True Hollywood Story: Famous Older Director

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.

I’m in the Producer’s office with the Movie Star and the Famous Older Director. It is our first meeting with FOD. FOD is nattily dressed, speaks in rich, plummy tones, and looks every inch a FOD. Producer, Movie Star and Shlub Screenwriter (that’s me) are all terribly excited to be in the same room with FOD.

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.

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Some thoughts on the writer’s strike part 2

Here’s how it works:

I get a call from my representation. They say “Todd! Big Producer has a project, Massive Pop Behemoth, and he’s only talking to a very few writers, and you’re one of them! He wants to hear your ideas!”

So I’m “in the game.” I’m not some poor schmuck with his nose pressed up against the glass, I have an invitation to play at the big table. I am grateful for this chance. I used to write experimental plays to be performed in 60-seat theaters with seven-foot ceilings on the Lower East Side, I probably shouldn’t even be here.

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True Hollywood Story: The Integrity Card

Radiohead has a new record out, In Rainbows. It’s wonderful.

Radiohead has chosen a unique distribution plan for In Rainbows: you can go to their website and download it, for whatever price you feel it’s worth.

This is alarming, and Radiohead know it is. When you place your order at their website, a question mark appears next to an empty price box. When you click on the question mark, the screen says “IT’S UP TO YOU.” And then there’s another question mark. When you click on that question mark, the screen says “NO REALLY, IT’S UP TO YOU.” It is a weird, thrilling experience to download an album for whatever price you feel like paying.

I came across a column on a music industry site where the columnist praised Radiohead for their business acumen: the pricing plan for In Rainbows, says the columnist, may result in a profit shortfall, but the resulting credibility for the band will be immeasurable and lead to much greater wealth. Ah, yes, I said, good plan: credibility will allow you to sell more records. It would, of course, never occur to a music-industry professional that a band might actually desire credibility for its own sake, or might wish to simply reach a broader audience by giving away its music for free — “credibility” can only be part of a devious scheme to hoodwink the people and make more money.

Which reminded me of this story:

It is December 1997. I am in an enviable position for a screenwriter: I have co-written a big-budget spectacle, but it hasn’t been released yet. I am living in the best of possible screenwriting worlds: everyone knows I’m hot, but no one can quantify what exactly I’ve done. For Hollywood, my hot, mysterious writing crackles and shimmers with infinite possibility.

My representation calls me one Friday evening, at my home in NYC, with a proposal:

A Big Important Producer has a project, which I will call Heist Movie. Big Star attached, heading into production. They have a script but it needs work. They would like to pay me Substantial Sum of Money to tweak Heist Movie. Not too much work, four weeks tops, in and out, neat and clean.

I say to my representation: but I don’t need a job. I have a job, I’ve committed to the job I’m already doing, I can’t very well stall on the job I already have in order to work on Heist Movie, even if it’s only for four weeks.

Still, it is Substantial Sum of Money.

I say let me read the script. It is at my door within moments. I read it. I say to my representation, what exactly does Big Important Producer (BIP) want me to do with this script? My representation is very clear: BIP wants better heists. The heists in the script are good but not great; BIP wants them to be great. And he wants me in his office on Monday afternoon to tell him my ideas for the great heists.  They’re looking to make Heist Movie a gigantic, shiny, spectacular smash.

Monday is three days away. The clock is ticking. And, as I say, I have been offered Substantial Sum of Money.

I set aside the job I’m working on. I go to the video store. I rent a stack of heist movies. I study the heists. I spend the whole weekend examining heists, thinking of new spins on old ideas, cunning innovations, wild turns of events, spectacular derrings-do.

Monday I fly to LA, brimming with ideas for cool heists. I’ve got one wonderful idea that’s fully fleshed-out, but in case they don’t like it I’ve got several back-up ideas that I can probably make sound fleshed-out in the room.

I am being lodged at Pretentious A-List Hotel, for I am a Wonderful New Screenwriter.

I drive to BIP’s office, a charming bungalow on a studio lot. BIP is there with at least two cohorts. Also there is Excellent Young Director (EYD), who has a hit in theaters at the moment and has just directed an episode of Prestigious Detective Drama. There is the usual small-talk, and then the fangs come out. “So, Todd,” says BIP, “What do you have for us?”

I rattle off my ideas. I’m charming and funny. I detail just how intricate, humorous, spectacular and thematically relevant my heists are, how they will fit into their script and place it into the pantheon of Great Heist Movies.

BIP is pleased. He turns to EYD and says “What do you think?”

