Posted on Wednesday, March 1st, 2017 by Blake Harris
Have you ever wondered what the Mafioso version of The Producers would look like? Neither had I, until screenwriter Dan Gordon (Passenger 57, The Hurricane) said this:
Phil said, “I’m giving you the opportunity of a lifetime and you’re giving me bullshit…you wanna be a director? Come get the ticket and come to New York. If you don’t, I’ll find someone else.” So I pack my duffel bag and I flew to New York that night. And I wound up making this independent film called Potluck. But what I didn’t know was it was a money-laundering operation for a crew—it was a mixed crew of the Gambino and Genovese crime families—and they were looking for the youngest, stupidest kid they could find and I was the jackpot.
And from there, Dan Gordon proceeded to tell me an epic, unforgettable truth-really-is- stranger-than-fiction story about the sketchiest movie ever (kinda) made…
For the past two years, I’ve been working with Paul Scheer’s How Did This Get Made? podcast to interview the filmmakers responsible for making some of the oddest, campiest and most awful movies ever made. Over that time, I’ve heard incredible stories about on-set calamity and behind-the-scenes drama. But I’ve never heard anything like the tale that screenwriter Dan Gordon told me. Which makes our epic, three-hour-long conversation the perfect piece to launch HDTGM’s new spin-off podcast: Origin Stories.
How Did This Get Made: Origin Stories will be exclusively available on Howl (discount code “Bonkers” gets one month free), starting with these six Surf-Ninja-themed episodes launching today:
- Dan Gordon: Surf Ninjas scribe Dan Gordon talks about breaking into the business, getting blackballed by Hollywood and the unique horror of slowly discovering that his directorial debut was actually a meant-to-fail, money-laundering scheme for the mob.
- Dan Gordon II: In Part II, Dan talks about how Passenger 57 taught him to always bet on black, how Wyatt Earp spawned a vengeful copycat and how after years of struggle, all it took to get The Hurricane made was a three-word realization.
- Dan Gordon III: In Part III, Dan reveals what his misadventures with the mob taught him about who really killed JFK.
- Yoni Gordon: Dan’s son Yoni who laughs his way to an all-star cameo in Surf Ninjas, shares behind-the-scenes scoops and talks about the endearing quirks of Rob Schneider.
- Nic Cowan: Actor Nic Cowan, who plays little brother Adam in Surf Ninjas, talks about the odd life of being a child actor, his strange bond with Tone Loc and whether or not he’d be willing to pick up the proverbial surfboard if he were called upon to reprise his role for a Surf Ninjassequel role.
- Ernie Reyes, Jr.: Actor Ernie Reyes Jr., who stars as Johnny in Surf Ninjas, talks about his background in martial arts, scoring a breakout role in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II and the strangely powerful legacy of a little film called Surf Ninjas…
For those familiar with this column, where we routinely speak with some of the biggest names responsible for some of the worst movies, How Did This Get Made: Origin Stories is essentially a podcast-version of the types of conversations you find here. Except now we’ll be able to dig even deeper into the underworld of duds, schlock and flops.
Meanwhile, I’ll continue to share best, oddest and most memorable of my conversations here. Starting with this uncanny tale from the wonderful Mr. Dan Gordon…
Blake J. Harris: Hey, Dan?
Dan Gordon: How are ya?
Blake J. Harris: I’m good. Are you in California?
Dan Gordon: No, I live in Sedona, Arizona. Anyway, very nice to meet you over the phone.
Blake J. Harris: Yeah. So I spoke with your son [Yoni] yesterday, which was fantastic. We spoke for like a half an hour. And as with the links I sent you and any of the pieces in this series I’m as interested in you and your background as I am about Surf Ninjas. So I’d love to start off by talking about how you got into the film industry. Whether it was a lifelong passion or something that arose?
Dan Gordon: I mean, I started out acting when I was a kid. Then I went to UCLA. I had gone to high school abroad, I had gone to high school in Israel on a kibitz then came back and went to…I couldn’t get into UCLA right away because they wouldn’t accept my credits. Did a year at East LA Junior College, which turned out to be spectacular. I think it was one of the most creative years of my life. I think we did close to 30 plays in one year.
Blake J. Harris: Wow, that’s wild.
