Simon Lewis was a Hollywood producer on the rise before an accident took his wife's life and nearly his own...
This is a Hollywood story, and it starts simply: A car drives through the streets of Los Angeles. It is March 2, 1994, and behind the wheel sits a man who has found a level of success that eludes the desperate majority here. Simon Lewis is a film producer and, at 35, an accomplished one. His is not a household name, but it is becoming an industry one. He makes light stuff mostly, and brings it in on time.
Lewis’s path to Hollywood began with plans to become a lawyer. At 19, he’d emigrated with his parents and siblings from Wimbledon, in London, to Southern California, and headed straight to UC Berkeley to earn a law degree. But film and theater were his passions. Even as a boy he’d been a natural producer. He read Macbeth at 12 and liked it, so he sat down, took out some paper, and began adapting it into a screenplay. He wrote for eight months. Then, with Rushmore-ian
panache, he found a camera, corralled his classmates, assigned them parts, and convinced them to spend two years shooting. His mother supplied the catering. There were early-’70s
technical challenges. To add the audio, he projected the footage on a wall at his house and recorded his actors speaking their lines in sync with their moving mouths. A perfectionist, Lewis hadn’t wanted to record the rattle of the projector, so he moved his cast outside, into the yard. They spoke their lines into a boom mic while watching the footage through his living room window. Later he’d finagled a volunteer gig running the lights at the local theater, just to be part of things.
With his degree from Berkeley, he’d maneuvered his way into entertainment law, which led to managing talent, which eventually led to producing. Lewis had thick curls and steady, clear blue eyes. He was that special and simple genre of person who does all that he sets out to do.
The Simon Lewis driving down the road on this early California evening does not make complex or particularly profound movies. He makes small and sometimes cheesy movies. In Slipping Into Darkness, from 1988, three snobby college girls fall into a horror-style revenge plot with some biker dudes. InYou Can’t Hurry Love, from the same year, modern-day dating is skewered: video-dating-service antics, lousy matches, true love at last. The New York Times called it “a very dim comedy.”
The paper had no words at all for 1989’s C.H.U.D. II: Bud the C.H.U.D. In it, a science-lab cadaver gets improbably loose early on and a bitchin’ ’80s drum track kicks in. Then a bookish high school student exclaims “Oh,” and his jeans-jacket-wearing buddy exclaims “Shit!” and an insane guitar solo screams. Via lurching plot points, their small town is overtaken by cannibalistic zombie types. Even a tiny poodle becomes a zombie, and the guitar solos keep coming and coming.
It wasn’t Shakespeare, but Lewis was diligent and professional, and people liked him, and he possessed the mysterious Hollywood gene—part drive, part charm, part genius for packaging ideas—that made things happen. Still, it wasn’t until a particularly hokey project fell in his lap in the late ’80s that he hit it big.
The film seemed destined for instant obscurity: a sarcastic baby whose thoughts the audience can somehow hear. It was one of many films then being shot cheaply in Canada in the hopes of bringing in just enough for a small profit. The actors who agreed to star were hardly A-list. John Travolta was a has-been from the ’70s and Kirstie Alley a little-known TV actress. Lewis loved it immediately.
As co-producer he quickly began pushing Look Who’s Talking to be far more ambitious than what the studio had in mind. It was as though a line cook from Burger King had shown up in chef’s whites and proceeded to set each table with the finest silver. Lewis was sweet and politic, but he could play hardball. At one point, about to fly to Canada to begin filming, he simply refused to take a call from executives, sensing that they might cancel the trip—and maybe the project. He got on his plane and made sure the shoot happened.
The real trouble began when filming was finished and TriStar received the final cut. One must mind-warp back to the late ’80s to accept the following truth: The film was too good.
Having planned for a modest release, TriStar suddenly found itself sitting on a potential hit. The studio’s first impulse was skepticism. When Lewis and his fellow producers market-tested an early cut, the assembled viewers responded so enthusiastically that TriStar seemed to think they were plants. The studio decided to conduct its own test at an undisclosed location. The scores were even higher.
Following a last-minute scramble, Look Who’s Talking was released in October 1989 at 1,200 theaters across the country. It was an instant smash, a record breaker. Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, When Harry Met Sally, and The Little Mermaid all came out that year, and Look Who’s Talking beat each of them at the box office; it beat Field of Dreams and Born on the Fourth of July combined.
After Look Who’s Talking, Lewis was never busier. He executive produced an Emmy-winning TV movie called Age-Old Friends and some variety specials starring Howie Mandel. He brought Universal Studios an idea for a don’t-mess-with-nature sci-fi/horror film about a biosphere gone awry. Universal liked it and paid Lewis and other writers to develop the script, though ultimately the project foundered. No matter; Lewis had other irons in the fire. He’d been invited to teach film to grad students at USC, and he had a meeting scheduled with a director and producer at Sony Classics regarding a soon-to-be Nick Nolte film.
But that’s tomorrow. On this night, March 2, 1994, Lewis has an entirely different sphere of his life to celebrate.
He met Marcy by chance—a shared drive to a ski cabin on a vacation with mutual friends—less than two years earlier. By the time they reached Fresno, there had been no question; in a year, they were married. She was talkative and vivacious to his pale British bookishness. On a trip to Hawaii, she sunned on the sand while Simon scrunched into the narrow shadow of a palm tree, bent over scripts. Someone had once predicted Marcy would marry a left-handed Englishman. Simon was ambidextrous. Close enough, they decided. They adored each other.
And now Marcy is in the passenger’s seat. Simon has picked her up from work—at 27 she is marketing director at downtown L.A.’s Music Center—and they are back on the road. The two have been married just five months and are celebrating their first major purchase together: a sleek new Infiniti only two days old. In the way that one splurge begets another, they are treating themselves to dinner at their favorite Italian restaurant. Had Simon paused to tie a shoe before getting in the car, or had Marcy made one more phone call, everything would have ended differently.
It’s hard now not to see that March night unfolding cinematically—as Lewis himself, at a pitch meeting or on a set, might have described it. Random events are inserted into a timeline, actions imbued with meaning. Hollywood is in the business of making sense of things—a ridiculous sort of sense, often enough, but sense all the same. A two-day-old car bearing a young couple to dinner assumes all the hope and innocence of youth. A white ’78 Chevy van, also bought two days earlier, turns on to a tree-lined residential street, and a horrible plot is set in motion.
Around 7 p.m., Simon and Marcy are heading west on Beverly Boulevard, nearly at the restaurant. Marcy mentions that they are close to her boss’s home, which has recently been renovated, and suggests they make a detour to see it. At that moment the white van screams full-speed through a stop sign at McCadden Place. Maybe the driver is thinking he will miraculously thread the five lanes of traffic. Maybe he is too drunk to think.
