SANTA BARBARA — In the midst of his latest project, veteran screenwriter and director Jerry Freedman realized that he would need a big prison riot scene.
No problem. He peopled a sprawling complex of buildings with hundreds of armed and crazed convicts, sent them rummaging for psychotropic drugs in the prison pharmacy, scattered bonfires in the halls and flooded the floors with sewage. Then he pulled in tight for an acetylene-torch torture and closed with the image of several dozen snitches' corpses, all quite convincingly mutilated.
The shooting cost could have run into millions, but for once that didn't matter. This was a novel--Freedman's first--and a chance to tell a tale with his imagination and his word processor, with nary a gaffer in sight.
"I had no movie thoughts," says Freedman in his downtown office here. "I was just writing what was in my head."
That approach has paid off handsomely.
Freedman's manuscript, eventually titled "Against the Wind," brought an immediate flurry of interest late last year from publishers. When the dealing ended, Freedman had a $500,000 advance from Penguin USA.
The book is a courtroom thriller--neither Jamesian in its subtlety nor Joycean in its language, but ferocious of pace and grisly of detail. It begins with a downward-sliding defense attorney, four menacing bikers, a gang rape and a murder, and it leads readers through a politically tainted justice system and a sometimes-noble lawyer's struggle to redeem himself.
Along the way, there are the prison riot and no shortage of hard-boiled dialogue.
Publicity director Paul Slovak estimates that Penguin's Viking division will have shipped 60,000 copies of "Against the Wind" by this week's publication date--an extraordinary number for a first novel.
Advance praise from Stephen King and an early positive notice from Kirkus Reviews ("courtroom duels, gritty crime action, twisty plotting and Technicolor characters") could help sell some copies.
All in all, the book is not a bad second life for a yarn abandoned as a screenplay five years ago. And for the director-screenwriter, it's not a bad new career.
"I'm trying to separate my movie life from my book life," Freedman says. "I'd like each one to stand on its own merits." Sure enough: The book on his desk bears the name J. F. Freedman, while the screen credits framed on the wall read Jerrold Freedman.
A tallish, fit 48-year-old, Freedman grew up in Bladensburg, Md., and majored in English at the University of Pennsylvania. He tried short stories and an aborted novel while in school, he says, but by graduation had contracted "the movie bug."
After his discharge from the Army, he moved to Los Angeles in 1966 and got a job as a gofer at Universal Studios. He moved on to reading scripts for made-for-television movies, assistant producing, writing and directing.
In 1973, he directed Raquel Welch in "Kansas City Bomber," his first feature film. His most recent directing credit was the 1990 made-for-television movie "Goodnight, Sweet Wife," based on the Charles Stuart murder case in Boston.
The seeds of "Against the Wind" were sown in the early 1980s, when Freedman came up with a 30-page treatment for a screenplay that included bikers and a bloody prison riot. It drew no takers and he turned to other ideas.
Then, between projects in the fall of 1987, Freedman signed up for a novel-writing course through a UC Santa Barbara extension program.
"I'd had a lot of frustrations getting movies made," Freedman says. "I either wasn't selling my screenplays or the ones I was selling weren't getting produced."
Showing his work only to his wife and to instructor Shelly Lowenkopf, Freedman pounded out about 100 pages in four months. He began with the bikers' entrance into a bar, a scene that evolved into this passage in the finished book:
"The bikers should be high, stoned, blown away. They've been doing tequila shooters since they came in three hours ago. Before that, before they rode down from Taos, they'd had a taste of some crack, some Maui Wowwee mixed with hash, bootleg Quaaludes somebody'd stashed years ago and brought out to impress them (and keep them on the good side) as well as a handful of designer drugs rumored to be 3,000 times the potency of morphine, stolen from a local anesthesiologist. Any normal human being would be wasted beyond oblivion; these four are still on their feet, sliding through the scene."
For the next three years, Freedman alternated work on the novel with directing and screenwriting.
The character of Will Alexander--sensitive father, heavy drinker, unreliable ex-husband and storied courtroom orator--occupies a central position in the book. For advice on matters of law, Freedman turned to his brother, an Albuquerque attorney.
"This was an easy book to write. I suppose you're not supposed to say that. But I enjoyed the writing, and I enjoyed the characters," says Freedman. "Because of all those other frustrations (from screenwriting), I felt like I was throwing off the shackles."
In October, 1990, Freedman finished his manuscript. He gave it to his film-industry agent, who passed it on to literary agent Robert Lescher in New York. Lescher reported several interested publishers after just a week's pitching.
"I had a leg up," Freedman says, acknowledging his background.
Movie rights have not been sold and probably won't be, he said, until someone is prepared to let Freedman direct as part of the bargain.
After two decades in the screen trade, the first-time author says he is wary: "This is my vision, and I want it to continue to be my vision."