Dan Gordon: Yeah, then I transferred into UCLA. I was around 20 years old. And I saw the guy who had I studied acting with—a guy named Corey Allen—on campus. I said, you know, “What are you doing on campus?” And he said he had just been signed by Universal for what they called then the “New Talent Program.” Easy Rider had just come out, The Graduate had just come out, and Universal thought there was something to youth films so he said, “I’m on campus looking for a youth film.” And I said, “Corey, this is just the luckiest day of your life, man. Because I happen to have the movie.” It was obviously total bullshit. I had nothing.
Blake J. Harris: That’s amazing.
Dan Gordon: But I did have a one-act play that I had written for a directing exercise. Because, literally, I was sort of regarded as a pariah in the department. I couldn’t get anyone to star in it. So I made it a one-actor play because I knew one guy who would star in it for me. Which meant it was a half-hour monologue and I knew it because I’d written it. So I just performed the half-hour monologue. And Corey said, “Jeez, this is great. Let’s go right now to Ned Tanen’s office.” Ned Tanen was the Vice President in charge of production at Universal. And he was on the 14th floor over in the Wasserman building. And I went there and pitched him.
Blake J. Harris: And what was it, the monologue? What was it about?
Dan Gordon: It was a one-act play called Once I Was. It was sort of your typical first love gone wrong kind of thing. And my best friend was a folk rock musician named Tim Buckley (who was Jeff Buckley’s dad). In fact, Jeff Buckley is my godson, he was sort of conceived on my apartment floor.
Blake J. Harris: [laughs]
Dan Gordon: So Tim had written a song called “Once I Was.” And that was sort of symbiotic, I thought that could be the theme song for the movie, and anyway I pitched it and Tanen liked it. And he said, “How old are you?” And I said, “20.” And he said, “Get your mother in here, you’re too young to sign a contract.” And I called my mother and said, “Can you come down to Universal and sign a contract.”
Blake J. Harris: Nice.
Dan Gordon: And, you know, never thinking it might be wise to get an attorney or an agent or any of those things, so I was paid the princely sum of $1,875.62, which was scale minimum. And which made me the richest Jew in LA in those days because my rent was $50 a month; I lived on the beach and it was $50 a month. [laughing] I didn’t have an indoor bathroom, which made it very cheap.
Blake J. Harris: Yeah, that’s almost 2 years of rent. That’s great.
Dan Gordon: It was, it was. And I had no intention of paying taxes so, you know… I literally was home free for the next two years. And tuition at that time was $400 a year. And so I quit my job at the fish market, where I had been working on the Santa Monica Pier, and kicked back to live the life of a man of leisure. I was under contract to Universal; had an office and everything; and then abruptly got by Lew Wasserman himself when I stole all the office supplies. I was very naïve about it. They were all in my office. I figured: if this shit’s in my office, it’s mine. Tons of yellow legal pads, white out… It was enough to see me through my next two years of college. And also enough for my friends; you know, if you needed office supplies, I can hook you up.
Blake J. Harris: [cracks up]
Dan Gordon: So I literally was naïve enough to ask the guard—who’s a legendary guard there named Scotty, who’s been there since the era of silent pictures—I said, “Scotty, look at all this neat shit they give you when you work here. Help me load it in the car, would you? And he actually did. Then the next day the phone rang and this female voice said, “Please hold for Mr. Wasserman.” And I knew it wasn’t Lew Wasserman, because Lew Wasserman was chairman of the board of MCA Universal. He didn’t know I was alive. It had to be one of my friends who I had called the night before to tell them I’d gotten the office supplies.
Blake J. Harris: Uh-oh…
Dan Gordon: So I knew someone was playing a joke on me. And this guy gets on the phone and says, [angry muttering] “Blah blah blah office supplies!” You know, he’s just going off. So I know this cannot possibly be Lew Wasserman.
Blake J. Harris: Ha.
Dan Gordon: It’s gotta just be one of my friends dicking around with me. So I said, “You know what, Lew? Go fuck yourself” and I hung up. Now, no one had ever said that to Lew Wasserman in his life. Lew, you know, was mobbed up; you didn’t talk to him that way. And no one ever called him “Lew.” I mean, his mother even called him, “Mr. Wasserman.”