The van rams Lewis’s side of the Infiniti at 75 miles per hour, bulldozing it sideways across the remaining lanes until it hits the curb. There is nowhere to go but up. The car flies and spins through the air until its path is interrupted by a maple tree on the corner of Beverly and McCadden. It slams into the tree several feet up the trunk, then comes to rest in a nearby garden.
Neighbors will later say they thought it was an earthquake or a bomb. One couple ducks under the dinner table. When they finally run outside, they come upon a scene of chaos and carnage. The Infiniti is scarcely recognizable as a car. The van looks oddly normal at first, except it is upside down, its wheels still spinning. Witnesses see a young man sprinting up McCadden, presumably to find help.
A screenwriter couple—colleagues of Lewis’s, incredibly—are driving to dinner when they come upon the accident. They park and run over. Lewis’s body has been crushed into the collapsed space between the center console, the driver’s-side door, and the steering column. Standing just two feet away, his colleagues do not recognize him.
Moving to the passenger side, they see that neither occupant can be removed without dismantling the car. The wife hands flares to a meter maid who’d been in the area and waits for help. An off-duty paramedic has already called 911. No survivors, he reports.
It takes over an hour and two Jaws of Life tools for the rescue team to splay the Infiniti open. The car still bears dealer plates, and with no access to Lewis’s wallet, the police scrawl “UNK” on the collision report. The driver of the van is a mystery, too. That fellow sprinting up McCadden was not getting help: He was putting as much distance as possible between himself and the newlyweds whose lives he’d just annihilated.
LAPD detectives will eventually discover that the van has been purchased with cash two days earlier. They’ll find an address for the driver, but he’ll have cleared out by the time they get there. California is the nation’s capital of hit-and-runs, and Los Angeles has the most in the state; half of the 50,000-plus non-highway accidents reported to the LAPD the previous year were hit-and-runs. This night a man in his twenties or thirties joins thousands of other motorists who cause accidents, flee, and then slip undetected back into ordinary life.
The extraction team shears the roof and doors off the Infiniti. Marcy’s face has no blood on it; she looks like she is sleeping. Simon, for his part, is shattered in every way possible. When at last they get to him, rescuers are shocked to discover he has a pulse. They slice through his seatbelt, cut off his clothes, and ease his broken body into an ambulance.
Inside his smashed skull, his brain has begun to swell. Ruptured blood vessels leak, causing more oxygen to be needed, thereby causing the swelling to increase and, with nowhere for it to go, to destroy more and more brain tissue. The paramedics slip on a bag-valve mask and flow meter that feeds oxygen into his lungs, but pressure within his skull is skyrocketing. As the team speeds him to Cedars-Sinai, two miles away, blood begins to trickle from his ears.
Later, a doctor will suggest that being stuck in the wreckage all that time might have kept him alive. Because rescuers couldn’t extract and wrap him in blankets, Lewis’s body temperature fell to hypothermic levels. Death went into slow-motion.
Before the protagonist can be remade, he must lose everything. Before the third act must come the twist. And before a once ordinary man starts saying strange things about a river of time and the slope of consciousness, there must first be just the banal awfulness of a mangled body.
Lewis had been crushed. He was hemorrhaging internally, and blood was filling every available space under his skin. By the time he was admitted at Cedars-Sinai—John Doe #584291, birth date 00-00-0000—his body had swollen to twice its normal size.
His brain was in crisis. Intracranial hematoma—the pooling of blood within the head, caused by a vessel rupture—falls into three main types: epidural (outside the brain and its fibrous covering, the dura), subdural (between the brain and the dura), and intraparenchymal (within the brain tissue itself). Lewis had all three. What’s more, it appeared that a full third of his right hemisphere had been destroyed. There was no time to worry about what that would mean. Blood continued to pump throughout his skull, even into the soft tissue around his eye sockets. His eyes bulged black with periorbital ecchymosis—what doctors call raccoon eyes.
The average human carries about 10 to 12 units of blood—a carton and a half of milk, roughly. Forty-five units of new blood would be pumped into Lewis that night. The transfusions washed right through, but they kept his cells alive. The surgeon pumped surgical gel into the body in an attempt to seal the blood vessels and applied compression around the exterior of the body—a series of tourniquets, essentially.
An emergency craniotomy was authorized next, to remove the hematomas from within Lewis’s skull. But he had sustained a massive stroke and slipped into the deepest level of coma possible, the Glasgow Level 3. His body was shutting down.
In the trunk of the Infiniti, police had found a day planner containing names and numbers. Sometime after eleven on that night, the phone rang at the home of Lewis’s parents, in Sherman Oaks. His mother answered.
“Is this ... Mrs. Patricia Lewis?” a voice asked.
“Yes, who are you?”
“Are you alone?”
“No, I’m with my husband. Who is this?” she replied.
“May I speak to ... Mr. Basil Lewis?”
“Not until you tell me who you are,” she said, British willfulness coming on.
Another pause, and then a new voice.
“This is Detective Pearson, West Traffic Division. Marcy Lewis is dead and your son is critical.”
Lewis’s mother is perhaps the toughest of the family: no nonsense, stiff upper lip, all that. She crumbled. Lewis’s father took the phone and listened to the detective. Then he hung up and took his wife’s hands.
“Our son is still alive, and he needs us to be strong for him,” he said softly. They had no idea what that would mean.
Because we saw too many soap operas as kids, or because its contours are improbable, or because we just can’t bear to believe such a thing is real, there’s something otherworldly about a coma. In reality, of course, comas are simply mundane and awful. Loved ones don’t whisper just the right thing at just the right time, causing the patient magically to revive. More often at this level of injury, all that comes is death or a persistent vegetative state. A few hours at level three and doctors assume permanent damage to the brain, should the patient be lucky enough to wake at all. Lewis’s parents sat by their comatose son for four weeks.
Then one day in April, Lewis’s eyes opened.
He looked around without curiosity. He didn’t feel reborn, as the formulation has it; he had no recollection of even having lived before, no sense of self, no sense of there being anybody or anything dwelling within. Nor did he seem to care. A voice from nowhere asked his name. How could a person just born into this world have a name? More compelling was his new conviction that time was somehow a river, and he was somehow in the midst of it, and it was somehow flowing from the future back toward him.
The voice asked again. What is your name?
“Simon,” his mouth murmured, his first word in a month.
“Do you know where you are?”
Less luck with this question. It seemed ... a trick somehow. His eyes closed and sleep came over him. Later, he awoke with a sense of threat. His parents came into the room and he told them, “There are monsters in the mountains, but no one must know.” His mother promised to take care of it.
