While most people know of Abraham Zapruder’s 1963 smash hit The Zapruder Film–showing the assassination of John F. Kennedy–few people know of the film’s road to distribution. One dead President and distribution rights bidding war later, Zapruder signed a development contract with MGM’s high-powered producer Morty Goldenstein. Thus began one of Hollywood’s lesser-known creative struggles gone sour. Over 50 years later, Goldenstein’s letters to Zapruder are finally available via the National Archives.
November 23rd, 1963
MGM hit the jackpot! With your raw talent and my biz knowhow, we’re gonna open bigger than Lawrence of Arabia, win more ‘scars (industry shorthand for Oscars) than Gone With the Wind and inspire more radical action than Riefenstahl could ever imagine. Once this picture sees the light of day, people’ll only remember JFK as that schmuck who starred in the first Zapruder picture! You’ll be one of the greats.
The news is lamenting the death of a President, but all I’m thinking about is the birth of an artist. Half-priced drinks and this newfangled meal they’re calling the Cobb Salad tonight at the Brown Derby. Get ready to hobnob, kid. You’re a star!
November 27th, 1963
Saw the first cut. Think it’ll play well at art houses and for anyone that “gets” Breathless (I’ve seen a man get shot and, let me say, it doesn’t take that long to just fall over and die, dammit), but I think we oughta up commercial prospects. You’re the artiste, but let me spitball for a second.
Let’s juice up the story. This is no Hitchcock picture; the people know what’s coming so lets add a punch to the gut. I’m thinking we throw a G-Men conspiracy angle on to add some stakes. Maybe LBJ planned it? What about the shooter? How’s about he’s an amnesiac, WWII vet gone rogue trying to win over some hot momma? Or, if you want to make it more lighthearted, we turn it into a slapstick thing with two bumbling secret service agents. Jackie O slipping and sliding around in the brains while Bobby Darin’s ‘Splish Splash’ tune plays. Could be a real romp!
Also, the ending is a bit too ambiguous. Maybe we throw in a shot at the hospital pronouncing him dead:
DOCTOR: “He’s dead Jackie, but here, take a Lucky Strike cigarette. It always makes the tough times a bit smoother.”
Could be a good tie-in scene for Lucky Strike cigarettes. Point being, we’re clocking in at well under two minutes. Most pictures are at least 80 minutes, so we’ve got wiggle room.
Looking forward to next cut,
P.S. I still can’t get over that Cobb thing. Between us, I don’t see it going anywhere. Too many working parts.
December 15th, 1963
You got me feeling like a secret service agent here – trying to breathe life into something that’s clearly dead! Kidding, but seriously, you didn’t take any of my notes re: story and character? Hurting ol’ Morty’s ego. But, hey, I get it. Don’t want this suit ruining your noble tale.
A few more bones to pick. I realize you don’t have any sound. You’re planning on adding dialogue, right? We can ADR later, but know that people really love the talkies. It’s a bit too ‘world cinema’ without any dialogue. Also, couldn’t help but see you took out the frame with the brain matter? May want to reconsider. Doesn’t play well for the continuity.
Let me tell you a story for inspiration. When I got the first cut of The Ten Commandments, it was just Moses parting the Red Sea with no sound. That was it! DeMille, not unlike you, refused to budge. Refused until I sat him down and said, “Hey, what if we explain how we got to this point,” and, boom, movie made itself. DeMille changed it alright. Changed it to the tune of over $120 million! Get what I’m saying, ol’ chump? I’m saying it made over $120 million dollars in profit. That is what I meant by “changed it to the tune of.” The first cut of Ten Commandments was about two minutes long and silent.
But, yeah, you get it. Expecting some results, even if you have to concede your “artistry,”
December 29th, 1963
Look, I’ve been patient. You know I’m not happy with where you’re taking this film, but I’ve been flexible. I have to draw the line with this title, though. Are you joking? The Zapruder Film? You’ve got some real moxie, kid. Nobody in this town knows who you are–much less some fatso in Des Moines–and you expect to get butts in seats calling it The Zapruder Film? It explains nothing!
You could pick literally almost any other title and it’d work better. Here are some that I thought of on the spot that work better than The Zapruder Film.
The Big Shot, Leisure Drive, Kennedy’s Day Out, Brain Stew, Head Shot, LBJ’S Big Day, Big Black Caddy Daddy, Brain Buster, The Kennedy Film, or even, The One Where JFK Dies.
If this picture doesn’t open above the line, I’ll have you go the way of the Cobb Salad: chopped up and spit out of mouths across Hollywood!
January 7th, 1964
You’re done in this fucking town. I’ve been putting up with your bull and this is how you repay me? Leaking footage to the Warren Commission? You idiot. You’ve killed any commercial viability. Who’s gonna pay for a picture that’s on the small screen every five minutes? I’ll tell ya who. Nobody. We didn’t make a splash at the BO (industry shorthand for Box Office). We didn’t even beat that nonsense, garbage Fellini picture from last calendar year.
I’m gonna make sure nobody ever remembers the name Zapruder. You’re gonna wish you were in that car, when I’m done with you, you hack. I don’t care if you get a front row seat to LBJ or MLK getting shot. You’re as dead to me as the Cobb Salad or JFK, himself.
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