Ever have the kind of day when you're sure you were meant for something greater? When you slump at your desk under a thunderstorm of abuse from the boss and imagine an alternative reality? Maybe you close your eyes and imagine the boss buzzing around your ear like an errant mosquito -- then casually swat him dead. Or perhaps you see yourself on a beach, chilling with Baywatch extras until -- oh, did I mention he can't swim? -- you turn your back as Mr. Boss Man falls off the deck of a sailboat and flails about in the surf. Heck, you say as you open your eyes, that's kind of funny. I should write for the movies! Finally, I'll be my own boss.
When you have a day like that, do yourself a favour. Before quitting your job, sit down and have a chat with Jay Cocks.
Cocks is a screenwriter who counts Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma and James Cameron among his friends. He and Stanley Kubrick were close enough that the director grilled him for hours after the very first screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey, desperate for his reaction. Cocks played a minor but key role in the development of Kubrick's final film, Eyes Wide Shut. In recent years, he had a hand in writing the greatest moneymaker of all time, Titanic. He even has an Oscar nomination to his name, for an elegant and respectful adaptation of Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence.
And yet, before you quit that job to chase your dreams, you need to answer this question: Does any of Cocks's cred matter in the primal ego pit of Hollywood, where gorillas in suits will crush you simply because they can?
On a recent weekday, the 56-year-old Cocks relaxed at Mangiarini, a small trattoria near his home on Manhattan's Upper East Side where he can usually be found a couple of days a week. He is an excitable, bespectacled fellow with a quick wit, a broad knowledge of pop and high culture, and a penchant for Hawaiian shirts purchased from eBay. As lunchtime gave way to the full bloom of afternoon and Cocks downed a series of slow iced teas, he held forth on his 30-odd years in and around the business and surveyed some of the changes in the film industry over that period of time.
This is a good moment to look back on Cocks's career: Later this year will finally see the release of Gangs of New York, an epic about the New York underworld in the mid-1800s. Directed by Scorsese, Gangs is one of the most highly anticipated films of the year, one that kept Internet chat rooms overflowing in the months leading up to the shoot. Fans are nattering endlessly about the prospect of stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Day-Lewis squaring off in period costume. Sure, the fans' impatience is understandable. But it's safe to say that no one has waited longer to see Gangs reach the screen than Jay Cocks himself. He penned his first draft 24 years ago.
Recently, Cocks was at a dinner party, eavesdropping on a conversation between another guest and his 20-year-old son, Sam. "This person asked Sam, 'Do you want to be a writer like your dad?' " recalls Cocks. "And he said: 'Not after what I've seen my dad go through.' There's all this frustration, uncertainty, and even occasional humiliation. Sometimes more than occasional."
Maybe Sam was thinking about Gangs. Cocks first sat down to tackle the script in 1977, leaving a secure job as a film and music reporter at Time magazine to pursue his dream of writing movies. He left New York, where he'd grown up, for Los Angeles, where his friend Scorsese was shooting New York, New York by day and cutting The Last Waltz by night. The two men developed Gangs together, but the project stalled. After a year, Cocks returned to Time, no longer covering the film business because of potential conflicts of interest. In the intervening years, while working as a journalist and churning out other scripts, he wrote another 11 drafts of Gangs.
Somewhere along the way, the film got picked up by Miramax. Late last summer, a few months before production was finally set to commence in Rome, Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein made it known he wasn't happy with the script. He wanted to bring in other writers to perform a spit polish. Like a scene from a Scorsese picture, someone had to be whacked in order to placate a big boss. So Martin Scorsese called his collaborator and friend Jay Cocks into a room and delivered the hit.
"You ever been fired?" asks Cocks. "It's terrible. Terrible. Even if it's a job you don't like, it pisses you off, right? Well you can extrapolate from that, exponentially." Cocks is a fast talker with a reedy voice and a quick wit, but right now the words are coming very slowly. "We wouldn't give Harvey Weinstein the satisfaction of coming between our friendship. That was the bedrock. There's other movies. You don't make other friends like this. And Marty had to make the movie and I understood that. And those were the terms under which the movie had to be made."
Cocks brings up the subject of actor/director Billy Bob Thornton, whose four-hour-plus cut of the western All the Pretty Horses was taken out of his control last year -- also by Miramax -- and the running time slashed in half. In a series of interviews on national television before the troubled picture came out, Thornton smiled gamely and mouthed praise for a film that was no longer his own. "If that had been a Sam Peckinpah movie, Sam would have done two things," cautions Cocks. Peckinpah, the volatile director of The Wild Bunch, wasn't known for keeping his opinions or emotions in check. "Sam would have gone to everybody in the press and complained, and he would have gotten a gun and gone after Harvey. That's how things have changed.
"I never got an official reason why I was fired," he concludes, explaining as much as can be explained. "There never is an official reason. They just tell you: The collaboration is no longer to be continued."
Still want to quit that job to write for the movies?
Oh, don't cry for Cocks too much. Movies have given him a lot more than heartache. They've given him his best friends, and his wife too. And aside from his actual screenwriting contributions, he has given a lot back to films. Cocks was the nexus of some very significant and fruitful relationships.
It all began back in the winter of 1968, when he was a green and eager 23-year-old reporter for Time. He was the first person the magazine had hired to cover the business of film, and the editors didn't really know what to do with him. This was around the time student filmmakers like George Lucas were starting to grab some notice, so Time sent Cocks to do a piece on the phenomenon. He found a young director at New York University who was cutting his first film. The guy's name was Martin Scorsese.
"We met at Gallagher's Restaurant, a big steak joint in New York," recalls Cocks. "We were surrounded by sides of beef, like the bodies hanging in the refrigerator in Goodfellas, you know? Marty's the only guy I know who loves movies not only as much as I do but more than I do. He's the only guy who knows more, and he knows a lot more: technically, stylistically, mechanically and historically."
