I'm still troubled by one L.A. memory: A dirty morning crashing hard on blow in that Hollywood apartment above Franklin Avenue while my then-wife was in rehab. I was wrecked and alone on the wrong side of night with the sun rising on my flawed existence through fake French doors that opened to the sky. Century City sort of quivered in the distance to the west ... faint flashes of the Pacific beyond. A gray L.A. morning, but eerily clear.
Through an east-looking window I froze on the beautiful Spanish-revivalist tower and neon of the Alto Nido apartments. That's where failed journalist-turned-scriptwriter Joe Gillis lived, William Holden's character in the Hollywood-consumes-Hollywood classic Sunset Boulevard. It felt more real than it should've in lovely old Tinseltown, in its spectral visions of dead silent-film stars and alcoholic casting agents and spent scriptwriters, in the bars, arched entries and flora-rich hills that lie east of La Brea. Man, I didn't stand a chance against a city so full of cocaine and self-belief.
My little scene felt like a title sequence in a film adapted from a lost Hubert Selby Jr. novel, maybe one in which the protagonist ultimately self-immolates or something. God, I thought, how does anyone win in this shithole?
I was a cliché.
Aside from using L.A. as launch pad into a screenwriting career, Cole Haddon is conspicuously opposite old Joe Gillis. Instead of floating face-down in a swimming pool, he's still expressively fresh-faced — slightly cynical maybe, but barely sullied. And, aside from a handful of music and film publicists he'd "met" via e-mail, which doesn't mean jack, he really didn't know anyone in L.A., except a college bud and a dude in a band.
When he left Detroit not six years ago, I refrained from revealing my earlier personal experiences, but I told him that everyone and their grandpa writes movies and TV in L.A. — that's what the time between AA meetings is for. I don't think he understood. (Hell, I don't even think he drinks.) I sympathized because pain and suffering are harder on the innocent saps — they never see it coming.
Well, I'll be damned if Haddon didn't move to L.A. and become a rising screenwriting star, a kid "to watch" who film producers want to meet. (He's even getting married to a lovely screenwriter-producer.) Haddon is a writer with Hollywood heat whose "team" includes a killer manager (whom he met through his future sister-in-law) and a set of agents.
Even Thomas Jane, the star male prostitute of HBO's hit series Hung, is a Cole Haddon fan. He wrote me saying that Cole has what "we in Tinseltown have come to call 'an authentic voice.' He's not trying to copy anybody. Yet there is also something old-fashioned about Cole's work — a touch of the pulp novelist between the lines."
In fact, Haddon got somewhere around $100,000 for the first script he sold in 2009 loosely based on Thieves of Baghdad, which director Guy Richie is now circling. Haddon's mini-series of Victorian horror comic books, The Strange Case of Mr. Hyde, all came out this year on major comic book publisher Dark Horse, the last of which drops the day this story appears. His scripted movie version of said series is a heavily buzzed-up Hollywood project simply called Hyde, for which he got another low six-figures.
I met Haddon in person about six years ago while strolling inside the Cobo Center at some music festival, one of those let's-make-Detroit-like-L.A. things that are really about someone else's ego, not giving musicians a boost. The cavernous show areas were basically empty, of course, and I was talking with some smart guy in some dumb band when Haddon walked up and immediately began selling himself. OK, we'd traded e-mails once or twice, and I've no idea how he knew what I looked like — as if anyone should care — but because he exercised so little social grace with an air of slight desperation I knew he was a motherfucker. Band guy quickly receded into the dull backdrop as Haddon launched into self-hyperbole: "C'mon, Brian, let me do an interview with so-and-so. It'll be the greatest 1,200 words you've ever read." He actually said "the greatest 1,200 words you've ever read." Who could forget a line like that?
Funny, Haddon looked less like a "journalist" than he did some burb-y dude working his way toward a mid-level management career at Best Buy — freshly shaved in a pressed button-down shirt, khaki trousers and reddish-brown hair cut above the ears, but good-looking like a young Matthew McConaughey crossed with a youthful, less creepy George Michael. He did, however, carry a notebook and a little recorder, which, in these days of Internet self-appointment, can make anyone a "journalist."
