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FIRST PERSON | Jeff Lipsky on “Flannel Pajamas”-and the “Most Important Relationship” that Inspired

FIRST PERSON | Jeff Lipsky on "Flannel Pajamas"-and the "Most Important Relationship" that Inspired

[This is the latest in a regular series of “First Person” articles written by members of the film community. It is meant to showcase the opinions of our readers. indieWIRE readers interested in contributing a future “First Person” column should contact us by email: office AT indiewire DOT com. October Films and Lot 47 Films co-founder Jeff Lipsky shares with indieWIRE the personal inspirations for his latest directorial effort, “Flannel Pajamas,” which opened in theaters this week.]

On Monday, July 11, 1983 I began a four-year stint working as a marketing and distribution executive for the then-powerhouse independent company Samuel Goldwyn Films. It also marks the date when I began an eight year relationship with the second most important woman (and the most important relationship) in my life, the woman who would become my wife, and the woman who inspired me to write and direct the motion picture “Flannel Pajamas,” a Dramatic Competition selection at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival.

Maura worked for Ann Dubinet, head of international sales at Goldwyn while I ran the theatrical end of things for SGF. I was immediately smitten by her simple, raven-haired beauty, and by her smile. She appeared carefree and she laughed at my jokes. I, brought up in a conservative Jewish household, tasted ham (honey-glazed) for the first time in my life at her apartment party celebrating the release of the first Jim Carrey-starrer “Once Bitten” (what? You never heard of it?). On Long Island, conservative Jewish families never ate ham, but we relished bacon.

Maura and I frequently lunched together; we ate hamburgers at Islands on Pico Boulevard, and became fast friends… during the day. But by the time I arrived on the scene she was dating the burlier, hairier, mustached executive who ran Goldwyn’s television operation Gary Marenzi (a quite genial, lovely, talented man who would later go on to become President of Paramount Pictures Television International). So I made her laugh by day, while I sulked alone by night, pining for her, praying for the day she would part ways with Gary.

Even as she was unavailable to me, I impressed her at the Cannes Film Festival by introducing her to Griffin Dunne, an industry friend who was then starring in Martin Scorsese‘s “After Hours” (which he also co-produced). She confessed harboring a movie-star crush so I had him invite us to the black-tie gala and post-screening extravaganza at Moulins du Maugins, arguably one of the dozen best restaurants in the world. I dazzled her by overseeing the thousand screen opening of “The Care Bears Movie,” when four-figure screen counts were still only fantasies in the minds of the brothers Weinstein. (The film opened as the number one film in America, largely playing matinees only and mostly at child ticket prices.) And she was swept off her feet when I was named President of Distribution for Skouras Pictures.

Coincidentally, I partially enabled Maura and Gary’s break-up by inviting them to my W. Los Angeles apartment to partake in one of those “How to Commit a Murder” games, wherein the host prepares a lavish, period dinner and oversees a role-playing evening to determine which of his or her friends has perpetrated a heinous crime. The game called for coq-au-vin rouge, a dish I skillfully prepare to this day. I’m not a cook but the objection of my affections was, in fact, a gourmet chef. My kitchen skills must have made an impression on her because she and Gary were at each other’s throats almost as soon as they walked in the door. Most of my guests (including my eventually business partner Bingham Ray) were embarrassed; I was giddy with expectation. Things unraveled to such an extent that Gary volunteered to stay to help me wash the pots and pans. I politely declined his offer and listened instead with childish glee the racket their discordant sounds took outside in the warm southern California mist. She and I became lovers three weeks later, and moved in together in a matter of months (into a home I purchased without once soliciting her opinion, rather, seeking the opinion of the woman who was my right-hand person at Skouras). I had charted a course for our lives together and she was barely consulted. Maybe I seldom consulted Maura ever, on anything.

In the beginning our relationship did seem like an endless honeymoon, a pearl-like strand of magical days and crystalline-clear nights that marked the most triumphant period of my life to date. During that first year at Skouras I released “My Life as a Dog,” among other films, and the money was rolling in, triggering waves of generosity in my boss Tom Skouras. Largesse was coursing through his veins. (An anticipated IPO late that first year, that would have made me a wealthy man, was dashed by 1987’s “Black Monday.”)

