Does Frey have trouble in Hollywood?
James Frey rocketed to national attention as the memoirist who was anointed, then eviscerated, on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” But before that, Frey spent nearly a decade in Hollywood, hanging out at industry barbecues, hustling movie ideas and co-producing a few indie flicks.
Frey had become the New York-based bestselling author of “A Million Little Pieces” by the time he returned over the holidays to throw what one observer described as a classic Hollywood fit. A screenwriter wanted to change the details of Frey’s memoir of addiction for a film script being written for Warner Bros.
Frey said they didn’t have the right to alter the facts in the book, the observer recalled this week. “How could they do this? This was his life! How could they change the facts of his life?” Eventually, Frey fired his agency.
“In light of what we now know, the reasons that James left our agency are certainly ironic, and it’s nice being on the right side of irony,” said Jeremy Zimmer, a top agent at United Talent Agency and one of Frey’s agents before the confrontation.
Reached by phone, Frey said: “I can’t comment on any of that stuff. I’m sure I know what you’re going to write.” Pressed on details, he interrupted: “I can’t comment on anything.”
A few minutes later, Frey added, “All I wanted to do was write a book that would help people get through tough times, and I never meant for any of this to happen, and I’m sorry that it has.”
Frey’s own story line is rooted in Hollywood. He is listed at the Internet Movie Database website as the director and writer of a small 1998 film called “Sugar: The Fall of the West,” and he has a writing and story credit on the 1998 David Schwimmer movie “Kissing a Fool.” He’s also listed as a co-producer of 2001’s “See Jane Run” and as a producer of the 2000 Luke Wilson film “Preston Tylk,” which was also released as “Bad Seed.”
And when he decided to shop his memoir around to agents, he settled on Kassie Evashevski, the respected literary manager of Brillstein-Grey Entertainment. Unlike a traditional literary agent, Evashevski represents both book and film projects. Some believe this hybrid approach creates a built-in temptation to see a book as a steppingstone to a film deal.
“Generally speaking, the big money is to be made on the film side,” said prominent West Coast literary agent Sandra Dijkstra. “The temptation would be to counsel the author to write a book that would have enormous film appeal and that might compromise some of its integrity.”
Evashevski’s friends and associates in Los Angeles said she was devastated by Frey’s breach of trust, though she herself declined to comment.
Brillstein-Grey Chief Executive Jon Liebman noted that Evashevski represents John Hodgman, author of the recent book “The Areas of My Expertise,” and that she sold the film rights for Rosalind Wiseman’s book “Queen Bees and Wannabes,” which inspired the movie “Mean Girls.”
“Kassie lives in a world of smart and tasteful writers, and she has handled the situation with grace,” Liebman said.
The Frey affair has been a train wreck, with debris strewn from the genteel corridors of Manhattan publishing houses to Oprah’s VIP lounge.
In September 2001, Evashevski sent “A Million Little Pieces” to 18 New York publishing houses. Although 17 said no, she found a buyer in Sean McDonald, then 27, an editor at Nan A. Talese, an imprint of Doubleday (which is itself a division of Random House).
McDonald has said he was struck by the author’s voice and his original writing style. He persuaded Talese to pay a reported $50,000 advance for the book, which now has 3 million copies in print. The resulting debacle “has not been good for the business,” said Steve Riggio, chief executive of Barnes & Noble. But he noted that the discredited memoir continues to be one of the chain’s five bestselling books.
Unlike Talese, Frey and Evashevski, McDonald has issued only a brief statement about his role; he declined to answer a series of questions from The Times. In several interviews last year, however, the editor said his main creative challenge was to reduce the length of the manuscript.
“It was a matter of cutting, and it’s a hard book to cut from because ... it’s sort of one continuous take and you can’t just really go chop at a scene,” McDonald told mediabistro.com in 2005. In another mediabistro.com interview, he conceded: “I am a sucker for a completely impassioned pitch.”
Frey has described McDonald as a close, trusted friend, and the two worked together on the manuscript. McDonald has since moved to Riverhead Books, a division of Penguin-Putnam, where he is executive editor. He published Frey’s most recent book, “My Friend Leonard.”
Soon after “A Million Little Pieces” was published in April 2003, questions arose about its accuracy. Critics challenged the plausibility of Frey’s stories about awakening in a bloody state on an airplane and undergoing root canal without Novocain.
