Tom Epson and his wife Stephanie Ames are leaving town for Santa Fe in early May – another player from the 90’s and early 2000’s film era.
They are now scattered for a while, anywhere except Long Island, Palm Springs, DC, Serbia, Los Angeles. The local climate is still good. But the film industry, if that anacronistic term still applies, was less friendly to mature, mature talents who mastered the art of making popular, adult, full-screen films in a self-contained two-hour format. So they bail out, many of them, thinking it’s better to start anew somewhere else than to sit around a table at Brentwood Country Mart and talk about what it was like before.
Thomas was never a family name. But he was well-known to executives, producers, and directors who first confronted him as the more relentless half of a screenwriter duo, universally known as “Tom and Billy.” Single-name status was a big issue in the 1990s. Tom and Billy kind of had it, but you don’t mention the other one. “Billy” was, and is, Billy Bob Thornton, who eventually made a separate career as an actor, director, musician, singer, and celebrity.
Tom remains a writer, collecting credits, often with Billy, in some well-remembered films, including One false step, A family affairAnd The gift. He is a fine craftsman. Even scripts that were never made – for example, Otis Redding and Merle Haggard’s possible biopics – had a professional aura that was somehow evident in the first five pages of a serious screenplay.
Those who have worked with Tom and Billy have never tried their process in depth. Billy was so stingy, he wouldn’t pitch a story twice in front of the same people, including Tom. Tom, for his part, was reasonable, but no longer tended to tolerate stupid ideas. I once saw him sitting quietly when a famous actor’s manager just wanted a final polish, which included a handful of thoughts that were consistent with the basic principles of Scientology.
“So, Tom, can you do it?” Asked the manager.
“No,” said Tom, “I remember wearing sunglasses throughout the encounter.”
No explanation. No discussion. Just, “No.” The film’s financier, who was present, hit the top of his desk so hard that the bottom fell. “That was a good meetingHe gasped.
Although I only met Tom and Billy in the 1990’s, while we were working, with Robert Duvall and his chief lieutenant, Brad Wilson, on the Haggard project, I found a small connection between the two. We are almost the same age. If I think correctly, we landed in Los Angeles at about the same time, in 1982, they were from Arkansas, I was from Detroit to San Francisco. The three of us were pretty dilapidated, and, as we later learned, were living in rubbish apartments within a block or two of each other in the Palms District, with the prospect of becoming a Sony lot. When nothing better is offered, we’ll have dinner and drinks at the same local dive, DB Cooper, but never seen. Fifteen years later, finally inside the walls of Sony, up to our mutual necks in the madness of Cinemaland.
Tom and Stephanie bought a house in Culver City, very nice, on the other side of the lot. Eventually, he got back to what he had always wanted to do, namely writing novels.
His latest, is called Believe me, About a screenwriter who comes from somewhere, but actually goes somewhere in the horrible, glorious churning of Hollywood, as it was just a few years ago. The book is very funny. But it’s also painfully well-known — enough that I have to think that those of us who have spent decades in and around our lives, the great movie business has wasted our time, perhaps, a dead culture.
Tom doesn’t say. He summed up the good parts in an email: “I’ve made some proud movies. LA has expanded the horizons of a small town in Arkansas. I’ve met people from all over the country and the world, including a lot of horrible people.”
Plus, he got the material for it Believe me.
Yes, Tom and Stephanie are leaving next month. But they have left at least one good book.