His first at-bat
If anyone doubts that the novelist Don DeLillo is a wise and profound man, consider how he steered clear of the movie game his first 68 years, despite his obvious passion for that medium and the pleasure he takes in being, like so many of us, an armchair critic. Just get him going on Hollywood’s version of “The Great Gatsby,” specifically on how they had all those characters sweating, all except Redford.
“This is Long Island, it’s not Alabama, but they’re all sweating because somewhere along the way there was a meeting and someone said, ‘We need to express anxiety or suspense in a certain way -- let’s have them sweat!’ ” says DeLillo, though he’s only guessing because he’s kept his distance from real filmmaking, at least until now.
He did grow up at the movie house, like most Americans of the pre-TV generation, and you wouldn’t want him across from you on a quiz show where the topic is “art films” -- he’d crush your sorry soul if the question had anything to do with Godard and existential sci-fi flicks from Taiwan.
Film references are all through his writing, from his first novel, in 1971, whose main character once wielded an 8-millimeter camera with a pistol grip. That book was called “Americana,” signaling DeLillo’s mission of trying to decipher all of our culture, from the assassins and the cults to the “white noise” of the media.
He even invented a movie in his novel “Underworld,” a supposed “legendary lost film” of the great Sergei Eisenstein. DeLillo imagined it being shown at Radio City Music Hall, the live high-kicking of the Rockettes giving way to the film’s flickering images of a mad scientist wielding a ray gun, and of giant leeches and scorpions, this made-up movie having no plot, “just loneliness, barrenness, men hunted and ray-gunned.”
But there are good reasons DeLillo has never felt driven to do it for real, starting with his obsession with language. Reading Joyce’s “Ulysses” changed his life, and his idea of a glorious visual is seeing how a well-crafted paragraph looks on a page after he’s pounded it out with his portable Olympic.
Then there’s his penchant for making pronouncements, for philosophizing. He may be describing something classically cinematic, such as a kid in “Underworld” cutting school to sneak into a baseball game, jumping over the turnstiles. But the book’s first sentence tells us, “He speaks in your voice, America, and there’s a shine in his eye that’s halfway hopeful,” typically DeLillian food for thought, the sort of morsel that a reader might need to chew over before going on, but that would be harder to digest in a fast-moving film.
“Blending the quotidian with the eternal” is how the author himself explains his MO, and imagine him springing that concept at a Hollywood pitch meeting, though he does know to elaborate for the common folk that he’s talking of mixing “ordinary stuff of everyday life with an occasional cosmic meditation.”
So here he is at 68, one of the most acclaimed of American writers, a philosopher of contemporary angst and a guru to many, a figure of considerable mystique who used to hand out business cards reading “I don’t want to talk about it,” and he’s never had his name on a film. His agent has dutifully optioned virtually all his 13 novels, but DeLillo has never sought to adapt them himself, and none has made it to the screen. There’s never been one up there that he wrote from scratch, either -- until this evening.
That’s when an audience at Sundance will see “Game 6,” his dark comedic tale of a writer and a baseball curse and a critic with a gun and a traffic reporter with a penchant for ... well, cosmic meditation.
The most prominent theater in the Bronx, where DeLillo grew up, was the Loews Paradise, a 3,800-seat palace that was always showing Randolph Scott westerns and later Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis comedies and where he and his pals once were kicked out for “saluting the head usher ... and annoying girls sitting in front.”
While the son of Italian immigrants was a normal teenager in that regard, those movies left him cold. “My idea was to walk out,” he says. A theater a few blocks away showed foreign films, but “they weren’t necessarily arty movies,” DeLillo notes. “You know, they were Alec Guinness comedies or French movies that had women with big breasts.” Despite those attributes, he felt “ready for another level of film appreciation.”
He found it in Manhattan’s art houses, such as the Thalia, where he caught “stunning” films coming out of Europe and Japan during the ‘50s and ‘60s while he studied under the Jesuits at Fordham University then slogged along in an advertising job.
To this day, one buddy will call him up and throw out a name to test him, as happened just last week, DeLillo says. “He said, ‘Keith Andes.’ And then I said, ‘Clash by Night,’ ” a 1952 Fritz Lang film in which Andes played Barbara Stanwyck’s brother.
DeLillo once wrote an essay about having glimpsed a movie goddess on a street in Rome sporting a man on each arm, and trying to figure out, decades later, if it was Anita Ekberg or Ursula Andress. He wonders, “What happens to these people when we don’t see them on the screen any longer? Do they keep living?”
Yet when he quit his ad job and began writing novels from a studio apartment near Gramercy Park, he never imagined what stars might portray his characters. “Absolutely not,” he says. While the likes of Fitzgerald and Faulkner were not above giving Hollywood a try, DeLillo insists he never felt the pull.