EYD says “What is all this Mission: Impossible shit? I don’t care about any of that. I want to know about the characters. How are you going to fix the characters?”

At that moment, I should have said “Gosh. I’m sorry. You and BIP obviously need to have a conversation about what movie you’re making, and I shouldn’t be in the room for that conversation. I’ll leave now, you can reach me at Pretentious A-List Hotel.” But I don’t. What I say is “Okay, let’s do that. Let’s talk about the characters.” Luckily, I have been thinking about the characters, and I can talk a pretty good game when it comes to discussing narrative. But in the back of my mind I’m thinking “BIP has a completely different movie in mind from EYD’s. This project is doomed.”

My chat about characters pleases EYD and we have lunch on another day where we talk the movie out.

Here’s the problem: I don’t have time to do what EYD wants done with the script. I signed on to do four weeks’ work, not a page-one rewrite with an open-ended commitment. That was not the deal.

Now then: there is another wrinkle. I learn, right about now, that I am not BIP’s first choice for this rewrite job. BIP wants Great Screenwriter (GS) for the gig, but GS is not available for another six weeks, as he is writing Adaptation of Great Children’s Novel. Now, I am told, I am to write a screenplay for the heist movie that is merely a rough draft for GS to come in and perfect later.

What? I say. How is that supposed to work? Have you even spoken to GS about this plan? How does he (GS is a he) feel about that? What makes you think that, on top of coming up with great heists and re-vamping the characters, I’m going to be able to somehow magically create a script that GS is going to be able to perfect? What exactly is going on with this project?

I have a long phone conversation with GS. GS is a swell guy — really helpful, totally understanding, a genuine pro, full of great advice and tips. His vision for Heist Movie is small, dark, gritty, personal and very realistic — the total opposite of everything I’ve discussed with BIP and EYD.

This is now a nightmare. I make several frantic calls to my representation — who are these people, why are they doing this, what should I do, why am I doing this, why did you get me involved in this insane project where the producer, director and first-choice screenwriter all have completely, utterly, not-even-overlapping different ideas of what the movie is? My representation tell me to hang in there, everything will be taken care of, it’s a great project, it will help my career, and it is, after all, a Substantial Sum of Money.

Somehow this all gets ironed out. They still want to move forward with the project, they still want me to do the rewrite, they’re still positive that this will be a wonderful movie that will make a lot of money.

A meeting is scheduled. I am to go to Big Studio, with BIP, EYD and cohorts to lay out the whole plan to the Studio Executive (SE), the Guy Who Can Say Yes. This meeting is to occur at 10:00am.

At 9:00am I am in my room at Pretentious A-List Hotel, getting ready for the big meeting. My representation calls me at Pretentious A-List Hotel. Excellent news, they report. The Business Affairs office of Big Studio has settled my contract and they are prepared to offer me Insubstantial Sum of Money.

What? I gasp. What do you mean, Insubstantial Sum of Money? What the hell are you talking about? The only reason I took this gig to begin with was that they were offering me Substantial Sum of Money, why should I be happy to get Insubstantial Sum of Money? The Big Meeting is scheduled to happen in less than an hour, and I’m going crazy now. Why would they do this? Why would they put me through all this crap, offer me Substantial Sum of Money, drag me through this confusing maze of personalities, change every particular of the deal, and then offer me Insubstantial Sum of Money? “Well,” my representation says, “that’s how they do it. It’s called Getting the Writer Pregnant. They get you all excited about their project, then they lowball you on the contract. It’s nothing personal, they do it to everyone.” Yes, I say, but you don’t understand: I don’t need this job. I didn’t ask for this job, this job is getting worse every day, the time commitment expands every day, I’m neglecting the other job I already have, there’s no reason for me to do this job. I say, forget it, I’m not doing it, call a car service, get me to the airport, tell them whatever you need to tell them, I’m going home, I don’t mind being a whore but I’m not going to be a cheap whore.

I hang up.

A few minutes later, my representation calls back. Business affairs, they say, has come back with an offer of Insubstantial Sum of Money Plus. I go ballistic. What the hell are you talking about?! I told you, I’m not doing the project! It’s a nightmare! No one knows what the hell is going on with it and I DON’T NEED THE JOB!

I hang up.

A few minutes later, my representation calls back. Business Affairs, they say, has come back with an offer of Substantial Sum of Money — that is, the original agreed-upon fee. I say, it’s too late. They blew it. I have no faith in this project any more. Please call me car service to take me to the airport, I’m going home.

I hang up.

