Four years ago, some government officials told me about a federally run airline that was used to transport prisoners back and forth across the United States. They called it "Con Air."
Thinking it might make a story, I pitched the idea to an editor. A month later, I was winging my way to Oklahoma City with a planeload of convicts. My story--a factual account of the grim but uneventful flight--ran within a few weeks.
When my phone rang several days later, it was one of those calls that reporters get every so often from someone claiming to be in the film business, telling me what a "terrific" story it was and suggesting we get together to work up a proposal for a movie. Everyone in the newsroom knows that these ventures never come to anything. And after more than 35 years at The Times, I doubted I would break the string.
So I was polite. Barely.
Nonetheless, out of curiosity, I checked with Bob Welkos, one of the paper's movie industry experts.
"What did the guy say his name was?" Welkos asked.
"Donald De Leon--something like that," I said.
"Was it Donald De Line?"
"Yeah, that's it."
"He's the president of Touchstone Pictures."
Heart in throat, I raced to my desk and called De Line back, hoping that I hadn't sounded too snotty the first time. De Line is one of those guys who gets right down to business, and within a few weeks, I had a contract as a "technical consultant" and a check in the low four-figure range.
I worked up a "treatment," outlining what I thought was a great idea for a movie script. Touchstone didn't want it.
I asked how I could get in touch with their writer. "He'll call you," they said, but he never did.
I waited patiently for a chance to consult with someone. I waited in vain.
So I finally realized that my role as a technical consultant was to stay out of the way, simply providing the folks at Touchstone with someone they could point to if anyone asked where the story idea came from. I was their insurance against anyone else trying to muscle in.
But I had that check, and that was so gratifying that I scarcely listened when they told me that if they ever did make a "Con Air" movie, a second check would be in the mail. Things like that don't happen to old reporters.
Last summer, long after I had spent the first check and pretty much forgotten about the whole thing, a colleague called me.
"Check out the trade magazines," he said. "They're making 'Con Air'--Nicolas Cage, John Malkovich, John Cusack . . . " Frantically, I searched through all my records. I couldn't find the Touchstone paperwork anywhere. I called De Line's office, along with the offices of every other Touchstone functionary I had dealt with. They were all out, and none of them called me back. I wrote several carefully composed letters. None of them were answered.
But I have a friend, Diane Corwin, who is a lawyer.
"I'll make a call," she said. The next day, Touchstone called me back.
"The second check's in the mail," they said. And it was.
By April, the "Con Air" billboards had started going up. There were magazine ads, and previews in the movie theaters.
"You gonna get invited to the premiere?" friends asked.
"Probably not," I said.
Then, a couple of weeks ago, I got another phone call from Touchstone.
"We'd like you to come to the premiere in Las Vegas," the woman from De Line's office said. "We'll fly you there in a charter jet."
As I dusted off my tuxedo--a secondhand affair that I bought years ago from a rental shop--visions of a champagne flight in one of those sexy little private executive jets danced in my head.
The tux went back into mothballs when the invitations arrived: "Casual dress," the cover letter said. And when my wife, Martha, and I got to the Imperial Terminal at Los Angeles International Airport at about 4 p.m., we realized our flight wasn't going to be all that private. Our plane was a DC-10 jumbo jet, crammed with about 250 other close friends of Donald De Line.
Hustled off the plane in Las Vegas by burly, uniformed "guards," we piled onto black-and-white "Bureau of Prisons" buses for a trip downtown escorted by police cars, Humvees and military helicopters--all with red lights flashing.
After a stroll down a serpentine walkway lined with eager movie fans and desperate television reporters trying to get interviews with Cage [Malkovich and Cusack were out of town], we were bundled into a large temporary theater--furnished with airline seats--that had been erected for the premiere behind the Hard Rock hotel and casino. Popcorn, licorice, M&Ms and soft drinks were provided.
Then it was movie time.
To say that Touchstone's version of "Con Air" differed somewhat from mine--and from the reality of the federal prisoner transportation system--would be an understatement. The movie was a lot funnier, a lot noisier, a lot more colorful and a lot more violent.
When the credits began scrolling at the end of the film, most of the guests headed for the exits. Martha and I waited for my moment of glory, but it never came. Two other "technical consultants" made the list, but I ended up on the cutting room floor.
At 11:30 p.m., it was time to head for home. Back on the buses and then back on the plane, we arrived at LAX at about 2 a.m.--tired, happy and sure that we had seen the last of Touchstone's largess.
On the bus back to the parking lot, we each received a special gift--a plush bunny in a cardboard box.
If you want to know the significance of that, you'll have to ask Nicolas Cage. Or see the movie.
To say that Touchstone's version of "Con Air" differed somewhat from mine--and from the reality of the federal prisoner transportation system--would be an understatement.