“Flannel Pajamas” director Jeff Lipsky. Image courtesy of the filmmaker.

Maura and I took off early from our respective jobs (she’d left Goldwyn to join horror film outfit Empire Pictures) one Friday after to enjoy a romantic weekend in San Francisco. Tom arranged to have a chilled bottle of Dom Perignon sitting in our room upon arrival. Maura joined me at 5:00 am in February, 1988 at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences for the announcement of the Oscar nominees–Lasse Hallstrom was nominated as Best Director and for Best Adapted Screenplay. I was interviewed by a local television station. My girlfriend stood to the side, beaming with pride. I tolerated visits to the home of her best friend’s ex-husband (they lived next door to Adrienne Barbeau, this is Los Angeles, a city where everyone lives next door to someone) and his girlfriend; they were both quite fun people, creative, worldly, and intelligent, but I was anti-social, smug, and intolerant when it came to Maura’s friends and family (except for one of her many sisters, but that’s all in the film).

“My Life as a Dog” was nominated for a Golden Globe Award as Best Foreign Film. On a Friday in January 1988 Maura and I checked into a room at Merv Griffin‘s Beverly Hilton Hotel, then drove to LAX where we boarded a flight to Dallas, where my mother was dying of cancer. We spent the better part of the weekend visiting; I should have done much more of that, that’s something about which Maura would have agreed. A tableau from this Texas visit was the basis of a flashback in “Flannel Pajamas,” a scene not included in the final cut.

It was a meaningful, poignant, bittersweet weekend. We returned to Los Angeles Sunday, just in time to dress (black tie) for the Golden Globes ceremony which is held at the Beverly Hilton. My girlfriend applied her make-up while seated nude at a vanity. I stared at her perfectly straight back, her perfectly straight long hair, and the glint of her eye in the reflection of the mirror. I was dumbstruck at the power of this perfect moment. I reached for a Polaroid camera and silently took a picture. She knew I was taking it. She was flattered, and proud, and, at that moment, she loved me. This frozen moment in time does appear in “Flannel Pajamas.”

That May, during the Cannes Film Festival, while I was off watching a bad Japanese film, my wife received a call for me at the Majestic Hotel where we were staying, that my mother had died. (Eight years later, while presenting my first film at the Montreal Film Festival, I received a call confirming I had a benign brain tumor. Five years after that, while attending the Toronto International Film Festival, on a beautiful day a bunch of guys crashed three airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. And you think you really want to go to film festivals?)

Six months later, in real life, we were married. During a ceremony I planned because, after all, I was paying for it, it was her second marriage, and, well, it was my wedding. I arranged sheet music from the theme to “Chinatown” to be learned by the band for our first dance as husband and wife. My poster designer agreed to produce actual sized movie posters, wherein my wife and I recreated the iconic beach scene from “From Here to Eternity,” to send as our wedding invitation (again, my idea; Maura was initially against it). The wedding cake was enhanced and topped by a movie theatre marquee, and our wedding colors were purple (my favorite) and black (certainly not hers). Then, literally and figuratively, the honeymoon was over.

Sure, there were still moments of unforced, unguarded togetherness, like when she patted my knee at a public screening of “The Fabulous Baker Boys” after Ms. Pfeiffer concludes her slithering rendition of “Makin’ Whoppee,” and exhorts me in a whisper, “All right, calm down.” Or when we hiked one Sunday morning from our home in Sherman Oaks, over the canyon, to eat breakfast at the Daily Grill restaurant in Brentwood, thereby paralyzing our legs for the rest of the day. But there was little spontaneity anymore. Even the one time we engaged in public sex at noon in the parking lot (in pre-Homeland Security America) of the Federal Building was pre-planned.

