Escape from Film School: A Novel

Escape from Film School: A Novel

by Richard Walter

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Escape From Film School tells the sprightly tale of a young man who makes it in Hollywood without ever leaving film school.

When Stuart arrives in California in the Sixties, he is fleeing the draft and he quite literally stumbles into USC's film school. Within a few weeks he is living out of his car and making student films with stolen equipment. Within a few years he is rubbing elbows with a young Mike Ovitz and other characters pulled straight from the pages of Variety.

Blessed with a biting wit and a jaundiced eye, Stuart is a keen observer of the machinations, power plays, and absurdities of the movie biz. His account of his own circuitous progress -- and that of his beautiful and ambitious wife, Veronica; his beautiful and ambitious girlfriend, Ginger; and his loyal daughter, Rainbeaux -- also offers an incisive and satirical look at this bizarre, yet fascinating world. Like The Player, it is a dead-on, often hilarious and occasionally poignant tale about survival and redemption in Hollywood.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781429982122
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 06/30/1999
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
File size: 276 KB

About the Author

Richard Walter writes fiction, non-fiction and screenplays. He is a professor at UCLA where he chairs the graduate program in film and television writing. He lives with his family in Los Angeles, California.

Richard Walter writes fiction, non-fiction and screenplays. He is a professor at UCLA where he chairs the graduate program in film and television writing. He lives with his family in Los Angeles, California.

Read an Excerpt

Escape from Film School

A Novel

By Richard Walter

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 1999 Richard Walter
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-8212-2



That was the last thing we heard before the Blaupunkt blew, midway across the Penn Pike. Now, with no radio, Big Irish and I could do nothing to amuse ourselves but replicate Noo Yawk doo-wop sounds that were even then decrepit oldies.

We slept whenever fatigue overtook us, inflating air mattresses at roadside. The second night, along what still remained of 66, between Tulsa and Bartlesville, we gazed up at the Perseus showers and watched phosphorous meteors score the sky three, four, five times a minute, each and every one of them beckoning us to California.

Somewhere in the sea of grass west of Amarillo we appropriated a wonderfully preposterous moosehead coatrack that had been abandonded at roadside. We were able to maneuver it into the VW by standing it upright through the open canvas sunroof.

Irish, lunk that he was, had actually volunteered for the Marines only to come up 4-F — a bum knee. On the coast at last, I dropped him with family in Oxnard, where he figured to learn the lath-and-plaster dodge. Alone, I continued north in the rattling, buzzing Beetle to the Bay Area and observed real, true hippies.

Then, abruptly, I piloted the VW due south, altogether bypassing L.A.'s mustard skyline, not stopping till Tijuana, where, just to be able to say I'd done it, wholly expecting to cluck my tongue in superior Anglo disapproval, I saw a bullfight. Instead, to my everlasting shame, I experienced transcendent awe through every blood-soaked veronica.

Finally, I drove back up the coast as far as Leo Carillo Beach and saw real, live surfers and also seals.

Wandering aimlessly on perilous roads through canyons, and on broad freeways where each individual lane rivaled whole eastern highways, I found myself at last somehow on Figueroa Street in the middle of what passed for downtown Los Angeles.

Across the street at Felix Chevrolet they were already advertising clearances to make room for the '67s. Broad posters covering the showroom windows boasted that GM would out-Mustang the Mustang with this thing called Camaro.

But I was a New York boy, and cars were transportation. It was 1966 and I did not think about cars, did not think about surfing, seals, hippies, bullfights. What I thought about was the war. What I thought about, more precisely, was the draft. And at long last I decided to turn myself in.

Two months had passed, maybe more, since I'd mailed my card back to Vincent Esposito, the clerk at the Queensboro Plaza Selective Service Center in Long Island City. I'd enfolded it in a Days of Rage rally flier upon the back of which was scrawled most respectfully my message: I would no longer play Good German to Lyndon Johnson's ego.

I had been on the lam now some sixty days. Having resolved to surrender, however, caused a strange serenity to settle over me.