A few minutes later, my representation calls back. Business Affairs, they say, has come back with an offer of Substantial Sum of Money…Plus.

Well. All right then. So it turns out they were prepared to pay me after all, they just wanted to insult me as much as possible first to see if I’d take it. All right then. I say okay, that’s a horse of a different color, where do I sign?

I still have time to make the Big Meeting. My representation congratulate me on my fierce bargaining skills. “Let me tell you,” my agent says, “It’s not a choice I would have made, but I really admire the way you played the integrity card.”

Ah yes. There it is: The Integrity Card. Don’t leave home without it. Integrity being not something one possesses, but merely a useful and canny bargaining strategy. If one holds The Integrity Card, those money bastards will lay down at one’s feet like puppies. Works every time. Shrewd move, Alcott, playing that Integrity Card.

Oh, and PS:

For reasons completely beyond my control and having nothing to do with any of the above, the project falls apart, I never do any work on it, GS never does any work on it (that I know of), the movie never gets made, and I never get any sum of money, Substantial or otherwise. BIP remains a Big Important Producer with many excellent, hit movies to his name, GS remains a Great Screenwriter and is now a Director of Note as well (and, in fact, has written a heist movie of his own which can accurately be described as small, dark, gritty, personal and very realistic), EYD went on to much success in both movies and television.

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True Hollywood Story: my worst pitch meeting

It is the summer of 2004. I am working with Ex-Studio-head Producer and Affable, Good-natured Assistant on a pitch for Giant Popcorn Movie. GPM is based on a hugely popular, instantly-recognizable Brand-Name Property with great, no-kidding potential for big-time synergy. It’s fun to work with XSP and AGA, who are wonderful collaborators and who understand the creative process of writers.

I’m doing a great job on the pitch for GPM. As well I should; I’ve been spending many months doing research through the B-NP’s fifty-year history and weaving all the many possible story-lines into a single coherent whole, a story I am confident will both pop in the consciousness of the mass audience and also have real meat and bones to it, a story of brotherhood and loss and redemption, of corruption in the highest of places and heroism in our darkest hour.

I get a call from XSP and AGA. A studio has called them with another project, Enormous Summer Tentpole, a title based on another hugely popular, instantly-recognizable Brand-Name Property, one with substantially more appeal than GPM. The studio wants XSP to produce it, and they want it in theaters by summer of 2006. That’s less than two years away, and the movie will be a huge production with ridiculously complicated special effects, so they need a screenplay right away. They need someone fast and reliable who works well under pressure and has a thorough understanding of the material.

So, XSP and AGA tell me, we want you to stop working on GPM for now and instead come up with a take for EST. This is a tremendous compliment, being asked to go from one big project that might get made to another big project that already has a release date. The fact that I haven’t been paid a dime for any of the work I’ve done hardly seems to matter.

So I set aside the mountain of research I’ve compiled for GPM and set about researching EST instead. Like many Summer Tentpole projects I’m offered, this is a project that seems a little bit silly on the surface, not something a serious writer who spends his free-time watching Kurosawa and Ozu should really get involved in. But this is Hollywood in 2004, they’re not making Kurosawa movies anymore, they’re making Summer Tentpoles. This is the game, the Big Game in fact, the Super Bowl of entertainment, and they’re inviting me to play. What am I going to say? “Sorry, this is a movie for teenagers — I am a Serious Artist and you would do well to look elsewhere?” To paraphrase one actor I’ve worked with, “They’re not asking you to botch surgery, they’re asking you to write a movie.”

Now, here’s the thing: as I’m doing research on EST, a weird thing happens. I get hooked. What seems like a shiny, mercantile, unserious commodity on the surface actually has, if one looks deeply enough, real roots. Strong roots. I find that, perversely, I’m enjoying working on EST substantially more than I enjoyed working on GPM. It’s got everything: humanity, wonder, action, passion, real characters, real sacrifices, and, weirdest of all for a Summer Tentpole, a quirky, powerful vision of the human condition.  I cast aside my doubts about the seriousness of the project: this could be a real movie with a heart, a brain and long, powerful legs.

There are whole oceans of material available on EST and it takes me weeks to wade through it all, selecting the best characters, situations and plotlines to develop. The property lends itself to big action and superficial spectacle, so I’m trying to find the warm, human love story within that, the thing that will give the movie legspast the opening weekend. I am aiming for a widescreen, action-packed special-effects bonanza with the humanity and emotional impact of no less than Close Encounters.

