"Hey, it's Mitch, the movie star!"
The words came from a dark corner of the small park at the intersection of Virginia Avenue and E Street on Saturday night. A trail of figures began to emerge. Half a dozen men who live on the benches and grates just next to the State Department gathered around activists Mitch Snyder and Carol Fennelly, members of the Community for Creative Non-Violence, shaking their hands, patting their backs.
"How's the movie going, Mitch?" one of the men asked Snyder, and Snyder explained that the movie, a proposed CBS docudrama, was why he was there.
It was screenwriter Clifford Campion's night at the grates. He had already talked to people at the CCNV shelter and spent one night foraging through dumpsters for food with CCNV members. Now, he wanted to talk to the men who live on the streets -- material for the composite characters he will create for the docudrama.
Slight and smiling, Campion moved into the cluster of men and rushed to shake hands like someone finally meeting a group of relatives he has only seen in the family photo album.
An hour later, he had spoken to Tony, who told him about losing his house to an unscrupulous lawyer and then said he wasn't sure Health and Human Services Secretary Margaret Heckler had the time to consider the homeless because of her recent divorce proceedings; to Ray, who told him he was fired from his job as an air traffic controller during the 1981 controllers' strike; to Chico, who told him he spoke four languages fluently but that he didn't need a Harvard education to know God.
Their stories wandered, an occasional sentence slipping from one subject to another, snagging on a thought and stalling. Some teetered as they spoke and smelled of alcohol. One older man offered a woman in the party his chair. "You take it," he said and stood.
Tony, a stout, smiling man, suggested Campion use "the real people" in his movie to play the homeless, and then talked about seeing Secretary of State George Shultz pass the park every few days in his limousine.
"He kind of looks up for a second," Tony said. "And every time he goes by, every time, a few minutes later someone comes out of there with coffee and doughnuts and such for the folks, a few minutes after he goes in."
Fennelly later said she had never heard of Shultz sending food out to the men, but that Tony "didn't strike me as someone who was telling stories. I suspect it bears some relation to reality."
According to a woman speaking for State Department spokesman Bernard Kalb, there is no connection between Shultz's glance and the food. She did not know where the food came from.
But on Saturday night Campion was impressed with the story.
Shadowy figures wandered through the park, appearing and then vanishing up a street, behind a wall. One tattered man pushed a grocery cart filled with bundles up Virginia Avenue. Another, a mass of wrinkles and tangled gray hair, walked by but did not approach the group. "Hi, Willie," Fennelly said. Willie nodded and kept moving. "He doesn't like to talk," she explained.
"Some of these stories . . ." Campion said later. "I tell you, when I started out, I was doing 14 hours a day. Now I can only handle four or five. The last time I came I had to go home and spend a week in bed."
Campion, who wrote the script for the CBS movie "The Marva Collins Story" and "Race Against Time," which starred Barbara Mandrell, is a coproducer on the CCNV show. After a week in Washington, he is returning to Los Angeles today and will soon start work on this movie, which he hopes will appear on CBS next winter.
Snyder received $50,000 from Chuck Fries Entertainment Inc. and CBS Entertainment for the rights to his story, and will get another $100,000 if the movie is produced. Fries has said the initial payment was unusually high, and that it was made "to help Mitch's cause and aid his financial obligations." Campion said that after CBS' "60 Minutes" did a piece on Snyder last fall, "there was a rush of producers to Mitch." Most of the $50,000, Snyder said, will pay overdue electricity bills for the shelter at Second and D streets NW, and the rest of the money will run the shelter for almost a year.
"I'm a little disappointed about the weather," Campion said as they drove to the first stop Saturday. A warm breeze was filling Fennelly's car. "It doesn't really seem worthwhile to spend a night on the grates. I was going to do that."
"But there's still that feeling of vulnerability when you're on the grates," said Snyder, who lived on the corner of 19th and C for four months. "It's why so many people drink. It's hard to be that vulnerable all the time."
The night was filled with lessons like that. One man they were looking for was asleep under a ragged blanket. Couldn't they leave a hamburger for him to eat when he woke up, Campion asked. No, Fennelly explained, the rats would get it. On the street, she said, you learn to wipe off your hands and lips before you sleep. "The rats nibble on you," she said casually. Campion pulled out his recorder and recorded the fact.
"Look around the park," Snyder said at Virginia and E. "There's a wall around it -- the world outside and the world inside. Do you feel how it's a different world in here? People drive by, and they don't see these people."
Campion surveyed the scene. A car passed, two men walked by briskly. They glanced only for a blank second at the man sitting on a grate.
Campion hugged each of the people he spoke to when he left and repeated their stories afterward. "It just blew me away," he said again and again. Fennelly and Snyder quietly tempered his enthusiasm. Ray had been an air traffic controller -- they had spoken to a former supervisor -- but was "not really representative of the people on the street," they said. Chico, who told Campion he saw his best friend killed in Vietnam, "is full of stories."
Campion plans to create four or five composite homeless characters. Snyder thinks the technique is necessary.
"You really can't pick out any two or three people who personify or exemplify the folks on the street," he said.
"Docudrama is an art form unto itself," said Campion. "The general rule is you tell the story as it would have happened it if could have happened in two hours. It's been my experience that audiences aren't as interested in documentary films as they are in dramas. They don't seem to get the ratings, and unless people see your stuff, you don't have any opportunity to change people's hearts and minds.
"I talked to a woman who has a number of children, she has brothers and sisters, she was married. The question I wanted to ask her was, 'Why aren't you living with your children?' I couldn't do it. She knew what I was getting at and she'd get very quiet. I'd rather rely on my imagination than hurt her. Being in my business -- where I have an imagination -- why not use it to protect people?"
Campion also plans to limit the movie to Snyder's work with the homeless and hungry.
"The bottom line is, there's not going to be time in the movie to talk about his more radical experiences," he said. "That time they let loose the roaches in the White House, threw blood -- I must say that these have got to be turnoffs to the American public. But when I hear everything that led up to those actions, what I discover is they've taken every other action they can possibly take.
"Mitch's character becomes all the more heroic when people become aware of the fact that he was going against all the odds. I haven't talked to many of their critics yet. I'll tell you why. It seems to me that CCNV has been very honest with me about why the critics have functioned the way they have. I'm not interested in poking holes in this organization. I'm interested in supporting the things I think are wonderful about them."
By 9 p.m., many of the people on the street were asleep.
"I tell you, Mitch," Campion said, "It's a far cry from all the time I spent out on location shooting a movie, roughing it. There's the snow and the sleet, but you know you've got a warm place to go, warm food."
He stared at a man sleeping on the grass outside a government building.
"Look, Carol," he said, pointing to the Office of Personnel Management sign a few feet away from the pile of blankets and bags. "What a picture."
He pulled out his tape recorder and made a note of it.