"Dude, Why are you carrying the notebook?"
"To take notes."
"Notes for what?"
"I'm writing about this festival."
"Don't know. Maybe you could use something on this?"
"Jesus. You're doing the work before you've got any takers?"
"How else would I do it?"
Well, Haddon filed that 1,200-word feature he pitched and, as I'd expected, it sucked. It was too peripheral and light, rambled with little punch and setup, as if he were penning the subject's record company bio. Boring too. (But perfect grammar.) Short feature writing is a lot harder than it looks, precisely why so few can do it. But we published him after a lot of editing.
That was his way in. He immediately became a story-pitching machine — his persuasiveness was really galling pushiness with tremendous momentum — and he soon became a regular contributor to Metro Times. He'd write anything, including bottom-of-the-barrel stuff — phoner features with lame indie bands, or, worse, celebrities. His album and film reviews were OK, but inoffensive. But, he was an easy edit; his usual effusiveness gave way to listening without grievance. He made himself available and nailed deadlines early. Haddon was capable as all hell.
His writing began to improve exponentially; authenticity and empathy crept in, a voice in lieu of jetsam. I'd never seen anyone progress that quickly — in a matter of weeks — it's as if his writing gene was mainlining meth.
I began to learn about Haddon too, and, beneath what I considered blind ambition, I saw a guy who dealt with any set of circumstances, such as starvation or fear, by writing, and his devotion to it yielded him zero personal time, as if there was little else in life for him. I saw a guy who is kind, deceptively bright and absurdly intuitive about people — hell, he sold me knowing full well I'd never seen his feature work.
He'd head out in the field to shows or wherever for a story, spend hours waiting for interviews, go home and write, for not much money. He pumped out pieces with Detroit assembly line precision, beginning a new one from the final sentence of the last. He did them by the dozens. He could write for 12, 16 hours straight. He says he wrote for 24 consecutive hours once with no drugs, leaving the screen only for food and toilet stops.
Soon he was packaging single features and reviews for publication in numerous papers around the country. He'd write for Metro Times' sister papers including Baltimore City Paper and San Antonio Current. I tipped him to a pal at the Village Voice papers and within months Haddon was a "rising star" at that chain, contributing to Phoenix New Times, Denver Westword, Miami New Times and others. Not five months after that music conference, Haddon was writing for a living. He easily had a fulltime gig in the big J if he wanted one.
The public school-educated writer Cole Redlawsk (Haddon is his "pronounceable" pen-name, a method of his Hollywood entry) grew up in New Baltimore, the oldest of four kids in a home that featured "not one ounce of privilege." Pop's a war vet who served two tours in 'Nam and worked his way into a highly ranked security division. He also worked for the Macomb County Road Commission, a job that sometimes ate up "100 hours a week in winter." His mother is a first-gen Australian, daughter of itinerant farmers who grew up "sort of skinning kangaroos and rabbits, moving from camp to camp."
His childhood was "utterly what you'd expect from suburbia and, consequently, excruciating," with no trauma or family weirdness. "I know there are actually worse things for children to endure, but, for me, there was nothing worse than the tedium of Midwestern suburbia."
Mom and Pop encouraged young Cole to read and to seek out art ("they got that amazingly right"), and he escaped boredom through books, movies and comics.
"My imagination became my way of making a world that seemed without wonder just a little more bearable," he says.
He read and watched movies a lot, and at a tender age fell in love with historical fantasy figures and adventurers, namely Indiana Jones. His comic book "gateway drug was Batman," and he couldn't get enough. Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Frank Miller et al. followed. "These guys were my comic book gods in the same way that I worshipped filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, Alfred Hitchcock and Sergio Leone," Haddon was quoted saying in an article in Geek at MTV.com. He began writing and illustrating his own comic books at 11 inside of a spiral notebook and "kept writing them until I was about 19, which is when I decided I'd rather focus on film than comic books. Fifteen years later, I found my way back to them as a profession."
