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Hollywood Hair-cuts

I didn’t know what a Hollywood haircut was back in the early 1970s when I first got the idea into my head to write progressive popular fiction. A Hollywood haircut is when your idea is shaven a bit here and there to make it look different enough so that it escapes copyright protection and becomes someone else’s.
It’s the intellectual’s hubris, I suppose, that makes him or her imagine that books can change the world. They can, if they are the right ones, but now I think it’s unlikely a progressive detective novel can. Back then, I didn’t, so I wrote, over several years while a graduate student, a detective novel with a female central character and a plot that revolved around the politics of terrorism, as it was called back then. You’ll recall–if you’re old enough–that in the mid-1970s, leftists who took up arms against oppressive regimes or against capitalism were called terrorists. But interestingly, there were also rightwing terrorists, of the kind that blew up the Bologna railroad station. I had read about a rightwing Catholic group named, I think, Agnus Dei, and I decided to construct a plot that would have the rightwingers pretend to be leftwingers in order to get some horrible act blamed on the Left. I had also read in the newspaper that a student at Princeton claimed to be able to build a nuclear device, so I put him at the center of the plot. Here’s how it went: the detective, Peregrine Wingfield, gets involved in the investigation of the disappearance of a young Yale student. Using Yale allowed me to have Paul De Man and Jacques Derrida as characters, for no real reason bearing on the plot. Peregrine discovers that the young boy has been kidnapped. She follows the trail to a rightwing organization in Virginia and on the way comes in touch with someone else on the trail: a man who to all appearances is Carlos, the famous Argentine leftist responsible for several early 1970s “terrorist” actions. When they reach Virginia, the boy has disappeared again, this time to Geneva, where a peace conference is taking place. By now, Peregrine realizes the stakes are large: she has discovered the boy’s ability to make a nuclear device, and she suspects his talents are about to be misused. The novel ends with a chase through the Swiss Alps, as Peregrine tries to prevent the rightwing terrorists from setting off the nuclear device. Carlos, it turns out, is only pretending to be Carlos; he’s really a rightwinger. In the end, of course, she succeeds, the false Carlos is killed, and the bomb does not go off.
I circulated the novel to editors I knew or had been put in touch with, but I hadn’t the sense back then to seek out an agent. I should have, of course, even if it would only have been to be told the novel wasn’t good. But the idea was good. Of that I’m sure because two years after I tried and failed to get it published, a movie appeared called The Manhattan Project about a boy who knows how to build a nuclear device. A coincidence, I thought; I had sent the book to one not so terribly scrupulous seeming editor at Playboy Press, but would she have passed on the idea to someone else? Hum. The idea entered my mind, but I’m an unreasonably paranoic person at the best of times, so I suspect I was just being paranoid.
But I didn’t give up. I wrote another novel about leftists who attempt to use the media to advertise a referendum in California to make the state more socialist. A young man who works for a rightwing corporation is ordered to infiltrate and investigate the socialists, but he falls in love with their leader, a beautiful and charismatic woman. Their campaign in California succeeds, and they decide to take it to the rest of the country, using television to promote simple socialist ideas such as equal pay for everyone. But the Right brings in a military man from Latin America who organizes death squads to deal with them. All hell breaks out, and the movement is suppressed.
I didn’t have much luck selling that novel either. But at the same time I was doing it, I contacted a detective I’d seen on television (I was living in L.A. at the time), and together we thought up an idea for a film proposal or treatment. I wrote up the treatment which dealt with a corporate security specialist who discovers a kind of black chip in computers that’s been put there by some government intelligence agency that uses it to spy on everyone. I gave the treatment to the detective who passed it on to Oliver Stone’s company. I never heard anything more. But then Sneakers came out, a film with Robert Redford that more or less followed the premise of my treatment. It was released by Stone’s company.
Hum. Now, I was worried. Did things get stolen in Hollywood? No, probably not. I’m just being paranoid again.
