This excerpt from my new book, “KooKooLand,” describes a time, in the fall of 1978, when I was an aspiring filmmaker in New York City. I’d spent the previous year working for no pay on a quirky, micro-budget comedy directed by Brian DePalma, shot on the campus of my alma mater, Sarah Lawrence. Brian, in a gesture of supreme generosity, had taken time off from his illustrious, big-budget career to teach a bunch of know-nothing students how to make a movie. Wearing several hats, as people on indie films typically do, I co-wrote the script, did second-unit directing and was Brian’s on-set assistant. When the picture wrapped, I was broke and in dire need of a paying job. For a brief moment, I even considered following my older sister into her line of work — massage, with all the seedy implications that entailed.
when things were looking bleakest, Brian, walking through the West Village, ran
into an actor friend of his — none other than Robert De Niro. Bob (or Bobby), as
insiders called him, was getting ready to fly off to the island of St. Martin with
Marty Scorsese. They needed an assistant, and Brian said he had just the girl
for the job. That’s how I found myself, ten days later, at a salary of 200
bucks a week, on a plane with two of my filmmaking heroes. It was a long way
from the housing project in New Hampshire where I’d grown up, the Greek
daughter of a real-life criminal, a wife-abuser named Jimmy who’d spent his
youth as a “cut man,” patching up the battered kissers of my grandfather’s
I got a great new job that Brian DePalma recommended me for. I
started working on a boxing movie for Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro. I
flew with them to a tropical island to be their gal Friday for five weeks as
they shaped the movie’s screenplay. All day long, I happily typed words like cocksucker and motherfucker. At night, Marty and I drank pina coladas and listened to Van
Morrison while Bobby kept to his boxing regimen and went to bed early.
Three squares a day, I could have anything I wanted. Anything
off the menu. Or anything the hotel had flown in from Paris especially for us.
Foie gras, sweetbreads, filet mignon with béarnaise. Like a little heathen, I
pointed to what I wanted until I learned how to pronounce it.
One night Marty and I went out to dinner. I ate boneless quail
with grapes off a gold plate the size of a flying saucer while a white-turbaned
waiter kept filling my glass with Cristal. I listened to Marty analyze my
father Jimmy’s favorite boxing movie, “Body
and Soul.” I knew the movie inside out and could hold my own. We talked
about films for hours. “City Lights.” “The Thief of Bagdad.” “White Heat.”
My head was spinning from the champagne and the whole shebang.
“Made it, Ma. Top of the world!” I felt like shouting like
Jimmy Cagney in “White Heat.”
I just hoped I didn’t get shot down in the end like him.
When we returned to New York, Marty and Bobby kept me on as
their researcher. I spent my days talking to washed-up boxers and gruff old
guys like my grandfather, Papou. I was right in my sweet spot. I was working on
a story about an angry-but-soulful lug who beat his wife to a bloody pulp.
Shortly before the start of shooting, Jake LaMotta, the boxer
the movie was about, got arrested for smacking his fifth wife. Suddenly, some
of the people I was calling for research questioned why we were making a film
about such a monster. I assured them the movie wouldn’t glorify LaMotta, but still, some people hung up on me. I had my own concerns about how the
wife-beating incident might impact the movie. Primarily, it didn’t gel with the
movie LaMotta’s redemption at the end. But then, who really wanted to see a
movie about the real guy? Who wanted to be left with the message [that] once a brute,
always a brute? Who wanted a story with no hope? Where was the nuance in that?
Even if it was sort of true.
When the movie came out, it was so brilliant nobody remembered
or cared what the real Jake LaMotta had done. I didn’t care, either. I made a
quick trip to my hometown, Manchester, New Hampshire, to take my father Jimmy
to see it.
When the lights came up, Jimmy sat dazed and drained in his
seat like he’d just gone twelve rounds.
He’d seen his life flashing in front of his eyes at twenty-four
frames per second.
He’d had a psychic smackdown.
“I had a ringside seat to that slugfest,” he blurted
out — meaning the slugfest of boxing and wife-beating and self-loathing — “and that
movie didn’t pull any goddamn punches.”
“Raging Bull” rocked
Jimmy’s world. Almost as much as seeing slasher films like “Blood Feast” had rocked mine when Jimmy took me to them back when I
was a nine-year-old pipsqueak.
Maybe a part of me was looking for a little payback.
But I was also hoping to hold a mirror up to Jimmy. To get him
to see the error of his ways. To lead him to his own possible redemption.
I didn’t know if it had worked. For his sake, and even more for
my mother Shirley’s, I hoped that it had.
Excerpted from “KooKooLand” by Gloria Norris. Copyright© 2016 by Gloria Norris. Excerpted with permission by Regan Arts.
Norris began her career in New York as an assistant to film directors Brian De
Palma, Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen. Since relocating to Los Angeles, she
has worked as a screenwriter with assignments that have taken her from Paris to
the Amazon. As an independent producer, her films have premiered at the
Sundance, Toronto, and Tribeca Film festivals.