Blake J. Harris: [laughing]
Dan Gordon: The phone rings again and [imagining] the cord wraps three times around my neck and starts strangling me. “Fuck me? Fuck you!” He was really going off and literally says, “You’ll never work in this town again.” And it dawned on me this was Lew Wasserman! [laughing] I said, “Forgive me, Mr. Wasserman. I’m a huge fan of your work. I thought it was a friend playing a joke. I would never say anything. But you gotta admit it’s a little bizarre that the Chairman of the Board of Universal is calling me up about office supplies! Anyway, I’m writing this great screenplay. I know you’re gonna love it. And you’re a busy guy, I’m a busy guy, I’m gonna get back to work and I’ll talk to you later.” And I hung up and thought: alright, I handled that. That worked.
Blake J. Harris: Yup.
Dan Gordon: That was on a Friday, then I came in on Monday and all my stuff was piled up in front of the door. My name was off the door. The locks had changed…and they had revoked my lot pass, so I had to pay to get out. Which is how they fired you in those days. You just disappeared. Nobody ever said you were fired, you just ceased to exist. It was very Kafkaesque.
Blake J. Harris: Jeez…
Dan Gordon: So cut to 20 years later…I’m doing a picture called Gotcha and I’ve got it in turnaround at Paramount, setting it up at Universal. We’ve got Linda Fiorentino, Anthony Edwards. And we’re on the 14th floor with Frank Price, who was head of production; we’re coming out of his office and Lew Wasserman steps out of the elevator. And I had never met Mr. Wasserman. I had only had two telephone conversations with him…
Blake J. Harris: [laughs]
Dan Gordon: And Frank Price said, “This is Dan Gordon, we just picked up his picture from Paramount in turnaround. We’ve got Linda Fiorentino and Anthony Edwards. We think the kid is gonna be a breakout star…” And Wasserman’s looking at me the whole time. And I can see he’s trying to place where he knows my name from. And I’m pushing the elevator button like crazy. Come on, baby, get me out of here now! And the doors open and I’m inches from a clean getaway and Lew was a very tall old guy, and he had a surprisingly old guy’s kind of grip, and got me between the bicep and the bone of my arm—and he doesn’t look at me, he just looks at Frank—and he says, “Just make sure he doesn’t steal the office supplies this time.” And I thought: this is the great man who’s ever lived. [cracking up]
Blake J. Harris: That’s amazing!
Dan Gordon: Yeah, yeah. They don’t make ‘em like that any more. And it wasn’t friendly. I can’t say that he even cracked the slightest smile when he said that. He really meant it: [laughing] don’t let this guy steal the office supplies! Yeah, so I got into the business just because my former acting teacher was on campus.
Blake J. Harris: That’s amazing. [laughs] Well, so, going back in time: you hopefully learned a lesson. Not to steal (or sell off) office supplies…
Dan Gordon: I have never ever absconded with office supplies since then.
Blake J. Harris: [laughs] So with that lesson under your belt…what was your next foray into the business?
Dan Gordon: Well, I do believe that Lew put out the word not to hire me. Because I couldn’t get arrested anywhere. I couldn’t get a meeting, I couldn’t get a pitch meeting anywhere. My name was poison at every studio. And the indie business wasn’t really there, to the extent that it would become later.
Blake J. Harris: Right.
Dan Gordon: And I really was in kind of the golden age. I was living in Santa Monica, Venice. And, you know, my contemporaries were Spielberg and George Lucas. And Coppola had graduated, what, 3-4 years ahead of me? So he wasn’t that far out of reach. And I didn’t need the money, you know, because I had close to two grand! So I thought, well, I’m gonna write serious literature and I wrote a couple of novels. Then I met a guy, quite bizarrely, by chance.
Blake J. Harris: How so?
Dan Gordon: There was a girl who lived upstairs that I was having an affair with. She had a boyfriend who was rumored to be mobbed up, or at least have mob connections. And I was in the rack with her during the daytime when I knew her boyfriend was at work and we were going at it pretty hot and heavy. And I hear footsteps coming up towards her apartment. And I literally…because I lived at the beach, I had only come up there with a bathing suit, so I literally grabbed my bathing suit (because that was all I had) and jumped stark naked out the window and landed in my neighbor’s courtyard.
Blake J. Harris: Ha!