XSP loves my take. AGA loves my take. And no one is taking any chances — they want this take to go forward, they want to get the studio on board, they don’t want me to have done all this work for nothing. So they bring in Junior Studio Executive and I pitch a preliminary bunch of ideas to him. JSE is wildly enthusiastic about my take and says he can’t wait to get me in a room with Senior Studio Executive, AKA the Guy Who Can Say Yes.

This is the goal for the writer looking for a gig: to get in a room with the Guy Who Can Say Yes. Up to that point, you’re just whistling dixie. Anybody can sit jawing on the phone with anybody else about this or that idea for a wonderful movie; it’s only when you get into the room with GWCSY that the talk may actually become a real job with real money and, sometimes, a real movie being made, with real actors and real sets and real special-effects, with real credits with your name actually in them, and the revenue streams that follow and, who knows, once in a blue moon, maybe, a shot at cinematic immortality.

So it’s actually pretty hard to actually get into an actual room with GWCSY. Especially with a project this big. GWCSY has all kinds of people coming at him from all different directions all day long. Of course he does — he’s GWCSY. And, as I’ve said, the primary job of GWCSY is to Say No. GWCSY has a lot of things to do, a lot of projects to shepherd along, a lot of pressures on him from his bosses, who want him to Say No more often than he’d maybe like to. GWCSY and his confederates have this big-deal production to get on screen by summer of 2006 and they don’t even have a script yet, much less a director or a cast or any way of realizing the insanely complicated special-effects that will be required to make the thing sing.

So I work and work with XSP and AGA, honing my take, trying this, trying that, extending this storyline, truncating that one, bringing in JSE to referee the proceedings. Everyone is wonderful: supportive, enthusiastic, friendly, collaborative, helpful, available. They know that I’m doing good work under ridiculous pressure and they are anxious to see me get the gig. This is a good feeling.

October 2004. I’ve been working on this pitch now for a few months and summer 2006 is way too close. I’m told that the Studio Head is only talking to “A-list” writers (which I am not) but that everyone is excited by my take and thinks I have a real shot. I work and work and have many meetings with many different producers and studio people, all of whom encourage me to “keep going.”

A phone meeting is scheduled (I live in New York and the studios, for reasons they know best, no longer fly writers like me out for pitch meetings), and then canceled at the last minute. Another is scheduled and then canceled at the last minute. I’m starting to get a bad feeling about this, but all the people I’ve been working with assure me that this is good — they want to make sure that I get in the room (figuratively speaking) with GWCSY, and this is all heading in that direction.

Finally the big meeting happens, the one meeting all this work and planning and effort have been building up to. I’m in my office in New York, the producers are in their offices in Hollywood, the studio people are in their offices on their lot. There are at least five people on the phone on five different phone lines, which means I can barely hear anyone.

The first thing that happens is JSE announces that GWCSY got “called away” at the last second and can’t be on the call, but he wants me to go ahead and do my pitch, and he’ll duly report to GWCSY. This immediately takes the wind out of my sails — if GWCSY isn’t on the call, why are we doing it? Should we even bother? What is reallygoing on? JSE assures me that everyone is very interested in hearing my take and that it is still a very real possibility that I will get this job.

Okay. I start in on my pitch. At the other end of the phone is silence. No “uh-huh”s, no “great”s, no “oh, wonderful”s, no indication that anyone at all is listening to me. Silence.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I can’t speak into phone silence. It freaks me out. I get disoriented. After a minute of speaking into dead phone silence, I start to lose track of what I’m saying, I get self-conscious, I start to babble, I begin to listen to what I’m saying instead of merely speaking.

I stop and say “You still there?” and everyone assures me they’re still there and still very interested.

I take a breath and continue. My pitch is about 25 minutes long — I’ve written out practically every scene in the movie. About five minutes into it, I hear a click. Someone, I don’t know who, has put me on hold.

I say “Hello? Are you still there? Someone just put me on hold.” Several voices, belonging to who I’m not sure, they are very far away, assure me that they are still there and listening. So I continue.

Hold music comes on. I’m apoplectic. Someone, I know not who, has definitely left the conversation and put the call on hold, unaware (I hope) that their phone automatically plays hold music when they press the “hold” button.

What am I supposed to do? JSE, the ranking official on the call, laughs and apologizes, but apparently it’s not him who has put me on hold while I’m pitching. Several beeps, clicks and noises later, the hold music stops and I continue.

