What Just Happened is a roman a clef, or I suppose maybe I should
say a "cinema a clef," a fictionalized version of real events that
happened to a film producer between 1997-2001, as recounted by
screenwriter Art Linson. One would have to call Linson the perfect
choice to write this script for two main reasons:
1. The screenplay was adapted from a non-fiction book written
by Art Linson.
2. The real producer who lived through the events described in
the book was none other than the very same Art Linson.
Linson's book, "What Just Happened: Bitter Hollywood Tales from
the Front Line" covers the trials and tribulations of his role in
producing six films:
Sunset Strip (2000) (producer),
Fight Club (1999),
Pushing Tin (1999),
Great Expectations (1998), and
The Edge (1997).
The book is rich in "insider stories," and is gutsy. It shies
away neither from recounting the deeds and misdeeds of familiar
industry figures, nor from associating those deeds with their real
names. And big names they are: Alec Baldwin, David Fincher, David
Mamet, and others.
The movie takes a more oblique approach. One of the major story
lines comes straight from the book with only the names changed, but
the rest of the script is the fictional product of Linson's having
consolidated and compressed real events to combine with incidents
invented from whole cloth. The movie version of the story has
essentially consolidated Linson's six movie projects down to two,
and the book's four-year span into one very hectic week.
* One of the real films covered by the fictional story is The
Edge. This is the story line in which the movie version of What Just
Happened stays quite faithful to the real events portrayed in the
eponymous book, right down to long stretches of verbatim dialogue.
Although Bruce Willis is playing a character named Bruce Willis in
the film, the source book uses the actor's real name: Alec Baldwin.
Baldwin decided to show up for filming with a Grizzly Adams beard
and an extra twenty pounds of flesh around his middle when the
studio thought it was paying for a lean and handsome leading man.
When asked to shave the beard and to go on a diet, Baldwin threw a
legendary tantrum and promptly fired the hapless agent who had been
chosen by the big-wigs to be the bearer of bad tidings to the
prickly star. Baldwin finally shaved under the threat of massive
* The other story line is basically fictional, although it bears
a certain resemblance to Linson's experiences in trying to get David
Fincher's edgy Fight Club past the scrutiny of studio suits who were
uneasy about the film's dark themes and casual violence, and had no
idea what a good film they had on their hands until they saw the
reaction at Venice. Linson took the basic structure of that struggle
and re-invented it, changing it into a familiar tale about how the
commerce of the film industry suppresses its art.
The life of a producer, as portrayed by Robert DeNiro as Linson's
alter ego, basically consists of running from fire to fire and
splashing water on each, but often leaving the fires smoldering and
ready to burst back into flames because he's working on three major
projects at once and doesn't have time to douse a single fire while
other burn. In one sub-plot, a director is finishing off a film in
post-production, and is locked in an angry struggle with the studio,
which has threatened to take his film away unless he cuts it their
way. Meanwhile, a new film is about to start filming, and all the
crew is on the clock - pending a Bruce Willis (read: Alec Baldwin)
shave. Finally, a third film needs financing, and the producer is
the guy who has to come up with the investors.
In each case, the producer is always the man in the middle who
has to balance the delicate egos of directors and stars with the
realistic demands of the studios and independent investors who quite
reasonably would like to get a return on their investments. He has
30 hours worth of work to do in every 24-hour day, and almost all of
it consists of stressful crisis management. Moreover, he still has a
personal life which cannot be ignored: an ex-wife he still loves and
a daughter who is growing up too fast.
I found this a very interesting film, especially since I read
Linson's book just before popping in the DVD, so I knew which
characters were representing which real people. Of course, I'm
interested in the subject matter anyway, since I write every day
about the film world and its inhabitants. My guess is that the film
will not be nearly as interesting to you if you lack my enthusiasm
for the industry and my ambition to read the book (which, by the
way, is now available in a new edition which includes the screenplay
for this movie).
Unfortunately for those of you who are not film geeks, this story
is not funny enough to work as a comedy and is not original enough
to work as an insider drama. Linson has the necessary insight and
connections, and he told the truth about what he saw, but we've
already seen many similar variations on these same themes in dozens
of earlier films. And even I found the stories more interesting in
the book's version, with the real names and places attached.