Real to Reel

When an old friend told me she had produced and directed a major motion picture, I was pleasantly surprised. Then she told me what the movie was about.

Julie Davis left Miami in 1986 the same way I did, with new clothes, a halogen desk lamp, and her high school diploma beaming from a fancy lacquered frame purchased by her parents. Four years later she graduated from college the same way I did, her brain buzzing with the impractical dream of making a career out of her creative obsessions.

Some people wake up from their dreams. Julie Davis didn't. In 1996 she wrote and directed a film called I Love You ... Don't Touch Me that will be released February 20 by MGM. Julie is already the rarest and most glamorous of creatures, a successful filmmaker, and one day soon she may be a star. She may be the young indie director all the major studios court. She may grace the cover of a national magazine, proclaimed, in hyperactive text, the Next Big Thing. One thing's for sure. Julie Davis is a real live wire. How do I know?

Because her movie is about me.

They say that in love stories you should play to the endpoints, the extremes of exhilaration and misery, while in stories of friendship you should emphasize the ordinary. Given the byzantine nature of my relationship with Julie, I'm splitting the difference.

After I graduated from college in 1990, I returned to Miami and went to work as a staff writer and film critic for New Times. That fall I ran into a high school acquaintance who told me Julie Davis had been in a car accident. "Well," he said, "not really. She wasn't in a car."

Julie had been doing the film-biz rounds in Los Angeles, looking for work wherever it might be hiding. One night she was leaving the set of Twin Peaks, David Lynch's attempt to foist his eccentricities upon network TV. It was late and she was exhausted, so exhausted that she didn't see the headlights. Ten seconds later she was flying through the air. The damage? One pelvis, fractured; four ribs, cracked; one lung, collapsed; two pints of blood, transfused.

When I heard about the accident, I considered calling Julie. What restrained me was the simplest form of stupidity: I didn't know what to say. The best I could come up with was, "Hey, it's me. I wasn't driving." Instead of calling, I sent a get-well card with a picture of a cartoon cat in a hospital bed. I remembered later that Julie was a dog person.

I thought about Julie only occasionally until this past summer, when my mother, in the midst of a perfectly routine phone conversation, said, "You remember Julie Davis, don't you?"

I almost dropped the phone. After all, I had endured an erotically charged, platonic friendship with Julie for most of high school, had spent hours sitting in her silver Trans Am in the parking lot of Palmetto High School, ears cocked for the sound of her bare back peeling off the hot vinyl.

"Well," my mother said, "she made a movie." According to the two clippings my mom sent me, Julie's movie was a romantic comedy, a "delightful romantic comedy" called I Love You ... Don't Touch Me. Julie had not only directed the movie but written and produced it. In January 1997, at the ripe old age of 27, she had sold it at the Sundance Film Festival to the Samuel Goldwyn Company. The film, which starred Marla Schaffel, another high school classmate of ours, was the story of "a young woman's search for the perfect relationship and, less obviously, for a special someone to free her from her virginity."

This made sense. The Julie Davis I remembered, the girl I knew in high school, liked to talk about the sanctity of virginity and her determination to keep hers until she found the perfect relationship. I would say that she talked about these things constantly, but all I know for certain is that she talked about them constantly to me. At the time, I thought that her preoccupation was a stratagem for neutralizing my romantic interest.

That Julie had stayed obsessed well beyond high school, that she had even written a screenplay about these matters, came as something of a vindication. That she had managed to film that screenplay was a surprise. That she had sold a finished film at Sundance -- well, this was cause for celebration. I called Los Angeles information and left Julie a message.

She called back the very next day.
"It's incredible that you called me," she said. "I was hoping you would. In fact, I was just about to call you."

"Oh yeah?"
"Yeah, I need you to sign a release."
"A release? You mean like a legal release?"
"Yeah," she said. "A letter you wrote to me in high school is in the movie."
"Really?"

"Well, not a whole letter. It's part of a letter. I used it because one of the characters in the movie, the best friend of the main character, is sort of based on you."

I'd like to be able to report that I reacted to this news waggishly, that I delivered a lightning-quick comeback that had Julie helpless with laughter. The truth is that I was struck dumb. I held the phone and breathed while I watched the second hand on my wall clock sweep slowly around the dial. Julie scrambled to take up the slack. "It's so good to talk to you," she said. "You have to come to the premiere of my movie. You remember my dog Pepsi from high school? I have another one just like him now. He's so cute. His head is bigger than his body."

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