A Screenwriter Chases Blues Legend Robert Johnson

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:56

    Alan Greenberg A screenwriter can be talented, respected and work in the industry for decades but still have little to show for it publicly. This is because so many scripts get optioned and reoptioned, but never actually filmed. The 49-year-old Alan Greenberg has the admiration of a collection of boomer movie and music names (Scorsese, Lynch, Polanski, Dylan, Jagger and Richards among them), one great reggae documentary on the video shelves, and credits from work with Werner Herzog going back 25 years. But his shining achievements?the very readable Love in Vain screenplay (now in its third printing) and riveting works about Picasso and Hendrix?remain unfilmed. He has been working in films for 27 years now, starting as a special unit photographer on Mandingo and 1900. His photography is fabulous, though pretty much the only way to see it is in his first book, Heart of Glass, about his experiences working on that Herzog film in 1976. Minor White called him the best self-taught photographer he'd ever met. Greenberg's shot, directed and produced one film, the moving documentary Land of Look Behind, made in Jamaica following the death of Bob Marley. For the '91 remake of Cape Fear, Greenberg helped Robert De Niro create his character, Max Cady, by videotaping intensive interviews with rapists and murderers; it was the first time Scorsese gave onscreen credit for research.

    But screenplays are the art form at which he's excelled. For Herzog, he wrote Fitzcarraldo (in three days) and Cobra Verde, plus an as-yet unseen film, Mexico, all based on Herzog's precisely articulated ideas, which is why he hasn't always been credited with writing them. Two projects with Bob Dylan are in the works?one is a short thing for cable written last year, the premiere episode of a new series RockZone (a take-off of The Twilight Zone) based on the song "Knockin' on Heaven's Door." And he's currently writing a full-length feature loosely based on Dylan's last studio album, Time Out of Mind.

    Greenberg was born in New York City and raised in Miami, where he enjoyed "a free, golden, middle-class youth with good parental relations." His dad had a small exporting business and Greenberg traveled with him to the Caribbean and Latin America from an early age. At 11, he ran away to Jamaica and lived in the hills for weeks before his father found him. I've known him since the mid-80s; we used to hang out at a mutual friend's idyllic Coconut Grove record shop, Yardbird. He's got a runner's build and rugged good looks and is basically a ball of energy who's good at being still for long periods of time, too. Currently he is coproducing Love in Vain with Jeff Abelson, "raising two little girls and urgently building a wingless airplane."

    Detail for me the complete history of Love in Vain in terms of it being optioned and who's been interested in making the film, from beginning until now.

    The proper answer would be booklength, so here are the highlights: Mick Jagger read the work-in-progress and optioned it immediately upon completion, only to have his messy divorce with Bianca severely limit his effectiveness. Prince began years of pursuit of Love in Vain by announcing to the press that he would star as Robert Johnson, then offering me the directorship of Purple Rain to sweeten the deal, prompting me to consider Patti Smith in blackface instead while raising funding enough to make the film on a shoestring?with everything falling apart late in preproduction when one of the financiers was murdered by his son. After Love in Vain was wooed and pursued and then nearly destroyed by Sundance Institute, it was rescued by Martin Scorsese, who agreed to direct the film for Warners, calling it the sequel to Raging Bull and his most important film since Taxi Driver. After circumstances beyond Marty's control prevented him from directing Love in Vain, he decided to executive produce it, and now we're looking for the right director.

    As for fans of the screenplay, principal among those who have contacted me are Bob Dylan, Werner Herzog, David Lynch, Keith Richards, David Byrne, Ismail Merchant, Roman Polanski and, I am especially proud to say, Johnny Shines [Robert Johnson's infamous running buddy]. Just before he died, Johnny was quoted by Allen Barra in the Village Voice as saying that my screenplay "has finally cleared up all the lies and crap about Robert and his life," which means more to me than the loftiest critique. Via promoter Bill Graham, Dylan sent me the one perfect response, his message being, "It's about time."

    Do you remember the first time you heard Robert Johnson?

    Yes. I was 20 years old, had just rented an apartment in New York City, and played the first Columbia album over and over and over one day as I was building my bed. It was the only time I've ever built a bed.

