A Cinematic Affair
Treatment: War of the Roses meets The Money Pit meets The Player.
Scene 1: A summer day in present time, early morning, a quiet neighborhood in central Scottsdale.
The movie opens in the rambling ranch house of our main character, accomplished screenwriter Steven McKay.
The camera pans the house--living room, with plastic sheaths on the lampshades and an expensive German piano no one ever plays; backyard patio with two fireplaces, crystal-blue pool, two purebred Belgian Tervuren dogs slumbering in the grass; office decorated with posters from McKay's big break in the screenwriting business--Hard to Kill, starring Steven Seagal--and a subsequent script sale--Diggstown, starring James Woods and Lou Gossett Jr.
Throughout the house, the furnishings, fixtures and pieces of artwork match, as though they were all purchased in a single weekend. Nouveau riche.
The camera pans to a room that, unlike the rest of the house, is notably cluttered. The floor is piled with legal pleadings, video and audio tapes, indexed notebooks, photocopies of letters, notes, check registers, snapshots.
The scene cuts to the kitchen, which is decorated--as are the other rooms--with dark wood and Southwestern tchotchkes. More legal documents are piled on the kitchen table, next to plates of bialys, lox, cream cheese and fruit salad. Breakfast.
Steven McKay is seated at the table, dressed casually but immaculately in a white tee shirt, elastic-waist pants and Tretorns. Fortysomething, he's tall and slender with Newman-blue eyes, a mane of gray hair and capped white teeth. His skin is rough from years in the sun and last weekend's trip to Prescott on his Harley-Davidson.
McKay's eyes bore into the camera.
He is, he says, a man on fire--a man unable to write, unable to create, unable to concentrate on anything but the legal battle that has consumed him for the past three years, cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars in lawyer's bills and precious hours in law offices and courtrooms.
And all over a woman. A woman he doesn't want. A woman he didn't want. In fact, his troubles began when McKay finally told Jean Caperonis to get out of his life forever.
McKay and Caperonis lived together for nearly eight years, their finances kept so separate that she didn't think to list his assets when she filed for personal bankruptcy in 1991.
That changed two years later, when McKay asked Caperonis to move out. Caperonis sued for breach of contract--citing a verbal co-habitation agreement supposedly made in 1985--and asked for half of McKay's houses, pension, car, everything. Even one of his dogs.
McKay tends to think of himself as Michael Douglas in Fatal Attraction, with Caperonis as the rabbit-boiling Glenn Close. But, truth be told, it's McKay who's obsessed, and McKay who has allowed the financial and professional erosion of Steven McKay.
McKay appears to be correct in asserting that he owes Jean Caperonis nothing. Arizona does not recognize common-law marriage. And case law shows that a plaintiff in a palimony case must prove pooled assets--joint tax returns, joint checking accounts, joint purchase of a house--before a judge will rule in her favor.
But if he has the law on his side, McKay has repeatedly demonstrated that he lacks common sense. He could have offered to settle the case many times in the last three years, could have simply written Caperonis a check and walked away.
Most likely, it would have been cheaper. It definitely would have been faster. Of course, it would have meant writing a check payable to Jean Caperonis.
McKay will do just about anything to avoid that.
He doesn't see the dark comedy lurking in his horror story. He doesn't understand why people urge him to base his next screenplay on the legal and personal machinations that rule his life.
"Frankly," he tells the camera, "it's just a civil case. And it's just about some lying bitch trying to steal from somebody."
Aaahh, but that's only a selected part of his side of an involved story. She would not tell her side, but clearly this is not just a civil lawsuit.
It's Scottsdale to Los Angeles to San Diego to L.A. to Palm Springs to Scottsdale.
It's courtroom insanity a la L.A. Law.
It's dog-custody fights.
It's pure Hollywood.
Scene 2: A summer day in the late '50s, afternoon, a quiet, middle-class neighborhood further south in Scottsdale.
Twelve-year-old Steven McKay, dressed in faded blue jeans and an old tee shirt, feet bare, sits on his bed in a small, cluttered room. Steven is scribbling furiously in a notebook. He pauses, scratches out a word, replaces it, chews the end of his pencil.
Hearing the giggles of younger siblings in the hallway--he is the eldest of 12 children--Steven quickly rips the page from the notebook and lifts the corner of the mattress.
As he does so, the camera zooms in, revealing a crumpled pile of poems, song lyrics and prose under Steven's mattress. His hand adds the latest addition to the pile.