I was not especially afraid to go to jail. Activist pals, Freedom Riders from the early civil rights days, told me they'd never had so much fun as when getting clapped into trashy county lockups. Boasts of such exploits, they assured me moreover, had encouraged firm-breasted, pointy-nippled, long-haired, faded-denim-clad women in artsy-craftsy-clinky-clanky earrings and no panties cavalierly to drop their bellbottoms.

Peace movement counselors had assured me that after years of writs, waivers, motions, denials, dismissals, stipulations, petitions, and a potpourri of still other assorted processes and procedures, I'd eventually serve some fourteen months, tops, and at a federal honor farm on the order of Danbury or Lompoc, where I'd while away the hours puttering in the vegetable garden. And — though I could not yet appreciate it — if the timing was right, I'd even play knock-hockey in the rec room with high officials of the Nixon administration, including the Attorney General of the United States himself.

But this yawning, gaping calm was now suddenly lanced by the appearance in my mirror of a somehow familiar plain brown Buick sedan bearing U.S. government plates. Had it been tailing me for some distance?

Inside were two men — a Negro and an Oriental — wearing suits and ties. They drew alongside. In what was clearly a rehearsed motion, the black man at the passenger's window thrust his wallet at me vertically and let it fall open, exposing the gleaming bronze shape of a badge-sized shield.

"Federal marshals, son," he sang out quietly, almost an apology, in a basso to rival Levi Stubbs. Here was a practiced aw-shucks affect to soothe any fugitive's soul. Side by side we rolled to a stop at a light.

"Stuart Thomas," he continued, "please pull your vee-hickle to the curb. You are under arrest for violation of the Selective Service Act. You have the right to remain silent. In the event you choose to speak ..."

I was vastly, overpoweringly relieved. I readied myself to pull to the curb, to step from the car, to offer up my wrists for shiny silver cuffs. I took a deep, cleansing breath and instructed myself not to panic.

At which point I promptly panicked.

Not waiting for the light to change, as if my flesh were not my own, as if my body were inhabited by an impostor, as if my right foot belonged to some stranger, as if I observed all this as a dispassionate party from across the street, I floored the pedal and lurched blindly through the impossibly heavy cross traffic at Adams Boulevard.

The Buick in hot pursuit, we careened down Figueroa. My four cylinders were no match for the oversized supercharged government-issue road machine, but in urban traffic my Volks provided something of an advantage.

A bus loomed up between us, followed by a Helms Bakery truck. I swerved left, right, this way, that, and found myself at last on a diminutive side street that was actually a service entrance to the campus of the University of Southern California. The chase ended as quickly as it had begun. The government sedan clearly had been trapped in traffic and was nowhere to be seen.

It was August and the quad was wholly deserted. The VW coughed to a halt at the end of a stunted street. My heart clicking like a ratchet, I abandoned the vehicle where it sat and raced into the nearest building, a ramshackle collection of interconnecting structures that appeared to be ancient wooden stables.

A crude plaque above the shabby entrance read: DEPARTMENT OF CINEMA.

A sign below it, hand-carved in polished mahogany, said: REALITY ENDS HERE.


THE USC CINEMA DEPARTMENT'S floors — indoors and out — were asphalt.

The plywood walls and ceilings were all a bilious gray-green beige. No one with eyes in his head could have chosen such a hue; clearly it represented a composite of short ends, the mix of remnants in cans left over from other campus projects when the premises were first painted early in the century.

I wandered aimlessly around this mismatched, disconnected collection of spaces. Here was a most unlikely venue for any center of creative expression in any medium, much less the hotbed of talent and discipline — the cutting edge of the sixties — for which it would soon enough come to be celebrated all around the world.

Still, even now there was something seductive about the place. The various decrepit structures surrounded a tidy, sunshine-drenched, lush-green-grassy patio, and the contrast of darkness and light was acutely appropriate to film. Corridors led this way and that. Here, a crude soundstage. There, a classroom. Here, a funky, comfy screening room. There, a bank of cramped, cluttered administrative offices. Here, an editing barn crammed with a dozen antique Moviolas plus a banner festooning the wall and proclaiming every editor's desperate last hope: "The Music Will Carry It."