Never one to give up, I continued working. Next I started working on a screenplay about someone who discovers a secret government operation to supply arms to rightists in Latin America. This was in the mid-1980s, and I’d just read about Oliver North. I guess, given everything revealed later, I was prescient in my guess at what might make a good screenplay story. I never worked that idea up much, but its opening scene is worth describing. It consists of two guys in a car talking about everyday things like baseball. Then they arrive at a motel, continue to talk everyday stuff, and go up to a room. There, while still engaging in everyday talk, they murder a man. Back to the car and they continue their conversation. They are hitmen doing a job, and the idea was to have them appear as blase about it as if they were doing some gardening. I mention that simply because I finally had figured out to send things to agents, and I sent that scene to several, including one in Milwaukee of all places who really liked it and urged me to finish the piece. I never did. LIfe caught up with me; a relationship ended; and I lost my job.
But later, much later, when I saw Pulp Fiction, with its famous opening about two hitmen who talk about everyday things while carrying out a job, I wondered. Did the idea get passed on? No, I was just being paranoid again.
Next, in the early 1990s–never one to give up–I wrote a political vampire novel. It was about a woman in the present who teaches philosophy at a school where another professor teaches vampire studies. He is convinced vampirism is a blood disorder akin to AIDS that creates an addictive yearning for blood, but no one, especially no one in the Vampirology world, believes him. My idea was to portray vampires as victims and as sympathetic characters. They were persecuted through the ages. The female philosophy teacher is in fact a vampire who has lived for centuries; she was made a vampire by a famous Florentine Renaissance painter named Lorenzetti. Before coming to America, she was a vampire in Russia.
One of her students investigates her past and discovers photographs of her, looking exactly as she does now, at a university in Russia at the turn of the last century. He falls in love with her and helps her fend off nasty neo-Nazi vampire hunters who are out to kill her and to discredit the idea that vampirism is a blood disorder. For them, exterminating vampires is a moral crusade.
I wrote up the idea in a detailed one page summary and sent it out to about 100 agents. One of them called to say that he was really a writer who posed as an agent to see what other writers were up to. He advised me to take a different approach; that what I was doing was dangerous. I ignored his advice, but I don’t think I should have. Several years later, a movie appeared called Innocent Blood which featured a female vampire who is portrayed positively and as a figure of sympathy. Other films followed that contained ideas that seemed to come from my novel’s summary–especially the idea that vampirism might be an addiction. Ann Rice, the queen of vampire writers, even came out with a novel that locates vampirism in the Renaissance. But I couldn’t prove anything since I never heard back from the agents who replied to my query letter and requested copies of the novel. I should have been more careful in keeping records perhaps. And I figured I was just being paranoid again.
But next time I resolved to be more careful.
I contacted a friend in L.A. and requested his help. He had a friend who was an agent, so things looked promising. I wrote up several screenplays and several ideas and sent them to his friend. I sent letters to several agencies describing my ideas. Not a good idea, as it turns out. Ominously, I guess, I never heard back from any of the agencies, save one, a big one, and that one returned my letter with a note saying they could not take responsibility for any overlap between the ideas in my letter, which they claimed never to have read, and movies they might be developing. Hum.
One script I wrote–a rewrite of Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage, which hadn’t been done as a movie since 1949–seemed immediately to catch someone’s eye. A television movie of the novel appeared within a year of my sending out my letter. There went one idea. But I had others, and I never thought anyone would steal my idea for a movie about cloning. But then Multiplicity appeared, a movie about cloning. Two down. Still, there was hope, one of my scripts was about the Devil’s idea to place his son on earth to boost his support. The son is in high school and can do all sorts of magic powerful things that make for good fun. Then, Devil’s Advocate appeared, and a television show about an angel in high school who can do all sorts of tricks, and a movie about an angel named Michael. I guess it was a good idea.
Still, I though no one, no one, would take my idea in my screenplay Cannibals for whites who learn to talk black rap. Until I heard of Bulworth.
Was I nuts or had all my ideas been stolen? One of the ideas I sent the agent who was my friend’s friend was for a movie called Dead Right, about a wealthy man who pretends to be dead so that he can see who really loves him and who doesn’t. I rarely watch television, but I was skimming channels one night when suddenly there was my idea being acted out in front of my eyes. The agent I sent the idea to was, according to my friend, mainly involved in television. But no, it couldn’t be, I decided I was just being paranoid again.
But I wonder still.

Ben Sanger

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