A minute later, I hear someone else (maybe the same someone) set their phone down on their desk and start answering their email. I can actually hear their fingers on their keyboard and the pinging of their inbox. What I should do is say “okay, look, I may want this job, but I’m not going to pitch a take that I’ve spent months putting together to some hold music and a guy answering his email,” but that’s not going to help. I don’t know what’s going to help but I know that that’s not going to help. Or I don’t know, maybe it would help, maybe calling people on this kind of behavior would help in some way, but all I can think is about getting my hard-won pitch back on track and into the ear of JSE, who assures me he’s still there and still listening.

I limp to the end of the pitch. JSE is cordial, congratulatory and polite but brief in his comments and the call ends.

A few days later I learn from my representation that the studio had already hired another writer and was only doing my call as a “courtesy” to me, to honor the work I had done on the project. Neither XSP or AGA ever call me again, about GPM or any other project.

EST did not hit its target release date of summer 2006, but it was made and released and was a great big fat hit.

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True Hollywood Story: my first pitch meeting

The year is 1992. I have a semi-hit play running Off-Broadway. A Perfectly Nice Woman who runs the New York office of a Fairly Large Movie Studio comes to see it and is impressed. She invites me up to her office to talk about any ideas for movies I might have.

It’s my first pitch meeting! I’m so excited. I know all about pitch meetings — I know that to sell your pitch, you need to take your original, dynamic, exciting new idea and express it as a tired old cliche — preferably two tired old cliches combined in an interesting way. It’s Star Wars meets Die Hard, it’s Benji meets The French Connection, it’s Serpico meets The Sound of Music. Maybe, if your idea is outrageously difficult to define, you can throw in a third cliche — it’s Silence of the Lambs meets The Muppet Movie — in space!

(At this stage of my career [that is, 1992], the reader should know, I am of the habit of walking past subway posters, describing the action, and then adding ” — and they have to solve a murder!”  “A woman goes to a laser surgery clinic, where she meets a bespectacled Mideastern doctor  — and they to solve a murder!”  “A woman tries a new toothpaste — and she has to solve a murder!” This joke backfired on me one day when I passed an ad for Newport cigarettes and said “A fun-loving young couple is getting married — and they have to solve a murder!” and then realized that that was actually a pretty good idea for a movie.  Try it some time!)

I go to the meeting. The offices of FLMS are classy in a New York way — lively and plush, lots of edgy, post-modern art in the lobby.

We go into PNW’s office. Pitch meetings are never just the writer and the Person Who Can Say Yes. The Person Who Can Say Yes is always flanked by at least two other people, Pilot Fish really, whose job is to sit there and listen and maybe take notes and then later discuss the pitched projects with the Person Who Can Say Yes. The Person Who Can Say Yes is generally inclined to Say No, and they need, I think, those two other people to help them feel better about that.

Anyway, so PNW has two of these people flanking her. One is a Perfectly Nice Younger Woman and the other is a young man who I will call Blow-Dried Little Asshole. B-DLA looks like he’s 20 years old. His haircut looks like it cost more than my monthly rent and he carries with him an opaque, impenetrable sense of entitlement and arrogance.

I go into my pitch. The movie I’m thinking of is one I’ve written with a friend of mine, a love story set against the alternative music scene of the 1980s. I remember my pitch rule, and I say “It’s The Way We Were meets Slacker.” PNW and PNYW smile and nod, but B-DLA snorts with derision, tosses his head back and says “Slacker performed like an art film.”

I can’t tell you the impact this moment had on me. I loved Slacker, I had never seen anything like it, and, more important, I had never seen a movie that so accurately described the concerns of my peculiar generation so well. Even worse, I loved art films as a genre even more — they were the mainstay of my cinematic diet. Half the movies I saw were either at the Angelika or Film Forum. “Art Film” to me was something to aspire to, not something to spit on.   Bergman and Kurosawa, Kubrick and Antonioni, Fellini and Almodovar, Jarmusch and Lynch, these guys weren’t curse-words in my household, they were models of creative behavior.  Yet this B-DLA had just spit on both Slacker and Art Film in one breath. What I didn’t know was that when a writer says “Art Film” in a pitch meeting, he might as well be saying “Dog Shit.” It’s The Godfather meets Dog Shit!

So, my pitch was dead at that point but I was too green to realize it. And keep in mind, this was not a Big Time Studio, this was the “edgy” studio, the “young” studio known for taking chances and fostering daring young talent.

I still don’t know what B-DLA meant by this statement — how could you denigrate Slacker for performing like an art film? It’s got 100 characters and no plot, how should it perform? It cost $27,000, grossed $1,000,000, introduced a new term to our language, defined a generation and began the career of Richard Linklater, but apparently for B-DLA that’s not good enough, Slacker should have performed like Iron Eagle.