With the exception of my own anxious presence, every inch of the place appeared totally, spectacularly deserted.

Until the outer door flew open and the pair of panting federal marshals burst in. I ducked behind a square wooden column and moved around it in synch with the officers' own motion — this way, that way, not a little like Harpo — keeping the pillar between us. In this manner I remained invisible until without warning they darted through the open double doors of the dank, dark stage and altogether disappeared.

I seized the opportunity to prance through an open window into the administrative offices. I landed with a thud in the reception area, upsetting stacked reams of paper piled beside the mimeograph machine. I held my breath and hoped that the clatter had somehow escaped notice.

"In here, darling," a man's voice called softly. I looked toward the sound and saw the partly open door to an inner office. It bore a plastic nameplate: KEVIN BURNS, CHAIRMAN.

At this very moment the marshals reappeared from the soundstage. I dropped to my hands and knees and crawled into the inner office, quietly kicking the door closed behind me.

"Veronica?" the same voice called, now closer, louder. I gazed straight ahead under the desk at a pair of knobby knees extending from loud Bermuda shorts and hairy, skinny calves with clown's feet shod in mismatched rubber thongs fresh from the bins at Pick'n'Save.

I sucked in a deep breath, and after a beat rose to find myself staring stupidly at a geeky, gawky mid-forties nerd. Had the word even been invented yet? Surely it was the only way to describe the guy with his greasy, curly black hair and beaky nose. Perched precariously about a mile down that nose were preposterous tortoiseshell half glasses secured by a too-ample string that drooped, looped, and ran around his neck. Gazing past stacks of books and pamphlets and papers and film cans hemming in and obscuring the desk, I could see that he wore a Hawaiian shirt. It featured what first appeared to be large black tarantulas but upon closer inspection were revealed to be broad, flat palm fronds against a Day-Glo electric canary sunset.

"We're not in session," Burns snapped. "Preregistration commences Monday."

That was fine with me. I nodded in silence and turned for the door, but as I cracked it just the littlest bit, I could make out the forms of the marshals emerging from the editing barn. I closed the door quietly and turned back to face Burns.

"Professor Burns?" I vamped. I had no earthly idea what I might say next.

"I'm not here," was Burns's overly even response.

"I've driven clear from New York just to see you," I said, surprising both myself and the chairman. Attempting to buy time, I reached across the desk and eagerly pumped his hand.

"You drove thousands of miles without bothering to make an appointment?" he said, retrieving his hand and inspecting it as if for damage. He looked up at me. "You're full of shit."

The door flew open and the marshals burst in.

"I am full of shit," I readily agreed, nodding morosely, "without a paddle." With the marshals' appearance I felt again vastly, overwhelmingly relieved. At last the jig was up. I would flee no farther. My newfound tranquillity was disturbed just slightly by unspoken questions, such as: Had resisting arrest blown my chances for the honor farm? Would I now be sent to Lexington or San Quentin? Instead of puttering in the veggie garden, would I be dicked up the ass by take-a-number cons awaiting their turn on long, long lines, as at a bakery?

One marshal snapped a bright chrome cuff on my wrist as the other informed me for the second time in ten minutes, "You have the right to remain silent ..."

"That's a mixed metaphor," Kevin Burns said.

"... in the event that you choose to speak ..."

"'Up shit's creek without a paddle,'" Burns explained.

"... anything you say can ..."

"Not 'full of shit without a paddle.'"

"... and will be used against you ..."

The second cuff snapped on my second wrist.

Now genuinely annoyed, Burns shifted his attention at last to the marshals. "This is a sacred scholarly sanctuary," he announced in a tone that was distinctly professorial.

"... in a court of law."

"Did he knock over a bank?" Burns asked, rich with sarcasm, peering down his long nose first at one marshal, then panning to the other. "Did he gun down children in a schoolyard?"

Without replying, the marshals pivoted my body and prepared to escort me from the premises.

"Another draft case, right?" the chairman concluded. "This young man just happens to be one of our students."

