Screenwriter Michael Gerbosi had no idea that working as a delivery driver for a Los Angeles deli would land him a plum writing assignment: the adaptation of Auto Focus.
BY ALEJANDRO FERREYRA
They say luck is being prepared when opportunity presents itself. I To hear Michael Gerbosi’s story of how he got his script, Auto Focus, his first major film made, makes you believe that axiom, as well as smile a little (until you get to the movie’s topic). Based on the book, The Murder of Bob Crane by Robert Graysmith, a recount of Hogan’s Heroes star Bob Crane’s descent into pornography and his still unsolved murder (see, told you so), Auto Focus is a film with a biopic pedigree. This is a genre studios tend to tread lightly around unless they have an empty “prestige pic” slot on their slate, and that’s only if A-list talent is involved. So how did a rookie writer and a budding producer smooth talk William Morris and hit a nerve with the current kings of the biopic, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood, The People Vs. Larry Flynt, Man On The Moon), to make this movie on their terms? Being lucky, of course.
Before getting into that, we must go back to the day in 1996 when Gerbosi was still working as a delivery driver for a trendy LA nosh. That afternoon, he made a food run to the apartment of nascent producer, Todd Rosken, who would soon introduce Gerbosi to Graysmith’s book. In the story’s first Hollywood twist, none of this would have happened if fate hadn’t stepped in. The two men would’ve easily parted ways once the food and money were exchanged if it weren’t for one small detail.
“When I got to his apartment, I noticed he lived in the building next to mine,” Gerbosi explained of the serendipitous event. “I went up to deliver the food, and couldn’t help but mention I lived next door. I asked him what he did and that’s when we started talking about this project he’d long wanted to produce, The Murder of Bob Crane.” Rosken, who’d previously worked as an assistant to Marvin Worth, the producer of many cutting edge biopics such as Lenny and Malcolm X, knew the cinematic value of a controversial life, and recognized Crane had one. He’d been sitting on the project for a while, trying to get all the right pieces together. Gerbosi, Rosken first believed, wasn’t one of those pieces. “It took him a while to give [the book] to me. I guess I had to earn his trust or something.”
From the time Rosken pitched him the idea, Gerbosi knew it had potential. Though he had the same fervor over the material, it wasn’t easy for Gerbosi to get Rosken to hand over the reigns. He was, after all, an uncredited writer whose claim to fame was three seasons as a writing assistant on Deep Space Nine (which he admits was “pretty much an office job” answering phones) and a slew of screenplays that, as the press release for Auto Focus states, “went unproduced, illustrating his tenacity far outweighed his abilities at this juncture.” Fortunately, that tenacity would help him land the gig.
“[Todd] was trying to attach a big name writer, trying to package the whole thing and then take it – without a script – and get some interest from a studio. I told him that a better way to go was to develop the script first and then take that out there. Once I sort of won him over with that idea, and showed him a little bit of my stuff, he thought I might have a chance of pulling this off and finally gave me the book. Until then, I hadn’t even seen it.” That’s because the 1993 book was out of print. Rosken found three copies in famed LA bookstore Samuel French’s Bargain Bin for fifty cents each. The Murder of Bob Crane was, and still is, so rare, once the production began, crew members started bidding for copies on eBay. “Those three copies were the only three we knew of in Los Angeles.” (Putnam is re-releasing the book in conjunction with the film).
The next step, before they could type FADE IN: on the page, was to get the rights. For the next year, the two spoke off and on about purchasing them. Finally, in 1998, they decided to go ahead with it. Rosken, ever the producer, was able to convince Gerbosi, who was still delivering food to pay the bills, to pitch in half the costs for rights to the project he believed in so much. That would prove the easy part. Graysmith’s representatives, William Morris, had a nice wake up call for the two when they decided to ask about obtaining them.
“We said we wanted to turn this book into a movie and they said ‘Who the hell are you?’” Gerbosi laughingly admits. “We’re not going to give the option to someone who’s got zero chance at making the movie.” Little did they know Graysmith had been working for Disney trying to get another non-fiction film made: The Zodiac Killer. But with all the money the Mouse House put into that, and nothing to show for it, the author was skeptical to say the least. Gerbosi and Rosken didn’t let that deter them. They knew they had a winner and became relentless.
