LOOSE ON THE DEUCE II: Fare Games
Reading time 25 Minutes
I have a confession to make
I have a confession to make. I’m a recovering filmmaker. I was one of those annoying cinema devotees who dreams of becoming a director, convinced it was my life’s mission to make films - like a dedicated postman must feel about delivering letters. Of course I’m not alone in this. In fact, the field is kind of overcrowded nowadays. But since I had neither the skill, know-how or obsessive nature required to be a director, it was never going to happen.
However, the thought of working a job that didn’t involve the creative process on some level was soul-crushing (even though I have no soul). A real job, anything to do with business or commerce, would be a torment. But I’m no commie. I’d like to make money. I just don’t have a clue how to go about it. I’m a decent storymaker, but not good enough to be a novelist or a poet (besides, poetry is a total bore). So that leaves screenplays. Even though screenwriting is to writing what house painting is to the stuff they hang on museum walls, it’s still storytelling. But as a mere screenwriter you’ve got no control over the final product. Some asshole director will come up with his “vision” and fuck it all up. That leaves only one job – and that is what leads to this tale of woo.
In 1994 I was introduced to a wanna-be film producer by the name of Isaac. He was a rather crude and lewd transplanted Israeli who owned a number of taxi cabs in New York City. The man who made the introduction was a transplanted Greek, a hapless porn producer by the name of Tom G. This was long after I'd had my heyday cutting fuck flicks, but I'd stayed in touch with Tom over the years. And he was still in business (barely), no longer actually producing films, but running his little Triple X movie house on 8th Avenue and 46th Street. It was called the Capri Theater. And poor Tom would hold court in his 1970s time capsule of an office atop the theater. The place was obviously last decorated during porn's zenith in the '70s when there was still money to be made in smut pictures. It was amusing to see Tom keep a discreet eye on the two video monitors by which he oversaw his shrunken empire. The monitor on his desk was hooked-up to a camera placed at a felicitous angle overlooking the box office and the front entrance to the theater. The second monitor across the room transmitted the image of the porn tape currently playing on the theater's screen. Tom's eye would unceasingly stray towards that TV monitor, reassuring him that his patrons were indeed receiving an uninterrupted flow of fuck and suck and suck and fuck.
To give you an idea of Isaac's savvy regarding the film biz, he thought it only natural to go to a has-been porno producer/theater operator to find a candidate to write and direct the masterpiece he so desperately wanted to commit to celluloid. At our meeting that day, Isaac related to me his tale of two cabbies which he intended to executive produce. I found the story had some merit (at least that’s what I told myself at the time). We discussed the possibility of me writing the script and directing (and editing) his New York City fable. Afterwards, I read his meager treatment which his wife had typed up. It was written in some form of pidgin English - really quite dreadful. The story was about two middle-aged cab drivers who are buddies, one married the other divorced, who each end up in charged relationships with younger women they meet in their cabs. Fuck me.
I had a history of sorts with the NYC taxi life. For one thing, I was a big fan of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. My long-dead older brother Sean took me to see it when it came out in theaters in 1976. We were living in Rhode Island at the time - Cranston to be exact (and with apologies to Kurt Vonnegut, I contend that Cranston, Rhode Island is the asshole of the universe). I'm sure Sean got the idea of driving a cab from watching Taxi Driver. He moved to NYC and drove for a fleet on the west side in downtown Manhattan, living a life not unlike Travis Bickle’s.
I stayed with him briefly in a dive hotel - the Arlington on 25th Street near Broadway. For some reason Sean never got an apartment, always lived in rented rooms at SRO (single room occupancy) hotels. These were the types of places were old people on fixed incomes would eat dog food out of a can while waiting for next month's Social Security check. I couldn't understand how Sean survived the confinement. That's what it felt like living in those places – confinement. A single room, decrepit, lifeless, old and worn furnishings, threadbare. Walls caked with decades worth of congealed glossy paint. Depressing. A cold bathroom down the hall with cracked tile. Grime everywhere. The unfounded (for the most part) feeling of danger in the halls. The dread of returning each night. The panic of calling such a place home.