Later, on the way home, Lewis’s father turned to her.
“I’ve just realized something,” he said. “Simon doesn’t know he was in an accident.”
The next morning, his parents hung a sign on the door to room 7123: “No visitors allowed. Do not refer to patient’s wife.”
The days ran together during those first couple weeks. When awake, Lewis marveled at light and shadow, was staggered by the sparkling of the sun on the blinds. At times he felt a kind of ecstasy. Other times he was immobilized in a physical world he didn’t recognize. He saw an object on a wall and eventually came to remember that it was called a clock. But he didn’t know what it did or how time worked.
At one point a nurse offered to give Lewis a bed bath. His jaw was wired shut so he smiled a yes. He thought she’d offered a bird bath. He wondered why she thought he was a bird, but the idea didn’t seem strange. That spring his mother mentioned the Oscars. “What’s that?” he mumbled. He took to watching shows and movies based on children’s books: The Wind in the Willows, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. He was curious about Toad of Toad Hall. He considered Narnia a natural and real place.
Lewis’s grandmother used to complain of loneliness and boredom, of how all she had were the four walls. With the cruel innocence of youth, he would say, he and his brothers joked that she never mentioned the ceiling or floor. But at the hospital he wasn’t bored or lonely. He could achieve neither state of mind any more than a goldfish could.
One night in April, Lewis experienced a strange feeling of deep, ancient memory. It felt familiar, and he found himself recalling, vaguely, a series of visions from his weeks in the coma. They were primal and rudimentary—different from ordinary dreams. The visions returned frequently during his time in the hospital, seemingly born of a mind far wilder than the one he’d known before the accident.
In a moment of thirst I see a hotel in the desert.... The desert ... takes me to ... a prehistoric settlement in Israel where I’ve lived for many generations.
A town built on the water during Prohibition... I am helping to run whiskey.... At my wormhole between two universes, of the physical and the mind, my boat sails on, now in Southeast Asia.
It’s cold, wintry cold, and I see a zoo with many animals.... I am traveling with a great opera company....
Time becomes a river that I watch, flowing from the boundless horizon of the future to the present.
Weeks out of his coma, he found himself aware of a river again. He was on a boat, rain drumming the cabin roof. A woman stood by his side. He realized she’d been by his side through other memories, too. All at once, sometime before dawn, he remembered Marcy. The feeling was pure joy, a sense of completion.
He couldn’t wait to tell someone the wonderful news. At last a nurse came to turn him.
“I’m married to Marcy!” he whispered through his teeth.
“That’s very nice, Simon,” she replied, then went to phone his parents. The remaining hours of the night were his last with the full happiness of Marcy’s love. He did not question where she was or why she had not been mentioned. In the morning his parents returned.
“I’m married,” he repeated. “To Marcy.”
His mother looked at him and prepared to do the last thing a parent ever wishes to do: She took her son’s happiness away.
“She died, Simon. You were in an accident and Marcy died.”
Lewis was lost in a fog of grief and medical deluge. In addition to his skull, his collarbone, pelvis, jaw, both arms, and all but two ribs had also been crushed. A third of the right hemisphere of his brain had been destroyed. Each catastrophic injury bore its own constellation of crises. One day while Lewis was still at Cedars-Sinai, a doctor-in-training came to conduct a psychological evaluation. Before leaving, he leaned in with some words of wisdom.
“It’s difficult for you to come to terms with this now,” he said, and then brightened. “But you’ll look back one day and see how this experience made you a better, stronger person.”
Lewis was in no shape to confront the suggestion that his wife’s death would improve him. His mother, though, felt perfectly equal to the job. Stepping up to the man, she said, “We hope one day your wife dies this way and someone tells you it’s for the best.”
The days had turned to weeks for Lewis, and the weeks now turned to months. He would move back into his parents’ house that summer, 1994, but that was just the beginning of a seemingly endless medical journey. No sooner would he recuperate from one grueling surgery than he’d be back for another. The months turned to years. His recovery lasted a decade and a half.
He existed in a haze for much of that time—a one-man city of Los Angeles. He slept and he watched the pine trees in his parents’ backyard, sometimes for hours on end; he felt he could see them grow. He slept some more. Occasionally, he went with his mother to appointments, and after a number of years, he began to read and to appreciate movies again. But mostly he just existed, bobbing in and out of consciousness of the world outside his parents’ front door: the Oklahoma City bombing, Princess Diana’s death, the Unabomber, the rise of email and the Internet, Columbine, Monica Lewinsky, cell phones, Bush/Gore. Even 9/11 was an indistinct catastrophe very far from his small, quiet life down the hall from his parents.
In Washington Irving’s famous story, Rip Van Winkle’s epic nap removes him from his life for 20 years. When he finally awakens and makes his way out of the forest, he discovers a world he doesn’t recognize. His wife and friends have died, the American Revolution has been won, and another man now answers to Rip Van Winkle—his son, it turns out. (He’s a little relieved at his wife’s death, and he’s as idle as ever. It’s sort of a weird story.)
Haunting as it is, there’s something tidy about Irving’s tale—the sudden awakening, Van Winkle’s return to his old ways. Lewis’s awakening, by comparison, happened in fits and starts. The fog lifted only gradually. He moved up and down “a slope of consciousness,” as he put it: Some days he neared the lucid peak, thanks to an intense regimen of cognitive therapy. Other days he found himself slipping to murky depths. At one point he could not seem to grasp the concept of a line. At another his mother had to send one of his brothers to deliver a basic explanation: If one person is taller than another, that second person is shorter.
Incredibly, Lewis’s intellect would appear to fully recover over the years, thanks to his relentless cognitive-therapy routine—and the remarkable elasticity of the human brain. (Today his pleasure reading includes articles on quantum theory.) But if his IQ was ultimately shown to be undiminished, his mind wasn’t untouched altogether. Gradually, a thicket of strange new mental quirks revealed themselves, disruptions that shifted the way he processed the world and moved through it.
Lewis recalls his cognitive therapist once presenting him with half a dozen illustrated cards spread out face up in front of him: a broken glass on the floor next to a table, an intact glass on the table, a surprised look on a man’s face, and so on. She asked Lewis to put them into sequence. He stared at them for over an hour. Even after accepting the dubious idea that some kind of order could be imposed on these images, he considered it just as likely that the glass began broken on the floor, then made its way up to the tabletop. It was as if he had lost a connection to linear events.
As the fog lifted in the years after the crash, he began to notice something different about how he himself moved through time. His thoughts were as rational as ever, his recall decent for a middle-aged man. But chronology was scrambled. Remembering that morning’s breakfast presented no difficulty, nor would remembering a conversation from the previous week. He just couldn’t always say which came first. Lewis described his symptoms to his cognitive therapist several years into his recovery. She replied that “flat time” was a frequent consequence of brain injury.
