Stories abound in Hollywood of bitter screenwriters who toiled for years to land a deal, only to watch their vision destroyed by a clashing director or meddling producer.
How refreshing, then, to hear a story about a film shoot that was pure joy for screenwriter and director alike. “Caught,” a 1996 erotic thriller starring Edward James Olmos and Maria Conchita Alonso, was one such film.
In 1972, author and playwright Edward Pomerantz published “Into It,” a novel that, in 160 fleet pages, manages to capture 1970s New York real estate upheaval, post-Vietnam War malaise, the inner violence and misogyny of so-called hippies, homosexual panic and the death of the American nuclear family (not to mention the American dream). There are shades of “Death of a Salesman” and “Double Indemnity” in there (the latter work is even watched on television by the protagonists), but Pomerantz puts his own furious spin on it. It’s the tale of a taciturn drifter and hustler named Nick (also the narrator) who stumbles into a mom-and-pop fishery, is taken in as employee and inhabitant and eventually begins an affair with the long-suffering matron, Betty. But it’s so much more than that. As if one Oedipal love triangle isn’t enough–Nick hated his late father and never felt close with his mother–Pomerantz throws in a second one. Betty’s son Danny, a failing screenwriter/entertainer/anarchist who corresponds with his mother via demented home videos, returns home and seethes with resentment. Not at Betty’s betrayal of his father, Joe, but at her jilting of him for this surrogate son (and lover). Even on his best days, Danny is prone to crazed , impromptu celebrity imitations, conversations with puppets and sarcastic barbs lobbed at his wife and baby son, whom he feels hemmed in by. I won’t divulge much about Danny at his worst, but let’s just say the book ends in a deliriously farfetched miasma of statutory rape, political subterfuge, murder by scissors and infanticide.
An early fan of the novel was director Robert M. Young, who helped Pomerantz (then a novice at screenwriting) flesh out one, two, ten drafts. Young moved on and other filmmakers took a look at subsequent versions over the next two decades, but it wasn’t until, in Pomerantz’s words, “around the 25th draft” that Young and Pomerantz reconnected and struck gold. Having trimmed much fat, they took the script into production. At the zero hour, Joe and Betty’s ethnicities were changed–for reasons stated in my interview with Pomerantz, below–from Irish to Hispanic, and Edward James Olmos (a favorite of Pomerantz’s) was quickly cast. Alonso was to play his wife, and Steven Schub, singer in the cult “objectivist ska” outfit The Fenwicks, was to portray the loose cannon Danny. (Watch the Bennett Miller-directed video for the band’s “Another Deadly Mother”–clips of which are included in “Caught”–and you will understand immediately the essence of Danny).
The shoot was as tension-free as a $2 million, shot-in-sequence indie shoot can be. Pomerantz cannot be accused of being married to his work: he heeded last-minute suggestions from Young, Olmos and director of photography Michael Barrow, and adored Young’s overall vision. But he was welcome on set and in the editing room, and he wasn’t afraid to speak up when cuts weren’t snappy enough or key lines were left out.
The film played at Sundance in 1995, was acquired by Sony Pictures Classics and released theatrically for around a month in late 1996. After a disappointing Janet Maslin review in the New York Times, Pomerantz appealed to the paper to give the film another try. Well, the squeaky wheel certainly gets the grease: on the last day of 1996, culture critic Margo Jefferson hailed “Caught” as an overlooked masterpiece, along with Mike Leigh’s “Secrets & Lies.” It was brought back by popular demand to the Quad Cinema, and in the 21 years since, the film is frequently rediscovered and praised, as proven by many recent rave reviews from Amazon.com users.
But “Caught” has yet to be accessed via high-quality streaming, and so far Netflix has buried it in the obnoxious “saved” category–that is, “film not available yet, might be soon.” Pomerantz and Young are trying to figure out how to grant the film the full transparency it richly deserves.
In the meantime, I advise those of you Luddites who held on to your DVD players to see the shit out of “Caught.” The adaptation trims much of the hysterical third-act frenzy of the book and sticks to the main theme of a dysfunctional blue-collar family in free fall. Young and Pomerantz retain a mood of searing claustrophobia. Everywhere the fishmongers and their new protégé hang out is cramped, whether it’s Joe and Betty’s pre-war Washington Heights apartment or their overstocked fishery; when they venture outside, it’s to places that stink and swelter, such as the Fulton Street Fish Market. Even the film’s most spacious scene–a family outing on a two-tier boat–is tinged with dread and anger. The Oedipal themes are a tad overstated, and the plot device about a key character’s bum heart won’t win points for originality. But the scene in which the latter development reaches its fruition is so wrenching, so raw, so nakedly terrible to watch, that you forgive the blatant foreshadowing.