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George W. Bush: worse than a William Morris agent.

Let me be the first to say it: this man is a dangerous retard.

Many years ago, I had an agent at William Morris. He was an idiot. Literally everything he did, and everything he advised me to do, was bad for my career. Oh the stories I could tell. He botched deals, angered producers, over-sold me, under-sold me, advised me against every good lead I found, actively sabotaged my projects, and once negotiated a deal on the behalf of the producer optioning my material instead of on the behalf of his client (me). Our partnership ended when I brought his behavior to the attention of his superiors in Los Angeles.

It took me a long time to figure out just how bad at his job he was (one of his tactics was to make me feel like I was a moron and a failure, and, being new to the business I had no reason to doubt his opinion), but I finally did.

And then one day he called and said there was a lady visiting New York from Hollywood and she wanted to have a general meeting with me.

ME. A “general meeting,” what does that mean exactly?
IDIOT. She just wants to sit down and get to know you a little bit.
ME. So, should I have a pitch ready for her or anything?
IDIOT. Oh, heavens no, that would be the absolute wrong thing to do, please don’t do that.

I hung up the phone, sat down and, straight-away, wrote out pitches for five movies.

A few days later, I went to meet the lady from Hollywood at the William Morris offices. We met, shook hands and were shown into a conference room. Before she had even sat down, she said “So. Tell me an idea for a movie.” Luckily, I had listened carefully to my idiot agent’s advice and so proceeded to do the exact opposite thing, so I was prepared to pitch a whole bunch of stuff to the lady from Hollywood. That lady was Nina Jacobson, and that meeting, probably the most productive and important business meeting of my life, ended with our friendship beginning, and thenceforth to me having a real career in motion pictures.

My point is, I think we’ve reached that point with president Bush.

I think we’ve reached the point, at least two years gone now, where all we really need to do is, when we read a headline like “Bush Insists Al Qaeda in Iraq Threatens U.S.”, we can just go ahead and assume that Al Qaeda in Iraq does not threaten the US. And yet, the New York Times runs the headline they do, rather than post the more accurate “Power-drunk Man-child Babbles Incoherently Regarding Things He Knows Nothing About.” Why give the man any respect at all? Why is it that I, with no journalistic or poli-sci background whatsoever, can better see what this administration is doing than the editorial staff of the New York Times?

It’s simply exhausting, with this administration, to keep one’s level of outrage going. Watching Z the other night with

 , I kept thinking — “is this what it’s going to take, are Bush and Cheney going to have to actually murder their opposition leaders anyone says “Hey, what’s the deal with that President Bush guy?” before people will starting paying attention? Will Nancy Pelosi have to be clubbed to death by thugs hired by Cheney before people will begin to sense there is something going horribly wrong in this country? Will Al Gore have to be gagged and thrown into the back of a van and whisked off into the night before anyone notices that we’re not living in a democracy any more? (Note — the folks in Z, it should be noted, get away with murdering their opposition leaders, and a lot more other people too).

Here’s some headlines from just today:

Gonzales lets slip that there are other domestic spy programs, in addition to, you know, tapping everyone’s phones.

Gee, somehow, no matter what, oil prices just keep going up. Funny how that works.

You know how we said the surge was “a last chance?” Well, we had our fingers crossed. Suckers!

And, finally:

Bush’s lawyer vigorously defends Bush’s right to crush boys’ testicles if he wants to.

Now there’s a real measure of scary.  Just think: Bush is willing to go on public record insisting has the right to crush boys’ testicles.  Now imagine the stuff he doesn’t want us to know about

The saddest thing about the administration, of course, is that they don’t even have a plan for what happens after they’re gone. They don’t see how, for example, when their party inevitably falls from power, all their dismantling of the constitution will still be in effect, and will inevitably be used against them by their successors. They honestly haven’t thought that far, all their energy has been toward simply accruing as much power for themselves as possible, making a ton of money and screwing everyone.

I think the sooner we start treating Bush and his administration as I treated my idiot agent, the sooner we’ll all have the best, most productive meeting of our lives.

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Harry Potter and the Bone-Head Screenwriter

About ten years ago, a courtly, genial Brit named David Heyman sent me a book, for my consideration to adapt into a feature film. I was in the middle of a bunch of other projects and was not looking for work, but Mr. Heyman was very polite and my representation assured me he was a real guy. So I said I’d take a look.

