I know I said I was traveling further north. I was lying. I traveled west; far west. A few days ago this email from Gestation blinked into my inbox:
"To All Concerned, a private screening of Delirious has been set up for Hugh Hefner at The Playboy Mansion."
I kid you not. The phone call I got from Gestation a day later proved it was no joke. Hefner had liked the film so much he wanted to meet me. Gestation quickly arranged a flight. 6 hours later I was in LA.
I won't bore you with the details of the Mansion. I'm sure you've all seen the videos and Girls of Summer DVD's like I have. Suffice it to say there were not nearly as many stains on the carpets and furniture as I had imagined. The meeting took place in The Oaken Office, Hef's private business suite. As I had imagined however, Hef was accompanied by three blonde sisters wearing glasses and bikini workout outfits as they sat on the floor taking notes. Hef looked a little tired but his grip was strong when he shook my hand. "I really enjoyed your film, Tom. It showed true vision and style."
"Thank you, Mr. Hefner," I managed to reply."
"And the acting was really great," added Truedi, one of the blondes at his feet. Hef looked down at her with a smile. "Who did you like the best, True?"
"Oh, Bushemi," she stated, surprising me by using the correct pronunciation. "Me too," said Kailee, peering over her glasses. "He kind of reminded me of you, Uncle Hef."
"Well, I think that's a compliment," Hef chuckled.
"It is, it is!" Emberly cried. "He's so sexy."
Hef patted her head and quickly got down to business. "You know, Tom, many people have said that when I started Playboy I turned sex into an art form. I consider myself an artist. And it greatly troubles me to see an artist like yourself struggling so hard to survive. I have to ask you: why, just two weeks after it opened, Delirious is only playing the late show in Santa Monica?"
I regarded him for a moment before inquiring, "What's your relationship with Gestation, Mr. Hefner?"
"I believe I met Arnold at last month's Pyjama Poetry Party. George has been here once or twice but he always brings his wife," Hefner mused. Kailee then spoke so softly it seemed she was talking to herself. "I thought that was his mother."
"Are you in business with them?" I ventured carefully.
Hef frowned in thought. "No," he said. "I think they just come over here to get laid." He turned and all three blonde heads nodded in unison."
"Well, good," I said. "Because you asked me an honest question and I'd like to give you an honest answer. I'm extremely grateful to Gestation for financing and releasing my film. But I think in this over-crowded marketplace they were too cautious. They didn't spend enough to help audiences find the film. And so, it just died."
"Oh, that's terrible," Kailee said. "You got such great reviews."
"You did," echoed Emberly. "I loved the piece in The New Yorker."
"Thank you, Emberly," I said, amazed I'd remembered her name. "We even got 2 Thumbs Up from Ebert and Roeper but instead of pushing that forward Gestation cut back all its advertising in LA this week. They said the numbers didn't justify the expense."
"How long did it take you to make it?" Truedi asked quietly.
"Six years," I replied. Truedi shook her head softly as she wrote the number down on her yellow legal pad. Hef stood up suddenly, surprising everyone. "Rule Number One:" he snarled, "You've got to spend money to make money!"
I was stunned. Not only was this self-built billionaire agreeing with me he was also quoting one of Buscemi's lines from the film! "Alright, girls," Hef snapped. "Take off those clothes and hand them to me!"
Emberly leapt to her feet with a sharp cry of surprise and ran sobbing from the room. Hef's heavy sigh did little to soften the offended glare in the eyes of Truedi and Kailee. "I meant, type up those notes and hand them to me," the weary man corrected himself. He grabbed my shoulder and lead me out of the room. "Let's go to the Grotto for a man to man."
I know you're all thinking this is crazy. Imagine how I felt. Literally a day before I was in Vermont grinding through poplar trees with a dull, smoky chain saw and now I was sitting beside a semi-nude Hugh Hefner in the lukewarm water of his famed underground Grotto. Hef wore a leopard print thong. Mine was fluorescent orange graciously provided by the staff. Before turning to me Hef waved half-heartedly to Charlie Sheen and Kevin Costner standing in the waist deep water with colorful drinks in their hands. "You got screwed, Tom," Hef said.
"No question," Hef stated. "You see, Power runs this business. It's the only thing anybody responds to. It's the only thing that makes anybody do anything. You had no Power. So, they screwed you."
I took the joint he handed me. "I fought as hard as I could, Hef."
