Mad Men is the greatest show in the history of television, certainly the greatest hour-long drama.
I was up for the gig writing the screenplay for Where the Wild Things Are a million years ago, when the project was at Universal. I had mixed feelings about taking on the project, because the book is so slim, and so primal, so, well, "wild," that I knew no studio would spend $100 million doing it properly. Where the Wild Things Are should be weird, intense, edgy and deeply personal, the exact opposite of what i knew a studio wanted out of a four-quadrant hit.
What would you say are the top three pitfalls of pitching? Like, what are some rookie mistakes; what should come out of a successful pitch meeting; what are some things that you should never, never do? —pirateman
So in that situation [where some stranger walks in and ruins your pitch] do you just run with it and incorporate it or argue for your original point? —johnnycrulez
If you’ve been reading this journal for very long, you know that I’m the last guy you should ask for advice about pitching.
I hate pitching with a passionate, burning intensity. Partly because it’s a degrading, humiliating experience antithetical to good writing, and partly because I suck at it.
The producer calls the writer, says "I’ve got this fantastic property I want to develop." The writer says "Oh I love that property, by all means let’s do this." The producer and the writer have a series of meetings where they talk about what would make a good movie based on this property. The writer has ideas, the producer also has ideas, they work together to come to an agreement of what the movie should be. When they feel like they’ve got a firm handle on the idea, they call up the studio people and set up a meeting.
Following up from my previous post, wherein I described, in rather dry, technical terms, the jobs of some of the principal players on a movie set, to give the novice some idea of what all that means I offer this personal experience.
In the autumn of 2001, a PRODUCER named Patricia Maguire came to me and asked me to write and direct a short film based on a Chekhov story of my choosing. I chose "Grasshopper," a tale of marriage and betrayal and seduction and sudden death.
I wrote my script (it was 25 pages) and submitted it to Patricia. She had a few notes, which were good notes, and I incorporated them into the script. (The wise screenwriter accepts good ideas from anyone, no matter who they are — producer, director, actor or man on the street. The trick is having a clear enough understanding of what you’re doing so that you can tell a good idea from a bad one.)
Over the summer, I saw The Dark Knight three times in the theaters, and came away stunned and baffled each time — it elevates the superhero genre so much, in so many different ways, it makes Batman Begins look like Batman Forever and it makes the 1989 Batman look like the 1966 Batman. It solves many of the problems inherent in the genre and places the characters in a complex continuum, instead of a hermetically-sealed corporate product. In many ways it is still as broad and "comic-booky" as any superhero movie, but by taking its characters seriously as human beings and thinking their actions through on a broad social level it succeeds in creating cinematic characters that breathe and speak to us. It is also a god-damn freakin’ plot machine, a script so complex and ambitious that I can only sit and wonder at it. Ideas in movies are easy, but plot is hard, and superhero plots are some of the hardest of all, which is why no one — until The Dark Knight — has managed to pull it off. And then, to have the movie be about the hero’s failure instead of his triumph, and then to have it go on to be the biggest movie in the history of the genre, well, that’s some kind of amazing thing.
In August, I had a meeting with a producer who has had some experience producing Batman movies. The Dark Knight was still the number one movie in theaters that day, and conversation naturally turned to it.
ME: So — The Dark Knight.
PRODUCER: I know.
PRODUCER: I know. It’s amazing. I know.
ME: So. You tell me. You make this kind of movie. You tell me. How?
PRODUCER: How what?
ME: How does a movie like that get made? In this environment, where anything complicated or challenging or pessimistic or visionary get ironed out to appeal to the broadest possible market, how does a movie like that get made? That’s an expensive movie with a lot of moving parts — the producers, the cast, the special effects, the location shooting — how does a picture like that get made, and end up that good?
PRODUCER: Because Christopher Nolan gets no notes.
ME: What do you mean?
PRODUCER: I mean, the studio gives him no notes. None. Zero.
ME: The director gets no notes?
ME: So, you’re telling me, Christopher Nolan and his brother write the script —
PRODUCER: And then they shoot it. And the studio gives them no notes. They’ve given them the project, they trust their vision, and they let them shoot it the way they want. And that’s how a movie like that gets made.
"Do you think the rapid turnaround from theater to dvd is a problem? One of my friends refers to theatrical releases as "trailers for the dvd" and I usually don’t worry about catching a film at the theater unless it’s the sort of thing likely to benefit from a gigantic screen and sound system."
I never met Paul Newman, although I am pleased to have appeared in a movie with him.
My wife, however, did meet him, the story of which I would like to relate to you now.
After working on Astroboy and Wonder Woman, for many years I was “on the list” of writers consulted for every comic-book movie that came down the pike.
