‘Sunset Empire’ Imagines Unexpected First Job for Steven Spielberg
A year ago, Beat the Devils author Josh Weiss introduced the world to Morris Baker, an LA police detective living in an alternate history 1950s in which Joseph McCarthy was president. All sorts of things are worse under McCarthy, with hatred and paranoia at the forefront of America. Now the book has spawned a sequel that delves more into the Hollywood of an imagined past.
Sunset Empire arrives Tuesday, and finds Morris Baker living as a private investigator seeking to solve a missing person’s case as the Korean War rages on. The missing person? Henry Kissinger.
Morris Baker is personal for Weiss, who loosely based the character off of his late grandfather, a Holocaust survivor.
“While the world of Morris Baker takes place in an alternate timeline, the core takeaway is how blind hatred endures via endless cycles that we as a species seem doomed to repeat until the end of time,” says Weiss.
Weiss, who is an entertainment journalist by day and has written for The News84Media, spent his nights and weekends penning the manuscript 1,000 words at a time. He turned in a first draft three months before Beat the Devils hit stores, and was able to incorporate reader feedback from the first adventure into the second.
“That ended up being incredibly helpful because by the time I started diving into the edits of Book 2, Beat the Devils was on the market and I could gauge what readers had liked and disliked (and, in some cases, really disliked) about Morris Baker’s first adventure,” says Weiss, who maintains a positive attitude about any tough feedback he received — though he advises first-time authors not to Google themselves too much.
In an exclusive excerpt from Sunset Empire, Baker encounters Darryl F. Zanuck on a porn set in the San Fernando Valley. In real life, Zanuck was the legendary co-founder of 20th Century Pictures. In this alternate timeline, he was relieved of that job because his surname sounded Jewish (he was in fact, Protestant). He now runs an underground adult film studio … and one of his production assistants is a young Steven Spielberg.
It’s something Weiss set up in book one, when it was revealed that Jewish filmmakers were run out of Hollywood amid McCarthy’s presidency.
“As I began to break the story for Book 2, it occurred to me that the ostracized filmmakers wouldn’t just give up on their dreams — they’d simply move into a different form of movies and continue to push the boundaries of cinema, even if it meant making X-rated pictures,” says Weiss. “The idea of unregulated, pornographic ‘skin flicks’ becoming more respected than mainstream releases was too good to ignore, and it was a delight to imagine the salacious details of an underground porn studio operating undetected in Golden Age Hollywood. We associate the period with prestige dramas like 12 Angry Men — as well as pioneering television shows like The Twilight Zone. What if those respectable projects were made, but under very different circumstances?”
Read on for a look at Sunset Empire, from Grand Central Publishing.
“Mean-spirited ending?” blustered Rod, and Herb rolled his eyes as if to say, Here we go again.
“Rod,” he began, “I only meant—”
“We’ll shoot it both ways!” This from a third gentleman, who had just appeared at Baker’s side. He had severe, hawk-like eyes and an incredibly well-manicured mustache whose ends didn’t quite meet at the philtrum. Despite the newcomer’s stern cadence, he wore a kindly smile that seemed to imply he’d broken up quarrels like this many times before.
“What?” sputtered Herb.
“Just as I say,” answered the third man, who could only be Darryl Zanuck. “We’ll shoot it both ways. Your way and then Rod’s way. We’ll see which one works better in post.”
“Darryl,” Herb said, looking aghast. Rod, on the other hand, looked ecstatic. “You can’t be serious. Do you know how much money that’ll—?”
“You let me worry about that,” said Zanuck, walking over and patting Herb on the shoulder. “Let’s just get this show on the road. We’re burning daylight here.”
“Fine,” said the rankled Herb. “All right, everyone!” he shouted to the cameramen and microphone operators, who were casually chatting and smoking during the altercation. Clearly, they were also accustomed to Rod and Herb’s quarrels. “We’ll be rolling in ten. Someone please get Midge out of makeup. Randy, on your mark, please. We’ll go over your monologue once more.”
Baker watched a stubby actor in a shabby, oversized suit and comedically owlish glasses step on set. The crew member cradling the palette of fake mustaches ran over and started gluing a wispy prosthetic to Randy’s upper lip.
“Children. I’m dealing with children,” whispered Darryl, back at his side. “You must be Morris Baker.”
“I left her in my office. Thought she had enough heartache for one day. Would you like a coffee?”
“No, thanks, I’m goo—”
“Nonsense. Have a coffee with me. Steven!”
A boy of about thirteen came running over. “Yes, Mr. Zanuck?” he asked eagerly.
“Steven, would you be so kind as to grab two coffees for Mr. Baker and myself? Four creams and three sugars for me. How do you take your coffee, Morris?”
“Splash of cream, no sugar.”
“You heard the man, Steven. Now off with you.”
The boy gave a sort of half salute and ran into the house.
“You think it wise to have a kid on a set like this?” Baker asked. Darryl laughed and said, “Didn’t have much of a choice, did I? That kid somehow got a bead on our erratic shooting schedule and snuck onto set one day. Took me about a little over a week to notice he didn’t belong! Steven’s pretty resourceful, holds himself like an adult. Came here all the way from Phoenix.”
“What about his parents? Don’t they miss him?”