Three months later -- long before her appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” -- Talese conceded that the book should have featured a note warning readers that the author had changed names and details about his fellow patients in rehab.
“It’s a total slip-up that we didn’t have a disclaimer page,” she said at the time. “I’m embarrassed.”
But not enough, apparently, to correct the mistake when the paperback edition of “A Million Little Pieces” came out in 2004.
When the controversy erupted last month, Frey said he had relied on “hundreds” of pages of documentation to write his book. McDonald declined to answer questions about whether he had seen these materials in editing the book.
There were other contradictions: Frey, who said his book was submitted as both fiction and nonfiction, recalled that Talese initially could not decide how to publish his title. She insisted, however, that the book was always seen as a memoir.
In an interview with Publishers Weekly on Tuesday, Evashevski echoed this sentiment: “I think the confusion over fiction versus nonfiction may stem from the fact that early in the submission process, James raised the issue of whether he could publish it as an autobiographical novel -- only, he said, to spare his family undue embarrassment, not because it wasn’t true. I told him I would bring it up with a few publishers, which I did, and the response was unanimous: If the book is true, it should be published as a memoir.”
According to sources, Brillstein-Grey warned Frey not to go on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” on Jan. 26. But after firing Zimmer, Frey signed with Creative Artists Agency. Winfrey is one of CAA’s biggest clients. Frey did the show.
And yet, if one idea continues to resonate, it’s that the scandal could have happened to anyone in the book business. “I think the James Frey embarrassment could have occurred any time in the last 900 years of publishing, because the industry is built on trust for a writer’s integrity,” said Harold M. Evans, former publisher of Random House.
Publishers and editors can be deceived because they do not have the resources to verify every single fact in a book, he added. “But I only have 80% sympathy for them, because we should also be sensitive to things that ring false. If an author makes an outlandish claim, somebody has to take the time to find out if it’s really true.”
The incentive to do that may be diminished with a writer like Frey, whose dramatic, redemption-themed memoir, suggests author David Halberstam, “is precisely the kind of book that many publishers are hungry for now.”
“With the marketing pressures driving the book world today, it’s much easier to get the author of a memoir on a television show than a serious novelist,” Halberstam said.
Frey’s deal to write two more books for Riverhead is “under discussion” because “the ground has shifted,” publicists there say. The ground has also shifted in Hollywood, where the future of Frey’s projects is under debate.
There’s his Fox TV story about the surfer turned private investigator. There’s the Hells Angels script he was going to write for Tony Scott. There’s the Jake Coburn book about New York prep schools he was going to adapt for Paramount and MTV Films.
And then, of course, there’s the movie version of “A Million Little Pieces” at Warner Bros., where some people had wanted to start shooting as early as spring (publicists had no comment). Frey had actually written a version of the script with Laurence Dunmore, but the studio didn’t like it.
The studio hired Mark Romanek, writer and director of the thriller “One Hour Photo” with Robin Williams. The new script that emerged touched off Frey’s year-end confrontation.
In Los Angeles, where “relationships” are paramount, the future of these projects may depend on how people feel about Frey. More than a few feel burned. Brillstein-Grey has dropped him as a client. Warner Bros. President Alan Horn has said the studio is “reevaluating” its plans for “A Million Little Pieces.”
Yet for other people, the whole thing is hard to believe.
What a nice guy, recalls one agent, who ran into him, with his dog, at casual afternoon parties in the late 1990s with agents, lawyers and producers: “young Hollywood guys,” who like Frey himself, were from affluent backgrounds. “I didn’t have any negative experiences of him,” said the agent, who told Frye she thought she could get him a publishing deal. “I read it and loved him, and it had a really special voice.”
Still, she said, it surprised her that “this guy was a drug addict and had this wild life. He didn’t appear that way. He just seemed like a guy with a couple of projects he was peddling. Maybe he drank a beer, but he didn’t seem to have that wild side. And maybe he didn’t.”
“He seemed like the nicest guy I ever met in my life,” recalled David Glasser, the international distributor of “Crash,” who said he distributed a small movie Frey co-produced 10 years ago, adding: “He’s probably ruined in Hollywood. Everybody knows everybody.”
O’Connor reported from Los Angeles and Getlin from New York. Times staff writer Claudia Eller contributed to this report.