Jeez, Wim, I'm just leaving tomorrow for Guadalajara'. Our son was going to summer school there. Wim says, 'And vere vill you be in Guadalajara'. I said 'Phoenix Hotel', 'I vill be there'."

 

"So a few days later here comes Wim trundling in. So Dori and Tim, my wife and son, saw all the sights, had all the fun. Me and WIm are locked in this hotel room rewriting the script. I'm writing in longhand on these yellow legal pads, cause we don't have a typewriter. As I finish each sheet Wim grabs it, runs downstairs to the desk and types it, they have an old manual Underwood there. So day and night we're doing this. So along by the second night the desk clerk doesn't show up. So WIm is typing away down there and checking people into the hotel cause there's noone else there to do it. By the third night he's selling tickets to the disco that's up on the roof of the hotel!  It was after that that I quit."

 

"Then they brought in a guy named Tom Pope. He did two versions of the script. Next they brought in a guy named Dennis O'Flaherty and they started to shoot. Meanwhile Coppolais in the Phillipines doing Apocalypse Now, Fred Schepisi who is the line producer is in Malta making the Black Stallion, so there's nobody watching the store. So there's Wim who's shot all these little movies in Germany with budgets of 87 cents, suddenly here he is on his own in the big city and he's writing scripts in every direction and they're shooting, and O'Flaherty does eighteen scripts. Then Coppola returns, after they'd shot 80% of it, which was the most beautiful footage you ever saw in your life but didn't go anywhere because they kept changing the concept, WIm was hung up on thew idea of Hammett the man and he sort of forgot 'Hey we're doing a suspense movie here guys', so Francis came back and he saw the footage and he shut it all down for a year."

 

"Then Coppola bought Zoetrope studios, and they built a big elaborate set and they hired Ross Thoams. They showed Ross the footage and said 'what do we do with it?'. He said 'junk it'. They said 'we can't junk it we've got ten million dollars there'. He said 'OK I'l try and jack it up and write a new script and put it underneath, I'll use all of it I can and we'll have to reshoot the rest'. So he did eight versions. That brought the total up to 32 scripts and they finally brought it out. And they didn't distribute it or anything. It wasn't as bad as it should have been. It should have been horrible and it wasn't. It was interesting. It just wasn't the film that should have been made from the book."

 

"But in a way that's nobody's fault, that's what happens in Hollywood. I mean I sit here, we start out with a script I write which is one thing, then they take it to Florida and start shooting and come back here and what comes out in the end doesn't have a whole lot to do with what wewnt in. Writers are always fighting for control, control, control. If you have ego problems on that levelyou shouldn't work in Hollywood, because, TV especially, its gonna get slaughtered."

 

Joe Gores talking. Joe Gores is a San Francisco private eye turned novelist. His best known book is called Hammett and is a novel basd on the character of  another San Francisco private eye turned novelist, Dashiell Hammett.

 

Running Joe Gores down took a little time. A slew of phone calls from LA finallly revealed that he was not in San Francisco at the moment but in Burbank, just north of LA, at Universal Studios. So I call him up he tells me to call by the studios, 'just ask for me at the Black Tower', he says and I decide to drive up from LA, stop off at Burbank, and carry on, via Ross MacDonald's Santa Barbara, to San Francisco.

 

To get to Universal Studios I take the Hollywood Freeway north, take the Universal City exit, carry on past the tourist entrance from which they run tours around the back lot, and get bounced from parking lot to parking lot as I try to explain the nature of my mission. Having parked the Black Tower is fairly self-evident. FIrst though, I stroll around the studios a little, find that they are a community in themselves with shops and restaurants and full of people with somewhat questionable tans looking purposeful. Ever keen to fit in I get purposeful myself, enter the Black Tower, ask for Joe Gores and get directed to Bungalow 3H or somesuch. Eventually I find a network of bungalows and by dint of a judicious amount of standing about looking lost succeed in entrapping someone into pointing me at 3H.

 

I knock on the door and hear an indistinct noise which, as I open the door I realise was probably 'hold on'. Too late, I catch Joe Gores in the act of stashing a volumonous sandwich in his desk drawer. Slightly flustered he jumps up to say hello. Joe Gores is  a short, fat man in an open-necked shirt, white-haired and authentically jolly. Of all the writers I met, he is perhaps the only one who unreservedly comes over as fully contented with his life. Certainly he's the only one I can imagine telling such a story about the making of a movie fron one of his books without the account being drenched in rancour.

 

We leave Joe's office in search of a coffee shop on the back lot, First however he leads me into a nearby room. Apparently this was Hitchcock's office. It's plain enough, the kind of size that would barely satisfy a junior vice president of an infotech software outfit. Its one refinement is an ensuite kitchen and bathroom where Hitchcock could prepare a sandwich or, uh, take a shower. Like all I've seen of the studios though it is surprisingly  simple, functional. The glamour is all in the product, the lot is a place conducive to hard work, "I love being on the lot", says Gores, "I often work here alone at night on my other stuff - you can wander around and on the back lots you can find streets you rmemeber from old films."