“Might as well not be his parents. Divorced and distant. They’re pretty much catatonic, the way Steven tells it. Couldn’t take the stress of life under McCarthy and snapped. It’s happening more and more from what I hear through the grapevine. That’s no way for a boy to grow up. Steven wants to be a filmmaker more than anything else in the world. Who am I to deny him that?”
“A pornographer, you mean.”
“Happen to see one of our little pictures lately?”
Baker did not answer, which Darryl took as a resounding “Yes!”
“No need to be ashamed, Morris. No need to be ashamed at all. Yes, we make naughty films, no two ways about it. But I can assure you we are more creatively free than we’ve ever been. Unfettered from the MPAA, from the Hays Code, from whatever bullshit guidelines UAP’s been following for the last five years. Do we need a bit of explicit content to sell our product? Sure. No theater would dare show it otherwise. But it’s only a small part of what we do. This. . .”
He gestured to the dreary backyard like a carnival barker trying to lure in paying customers on a slow night, “This is the First Amendment at work. Freedom of expression in its purest form!”
Baker smiled. Zanuck’s passion for the creative continuation of the industry reminded him of an ill-fated screenwriter. “You didn’t happen to know Dalton Trumbo, did you?”
“Know him?” Zanuck said. “I revered him! That man had balls of steel to stay in Hollywood long after most of us had already called it quits. I could’ve kept at it, of course, but what was the point, really? Ah, thank you, Steven.” The boy had returned with their coffees. “Why don’t you go and see if Rod needs anything. He could fill an entire gallery with those woes of his.”
“Sure thing, Mr. Zanuck!” Steven ran off again.
Darryl took a sip of coffee and smacked his lips in contentment. “Kid gets my order right every single time without fail.”
“What do you mean, you could have stayed in the industry?” Baker asked, taking a sip of the hot coffee and accidentally burning his tongue. “Your name, Zanuck. Isn’t it. . . Well, Jewish?”
“You’d think that, wouldn’t you?” Daryl replied with a knowing wink. “No, I’m Protestant, but I can tell you that damn near everyone in this town thought I was a Hebe when I first started in the industry. Got denied from every country and social club I applied to.”
“So why’d you get kicked out by McCarthy then?”
“HUAC made the same mistake you did. They saw my name and assumed I was a member of the tribe. They don’t really give a shit about the finer details. In any case, I had no desire to work for them. No, I’ve always been more comfortable calling the shots myself.”
They stood in silence for a moment. “Ever heard of a picture called Gentleman’s Agreement?” posited Zanuck. Baker shook his head. “Course you haven’t,” he said. “McCarthy probably had every single print destroyed once he took over. Ironically, it was directed by the very head of UAP, Elia Kazan. I won’t bore you with too many plot details, but it’s about a journalist who goes undercover as a Jew to expose anti-Semitism in America.”
“They actually made movies like that?”
“Why, sure. And if you can believe it, several of your kinsmen—very influential men, mind you—tried to stop me from making the damn picture. They thought it might cause trouble for the Hebes over here. This was two years after we learned what the Krauts had been up to in those camps of theirs. Goes to show how fucked we were as a country even then. McCarthy didn’t invent the current system, but he sure as hell found a way to make it accessible to everyone. In any case, the experience of making Gentleman’s Agreement came back to me when ol’ Joe took office. I realized that if the Jews weren’t even willing to stand up for themselves, then there was no hope for the rest of us.”
They stood in silence again, sipping their coffees and watching Randy rehearse a scene that required him to caress a large pile of nudie magazines on the stoop of a bombed-out sex shop.
“Poor Elizabeth,” Zanuck said. “Sorry, Morris, I’ve been talking your ear off when all you wanted to do was deliver the news about this terrible murder. Walk with me.” The producer led him over to the leaf-choked swimming pool. “I was incredibly shocked to hear the news from Debbie. Elizabeth Short was like family to us, and based on what Debbie’s told me, you and her had a history as well.”
“Yes,” Baker said, swirling the dregs of his coffee in the Styrofoam cup. He suddenly found his throat tight with bereavement. It was hard to speak about Liz, but Zanuck’s understanding air made him feel as though he could admit to just about anything at the moment.
“We . . . We dated for a while,” Baker added.
“I see. Hey, now—it’s all right, son. It’s all right.”
Baker had finally broken down in tears, the grief slicing its way through the phenobarbital haze with the swiftness of an executioner’s axe.
“I should’ve made sure she was okay,” Baker said, still not looking at Zanuck. “I should’ve checked up on her. This is on me, I know it.”
“You mustn’t think in those terms,” Zanuck said. “You firmly go about blaming yourself for every tragedy that crosses your path, and you’ll dig a hole you won’t be able to climb out of. Debbie tells me you split up with her nearly two years ago, is that correct?” Baker nodded. “Then what were you supposed to do?” Elizabeth was a grown woman who could make her own decisions. You couldn’t hold her hand every step of the way.”
“That’s one way of looking at it.”
“Then here’s another: I don’t believe Elizabeth would have joined our little troupe if she hadn’t been so heartbroken and lonely once you called it quits. I think your cutting the cord, so to speak, may have convinced her to give up that silly dream of working for UAP and start making some real money.”
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