Dead Dollar


PHIL AUSTIN: One of my best friends in the world is the screenwriter Menno Meyjes, who called me from his home in San Francisco in the late eighties of the (almost last) century and told me that I was his choice to be the screenwriter for a project that he had in mind, which was to be a feature Hollywood movie about - well, maybe not about, but certainly inspired by - the Grateful Dead, the legendary band in San Francisco among whom he counted many acquaintances and not a few friends. We were to do this movie for a famous independent Hollywood producer named Ed Pressman and of course I said yes, not only because I welcomed the money involved but because working with Menno seemed a pleasant idea, to say the least. I had never been a huge fan of the Dead and so Menno gave me CD's of all their records to bring me up to date. At that time, Menno and I were racing RC cars in my driveway to the point of idiocy. This movie seemed sane in comparison with the FigTree 500 and other events, the Three-Battery Petite Prix, and so forth.
One of the conditions of the deal imposed by Mr. Pressman - a condition not unlike most of the experiences I've had with the movie business - was that the star of the movie had to be the actor John Candy, with whom Mr. Pressman had some arrangement that can only be described as Pressmanian.
And so, one fall evening, Menno and I went to meet with John Candy at John's office-and-studio complex in Westwood, or perhaps Brentwood. I remember that Eugene Levy from SCTV was there and that John was very interested in getting me to use the audio production studio he had set up. They were doing radio for Canada, as I remember, although they may have had a syndicated American show as well. We sat around a huge table with John's manager, who was coincidentally the heir to a tremendous dog food fortune, and we talked over this stupid idea I'd come up with in order to keep myself on the payroll. Luckily, John loved it and the idea of working with the Dead, whom he idolized, was a tremendous inducement, he said. God bless John. The few times I was ever with him, he just seemed to be the nicest person in the world. That meeting was to be the last I saw of him, unfortunately.
The other nice person I barely knew turned out to be Jerry Garcia, also now sadly departed, whom Ed and Menno and I went to meet at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills in order to assure everyone of their absolute participation. Messr's Weir and Lesh were there as well, but it was Garcia we feared. He hoped to be the director of the picture at some point and we knew he would have the most to say about the project. He smiled and thought we might do OK and Bob wondered about his part, which I was able to fill him in on, and Phil smiled and smiled and said yes to everything, God bless him. I'd write a first draft under Menno's supervision and we'd meet up in a while. Ah, yes. All was well.
I started with roses and rivers and rolling dice. I played with skulls and roses and rivers and tumbling dice. These are other stories. I read the first draft to Weir, Garcia and Lesh in a suite Menno had booked at the Fairmont Hotel in SF a few months later. They were highly enthusiastic.
FZ: Could you elaborate about your concept for the film?
PA: It was, in fact, not a concept, but an entire screenplay that was written. I went through about 3 different drafts of it. Although it was written with the help of The Grateful Dead it was actually written for Edward Pressman Films. Ed Pressman is the guy who produced "Wall Street", for instance. He has quite a nice track record and is an interesting and reasonable guy to work with, and he commissioned the work. The producer, Menno Meyjes, is a screen writer who most famously wrote 'The Color Purple' screenplay and 100's of other very high quality films. He comes from out of the Steven Speilberg stable. Menno had a close relationship with the Grateful Dead. They had asked him to produce a film, and he asked me to write it. What resulted was a screenplay, which was, as far as Menno and I know, the first comedy that had ever been attempted with them at all.
There had been a number of screenplays done about them and for them and so on, none of which have ever been made and most of which are very serious. Initially the project was to be a John Candy picture, with about 10 Grateful Dead songs and featuring a story which has to do essentially with all the experiences which during the course of the film, happened at a Grateful Dead concert. Then John dropped out, and I rewrote it so that the leading character was a, and this is a brief story of it, is a young lawyer for a very large and rapacious firm, and was given the job of trying to coerce the Grateful Dead to using their songs to become television commercials. That's the basic deal.
The picture was never made, although the screenplay was completed. As very often with projects with the Dead, their touring schedule had to come first. They never were able to commit themselves as a company, that includes their board of directors, their crew, their responsibilities they had to their touring organization, their merchandising people, and their families, for them to be able to take off enough time to really to devote themselves to a Hollywood project. Especially a Hollywood project that frankly didn't star them. My script essentially made them a kind of third lead of a picture that was all about them, and featured a whole lot of their music, but which in fact they were not in, as actors. They were not the lead characters by any means. So I hope that's some explanation.
I'll get back to this story someday, but here's a page or two of that first draft, just to scare you. Jerry Garcia insisted we call it:


by Phil Austin


An intricate illuminated page, as if from a Medieval sacred manuscript. Pictured is a big, carved wooden box. It animates in the same way as a pop-up children's book and its front opens and those panels fold out once again and inside it is a stage lit with burning stumps of candles and on that stage are the figures of the six SKELETON MUSICIANS, each of whom is playing a little carved instrument. their little eyes glow faintly green in their skulls. They begin to play creaky, squeezy, wheezy music-box music. Suddenly, cutting through, the sound of an electric guitar. A hellish, gut-wrenching, bizarre guitar solo. Five of the skeletons fall over on their backs. A carved amplifier has appeared beside the SKELETON GUITAR PLAYER. A carved rack of amps towers beside him. An electric guitar is in his skeletal little hands.


Jerry's hands on the guitar.
JERRY GARCIA is playing his electric guitar. There is finally one last hellish shrieking note. The Note takes off and leaps right over the North Pole.


The Note flies in the thin air, the great curve of the earth below.


Out on the ice three figures look up at the Note as it shrieks overhead. SANTA CLAUS: (looking up) What the hell was that?
ELF: I dunno.
ESKIMO: It is early for shrieking. And most of the yelling has already passed over.
ELF: Sounds more like the Grateful Dead to me.
SANTA CLAUS: The Dead? Get real. The Dead don't tour anymore. They're retired and live in Iceland.
[There is a pause.]
ELF: I've been thinking of retiring to Iceland.
ESKIMO: Well. You better like ice.
ELF: I like ice alright. What I can't take is the constant shrieking and yelling.