It was a paperback of a boy’s adventure novel, not yet published in the US, titled Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I’d never heard of it or its author, and frankly, the front cover didn’t look promising. I flipped it over and started reading the back-cover blurb: “Harry Potter is entering his first year at the Hogwarts Academy of Wizardry — “

And that’s as far as I got. I rolled my eyes at the cutesy names, breathed a sigh at what felt like labored whimsy and handed the book to my wife, who is a children’s librarian and an expert in kid lit. “Could you do me a favor?” I asked. “Read this and tell me if it’s any good.”

She read it and said it wasn’t very good. She felt the plot was sluggish, the protagonist was too passive and the narrative devices were simply a cobbling-together of things that had worked better in other authors’ work. I politely declined Mr. Heyman’s offer and Harry Potter was never heard of again.

No, wait, that’s not what happened. What happened was that Harry Potter went on to become a publishing phenomenon on the scale of the Bible and I did a rewrite on Valentine.

I was not alone in my disinterest in Harry Potter; many other writers turned down Mr. Heyman, before and after me, before Steve Kloves, legend has it, found the title on a list of open projects and was intrigued. Soon after, the book exploded in a super-nova-like blast of sales and an A-list movie franchise was born.

I followed the development of the movies with interest, heard all about how the book’s author was making all kinds of outrageous demands, was stunned at the four generations of Great British Actors they got to be in the first movie, grumbled at my wife every time we drove under a billboard for one of them, but somehow never got around to seeing any of them. It wasn’t out of spite, my career just kind of seemed to always be heading somewhere else.

Anyway, now all the studios are looking desperately for the next Harry Potter and I am shown every kid-lit magic adventure with whimsical names under the sun, all of which aspire to the sales figures of Harry Potter, if not his ambitions. Which means that I get shown, frankly, a lot of shallow, irritating, poorly thought-out crap about magical kids and goofy adults with names like Flipperus Flappy and Stumblebum Stinknose and Percy Peddiwig, stuff that is trying, without trying hard enough, to copy the Potter magic. It then, naturally, falls to me to try to make it more like Harry Potter, while making it completely different from Harry Potter. So, in recent weeks it has become my duty to finally sit down and watch these movies and see what they’re all about.

Know what? They’re pretty good.

No author in history, including God, has been better served by Hollywood than JK Rowling. The production of the Harry Potter movies is probably the most lush, attentive and sympathetic in cinema history. Reviews of the new one, Order of the Phoenix, have all been like “yeah, it’s good enough I guess,” and I have to wonder what movie those people watched, because Order of the Phoenix, like the rest of the Potter movies, is exquisitely produced, cast and acted, and hugely entertaining. I suppose The Prisoner of Azkaban was scarier and snappier than the others, but it wasn’t better plotted than Chamber of Secrets, and Goblet of Fire is better plotted than Azkaban. In script terms, I would say that the Potter movies keep getting better and better, with the caveat that they are only getting better as Harry Potter movies — that is, like James Bond, Harry Potter has become his own genre, with expectations and habits all his own. The “year per movie” device is the enemy of typical cinematic narrative, which demands events follow hard upon each other. But now that that has become a formal given, it allows the Harry Potter movies to explore the life of its teen characters with a complexity and depth that I don’t think I’ve ever seen explored before, certainly not in movies aimed at children. The stories are deeper than Star Wars, scarier than Jurassic Park and more fun than Lord of the Rings, but at the same time we care about Harry and his friends because we literally see them age from movie to movie, and while I still haven’t read the novels, I’m guessing that “coming of age” is a strong theme of Rowling’s mega-narrative.

The casting — hoo boy, what casting these movies have. I expect old pros like Michael Gambon and Alan Rickman to bring depth and subtlety to characters with names like Albus Dumbledore and Severus Snape, but those kids! They’re miracles. I have the same feeling watching Daniel Radcliffe as I did watching Jody Foster as a teenager — not watching a “kid actor,” but watching a great actor, who happens to be a teenager. Radcliffe is amazing in these movies, and the great thing is that, like Foster, I’m confident that he’ll shed his Harry Potter skin the moment he needs to and not end up like, say, Danny Bonaduce. Radcliffe is not Roger Moore, he’s not Jerry Mathers, he’s a real actor and he’s going to be fine. But Rupert Grint and Emma Watson are great too, giving three-dimensional, living, breathing performances, and it’s, frankly, breathtaking to see them literally grow up in these parts. In their own way, the Harry Potter movies constitute a daring cinematic gamble, placing long, complex, subtle, grown-up narratives (far more grown-up than most “adult” narratives in the marketplace today) in front of a “children’s” audience and hanging their leads on three unknown, untested actors, who then have to sustain the quality of their work through what are traditionally the most tumultuous and torturous times of human maturation. Growing up in public, as it were.