Flat time was paired with another, even stranger, cognitive quirk. Back home one afternoon not long after the accident, Lewis walked directly into a pine tree in his parents’ backyard. His mother brought him to Alan Brodney, a developmental optometrist on staff at Cedars-Sinai. Brodney frequently treats patients with visual impairment caused by traumatic brain injury, and at first he assumed Lewis had simply lost his left visual field, a common consequence of damage to the right side of the brain. Then he ran a test and discovered something astonishing.
Holding up different pieces of paper in the blind area, Brodney confirmed that indeed Lewis saw nothing. But when asked to name the colors of the paper, Lewis got most right. After a slew of subsequent tests, Brodney diagnosed him with blindsight, an obscure and paradoxical condition that might as well have been invented by a screenwriter. Lewis was partly blind—but he could see through those blind spots, albeit without quite being aware of doing so.
The condition was discovered decades ago, and researchers believe it’s something of a workaround in certain traumatized brains. With ordinary vision, visual information follows a sophisticated route from the eye, through the thalamus, to the visual cortex. When injury shuts this avenue down, blindsight can offer a detour: That visual information takes a more primitive pathway through the brainstem. This pathway is typically associated with reflexive behavior and is more prominent in lower mammals, birds, and reptiles.
“It’s not common,” Mel Goodale told me. Goodale is director of the Centre for Brain and Mind at the University of Western Ontario and a leading blindsight researcher. “You have to have a brain lesion that’s large enough to cause blindness, but not so large to damage the other pathways.”
In one video of a much-researched patient, a man walks down a hallway strewn with debris. Unlike Lewis’s left-field blindness, this patient couldn’t see at all. But guided by his more primitive visual system, he moves to the left to avoid a garbage can, then to the right to miss a camera tripod, navigating the hall as if he can see. With therapy and training, Lewis became similarly adept. He sidestepped trees, though he wouldn’t necessarily see them—not consciously, anyway. As Brodney put it, an array of visual information was bypassing his conscious mind and going straight into his subconscious.
Driven by his strange new conditions, Simon became increasingly curious about his inner world. Upon his discovery of a stash of notes he’d scribbled in the earlier, hazier days of recovery, a rusty producer’s switch seemed to flip in his head. Doctors continued to work on him, but he insisted that his mother set up a computer in his bedroom. Glacially, painstakingly, he taught himself to write again.
Lewis’s first project would be to piece together the story of his accident and recovery. With help from his mother, he began to get in touch with nearly everyone who’d figured into both, from witnesses to medical practitioners. He became a reporter covering his own life—excavating the intricacies of each medical milepost and insurance absurdity with patience and curiosity. He’d been thorough as a producer, but he now had the mystery of those lost years driving his own kind of production.
Lewis didn’t just want an excuse to recount his own miraculous recovery. An obsessively gentle sensibility took hold after the crash, and any suffering in the world seemed to physically pain him. Maybe his writing could help the other 5 million Americans living with traumatic brain injury. To the surprise of Lewis and his family, a book began to take shape.
In 2010, Rise and Shine was published by a small house called Santa Monica Press. It’s remarkably detailed, a punctilious chronology of Lewis’s medical journey and the recovery of his mental faculties. And though the book is not predominantly about his emotional transformation, an impressive candor occasionally surfaces:
So many moments of our lives are beyond expression, but like everything else, there’s an industry of grief experts armed with terminology that talk about “closure” and cleanly defined “stages of grief.” They repeat the cliché that “time heals.” Many people, I’m sure, find comfort in counselors, but I didn’t feel my grief was something I could define, work through on some kind of schedule, and then move on. I still regard the word “closure” as politically correct fiction, an expectation imposed on people who have suffered by those who have not.
The book didn’t shoot to the top of the bestseller list, but it got things moving in his life—including netting him an invitation to speak at the 2010 INK conference in Lavasa, India, a celebrity-thinker-infused offshoot of California’s TED gatherings. It was Lewis’s first significant return to public life since his accident.
In the talk, he described the strange new perceptions that his brain trauma had delivered, beginning at his long perch on the rim between life and death. “After I returned from the hospital ... I felt empty and full, hot and cold, euphoric and depressed,” he said at one point, describing his new reality. “The brain is the world’s first fully functional quantum computer. It can occupy multiple states at the same time. With all the internal regulators of my brain damaged, I felt everything simultaneously.”
Standing on the stage was a man bearing a unique operating system. The talk lasted 18 minutes, and at the end the crowd rose for a standing ovation. To Lewis it was a wonderful success—Deepak Chopra was in attendance and invited him to talk at his event months later. (Just a month after the INK talk went online, it had been viewed more than 240,000 times.) More important, it felt like preparation for something even bigger.
It was around this time that I first encountered Lewis. I’d recently written a story for The New York Times about legally blind visual artists. One of them, a traumatic-brain-injury survivor, said there was someone I should get in touch with.
With a few minutes to spare one morning, I dialed Lewis’s number. I didn’t hang up until an hour later. On the other end was a kindly—almost wholesome—Brit who’d lost everything in ways I didn’t like to fathom. He’d surrendered a decade and a half to a grueling, and frequently horrific, recovery. But none of that was what took me aback. It was that at 53, living in his parents’ house minus a third of his right hemisphere, Simon Lewis wanted to make movies again.
Lewis had no illusions about how absurd this sounded. “I know this industry,” he said. “Step out of it for five weeks and you’re history. Step out for more than a dozen years and—” he paused. “Well, I don’t even know what you are.”
A few weeks later, I found myself on the same sleepy, near-silent Sherman Oaks street where Lewis had spent almost every hour since 1994. The man who greeted me bore little resemblance to the mangled figure I’d read about in his book. The bones had healed, his patter was quick and witty, and graying hair covered the horseshoe-shaped scar across his skull. At first glance only Lewis’s slight limp suggested anything out of the ordinary. He proudly lifted his left pant leg to show me his NESS L300, an advanced neuroprosthesis designed for people lacking lower-leg control. Lewis has a condition called foot drop, and at precisely the right point in his gait the device sends electrical pulses to his peroneal nerve. The jolted muscles raise the foot, and he is able to walk with just a minor hitch.
Lewis is a talker. He talks about consciousness a lot—the science behind it, common misconceptions, the plight of those living lower on the slope—but these topics bleed seamlessly into macroeconomics, Obama, or media trends. Eventually, I’d see how this tied into flat time: Without a reliably coherent sense of time to provide order, his ideas sprawl. What’s more, they do so unburdened by the normal categorizing most of us do reflexively. A question about which freeway exit to take might lead to ideas about time travel. It doesn’t always make for efficient freeway exiting, I would learn, but as a general route from A to B the entertainment quotient is high.