Without bothering to find shoes, young Steven heads outside. The camera follows him out of the house and through a typically suburban, newly built subdivision, across an intersection to a dusty plot of land. On it is a tent belonging to a man named Hack, the caretaker of nearby horse property and one of Scottsdale's last cowboys.
Voiceover of adult Steven McKay: "Hack was the kind of guy--he would move into a neighborhood, and this was certainly what happened in our neighborhood. He showed up in a neighborhood, moved in, and it was like some signal would go out to every kid within a five-mile radius--they would just find him. He was just this great old guy. I learned a lot of life lessons from that guy."
The camera cuts from day to night, to Steven, Hack and the other cowboys hanging out around a campfire.
"Most of these cowboys had been in prison and stuff. These were like the good, old, wild days, man. These guys would go get tanked down at the Rusty Spur every weekend--assuming they had the money to do it. They had knives in their boots, they carried guns and prison tattoos."
Scene 3: Night, the early '70s, the living room of a dingy apartment somewhere in Scottsdale.
In the intervening decade, McKay has dropped out of high school, worked odd jobs--pumping gas, driving a tow truck, shoveling Taco Bell--been married for two years, had a daughter, divorced.
Now in his early 20s, McKay is sprawled on a couch watching television, a PBS special on the death of Harry Chapin.
He is dozing off when the mention of writing catches his attention. Chapin is telling the interviewer about his love/hate relationship with writing, about the pain of exposing himself to criticism--a necessary part of the craft.
McKay sits up on the couch, edges closer to the screen. He still writes, but has still never shared his work with anyone. Even though alone, he says the words aloud:
"I'm a writer."
Scene 4: A sunny day, the late '70s, aerial view of the Los Angeles freeways.
The camera pans across the crowded freeway, closing in on an old car moving cautiously in the far-right lane as shiny sports cars zoom by. We see that Steven McKay is driving the old car. It is filled with his belongings; on the passenger seat is an unfinished screenplay titled The Difference.
The car drives around Los Angeles, through Beverly Hills. McKay buys a map of the stars' homes and gawks.
Voiceover of adult McKay: "I got a map and looked for Hollywood. It was stupid, it was naive--but what can I tell you? When all is said and done, I was just this dumb cowboy from Arizona who wanted to go be Mr. Big Shot in Hollywood. I'm gonna go save Burt Reynolds' career, or something. I look back now and it's funny. Then, it was the most serious thing in the world to me."
Scenes of McKay driving around Los Angeles, looking for an apartment. Lots of "No Vacancy" signs, beeping horns, imposing high-rises. The car goes up an entrance ramp to Interstate 5 and disappears under a freeway sign pointing the way south to San Diego.
Voiceover: "So I retreated to San Diego. I'd been to San Diego before. And it was a retreat--I make no bones about it. I was overwhelmed."
Scene 5: A public racquetball court in Mission Beach, San Diego.
McKay, dressed in shorts, bats a tennis ball at the wall. He looks lonely, despondent. The camera moves back, to reveal that another man, about McKay's age, is doing the same at the next court. The two men stop playing at the same time, bump into each other, strike up a conversation.
Cut to a tennis court. McKay and his new friend are playing singles. They take a water break, and the new friend, David Valdez, tells McKay he's in the movie business. Valdez lives in Los Angeles, but is on location, helping to direct a movie.
McKay's eyes light up. He tells Valdez about his writing aspirations--that he's never taken a class or read a book about screenplay writing, but has studied a yellowing copy of a completed screenplay given to him by a writer he met in Arizona.
Cut to a montage of quick scenes: Valdez showing McKay another script; McKay working on a film set in San Diego; Valdez introducing McKay to movie-industry players at a cocktail party; McKay writing feverishly; Valdez telling McKay that it's time for him to move to Los Angeles to try to sell his work.
Cut to a shot of McKay's car, heading north on I-5 under a sign pointing the way back to Los Angeles.
Scene 6: Studio City Dental, a bustling dentists' office in the San Fernando Valley, 1983.
McKay is leaning back in a dental chair, mouth packed, goofy on nitrous oxide. Dental assistants hover around the various chairs, tending to patients.
One of the assistants, a striking blonde named Jean Caperonis, strikes up conversations from time to time. A series of shots show that her acquaintance with McKay expands over the next few months.
One day, she overhears him telling the dentist that he often spends weekends in San Diego; Jean asks Steve if he can recommend a place for her to stay. She says she wants to get away from her husband for the weekend, do some soul searching.
