Dave sits down with scripter Ted Williams to learn about how a stopgap phone op job led to his first produced screenplay.
If you look past the likes of Russell Harvard (There Will Be Blood (2007)), Linda Bove (Sesame Street) and Sean Berdy (Switched at Birth), the deaf community in America tends to suffer from a definite lack of on-screen representation. In terms of both activism and leadership, though, there can’t be a better role model than Marlee Matlin. Awarded an Oscar for her stunning performance in Children of a Lesser God (1986) and turning in dynamite performances in the likes of Hear No Evil (1993), she brings a degree class to films that aren’t quite held in the same esteem.
Despite its best intentions, TWO SHADES OF BLUE (1999) is one such beast: a decent film weakened by mediocre direction and an ending that stretches credibility to breaking point. However, its ingenuity cannot be questioned, and at its heart lies a concept that, while seemingly improbable, is rooted in reality. Moreover, the picture’s making comes with its own tale of representation, too.
“I saw an ad in the paper for relay operators for the hearing impaired, you had to type eighty-five words a minute,” recalls screenwriter Ted Williams. “I’d always had ambitions to head for Hollywood, and I’d forever been making movies with my friends. Little did I realise this job would be the catalyst.”
“I was operator 060 and we would sit in these cubes, pretty much like the movie, which were all glass, then of course we’d have to relay for the deaf caller. That means that we’d read what they type on a monitor, then relay it verbally to the non-hearing-impaired person at the end of the phone. We were meant to be transparent, but sometimes you’d get calls from people who were getting a little, you know… steamy [laughs]. You would hear them basically having phone sex. If you weren’t comfortable, you could have a girl take it, but they’d be making plans to meet up – and at times it felt like they were talking to me! I said to my co-workers that this would be a great idea for a movie. So I wrote it.”
Hailing from Sacramento, Williams’ desire to make it in Hollywood is a testament to his tenacity:
“Back in the day you could go to these bookstores and scour The Creative Directory, which was a list of managers and agents who were based in L.A. There was no Google! I would write these query letters, one-hundred and fifty of them, and in that directory, I only made it up to the letter ‘G’ as I got four responses, of which one seemed very interested – Richard Glasser. He, of course, is the father of David Glasser [Harvey Weinstein’s former right-hand man], but I don’t want to talk about him – [whispers] he still owes me money! They asked me to lunch in L.A. at Jerry’s Deli, Richard and David, and they all had that Cheshire cat grin, and they presented me with a contract on the spot. They said, “You’re either high on drugs or you’re brilliant.” I took the latter.”
“It seemed to take forever to get made, but one Christmas they invited me out to their house in Encino, and they gave me a present: a one-sheet for Two Shades of Blue! They started filming it in the January, and my boss at Disney, who I was working with at the time, said I could take a few weeks off so I could go over to the set and see what was going on. They were strong on [director] Jim Deck, as he’d recently been 1st AD on The Usual Suspects (1995), but with all due respect, I think I could have done a better job [laughs].”
Williams’ former employment did indeed form the basis for the story, which centres on Susan Price (Rachel Hunter): a bestselling author framed for the murder of her fiancé, Jack Reynolds (Gary Busey in fine form). After making an opportunistic escape from custody, she takes cover as a relay operator (060 no less) in the hope of contacting district attorney Beth McDaniels (Marlee Matlin) – a woman who’s not only deaf, but also the key to Price’s exoneration…
When Two Shades of Blue is good, it’s really good. The scenes set in the environment of relay operation work to perfection. There’s a voyeuristic nature to them, encapsulated through McDaniels’ conversations with her lover, Calvin Stasi (Eric Roberts). Stasi’s designs are questionable from the outset – but the sequence in which he encourages her to masturbate is an awesome scene of jaw-dropping eroticism with an aftertaste of hilarity. The entire act has to be conducted by an initially aghast Price, who verbalises every one of McDaniels’ moans with increasing gusto. It’s a phone sex ménage à trois, even if such wanton lust is swiftly curtailed by the contorted face of her prudish supervisor. Williams’ Hitchcockian premise is diminished somewhat by Deck’s non-linear tendencies, while an overreliance on convenient plotting seems excessive considering how plausible the storyline is. Still, the ensemble is near faultless, with special mention to hearing impaired actor Anthony Natale as Price’s relay centre romance. He adds a much-needed touch of chivalry to a film whose male characters are universally awful individuals.
For an ambitious black screenwriter, the whole experience of Two Shades of Blue is one Williams looks back on with immense pride, even if there were elements that would hopefully be very different in today’s (slightly) more inclusive culture.
“It’s funny. I showed up on-set, and you see the Panavision trucks, the signs, and Rachel Hunter – wow! A dream come true. But y’know, here I am, the only black guy on the set,” sighs Williams.
“But Dave, to preface that, I must emphasise that this was the late ‘90s. Thankfully, today everything is about diversity. I was a little upset that there weren’t more people of colour in my movie, especially considering that I was black. I tried to get some of my friends on the crew who were in production design and wardrobe, but they didn’t hire them. That carries on in so many aspects of the industry too. For example, I worked in reality TV for a period of time and I was on a show called Love & Hip-Hop. They had an all-black cast… Yet I was the only black male working in the story department. Lots of black females, but not black guys.”
“But hey, I got my movie made. You see a lot of folks at Starbucks with their laptops, trying to write their script, but my persistence paid off, and no matter what I do, I will always have written a movie that starred an Academy Award winning actor.”