"I know you did, but they had you by the balls. You've got to figure out a way to get them by the balls." Hef took off his thong and flung it onto the silver tray of the topless Asian girl swimming by with champagne. "I think I can help you," he said, stretching out again with a soft grunt of contentment. "You made a great flick. It's a work of art."
"Well, thanks, Hef," I said. "I really appreciate that."
"I told you; I'm an artist," Hef replied. "I recognize other artists and I'd like you to make me a movie."
I choked on my toke and almost dropped the joint in the water. "Are you serious?"
"Absotively. Let me tell you where I'm going with this. I've checked out the Delirious website and I've seen all the video skits you did to promote the film. They're fuckin' genius."
"Well, no, Hef. I had a lot of help with them; especially from this kid, Chioke Nassor."
"Good," Hef said. "Bring Chokey along. "I'd like you to do a bunch of short films for me."
"Oh," I said, instantly depressed. "Not a feature?"
"No," Hef went on quickly now, "A bunch of shorts. You've got a real touch with them. My favorite was the clip with Gina Gershon."
"Yeah," I said. "She's a fine actress and a good friend."
"She's fricken hot," Hef muttered. "I offered her a million bucks to do a spread for Playboy after Showgirls came out. She turned me down. Can you believe it?"
"Well," I said, "I'm not sure everybody is comfortable with that kind of thing..."
"Comfortable? Hell, I'd stick a Ringding up my butt for a million bucks," Hef snapped with still palpable offense. "Wouldn't you?"
Before I could answer Hef yelled out, his voice echoing along the low-slung caves and channels of the Grotto. "Aw, Kimberlee! Come on! How many times have I told you, leave the hair alone!!"
Far across the Grotto, backlit by a flickering turquoise light, a shocked, terrified and topless Kimberlee held what appeared to be a drowned hamster in her outstretched hand. Behind her a nude and now bald Kevin Kostner was swimming away as hard as he could. Hef finally turned his attention back to me. "Look, Tom, here's the deal. The clip you made with Gina was super hot. You know why? Because it was so smart and funny and because you never showed the SEX! You understand me?" "Yeah, I think I do," I said, slightly distracted by Kimberlee climbing up the narrow Grotto steps holding the soggy pelt at arm's length.
"'Yeah, you do," Hef said solemnly. "And that's why I'm giving you 2 million to do another one for me."
This time I did drop the joint. "Another one? With Gina?"
"You bet your ass with Gina. You're a genius; make it smart and funny like the first one. Like, you bring her to a hotel room to do a video interview for Delirious and she doesn't know you've brought her there to do a sex tape that you're going to leak to the web."
"Right, right," I said, picking up on his enthusiasm and getting psyched myself. "So how is it different?"
Hef plucked the floating roach out of the water, sniffed it then flicked it into the begonias behind us. "It's smart and funny and sexy because you don't show the sex. OK? You got me? It's smart and funny and everybody thinks it's so sexy because you don't show the sex and then, BAM--you show the sex!"
"What sex?" I asked, completely flummoxed.
"The sex TAPE, you meatball!" Hef laughed and shoved me playfully against the famous Lesbian Fountain wetly lapping the rocks behind me. "You shoot Gina having sex with someone. Could be anybody. Her boyfriend, a stranger; me..."
"No, no, " I blurted. "I could never ask her to do something like that."
Hef turned to me and bathed me in a smile of intense confidence and support. "Sure you could. That clip's got over 200,000 hits on YouTube. Can you imagine what it would have gotten if you'd actually showed the sex tape?!"
"But there is no sex tape, Hef," I said. "That was the whole point."
"And that's why your film is dead in Los Angeles," Hef stated, staring at me. "A week after it opened."
His grin returned, not quite as supportive now. "You said you wanted Power. Well, trust me, my artsy-fartsy friend; Sex Sells. Just get Gershon to really have sex on videotape. Millions of people will instantly become aware of your movie. They'll start buying tickets. The numbers will go up and then you will have Gestation by the balls. "
I didn't know what to say. So, I said nothing and returned Hef's stare in a long silence that was finally broken by the concentrated splashing of Truedi, Kailee and Emberly swimming towards us pushing a floating wicker tray containing their now typewritten notes.
3 hours later I write this on the plane back east; still slightly stoned and my fingertips still wrinkled from the Grotto's lukewarm water.