Enter your email address below and we'll let you know when there's good new stuff up here
From Can’t You Get Along With Anyone? A Writer’s Memoir, and a Tale of a Lost Surfer’s Paradise by Allan Weisbecker
There is only one thing that can kill movies and that is education.
There's a character in this In Search of Captain Zero movie deal confederacy of dunces that I've so far only mentioned in passing, but who deserves more words: the director of record on this project.
As mentioned back in Part One, this fellow directed a documentary that Sean Penn narrated and that the producer who originally approached me about optioning my book had produced. As part of the producer's pitch - sensing my wariness about letting her have the option - she sent me a cassette of the documentary, a history of the skateboard subculture in America. The movie was supposed to be an indication of how brilliant the director was. I watched it with Mom down in North Carolina - this was in early 2001, a few months before Mom died. It was good, if a bit long; it had a certain pizzazz. Thing was, though, about halfway through I noticed something that gave me contemplative pause regarding the director's brilliance: almost all the footage, certainly the pizzazz-rife footage, was archival, from the early days of skateboarding and surfing in Venice, California. In fact, the director himself was a character in the movie; he was a kid for most of it. It was obvious that he hadn't shot or directed this stuff. By the end I realized that the director had only "directed" the interviews with the now-aging characters from the archival footage, which was maybe 10% of the movie. All he had directed was talking heads.
Also, documentaries are not principally a director's medium to begin with. Although there are lots of fine lines and blurry distinctions in the implications of who-did-what based on credit given (as there are in feature films), documentaries are primarily an editor's medium, depending on who develops the final structure - the order in which the images are presented. In a feature film the structure is defined by the screenplay, i.e., the writer, but in documentaries this is not necessarily the case. What often happens is that the producer and/or director will dump a mountain of raw footage in front of the editor and say, "Find the movie."
So the movie Mom and I watched really indicated nothing about the director's ability to conceive of and execute a filmed narrative. That no one at the studio noticed this before hiring this "hot new" director should have completely, formally, tipped me that my catch-22 regarding the whole bunch of them was not only on the money but an understatement. So here we have still more Hollywood nonsense. Imagine watching a Larry King Live and saying, "The guy who shot that is a fucking genius! Let's get him to direct our next star-studded feature!"
But direct evidence that the director was not only not the genius he was purported to be but an outright dimwit was forthcoming. Not only a dimwit, but a rude and discourteous and unprofessional dimwit.
In September of 2002, more than two months after I handed in my "first draft" of the Zero screenplay, I went up to Hollywood for a meeting with all involved (minus Sean Penn): the producer, the director, the studio executives. They flew me up from Pavones (first class, as the Writer's Guild demands) and put me in a hotel on Venice Beach, just a few blocks from my old beach pad from the late 80s and early 90s (where the getting-laid-at-Venice Beach-Jon-Voigt anecdote took place, my asshole-screenwriter-with-a-Porsche days).
Before our meeting with the studio the producer and director came over to my hotel for a strategy sit-down. Having struggled for months to come up with a draft that worked, I expected us to go over the work in order to solve the problems I myself knew were there, and which I'd told them about.
I'd been sending the script pages as I wrote them, a practice frowned upon by the Writer's Guild; since the producer/director/studio can send notes on changes during the writing of a draft, the writer may in effect end up writing two (or more) drafts for the price of one. I didn't mind this - my main concern, my only concern, was to "give the studio exactly what I said I would." I just wanted to make this deal work, and see the movie made. And I was getting nothing but accolades in return for the pages sent, at least from the producer. The director was largely silent, only occasionally making minor suggestions, none having to do with the essence of the story, i.e., the conflicts that define the turning points of the narrative, which had been agreed to by everyone at that breakfast meeting at the Four Seasons. I'd further refined them in detailed memos sent weekly. In Hollywood, silence is taken as a sign of approval.
In meetings such as this one, the purpose of which is to analyze the screenplay in detail, everyone brings his own copy, which is invariably marked up in the margins and blank facing pages. My assumption was that since I'd gotten nothing but accolades for the pages sent, we'd concentrate on the problems I myself had seen in the story, and on minor issues such as the specifics of dialog. In fact, since the two had read the screenplay over the months of its writing, I did not expect any surprises at all. I was wrong, of course, as I so often am in expecting Hollywood stuff to proceed in a rational, efficient, professional manner. I was wrong big time.
The first surprise was that neither the producer nor the director brought a copy of my screenplay. A bad sign on top of a surprise. The second surprise and bad sign was the producer saying this: "This isn't the screenplay we thought we'd get." If this sounds familiar, if you recall the producer saying this before, I'm not reproducing the previously mentioned instance; that instance (months later while I was on the phone on the beach here at Pavones) was the second timeshe'd used the pronoun "we" in referring to an "unexpected screenplay" after she'd been reading it as I wrote it.