“We just kept on badgering them and calling back. We were like, ‘So are we making this deal, could we make you an offer, did you talk to the author? What’s his number, let us call him.’ We just called and called and called. Finally at one point, they couldn’t ignore us anymore. So if you’re dealing with William Morris, just bother them.” That, or get someone like Rosken on your side. The former Marvin Worth assistant finally used his background savvy to sweet talk his way towards securing the rights, and Graysmith’s blessings.
It was now November of ‘98, two years after the initial meeting, and not a word had been written down. Notes were taken, outlines were made, but no script. For the next six months Gerbosi, rather than write the script first, as he told Rosken he’d do, created a 20 page treatment for the film, as well as a detailed outline of Bob Crane’s life. The plan would be a gamble that would pay off in the long run. For Gerbosi, though, his ploy wasn’t a gamble. He had a plan and knew exactly where the project was going.
This is where the story’s second twist makes you sit back and shake your head. Jerry’s Deli, the Los Angeles eatery Gerbosi worked as a delivery driver for when he first met Rosken, is the same place Andy Kaufman had worked years before. Kaufman was immortalized by Jim Carrey in the film Man on the Moon. That film was written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the men Gerbosi would go to first to get Auto Focus made. They’d also be the last.
“I sent a letter to their agent saying that I’d love to meet Scott and Larry, because I’ve got a take on this sort of odd biopic that they like to do and would they meet with me for lunch?” The Golden Globe-nominated duo laughed, believing that writing a film about the death of a TV actor wasn’t the best avenue to get into Hollywood. They extended an invitation to lunch for Gerbosi and Rosken anyway, to talk them out of it. They had no interest in a cop procedural, which is what Gerbosi had written. Crane appeared in the film only in flashbacks. It was a direct translation of the book, which doesn’t focus on Crane’s life, but on his death. As the four ate and talked, though, ideas were tossed out as Alexander and Karaszewski tried to shoot down the project. But for every crazy thought, the ideas started sounding less wild. The two men who came to lunch to brush these novices off were now bouncing ideas off each other.
“They were more dismissive at the beginning of the lunch,” Gerbosi remembered, “but by the end I said ‘Well, what if we focus on these really sensational aspects and really made the story come to life?’ Then they said, ‘Well, if we did that...’” If he did that, Gerbosi would begin to craft what Auto Focus ultimately became, an investigation not into Crane’s death, but into his life filled with sex and confusion. As the lunch progressed, the four would talk out the script, and Gerbosi would go home with enough information to shape three acts.
It would be six months before Gerbosi and the duo would meet again. Even though he told them he could do it in six weeks, it took him half a year to pen the script. All this time, he took jobs as a reader and caterer to pay the bills, since Alexander and Karaszewski considered this a “side project.” His passion drove him, not a guaranteed check. This led to the painstaking research that, with a little help from the experienced film scribes, would help him finish the first draft.
“When I broke the book down, it kind of fit symmetrically into two fourteen year blocks, from the time he started Hogan’s Heroes until his death, and from then to the trial of John Carpenter [the man acquitted of killing Crane, who died in 1998]. So I pretty much threw out the second fourteen years.” A bit later, Gerbosi found something Alexander and Karaszewski wrote that inspired him to take those years even further.
“I read the introduction to Larry Flynt or Ed Wood, where they said they focused on the few years of a person’s life that mattered. These cradle-to-grave biopics are too broad and don’t really get underneath the surface. So I picked the years that I thought mattered, a handful where events started to overwhelm Bob, and began him on the spiral to where he wound up.” This would prove to be harder than it seemed. Bob Crane was a very complex and troubled man, and the book didn’t give Gerbosi what he needed to directly recreate Crane as a fully functional main character. He had to draw from the accounts from friends and actors who were around him at the time of his death in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Information not found in the book could easily be dug up by calling Graysmtith, who was a fountain of knowledge for Gerbosi. If he didn’t know something, you could bet he knew where to look. A great deal of this information revolved around his sexual trysts and volatile relationship with John Carpenter. Unfortunately, only so much information was available and made it the writer’s job to put words into the mouth of a very troubled person.
“It was a little creepy getting into Bob Crane’s shoes because I’m nothing like him, and yet, I have to be inside of his head,” Gerbosi explained. “That last act was really brutal to write.” As for direction, he notes Alexander and Karaszewski gave him freedom, but reminded him of one thing.
“They told me not to write anything fancy,” remembers Gerbosi. “Keep it low scale, in terms of locations, and simple as possible. And he didn’t. Set mostly in rooms and with Crane (played by Greg Kinnear) and/or Carpenter (Willem Dafoe) in basically every scene, the script thinned out to something that was suitable for a lower budget.
