Patience & chaos: The battle to bring "Love in Vain: A Vision of Robert Johnson" to the big screen. (Part 2 of 3)

Born in 1911 and deceased in 1938 at age 27, much about American blues singer Robert Johnson’s birth, life, and death remain a mystery. Here, Alan Greenberg discusses his decades-long journey to bring a screenplay about Johnson’s life and the culture of the Mississippi Delta and blues music during the 1930s to the big screen.

The thing about Robert Johnson was that he only existed on his records. He was pure legend.”
—Martin Scorsese

What follows is a continuing discussion of the decades-long struggle to bring “Love in Vain: A Vision of Robert Johnson,” a screenplay by Alan Greenberg, to the big screen. Read Part 1 here.  

Writer, producer, director, and photographer

It was meant to be my bedazzled introduction to the upper echelon of Hollywood.

In mid-1980, a few days before returning to New York, I was in London at a friend’s with Werner Herzog. Somehow my manuscript for Love in Vain had reached the head of the film division of the William Morris Agency, and he tracked me down by calling me at the flat I was visiting. With Werner secretly listening in, the agent told me he’d read Love in Vain and urgently wanted to sign me to William Morris for representation.

“We’re going to market you as a genius!” he raved.

Werner cupped his mouth and rolled on the floor laughing.

Days later I was back home in New York City and sitting with Martin Bauer, a chief honcho at William Morris, and his junior agent, Fred Milstein. Together we left to meet with Martin Bregman, producer of Serpico and one of the top producers in town. The three of us walked down the mahogany paneled and carpeted hallway like Dorothy and her friends on their way to meet the Wizard of Oz. Then we entered a cavernous mahogany-paneled office with embroidered drapes, a Persian rug, and an enormous desk of carved mahogany. Behind it sat a little middle-aged Jewish guy—Martin Bregman. He offered a perfunctory welcome and listened to the two agents go on and on about me.

Bregman seemed very, very bored.

The junior agent continued with his glorious vision of me.

Bergman seemed sleepy, his chin pressed to his chest.

The agents continued despite Bregman’s utter disininterest.

Bregman began to snore.

Milstein continued his pitch regardless, until I suggested he look at slumbrous Bregman. Quietly we left. So went my first taste of Hollywood.

A short time thereafter, without any help from William Morris, I flew to Denver to meet with Mick Jagger about producing Love in Vain. Face to face with him in his room, Mick’s first words to me were: “Want a woman?”

This was a harbinger of the business partnership to come. In the throes of his split from wife Bianca, Mick was hard to find as he eluded the attempts of her divorce attorney to contact him. Once I needed to see him about our contract negotiations, but he was in hiding. When I checked the Stones’ Broadway office to no avail, Keith Richards, the least likely person to be in that office, told me in a low voice to go with him to his hotel. There Keith packed a hold-all bag, and soon we were in a limo again, headed for JFK airport. Keith mentioned that he had put together a band called the New Barbarians, and when we drove onto the tarmac and boarded the Rolling Stones jet Keith said his pickup band was flying to a gig, in Cleveland. The flight was a party of rock stars beyond the Stones, with favors aplenty. Backstage at the venue in Cleveland, Keith changed into a red satanic outfit and told me to be at the right corner of the stage for the third song on his playlist. When I moved there after the second song, Keith kneeled onstage and sang Love in Vain to me. On the flight home, with the revelers in fine form, Keith casually sat down with me.

“So you want to find Mick?” he asked, matter-of-factly. And he proceeded to tell me that Mick was in a London flat above the Rolling Stones office, with an unpublished phone number.

At first, in this pre-cell phone era, upon returning home late that night my wife didn’t believe a word I said. Who could blame her? I could hardly believe it myself.

Following three years with Mick, two independent producers hooked up with me to fund “Love in Vain,” and soon I was with a small crew in Mississippi starting pre-production. Then one day when I picked up a newspaper I read that one of the producers had been shot dead by his son.

When the other producer returned from an African safari, having been incommunicado for weeks, he gave the pre-production money, on someone’s ill-advised recommendation, to the 22-year-old playboy son of a prominent British actor, Peter Finch. Neither the money nor the kid were ever seen again.

After making his great film Elephant Man, David Lynch was given a copy of Love in Vain and tracked me down. Over the course of several conversations David expressed unbridled enthusiasm for the screenplay and the prospect of him directing it.

One day David called and seemed to have something on his mind. He told me how excited he was to make the film, so excited that he’d begun seeing himself down in Mississippi, surrounded by his loyal crew and his cast of African-American actors. He then paused with the realization that he had insufficient experience with African Americans to feel comfortable directing Love in Vain.

Times do change. Three decades passed before David would read the screenplay again. By now, his perspective—and his vision of directing Love in Vain—had also changed.

But first would come an episode with Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute.

(More on that soon.)


Alan Greenberg worked on Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear, Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900, and with Werner Herzog on classic screenplays Fitzcarraldo, Cobra Verde, and Heart of Glass. His screenplay Love in Vain: A Vision of Robert Johnson, which includes a foreword by Martin Scorsese, will be out from U of MN Press later this month.
Please check back on our blog for Part 3 in the discussion of the making of Love in Vain.

“Love in Vain has accomplished what I have tried to do for a long time: that is, to develop screenplays as a new genre of literature which has its own natural right of existence.”—Werner Herzog

“It may be the best movie you’ll see all year—even if it’s just inside your head.” —Entertainment Weekly

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