    Was it difficult doing research for your screenplay some 20-plus years ago?

    Research is boring unless it's difficult. And there was nothing boring whatsoever about researching Robert Johnson. And keep in mind that to research Robert Johnson requires listening to his world of music, all of it, the entry to which continues to be as profound and fascinating a move as any I've made. When I began my research the summer of 1977, the only thing resembling a book about Robert was a songbook that contained a short biography?even shorter on facts?by Samuel Charters. So I hit the road, spending considerable time in Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. My modus operandi was chatting with octogenarian women who may have had some contact with Robert Johnson?"Or maybe that was Robert Nighthawk," as one of them said after telling me about her love affair with Robert Johnson for hours?and hanging out on street corners, in jook joints or abandoned gas stations with octogenarian men who may have heard or played with Robert.

    Before setting out I'd been invited by the respected historian Mack McCormick, who by then had researched Robert for almost 20 years, to come visit him in Houston, where he'd happily and generously open his vault of research for me; when I'd spent the last of my borrowed money driving the 1500 miles to take him up on his offer, he welcomed me graciously and said that for $35,000 and 6 percent of the film's profits he'd let me see his stuff. Of course I rejected the offer before proceeding to have a few drinks with Mack, during which time I picked his pockets of quite a bit of important and unknown information on Robert, doing so more and more with every drink he had. I guess it offended me to have someone put a price tag on historical information so vital to United States and world culture.

    Are you really patient?

    Absolutely not. The years of waiting for the world to come around to Love in Vain have been exceedingly grim. It's a good thing happiness isn't a goal for me.

    I mean haven't there been times that you almost just grabbed a video camera and went and shot Love in Vain on your own?

    After 20 years of calling Hollywood's bluff, of watching Love In Vain as it was fumbled around Tinseltown, I finally got the rights back by exercising a loophole in my Warners deal. Immediately I rid myself of the most recent bunglers, then sent word to Dylan and Scorsese that I was shooting Love in Vain on digital video, come hell or high water, and were they with me or against me. Each vowed to get behind the film to ensure it would get made, and soon the need for a low-budget approach vanished. I will recommend to whoever directs that he consider using digital video cameras for jook joint imagery, and in certain other scenes as well.

    How did you hook up with the Nyabinghi drummers?

    Which ones? In Land of Look Behind, I met the drummers through the Rasta holy man named Jammy, introduced in the prior scene. A couple of the youths whom I befriended while hiding out in a hilltop village at age 11 were among the drummers I heard with Keith Richards many years later. On a full moon on Jamaica's north coast, after I'd broken two ribs and another of Keith's friends had broken an ankle, as Keith and I were playing Chinese checkers, I told him about my days hanging out as a kid in that tiny hilltop village, called Steertown. He jumped up and said, "That's where we're going, immediately," because the finest Nyabinghi drummers came from there and were undoubtedly playing that night, with the moon full. So we raced over the mountain roads to Steertown, quietly entered an unlit cinderblock community center where Keith plugged in his black Strat and little amp and began to jam humbly and respectfully with the hypnotic chants, drones and drumming of the local Nyabinghis. As I sat there on the lightless bandstand in deep trance, occasionally I'd hear Keith whisper to me something about his present riff, such as, "This one's taken from an Anglican hymn from 1767." About 10 or 12 years later he recorded an album with these same musicians, Wingless Angels.

    How did you meet Herzog?

    Seven years before he'd released Aguirre, the Wrath of God in the U.S.?which I suppose was the film that put him at the top of world cinema?I began my search for Werner Herzog. Then, after seeing Fata Morgana and Even Dwarfs Started Small, it became an obsession. While working with Bernardo Bertolucci in northern Italy in '75 I met director Daniel Schmid [La Paloma], who suggested I seek Herzog out at Cannes, where he was about to win the Grand Prize of the Jury for Every Man for Himself and God Against All. I met him there with his actor Bruno S., then moved to Munich and became best of friends with him. The first evening we hung out he drove me late at night to the train station and implored me to work with him on his present film Heart of Glass and beyond, concluding his appeal with, "On the outside we'll look like gangsters, but on the inside we'll wear the gowns of priests," which he managed to utter without any affectation whatsoever.