At some level, Lewis seemed to have realized this. Throughout the ’80s and early ’90s, the films he’d worked on had mostly been light, even schlocky fare. He does not speak dismissively of them—like many young filmmakers, he was simply someone who said yes to projects, he explained to me, and he had dedicated himself to them. But these kinds of movies no longer appealed to him. What he wanted now was to make an entirely different kind of film: different from walking cadavers, perhaps different from films anyone else had made. But this wasn’t because he’d lost Marcy or because he had a newfound grasp of life’s fleetingness. He wanted to make different movies because he had a different brain inside his skull and a different way of experiencing the world.
“Imagine this in your daily life,” he said to me one afternoon in my rental car. He was attempting to explain what blindsight—essentially, his employment of a reptilian visual system—felt like. “I’m seeing the world, but not consciously. Perceptions are bypassing my conscious mind and traveling straight to my subconscious. As a filmmaker, that’s pretty interesting.”
For most of us, the subconscious is a fleeting state we find ourselves in by accident—that moment behind the wheel, for instance, when we realize we’ve been utterly unaware of the road for the past five miles. As Lewis describes his existence, a small door has essentially propped open that state permanently.
“My entire perception is different: Things that don’t feel ... authentic, I suppose, don’t resonate. They almost don’t register,” he told me at one point. He’s come to regard this as a kind of sieve, one that oddly inclines him toward more substantive perceptions and omits the frivolous. The stuff of fluffy ’80s films fell decidedly into the second camp.
As with the blindsight, Lewis’s temporal jumble isn’t so severe as to be crippling. With flat time, time is just flat enough—did he talk to that HBO guy recently, or years ago?—to make things interesting now and then. Perhaps even a narrative asset.
On a certain level, the idea of Lewis returning to filmmaking was as logical as it was baffling. If a storyteller’s job is to make intellectual connections, flat time and a sprawl of ideas sound awfully promising. Meanwhile, if Lewis was walking around with a pipeline from the outer world to his subconscious, that would seem to trump the standard muse. “Picture all the memories from your life as a photo album. Then take out all the photos and shuffle them across a table. That’s my brain,” he told me. “It can be frustrating, but as far as making interesting connections goes, it certainly opens things up in a new way.”
Squint a little, in fact, and you can see signs that Hollywood’s brain is inching toward the trippily meta terrain that intrigues Lewis, betraying a perhaps similar interest in considering consciousness itself. Lewis’s slow reentry into the world of movies coincided with a slew of films—Memento, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Inception—that delve directly and imaginatively into the kinds of consciousness questions that have come to obsess him. That much seemed promising. And Hollywood certainly churns out story lines about outsiders rattling the status quo, or about miraculous transformations emerging from unlikely circumstances. In Regarding Henry, Harrison Ford’s ruthless trial lawyer becomes kind and loving after taking a bullet to the brain, for instance. But that doesn’t mean the industry actually believes in those stories.
At 53, Lewis lives with his parents. He drives only sparingly. With his infinitely fragmented mind, I pictured him spending weeks digging up an old contact, only to be told by a 22-year-old assistant that Mr. So-and-So was extremely busy these days. The movie business already brushes away roughly 100 percent of the aspiring filmmakers who come knocking. The odds are even worse when a third of your right hemisphere is missing.
Hollywood never calls to tell you your career is over, Lewis told me once. So he had decided to call them and ask. Before my first visit, he’d informed me that he was going to do his best to set up meetings with some of the industry types he’d worked with in the ’80s and early ’90s. Seeing an earnest and kindly widower politely shot down by slick movie people hadn’t struck me as very fun. I’d half-dreaded this part of my visit. To my surprise, Lewis somehow arranged a series of meetings with significant figures throughout the Hollywood firmament, which is how I found myself at the Ritz-Carlton in downtown Los Angeles on a bright Friday morning. Lewis had come here to meet his former colleague David Irving.
With his prominent eyebrows and clear blue eyes, Irving has the commanding and professorial bearing of a man playing a president in a TV movie. He was on his way back to New York, where he teaches film at Tisch School of the Arts. The two had been young men back in 1989 on the set of C.H.U.D. II, which Irving directed, but this was the first time they’d met for business since.
They found seats away from the piped-in jazz—Lewis’s brain no longer filters ambient noise from the conversation at hand—and commenced a ranging discussion about times past and Lewis’s future prospects. It was as though the two had once taken a road trip together, and Lewis was curious 20 years later whether cars still employed brakes and gas pedals. Irving was laid-back and warm to Lewis’s hands-in-lap earnestness. His answer: yes and no.
The industry bore little resemblance to its early ’90s self, he warned. C.H.U.D. II was made for less than $3 million. Now it would cost $20 million. When Lewis checked out, movies like Speed and True Lies were top grossers—dutifully fast-paced and slick, to be sure, but rudimentary in hindsight. The first feature-length CGI animation wouldn’t come out for another year, and the slo-mo bullet dodging of The Matrix was still half a decade away, to say nothing of a 3-D fantasy about blue creatures on another planet. Securing top stars became ever more essential to getting these massively expensive films made—a salable name abroad could help guarantee the sale of foreign rights, which meant additional cash up front. The distribution model changed, too, and VHS tapes became DVDs.
That was the bad news. The good news: Irving thought Lewis had the innate and timeless talent to surmount all that. “Only one producer in my work ever knew what he was doing—you,” he told Lewis. “You’ve been gone a long time, but there’s a need in the industry for people of your ilk.”
He added that the principles of production had not changed and that Lewis still had many high-level contacts.
“You have it in spades. I could see you working as an agent, a screenwriter, a producer,” he said.
Lewis grinned—but I could see he had something on his mind. Finally he cleared his throat mildly and raised a finger of clarification.
“It’s not just any film I want to work on now. It’s important to me that I find something that feels ... true,” he said. He gave a CliffsNotes summary of what true feels like—rooted in that broader conception of consciousness, playing out on less familiar planes.
Irving thought about this for a moment, nodding slowly. “My advice is, take any pictures you can get on now,” he then said. “You can do a dense and more meaningful film later.”
Over the next few days, I joined Lewis for more meetings—meetings essentially designed to inform him whether or not the movie business had saved his place in line. But Hollywood is a strange realm for a fact-finding mission. How do you look for honest answers when nobody says “no,” and “yes” can mean “fuck you,” and a tuna sandwich is Fantastic, just fabulous?
