Hollywood Is Hell in Tim Blake Nelson’s Debut Novel, ‘City of Blows’
It should come as no surprise that character actor Tim Blake Nelson — who led the western anthology film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and played the unforgettable Looking Glass in the HBO series Watchmen — has written a novel. After all, he’s always been the bookish one on set. According to Joel and Ethan Coen, who cast Blake in the Homeric comedy O Brother, Where Art Thou?, neither they nor the other leads had ever read the Odyssey, on which the movie was loosely based. But Blake, who majored in classics at Brown University, had.
It’s also not surprising, then, that Blake wanted to give his fiction debut a Latin title. However, as a book about the brutality of Hollywood, City of Blows is aptly named. Set in the weeks leading up to the arrival of Covid-19 in the U.S., Blake’s ferocious satire goes back to the turn of the twentieth century to explain how four men wind up entangled in the early twenty-first. There’s Jacob Rosenthal, an imperious old producer dead set on adapting Coal, a controversial novel by a deceased Black author; David Levit, his preferred director (who shares some of Blake’s educational and career background); Brad Shlansky, a younger producer with a burgeoning vendetta against David; and Paul Aiello, a power-hungry agent whose predatory behavior with actress clients is about to catch up with him.
Each will have his life unmoored by the toxic currents of the entertainment business — not to mention the shifting conversations on sex, race, and class. Blake spoke with Rolling Stone about how immigrants shaped film as we know it, the optimism of creativity in a punishing environment, and his characters facing Old Testament-style retribution.
The first thing I’m curious about is the title. I thought maybe City of Blows was some old, hard-boiled nickname for Hollywood, but it seems to be your invention. So where does that come from?
Well, originally I was going to call the novel Urbs Plagarum. That was its working title, which is Latin for “City of Blows.” And since Latin figures through, particularly with the character of David, I felt that might be an interesting, provocative title. Others did not agree, and thought it would be more in the manner of kryptonite, and so I thought, well, why not just do what “Urbs Plagarum” means, which is “City of Blows.” What I had liked about “Urbs Plagarum” is the double entendre of “City of Plague,” because the novel takes place just as Covid is advancing on our shores. And so I really did like that, but it didn’t end up passing muster. And ultimately I think that was the right choice, and I do like City of Blows.
Yeah, that’s funny, because you get David — in the book — being accused of throwing his classical training around. So I guess you had some similar conversations.
Yes. And I don’t think David minds that, and I don’t mind it either. It’s kind of inevitable if you did that with a portion of your life, and in conversation tend to allude to it. But I wouldn’t trade the way I spent my time in college for anything.
Speaking about backstory, the novel goes to really great lengths to show us how these four men are propelled from a young age toward the entertainment business, often by a kind of traumatic experience. Why is it essential that the reader understand how they arrived here in this city?
The novel — to me, anyway — as a form, allows for psychology in characters. It allows for a deep dive into formative moments in people’s lives, or passages in people’s lives, in a way that plays really don’t and movies really don’t. And I believe that form is content. And so if you’re going to write a novel, or if you’re going to read a novel, I’m all for the book exploiting the novelness of being a novel. And since that sort of narrative deep-dive can be afforded in long-form prose, I just wanted to take advantage of that, knowing that readers of novels not only will tolerate that, but they probably want it. And so I really saw no other way of telling this story than to be able to address the why of how people are and what they become.
I think most people will recognize one of your side characters, Charlie Gold, as a Harvey Weinstein figure, but they might not know what you have in common with David — who, like you, trained at Juilliard, and directed a film whose release was complicated by a mass shooting. How did your own career inform his story?
Well, it did, and it didn’t. David is not me, but I certainly borrowed from aspects of my own biography that inform who this fictional character is. And I did that particularly with the character of David, simply because I enjoyed describing some of the places that inform who he is, that were places that also informed who I am. Having gone to Brown and Juilliard helps very much define my take on what it is to write and think about stuff. And also, I went to Juilliard for very particular reasons. I’d gone to a somewhat progressive college, and I wanted the most conservative, classically-oriented actor training I could find.