Scene7: A room at the Hyatt Islandia hotel in San Diego, weeks later.
Steve and Jean in bed.
Voiceover: "I'm trying to be discreet about the description. The bottom line is that we wound up doing the wild thing that afternoon. And that was in her room. And I'm not going to go into the details, advantageous as they might be to me. Suffice it to say that she aggressively pursued the relationship."
Scenes of Steve and Jean dating; Jean breaking up with her husband; the day, a couple of years later, when Steve and Jean move into an apartment together to cut expenses.
Voiceover: "I had a great time with her. She was a lot of fun. I didn't feel like I had to punish myself, to start dating Satan's daughter or something."
Scene 8: The present. Jean Caperonis, a statuesque blonde, in her living room in Scottsdale.
Sitting on a chair, Caperonis appears to be lost in thought. The frame dissolves to a series of scenes from her three marriages, from careers in modeling and cocktail waitressing, from her work in dental offices and from her jobs sorting film for low-budget movies.
The focus moves to her relationship with McKay, and its gradual deterioration. Quick scenes dissolve one into another: Caperonis asks McKay to marry her. McKay tells her he's just not the marrying kind--at least, not this time. McKay sells his first script--Hard to Kill, which grosses $50 million at the box office. There are arguments over her emotional and household sloppiness; he claims he cannot concentrate on his work. McKay ends his relationship with Caperonis, moves to a $400,000 house in Palm Springs.
Caperonis hounds McKay, writing him letters, calling him, begging him to take her back. Reluctantly, he agrees. They decide to move to Scottsdale, his hometown.
McKay calls it the "Great Experiment." They agree Caperonis will work on films part-time in Los Angeles and pursue her own writing aspirations the rest of the time. They'll share household expenses.
He warns her he'll end the relationship again if she doesn't behave.
Scene 9: July 1993, a central Scottsdale ranch home.
Caperonis and McKay sit at the kitchen table. Get some paper, he says. I want you to write this down.
It's over, he tells her. You have begged me to marry you again, you aren't bringing money into the household, you're a mess. I want you out in two weeks.
He offers her a 1993 Jeep Cherokee he purchased in both their names, $1,200 a month, $10,000 toward a down payment on a condominium and an additional $5,000 if she'll leave her furniture and artwork.
Caperonis becomes hysterical.
McKay announces he's leaving that evening for Palm Springs. She is to pack and get out. She begs him to stay, grabs his keys and the two fight over them. Finally, he leaves.
For weeks, their only communication is via fax. When he returns to Scottsdale, he learns she has decided to sue him for half of everything and has gone to city court to secure a restraining order prohibiting him from throwing her out of the house.
Scene 10: Present time, McKay at the kitchen table.
He bites into a bialy spread with cream cheese and topped with lox, chews, then levels his gaze at the camera.
"For her to turn around boldly, after I end the relationship with her, to say all of the sudden that (his voice changes, mimicking a woman), 'Oh, wait a minute, he made a verbal contract with me back in June of 1984 that I was entitled to property that he didn't even know he owned yet.'
(Voice changes back) "It's so nonsensical. It's so stupid. It's so ridiculous on the face of it. Who would need a lawyer?"
McKay laughs a manic laugh, as the scene dissolves from the kitchen to a courtroom.
Scene 11: September 1993, Maricopa County Superior Court, Judge Thomas O'Toole's courtroom.
Caperonis is there with her lawyer, a young man named Greg Meell, an associate with the Phoenix firm Sherwood, Klein, Dudley and Abrams. The camera looks at him through McKay's eyes; Meell turns momentarily into Eddie Haskell from Leave It to Beaver.
McKay's lawyer is Don Lindholm, a seasoned, high-priced domestic-relations attorney with the firm Burch and Cracchiolo.
Judge O'Toole orders McKay to pay Caperonis $725 a month in support, and--because McKay refuses to allow her to drive the Jeep Cherokee--to rent her a car.
Scene 12: Fall 1993. Montage of shots of McKay in various lawyers' offices, courtrooms, and at home sorting through papers, receipts, typing on his computer. Interspersed, throughout: shots of his unused desk, through the months. The Synonym Finder and dictionaries gather dust, mail from Hollywood piles up, his writing pads are empty. The only thing that changes is the months on the desk calendar, which mark the time as it passes. Included in the montage of shots are scenes where McKay fills a three-inch binder cataloguing the most minute details of the litigation.
