Kid Stays in the Picture: Houseguest’s Weird Tale Of Movies and Abramoff

The modern city dweller must suffer rats, cockroaches, the occasional snakefish and lately, it seems, the biting of bed bugs. Vermin of one kind or another is the price of living in Xanadu. In many ways, I mark the day I became a passable New Yorker when, while walking along Madison Square Park, my then-girlfriend (now wife) pointed out a cute critter frolicking at our feet in the brown autumn leaves and I could casually clarify, “That’s a rat.”

So when we moved to Brooklyn, it didn’t seem strange that we would have to deal with a few pests and, lo, we learned our backyard belonged to a fearlessly forward squirrel, our kitchen was home to an invincible colony of ants, and the chief authority figure in our lives wasn’t the landlord, but the Italian grandmother two stoops up the block. But one infestation we hadn’t counted on. In Brooklyn, we gained a spare room and, along with it, a semi-permanent houseguest.

It’s a fact: You live in New York, you’re going to get visitors. College chums, Army buddies, your friends, your family, their friends, their family—everyone wants to visit and a free place to stay. Occasionally, they never want to leave, either.

Our semi-permanent houseguest is named Todd Rohal. It is important to emphasize that Todd is more free spirit than moocher, and actually more broke filmmaker than free spirit. Over the past months, as he finished his first feature film, he has stayed at our place frequently enough to earn a set of keys and his own towel. His most recent stretch ran roughly from Christmas to Margaret Thatcher Day. When he departs, he leaves behind little treasures, some intentionally (copies of obscure DVD’s, a 40-ounce), some not (a shoe, a hard drive). He has picked us up at the airport; he lets us run errands in his car. We are grateful for the favors and happy to have him—after all, what good is all that new wedding dinnerware if you’re using it two plates at a time? Still, we’ve been married only three months, and it feels our honeymoon period has largely been chaperoned.

Then Todd gave us the most practical wedding gift yet: a story for our time.

Call it the parable of the semi-permanent houseguest.

Toward the end of Todd’s last long visit, I visited him at a sound studio on West 14th Street, where he was finishing the sound mix for his film, The Guatemalan Handshake, which features neither Guatemalans nor handshakes. Crooked lobbyist Jack Abramoff was all over the news, and when someone mentioned him, Todd announced with bemused disbelief, “All week I’ve been telling everyone: That guy wanted to invest in our film!”

According to Todd, he met Jack Abramoff in September 2003. A friend set up the meeting. The hotshot lobbyist was also the producer of the 1989 Dolph Lundgren action flick Red Scorpion, the kind of Cold War relic in which rippling pecs and a hiccupping Uzi seemed an acceptable response to Communism. Todd didn’t know who Mr. Abramoff was, but he was the first investor he’d met, so he bought a new shirt and pants.

Mr. Abramoff showed little interest in Todd’s film, which was shot on location in and around Harrisburg, Penn., and has a body count of zero. The plot involves a 10-year-old girl named Turkeylegs whose best friend has gone missing, among other things.

Todd wasn’t impressed with Mr. Abramoff’s advice, which he called “generic 1980’s crap” (“Have some guns, show some boobs”). Mr. Abramoff also suggested that Todd make buttons. Apparently, people loved the buttons from Red Scorpion, one of which Mr. Abramoff had in his desk drawer.

The subject the lobbyist seemed to wax most poetic about was money, specifically how to structure your movie as a tax shelter, which he admitted was illegal. (Todd: “That was his one up-to-date piece of advice.”) Mr. Abramoff dropped some cash during the meeting, though not in the manner Todd had hoped: He booked his family a floor of the Willard Hotel for a week, bought plane tickets and reserved a table for 15 at Galileo. In all, the meeting lasted 90 minutes, during which the lobbyist made sure to mention that his usual consulting fee was $800 an hour. Todd left mystified.

That night, Todd reminded us what had happened since he and Mr. Abramoff parted ways. It was the typically outrageous litany of the indie filmmaker: production woes (they sank a car off of Three Mile Island), equipment malfunctions (a hard drive crashed, erasing all their sound work) and problems of personal finance (one day I overheard him signing up for his fourth credit card). Todd said to no one, “I’ve gone through hell; I’m completely broke and completely homeless—am I better off now than if I’d taken some of that dirty money?”

The next day, Todd left for Los Angeles. Our apartment felt twice its normal size. We blasted NY1 in the mornings and sipped cider in slippers at night. A week later, Todd was back. He was in town to screen the first print, which he planned to carry onto a flight to Park City, Utah, that afternoon, in time for its premiere at the Slamdance Film Festival.

I met Todd at the Technicolor screening room on Leroy Street. Robert Altman was rumored to be next-door, finishing his film. There were scratches on the negative, some color needed correcting, and Todd was sick of his film. Three friends were driving his car to Utah, and it had already broken down twice. They phoned from a bowling alley in Iowa to update him, causing Todd to mutter, “That’s the last valuable possession I own.” Over lunch, he consulted a magic eight-ball: “Will my life always suck?” The answer from beyond: “Yes.”

We put Todd, a puffy parka and a backpack full of computers into a cab on Sixth Avenue. It was raining and he didn’t have an umbrella. He was on his way to Utah to meet a gang of about 20 of the faithful, who planned to promote the film with headbands, trading cards and a 1981 wedge-shaped electric Comuta-Car that featured prominently in The Guatemalan Handshake.

Eleven days later, on an unseasonably warm Saturday night, my wife and I were sitting with friends around the backyard fire pit—with nary a squirrel or rat in sight—when the doorbell rang. It was after midnight, and it was Todd, fresh off a plane from Utah. Someone handed him a s’more. Not only had The Guatemalan Handshake won a Special Jury Prize, but both screenings had sold out, Harvey Weinstein had been given a copy of the film, and the Comuta-Car had had run-ins with the likes of Micky Dolenz, MCA, Crispin Glover and John Malkovich.

It’s funny how fortunes change. For the moment, Todd is up, Jack Abramoff is down, we have 12 flatware settings, and Malkovich is Malkovich. The great karmic wheel steamrolls on. Todd once told me he’d love to get a DVD of the finished film to Mr. Abramoff, who surely could use some cheering up. But I’d say the truly gratifying story is Todd’s. You can learn a lot from the company you keep.

I know it all seems so neat—a clichéd case of the good guys winning out (for now)—but our semi-permanent houseguest is not a guy given to Freyian flights of fancy, so we believe his crazy story. That said, I guess if Mr. Abramoff wants to tangle, I’d be happy to pass on Todd’s number. Then again, he could probably find him at our place.