By Adam Kelly Morton
Producer Gaston Chevrey called me at a time when I was dead poor. Nearly all of my three-hundred or so dollars a week I was making as a waiter were being swallowed up by rent, credit card interest, and Milwaukee’s Best. In fairness, most of it was the booze. When I wasn’t waiting on tables, I was either boozing, or writing while boozing. The call came just after 11am on a blustery winter morning in 2006. I was in my cold, cat-smelling apartment, in my bathrobe, when Gaston told me that his film company, Shooting Étoile, was interested in optioning my play about school life called Hallowed Halls, to support their French language feature, Institution—and that he especially loved the scene I had written about a boy and his acne (one of the weakest scenes in the play, I thought). “How would twelve-hundred-and-fifty dollars suit you for that, eh?” Gaston said.
My first thought was that twelve-hundred-and-fifty dollars would buy me a lot of booze. “Lemme talk to my agent,” I said. I didn’t have an agent—apart from my mother.
“Whoa, whoa, agent?” Chevrey said. “Who is your agent?”
“Lemme talk to them,” I said, and hung up.
Getting a literary agent in Montreal is practically impossible. They aren’t into you unless you have done a lot of work—but you can’t get the work until you have an agent. I had already made countless calls, queries, and submissions only to get either a standardized rejection, or no response whatsoever.
In my new, leveraged position, I began searching the internet for the best French agent in town. While I was doing that, I cracked open a beer and called my mother to celebrate.
“You know what you should do,” she said, “you should find the agent of that guy who wrote Meatballs: The Musical.”
“I hate musicals,” I said, typing ‘Montreal, Agent, Film, Meatballs’ into the search engine.
“You are such a Philistine,” she said.
“Thanks Mom. Love you.”
“Love you too. Are you drinking?”
I hung up. I had located four agents in Montreal who dealt in French, including Émilie Bonenfant—the agent of Gru Garsupio, author of Meatballs. I saved her for last.
The first agent I called had a secretary who dismissed me the moment I said, “Hi, my name is Alan Norton and I’m a writer seeking representation. May I speak with—”
“I’m sorry. We are not seeking any new clients at this time.” She hung up.
It was the same at the next two agencies. I left messages with them, but needed a new approach. With the last agent on my list, the secretary answered, “Agence Émilie Bonenfant, est-ce que je peux vous aider?”
“Oui, hello,” I said. “May I speak to Emily please?”
“May I ask who’s calling?”
I tried to sound like a big shot: “My name is Alan Norton. She doesn’t know me. I’m a screenwriter.”
“I’m sorry. Émilie is not currently seeking any new—”
“Yeah, yeah. Just tell her that the Shooting Étoile production company wants to option my script for their upcoming feature, Institution.”
“Give me one moment, please,” the secretary said.
Another pause. Muzak by George Thorogood. I sang to the tune. Lord she was lovey-dovey.
“Hello Alan?” a voice said. “This is Émilie how ARE you?”
She was so nice. Over the course of our lovey-dovey conversation, I put her on hold twice; both times, it was one of the other agents in town trying to get a hold of me. Word was getting around.
“People are after you,” she said.
“They sure are,” I said. I liked having people after me.
Of all the Montreal agencies, Émilie’s had the smallest roster, the biggest names, and charged the most: 11.5% commission instead of the usual 10%.
Mom was right.
Immediately I gave Émilie all the particulars of the script, and of my preliminary discussion with Monsieur Chevrey.
“I think I understand,” she said. “Let me talk to Gaston.”
Good, she had dealt with him before. “Yeah,” I said. “You do that, Emily.” I took a good pull of my beer and lit a cigarette.
“I’ll call you back,” she said.
For the next hour or so, I waited and drank more beer. When the phone finally rang, it was my mother.
“I hope she’ll make you famous like Gru Garsupio,” she said.
“Yeah,” I said.
Call waiting beeped. “That’ll be her, Mom. Gotta go.”
“Good luck, my only son. I love you!”
“Hello Alan? This is Emily how ARE you?”
She laid out the deal for me: instead of getting paid twelve-hundred-and-fifty for Shooting Étoile to option my script for Institution, I was going to receive ten-grand as a consultant, and my script was not to be touched in any way whatsoever.