They became fast friends. Using his pull at Time, Cocks arranged for Scorsese to meet one of his idols, John Cassavetes. Later, when Scorsese moved to L.A. to work in the film factory of hackmeister Roger Corman, he didn't have a place to stay. Cassavetes let him sleep on the set of the apartment in Minnie and Moscowitz.
By this point, movies had also introduced Cocks to his future wife. In the summer of 1969, he screened Haskell Wexler's landmark pseudo-documentary Medium Cool, which mixes fictional scenes and real footage of the 1968 Democratic convention. He found himself smitten with Verna Bloom, a New York actress who had given such a natural performance that he didn't realize she was one of the film's fictional elements.
"Oh, I had the major hots from the screening," he says with a chuckle. "I wasn't counting on meeting her and the review wasn't written to woo her. But she got a great review."
A friend at Time introduced him to Bloom, who is now perhaps best known for her role as the dean's besotted wife Mrs. Wormer in the classic frat flick Animal House. (She also played at the other end of the spectrum, as Mary, mother of Jesus in Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ.) For their first date, the two went to a movie with Scorsese. "It was a Susan Sontag movie, Duet for Cannibals. Two out of three of us fell asleep during the picture. Guess who stayed awake? Marty!"
Meanwhile, Cocks was doing his own part for film history. Around the time he was hanging around on the back lot of MGM waiting for Stanley Kubrick to finish editing 2001, the director asked Cocks to get his hands on a 1926 novella that he was interested in turning into a film. "I contacted the representative of this dusty tome and said I was the film critic of Time," says Cocks. "I probably shouldn't have been doing this, but I would do anything for Stanley. He knew I was his slave for life! I said I was interested in making films and could I please buy the rights. So they sold me the rights to this book, which I then turned around and sold in perpetuity to Stanley for one dollar." The novel was Arthur Schnitzler's Rhapsody: A Dream Story, which would form the basis of Eyes Wide Shut more than 20 years later. "Stanley was using me as a beard to buy the book, so they wouldn't stick him up."
Verna and Jay married in 1972 and spent their honeymoon on the set of the Clint Eastwood film High Plains Drifter, in which she was co-starring. By this point, Cocks was writing TV and film scripts under the self-conscious pseudonym Joseph P. Gillis, which is the name of William Holden's hack writer character in Sunset Boulevard. He and Brian De Palma wrote an episode of Columbo that never got made because De Palma got a last-minute assignment to direct a film. Cocks and Scorsese optioned a story called Time Out of Joint by the then-obscure science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick. It, too, never got made.
After his year developing Gangs, Cocks returned to Time in 1978 and started writing about fashion, bringing his attitude about the film world to bear on the designers.
"I got to write about Armani, Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo. I treated designers kind of like movie directors: They were these generative creators, but they were like movie directors who hadn't been beatified by the auteur theory.
"They got lots of ink but didn't have a great deal of cultural currency. I thought these guys were great, that they had a lot to do with the way we live and the way we look."
After a while, though, the novelty wore off. "I realized after writing about five or six people like Yamamoto or Issey or Giorgio, you sort of all of a sudden ran out of really good people to write about, and then you were up against a lot of guys with colour swatches and fabric swatches and stuff."
By the late eighties, Cocks was deep into scriptwriting. He collaborated with Scorsese on The Last Temptation of Christ, though the screen credit went to Paul Schrader after an arbitration hearing by the Writer's Guild. Cocks also introduced the director to Wharton's The Age of Innocence, which they finally got onto the screen in 1993. Cocks sees parallels between that film, in which Daniel Day-Lewis plays an establishment scion whose love for an independent woman is defeated by the strictures of polite 1870s society, and Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut.
" Eyes Wide Shut is a movie about male panic," he observes. "People hate this. They want guys to be heroic. They don't want guys to wonder if they should go to bed with somebody. They don't want them to be all psyched out about what their wife might be doing at home and in fact what she is doing, at least in her fantasy life. This makes you weak. We hate weak characters, but they're the most interesting characters."
You may wonder how to square that sentiment with the cartoonish heroics of Titanic, to which Cocks contributed, but his work was limited to the dialogue. Director James Cameron, who was credited with the script, had already settled on the structure and the film's baroque aesthetic.
Nowadays, as Cocks waits for the Writer's Guild to determine who should get credit for writing Gangs of New York, he busies himself with other projects. He and Verna are in Maine now, at their summer home, where he's working on a script about the life of Cole Porter for producer Irwin Winkler ( Rocky, Raging Bull). He's just finished a film script for Meryl Streep, who has a production deal with Miramax, so he'll probably be seeing more of Harvey Weinstein in the future. And if Gangs is a hit, the studios might be willing to back another tough project from Scorsese, a Cocks adaptation of Shusaku Endo's novel Silence, about Jesuit priests in 17th-century Japan.
As with all things in moviemaking, though, the future depends on Hollywood executives, whose existential mandate seems to be to screw up anything good they see in their path.
"Marty told me a joke the other day he'd heard on the set of Gangs," says Cocks. " 'How many Hollywood development executives does it take to screw in a lightbulb?' " Cocks pauses, his face breaking into an impression of a supercilious, know-it-all Hollywood suit. " 'Hmmm. Does it have to be a lightbulb?' " This is grim, battlefield humour to help the survivors.
So why does Cocks stay in the business? Ah, well, maybe that's not so hard to answer. The money's good, the hours are nice, and besides, that's where his friends are.
And there's something else. "When I close my eyes, I see movies," he says.
He dreams his dreams, then writes them down. Sometimes, he even gets to share them with the rest of the world. It's not a bad way to spend your life.