When the Iron Man people asked me for a take on their then-aborning project, I took a jaunt to my local comic-book store to look for source material. This was quite a few years ago now, and, as hard as it is to believe, there was almost no Iron Man material in the stores. The only readily-available collection was The Power of Iron Man, an important, ground-breaking story arc that dealt mainly with Tony Stark’s alcoholism.
So I said “All right, whatever you say. Alcoholic superhero. Let’s go.” This is the pitch I came up with:
Tony Stark is an arms manufacturer. He’s a heel and a creep, but somewhere deep inside he’s still human. He brings death and destruction to the world, and it’s beginning to corrode his soul. He turns to alcohol to dull the pain. Caught in the jaws of the capitalist beast, he can only press forward and continue producing death. He has responsibilities to his corporation to keep moving forward, but he’s cracking under the strain and alcohol, he thinks, will hold him together.
His alcoholism progresses to the point where he starts having blackouts. What he doesn’t know is that, when he is blacked out, he becomes Iron Man. Iron Man is, essentially, Tony Stark’s conscience, fighting against the very machine that Tony operates in his non-blacked-out hours. Iron Man works as hard to dismantle Tony’s company as Tony does pressing its agenda. Tony even gets the idea to create War Machine, a “waking Tony” creation designed to fight Iron Man, never realizing that he is, himself, in fact, Iron Man.
So I thought “Well, an alcoholic superhero, I don’t think we can sell that to an audience, but a superhero who is his own supervillain, we haven’t seen that yet.” And I pitched my take to the producer who had sent me The Power of Iron Man and his instant reaction was “Are you crazy? We can’t make a movie about an alcoholic superhero!” And that was the end of that.
(The idea of an alcoholic superhero, of course, didn’t seem so outrageous to the producers of Hancock.)
So they went and made an Iron Man movie without me, and it turned out very well. Tony drinks a lot in the movie, but they never point to it as a “problem,” which I think is the correct approach. The plot coincides with my pitch insofar as it hinges on Tony’s growing realization that he is not making the world a better place by manufacturing ever-more sophisticated weaponry. He doesn’t become schizophrenic, rather, he fights Obidiah Stane, his corporate officer and gets bounced out of his own company. It’s a lot of the same ideas, but more elegantly and organically presented. As far as superhero movies go, it’s pretty sophisticated stuff and a cracking good time. It is both a geek-fest and a good “entry point” movie: it’s filled with Marvel in-jokes but also manages to stake out its own identity. This is all very hard for a hugely-expensive movie to do, which makes Iron Man all the more impressive.
The crowd for the screening I attended was more pumped for this movie than I’ve heard a crowd be pumped for a movie in a long time. They hooted and hollered, shouted and sang as the lights went down. The only thing that got them more excited than Iron Man was the trailer for The Dark Knight which received cheers and a round of applause. Iron Man completely delivered to this crowd, a movie about a gearhead, made by gearheads, for an audience of gearheads. I mean that as a compliment.
I would say to be sure to stay until after the ending credits, but if you’re the sort of Marvel Geek who is rushing out to see the movie today you probably already know that.
Not Famous Older Director.
I’m working on a picture. We have a script everyone likes, a Movie Star who will justify our budget, an excellent supporting cast, and we have just found a Famous Older Director, a real icon of 70s-era moviemaking, to direct the movie. Everyone is very excited about this: a miracle of miracles is about to occur, we are actually About To Make A Movie.
FOD has some ideas about the script. Some of them are good ideas about the script. The meeting is going well. I’m sitting there thinking “Omigod, I’m actually going to have my name on a movie directed by FOD, I’m going to go down in movie history.”
FOD has an idea for the ending. Everyone wants to hear it.
Here is FOD’s idea for the ending — “What if we show two of the main characters, in a romantic climax, kissing — “
— yes, we’re with you so far —
” — in the mists rising from Niagara Falls?”
A beautiful image. Indelible. One problem: the movie is not set at Niagara Falls. The third act of the movie isn’t set at Niagara Falls. The climax of the movie isn’t set at Niagara Falls. In fact, none of the movie is set at Niagara Falls. In fact, there isn’t even a single reference to Niagara Falls anywhere in the script.
I’m puzzling about this as Producer and Movie Star exclaim to FOD about what a beautiful image it is. Then all three of them turn to me and say “So, Todd, what do you think?”
And I say “Um, I think it’s a beautiful image but, um, I’m just wondering, why Niagara Falls?”
And FOD expounds upon the iconic glory of Niagara Falls, and how gorgeous it will be to see the two characters kissing in the mists as the mists rise from the falls. And he still hasn’t told me why Niagara Falls, except he thought of it.