In 1988 I’d persuaded Tom Skouras to let me acquire and distribute Mike Leigh‘s first theatrical feature “High Hopes.” It was a considerable success and led to a rewarding and life-changing relationship with Mike’s producer Simon Channing-Williams, one of the five most towering human beings I’ve ever met; I don’t deserve to walk on the same planet on which Simon resides. In 1990 Mike and Simon embarked on a new untitled feature and, given the mutual respect our relationship engendered, I had the opportunity to visit the UK set of this new film, see it at a rough cut stage before the competition, and to view the fine cut before anyone else. But (almost) none of that occurred. I was thwarted at each step of the way by Tom, who, by that time, was weary of the business and, I think, would have preferred to return full time to his passion of restoring old racing cars.

Determined not to allow my best producer relationship wane or sour, I told Maura we were spending the weekend in London, on our dime. We took a red-eye from Los Angeles to London and taxied directly to a screening room at DeLane Lea, a post-production house in Soho, to watch what would be soon be titled “Life Is Sweet.” Still stunned by its humor, by its pathos, and by its genius, Maura and I met Mike and Simon for a nearby lunch, where I explained the deteriorating situation (for me) at Skouras. They strongly encouraged me to start my own company and pledged to support my efforts. That Sunday, on our last morning in London together, ever, I asked for my wife’s blessing to risk it all on one roll of the dice and become an entrepreneur. She unflinchingly agreed. We returned to Los Angeles and I resigned from Skouras. I called Mr. Ray and told him I was starting a distribution company and asked if he was interested in being my partner. (Some day the actual remarkable story of the initial funding of October Films will be told–it’s never happened that way before and it never will again.)

But Maura wanted a baby. And not a son named Bingham. At my suggestion we started what would become October Films in my living room. Each and every morning, at 10:00am Bingham arrived, chain-smoking, garrulous, confrontational, and brilliant. Maura had resigned from her last job and was working from home, trying her hand at her own business–a catering business, an effort that I financed. It floundered. I did little to help her, practically or emotionally.

One morning Maura announced to me she was pregnant–one week, an EPT had confirmed the fact. My wife had been sexually active from the age of eighteen, never been pregnant, on the pill, and there you go. Wow. (Those last two sentences were spoken in yet another scene cut from the final version of “Flannel Pajamas.”) Condoms fail, oral contraceptives are imperfect. Shit happens. (Those sentences weren’t.)

We had agreed before marriage not to have her become pregnant for two years. This was now only eighteen months. I felt panicked (about money–our savings had dwindled, October wasn’t yet fully funded, and my house had lost a third of its value during the 1989 real estate crash) and a little betrayed. After 72 hard, bitter hours I relented and Maura, three weeks into her first pregnancy, announced to everyone with a telephone or fax machine that she was expecting. Less than one week later she miscarried.

Months after that (or was it before–tragedies now easily blur together in my memory) Maura was diagnosed having thyroid cancer, a highly curable, treatable, and common affliction, especially in young women. (I’ve tried to incorporate this incident in scenes in both of my two movies–in both cases the scenes were wisely edited from the film.) Was I compassionate enough? I thought so. I was, apparently, wrong. Three weeks into a pregnancy there is little physical trauma (easy for a man to say). The emotional trauma she suffered was catastrophic.

October Films was always intended to move to New York once financed. Maybe I’d neglected to mention this to Maura walking alongside the Thames River that October morning in 1990. I probably neglected to mention a lot of things to Maura during our brief two-and-a-half year marriage. In late 1991, as October Films was becoming more of a reality, Maura announced she was leaving me, just as I decided I had never loved someone so completely as I loved her, and just as I had resolved to prove it to her. My ensuing super-human efforts were too little, too late. This was the real world, not the movies.

I made my first film, “Childhood’s End,” in 1995, after leaving October Films. Maura had, by then, returned to the arena of international film sales and happily agreed to represent my film. Nothing came of this brief business reconciliation, certainly no revenues! Six years later, as I sat in the offices of Lot 47 Films, my second company (that I co-founded with my brother Scott), I received an e-mail from someone whose name I didn’t recognize. That was because my ex-wife had married for a third time, to a Brit, and was returning to the city where the germ of the idea for October Films was conceived–a company whose assets are now owned by General Electric, and whose emotional flotsam and jetsam are now owned by yours truly.

That was the last contact between us. I hope she sees “Flannel Pajamas.” And I hope she likes it. It’s a love story about two people who fall desperately in love with each other, but at two completely different times.

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