But putting aside the inevitable bromides about Lewis getting back on his feet in no time, it was hard not to notice real doors cracking open for him. At USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, the Academy Award–winning documentary filmmaker Mark Jonathan Harris devoted much of a Monday morning to strategizing with Lewis—ideas for getting back into production, possibilities for teaching again at the university. Chris Barrett, head of the Metropolitan Talent Agency, grew emotional talking about the force that was producer Simon Lewis, and pledged to send scripts. Over the phone, Jeff Sagansky, former production president of TriStar Pictures, recalled Lewis’s Look Who’s Talking coup:
“I had a studio budget for $13 million, and you came in and said I can do it for eight, and pay Travolta what he’s asking—a million, I think. The studio said, ‘It can’t be done.’ But the movie became the most profitable picture in Columbia’s history at that point.”
Sagansky didn’t mince words about the health of the industry today. The award-winning studio films Sagansky himself had made at TriStar—Glory, Steel Magnolias—wouldn’t get made anymore, he said, except maybe as independent films. But he went on to discuss how Lewis could make the transition to 21st-century filmmaking.
In all these meetings, Lewis played it straight—no mentions of blindsight or flat time or the prehistoric settlement in Israel where he’d lived for generations. Whatever was going on inside his head, he’d learned to tamp it down when necessary. Indeed, he’d written a meticulously organized book, had put together a wildly successful stage talk seen by hundreds of thousands of people; he could do what it took to make things happen. Still, I found myself oddly relieved when his more unusual symptoms returned later—the unlikely mental associations, the moments in which his subconscious perhaps had the reins. To spend time in Hollywood—meetings, conversations about meetings, Caesar salads in cafés alongside conversations about meetings—is to come away a little desperate for a mightily new orientation, some fresh set of eyes for which the glass is first broken on the floor, then intact atop the table.
Only one question seemed to remain: How would he begin?
At the end of our last meeting of the day, Lewis and I headed back to my rental car and set out for one more stop. A few blocks up from the coffee shop, we turned left on Beverly Boulevard, a five-lane arterial running east to west through neighborhoods with tidy lawns and large homes. At one of the small residential streets we turned right and pulled to a stop. Set back from the adjacent curb was the maple tree that Simon and Marcy’s Infiniti had slammed into 17 years earlier.
I glanced over at Lewis as I cut the engine. In a movie—in one of his movies—this would be where the hero breaks down. But Lewis had never cried in my presence, and he wasn’t doing so now. His feet were flat on the floor of the car and his hands planted squarely in his lap, as they often were. I looked for subtler signs of a reaction—a setting of the jaw, a second’s delay getting out of the car—but he seemed as matter-of-fact as ever. He opened the door, switched on his L300, and in a few seconds we were standing on the corner where it all happened.
It was the overwhelming physics of it all that finally got Lewis talking.
“How did the driver make it as far as he did, across all those lanes? He must have had his foot flat to the floor...,” he began, then trailed off, lost in a grim calculus of velocity and mass.
Lewis does not remember the impact. Marcy was talking about her boss’s renovation, and then Simon was opening his eyes in a hospital more than a month later. We walked to the curb where the Infiniti first hit, then over to the tree, and then to the adjacent garden where the car ultimately came to rest.
Lewis is almost a dozen and a half years into his grief. But he was absent, in a sense, for much of that time. Marcy was buried in her hometown while he was still in his coma. Do his hazier years count against the clock of healing? He keeps mementos of Marcy near though not prominent; a photo of the two remains in the drawer of his bedside table but not on top. He has only recently been able to watch their wedding tape. He wants Marcy to be close but he does not want to prevent himself from moving forward, or to lose himself in despair. He would like to fall in love again.
The sudden death of a spouse would be heartbreaking for anyone, but somehow there’s something particularly awful about it happening to Lewis. If you told the man his shoelaces were on fire, he would look down only after seeing to your safety first. Perhaps because of this, I had treated him like he was brittle at first—a common and ridiculous inversion inflicted too often on those who’ve been injured. In time it became clear that Lewis requires no coddling. And so, as we paced that intersection, I asked about the driver of the van. Maybe he’d left the country. Maybe he was at the Arby’s down the street. At one point, I’d tracked down the couple who’d sold him the van, two days before the crash, 17 years ago. The woman seemed sad to remember the incident—and to remember nothing of the man. “I guess he was the kind of guy that pays cash for a van,” she said.
Lewis, for his part, doesn’t care. Nor does he feel ill will toward the driver. “I just don’t think I feel anger anymore, about anything,” he explained. “I don’t think I’ve felt angry once in the last 17 years, actually. I get puzzled when someone’s dishonest, and I get distressed. But the normal anger that I was capable of before is just gone.”
With a little pressing he conceded that, if the driver was somehow ever caught, Lewis would testify in court. But he said so dispassionately.
“Perhaps anger is a higher-level thing and it’s not present in the subconscious,” he speculated. “If I’m correct that my subconscious is doing a lot of the daily work of my life, it’s not there.”
He and I stayed at Beverly and McCadden for another 15 minutes, then I drove him home to Sherman Oaks, and for the hundredth time I found myself wanting to see what a Simon Lewis film would look like, and hoping it might resemble his own life somehow.
About four months later, in the spring of 2011, a minor media storm broke out, with everyone from Entertainment Weekly to Oprah telling the same remarkable story: a filmmaker builds a career making silly movies, then in a freak accident sustains a terrible head injury that causes him to rethink everything. With his whole-new head, he gets back into filmmaking with a thoughtful, sensitive, anti-Hollywood feature that earnestly investigates nothing less than the nature of our very existence.
The man’s name was Tom Shadyac.
I was stunned. At first glance, the similarities between Shadyac and Lewis were remarkable. Both were born in 1958, both were successes from an early age: Lewis was just 21 when he passed the California bar, and Shadyac was the youngest joke writer on Bob Hope’s staff. Both made their way to movies—but Shadyac to another level entirely, producing such films as Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Nutty Professor, Liar Liar, and Bruce Almighty. He flew by private jet and lived in a 17,000-square-foot mansion equipped with a full-time gardener and housekeeper, a pool man, a maintenance man, a man to maintain the tennis court, and a house manager, in addition to his business manager, money manager, and career manager.
One day, while bicycling in Virginia, Shadyac crashed and hit his head. The injury paled in comparison to Lewis’s, but he did sustain a serious concussion whose symptoms lingered: terrible headaches, mood swings, and an agonizing sensitivity to light and sound. For a while he slept in his closet, for its total seclusion and darkness. As with Lewis, some new ideas about life began to filter in. Unlike Lewis, Shadyac rolled up his sleeves immediately. Five months after the accident, he began filming I Am, a decidedly serious documentary that asked what’s wrong with the world and what we can do about it. In it he consulted Desmond Tutu, Howard Zinn, and Noam Chomsky.
