The Spirit of San Francisco

Wounded by the dot-com implosion, a copywriter becomes a screenwriter

I met Clark Brigham after my wife, Nina, had become friends with his wife, Nicola, because they had borne children at about the same time, which was the beginning of 1998. Actually, the wives met at a prenatal yoga class, and pretty soon, they and their husbands were going to one another's dinner parties. Back then, Clark was running a restaurant/bar on a scummy/edgy part of Mission Street; it was called Elysium, and it was a dark and cozy place to be for the young and restless. There were beat-up couches and living-room chairs in the front, and a nook you didn't look into unless you wanted to see people making out. The food was even pretty good, and the place was packed every time I went in.

Then, early in 1999, Clark came over to my apartment one Sunday morning and mentioned, in an offhand manner, that his landlord and one of the landlord's employees — a politically connected felon — appeared to be using government connections to take over his club. It was one of those funny journalistic moments; here was a friend, who'd been talking to me for months and knew I was always on the lookout for stories, but never thought to mention his situation, because he couldn't believe I'd be interested.

I passed the story idea to former Weekly columnist George Cothran, who did his usual excellent job of researching and wrote a piece that largely confirmed Clark's contentions. Here's how Cothran put it: “The alacrity with which San Francisco city government has jumped into service on behalf of [the landlord and the felonious employee] has been stunning. … [P]olice, fire, health, parking and traffic, and building inspection officials have all deluged the Elysium Cafe, interfering with business — even closing the cafe at times — and cutting deep into its cash flow, even though no serious legal violations have been found.”

Still, the dispute eventually wound up costing Clark and his investors the business.

Subsequently, Clark and Nicola moved to her native England and had a second child. In England, Clark worked as a copywriter for what was then the booming field of Internet advertising. In 2000, they moved back to Northern California, somehow figuring a way to buy a house in Bonny Doon, a small community in the mountains just north of Santa Cruz. Clark took a job in the creative department of a major Internet ad agency in San Francisco, commuting, semi-insanely, up Highway 1 from Santa Cruz to San Francisco and back. In the spring of 2001, as dot-coms crashed everywhere, the ad agency imploded, putting Clark out of a job, with two kids to feed. I was privately relieved; at least he wouldn't die hurtling off Highway 1 into the Pacific surf.

After six weeks of scrambling, he found a job at a boutique Internet ad agency, where he ran the creative department. He was fired, out of the blue, by people he considered friends, on Sept. 11, 2001, the day the World Trade Center and Pentagon were attacked by terrorists. He had just come out of a presentation at Sun Microsystems. Nicola was four months pregnant with their third child. The family financial situation was grim or, perhaps, worse. It was a dark and stormy night.

So Clark Brigham decided to write a screenplay.

Although I have a soft spot for aspiring writers and the chances they take to pursue their dreams, I now publicly admit that I felt Clark had gone completely round a very sharp bend, over a very tall cliff, and straight down, head-first, into the rocks below. Apparently, my feelings were not unique. “The decision to pursue this was completely insane by all accounts,” Clark cheerfully acknowledged last week. “Every single person that knows us or has ever known us or heard about it figured that I was crazy.”

Of course, Clark had his own reasons for doing what he did. “I had time on my hands, and I also — it was kind of a low-level mortality check, so to speak,” he said. “I realized I was 36, and if I didn't do it now, I probably wouldn't do it.

“So in September I discussed it with my wife, a very levelheaded woman from England, and I said, 'I'm going to write this script. And I don't know where the money's going to come from, but I have to write it.' For some really strange reason, she supported me completely. And we completely winged it.”

Against odds, the wings had lift, the script flew, and the movie Clark Brigham wrote and directed, Save It for Later, will premiere April 26 at the San Francisco International Film Festival. I couldn't be happier for him, because he is a friend, and I make no bones about hoping he has a long and successful career in film. But I'd be writing this column even if he weren't a friend, because how Save It for Later came to exist is, quite simply, an amazing story about people who believe — really, really believe — in San Francisco.