“Are you satisfied with that?” Émilie asked.
I told her that I was, and busted open my last beer.
My first meeting at Shooting Étoile, HQ’d in a stylish penthouse office near the Cathedral, was with the Executive Producer, Martin (Marty) Lemieux, and lead actress Imogène Pétace. She, predictably, was tiny, bubbly, and beautiful. Gaston was there too, as was Imogène’s plump personal assistant, Véro(nique). The four of them—seated in huge, red leather swivel chairs around a massive ebony table—seemed genuinely delighted to have me in the room. Notepads and copies of my script sat before them, each with under-lined passages, hi-lites, notes, and side-notes. If there was anything I wanted—a cigarette, an espresso, a croissant, a scotch, anything at all—I had only to say so. I asked for an allongé, and Véro bounced up to oblige me.
Marty offered me a Davidov cigarette, which I took, and he took one for himself.
“Alan,” he said, “let me start by saying that I love your script. We all do.”
I smiled. Marty smiled. Everybody smiled.
“Here’s what we want from you,” Marty continued, “we want you to use your expertise to make Institution the best film it could be. We currently have investments of five-million from the Canadian government. We really want this film to do well, and we hope you can help us.”
I was thrilled to help them, and felt confident that we would win an Oscar, at the very least.
They had sent me an early draft of Institution; I had read it thoroughly, and made notes before the meeting. I told them that Institution was a good script, but that it was missing an important question; that rather than being just a sequence of events, our film should ask something of the viewer—to which they agreed wholeheartedly. I gave them several more things to think about, and to research. Whenever I spoke, they scribbled furiously in their notepads.
Afterward, they treated me to a smashing luncheon in a rooftop garden bistro in the Old Port. Beautiful, well-dressed people lounged everywhere, sipping fine beverages amidst potted cedar bushes. We drank several bottles of Margaux, and complimented each other on various things. I felt like five-million dollars.
Over the next few months, they would relay the results of our bi-weekly meetings to the director—an up-and-comer named Henri Gilles—and to his associate writer, Michel Courtemanche. I said to Marty, “Why not all meet together to save time?”
He agreed, and finally, we were all brought together into the big office: Marty, Gaston, Pétace, Véro, Henri, Courtemanche, and a few of Marty’s secretaries. Everyone was standing, coffees in hand, chatting away like Thanksgiving. Courtemanche’s wife Joanne was there too, and when introduced, she scowled at me. With the exception of her, and the always-introspective Henri, everyone was regaling madly.
Nothing much was accomplished at the meeting, but for a bottle of champagne after the coffees. It was agreed that I would accompany Marty, Pétace and Véro on a fun writing retreat in order to hash out new ideas, while Henri and Courtemanche would continue to work independently. On my way out of the office, I turned back to see Joanne, flute of champagne in hand, glaring at me some more.
The writing retreat took place on one of Marty’s estates in the Laurentians. It was a lovely late-spring day, and there were plenty of canapés and Montrachets. We discussed a great number of exciting inevitabilities for Institution, and Pétace and Véro wrote a scene themselves—involving two female characters having a laugh at (something to do with) panty hose.
It was all very la di da, until it was revealed that an English version of the screenplay was being prepared for me to work on. I asked Marty if that meant I was going to be actually writing, instead of just consulting.
“Yes,” Marty said, patting me on the shoulder. “A treatment. We’ll leave you to get started.” He then rushed off to play golf with Imogène.
As soon as I got back to Montreal, I called Émilie. I told her specifically what was happening, and she said she’d call me back.
Meanwhile, I called my mother. She was delighted. “I wonder how much they’ll pay you now,” she said.
“Me too,” I said, while pouring a Stella Artois into a pint glass.
“I guess that’s why that Courtemanche and his wife don’t like you.”
I stopped pouring. Mom was right again.
Another call. “Love you, Mom.” Click.
It was Émilie. She had spoken to with Gaston, and now, I was going to get five-grand for the treatment, five-grand on the first day of shooting, and another ten-grand once the film opened.
Debts gone. Perpetual Margaux.