Recently I flashbacked to those hovels upon seeing James Franco’s hotel room in HBO’s The Deuce. The makers of that show got most of the location dressings right - good production design. But that’s all the show has going for it. It feels about as authentic as joke-shop rubberized dog poo does to the rancid dog shit that you step on in the park. The only thing worse would be if James Franco played triplets instead of identical twins.
On the occasion I stayed with Sean at the Arlington it was sweltering in The Big Apple. The air in his shitty little room heavy, stagnant. I slept on the floor by the open refrigerator, trying to get some relief. We drank a lot of beers and decided to toss the empty bottles out the window. He lived on the ninth floor. There was a gothic-looking Serbian Orthodox church diagonally across the street. We decided to have a contest to see who could hurl a beer bottle through one of the church's stained-glass windows. Sometimes you just get the urge to be sacrilegious. We took turns and the competition lasted quite some time. Drink a beer, get up, take aim and with a sidearm throw, fling the bottle towards the ornate church window. It was good fun to watch the beer bottle sail out into the night air, and then, not reaching its intended target, quickly descend to the pavement below, smashing into a million bits of sparkling glass. It was a tricky throw at a difficult angle. I was the one who finally nailed the precious stained glass. The bottle burst a hole in the casement and disappeared into the dark house of the holy. I’ve since learned the church went up in flames in 2016. So I don’t have to feel guilty about destroying an irreplaceable stained glass window. There must be a God.
Less than a week later
Less than a year later I started driving a cab myself, but only lasted at it a few weeks. It was all I could hack (bad pun intended). I took the test at the Tax and Limousine Commission, got my hack license and then my sponsor - a taxi fleet on 19th Street. They sent me to a doctor who gave me a perfunctory physical, the last step in the process. The split with the fleet was 50/50 and the agreement was to work solely for them for a minimum of six months.
The cabs were equipped with a feature called a "hot seat." This meant when sufficient weight was put on the back seat the meter was automatically triggered after 15 seconds. The company wasn't about to let drivers pocket cash making trips off the meter. I kept fucking up and pushing the meter's "on" button which for some reason would reset it, thereby listing the initial trip surcharge (which was $1 back then) on the totals for the day. Meaning the cab company was entitled to 50 cents of quite a few dollars I never earned.
Unfortunately for me, novice drivers were always given the vehicles in worst shape. I would be assigned a taxi with a dragging muffler and a ripped-up back seat. I had one potential fare open the door, take a look inside, and then decide he’d rather wait for another cab. The first day on the job I got a $50 ticket for making an illegal turn at the corner of 42nd Street and 7th Avenue. About half the time I would get lost or take the wrong route to a destination. I kept on having to apologize to my fares and offer to reduce the charge on the meter. My 50% of the take was more like 25%. One pissed-off fare took down my hack license number, saying he was going to file an official complaint when I wouldn't take him to Brooklyn. I didn't take him because I didn’t feel like getting lost again. My last day on the job I decided to let a van ram my cab broadside because I was bored, frustrated. I could have easily slowed and let the van make a right turn passing in front of me. But I decided not to - and wham! It broke the tedium. I didn’t even bother exchanging information with the van driver. He was at fault anyway.
So you may think with this vast background of NYC cabbie lore to draw from I’d be able to contrive an interesting story. Not so. --The script I ground out in three weeks (and which Isaac approved), Fare Games, was an insipid turd with dated characters, no genuine point of view – a product no one needed. Kind of like any of The Fast and the Furious movies but without all the fast and the furious. The only reason it was going to be made was because Isaac wanted to be a producer and I wanted to be a director. In my defense, I also needed a paycheck, no matter how meager.
At this point the project was already doomed. But in fact, it was no different than how Hollywood movies of the so-called Golden Age were made - a producer has an idea and he hires “talent” to make it concrete. The most annoying aspect of the discussion with Isaac when I met him in the Capri was the typical spiel about how he'd be putting up all the money--and since this was my big break I shouldn't expect any. I really hated to be talked to in such a patronizing way, but his offer was at least that – an offer.
And so we prepared to shoot in the summer of '95. As pre-production commenced Isaac said he had a cameraman/director of photography in mind – a fellow by the name of Larry. I knew Larry by reputation and had even met him before. He was a hack cameraman who'd been shooting mostly porno films for the previous twenty years or so. As there was no longer a porn business in New York Larry was pretty desperate for work. I went along with the program and gave my okay for him to shoot the picture – a decision I began to regret as things progressed.
