What Just Happened? Bitter Hollywood Tales from the Front Lines

A former top film exec at Fox once divulged that there was one book he reached for upon learning that Art Linson got a production deal at the studio -- and it wasn't the Bible. He opened up "A Pound of Flesh," Linson's kiss-off to his onetime hosts at Warner Bros.

A former top film exec at Fox once divulged that there was one book he reached for upon learning that Art Linson got a production deal at the studio — and it wasn’t the Bible. He opened up “A Pound of Flesh,” Linson’s kiss-off to his onetime hosts at Warner Bros. Anyone who has produced pics like “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “The Untouchables” and “Heat” certainly has talent, the exec reasoned, but “I just knew someday he’d end up writing a book about us.” Someday has just arrived in the form of “What Just Happened?” Linson’s Fox run mixed worthy efforts like “Fight Club” and “The Edge” with disasters such as “Great Expectations” and “Pushing Tin.” His recap makes for delicious, one-sitting reading. Be warned, however: Budding filmmakers who absorb Linson’s message will be like Air Force recruits after reading “Catch-22.

Bitter these tales may be, but who could resist broadsides like current Fox chairman Tom Rothman being called a “gangly lawyer” hung up on Gwyneth Paltrow’s lack of a chin? Or a chino-clad Robert De Niro delivering a wooden reading for “The Edge,” a project nearly derailed when Alec Baldwin refused to shave his beard? Not all of the book’s material is so pearly, and a whiny fatalism taints some passages, but Hollywood memoirs rarely dish as much dirt or name as many names. If studio bosses have any sense of story arc, they’ll give Linson a new pact so he can complete his Poison Pen Trilogy.

“What Just Happened?” intersperses accounts of each Fox pic with sardonic conversations between Linson and an imaginary ex-studio chief named Jerry. These Mike Royko-manque scenes are seldom entertaining, serving mainly to give the reader a break between film chapters that prompt astonished gasps and belly laughs.

The lulu is the account of “The Edge,” whose original title, “Bookworm,” offers a window into studio salesman. Fox marketing head Bob Harper putts golf balls on his office carpet, wrinkling his nose at the notion of releasing anything titled “Bookworm” — even if the film is, he unnervingly assures Linson, “a very good movie.” The hastily compiled roster of alternate titles reads like a hilarious found haiku. Among the choices: “Wilderness Now,” “Over the Precipice” and “The Bear and the Brain.” Recalls Linson, “At one time or another, we had everything on this list except, ‘If You Come to See This Shitstorm, We’ll PAY YOU.'”

The grotesque mix of ego, desperation and Alaskan wilderness reaches its anticlimax when Linson gets the weekend box-office results: $7.8 million. Then-studio chief Bill Mechanic “stoically” projects that to a $10 million loss. And the stoicism regarding Linson’s projects only intensifies from there.

With the exception of “Fight Club,” which history and even once-dismissive studio execs have rescued with revisionism, Linson’s litany of misbegotten films is cringe-inducing. “Sunset Strip,” his last film for Fox, is typical. “I know the title doesn’t ring a bell,” Linson writes, “because the movie was released in one theater in Los Angeles, for only one weekend, before being trash-heaped into the discounted-video bins. There are worse things that can happen to a movie producer, but they usually involve a life-threatening illness to irreplaceable organs.”

Chapters on “Great Expectations” and “Fight Club” give Linson ample room to riff. His observations on Alfonso Cuaron’s compulsive retooling of classic Dickens seem especially timely in light of the director’s career tonic, “Y Tu Mama Tambien.” The caustic, enervating vibe of “Fight Club,” meanwhile, utterly eludes the Fox brass at a rough-cut screening. The enmity extended beyond the lot. Linson’s friend Rob Friedman of Paramount saw the producer two months after the pic opened and could only shake his head and ask, “How could you?”

The book closes with a chapter on setting up “Heist” through Elie Samaha’s Warners-based shingle. In a fitting twist, making a picture with the footloose former dry cleaner proves a far more gratifying experience than most of what Linson undertook at Fox.

He may be a film guy by trade, but Linson is a more than capable wordsmith. Favoring short, punchy sentences and occasionally florid descriptions, “What Just Happened?” extols a Hollywood that corporate group-think and franchise-building has threatened to destroy. It is a dingy burg where screenwriters get “greased on wine” and “the bell tolls for studio heads.” Severe consequences await anyone who revels in their success. “A producer bursting with confidence,” the author reasons, “can be a truly ugly sight.”

What Just Happened? Bitter Hollywood Tales from the Front Lines

Reviewed at Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, Nov. 21, 2019.