And I liked how the David Levit character walks that gauntlet as well. And it creates similar points of view to points of view I have, but at the same time, I’m married to a Mexican-American woman who’s from San Antonio, Texas, not an African-American woman from New Orleans. I’ve been faithful to my wife. There are a lot of divergences with the character of David that really have nothing to do with me, and that’s true with every character in the book, including Charlie Gold. In other words, they’re all fictional characters, including the one that might seem to be based on me. There’s also Paul.
And Paul’s details come from where?
A lot of different people. There’s no single person who is Paul. There’s one agent I know of who has the katana, carries it around. There are certainly characters in Los Angeles who have been accused of, and guilty of, sexual assault. But Paul is a fictional character. I also think he’s a true character. I don’t think any of these characters in the novel violate authenticity.
Along those same lines, the old-school movie producer, Jacob Rosenthal, has this brutish reputation, yet he seems by the end to emerge as a voice of moral clarity in a town that runs on cynicism. Do you know anyone like that in Hollywood?
Yeah, I certainly have met my share of Jacob Rosenthals. It was a delight to be able to expose a character who, to my mind, represents a part of Hollywood that is fading. I think there are going to be fewer Jacob Rosenthals around.
And you go far back with him. We start the beginning of the book with his grandfather, at the turn of the century. So you are really getting the full scope of where he’s coming from, even a generation further than the other characters.
Yeah. Because I do think that the immigrant experience in America, which is of course a very hot issue right now with issues surrounding the border, is a huge part of how and why capitalism works here, and what’s attractive about capitalism to people who are fleeing either persecution or destitution elsewhere and want freedom and opportunity in America. And I think a book like this, particularly in the context of Hollywood and the movie business, which really came to fruition in the twentieth century, has to address the immigrant experience and the nature of capitalism. And a lot of the most innovative people in movies were immigrants.
And so you have in the novel — the first moment is at the beginning of the twentieth century, and it’s a guy coming here and throwing his life, really, onto the killing-room floors in Chicago, so that he can create opportunities for his Jewish son that weren’t available to him in Eastern Europe. And then you watch how that father instills the same sorts of values in the way that he raises his own son, although he has already advanced beyond what his father could have dreamed of. And then you have the novel ending in an epilogue, with a successful Black writer on the edge of the continent out west, dealing with the challenges of race in America and what that has meant for him in terms of his own successes and failures. And that’s all very deliberate in terms of the book’s construction, because, hopefully, regardless of whether it succeeds or not, the novel’s ambition is to use the film industry to look at America in a larger sense as Covid was beginning and we were dealing with issues around gender and race.
The present action takes place in what you might call development hell, with everyone negotiating these perilous fault lines of race, sex, class, and political grievance to get movies made, yet there’s an idealism or genuine belief in art that keeps people in the game. Are they just deluding themselves?
No, I don’t think they are. I think that at least three of the characters, and you could argue all four, have something of an optimistic, if quixotic view — of what movies can do and what movies can mean — that drives them. And even when that’s tinged with cynicism about becoming famous, or having your calls returned, or getting a table at the nicest restaurant, or being loved by colleagues and envied by foes, even when all that’s also operating or motivating character’s actions, I think there’s still always an appreciation or even a love for the telling of stories on screens.
So the plot sets these producers, writers, actors, agents on this nightmarish collision course of their own making, but also looming on the horizon, as you mentioned, is the pandemic, which will totally freeze film production. Does this sort of function as an Old Testament reminder that whatever our petty deals and negotiations, we’re not really in control?
I’m a big fan of the New Testament. I think what the New Testament has to say about love and forgiveness and inclusiveness, as opposed to insularity and exclusiveness, are very important lessons. And I do believe that Christianity, in that regard, advanced the way that we think about God. That said, I was schooled on the Old Testament, and the starkness of transgression, and retribution, loyalty. A singular focus to rules and laws speak to me. And this book is much more Old Testament than New Testament.
