This is a story about the glamour of the movie business.
The 25th anniversary of the motion picture “Let It Ride” is 2014.
I wrote the novel that was the basis for this film. The book was called “Good Vibes.” An original hardback in good condition goes for something like a grand. It’s what can happen when an offbeat subject is the basis for a relative small printing, and all that turns out to be a movie by Paramount with an Academy Award winning actor, Richard Dreyfuss. I have three paperback copies of “Good Vibes,” one with a cover that appears half-eaten. My ex-wife has four hardbacks in mint condition. This isn’t the glamorous part. I gave all my hardback copies away, never once thinking they would become rarified. Upon realizing that I was out of hardback copies of one of my books, and that they were costing many hundreds of dollars each, I went through all my places, resembling Jack Lemmon looking for whiskey in “Wine and Roses,” finding nothing.
There are several ways you write novels.
It takes one novel to learn your control pretty much ends with the completion of the manuscript.
One way is to write your life and call it fiction and begin a series of nervous breakdowns when things don’t go your way when it comes to publicity and book sales and movie deals and the like. The other way is to use all of your emotions and some of your experiences, write the novel, put it in a box and mail it to an agent, and write another one. Real writers write a bunch of novels. Diarists write their lives and call it fiction, and usually crack.
It takes one novel to learn your control pretty much ends with the completion of the manuscript. They, they being everybody from the publisher to the movie producers, can do anything they wish to your work once they own it. Sherlock’s Dr. Watson is a woman on the tube? Owner’s choice.
With the recent misfortune of the cable TV series “Luck,” which featured freaks as your average race track attendees, and which killed some horses in the filming, I probably wouldn’t set a fiction piece at the old race track anytime soon.
The idea for “Good Vibes” came to mind one Saturday at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., when I hit a long shot and wondered what life would be like if a person kept hitting winners. So it became a fantasy about that, about winning them all, something like a spinoff of baseball’s “The Natural,” something like “The Unnatural,” a guy, Dreyfuss, who all of a sudden couldn’t lose betting the horses.
The novel has some pretty funny characters in there and was under option from the outset. An option is where somebody, anybody, gets your book for a period of time to have a screenplay written, and to get a studio and actors on board. Having somebody interested in optioning your novel is exciting. Once. Then when you find out it was a school teacher and his buddy who optioned your novel for 18 months, you want to travel to Los Angeles with a Louisville Slugger and teach your agent a lesson or two.
A school teacher and his pal first optioned “Good Vibes” and wrote a script that was more than 160 pages in length, which would have necessitated an intermission or two, as the prime screenplay length is 120 pages, one page per minute of screen time. The screenplay was horrific. It was like the Anchorman character wrote it, or Michael Scott from the paper company in “The Office.” I read two pages and felt ill. There went a year or two. Full payment for the purchase of a book isn’t usually made until the completion of principal photography. Options can be renewed for centuries.
Agencies represent people for a commission. Big, flesh-factory agencies enjoy having commissions from everybody involved in a motion picture, writers, actors, directors, technicians, the works. So when an agency gets a story, a book, they’re apt to try to use all their people in the project and earn tons of money over bushel baskets of money. In putting stories together using your agency’s actors, sometimes your work winds up in the mitts of somebody destined for “Dancing with the Stars,” somebody who could stand a comeback.
So “Good Vibes” bounced around between options from university teachers and waiters until it was passed along to some guys and gals who loved horse racing and were looking to make a flick on the cheap.
It did appear that somebody was fairly serious about making the movie when the screenwriter came to Oaklawn Park to meet me and view the atmosphere in which the story was set.
The individual who got the movie made was a man named Ned Dowd. He was responsible for such great shows as “Slap Shot.” His sister Nancy wrote that screenplay, and “Let It Ride” as well. Ned was a minor league hockey player and brought the feel of desperate hopefulness to “Slap Shot.” Ned loved to try $50 exactas and could have been trying to get his money back with “Let It Ride,” who knows.
I love everything about the movie “Let It Ride.” It’s like the script was torn from the novel. Dreyfuss is perfect. The race track characters are on the money. The setting is heaven. Book writers often get to say of rotten movies, “They changed my story.” Not here. The movie is the book. Great actors like Robbie Coltrane and Cynthia Nixon were part of the cast. To this day, I use handicapping scenes that appeared in the novel and the movie, exactly as originally written: asking everybody who they like in a race, then betting on what’s left.
About the only time movie people call book people is when the movie people mess something up and need help.
I kept getting notes about how the guys and gals who loved horse racing were going to make this movie for a fact. I put these notes in the “Yeah Sure” stack. A few years ago I got a note in a foreign language from Europe which, after being translated, said: We made your movie. Pretty exciting, huh; but this isn’t the glamorous part.
It did appear that somebody was fairly serious about making the movie when the screenwriter came to Oaklawn Park to meet me and view the atmosphere in which the story was set. The screenwriter wore beautiful clothes and came to the track with an assistant and seemed reluctant to touch anything. I put notes from the experience with the screenwriter into the “So Much for This” stack.
But guess what, they did get a script, and a major studio, and some great actors, and a director, Joe Pytka, who did the Pepsi commercial where Michael Jackson’s hair caught fire.
And as the book writer, they invited me to come to Miami as filming was to begin at Hialeah Park. This beat other movie invitations, like the time Bill Murray invited me to New Jersey to watch a scene of “Quick Change” to be shot in a men’s restroom at 4 a.m. one weekday morning.
To get in the right frame of mind for the gambling shoot, everybody went to a dog track the night before production of the movie was to begin. Dreyfuss is shorter than short and is a very nice fellow. The owner of the dog track was thrilled to have a major motion picture star in their midst and gave us seats on the finish line. The owner of the track seemed to whisper things to Dreyfuss several times. He won. I lost. Whatever.
The next morning, somebody who seemed to be from the director’s camp said in a pre-movie pep talk that he didn’t want too much dialog getting in the way of this film. Shortly thereafter I caught a taxi and went home ahead of schedule, as I am more about dialog than art.
The movie has become something of a cult classic among horse race fans. It puts people in a positive frame of mind before gaming excursions like the Triple Crown or Breeder’s Cup series of races.
Here’s the glamour part. Somebody sent me a hardback copy of my own book.