And so I say “Yes, I see, I totally get it, but, um, why Niagara Falls?”
And now FOD starts to get a little impatient, and starts putting down my script, which everybody loved when we first got into the room fifteen minutes earlier, but which is now apparently a steaming pile of crap in bad need of an overhaul. Which, as far as I know, it is, but in which case, I’m wondering how it attracted Movie Star and FOD in the first place.
And I assure FOD that I have nothing against Niagara Falls, or his shot, but there’s no reason why these characters would suddenly be kissing in the mists of Niagara Falls at the climax of our movie.
So FOD, on the spot, makes up a reason why they might be there, which involves rearranging a few of our third-act scenes in order to justify the change of location.
And I say “Okay, but then why do these scenes in the third act take place in Niagara Falls?”
And FOD makes up a bunch of charming nonsense about why these third-act scenes take place in Niagara Falls, which involve changing the nature of the second-act climax.
And I ask why the second-act climax needs to change, since it was working perfectly well before, and if we change it then we will need to change the action of the second act, since everything builds to that second-act climax.
And FOD says no problem, we can just change who the protagonist is and what his goals are, and what his conflicts are, and who the antagonists are, and that will give us a different first act, which will of necessity create a new second act, which will then allow us to set our third act in Niagara Falls, which will give us this wonderful shot of the two characters kissing in the mists of Niagara Falls. QED.
And Producer and Movie Star are sitting there going “Yeah, that sounds great, let’s do that, sure, wow, this is going to be some movie,” and they all turn to me and say “So, what do you think?”
And I furrow my brow and purse my lips, because I’m just Shlub Screenwriter, I’m not Producer or Movie Star or Famous Older Director, I can’t just say “but this is the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard!”
So instead, I take a moment, and a deep breath, and say: “Well, everything I understand about film theory tells me that The Shot serves The Scene, and The Scene serves The Plot, and The Plot serves The Story, and The Story is the whole point of the movie being made, and now you’re asking me to change the entire story of our movie because the director has an idea for a shot.”
And everyone glares at me like I’ve just pulled down my pants and shat on the floor.
And Producer sternly reminds me that Famous Older Director is Famous Older Director, and How Dare I Speak That Way, and Who Do I Think I Am, and Apologize To All Of Us. And now I’m beginning to think that maybe I’m not going to go down in movie history after all, and I say “I mean, that’s fine, I don’t mind, I’m not afraid of work, and if we can make this work, then for Heaven’s sake, let’s do that.”
And that seems like a much better attitude for me to have, and everyone is pleased, and arrangements are made for me and FOD to travel to Niagara Falls together to scout locations for what has now become a major overhaul of our script.
And I do travel to Niagara Falls with FOD, and we do scout locations, and every location we see gives FOD another idea about a new direction for the plot of our movie, and by the end of the day the movie bears absolutely no resemblance to the screenplay we already have, the one everyone loves, the one that a week ago was all ready to shoot. And I’m looking at at least a month of rewrites on a movie that’s supposed to start shooting in a couple of weeks, and new characters and plot complications are being added by the minute and I don’t even know what the hell I’m writing any more.
And Producer calls me in my hotel room in Toronto after my day of scouting locations with FOD and he asks me how it’s going. And I do my best to relate to Producer this new movie that FOD is laying out in our travels, and he says “No, no, this is ridiculous, why are you letting him get away with this?!” (To begin with, FOD’s plot changes are about to double the budget of the movie, which will kill the project right there.) And I remind Producer that I tried to point out the absurdity of FOD’s changes at the earlier meeting, a fact that Producer has now forgotten. “You have to tell him, Todd,” he says, “You have to tell him that this won’t work. I mean, my God, he’s changing the entire story just for the sake of one shot!” And I remind Producer that I am only Shlub Screenwriter, it’s not my place to tell FOD that his ideas aren’t going to work. That would, I think, be Producer’s job.
In any case, FOD and I fly back to New York and, the next thing I know, I’m going to a meeting at Producer’s office, and it’s me and Producer and Movie Star again, and FOD and I talk about our trip to Niagara Falls and what we learned there and how our movie will be affected by the changes, and I say that if this is what everyone wants, I’m happy to dive right in and change the entire script. And Movie Star has brought a book that FOD wrote, so he can get FOD’s autograph, and FOD is charming and eloquent and everyone tells FOD he’s a genius and FOD has to leave to go meet his publisher or something and the second FOD leaves the room Producer and Movie Star tell me that FOD’s ideas are ridiculous and unworkable and they’re firing FOD and replacing him with someone else.