 

As we walk people bustle buy with bits of scenery and appear from make-up trailers, above us a giant Don Johnson billboard beams down as a reminder that the biggest stars in this Hollywood-at-one-remove are those of the small screen. Most of the production here is for TV rather than cinema and my autograph book remans unopened, frustrated by my inability to recognise the leading lights of Remington PI or Murder She Wrote. The backlot coffee shop is a pleasant oudoor works canteen with an unusually high percentage of regular guys in panstick. We settle down to iced tea and Joe Gores starts talking about his previous job, the one which taught him to enter and drive away a locked car in 60 seconds, the fastest repo man in the west.

 

"I was living upstairs from a gym and I would go to the gym each morning, it was run by a guy named Floyd Page who died not too many years later. There was a guy used to work out there caled Gene Matthews and he was a PI, he used to tell these wonderful stories about all the stuff he was doing every night and I thought 'Jeez, that's exciting'. And I thought well I've got to find something to do that is gonna be fun while I learn how to write, as I'd already realised college wasn't going to teach me. The only way to become a writer is to write and I didn't have anything to write about. I wrote about what you always write about in graduate school, the girl with the pony-tail. So I asked this guy, Matthews, if I could ride around with him at night. He said fine, so I did that for a couple of months, not paid, helping him repossesss cars, skip-tracing and stuff. Then I went into San Francisco to his boss who was a guy named Dave Kichert(??) and said I want a job as a detective. He said you're overqualified, too much college, college guys don't make good detectives. So I hung around and pleaded and finally he let me start finding cars. Finally they hired me, it was $275 a monthe, a car to drive, and I did that for twelve years, seven years full time, five part time."

 

Meanwhile he was always writing. At college that was his ambition. He wrote some short stories and applied to get on the Creative Writing Programme, "they sent them back and said they wouldn't accept me because 'these stories read as if they were written to be sold!'" Which tells you much of what you need to know about Creative Writing Programmmes. After his first couple of years work as a PI, Gores took some time out to write, "I went to Tahiti for a year, 1957 I think, I went down on a freighter, went down with another guy, we got a little house, two rooms, $25 a month, sink was half an oil drum, grass roof, Lived there for a year, wrote and wrote and wrote, finally I sold a story to Manhunt magazine. 65 dollars, I was so excited."

 

Next up came a spell in the army. Two years made a lot easier by a chance meeting with a guy named Willard,making the same journey back from Tahiti. The guy was a member of the Atomic Energy Commission and he told Gores he could probably help him out if he needed it; "So after I got through basic training I was assigned to Fort Lewis, Washington, up on the coast here. I don't know if you'v been there but it rains all the time in Fort Lewis, Washinton. 320 days a year it rains. First bar I went into there was a big sign saying No Doggies Allowed. Doggies being dogfaces or soldiers. Then I was assigned to the adjutant generals office, the sort of legal office, when I got there the woman said, 'Boy are we glad to see you. We've got three million file cards to type. And I thought Oh My God 2 years of typing file cards. So I wrote a postcard to Willard. It just said Joe Gores, US 55556748 and the address and I wrote HELP on the bottom, and I forgot about it. 3 weeks later the commanding officer calls me into his office, stands me up in front of his desk and says 'I hate guys that suck'. And I didn't know what he was talking about. He said 'you guys that pull stings and have influence'. I said 'I don't understand'. He said 'here's you orders, soldier' and that was my posting to the Pentagon. Willard had written this letter to the secretary of the Army saying it has come to my attention that this fine writer is out in Fort Lewis, he could be better used at the Pentagon. What was so funny, as I'm leaving the office, the CO says 'Soldier - he's a general and I'm a private - when you're in Washington, remember my name!'. I thought you sonofabitch I'll remember your name all right."

 

Out of the arny Gores went back to work as a PI. He'd been working under Dave Kichert for a big firm LA Walker, out of Los ANgeles. Walker died and the new management sucked so Gores and Kichert and three others at the San Francisco office decided to go out on their own, trading as Dave Kichert Associates or simply DKA. Later when Gores decided to write a series of novels featuring a firm of Private Detectives, he called them Dan Kearny Associates, keeping the same DKA initials. He also kept a decades worth of great stories locked in his head, "Yep, I changed Dave Kichert to Dan Kearny and used all the real stories. I saved all my reports, thousands of them, and use bits and pieces for the stories. I'm starting a new one in June called 32 Cadillacs, that's based on a real incident where some gypsies ripped off a bank for 32 cars. In one day they went to every dealership this bank dealt with and they bought a Cadillac in each. They bought them giving a cheque for a down payment, all the cheques drawn on one bank account that had just enough money in it to cover one cheque, but each time that the agency would call up and say is there enough money to cover a cheque for $800 or whatever the deposit was they would say yes. So they all gave phony references, and they had a phone room set up, one guy with a whole bank of phones and a whole list of names - each phone would correspond to a particular false name being used at a particular dealership, the phone would ring, he would pick up and say 'Acme Roofing', because that was that phone, and they'd say do you have a Steve Miller and he's say 'oh yes he's been with us for 12 years a very reliable blah, blah'. So in one day they drove off with 32 cars, no money down, phony names, phony references. The bank came to our agency in a screaming fit and said you've got to get these cars back. It was a very intricate case, we dropped everything else for a couple of months and just did that. It was really fun, a lot of exciting stuff. We got 20 of them back, picked one up in Alaska, picked four of them up in Florida, a couple in Hawaii, 3 or 4 in Mexico, just all over the place, we had a ball. And that's the story of my new novel."