And both times she used the words "unexpected screenplay" she'd been sending me accolades about the work as she read it.
As it turned out, the producer had not been passing my pages along to the studio. They had recently been given the draft in its entirety, however, which they'd read. Hold on. One of them (at the studio) had read it, the executive who had been at the breakfast meeting at the Four Seasons and who had approved my approach to conflicts and turning points. The studio head, of course, hadn't read it, nor my book; I'm quite certain he never reads anything. "They" decided they didn't like it, in spite of there being no surprises in it; all the major story events had been approved at the breakfast meeting.
You wanna talk about a writer's queasy gut?
But it gets better. Since neither the producer nor the director could point out where I'd gone wrong in my draft - or, for that matter, how what I'd written was different now that it was bound together with a title page - they started in on how I'd over-written stage direction. Stage direction is when you describe action: "Sam Spade picks up the gun and checks to see if it's loaded" kind of stuff. Overwriting means you've got stuff in there that can't make it to the screen: "Sam Spade picks up the gun and checks to see if it's loaded, unaware that he would never get to use it." The last clause might work in a novel, but it should not be in a screenplay since there's no way to translate "unaware that he would never get to use it" to the screen.
And it was true. I had overwritten my stage direction, although not as blatantly as the above example. My overwriting was more of the flowery prose sort, as in, say, going on too long about how beautiful a sunset is. I had already told them I'd correct the problem. That should have been that, end of problem, for this reason: Regarding story, the specific wording of stage direction is irrelevant. What happens is what counts.
But they just would not stop. Had to point out each and every bit of description I'd overwritten. Thing was, even with this nitpicking they often had their heads up their asses. Near the beginning of the story, for example, I have the two main characters at age 17 sitting on a fence at the back of a drive-in watching the movie The Endless Summer and reciting Bruce Brown's narration by rote. I add by way of description, "They've seen The Endless Summer 20 times." The director said to cut that line since it wouldn't make it to the screen. While that was technically true, I replied, the line gives the actors something to work with - it explains why the two kids know the narration by heart, gives a feel for what's going on.
The director shook his head in disgust at my ignorance and insisted that the line should be cut. (If you're already wondering what the fuck is with this guy, all I can say is you ain't seen nothin' yet.)
Here I had an idea. Upon arriving at Hollywood I'd asked the producer if she had any good screenplays lying around, something I could read. I love reading good screenplays - believe me, they are tough to find. She did, one called Fever Pitch, by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, maybe the best writing team currently working in Hollywood. The story was about baseball, or, rather, baseball fans; it follows the hopes and dashed dreams of a group of rabid Boston Red Sox fans, via the travails of another losing Sox season. A terrific screenplay, funny and poignant and superbly crafted. The screenplay was there on the table; I'd breezed through it the night before. I held it up.
"Wonderful screenplay, right?" I said.
The two agreed vociferously.
"Maybe the best writing team working today, right?"
The two agreed vociferously.
"No problems with the writing, the stage direction?"
They had no problems with the writing, the stage direction.
I flipped the screenplay open to a random page. Near the top was a description of an establishing shot of the crowd at Fenway Park on opening day. I read aloud: "It's opening day and the Sox haven't broken any hearts yet."
The two nodded approvingly. For some reason they didn't see where I was going with this. Which was here: "How do you put ‘they haven't broken any hearts yet' on the screen?"
Here the director not only shook his head at my ignorance but let out a scornful blast of air. As I pictured myself strangling him, I repeated my query:
"How do you put ‘they haven't broken any hearts yet' on the screen?"
The director wouldn't stop shaking his fucking head, that dumb baseball cap on it, which I suspect made him feel more like Ron Howard, a real director, one who often wears a baseball cap. (A lot of directors, real and otherwise, wear baseball caps. I have a theory to explain this phenomenon, but now's not the time.)
"I suppose in shooting this crowd scene the director could bellow through his bullhorn to 20,000 people, ‘Remember that the Sox haven't broken your hearts yet!… And… Action!'"
Still the head shaking.
You know, I said, and the image of my hands around the guy's neck lingered, screenplays are written to be read. Sometimes lines like "They haven't broken any hearts yet" and "They've seen The Endless Summer 20 times" are there solely to make them readable. And in the case of my line, it actually does have a purpose.
The producer, who was marginally less of a dimwit than the director, was aware that I was right. We have some ideas, she said, in order to change the subject, then suggested that the director describe "that scene you thought of."
The guy's eyes lit up (at least he'd stopped shaking his head) as he described a scene in Mexico wherein the main character (me) gets a sea urchin spine in his foot and uses his own piss to extract it (urine supposedly helps dissolve urchin spines). That was it, the scene he thought up. Had nothing to do with advancing the story or anything else, but he loved it.
