I'm not usually one to brag on myself. But if you liked Captain America: The Winter Soldier, you owe me a big, fat thank you. Here's why.
When the directors, Joe and Tony Russo, rolled into town last year to shoot the picture, they needed a place to crash. I happen to have a nice little double-wide in Parma. They took the spare bedroom.
The first morning at breakfast — Wheaties for me, Cheerios for the guys — I ask to see the script. Five minutes into it, I can't believe what I'm reading. For starters, it's in French. I kid you not. They want Cleveland to look like effing Paris. Everybody running around smoking Gauloises and eating snails. A CGI Eiffel Tower in the background of every single outdoor shot. Plus, it's in black and white. They want to release it with subtitles. Kiss of death.
"Joe, Tony, I love you guys, but what's with the French thing?"
Tony stops chewing his Cheerios.
"We see it as an art film," he says. "Like an homage to the great French directors who inspired us when we were kids. We want to raise our film to the level of the avant-garde."
"Fellas," I say. "I love art as much as the next guy. Cinema verite. Your Truffaut, your Godard, the great auteurs. But you want to put butts in the seats? You want to sell some popcorn? Then set it in the good old USA. Cleveland, New York, whatever. Why do you think they call this guy Captain America? In other words, ixnay on the enchfray."
I can see I'm getting through to them. Tony's taking notes like crazy. Joe's tapping on his iPhone. I pour myself a shot of rye whiskey. OK, it's 8 in the morning. So sue me.
Next thing I notice: There's no action. You got page after page of Captain America talking very earnestly with the Winter Soldier. Talk talk talk. Very high-concept. Think My Dinner with Andre, but en francais.
"Guys," I say. "You got a couple of jabberwockies here. Are you familiar with the phrase, 'Box-office poison'? Where's the car chases? The guns? The bang for the buck?"
Joe looks a little defensive. "Our intent in The Winter Soldier is to illuminate the essential existentialist dilemmas of mankind. We want our film to be about people coming to a deeper understanding of themselves and their humanity." Tony nods at the sheer profundity of this bullpucky.
I pour myself another shot. "No disrespect, but how 'bout you save your illuminating for the toilet seat? I mean, this is an action film, not Tuesdays with frickin' Morrie. Think Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, Mission: Impossible! We need to blow up some cars, some buildings. Hell, blow up the whole city! And let's shoot some people! I want corpses, I want blood, I want body parts!"
They write all this stuff down. They're good boys.
"One other thing. How about a little eye candy? I wouldn't mind seeing a babe or two in tight-fitting costumes. I'm thinking maybe distressed leather, spandex. Add a little spice, you know what I mean?"
Tony gets this holier-than-thou look on his face. "Joe and I feel that in many respects the history of cinema has been the sad legacy of the exploitation of women. We want a movie where there's no sex whatsoever, where ideas, for once, trump crude sexual desire."
And I'm thinking, I'm having breakfast with the two most clueless guys on the planet. I pour myself another shot.
"Joe, Tony, you're like brothers to me. But here's an all-points bulletin: SEX SELLS! Comprendo? You got these two guys, Captain America and the Winter Soldier, spouting high-minded ideas. Snooze time! Let's throw some skin at 'em, get these Boy Scouts all hot and bothered. The magic word is cleavage! Do you read me?"
Again with the note-taking, the iPhone-tapping. I love these guys. I pull out my phone and punch in the secret number.
"Hi sweetie. It's me. Look, I got a couple of guys here shooting a film. Comic book adaptation. It needs some sex. Could you help us out?"
And Scarlett — yeah, it's Scarlett Johansson — says, "Snookums, you know I'm a serious actress. I do Beckett. Shakespeare. I don't do comic books."
And I love this chick, we're like six weeks into a relationship, everything's totally physical, I'm maybe four, five months away from the "put a ring on it" conversation, and I say to her, "Baby, it would mean everything to me if you did this role."
And Scarlett purrs in that husky whisper — did you see Her? — "I'd do anything for you, Snookums. Anything."
Two months later, we're standing by a camera dolly in Public Square. Terminal Tower is in flames. Exploding cop cars are flipping overhead. Some big ugly dude is getting an ass-whipping from Scarlett, who's wearing a black leather ninja suit so tight I swear I can see the hickey I gave her last night. The boys are looking a little pale.
"Guys," I say. "Admit it. This is a helluva lot more interesting than watching Jean-Paul frickin' Sartre butter his croissant."
And Tony says, "Well, um, it's not actually quite what we had in mind."
They're good boys. I knock back a shot of rye and put my arms around them. "Welcome to Hollywood, fellas," I say. "Welcome to effing Hollywood."