Another facet Gerbosi needed to research was the technological slant the story had. When he’s introduced into the swinging lifestyle, Crane, an avid photographer, immediately found himself reeled in by the new, revolutionary video recording systems Carpenter (who worked as a technician for Akai, one of the forerunners in the field) had access to.
“I spent some time with the period, and the technology, the VTR’s [video-tape recorders]. My goal was to make it awkward and clunky, make it huge, bigger. I mean nowadays, you want to record, you buy a little camcorder. Back then you had to carry 800 pounds of stuff. I was reading textbooks on the invention of this technology and how it changed over the years. There’s a point in the movie when the Carpenter character comes in with the timer and says, ‘I just got a new timer to record Johnny Carson and watch it two days later.’ Chronologically, it does follow the history there, and I did the research on that.”
Gerbosi continued to chip away when he finally finished the initial draft in September of 1999. He called Alexander and Karaszewski and they asked Gerbosi to meet them at Todd A.O. West, a post-production house in Los Angeles where they were finishing mixing a film.
“So I go over to Todd A.O with the script and they’re literally in the middle of mixing so I couldn’t get near them. I freaked out and never got closer than about ten feet away. I felt bad interrupting, so I go to the manager and said, ‘This is for Scott and Larry and they were expecting it and could you please give it to them.’ He said, ‘No problem I’ll take care of it.’” Seemingly, there was a problem because the manager never got them the script. Every day that passed was a sweat fest for Gerbosi, who says he lost ten pounds as a result. At the same time, each day that passed, Alexander and Karaszewski thought Gerbosi had flaked out on them.
“Todd’s calling me daily and I had to keep him at bay, because he wanted to find out after a week. I wanted to give them three or four, to give them a chance.” So finally they decided to call and ask, “So what’d you think?”
“About what,” the two replied. After realizing what had gone wrong, they rushed over to Todd A.O. and headed to the receptionist’s desk where the script lay dormant, exactly where he’d given it to the manager. Gerbosi finally got the chance to hand them the script he’d labored so much time over face to face. Only a few days would pass before they’d call back and tell him what they thought.
“This is when it got really exciting for me because I got a phone call from them saying, ‘You know, we’re really interested.” Gerbosi and Rosken just barely had enough to cover the option for the next year, so they had to make it work soon. After five more drafts, and more catering and reading jobs for Gerbosi, Auto Focus was good enough to send out under Alexander and Karaszewski’s name.
“Our initial brain trust thought was that we’d attach talent to this and make the package so irresistible that someone’s going to make it.” Unfortunately for them, that didn’t seem the case. Before Alexander would bring Greg Kinnear on board in the beginning of 2001, many of the independents-the place the three thought would go gung-ho for a project like this-passed one after the other. In the end, though, Sony liked the project enough to put Auto Focus into production. The last piece of the puzzle Rosken started to assemble so long ago was ready to be put into place.
“We put together a director’s list and were looking for someone who could make the movie on a smaller scale. I’ve been a huge Paul Schrader movie fan, movies like Blue Collar and things like that, and we found him. And he responded pretty quickly, too. Once that all came together, the movie sort of took off.” Gerbosi never looked back. Auto Focus, released in October has garnered positive buzz. Although there’s some talk of Schrader rewriting some of the key elements of the film, Gerbosi just takes it in stride.
“Nearly every writer will be rewritten,” Gerbosi acknowledges. “This is part of making a movie.., it’s a highly collaborative process. My advice to any writer is to make peace with this.” And he has. Gerbosi is currently looking for the next project to immerse himself in, but still finds time to remember how he got where he is) and what made him stand out.
“Even when I was delivering food, or reading scripts, I always felt blessed that I had work, that I was meeting interesting people and constantly learning new things. To get better at anything we have to study that thing, take it apart, put it back together, see it from as many angles as possible until it becomes familiar.”
The Hollywood-born Michael Gerbosi says that his destiny was to be in film. Throughout his life, he’s seen the LA story run past him many times over and has become familiar with it from many angles. It’s what prepared him to handle that day he met Todd Rosken, take on William Morris, and overcome any other obstacle that got in his way.
“I’m certainly not the brightest guy or the best looking, but I stuck with this. I came to this town in the early nineties and just fought and fought and believed in it and had a lot of passion for it. This project came true because I thought it could come true. And there’s not a lot of that.”
Obviously, most screenwriters aren’t as lucky as Michael Gerbosi.