I may have never seen “Caught” if not for a freakish coincidence. Pomerantz’s daughter, Alexandra, was a favorite babysitter of my siblings and I growing up. She was also my mother’s high school pupil. When my mother retired earlier this summer, I contacted Alexandra to see if she wanted to contribute to a tribute book we were putting together. When I told her about Hidden Films, she mentioned that “Caught” certainly qualifies as a Hidden Film, and suggested I interview her father.
So off I went to the Chelsea apartment Pomerantz still resides in with his wife, actress Sandra Kazan (who plays a bag lady in “Caught”; Pomerantz himself plays a gawker at the fishery’s window). They kindly served me roast beef sandwiches, as we talked of the film’s arduous history, satisfying rewards and potential future success. Whenever Pomerantz basked in a particularly fond memory, his voice rose to what I would call a happy bark; he shouted with pride, and banged on the kitchen table. But he’s never boastful, just beside-himself pleased with the film’s successes.
Sam Weisberg: What are your current distribution plans for “Caught?”
Edward Pomerantz: I spoke recently to Bob Young, the director, about it, and he’s pretty sure that Sony Pictures Classics no longer holds the rights to it. We’re gonna try to get it back. He isn’t sure. The person who knows that is his brother Irwin Young, who runs DuArt.
SW: It’s been bootlegged?
SW: I imagine they’d be open to requests. They may respond faster to screenwriters and directors.
The movie is in one way or another always getting discovered. If you look at Amazon movie reviews, you’ll see some from 2015, 2016. Someone finds the movie and falls in love with it and raves about it, “Where has this been? How come I didn’t know about it?”
SW: Did you use a double for Arie Verveen’s shad-boning scene?
EP: Yeah, Arie couldn’t do it. That must have been the shad-boner’s son, because we couldn’t use the same hand!
The other thing that was really exciting about the movie is that everybody loved doing it. A lot of the crew are coming from work that does not make them happy. They’re doing industrials or porno or a schlock horror film or whatever. So they’re so happy to be working on something of quality. It was very moving. It was a big crew, there were a lot of gaffers and lights to set up. But that’s probably the biggest thrill for a writer, certainly for me, to walk on set the first day, and they were building the apartment. They had found an empty space for the fish store but they had to furnish it and fill it up with fish. You realize, “Oh my God, I have given 200 people work, all because I went out there in my office and did this.” [raps hands on table].
SW: And that’s also happenstance. You could just as easily work on something a long time, that means something to you, and end up with a crew that clashes.
EP: Oh, fortunately—you’re very careful about who you choose to work with. I’ve made two short films of my own since then [“La Comida” and “I Hate When It Gets Dark So Early”] and they were very happy experiences, because everyone is connected to the people, everyone respects each other’s talent, everyone gives each other the space to bring their own creativity to it.
SW: Having a symbiotic relationship with your director, that’s also rare.
EP: Oh, I’ve heard disastrous stories! But first of all, Bob created the climate. He did something very unusual—how he got the producers to go along with it, I don’t know—but he convinced everybody that the film had to be shot in sequence. Most movies, as you know, you do the fish store scenes and then you can stop paying rent on the fish store, and then the apartment scenes. No. We kept it all up. Bob knew that the telling of the story depends on the tension building day by day, moment by moment. They were feeling it palpably. There was no lack of continuity, it was happening every day. So by the time we got to Eddie Olmos finding out what the hell was going on in his house….Whoo! We were…wow! We were there!
SW: Your heart breaks in that scene. [SPOILER ALERT BELOW!]
EP: Eddie Olmos took that scene so far that there was no question he had to die there. In the script we were working off of, he had two more scenes. He has the heart attack, but there’s a scene in the ambulance where he opens his eyes and Nick is by his side, and Betty, and he says, “I trusted you.” And then we had a second scene in the hospital where Betty is sitting by Joe’s bedside, but the point of view is from Nick being shut out of that, in the hallway. And Danny arrives and goes in with his family. And then we find out that Joe died.