    What is it like working with him?

    Because of the boldness of his work, and the solitary nature of his quest, a deep and unshakable trust is necessary. I trust Werner implicitly, even when we disagree; he's the sanest man I've ever known. To inhabit his vision, which is requisite for working with him, one must defy an historical sense of time. And an historical sense of space, to some degree. Werner's perspective on the here and now is immediate and eternal. And to successfully inhabit his vision one must also be physically fearless, willing to put one's corpus anywhere for the sake of the film. I've risked my life several times in pursuit of Werner's vision, and without hesitation would do so again. He likes me because I also try to do things that haven't been done, and even more because I run really fast.

    Whatever happened with your Picasso screenplay?

    Warners gave it to Ismail Merchant, who loved it and figured it would be perfect for James Ivory to direct. But his enthusiasm intimidated Ivory, who refused to read it?being an artist given the opportunity to portray one of the great men of the century, Ivory wanted his portrait of Picasso to be his own. So he had his scriptwriter take the same period and circumstances in Picasso's life and draft a completely different screenplay than mine. I read it, and it was awful?full of witless bourgeois pomposity and pose, afraid of its subject, devoid of vision. The script was entitled Surviving Picasso, but would have been better served if it had been called Oh, Pablo! The film produced from it was an embarrassing waste of time.

    And what about the Moby Dick one?

    Ahab is a five-page treatment that reads like a novel, and I feel very close to it. With this story I believe I've found the key to adapting the great white novel to film. Essentially, I've created the first two acts from Melville's journals and novels of the South Seas and driven them through the monstrous character Ahab, then I use Moby Dick for the third act. I've never circulated the treatment or pitched it because my take on Melville requires a large-scale production, and I won't have the power to push it through until Love in Vain gets made.

    Any movement with your Hendrix screenplay?

    No. Harking back to Melville, it's a great ship with no captain or course.

    What was it like doing research on that movie?

    It was difficult only in terms of volume of material, both textual and aural. But otherwise it was a fully inspired experience.

    What were your interactions with Hendrix's family and estate like?

    Amicable and respectful, in spite of unforeseen circumstances that ruptured our lines of communication. I was hired by producers Scott Rosenfelt and Chip Wilson with emphatic assurances by Wilson that as a dear friend of the Hendrix family for years he could guarantee getting the music rights. But after 75 percent of the screenplay was written it became evident that the Hendrix family loathed Wilson, as they declared they'd have nothing to do with the film if he were involved. After I'd had a productive talk with Janie Hendrix and her husband, Janie said the only person from our production she'd talk to was Alan Greenberg, after which Wilson tried to fire me. But no subsequent communication took place between me and the Hendrix family, leaving the fate of my screenplay in limbo.

    Please tell of how you discovered how Hendrix really died.

    When I plunged into the research I learned that Jimi's longtime girlfriend in England, Kathy Etchingham, had asserted under oath that Monika Danneman, the mysterious German woman who was with Jimi the night he died and had posed as his "grieving widow" for 25 years, had lied about the circumstances of Jimi's death. This prompted Ms. Etchingham to sue Ms. Danneman for libel?unsuccessfully. I interviewed Kathy and was convinced of the veracity of her story. Then I interviewed Monika, and was convinced that she was a liar. Interviewing her for three and a half hours, I set several traps that she fell into about her relationship with Jimi, and their last night together. When I transcribed the interview and sent it to Tony Brown of the UK's Jimi Hendrix Archives, he read it and said, "You broke the case." At the same time, Scotland Yard confirmed Kathy's accusations, as did testimony from critical witnesses to Monika's behavior that fatal night, to Jimi's behavior, and to the discovery of his body. These breakthroughs in the case led to a one-hour BBC radio documentary announcing the new findings in fall 1995. After a while I sent Monika a copy of my screenplay, which portrays her as being guilty of murder or manslaughter. The same week she read the screenplay she killed herself.