Haddon describes himself as a "progressive nut job" from a world of rural suburban conservatives. He had to learn to "stop thinking like your family who has really high hopes but low expectations ... you'll end up a manager at Target."
So at 18, after graduation from Anchor Bay High School, Haddon, after hero Indiana Jones, climbed into his car and started driving because "his parents couldn't order him around anymore." He hit 42 states and crashed on as many couches in the first year on graduation gift money and earnings from a comic book shop gig. When he returned home he did it again. If you want to be a writer you can't sit in a room.
At 20, Haddon moved to L.A. because the "very idea of Hollywood is untouchable in Michigan, just a silly thing 'for dreamers.'" He lasted three months.
"I had no idea what I was doing, and it just scared the hell out of me," he says, "the enormity of what I wanted to accomplish out there. I was gonna end up a pothead, just playing video games, and that would be the total of my day, every day, just talking about the screenplays I want to write."
He eventually penned two unpublished novels. A few of his short stories were published in "online journals and obscure literary journals such as Permafrost." Some won him several writing scholarships at the University of Michigan; his "Everything I Know About Ice Fishing" scored him the Lawrence Kasdan Fellowship. Haddon says, at 25, he tricked folks into giving "me a lot of grants and stuff to study overseas." Smart move considering he spent two thirds of his time at U-M overseas, "including Australia where they sent me to go for 10 months." He earned an English degree in 2003, after balancing studies with lots of travel. "I'd save money working jobs like construction, apartment and hotel maintenance, and, later, as a sales rep for a California-based auto industry supplier. Whatever would put money in my pocket really, so I could take off to who knows where next."
Haddon's life truly began at 29. That's the year he packed up and moved to L.A. to write movies. He shacked up in scenester-y Silver Lake for two years with three dudes he met on Craigslist. His bedroom was drummer-adjacent, which no doubt helped with the writing.
Freelance "culture" writing requires real hustle that eats undue amounts of time. You have to pitch ideas to editors and hassle publicists for star time, and there's the phoning, researching, driving and interviewing, all before you write, and then there's the editing process. Haddon had to eat crow churning this shit out or be homeless. He had it down, though, and he'd win face-time with stars —from James Cameron to Danny Boyle — on film press days because he had space reserved in so many different papers.
He claims maybe "one of every 30 pieces" he's actually proud of, including a Metro Times' cover piece on Royal Oak-born director Sam Raimi.
"I can admit that so much of the film aspect of it [freelance writing] was entirely mercenary, because every week I'd spend three, four hours sitting down with actors and filmmakers I admired. I've had well over an hour sitting down with Tarantino, for example." Haddon found ways to frame film pieces with music coverage too, thus doubling his money for the same interview, such as quizzing Andre 3000 about how acting affects his music or Quentin Tarantino about music in his films. (He could imagine selling scripts and even seeing them made, but little could match sitting "down with Tarantino for an hour to talk about music and his films.")
Meanwhile, there was a downside to living among the Silver Lake hipsters: "Those guys hated me. And the reason they hated me was because outlets like Metro Times and others around the country paid me to talk about music. There were all, like, these music hipsters, you know, scenesters, and they hated me because I wasn't in a band and I was making money off of music and they weren't. It didn't matter how long my beard got, no matter how long my hair got, I was never welcomed as part of that community."
He'd already met Scott Thomas of L.A. indie band Ringside (which includes actor Balthazar Getty) while interviewing them at their State Theatre gig supporting Weezer. Haddon and the bandleader hit it off. (Haddon: "kindred spirits"). Once he arrived in L.A., his new pal introduced Haddon to Hollywood parties where he had no choice but to juggle syllables at "places I wasn't nearly cool enough to get into by myself. Learned a lot about the town and, most importantly, how much I still had to grow as a person and artist to make it out here."