Larry was of the opinion we could complete the movie on a fairly ridiculous nine-day schedule. His salary was based on a flat rate, so naturally he wanted to shoot as quickly as possible and pocket as much cash as he could. We had a number of disagreements. Larry wanted to shoot all the cab driving scenes on a soundstage using rear screen projection and not use real interior locations but rent chintzy sets instead - all to make his job easier so he could sit on his dolly seat and whirl around. Larry had a thing for dolly shots. Eventually he and I had a blow-out during pre-production and I told Isaac either Larry had to go or I would. I was more than ready to quit the whole thing. I think Isaac's main concern was that if I walked, he'd have to find someone else to edit the picture. So he said if I left there'd be no movie. Larry, sensing his paycheck flittering away, made nice with me and we came to an accord. For some reason I trusted him at his word. Big mistake.
During the audition process the toughest part was finding two young and attractive actresses with acting ability that were willing to play our semi-vixen lead roles. It didn’t help that they had to deal with Isaac leering at them during their auditions. Isaac – squat and powerfully built with a gut, constantly chewing on a putrid cigar. Somehow we did find an actress who could not only act but was stunning to look at. How could this be? At the contract signing Isaac decided to pat her on the ass. “What?! I was just being friendly,” was Isaac’s justification. The actress freaked, then stormed out, quitting two days before filming was to commence. After properly chastising Isaac, I called our second choice for the role and gave her the good news, “Hi. How are you? You got the part. Can you start tomorrow?”
Months later I ran into a stripper wannabe actress who had also auditioned for the lead role. She alleged that during her ride home with Isaac she was also on the receiving end of a proposition: $50 for a muff-dive, blow-job combo. What a guy.
The first day of shooting ran into a snag when I dared to make a snide remark about the squeaky dolly Larry insisted on using in every take. For some reason he and his hand-picked crew were unable to quiet the noisy dolly track. I don't think it bothered them very much. And rather then simply avoid using the dolly until the problem could be fixed, Larry was of the opinion that the actors should wait until the dolly came to a stop before they said their lines. His advice to me was, "They're actors. Make them act." I acquiesced, and the two actors in the scene had to walk into a room and more or less hang around until the camera stopped dollying. I couldn't help but be struck by the absurdity of the situation.
That’s when I made my snide remark, which I didn’t realize at the time had set Larry’s blood a boil. “Wait for the Siberian Express to stop before saying your lines,” I had instructed the actors.
Things got worse
Things got worse when the owners of the house we were shooting in Queens decided having a film crew tear up their home wasn't the exciting experience in show business they had envisioned. Consequently, they told us we couldn't come back the next day. So now we were forced to cram one and a half days shooting into one, and the schedule was already tight. At this point Larry informed Isaac that he would save the day, but we'd have to shoot everything his way. He could get the job done, so long as I didn't interfere. Now, I've always felt a director's job to be the most useless on a film set, but this was taking it to the extreme. The animosity Larry and I felt for one another came to a full head. I requested his presence in the backyard and attempted to speak with him rationally. He refused to hear me out, and even called me an insulting name or two. I realized how naïve I’d been, like a choir who innocently follows the priest wearing no pants into the confessional. Obviously this is what Larry had planned all along. A miserable day became only more so. We worked late into the night and got most of our scenes shot.
On the ride home I tried to explain to Isaac that I was in an untenable situation. He was of the opinion that I should just let Larry shoot it his way. As I tried to fall asleep that night I had visions of mayhem in my head. Blood, gore and all types of violence swam in my brain. I awoke feeling no better. I couldn't continue this way. That day's call time was moved up by a few hours since we'd worked so late the previous evening. I had extra time to brood. How was I supposed to get through the next week and a half with my thumb up my ass saying “Action” and “Cut”? I was totally usurped.
I headed to the coffee shop location where we were shooting that day. The crew was there but Larry was tardy. I guess I had a strange look on my face because everyone steered clear of me. I sat by the curb and waited for my director of photography to show. Larry's battered van pulled up and he disembarked. I walked over to him and said we had to talk. By bringing my physical presence inches from his face I hoped to convey that I was in a state of mind upon which he should tread lightly. I reminded him of the handshake agreement we had reached weeks earlier. I suppose he misjudged me, because he proceeded to tell me I could go fuck myself. Wrong choice of words at that moment. I snapped and immediately went for his throat. He was caught off-guard. The force of my attack threw him backwards into his van – hard. The side mirror exploded. The sound of breaking glass alerted the crew that something was up.
