James Crumley, left, and Roger Hedden sip firewater at Charlie B’s, where they’ve been collaborating on a screenplay set to debut with a reading at Colony 13. “I dragged his sorry ass up and down the keyboard,” Hedden says, ribbing his writing partner. “Everything he says is a lie,” Crumley replies. “That’s what writers do for a living, they lie.
James Crumley sits with a glass of Patrón at Charlie B’s, cigarette in hand. He leans across the bar and gruffs, “Roger! Roger! What’s the title of this thing?” He gets his answer, turns back and takes a drag. “Last Chance,” Crumley says, and then takes another long drag. “It’s either Last Chance, Second Chance, or Second-to-Last Chance.”
“This thing” in question happens to be a screenplay, concocted by local writer Roger Hedden—best known for screenplays like Bodies Rest & Motion and Hi-Life—and co-written by Crumley, the famed local crime novelist. Crumley and Hedden have been friends since 1995, the same year the Montana Repertory Theatre began its playwrights’ workshop, The Missoula Colony. So it’s fitting that Crumley and Hedden’s screenplay will debut as part of Colony 13, an eight-day stretch of public readings that begins Saturday, June 14.
“I think it was six years ago now where I had a big idea for a screenplay,” Hedden says. “It seemed like more of a Jim Crumley kind of project, so I broached it with him and, you know, we meet at Charlie’s anyway, so we talked it over.”
Hedden describes the play as a redemption story. A man returns to his hometown to “face his demons” and to find the child he put up for adoption. “And bad things happen,” he says.
The story unfolds in Missoula, where classic watering holes pop up as settings: the Mo-Club, for instance, and Shadow’s Keep.
Crumley and Hedden have been fleshing out the details for at least a couple of years now, working on it for a week and then letting it rest for several months.
“In the time we’ve been working on this Jim’s also written two novels and I’ve written two plays,” Hedden says, laughing. “So this has definitely been an on-the-side project. It’s a friendship project.”
The two writers mostly work on the script during their regular daily routine—sometimes over drinks at Charlie’s, or a meal at Double Front Chicken. Hedden says its easier for both of them to create dialogue in these social venues.
“For me, it’s helpful because it keeps me a little more hardboiled,” Heddens says. “But I’m much more likely to get too hardboiled and have Jim just sort of laugh at some really tough bitter line of dialog [that I think] is really cool. Jim just rolls his eyes going, ‘Oh, come on!’”
The morning after hashing through story details, Hedden says, he gets an e-mail from Crumley: eight pages or so of dialog depicting their scene, written late the night before. In this project Crumley does the bulk of the actual writing despite being in poor health, while Hedden bounces the ideas around with him.
Hedden says that his writing and Crumley’s make a good combination because they each bring a different skill set. While Crumley has written and fixed-up a solid stack of screenplays, he’s a little less by the numbers, according to Hedden.
“I probably bring more of an inherent sense of three act structure and dramatic rules,” he says. “But Jim’s a master of the fabulous digression.”
Greg Johnson, artistic director of the Montana Rep and the Colony, agrees, calling it a perfect combination.
“[You have] Roger—this sort of East Coast, John Cheever stylist—and the hardcore noir of Crumley,” he says. “Roger has a lot of sensitivity to the human condition with a very sardonic humor. His characters are funny—not like funny ha-ha, but he gets a lot of laughs out of character situations. There are a lot of [moments of] ‘A-ha! Oh, I see! Oh, it’s like me!’”
But there’s still the step of hearing the work read aloud, and Hedden’s curious to see how things go at Colony 13. Staged readings are a chance to test material. If the pacing is wrong, you can hear it. Or if the final scene ends with earth-shattering silence, the writers know they have work to do. The reading of Last Chance (or whatever it ends up being) will include at least 15 actors, some playing multiple characters in the case of smaller, one-line roles.
“So with the motel clerk,” Hedden says, “he goes: ‘Here’s your key sir,’ but he could also be the cop who goes, ‘What’re you doin’ here buddy? Judge Kittredge wants to see you!’”
Kittredge? As in William Kittredge? Hedden won’t tell, and he won’t give any more of the plot away. As for Crumley, he just shakes his head when asked about the story.
“I’ve been known not to write plots,” he says.
Joking aside, if the screenplay reads well at the Colony 13, Hedden says they’ll try to sell it, though that may take years. This reading is only a first step.
“We didn’t write drunk, but we did a lot of drinking while we were talking,” Hedden says. “Part of our dream, I think, is that when we get done, we get an option, and that covers our bar tab—and we’ll get a chance to be in the black on this one.”
Last Chance will be read Friday, June 20, at 8 PM. All readings take place in the Montana Theatre inside UM’s PARTV building. $10. $50 all-readings pass. Call 243-6809.
Catching the Colony
Hedden and Crumley’s screenplay is but one highlight at Colony 13. We’ve chosen some of the other draws for this year’s workshop.
Winter in the Blood
Alex and Andrew Smith adapt James Welch’s 1986 novel Winter in the Blood to a screenplay. The local writers/directors first gained notoriety with their indie film The Slaughter Rule. Reading: Tuesday, June 17, 8 PM
Carol Hemingway, daughter-in-law of Ernest Hemingway, is one of the Colony’s best success stories. She introduced It Just Catches at the 1998 workshop and it was staged off-Broadway in 2003. This is her latest. Reading: Friday, June 20, 3 PM
Yes! We Have No Pajamas
You may recognize Nicole Burdette as the Native American woman who dances and drinks with Brad Pitt at the bar in A River Runs Through It or, more recently, her recurring role in “The Sopranos.” The longtime actor and screenwriter debuts her new script. Reading: Thursday, June 19, 8 PM Scriptwriting intensive
Acclaimed stage, television and film writer William Mastrosimone (The Wool Gatherer, “Into the West” and “Sinatra” miniseries) will teach “everything he knows about writing for stage and screen” in two 11-hour workshops. The Colony’s already pre-selected seven young writers for the workshop, but the public can watch the proceedings and are invited to ask questions at the end. Classes: Saturday and Sunday, June 14–15, 9 AM to 8 PM each day. $50 in advance for both classes; $60 day of event.