Haddon's hustle for self-improvement defines him in a way; and that's how he was then, and how he is now, only a lot more refined; his self-belief is as big as L.A., which allows him to concentrate on things others overlook — sometimes the minutiae — bringing significance to that which, otherwise, would have no significance, such as drawing inspiration from Valentino's silent film Thieves of Bagdhad. That was the basis of that first script he sold to Warner Brothers, which allowed him to quit his life in freelance hell. Yes, scriptwriting is far sexier than journalism.
There are a few ways to sell a film idea: Write the script and hope someone will buy it, or pitch it to the right set of ears and hope someone will pay you for it before you start to write it. This hasn't changed much since long before Joe Gillis met Norma Desmond. Though Haddon made his first sale on a potent pitch and penned the screenplay later, a strong pitch only gets you so far: "There needs to be an appetite for what you're trying to sell, and the market out here literally changes weekly," Haddon says. Because huge franchises are now built on comic-book characters, Haddon has got his timing on. "Movies are an easier sell if they're based on properties," and Haddon's Hyde script is based on his own comic book based on famous lit characters.
The writer is blessed with the self-belief to charm while spinning a story in front of suits. He can pitch, and not every writer can, of course. "That's how Hollywood works," he says. "It's always worked that way. If I wanted to write exclusively as an artist, as a writer free of commercial worries, I'd be making independent films. Do I resent it sometimes? Sure, all writers do, but a lot of the greatest movies ever made were done so inside this system. ..."
But, Haddon adds, "Screenwriters aren't actors. There's nothing more nerve-wracking than pitching to a studio. We don't crave being the center of attention. For me, in particular, I tend not to sleep the night before. I do a lot of prep-work. I run through my pitches for several weeks until I know them inside and out. I hate not having answers to questions that might be thrown at me."
But not every pitch is good. Haddon actually pitched Hyde in an airplane hangar at the Santa Monica Airport belonging to David Ellison, the Hollywood rich-kid head of Skydance Entertainment, a company co-financing Paramount films including True Grit and Mission Impossible IV. Because Ellison also happens to be an acrobatic pilot who stores his expensive competitive jets at the hangar, he set up the Skydance shop there as well.
Haddon's hero Harrison Ford is a pilot who, unbeknownst to the writer, happens to own the hangar adjacent Skydance. Once he got his pitch up and running, Harrison appeared from nowhere. Haddon choked. "It was the worst pitch I did, I think, of my life. I'm like, 'I can't go on, my childhood idol is standing, you know, like 50 feet away next to a Lamborghini ... or it was a Ferrari?"
Despite the distraction, Haddon's pitch sold. It also included his clever and skillfully scripted comic book series The Strange Case of Dr. Hyde. The 2011 four-part series — illustrated by the renowned M.S. Corley with colorist Jim Campbell — contains complex and ugly duality-of-man themes in rather uncomplicated scenarios; it's post-mod comic writing winking at everything from Silence of the Lambs and Jack the Ripper — who cameos in a big way here — to the old Hammer and Universal monster movies. Haddon even borrows the character of Inspector Thomas Adye from H.G. Wells' The Invisible Man, although he uses Adye 11 years before Wells' novel; hence, Adye's appearance here is prequel in a fictional timeline.
And somehow Haddon compressed all that into a conversational spiel that nailed a thick-money deal from a flyboy mogul in an airplane hangar.
His agents at the massive talent and literary agency, International Creative Management (ICM), Ava Jamshidi and Lars Theriot, collectively represent authors and directors of films including A League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Tron: Legacy, Just Wright, Step Up, Brooklyn's Finest, Save the Last Dance For Me and others. They're pretty psyched about Haddon.
Jamshidi (who also reps comic-book legends Grant Morrison and Todd MaFarlane) thinks Haddon has a pretty sweet future, talks of him in a tone that's equal parts parent and partner. "Look, we don't make money unless he makes money, so that should say something about our belief in him."
Even she was surprised that Haddon sold to Warner Brothers on a pitch, because "Warners is notorious for not giving new writers a shot. But he's very good in the room." She pauses before adding, "You know, writing is only 50 percent of it. The other part is how you interact with people, and Cole knows how to give them something to work with. Producers and directors want to know if they can work with you. They need to be able to say, 'You know, this guy will be fun to work with.'"