The camera shows Caperonis in court, presenting a judge with a pile of receipts she's signed, identifying herself as "Mrs. Jean Caperonis McKay" or "Mrs. Steven McKay," which, she tells the judge, identify the two as husband and wife.
In the next shot, back at his home, McKay leafs through copies of the receipts, stopping at a copy of a receipt from T&S Furniture warehouse in west Phoenix. The camera zooms in on the signature: "Jean Caperonis McKay."
The camera follows McKay as he gets in his car, drives to the west side, and asks a clerk to pull the original receipt.
Again, the camera zooms in on the signature. On the original, the signature is simply: "Jean Caperonis."
In the next shot, McKay sits at the computer, typing, the original receipt on the desk beside him. The camera pans to the computer screen, where McKay has typed:
CONCLUSIVE PROOF THAT JEAN CAPERONIS IS DISHONEST, MANIPULATIVE, AND CUNNING.
He prints the page, punches holes in it, and places it in the binder along with copies of the receipts.
Scene 13: Judge O'Toole's court, December 1993. A dog-custody hearing.
The court learns:
Cassius, the male Belgian Tervuren, has remained at home with McKay. Phoebe, the female, is with Caperonis. McKay purchased the dog himself, but she is registered in both McKay's and Caperonis' names.
Both parties want Phoebe.
Caperonis--aided by the dog's breeder and the president of the national Belgian Tervuren Club--argues that Cassius and McKay are not suitable companions for the dog.
McKay tells the court Phoebe should be returned home, to her playmate--and future stud--Cassius. McKay holds up a copy of a videotape and asks the judge to watch his daily routine with the dogs, which he feels will show how good a canine father he is.
Cut to dog tape, shot as home video. CAMERA SHAKES. McKay walks over to his bed, sits down.
"The purpose of this tape is to provide the court with a more complete and better-rounded picture of my dogs' lives and of their relationship with me."
The day begins with Phoebe nuzzling him awake, McKay says, adding that such favoritism by the dog always bothered Caperonis. Usually, the dogs would breakfast with Caperonis in the kitchen, because McKay is a late sleeper. But one day, a few weeks before McKay asked Caperonis to move out, McKay awoke to find a lump in the bed. It was Phoebe.
"She had tiptoed back here and got into bed with me. And what that moment told me was that she knew. And in all likelihood probably knew what was coming. I don't know how they do that, but I was raised with horses and dogs all my life, and I know that they do.
"At any rate, that's how our day starts, and we'll get on with it."
He rises, then pauses and reaches for a book on the nightstand.
"By the way, some interesting bedtime reading. (Picks up book from nightstand.) Walter Olson's The Litigation Explosion, and what happened when America unleashed the lawsuit.
"It's a must-read."
The video details McKay serving Cassius pot roast he has made specially for the dogs and taking Cassius for a walk. In the final scene, McKay sits on the family-room couch, Cassius asleep at his feet.
"Inevitably, they wind up conked out here at our feet, and often with Phoebe literally draped over one of mine.
"I hope this has given you a better picture of my dogs' lives outside of the two hours a week that they spend in training classes, and I hope that you'll keep all these things in mind when you're making your decision about where Phoebe should be for the interim period. She has been gone for four months, and I just want to emphasize that she had no say in her removal, and her being taken from her home and from Cassius, from me, had no bearing on her best interest or her well-being, and I'm sure that she misses us as much as we miss her. And I know that it must be her Christmas wish--wherever she is--that she be returned home.
"As we say in Hollywood, that's a wrap."
Cut to the courtroom. O'Toole refuses to look at the video, but allows Phoebe to return to McKay for Christmas.
Scene 14: O'Toole's Court, spring 1994.
McKay's attorney, Don Lindholm, argues that the judge should dismiss Caperonis' case because she didn't lay claim to half of McKay's assets when she filed for personal bankruptcy in 1991. Lindholm argues that the bankruptcy can never be reopened.
The judge disagrees. The case moves to U.S. Bankrupcty Court, where the bankruptcy is, indeed, reopened.
Scene 15: Summer 1994 to summer 1995, central Phoenix. More law offices, more courtrooms. Again, interspersed throughout, are shots of Mckay's desk as it gathers dust. Again, the calender marks the passing months.
Exterior shot of Steven McKay walking into Burch and Cracchiolo's red-brick offices. Interior shot of Don Lindholm introducing McKay to another lawyer, Howard Meyers, and explaining to McKay that Meyers is a bankruptcy expert.
The camera follows Meyers as he leads McKay into a conference room and closes the door.