 

The DKA File series are, unsurprisingly, the most realistic series in modern private detective fiction. The private eye as envisaged by Chandler, 'who walks the mean streets but is not himself mean', is nowhere in sight. Like Hammett's COntinental op, Gores multi-racial cast are simply doing a job they're paid to do to the best of their abilities. The books are private eye procedurals, carefully stripping the private eye of the mythic dimension but without losing the excitement and danger that are features of the profession. They are very '70s books too - grim skewerings of a decade as extended hangover. Gores' San Francisco is not a place to which you would wear flowers in your hair, rather it's a city in which junkie whores in the Tenderloin and fancy lawyers from Nob Hill are tied together in webs of small-city corruption.

 

Bleaker still is the one book Gores wrote about a lone wolf private eye, Interface. This is a chill book, its protagonist, Neal Fargo, is the private eye as iceman; "That book came about with the first sentence - 'The dead Mexican lay on his back and stared at the ceiling' - that sentence came to me, I wrote it down and I couldn't get rid of it. I was rereading Hammett's Glass Key at the time which is a very cold novel, very abstract, no heat in it at all. Hammett is very careful to do that, he always calls his protagonist Ned Beaumont, never Ned or Beaumont. I thought I'd like to try and create some emotion in a novel where you don't know what anybody's really thinking, you only know what they say and what they do.It is a bleak San Francisco, I did it very deliberately, all of that and the extended profanity, relentless profanity, its all done to keep the reader off balance. As a detective you don't ususally see the high class end of town. It's just a matter of the character you're working with. In Interface the character is a bleak man. In the File novels though they are set in the same areas of San Francisco, these guys are having fun, as I certainly did at the agency. But when you're out alone on the street at 3 o clock in the morning and some guy's after you, it's bleak. And there was enough of that over the years.

 

Similarly lacking in much faith in the milk of human goodness is Gores' other mid-seventies novel, Hammett. Hammett is a bleak and playful reconstruction of the corrupt city Gores loves and of a key year in the career of a writer with whom Gores feels a peculiar affinity; "After I moved into the gym and met the private eye, all of a sudden I was doing the Hammett thing without meaning to. How the novel itself came about; I was driving across the Golden Gate Bridge with my agent, it was a foggy night and I said 'it's a very Hammett kind of night Henry', and he said, just musing, 'Gee I wonder what the legal implications would be if anyone wrote a novel using Hammett as a character. He was thinking of Lilian Hellman who was a real tiger with Hammett's memory. But it just stuck in my mind. I wanted to explore that thing of stopping being a detective, starting being a writer, you love them both but with one you're acually doing it and with the other you're making it up. The detective work is more real in a way, but the writing gets to you more, and so there was never any question that once I got good enough to make my living as a writer I quit instantly, apart from working odd days when I needed the money. But I still had a feeling of loss. There's an attitude of mind you have as a detective. It's seldom dangerous but it sometimes is and when it is it's very dangerous. So you have a fearlessness that I certainly don't have today about going down dark alleys, going into places, you know. My partner DK, he died in 84 he never lost that, he would always go in there no matter who he was up against, I was a little more cautious."

 

I wondered whether this jolly fat man, whose books feature half-dead whores begging for some pure heroin they can use to overdose on and retard families torturing kittens to pass a rainy afternoon, sees his work as a little cynical with regard to human nature; "As a detective I know that if I wanted to find someone bad enough, I could just corrupt his friends or family by offering them money and they'd turn him up, very often a mother would turn up her son for 20 bucks. Maybe you think its cynicism, I think its realism. I look at myself and I see  things inside myself that if I was strong enough and bright enough I would certainly change. I don't think I'm particularly susceptible to money corruption or sex corruption because I'm wondeffully happy with my wife and I'm doing what I want with my life, I'm writing, I've had a charmed life in that way, I found out in college that I wanted to do something and Jesus I've done it. So in those ways I'm not corruptible but I'm corruptible in other ways.I think we all have ways in which we don't meet the image we'd like to hold of ourselves. Yet you take a novel like Interface and its a romance. Its about a man and woman who love each other, they go about solving their problem in a very odd way but really its a love story. So no, I don't think I'm cynical. I think Ross Thomas is a cynic!"

 

Joe Gores has got to get back to work doctoring scripts for another American cop show whose merits he seems fairly philosophical about. Gores sends his best to most of the writer's I'm going to see, laments the fact that JAmes Crumley has never had any of his scripts made ("Dancing Bear that's one of the best scripts I've ever seen") and I head up north toward San Francisco, wondering if its really going to be the 'rat's nest of junk, alcohol and vice that the jacket copy for Interface promises.