Part of the problem, as he saw it, was the fleetingness of spoken dialogue, though he did write a couple of plays, where extended monologues are feasible. But his most memorable moments at movies came from images, such as the “tortured beauty” of the landscape in Antonioni’s “Red Desert” or the glimpse of a flag fluttering over a body in John Huston’s “The Red Badge of Courage.”
DeLillo concluded that “the best screenplay is the invisible one,” while for him “it’s always been about words.” Nor was he going to stop making those pronouncements that have marked his writing from book one, as when he is describing a cocktail party and blurts out, “This is the essence of Western civilization.”
DeLillo says he probably should have asked, “Do these things belong in a novel?” but didn’t: “I just kept going.” He was not about to turn off that impulse if he wrote a film. And he didn’t, of course, when he finally did.
“When I say a screenplay should be invisible,” he says, “I’m not talking about this one.”
Fateful phone call
Producer Amy Robinson traces the origins of “Game 6" back to 1987, when she phoned DeLillo “out of the blue” to see if he might be interested in writing a movie about a deranged Elvis fan. She knew his writing was complex and not for everyone, but she thought his dark imagination might be perfect for a story about a woman convinced she’s married to the King.
Though DeLillo had never written a film, she saw that he had subjected that art form to the same intense glare he directs at everything else. He complains, for example, how Hollywood always shows people looking at the phone when it rings, when no one does that in real life.
The Elvis project went nowhere, but they stayed in touch.
DeLillo soon after began his 10th novel, “Mao II,” with the mass wedding of 6,500 couples by a guru, Master Moon, in Yankee Stadium. That’s the book in which he declared that “the future belongs to crowds” and led readers, in the end, to the war-torn streets of Beirut.
About the time it was published in 1991, DeLillo had his idea for a film. He imagined a playwright passing up the opening of his own new play, on the night a dreaded critic will be there, to watch the sixth game of the ’86 World Series between his beloved Red Sox and the Mets -- the infamous game in which Boston’s hopes for its first title in ages were foiled when first baseman Bill Buckner let a ground ball go through his legs. The Red Sox curse continued, and so did the playwright’s long day, for the critic had to be dealt with....
Robinson and her partner, actor Griffin Dunne, couldn’t believe it when his idea came over their fax machine. They had just been discussing a real incident in which a playwright ranted that the New York Times’ critic then, Frank Rich, had ruined his life. They thought that had the makings of a good film -- have the writer kidnap the critic. DeLillo was outlining something similar, except he had a shootout, leaving one victim, the critic’s cat.
They soon had a script and a deal with Universal, which gained DeLillo his first direct exposure to Hollywood. There was one quibble -- the kitty getting whacked. A studio executive said, “ ‘Please don’t let this happen,’ ” DeLillo recalls. “ ‘I’ll have to explain it to my cat.’ ”
DeLillo is practiced at presenting a grim persona, especially when photographers are around. He used to have a reputation for being a recluse too, what with those no-comment cards he carried. “We don’t have to know everything about the man,” he once wrote of another private person, the pianist Glenn Gould. “Less-than-everything may be the man.”
But DeLillo in recent years has spoken readily about his work, and his life. And however Beckett-like he appears in photos, he spends much of a conversation grinning or chuckling. How could he not be amused by that cat episode?
He was not fazed, he says, when “Game 6" descended into development hell. The producers would call from time to time -- Robert Altman might direct! -- but he was not entirely naive about their business. He’d seen how some of his books got “optioned and re-optioned and re-optioned” without anything more happening. He once wrote a 90-second play for a fundraiser, and someone optioned that too. “It’s unreal,” he said. Why make a fuss if his only screenplay sank to 20,000 fathoms in 1991?
“This was not my essential passion, so it was easy for me to just keep doing what I normally do, write novels.”
He plunged into “Underworld,” which was inspired by another landmark baseball game, in 1951, when the “shot heard ‘round the world,” a Bobby Thomson homerun, won the National League championship for the New York Giants. That also was the day of a Soviet nuclear test, so he imagined the news being whispered to one spectator at the Polo Grounds, the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover, while he watches with Frank Sinatra and Jackie Gleason, who two days later would introduce “The Honeymooners” on his variety show.
DeLillo toiled until 1997 on that massive book about the Cold War era, and he wrote two more after it, before he got another call out of the blue, a year ago, from his producing friends: They had $2.5 million to make five movies, on the cheap, and his old “piece of work between novels” would be one of those.
They shot “Game 6" over three weeks in the heart of the New York summer, on streets and in bars and a cluttered Brooklyn loft with no ventilation. DeLillo showed up on location six or seven times, and “it was very interesting until it became very boring. Then I went home.”