The marshals paused. "Then why has he not filed for his 2-S classification?"

"I was just this red-hot minute completing his S.S. Form 109, Selective Service Student Deferment." Without looking down, Burns pulled a crisp, white, official-looking document from the seemingly hopeless mess of papers on his desk. He laid it out atop a flurry of bulletins and journals and seized a fat, old-fashioned fountain pen from a ceramic mug sporting an image of Southern Cal mascot Tommy Trojan bearing a sword, shield, and helmet and wearing a short pleated skirt.

I watched all of this as if it were a movie and had nothing whatever to do with my own true life.

"Last name first," Burns said.

I looked around the room awkwardly, not realizing that the person being addressed was myself.

"Last name first," Burns repeated dully, but at the same time there was no mistaking the irritation in his tone. He glared narrowly at me for a hefty moment.

But before I could state my last name first or, for that matter, say anything at all, a reedy, dusky voice called from the outer office, "Kev?"

The voice floated like fog from across a vast lake, and at the same time it sounded like a whisper close to my ear. Though its owner was not yet present, I swear I could feel her full, moist lips brush lightly against my lobe.

Chairman Kevin Burns winced as a radiant, heart-stopping strawberry-blond-hair-to-her-ass young beauty appeared in the doorway. She wore a long peasant skirt and a fluffy, puffy broad-collared flowery print blouse, open at the neck. It was not a particularly provocative outfit, especially for 1966 summertime Southern California, where a woman could be excused for tight, slit shorts and a loose, skimpy, stringy halter with no bra. On first glance — somehow even before first glance — I knew I would obsess about this creature every minute of every day for the rest of my life.

The federal officers, however, were singularly unimpressed by Veronica or anything else. They had a job to do, and they intended to do it.

Burns cleared his throat like a bad actor. "Miss Baldwin is another of our students," he informed the marshals as if they were even the least bit interested. "A doctoral candidate," he added in what was clearly an attempt merely to fill the painful, accusing silence. If the remark's substance failed to move them, its stammering, all-thumbs desperation certainly impressed me. Burns turned now to the woman herself. "I'll be with you in a moment, Veronica," he said, all business, and it was impossible for me not to wonder precisely what their business might be.

Sensing the awkwardness in the room, affecting a wide-eyed, lash-fluttering, brow-furrowing innocence, she explained to all present, "Professor Burns has consented to coach me for my orals."


THANKS, THEN, TO THE good offices of the University of Southern California's registrar, instead of slogging through the swamps of Southeast Asia or swabbing toilets at a federal corrections facility, I slept through boring foreign movies on the order of Last Year at Marienbad.

Meeting USC's exorbitant tuition — fifty dollars a credit — required no small scrimping. I cut overhead by combining transportation and housing: I lived in my car.

It wasn't so bad. Even with the moosehead coatrack, the VW bucket seats reclined enough to let me stretch out. If I could not exactly sleep, I could catnap. The hardest part was rising every hour to plunk another dime in the meter.

To earn those dimes, to cover that tuition, I found part-time employment in the food trades. Specifically, I slung tacos at La Reina de Los Burritos on Vermont near Exposition, in the university district. Not only could I earn over a buck an hour, I could scarf all the beans I could refry.

All things considered, my life was splendidly, perhaps even perfectly arranged. I was far from the Mekong Delta. I had room, board, job. And if film school was merely an elaborate draft dodge, I found myself actually enjoying the classes, even if doing so required an occasional smidgen of cocky sophomoric cynicism.

I recall, for example, my professor patiently explaining the merits of Marienbad (which we students covertly designated Marienworse). "In the film," he asserted, "Resnais integrates Panofsky's paradigm: the spatialization of time and the dynamization of space." He paused to let it all sink in. "And it has a secondary status," he continued after a moment, "in that its supplementarity acknowledges post modern structure even as it reveals the ethnocentric roots of old world metaphysics."

Students stretched and yawned with luxurious abandon.


Excerpted from Escape from Film School by Richard Walter. Copyright © 1999 Richard Walter. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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