But it had to be Joe dying in the fish store, especially because of where it took the other actors. Arie gives a cry of such pain in that scene. It’s a killer scene. But the point is, as a result of that, we don’t need the next two scenes, so we saved money on that. And it totally altered the tone of the end of the movie. Originally the ending was that Nick is on a shad boat in the Hudson after Joe has died. The original script led to a confrontation between Nick and Danny and Nick gets the upper hand with Joe’s knife, and he has a choice, do I kill Danny or don’t I? And he can’t bring himself to do it and walks away leaving Danny screaming in the rain. And there’s a very quiet coda and Nick’s voiceover: “I live on the river now and work on a boat.”
But to go from Joe’s death in the movie and then have a knife fight, Errol Flynn-style scene between Nick and Danny—it was all wrong.
So we sat around a table, the DP, director, actors, working it out, how do we solve this? The DP finally spoke. He said, “Nick’s gotta go. Nick is shame and Danny is honor and honor wins.” There was a hush, and we all felt the truth of that. Because the beauty of the film for me is that Danny is the quote-unquote “badguy,” the crazy guy. But if your room got taken away and your parents got taken away and your wife and kid were taken away, you’ve got a shift in sympathies. You don’t know where you’re supposed to be in terms of the morality of this. That’s the power of this.
SW: And Nick, morality-wise, is a bit of a blank, which is a great figure to pin that kind of a story on.
EP: And that explains why I had to have the voiceover, since you can’t read Nick. It’s deliberate on my part for you not to read Nick. Most people cheat, and…I don’t give Nick anyone to talk to, he can’t tell anybody. He has to talk to us. I don’t like “Once upon a time” voice-overs. I only like voice-overs when you use it to get inside the character’s head.
SW: It’s not exposition voice-over either, which I liked.
EP: Right. You’re inside his head, thinking, in the moment. So that makes it possible for you to know, from a moral point of view, that Nick is feeling guilty. “I gotta get outta here. I’ll go tomorrow, I’ll go tomorrow.”
SW: But he doesn’t. It’s like “Waiting for Godot” a bit.
EP: He doesn’t because he’s in too deep. Some people have said this is a variation on “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” Yeah, of course, but there’s no son returning home in “Postman.” James M. Cain is deeply influential in terms of my work. “Double Indemnity” and “Postman.” But the husband who gets bumped off in both those movies is a stick figure. There’s nothing three-dimensional. They’re there just to be disposed of, or they’re mean or they’re drunk. Here, you get to know these people, you get to love the husband, you get to love the wife. It’s Cain’s influence, but it’s about what you do with it to make it your own.
SW: Were there other ways you figured out how to save money, in production?
EP: We were gonna [use] the Circle River Day Line and it turned out to be so expensive. Again, the DP solved the problem. He said, “Joe says in this scene that he wants to start a fleet of boats in Florida, so why don’t we have a scene where he’s shopping for a boat, now that he’s in the money?” So we got the boat for free, and now the same scene, the same dialogue, is taking place on the boat that Joe is thinking of buying, giving it a test run, and it’s a better scene. It’s a more modest scene. It’s the scene where Danny offers Nick some weed and says “You and my Mom”—he’s doing a real Iago there. We just used that little boat, and of course the boat salesman was so happy to see himself on screen.
SW: Tell me about Steve Schub’s casting.
EP: I had not imagined that Danny would look like that. In my mind, he’d look like Billy Crystal, where he’d have a sweet punim, a sweet face, and that made him even deadlier and scarier in a way. But then Steve walked in, and he really fought for Danny. And I’m glad he did, because I thought he gave an outstanding performance.
SW: That’s a really cool, creepy element of the film—the mother and son corresponding through video.
EP: I went to Steve’s apartment on Elizabeth Street, and he said “I’ve got some stuff you might want, for Danny’s room.” So we found the “Scarface” parrot—
SW: And the Pavement “Wowee Zowee” poster, one of my favorite albums of all time—
EP: That was all Steve. We furnished Danny’s room with Steve’s apartment. And he also waited for me at the top of the stairs, with the door open, and he’s wearing the Elvis outfit with duck feet. And he’s also put a pillow in his crotch. I looked at him and said, “The outfit, yes. The pillow goes.” And that gave him his entrance. He enters in that costume. A lot of it is being smart enough to say, “Hey, fuck what I wrote! This is fantastic! Let’s go with what you’re doing!”
SW: To not get too married to your own work is tough.
EP: Oh, well, the first day on set, I whispered, “Arie is leaving out a very important line.” And so the DP said, “Don’t forget to put in the line.” That’s the way it works, if something is crucial…sometimes it’s just left out because the actor forgot the line or the director’s attention is somewhere else. It’s a perfect example of why you’d want the writer [on-set]. In Hollywood, the rule is pretty much keep the writer off-set. “He did his work, get him out of here.” He’s a necessary evil.