Clark Brigham had been interested in and working on films for a long time when I met him; I just didn't know it until I interviewed him last week. He studied English and film at UC Santa Barbara, graduating in 1991, and has been writing screenplays for 12 years. “I was writing them when I worked at Harris' restaurant. I was writing them when I worked at Firefly restaurant,” he says. “I lived here for 10 years, and I wrote the entire time.”

Also, he says, he was able to find work as a production assistant on S.F. filmmaker Rob Nilsson's Chalk, and borrow equipment and make short films in his spare time. None of Clark's earlier scripts or films went anywhere, and only a remarkable confluence of perseverance, courage, hustle, luck, and faith made Save It for Later any different.

While he was in England, Clark wrote a treatment — a synopsis that is often the basis on which films are first optioned or sold — for what eventually became Save It for Later. But with work, family, and other demands on his time, that was just about all he was able to write during his year in the U.K. and another year or so back in the U.S. After the 9/11 firing, though, he wrote full time, producing a first draft of a screenplay in a couple of months. Then, in Santa Cruz of all places, he found an angel of an investor who “gave me a little bit of money to develop the script; enough to live on. I was sort of able to rewrite it … about 12 times.”

Over the next months, Clark says, he kept rewriting the script and showing it to anyone who would look; eventually, some L.A. producers became interested. “They really wanted to change the nature of the story and the nature of the character, but it obviously was viable at that point,” Clark says. “And I was fortunate to get a lot of feedback from a couple of big studios. … And I just started going to these insane meetings where, well, people in middle management had a lot of different opinions about the direction for the story.

“It was funny and scary, because it looked like I was going to be able to make the film, but it wasn't going to be my film.”

During this time, of course, Clark had help from longtime friends, among them Sara Gorr and Richard Taylor, credited as producers of the film. They were, in essence, developing a script, preparing to film, and attempting to find funding, not just in Hollywood, but anywhere. Then came a stroke of what even Clark admits is amazing, 11th-hour luck: “A local private investor fell in love with the film.”

With a low-seven-figure budget provided by a San Franciscan who absolutely wants to remain anonymous, Clark Brigham set out to make a feature film entirely about San Francisco, entirely in San Francisco, in a very short time.

Scott Cooper (most recently in the Civil War epic Gods and Generals) said that when his agent sent him the Save It for Later script, he immediately identified with its characters and quickly set a meeting with Clark, with whom he developed “instant rapport.” Cooper agreed to play the male lead and came to the indie production almost straight from the set of Gods and Generals and its $90 million budget. Money, of course, makes a difference, but Cooper says production of Save It for Later went smoothly, in part because Clark knew the characters and story so well.

“You couldn't find a sweeter guy,” Cooper says. “He's just a sweetheart, and we all wanted to do our best work. … I hope and think that we have achieved that.”

I've seen Save It for Later, which clearly has a cast — including Gabrielle Anwar (Scent of a Woman) and Theresa Russell (The Believer; Wild Things) — and crew that are a cut above what many an indie production attracts. But I'm not going to give you my appraisal, or suggest you see it, or even give a plot synopsis, because my recommendation or description would be inherently unreliable; Clark Brigham is my friend, and I'm unapologetically biased in his favor.

No, I'm just going to leave the story of the making of Save It for Later right where it is. You already know that someone risked everything — maxed out credit cards, borrowed money, endured a multitude of what Clark Brigham calls “dark, wet-ass nights” — to make the film he wanted to make, in and about the only place he wants to live and work. You know that his hometown film festival was impressed enough to premiere the work, even though it came as a late entry. You know that you have the opportunity to see, for yourself, whether the resulting film was worth the risk.

Knowing all that, if you don't want to see Save It for Later, you're just not curious enough to be reading my columns, and you really ought to stop.

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