Reception was mixed. Critics seemed to like the story behind the documentary more than the thing itself. Roger Ebert called the film “as watchable as a really good TV commercial, and just as deep.” Viewing it, he wrote, “involves the ingestion of Woo Woo in industrial bulk.”
He also, though, conceded the filmmaker’s likability. Shadyac has long, curly hair and looks like a less-goofy version of Weird Al. He had a new approach to living, one he’d begun to pursue even before the accident. He sold the mansion and moved into a 1,000-square-foot trailer home—albeit a trailer home in a gated Malibu community, where units can reportedly go for upward of $2 million.
Shadyac didn’t lack for conviction as he promoted his film. “I feel like I’ve been blessed to be touched by truth,” he said in one interview. He spoke of “a power to these ideas that have animated me ... the same power I see in the life of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Jesus, Martin Luther King, Saint Francis.” His ideas didn’t sprawl. “Facing my own death brought an instant clarity and purpose,” he says in the film.
I very much wanted to meet this man. He appeared articulate and sensitive, and I thought he might shed some light on Lewis’s story. Part of me even fantasized that Shadyac would reach out to Lewis professionally. I sent him a note, then talked to someone at his agency, who put me in touch with someone at his production company, who put me in touch with the guy who handles journalists, Harold Mintz.
After a few attempts, I got Mintz on the phone. I explained again Lewis’s story, assuming the similarities would be so striking, and Lewis’s story so sympathetic, that the new and reflective Shadyac would ring back immediately. Mintz listened and said he’d explain it all to Shadyac. When I followed up again, he emailed back that Shadyac was too busy to meet but would consider a phone call. This didn’t happen either.
I wrote one more note to Mintz asking whether Lewis’s story had at least resonated when he conveyed it to Shadyac. No reply. I gathered that his focus had turned to his next movie, a biopic about the late comedian Sam Kinison.
So I booked a flight to visit Lewis again. Another man was living a version of his life, and I wanted to hear his thoughts on it.
The drive from LAX into central Los Angeles is a tour of urban restlessness—new billboards and buildings and seemingly new neighborhoods since your last visit, a concrete rainforest that grows 10 feet overnight. But upon entering the sleepy suburban streets of Sherman Oaks, time halts. Save for the newer cars, it could’ve been any decade. Lewis opened the front door of his parents’ home with his usual grin.
He showed me to the living room, and we settled into the wraparound sofa. Immediately, Lewis was leading the conversation in 40 enthusiastic directions—a news item that had caught his eye, some emerging research on intelligence. I wasn’t listening.
While Shadyac was positioning himself these past few months as a remade filmmaker, Lewis had decidedly not been. After those encouraging chats with his Hollywood friends, he had not rushed home to begin adapting his book into a screenplay. He hadn’t reached out to screenwriter friends about possible collaborations. He didn’t schedule more calls and meetings and lunches. I learned that Barrett had sent him scripts to review; Lewis only thumbed through them.
Ever since I got to know Lewis, I’d been waiting for a moment of some sort—an inflection point, I suppose, at which Hollywood would signal its welcome or rejection of this prodigal producer. But another possibility began to dawn on me, thanks to Shadyac: Maybe Lewis hadn’t resolved how much he was willing to welcome Hollywood.
From our very first conversation, he had been clear about his deep desire to make films again. But it wasn’t the same desire he’d felt before the accident; no longer was he single-minded about moviemaking. Since January he’d become wholly consumed by the talk Deepak Chopra had invited him to give on consciousness. For now anyway, this seemed to grab him more than shoving his way into the cracked-open Hollywood door.
As for movies, it was another project that had stoked his passions these past few months, and in fact he’d come to oversee the production of his first film in years. As it happens it was Macbeth, the film he himself had directed more than four decades earlier as an adolescent, long before he came to America. After so many years he had the old reels digitized and overlaid with audio. It was hardly Hollywood, and maybe that was part of the pleasure: a reunion with his earliest, purest love of filmmaking.
I still wanted to hear his thoughts on Shadyac. Asking Lewis for his opinions on anyone rarely turns up anything but praise. In his Jain-like way, he’d be unlikely to point out that your house had been overrun by elephants, lest it come across as insensitive. (His friend, the lawyer Eric Weissmann, lovingly referred to him as “pedantically moral.”) Nevertheless, when I mentioned a quote from one of Shadyac’s interviews—a line about the bike accident knocking him from his head into his heart—something sounding almost like a cynical chuckle escaped from Lewis.
“You don’t have to hit your head to find your heart,” he said, shaking his head. “That’s not where your heart is, anyway.”
Regret washed over him instantly. He explained that he didn’t mean it dismissively, and I understood. It wasn’t that Shadyac seemed insincere; he appeared genuinely and impressively serious in his new sensibility. But it was hard not to notice that his ideas tripped off his tongue—and onto celluloid, and into the publicity machinery—with relative ease. Instinctively or through hard work, Shadyac knew how to package his drama into Drama, helpfully formed into bite-size nuggets. “We set out to find out what’s wrong with the world, and we ended up finding out what’s right with it,” he said in one interview while promoting I Am. As Lewis himself noted, it seemed so ... movie-ish.
I Am might have been Shadyac’s departure from the formulaic comedies he’d made till then, but at a meta level the idea behind the film simply followed another formula: Mega-successful, high-living artist finds he’s gone astray, fate intervenes, clarity shimmers, and ta-da, meaning is found. To Lewis’s vastly more complex and ambiguous story, Shadyac’s offered a tighter arc and more straightforward message. In short, Shadyac was the Hollywood version of Lewis. Even Shadyac appeared to recognize the appealing arc of his story. Months after failing to secure an interview, I finally got a call from his PR man, Mintz. Shadyac was still too busy to talk, he said. He also didn’t want to talk about his accident anymore. The story had taken on a life of its own, Mintz said; it had gotten away from him.
Instead of penning his next Hollywood epic, Lewis had been drawn into one more not-particularly-Hollywood pursuit in recent months. Over the years he’d gone and thanked many of the people who’d been there for him after the crash, but he’d never felt ready to do so with those who’d been there right when it happened. A few days before my arrival, he gathered the nerve to call the L.A. Police Department’s West Traffic Division.
He spoke to Detective Lee Willmon and mentioned the crash. To his surprise, Willmon remembered that it was on Beverly Boulevard, then the white van, then a pause when Lewis mentioned his wife. “Was her name ... Marcy?” Lewis was overcome. He told Willmon he wanted to come visit in person. On a hot and brown June morning, I met Lewis in front of the station, on a scrubby section of Venice Boulevard. We headed inside, and someone paged Willmon.
