What Just Happened is a roman a clef, or I suppose maybe I
should say a "cinema a clef," a fictionalized version of real
events that happened to a film producer between 1997-2001, as
recounted by screenwriter Art Linson. One would have to call
Linson the perfect choice to write this script for two main
1. The screenplay was adapted from a non-fiction book written
by Art Linson.
2. The real producer who lived through the events described
in the book was none other than the very same Art Linson.
Linson's book, "What Just Happened: Bitter Hollywood Tales from
the Front Line" covers the trials and tribulations of his role in
producing six films:
Sunset Strip (2000) (producer),
Fight Club (1999),
Pushing Tin (1999),
Great Expectations (1998), and
The Edge (1997).
The book is rich in "insider stories," and is gutsy. It shies
away neither from recounting the deeds and misdeeds of familiar
industry figures, nor from associating those deeds with their real
names. And big names they are: Alec Baldwin, David Fincher, David
Mamet, and others.
The movie takes a more oblique approach. One of the major story
lines comes straight from the book with only the names changed,
but the rest of the script is the fictional product of Linson's
having consolidated and compressed real events to combine with
incidents invented from whole cloth. The movie version of the
story has essentially consolidated Linson's six movie projects
down to two, and the book's four-year span into one very hectic
* One of the real films covered by the fictional story is The
Edge. This is the story line in which the movie version of What
Just Happened stays quite faithful to the real events portrayed in
the eponymous book, right down to long stretches of verbatim
dialogue. Although Bruce Willis is playing a character named Bruce
Willis in the film, the source book uses the actor's real name:
Alec Baldwin. Baldwin decided to show up for filming with a
Grizzly Adams beard and an extra twenty pounds of flesh around his
middle when the studio thought it was paying for a lean and
handsome leading man. When asked to shave the beard and to go on a
diet, Baldwin threw a legendary tantrum and promptly fired the
hapless agent who had been chosen by the big-wigs to be the bearer
of bad tidings to the prickly star. Baldwin finally shaved under
the threat of massive litigation.
* The other story line is basically fictional, although it
bears a certain resemblance to Linson's experiences in trying to
get David Fincher's edgy Fight Club past the scrutiny of studio
suits who were uneasy about the film's dark themes and casual
violence, and had no idea what a good film they had on their hands
until they saw the reaction at Venice. Linson took the basic
structure of that struggle and re-invented it, changing it into a
familiar tale about how the commerce of the film industry
suppresses its art.
The life of a producer, as portrayed by Robert DeNiro as
Linson's alter ego, basically consists of running from fire to
fire and splashing water on each, but often leaving the fires
smoldering and ready to burst back into flames because he's
working on three major projects at once and doesn't have time to
douse a single fire while others burn. In one sub-plot, a director
is finishing off a film in post-production, and is locked in an
angry struggle with the studio, which has threatened to take his
film away unless he cuts it their way. Meanwhile, a new film is
about to start filming, and all the crew is on the clock - pending
a Bruce Willis (read: Alec Baldwin) shave. Finally, a third film
needs financing, and the producer is the guy who has to come up
with the investors.
In each case, the producer is always the man in the middle who
has to balance the delicate egos of directors and stars with the
realistic demands of the studios and independent investors who
quite reasonably would like to get a return on their investments.
He has 30 hours worth of work to do in every 24-hour day, and
almost all of it consists of stressful crisis management.
Moreover, he still has a personal life which cannot be ignored: an
ex-wife he still loves and a daughter who is growing up too fast.
I found this a very interesting film, especially since I read
Linson's book just before popping in the DVD, so I knew which
characters were representing which real people. Of course, I'm
interested in the subject matter anyway, since I write every day
about the film world and its inhabitants. My guess is that the
film will not be nearly as interesting to you if you lack my
enthusiasm for the industry and my ambition to read the book
(which, by the way, is now available in a new edition which
includes the screenplay for this movie).
Unfortunately for those of you who are not film geeks, this
story is not funny enough to work as a comedy and is not original
enough to work as an insider drama. Linson has the necessary
insight and connections, and he told the truth about what he saw,
but we've already seen many similar variations on these same
themes in dozens of earlier films. And even I found the stories
more interesting in the book's version, with the real names and