Maria and Steve seemed to come more from the theater. Every take, they’d find different ways to do it, but they always stuck to the script. That may be theater training. Eddie and Arie, less so. More improvisational. Eddie would throw in a “motherfucker.” It was thrilling to see how many different ways you could say that line. It’s thrilling when the actor says it just the way you wrote it, but the equally powerful thing for a writer is when the actor says it in a way you never dreamed, and it’s fantastic.
Also, even though the family was now Hispanic, they did not feel the need to go Hispanic in any way, using Spanish words. Maria just brought her own inflection to the dialogue. If there was a line that had almost a Jewish or Italian rhythm or sensibility to it, she’d make it her own rhythm. And the line still works.
That’s become a real thing for me: we have to stop thinking white, in making movies. But not just, “OK, we’ll tell the black story or the Hispanic story. We’ll do ‘La Bamba’ or ’12 Years a Slave’ or whatever.” Let’s put Viola Davis and Denzel Washington in a movie where you would cast George Clooney or Julia Roberts. That’s what we have to do.
SW: In that way, the movie is still timely today. There’s also mention of a Donald Crump, obviously meant to be Trump. Did you change the name on purpose?
EP: No, Eddie did that on his own. He was having fun. The giveaway on the movie, the only thing that’s dated, is the fact that the World Trade Center is still up at the beginning of the movie.
Donald Trump wasn’t even in my consciousness, because the first thing you want to do with any encounter with Donald Trump is: get him out of your consciousness.
I’m in the process of trying to finance my second [feature] called “Real Love,” which used to be called “For Adults Only,” but we couldn’t get investors because people thought it was a porn film. It’s about three teenagers in Atlantic City, it’s my teenage “Double Indemnity.” And I’m absolutely insistent on casting it multi-racially. I’m very sensitive to that, but I also want to surprise the audience. One of my characters is black but I want him to have a white mother. That sabotages the expectation, which is what you always want to do as a writer and director.
SW: The son in “Caught” doesn’t look particularly Hispanic.
EP: Only one person said that. “Hispanic family with a Jewish son? You can’t fool me!” [laughs] We didn’t pretend to make Steve Hispanic. I came from American-born parents, they didn’t come from the shtetl, they were assimilated New Yorkers. I was born into a secular family. It’d be such a cliche, to think, if you’re casting me as their son, you have to be Jewish. It’s perfectly logical for Eddie and Maria to have a kid who got totally assimilated and grew up. And what it does psychologically, in terms of the Danny-Joe relationship, is that “This is my son?” [dynamic]. “There was a switch at the hospital, this couldn’t be my kid! How did this Jew get into my family?” [laughs] Although Eddie will claim that he’s part Jewish.
The final story that’s really, really important: we go to Sundance, Sony Pictures Classics buys the movie, releases it in ’96, we have a beautiful [showing] up at the Sony at Lincoln [Square], really sharp, nice sound.
SW: I read a nice New York Times review—
EP: That’s the story. We have a respectable opening at Angelika. But [Janet] Maslin doesn’t give us the money review. I thought—and you can quote me on this—that this was a really stupid review. Stupid. But in those days, you needed the money review—the John Sayles review—to stay in the theaters. We lasted about a month at Angelika. But I’m pissed at the Maslin review. I thought it was really just unintelligent. And in the meantime we’re getting these great reviews from the marginal reviewers. Godfrey Cheshire [at New York Press] called it a gritty masterpiece! Someone at Sony is sending me stuff in the mail and I’m finding out that people are loving this movie.The reviews were phenomenal except where we needed it. So I get really pissed about that. Over 20 years to get the movie made, I think the work is beautiful, all the work that goes into it, and after two months it’s gone.
I wrote Margo Jefferson a letter, saying, “Blah blah blah, we’re hearing all the time, ‘Why aren’t we seeing more movies for Hispanics, why aren’t we seeing more movies for women?’ Here’s the movie! And it’s being completely ignored! Can you just please take a look at it?” And I drop it off at the mailroom at the New York Times. That was early November, the movie had now been gone about a month. I go to my door, December 31, 1996, and there’s the New York Times, and there is a full-page—FULL PAGE—picture of Maria and it’s about two neglected masterpieces. “Secrets & Lies” and “Caught.” And I have my victory. The fact that someone on the same paper gets the last word over Maslin makes me very happy.
When I open that page, I let out a scream—you were very young, but if you remember, that scream that you heard was mine.