I would say so. These characters, as you mentioned, they’re trying to adapt this acclaimed controversial novel by a Black writer named Rex Patterson, who’s already dead when this action takes place. So what does his haunting absence say about artists who are genuinely groundbreaking?
That’s an interesting question. That wasn’t really an axe I was grinding in the book, but since you asked it in that way, it does make me think about that word, “groundbreaking,” and how unlikely it is that one can be groundbreaking and recognized for that in his or her or their time. We’ve certainly got artists in the movie business right now who are groundbreaking. And I suppose since movies depend on the wide audience for a filmmaker to keep making movies, and therefore develop a sort of approach or vision that can be called groundbreaking, I think — uniquely, in the movie business — the people we consider groundbreaking are usually recognized for that in their time.
Because if they weren’t recognized, they wouldn’t be able to keep making movies, because the movies wouldn’t make any money. And so you think about everyone from Griffith to Buster Keaton, Chaplain, Preston Sturges, John Ford, all the way up now through the Coens, and Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, these are all groundbreaking — Cassavetes before them, Terrence Malick, filmmakers who had to have success in their time. Novelists, that’s not really the case, because you can write in solitude, which is the only way to write, without it costing anybody any money, and you can have a day job and keep writing. Somebody like Melville, who wrote Moby Dick, and it was a failure in his time, and was only recognized as an American classic posthumously. Faulkner had a fair amount of notoriety in his day, because he won a Nobel Prize, but I would argue that his four great novels that he wrote in that short period in I think 1931, ’32, ’33, As I Lay Dying; Absalom, Absalom; Light in August and The Sound and the Fury, I would argue that they’re even more recognized as groundbreaking now than they were in his time. In fact, those novels are so challenging, it was really some of the other stuff like Sanctuary, which is such a potboiler of a novel, that gave him his fame. Although, I’m sure if there were a literature professor sitting here, he’d tell me that I should get out of the deep end, because I’m full of shit. So Rex Patterson is decidedly a novelist, and therefore like many novelist novelists, he’s more appreciated posthumously than while he was alive.
Rex Patterson also takes positions that threaten the orthodoxies of his time. He’s effectively right-of-center. I wouldn’t necessarily call him a conservative, but he’s in [with] Glenn Loury, Thomas Sowell, John McWhorter. He has a lot of questions he asks about race that are uncomfortable to people, and you really see that in the epilogue, but it’s introduced earlier in the novel too. And so I think in terms of popularity, he’s his own worst enemy, but it probably makes his novels more interesting.
As you said, these characters are, if not direct descriptions of real people, still true. Did you expect, given how unsparingly true to life the book feels, that it may piss off some friends or colleagues who see their lives reflected in it?
There’s nothing I can do about that. It’s not a roman à clef, and every character is fictional. There are some people who are going to say, gee, that happened to me, and ultimately a writer has to draw from real life. And if you say, “Well, I can’t write that, because it’s taken from this one aspect of someone I met or work with’s life,” then you won’t be able to write anything. And it’s part of any creative person’s responsibility in the arts to try and reflect stuff back at us that has aspects of ourselves. It certainly wasn’t comfortable for me to write a character with some of my own biography going off and cheating on his wife, but he’s not me, and the same is true for every character in the book.
Well, I saved the most obvious question for last, and that is, will City of Blows ever be a movie?
Funnily enough, I don’t really see that as up to me, because the movies that I’ve generally made have been on the independent side, and I think to pull this off as a creditable film — or a probably mini-series might be a better venue for it — it’s going to take more resources than I’d be able to go out and raise on my own. So we’ll see.
And certainly a lot of phone calls, like in the book.
I really enjoyed that kind of rhythm of it, the continuous onslaught of, what’s the next crisis you’re fielding on a given day. As horrible as it probably is to live through, it’s very fun to read.
And sometimes it’s exciting to live through, so there you go.
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