Meyers recommends that McKay settle the bankruptcy, clearing the deck and eliminating any claim Caperonis may have on his assets.
McKay tells Meyers he will happily settle the bankruptcy, even though he is Caperonis' largest creditor. He tells Meyers he would much rather pay the innocent creditors than give Caperonis one more dime.
Cut to U.S. Bankruptcy Court. McKay watches as Judge Frederick Baum agrees to settle the bankruptcy for almost $20,000, to be paid by McKay--including $2,500 for the bankruptcy trustee. Repeatedly, McKay leans over and tries to get Meyers' attention. Meyers brushes him off, whispers that he shouldn't worry, everything's taken care of.
Cut to McKay at home. He walks outside to get the mail. Camera zooms to a bill from the rental-car company. McKay walks inside, calls Meyers.
Split screen: McKay on the phone in his central Scottsdale home; Meyers on his car phone.
McKay: "Now, this car thing?"
Meyers: "Stop paying the fucking car, okay?"
McKay: "Because it expires on the eighth--"
Meyers: "Stop paying the fucking car. . . . We got a settlement now. Fuck her. Okay?"
McKay: "Okay. Bye."
Cut to Baum's courtroom, April 1995.
This case is not over, Baum tells McKay.
Because the Jeep Cherokee was purchased after Caperonis filed for bankruptcy, it is not included in the settlement.
The case will now be sent back to state court, where the issue of the Jeep Cherokee--along with McKay's other postbankruptcy acquisitions--will be settled.
Then the judge announces he is holding McKay in contempt of court--and sanctioning him $1,000--for failing to make payments on the rental car.
Cut to McKay on the phone with Meyers, asking him to admit his mistake to Judge Baum. Meyers refuses. McKay fires Meyers.
Cut to close-up of first page of a lawsuit: Burch and Cracchiolo suing McKay for $27,000 in legal fees the firm alleges he has not paid.
Scene 16: A chorus of lawyers.
A dozen white men, dressed in dark suits, white oxford shirts and muted ties, stand in front of a wall of lawbooks, holding folders--as if in a choir.
One lifts his hand, as a cue, and together they sing, robustly,"No-oh-oh-oh-oh Commmmmennnnt."
The scene goes to black.
Scene 17: McKay sitting at his kitchen table, legal documents strewn around, a chunk of bialy left on the plate before him.
So that, he says, is my story.
Now, he tells the camera, Caperonis' lawsuit against him has been moved back to Maricopa County Superior Court. Just days ago, he received the latest word from the court: He still must pay for the rental car.
McKay picks up a document from the kitchen table and reads: "The court finds that any inequities which flow to defendant as a result of the amount of expense incurred are a result of defendant's decision to remove this matter to federal court."
McKay slaps the papers onto the table, disgusted, and tells the camera he's already paid almost $35,000 in rental-car fees and car insurance. The 1993 Jeep Cherokee only cost $15,000.
And still, his legal bills rack up. He has already paid Burch and Cracchiolo more than $75,000, not counting the $27,000 the firm says he still owes. Now he's paying another lawyer, Ken Schutt, to represent him in the lawsuit over those fees.
Looking at the camera, McKay vows to keep fighting, even though he knows he can't win.
"How do I win? Even if we had a summary judgment decision come down tomorrow that said, 'Okay, she was lying through her teeth, the law's on your side, you're all done now, you can go home,'--[it's] hundreds of thousands of dollars later and three years of my life."
And no--Oh, God, no--he's not obsessed.
"What in the hell do I have to be vindictive and bitter about toward her? I mean, I'm the one who tried to get rid of her. Who's obsessed here?"
He pauses, runs his hands over his hair.
"Obsessed? How am I obsessed by trying to simply get, I guess, what would be called a just end to it. I don't see that as obsessed."
When he ended the relationship with Caperonis, he says, he was only mad at himself--not her. He says he harbors no resentment against Caperonis, only the lawyers and judges who have wronged him.
To the end, McKay insists he'll never write a screenplay based on his real-life experiences. But just recently, he's started thinking that it would make a pretty good book.
And how would he end it?
McKay shrugs, laughs bitterly.
"Well, that's yet to be written. We don't know yet, do we?"
Scene 18: Credits roll. McKay gathers the papers on the kitchen table, and the camera follows him through the neat house to the room with the cluttered files. He busies himself, poring over documents.
The camera zooms in on his checkbook register and line after line of checks made out to lawyers and rental-car agencies. There are blank lines underneath, waiting to be filled in.
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