Haddon's biggest asset at the moment, Jamshidi explains, is his ability to reinterpret older material in such a way that's "intelligent and witty. ... Original material is harder to pitch now, that's just how it is. ..."
That Warner idea was called Thieves of Bagdad (minus the "h"), a script that has since been retitled Arabian Knights (with a "K," and Haddon knows full-well there were no knights in the Middle East then; he had no control over that). The story mashes up myths surrounding and involving literary characters; in other words, it's a very contemporary movie idea, or what Haddon calls a collection of all the great thieves "and scoundrels of One Thousand and One Arabian Nights and essentially assembling them in Ocean's Eleven fashion to pull off the greatest heist of their careers."
Fran Lebowitz might've had Hollywood in mind when she said that "Original thought is like original sin: Both happened before you were born to people you could not have possibly met." Haddon certainly talks about his own work as a sort of recombinant cultural DNA.
"People complain about the lack of originality in Hollywood, but this has been the case since its inception," Haddon says, "from Alfred Hitchcock remaking his own film [The Man Who Knew Too Much] to Ben-Hur ... I mean, my original inspiration, the Thieves of Baghdad, was a Valentino silent. My jumping-off point was an old silent film stolen from Arabian Nights. The other day, I saw the original Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood, which amazed me; that's a silent film based on English folklore, a medieval character. ...
"And that's where it's very frustrating today, because people assume that it should all be original, when it's very rare that anything in Hollywood has been drawn, at least anything commercial, from original material. There's always some source material, from plays or whatever — the trauma today is it's being taken from video games and board games."
His Hyde is well-done, a hellish, violent and fun script wrought with familiar characters, and a kind of social allegory for America set in 19th century London, and realizing "how people at the top are more corrupt than those at the bottom. It's kind of my way of exploring America while paying homage to my working-class roots.
He continues: "It's about how America's is so divisive, no matter what people say; the home of the American Civil War and the civil rights movement — it hasn't exactly ever been harmonious. But today this idea of justifying the division with morality versus reason, it's becoming such a binary way of thinking that I wanted some way to talk about the dangers of this sort of 'Hyde' thinking — the dangers of following your leaders without questioning them ..."
Haddon's all about "developing projects" — these book, TV and film schemes of sorts — with numerous other folks whose names drop from his mouth to the floor waiting to be swept up. But neither he, nor his agent can go on record about anything forthcoming that's not signed off on. But it's official that Haddon's developing a new comic book miniseries with Kick-Ass co-creator John Romita Jr., and his Kickstart Entertainment graphic novel, Space Gladiator, drops early next year.
He can also freely speak of his forthcoming nuptials on Mackinac Island in October. His fiancee, Lindsay Devlin, whom he met in L.A. a few years back, is actually from — surprise — Grand Rapids, and she graduated from U-M.
"She worked at a lot of major companies, left and went independent roughly the same time we started dating. She got six or seven other people hired for low- to mid-six-figure deals, but producers don't get anything until something gets made, so, after making a lot of people a lot of money and not even getting gift baskets in gratitude, she shifted to screenwriting last year."
The couple's apartment is in a better section of town than old Joe Gillis' Hollywood place. The couple lives and works there too, and considering how married careerists who share professions tend to want to kill each other, if not move to alternate universes, how's that going to work out? That kind of dynamic has got to be hard — no matter how together you are personally, there's competitiveness, one rises the other falls; it's so Hollywood, could be so A Star is Born.
Haddon dismisses that, but adds, "Yeah, well what's really interesting are the things that you don't want to admit, you know, sort of like the little envy here and there and when things go better for the other person. ... I know a lot of people who are in these relationships and it's not always easy. Luckily, she's been mostly cool about it. I think probably because the power dynamic was so different when we started dating, where she was the one with all the connections and knew everyone, and I'd go to meetings and it was, 'I'm Lindsay Devlin's boyfriend.' Now, she goes into meetings and it's, 'I'm Cole Haddon's girlfriend.'"