Here I made a mistake. I humored him. Although I knew no such scene would make it into a screenplay I'd write, I suggested that maybe - in order for the scene to have an actual purpose - our guy is with a bunch of local fishermen and is short of urine. So the fishermen pass a cup, piss in it; he uses their urine to get the spine out. Although this is dumb too, at least this dumbness could result in our guy bonding with the locals, and if well executed the scene might be marginally humorous. Truth is, it doesn't matter whether my version had any merit. The instructive aspect of this piece of business is in the director's reaction: More head shaking at my ignorance, along with an even more explosive snort of derision.
"What?" I wanted to know as the strangulation image resurfaced, now with some added stage direction about veins popping on his forehead (which could be put up on the screen).
"An actor would never let someone else piss on his foot!"
This is what he said, verbatim (hence the quotes). Hold on. I gotta ask you something, and it's important because it goes to the veracity of this narrative: Do you think I could make up this shit, a line like that? Okay. Good.
In the larger sense, anecdotal stuff like the above does not equal truth, in this case meaning how Hollywood is. Maybe most Hollywood people are actually smart and creative and I've either been unlucky or am exaggerating to make my Can't-I-Get-Along-With-Anyone point; trying to say "It's not me! It's everyone else!" when it actually is me.
In my twenty-some-odd years and thirty-some-odd Hollywood projects, at least two-thirds (I'm being conservative) of the people I've been subjected to were of this caliber; small bore intellects. Fucking BB guns.
For now, just one more example, one that reflects not only dimwittedness, but the life's work, i.e., the only real goal, the raison d'etre, of Hollywood folks, which is this: To avoid looking foolish. Or, failing in the avoidance of looking foolish, which they invariably do, this: Cultivating and maintaining the denial that they in fact do look foolish.
Early on in my career, before my comeuppance (the phone stopped ringing), I was offered one assignment after another, based on my first original screenplay, which Michael Mann had optioned, and then my quickly getting a movie into production with an Oscar-winning producer (but before that turkey came out). And, God help me, I took ‘em. Hey, 75 grand for three month's work (in early-to-mid 1980's dollars). So what if the studio-supplied ideas behind these projects were dumb or even un-writeable? Who cares? What, me worry?
One such assignment was to write a Richard Pryor vehicle - this was pre-cocaine-self-immolation/pre-multiple-sclerosis and Pryor was a very hot property. The premise I was shouldered with doesn't matter - it was no dumber than the rest - but I did a decent job with the first draft. I was dealing with the actual head of the studio (now defunct), which is unusual; an underling exec is usually the go-between with the writer. The guy loved my writing samples, liked me and liked my first draft. I was optimistic that the movie would fly.The studio head called me in to go over the draft prior to my doing revisions. His notes were minor, which was a relief. One little problem involved the Pryor character calling CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. I had the operator at CIA answering "CIA, how can I direct your call?"
The studio head turned to this page, shook his head at my ignorance, and said that the CIA doesn't answer the phone like that.
I said I thought it pretty much did.
More head shaking. Didn't you see Three Days of the Condor?
I said that I had.
The studio head said when Robert Redford called the CIA, they answered with a code of some sort.
That was different, I said. Redford was calling a CIA covert operation H.Q. Here we're calling headquarters at Langley.
As often happened in my Hollywood life, the idiot I was meeting with would not stop with the head shaking and frowning at my ignorance of how things are. (At least he wasn't wearing a baseball cap.) Here I made another big mistake, one that may have cost me getting a movie made, a Richard Pryor vehicle at that, which would have quadrupled my base assignment pay and led to a higher-end Porsche and more getting-laid anecdotes. Instead of agreeing with him and making the wrong, dumb ass, nonsensical but minor dialog change he wanted (which would have been corrected later anyway, after the movie was a "go")… instead of letting him feel harmlessly useful, out of pure self-destructiveness I suggested we call CIA headquarters at Langley and find out for ourselves.
Here I got the snort of derision, plus this: You think their phone number is listed?
I said that I thought it was.
The studio head put his assistant on the speakerphone and told her to get us CIA headquarters at Langley, Virginia. He smirked and sat back, eyes bright, waiting for vindication. Waiting for an example of why he was the head of a studio and I was a lowly screenwriter. A matter of seconds later - after information spouted the CIA's number in Langley, no problem - an operator's voice boomed over the box, "CIA, how can I direct your call?"
The studio head's head bobbed in astonishment. He looked at his watch and said he had another meeting he was late for.
I had fucked with the studio head's raison d'etre. His denial.
My screenplay suddenly had fatal flaws.
From Can’t You Get Along With Anyone? A Writer’s Memoir, and a Tale of a Lost Surfer’s Paradise by Allan Weisbecker
Registered users get to post comments on our stories. If you're not registered, click here and register so you can see the comment form
You can easily re-publish many of our pages on your website. Just click the gold star in the upper righthand corner of the page, grab the code, then paste it into any webpage with a .php extension. Click here for more info...