They sent me a translated version of the script (having hired a translator just so that I could work in my langue maternelle) and I read through it. I thought for a long time about cutting out all the cheesy shit, like the lengthy image descriptions about coming darkness, and the spoon-fed character motivations.
So, I cut all the cheesy shit, like the lengthy image descriptions about coming darkness and the spoon-fed character motivations; then I added some characters who I thought were important to Institution; then I attempted to ask the question I felt needed asking; finally, I sent in my draft—minus the scene with the panty hose.
A few days later, Marty called a meeting that all would attend, including Henri, Courtemanche, and even his wife.
My script had not been well received; Marty wanted more action scenes where SWAT teams with battering rams smashed holes into the school; Gaston didn’t like how minimalist it was, and referred to the scene he loved in my original script—about the boy and his acne—as something to think about for inspiration; Pétace and Véro liked all the cheesy shit that was in the script, like the lengthy image descriptions about coming darkness, and the spoon-fed character motivations, and wondered why I had cut them— they were especially distressed that the panty hose had gone missing; Courtemanche said something about my treatment being, perhaps, a bit untimely, and thought more time was needed for my treatment to evolve, considering everything it was implying, over time, and that, all things considered, that we probably didn’t have that kind of time—at which time, his wife smiled and nodded in agreement.
Finally, all turned to get Henri’s input. He was the director, after all. The final decision should remain with him. He had been staring in silence at my draft all the while.
“I think,” he said, looking up at the circle of compelled viewers, “there is a lot of work that still needs to be done. It’s true that we don’t have a lot of time, but I want to use Alan’s treatment as the basis for how the film is made.”
Nobody said anything. Outside, the Cathedral bell tolled noon.
I smiled meekly. Joanne was about to flip the ebony table. Little did I know, it was to be my last official meeting with Shooting Étoile.
Thanksgiving was over.
Months later, the new draft was sent to me by Véro. They had ignored virtually all the work I had done. Months after that, shooting on Institution began. I did not receive my next instalment of money, so I called Émilie. She said she would speak to Gaston, then call me back. I waited. Beers flew by. The phone rang.
“Hello?” I said.
“Hello, Alan? This is Émilie how ARE you?”
“Good… So, I spoke with Gaston Chevrey, and he said that Shooting Étoile don’t want to pay you the remaining money they owe.”
I took a sip of Stella Artois. “Why not?”
“Because he said the work was not good.”
“Yes. That’s what he said. I’m going to wait until next week then talk to him again. As far as I can tell, they are entitled to not accept the treatment you did. But for the five-thousand on the first day of shooting, they’ll have to pay you that, it’s in your contract.”
“And what if he doesn’t want to pay that either?” I said, watching one of my cats take a piss beside the litter box.
“Well,” Émilie said, “they have a grant from the Canada Council. And the policy of that grant is that if any kind of non-payment scandal happens, then the Council can withdraw their support. I’ll just tell Gaston that he has to choose between five-thousand and five-million.”
And that’s what she did.
I got my money, and spent it.
When Institution came out, it received brilliant reviews in the francophone press; the anglophone paper was less enthusiastic: their critic gave it one star, and wrote, ‘Institution should ask an important question, and it doesn’t.’
The night of the premiere at the Regal, I happened to be walking by on my way home from a lunch shift at the restaurant—where I had stayed for Happy Hour.
There were crowds outside the theatre, with red-carpets under the marquee, and the entranceway all lit up with big, rotating lights. I approached and looked through the window. Surrounded by cameras, more lights, and scores of people, there they all were: Marty, Pétace, Véro, Henri, Courtemanche, Joanne—even Émilie Bonenfant. All stood gaily in their tailored regalia, sipping Moët poured from magnums. Gaston Chevrey was there too. He saw me and held my gaze for a moment, then returned to the festivities and raised his glass.
I turned and started walking across town towards my apartment. The cats needed to be fed. All my tip money was gone, but I knew that the dépanneur across the street from my place had tins of cat food, and accepted credit.
Plus, they had twelve-packs of Milwaukee’s Best for only ten bucks.
* * *
He is the editor of The Bloody Key Society Periodical.
Find out more at www.adamkellymorton.com