He found that “making movies is another civilization.” In his normal work, he wrote alone in his home -- for the last 20 years in a house in the suburbs -- and people generally read his works in their homes too, one at a time. But they watched films in groups, and that’s how you created them.
The novelty of having a DeLillo script helped bring in actors of stature willing to work for scale: Michael Keaton as the suffering Red Sox fan and playwright who proclaims the film’s mantra, “This could be it,” but senses doom on all fronts; Bebe Neuwirth as his producer and mistress, who warns that the city’s “avenging angel” critic will there opening night; Griffin Dunne himself as another writer on a downward slide ever since that critic found his way into a production of his one-act play intended only for the fish handlers at the Fulton Fish Market; Harris Yulin as the veteran actor being counted on to carry Keaton’s play but who has a parasite in his brain that’s eating his lines; and Robert Downey Jr. as the mysterious critic who comes to the theater in disguise, and armed, and who believes that people who write the truth are the outcasts of society.
Though Keaton’s character insists he’s not scared of the guy, he too winds up toting a gun after a series of cross-town cab rides take him almost nowhere while yielding conversations that, in the DeLillo fashion, could be read as comic or cosmic. Encountering one cabby who used to be a neurosurgeon in Russia and cracked open thousands of skulls, Keaton asks, “What’d you find?”
“Big mess every time,” says the driver.
Only after the shoot did director Michael Hoffman (“Soapdish,” “One Fine Day”) ask DeLillo to expand the role of the unseen character who most goes cosmic.
That’s “Lone Eagle,” the radio traffic philosopher who reports that cars are bumper to bumper, and soul to soul, on major arteries and small veins alike, “Uptown, downtown. Headlights, taillights. Cars weaving down the avenues, sleeping people at the wheel. Sirens in the chilly distance. The planet turns. The traffic rolls. This is Lone Eagle, over and out.”
Another voice-over added just weeks ago tweaks the real history of Oct. 25, 1986. Amy Robinson got veteran baseball announcer Vin Scully to record a new snippet to insert into his original call of the Sox-Mets game, adding the film’s mantra, “This could be it,” when the Red Sox did seem on the brink, in 1986, of breaking their curse.
The Boston team was back on that brink just as they were working on “Game 6" last year, and it would probably have been better for the film had Red Sox fans been left devastated again.
But DeLillo was not sorry the Sox finally won. Though he is true to his Bronx roots -- a Yankee fan -- he believes there should be a little justice in the world. Let others argue that Boston fans now are deprived of their specialness. “Actually it won’t be the same,” he says, “because it will be a little better.... They deserved to win.”
For someone who plays the postmodernist hit man in print, he is a softie in many respects. He worries about the player who was the goat in ’86. “The curse has been removed from the Red Sox and their fans, but has it been removed from Buckner?” he frets. “My guess is no, that he still feels the pain.”
DeLillo is equally kindhearted in accepting the realities of moviemaking, such as how, when the credits trumpet that it’s “A film by ... " they don’t mean the writer.
He’s also not one to pout if the ending turned out less hard-edged than he imagined. The shoot-the-cat bit is long gone, and his vision of a final image didn’t make it either. He saw Keaton taking the wheel of a cab himself, his daughter beside him and the real cabby in the backseat, terrified, and crashing it gently into a concrete abutment as the sun rises on a new day.
The decision not to shoot that wasn’t artistic. In a movie, you’ve got to pay for the car if you bust it up.
DeLillo’s not going to tonight’s opening at Sundance. He reports this at his century-old house, filled with plants on antique stands, jazz albums, vintage photographs and the harpsichord played by his wife, Barbara, a landscape designer. The house is perched above a snowy street in the kind of suburban New York community where, still, it’s the ladies who do lunch.
He’d like to see how the film goes over with an audience, naturally, just not an invited, industry crowd. His plan is to slip into a regular theater when, and if, “Game 6" makes it that far. “I don’t have a sense of this movie’s future,” he says.
He’ll let the others worry about that and deal with the crowds in Utah and schmooze the distributors they hope will pick up “Game 6.” They’ll have to rub elbows with Robert Redford without him -- and Redford will have to wait to hear his analysis of all that sweating in “Gatsby.”
DeLillo says he’s not going because he’s working on another novel and can’t allow himself an easy escape from the typewriter. He won’t say much about this one other than “it’s not about baseball” and he’s still at the stage where it could be a slender book, like “The Body Artist,” or a mammoth one, like “Underworld.”
“Writing is torture,” he says, “but it’s fun sometimes.”
He is three times the age of many of the people showcasing first films at Sundance, but he no doubt could earn an easier living by churning out treatments, and scripts, and optioning and re-optioning, and taking meetings in far nicer climates than New York’s to figure out which Anita Ekberg of today should play his female lead.
“No,” Don DeLillo says.