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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19 Responses to “True Hollywood Story: Famous Older Director”
  1. 55seddel says:

    Why am I getting the idea that that happens a lot in Hollywood.

    I just wish I knew the name of the FOD.

    Your screenwriting insights are coming at a period in my life in which I am getting a degree in Film. In a way you are like a De-Facto Professor, getting my mind at a time during which it is inhaling all that is cinema. Perhaps this is the calm before the fall, but reading your journals is very akin to reading Robert McKee. You have my thanks.

    Have I chosen poorly, a career?

  2. pseydtonne says:

    Romantic notions of Niagara Falls come from a time when trains were the main form of travel and NF was just far enough to reach in a day from Manhattan. Now that we can fly to Hawai’i for honeymoons and we’re more than a score of years after Love Canal, NF is hokey or worse, redneckish. “We’re going to Buffalo and then we’re gonna get lost and wind up at the Falls and wind up drinking in Canada.”

    I have to ask: is working in the movie industry just a bunch of this royal court cruft? That’s the impression I’ve been getting: you bow down and nuzzle idiots so that you can get anything done and pray no one notices you were the guy behind Baby Geniuses 2 or CHUD.

    I worked in radio for years (before automation) and liked being left alone to make the content work. If the listeners called, that’s success. I like that I can work on a homebrew scale in audio production and no one can tell the difference. I don’t have to worry how to tell someone to drop a bad idea and still keep production going.

    • Todd says:

      To be fair to FOD, the characters he wanted to have kiss in the mists of Niagara falls actually dated back to the time you mention, when Niagara Falls was the idyllic honeymoon spot, so there was nothing wrong, conceptually, with his idea — as long as it was at the end of a different movie.

  3. Location, location, location…

    Why do I always think of the Three Stooges when somebody says “Niagra Falls”!!!!

    Reminds me of how “North by Northwest” originated from an idea about using Mt Rushmore as a backdrop…

    PS Asked Josh (8) what your film was about, and he said “Ants”….he must be a bit young for understanding character motivation…

  4. teamwak says:

    What a great story lol

    Have you ever watched Entourage? I love it. There was a character played by Martin Landau who was a Famous Old Producer (obviously based on Robert Evans) who kept having these seriously out-dated ideas of what to shoot and what audiences wanted. The scene where he is doing card tricks to amuse the Studio Head is hilarious.

    Of course, in the end FOP has the last laugh.

    • Todd says:

      I was once working on a sophisticated romantic comedy, and there was a scene that takes place in a restaurant in Paris. The Producer and I had a meeting with our Wise, Respected Financier, and our Wise, Respected Financier said “Why Paris? Why can’t the scene take place on a beach in San Tropez? Get some tits in there — we wanna sell tickets, don’t we?”

    • dougo says:

      I thought Robert Evans was more hip than that.

  5. photocindy23 says:

    I am reminded of the scene in ‘The Big Picture’ where Kevin Bacon is pitching his script to JT Walsh. The film starts out as a drama in black and white, with three middle-aged people, in the winter, in a cabin in the woods–and ends up becoming ‘Beach Nuts’–a comic teen romp with young sexy people on the beach. By the end of a five minute conversation.

    • The joke there is that Lawrence of Arabia was originally supposed to be called ‘Beach Nuts’
      but when big star Bob Denver backed out the new guy- Peter O’Toole had a few “small” changes he wanted made and…

  6. papajoemambo says:

    I am neither a schlub writer, nor a FOD…

    …and I may be speaking out of school, but I have a strong suspicion that the FOD tends to fancy ascots.

    Just a suspicion.

    • Todd says:

      Re: I am neither a schlub writer, nor a FOD…

      Then you understand why I believed a ground-floor, classical film-theory argument would settle the matter.

  7. leborcham says:


    This should be a movie!