“Please, Mr. Leconte, make yourself comfortable. I just need to make one thing clear from the outset: this meeting is exceptional. Nobody is ever allowed to come in here and pitch a script or idea at me. The reason? I employ a lot of timid souls called arts graduates to comb through the submissions of the numerous alcoholics we call writers. I won’t insult your intelligence by pretending that I’m allowing you this now for any reason other than that my advisers and investors want me to do it. You must have enormous influence with some of them. I’m sure you don’t need the money, so there’ll be no hardship when I say no to your proposition. Of course, a sharp Greek like me might end up asking you for money – look out!”
Only one person in the film industry could speak to a newly-met stranger in that way and make it seem like a welcome, rather than an offense. George Dalaris had perfected a quiet mockery which could charm and disarm while seizing advantage within seconds of meeting. The pale grey suits, the Aegean blue eyes, the artfully grey hair, the perpetual tan – all of that worked its spell, as George Dalaris sliced quickly through to his goal or his point or whatever else he wanted.
The young man who had just entered looked a bit Mediterranean, yet what most stood out was a precision of dress and movement. There was a finish, a monastic austerity, to his fashionable appearance. When he spoke it was with clipped respect.
“Mr. Dalaris, I won’t take much of your time. I’m sure you need to shield yourself from constant intrusions of amateurs who think their undeveloped ideas are special. In fact, I’m a bit embarrassed right at this moment, since I have used connections to steal some of your time…”
“Oh, you may as well keep going now, Mr. Leconte. Make your pitch. It’ll be a nice change for me, in fact. You’re the best groomed creative type I’ve laid eyes on. But I’d ask you to spare me a few things, all right?
“Don’t have one of your characters say: ‘I’m getting too old for this’ or ‘Some father! You were never here for us!’ or ‘I’m just not ready for a relationship’. Oh, and no exasperated authority figure saying: ‘We don’t need some loose cannon’.
“And please don’t start the movie with an unkempt person accidentally discovering a vast conspiracy by kempt persons who commit murder and even vote Republican. Also, no pedophile plots. We have a large cupboard or small room full of pedophile plot twists. And don’t end your movie with the hero walking grimly away from an explosion or flaming wreck. I beg you.”
“Sorry, I’m feeling ridiculous at this moment. Perhaps I should excuse myself…”
“No, no. But I hope you don’t mind if I stretch my legs. I like to enjoy the view while I absorb. And it may help not to have me staring right at you. No harm, Mr. Leconte, no harm at all in giving me your ideas. And please be aware I don’t chomp on cigars or shout at people. Also, I’m plain Greek, not Jewish at all, although Sam Goldwyn gave me my management model when he said: ‘If I want your opinion, I’ll ask me!’. So, while I contemplate the view, please run your pitch.”
Dalaris rose from his chair, turned about with his arms clasped behind his back, and looked out on the palm-clad golf course in which he had a small share. He hoped the window glass was not reflecting the amused sneer he could hardly repress.
“Well, Mr. Dalaris, I’ve always been interested in dateless themes, in ways of adapting those themes to a new context, so they’re not immediately recognised, but still work on the collective psyche in the same way. I know this isn’t a novel idea…”
“No, Mr. Leconte, it’s a very familiar notion within the film industry. Even too familiar. I call it Return of Rehash. Others call it Universal Mind, or some such. Truth is, we do a lot of universal rehash.”
“I agree, or rather, I understand. You obviously wouldn’t be flattered by my agreement. I feel so impertinent right now…”
Dalaris rolled his eyes at his own reflection, but kept his patience.
“Mr. Leconte, get it all off your chest. Your influence has entitled you to this. You know, there’s a golf course below me, which I’m looking at right now. I used my influence – and my financial share in the club – to get a round with Ballesteros. It’s what we do, when we have influence. I doubt you should be a writer, any more than I should be a pro golfer. But we have influence, and we use it. Please, go on with your pitch.”
“Well, I’ve long felt that the better disguised the universal theme, the more effective. That way one absorbs the theme less consciously, the story is less didactic, more involving. And surely the theme of all themes is the vengeful return, with delayed justice. It’s there in Homer, and it’s in some old cowboy movie they run on television at midday. Above all, of course, it’s in The Count of Monte Cristo. My interest is in giving it the most original and contemporary context without marring its deep effect.”
Now Dalaris was having trouble keeping a polite expression, and he made sure his face was completely turned away from Mr. Leconte. If this were to go on for much longer…
“So, Mr. Dalaris, I’ve had this idea of a script about an immigrant who arrives here with no money. He can be from anywhere. The thing is, he knows a dark secret about another immigrant who arrived years before him, and has made good. The poor immigrant works to survive, supports a wife and son – just. Then one day he runs into the other. He doesn’t try to blackmail him over the secret, he’s not the type. The other offers him support and money, which he proudly refuses. The rich one learns he has a son, comes to his home, offers to educate and employ the boy. Again, a proud refusal, bewildering at the time to the son, who dreams of an education.
“Soon the father is killed in a work accident, which is no accident. Later the son is taken from a street to a dark place and bashed, in order to find out what he or his mother knows. The blubbering kid knows nothing of his father’s secret. The father has been too noble to burden the family with that. Soon, the mother dies, the boy is alone in the world. It’s all a bit mawkish, I know. Sounded better when I was dreaming it up. Am I going on too long?”
“No. Not at all.” George Dalaris was now expressionless, as if the story had indeed begun to interest.
“Not much more to tell. Just return and revenge and justice. All that good old stuff. Twenty years on, the son of the murdered man returns. He’s naturally bright, and desperation has made him keen. He’s gathered enormous wealth, gathered all the facts about his father through his global contacts…Oh, now that I’m saying all this out loud it sounds like such a terrible cliche…”
“It is, Mr. Leconte. Still, it’s interesting enough. If originality mattered much, Hollywood would be a National Park. So how does this son exact his revenge?”
“Well, he forms an investment company, even naming it after the prison where the Count of Monte Cristo was kept, and proceeds to make his father’s killer dependent on investments and loans from that company and its subsidiaries. Then he pulls away the rug…Oh, it’s all so tired, this Monte Cristo stuff. I’m wishing I’d never wasted your time…”
“No, no. And have you fleshed out the origins of these immigrants? The secret and so on?”
“Well, No Nazis or Khmer Rouge. I thought the Cyprus crisis hasn’t been done to death as a plot pivot. I thought our rich immigrant could be someone who betrays his Greek comrades to the Turks, helps them get control of the Kyrenia Road in exchange for lots of US dollars.”
“You think so? And what do you think of the dramatic force of the son calling his company by the name of the Count of Monte Cristo’s prison?”
“What was the name?”
“The Chateau d’Yf.”
“But he might call it the Castle of If. Sort of a translation, sort of a pun. Sounds playful, visionary.”
Mr. Leconte fell silent and waited for a reply from Dalaris, who, still with his back turned, seemed frozen in contemplation. At last:
“My investors are the Castle of If. Quite a coincidence. And when does the rug get pulled from under our bad guy?”
“Oh, just before the son confronts him, and tells all. The guy is poor, ruined, right at that moment. The phones are about to ring with the news. He’ll try to wriggle free, but the plot to ruin him is very thorough. His nemesis is younger, smarter, with supreme motivation, obviously. And he has had twenty years to evolve and work his plan.”
Dalaris turned around. He was suddenly an old man, with sunken features.
“The son of Nikos Madjadakis…I remember…had buck teeth.”
Mr. Leconte rose from his seat and tapped on his upper lip.
The two men continued to face one another.
The phone began to ring.