As I choked Larry with all my might, fueled by months of pent-up frustration, I couldn't help but appreciate the look on his face. His expression reminded me of a puckered asshole. You may wonder exactly how I know what a puckered asshole looks like. A fair question. I used to have in my possession a revolting German pornographic video tape someone gave me titled Chocolate Lovers. It had three separate vignettes catering to the shit fetish crowd. The "actors" played with their own excrement, smeared it on themselves, ate it, etc., etc. Rather vile. Those Germans are a weird race. I'd heard of this sort of activity but never actually seen it until I acquired this tape. Upon first viewing it, I nearly gagged. On more than one occasion I've shown it to an unsuspecting friend, just to watch them retch when the good parts come on. Anyway, there was one vignette which featured two fräuleins defecating (in tight close-up) into the open mouth of a man prone on the floor who was quite eager to receive their brown packages. So that's how I know what a puckered asshole looks like.
You could also say Larry looked like an uptight aristocratic woman who's had her ass rudely slapped. I had him by the throat and he wasn't getting away. He was a dead man unless I loosened my grip. But I was in no mood to release him. The assistant camera person, funnily enough Larry's young girlfriend, came up behind me and began to bang the camera slate across my head. Still, I wouldn't let go. Other members of the crew rushed over and eventually pulled me off the gasping Larry. It was at that point that Larry, unrestrained, was able to surge forward and take a bite out of my bicep. Perhaps he’d deny this, but I still have a slight scar to this day where his teeth ripped out my flesh. His sneak attack brought my rage anew and I was able to break free, whereupon I managed to get him in a headlock and pummel his face with a few good short punches. The crew intervened once again and got us separated. It took about forty-five minutes for things to cool down after that. My man Isaac played the part of mediator and the day's shooting actually commenced more or less on schedule.
Due to the fact that most of the crew were already acquainted with Larry and I was a total stranger to them, I felt somewhat ostracized. Needless to say, the next ten days of shooting were not very pleasurable for myself. I was deemed to be something of a psychopath. From the crew's perspective, not an unreasonable assumption. But they eventually warmed up to me, I think. For the next few days Larry was quite subdued and wary of antagonizing me further. But eventually he got ballsier and pulled another power play near the end of the shoot. I didn't have the energy or the passion for the project to go for his throat again. The pathetic thing is I ended up having to edit the footage he'd shot. The movie which came out of this association, understandably, is not something I'm not very proud to have on my resume.
After post production wrapped, Isaac and I had a final falling out. Next I heard he had four-walled a theater in the Village and placed a huge ad in the New York Times. One of the actors from the movie attended opening night and told me she was the only one in the audience. The Times review opening line summed up the movie nicely: “No particular wit or style or particularly insightful storytelling gifts emerge from this straightforward account of two friends who drive cabs in the streets of New York City.” I couldn’t agree more. Fare Games vanished from the face of the earth. There wasn’t even a homevideo release.
Two years later I ran into Isaac on the street. From his car trunk he pulled an oversized poster featuring our replacement lead actress in a sexy pose wearing a bikini. I noticed at the bottom of the trunk scattered Asian hardcore bondage magazines. Isaac wasn’t ready to throw in the towel yet--“They want my movie, they have to pay!” It dawned on me at that late date that what Isaac had really wanted to make was a softcore porn, the kind they show on Cinemax late at night. Why didn’t he? All I could think was that maybe he didn’t want his wife to get the wrong impression.
Brian O’Hara is an admitted loser who’s worn various hats in film production. His accomplishments include having written screenplays for some shitty low budget movies and some better screenplays which were not (and never will be) made. His claim to fame: mastermind behind Rock N’ Roll Frankenstein. He also made a documentary short about notorious pornographer Phil Prince which features outtakes from Phil’s rather sleazy bondage and discipline films circa 1983. O’Hara now attempts to eke out a living (aka slow death) as a sound editor in LA.