He had a kind face layered with years of bad news. The three of us stood awkwardly in a waiting area, amid half a dozen civilians there for mysterious traffic reasons. The place was bureaucratic and joyless, but Lewis was on a gratitude-and-wonder high. He told Willmon how remarkable it had been that he’d recalled Marcy’s name after so many years, and then he told him how so many kind people had given of themselves in the aftermath of the crash. Willmon nodded politely.
“You must come into people’s lives at very profound times,” Lewis mused.
Willmon looked at him. “We come in at sad times,” he said plainly.
He didn’t say much else. He was either a man of few words or a man of few words when survivors of tragic car accidents come to chat 17 years later. Lewis gave him two copies of his book and Willmon thanked him solemnly. He started toward a goodbye then paused.
“I’ve been doing this a long time. A little advice if you don’t mind,” he said. “Find love again.”
Minutes later Lewis and I were back in my car. I glanced over for a read. As always he stared straight ahead, a peaceful smile on his lips, more gratitude and wonder in his bright eyes.
What kind of film lurks behind those eyes? In all my conversations with Lewis, I never managed to extract a plot, a set of characters or even a rough premise for the sort of movie he’d one day like to make. What I heard was more like the haziness that precedes those things in a fertile mind.
“I see character motivations as multidimensional spectra of light that flow upward through each person’s, and each creature’s, slope of consciousness,” Lewis explained to me once. What this meant for filmgoers was even vaguer; he spoke of wanting audiences to “sense the flat time in their subconscious that I feel, experience the single moment in which through all of history we live our lives. The moment in which the present becomes our past and everything is now.”
At times Lewis’s abstractedness seems semi-deliberate and perhaps semi-joyful, a lifelong pragmatist enjoying a fuzzier approach. Other times the fuzziness feels like all he can muster now. If his artistic transformation was taking him from C.H.U.D. II to, say, Charlie Kaufman, I came to think of this as Kaufman’s blue-skying period. Maybe the Eternal Sunshines of the world begin with impossible abstractions and blurry riffing.
The most specific vision he ever shared was an idea for the first scene of a film. It was to be shot through the eyes of a field mouse. Many years ago, he’d spotted the creature atop Yosemite’s Glacier Point. Now, in his vision for the film, the mouse scurries along the narrowest of cliff ledges more than 3,000 feet above the valley floor looking for food, and the scene is somehow overlaid with an 18th-century haiku of Kobayashi Issa:
In this world
we walk on the roof of hell,
gazing at flowers.
In a way, it seemed absurd to speculate about Hollywood when clearly Lewis existed on another plane. He didn’t just have a new, non-Hollywood set of eyes on the world. He had a new, non-Hollywood sense of priority, too. Gone was the boundless tenacity, the hunger—bordering on desperation—required to get movies made, or for that matter any epic undertaking. Instead he had the old Shakespeare adaptations to put together, talks about consciousness to give, quiet detectives to thank. Compassion, ideas, and a penchant for storytelling are theoretically what send a person into movies, but Lewis had found that these could be deployed off-set as much as on. The accident may have given him singular new filmmaking sensibilities. It also showed him that filmmaking isn’t the only thing.
That would have been a fine ending for this story: the Hollywood figure who decides Hollywood isn’t all that. But, of course, that in itself is too tidily Hollywood for real life. As it happens, Lewis and I have one more appointment after our stop at the police station. There is one final twist in his story.
The meeting is with another old friend of Lewis’s, the prominent entertainment lawyer Eric Weissmann. Weissmann has long been a fixture in Hollywood—one story that gets told is his role in green-lighting All the President’s Men for Warner Bros. He had been extremely kind after the accident, Lewis says, and he also might have a thing or two to say about Lewis’s future in the movies.
The offices of Weissmann Wolff Bergman Coleman Grodin & Evall look out over Beverly Hills, with Century City in the distance. We are early for our 3 o’clock appointment, and a receptionist shows us to a conference table with a basket of water bottles and modern art at either end. Lewis sits with his back to the window so his focus won’t get spread out over the streets and buildings below.
At exactly 3 p.m., Weissmann enters the conference room and declares, “Universal has agreed to release Biosphere back into turnaround.” He takes a seat and shakes our hands.
It takes me a moment to remember what Biosphere was. Before the accident, Universal had paid Lewis and other writers to develop a script—a sci-fi film about a large-scale experiment gone off the rails. Evolution gets messed with, somehow, and a menagerie of creepy critters starts eating people’s heads. The project had ultimately gone into turnaround—left for dead by the studio, free to be sold elsewhere for a limited period before reverting back to Universal property indefinitely. Then the accident happened.
A few weeks back, Lewis’s mother had found a copy of the old script and put it on his desk. Prodded, Lewis eventually called Weissmann and asked, idly, whether that limited turnaround period might be extended. Now Lewis—and in time another producer, named Michael Levy—could find financing and some big names to attach to the project and they’ll be in business.
Weissmann spends the next little while outlining details of the situation and chatting amiably about the industry. At one point I ask if he’s read Lewis’s script. It hardly sounds like the revolutionary picture Lewis had long been itching to do. “I sell ’em, I don’t smell ’em,” Weissmann replies.
I look over at Lewis, a man sitting in a Beverly Hills law firm who can still recall sailing, within a coma, in a wormhole between two universes. He’s had two lives, and at this moment two people appear to inhabit his body simultaneously. He is visibly thrilled to be in the game again, beaming more than usual. But what will come of his new orientation to the world, and to filmmaking?
In a way it doesn’t make sense, until I suddenly realize that is sort of the point. If Shadyac represented the Hollywood version of Lewis’s story, Lewis himself is, like the rest of us, living the non-movie version of his own life. He’s survived some agonizingly cinematic scenes—his rise, the accident, the monthlong coma, his rebirth—but then the loose ends have not gathered into an orderly plait. All questions didn’t magically resolve in an explosive third act. Is he returning to the old kinds of movies? Is he carving out a whole new type? In lieu of a clear message, there is ambiguity, murkiness. In lieu of a happy, studio-friendly ending, there is something a little more complicated.
Within three weeks, he will have feverishly updated 40 pages of the script, often outside, behind the wheel of his family’s parked car; afterward he’ll sit and watch the trees. He will go inside and pick up the phone and start making more calls about meetings, and he’ll write some more—notes on turning his book into a screenplay.
Right now, as Lewis sits at a conference room table with his back to Beverly Hills, what life has in store for him isn't clear. But he seems to accept this. At 3:15 his lawyer friend rises to leave, and Lewis and I drive back through the streets of Los Angeles to his parents’ house.