I also understand there’s a new book out — is this true?

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How I got that job

“any helpful suggestions? tips? ways to break into the business and the usual fodder?” — kornleaf 

For those interested, here is the complete tale of how I went from nameless obscurity to b-list screenwriter.

In 1988 I was an occasionally-produced playwright living in Brooklyn. I knew that I would never be taken seriously as a playwright unless I got produced in Manhattan somewhere. But how, I wondered, could I let theater people in Manhattan know about my work? I had no money and I knew no one.

I thought, okay: what I need is a kind of theatrical work that requires no sets, no light cues, no sound cues, no director, no producer and no actors.

Given those restrictions, I chose monologues. I had a number of monologues I’d written as audition pieces for actor friends in Brooklyn and I pulled a few more from the stack of unproduced plays I had sitting around. The pieces, for whatever reason, usually involved a character describing some traumatic urban event.

At that time there were a number of theaters and “performance spaces” south of 14th Street, including Home, Funambules (later Nada), Gusto House, Dixon Place and the Knitting Factory. All of these spaces had late-night “variety shows,” where almost anyone could perform for five minutes. Pretty much all you’d have to do is come to one of the evenings, find out who was in charge of booking them, and ask to be put on the list for the next week. Sometimes the person in charge would ask you to submit material but very rarely was I denied a booking because of that. It was five minutes of time during a late-night show, what was at stake?

So I got on at Dixon Place and Funambules. I chose strong pieces that were guaranteed to get a reaction, often with me performing with as much force and intensity as I could muster. The important thing was that I wanted to be clear. I didn’t want anyone in the audience to wonder what was going on; I made sure that, whatever else happened, whether they loved it or hated it, I had their attention for five minutes. They might like the piece or they might hate it, but they weren’t going to be unclear on what I was saying.

The audience for these shows was usually other performance artists and theater folk, so it wasn’t long before word spread that I was worth watching for five minutes and I had little trouble getting booked on the rest of the downtown circuit. Within a year I was getting my own solo late-night shows, where I would perform an hour or so of these monologues.

A small sample of the dozens of flyers I made to advertise my solo shows, and the professionally-made program for my off-Broadway solo show.

One of my first solo shows was at Home, and went very well. After the show, the artistic director of the space congratulated me and asked me if I had any plays that I thought would be good for the space.

And yes, I did. I had a play I had just finished that afternoon, One Neck, about a serial killer who crashes a Long Island dinner party. I handed the script for One Neck to the guy and before long (if you count 3 years as “before long”) One Neck was produced off-Broadway.

Three cards for different presentations of One Neck.  The first featured both James Urbaniak and Steven Rattazzi, the second featured future-Emmy-winner Camryn Manheim and the off-Broadway production featured future Tony-and-Emmy-winner Allison Janney.

One Neck was not a huge financial success but it was popular enough and well-reviewed enough to get a little attention from movie people. A producer asked me to adapt it into a screenplay, which went nowhere for a long time, except that it eventually ended up on the desk of another movie producer, who asked me to work on a screenplay he had, a romantic comedy set in the Hamptons. I had never written a romantic comedy before, but as long as someone was asking me to write a screenplay I was happy to be paid to learn.

I wrote many drafts of that romantic comedy script and when the producer felt it was done, he sent if off to CAA. CAA brought it to the attention of one Warren Beatty, who decided, out of the blue, to make it his next movie.

Now then, remember, I was still an obscure, downtown playwright in New York. The fact that Warren Beatty was interested in my script made me news in the world of script sales in Hollywood.

An executive at Dreamworks, Nina Jacobson, read my script (which eventually became the one of the biggest mega-bombs of all time, Town and Country, without my name on it) and asked to meet with me when she was in New York talking to new writers. I pitched her an idea for a movie about a cat that saves the world from a nuclear disaster (“Die Hard with a cat” was my four-word headline pitch) and while she didn’t buy that idea, she was amused enough to offer me a job working on what she described as “an animated film about talking ants.”  The ant movie was, apparently, a low-enough priority for the studio that they were willing to take a chance on a writer who had never had a movie produced before.

There are two lessons to be learned here. 

The first is, produce yourself.  Make something and get it out there, any way you can.  The advent of the internet makes this easier than ever.  You can work from your own home for free.

The second is, an agent will not necessarily help you.  While I did get an agent as a result of One Neck‘s success, everything that happened in this story happened in spite of, not because of that agent’s work on my behalf.
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