“Screenwriters? Schmucks with Underwoods.”
While listening to NPR a couple of weeks ago, I heard an interview with several veteran novelists who – due to the vicissitudes of their own complicated lives -- got a late start on the craft that would eventually define them as writers. It was an interesting discussion which finally turned to the basic nuts-and-bolts question every successful writer is asked: How do you get started every day? Each had their own solution to the problem of firing up the creative engine on a daily basis. Two such tactics resonated with me -- leave a sentence or passage unfinished at the end of a writing session to provide some momentum-building traction when sitting down at the keyboard the following day, and my favorite: “Write the truth for a while, then start lying.”
That pretty much sums up the process for me.
Not that I do any lying here, of course – such mendacity is reserved for my occasional (and remarkably ineffectual) stabs at fiction – but this space can’t tell all the truth, all the time. When I refer to something that happened “last week on my show,” that might be the literal truth, or it could be an event that took place more than a month ago. Such time-shifting is occasionally necessary to cover my tracks in case one of the show’s producers should happen to stumble across this blog. I don’t delude myself as to the size of BST’s audience – it’s only a small (although I prefer the term “select”) handful – but if the Wrong Person were to read the Wrong Thing and reach the Wrong Conclusion, what’s left of my tattered, wheezing career could spiral right down the toilet.
With my name on the masthead, I do have to be careful.
As Jack Warner’s famous quote demonstrates, writers have never been accorded much respect in Hollywood. Occasionally a certain writer rises above the herd for a while to become a sought-after “name” – a Joe Eszterhas, Shane Black, or Charlie Kaufman – but for the most part, Hollywood writers (along with most novelists beneath the money-making stature of Steven King, John Grisham, Scott Turow – and lately, Cormack McCarthy) are doomed to labor in relative obscurity.
One of Rob Long’s recent (and decidedly wry) “Martini Shot” commentaries dealt with the process of writing for television – it’s definitely worth your three and a half minutes of attention -- while the Anonymous Production Assistant periodically tackles the subject of the writer’s lowly status in the Industry. (Like here, and here)
It’s bad enough to be held in such low regard by the powers that be above-the-line, but the cruelest blow came from a lowly paparazzo in an LA Times piece describing a recent feeding frenzy of celebrity photographers at LAX. And just to be clear where I stand on this – paparazzi are people too, and just trying to make a living, but I consider them as close to the dregs of humanity as you can get without being a serial murderer, charter member of NAMBLA, or a bought-and-paid-for political scumbag like James Inhofe. It’s impossible to respect those who hound celebrities to fuel the empty, soul-dead fantasies of Tabloid America.* Yes, they’re only filling a “need” – but so are those who make and sell crystal meth, snuff films, and kiddie porn. Just because paparazzi are a reality of modern life doesn’t mean I have to like them or accept what they do.**
So imagine how it would feel to be a struggling screenwriter in Hollywood who picks up the morning paper and reads the following passage describing the disappointment of a veteran LAX paparazzo when his sweaty hunt for a photo-worthy celebrity came up empty:
"Out stepped a portly bald man with glasses. Vera's shoulders slumped. 'That's nobody. Maybe a writer or something. Nobody,' he said, crestfallen."
Wow. It's one thing to be dissed by Jack Warner, but to receive such dismissive contempt from a lowly paparazzo -- a human parasite feeding on the emanations of our society's collective cultural sphincter -- now that's rough...
* Paparazzi remind me of Oscar Wild's famous quote about the English sport of fox hunting: "The uspeakable in pursuit of the inedible."
** While doing a day on "Melrose Place" last year, we fired up a big 18,000 watt lamp and aimed it directly down the beach at a group of paparazzi who'd been hovering around all day like a cloud of sand-flies. The idea was to flare their long lenses, and thus ruin their attempts to photograph our actors.
That felt really good...