Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Screenplay Game

“Nobody knows anything.”
William Goldman

I’ll close out the annus horribilis that was 2008 (to borrow a phrase from the Queen of England) with a look at an aspect of the Industry far from the down-and-dirty world of hauling cable and hanging lamps: writing screenplays.

What do I, a juicer, know about writing screenplays? Nothing, really. Writing scripts is an above-the-line job, and I toil in the murky depths far below decks -- but anyone who spends more than a little time in this business will have ample opportunity to read scripts. Every television show and movie starts with a script, and copies are usually easy to come by on set. These are the winners -- scripts that successfully ran the gauntlet and managed to reach actual production. For every winner, dozens of losers stumbled and fell somewhere along the way, ending up in the Great Circular File of Despair.

Although I like to read the scripts for any show I’m working on, I have no interest in writing screenplays. I took a stab at it a very long time ago, and although it was an interesting exercise (essentially, you’re creating an entire movie in your head), I didn’t take to it. As it turned out, screenwriting just isn’t the sort of writing that interests me. That doesn’t mean I don’t respect the craft -- a well-written script for television or movies is a unique form of magic. I don’t regard screenwriters as lesser artists than novelists, short-story writers, or poets, since they all represent different tributaries feeding into the river that is the art of story-telling. True, a successful screenwriter makes gobs more money than a successful poet, but that says less about either individual’s skill with words than it does about our culture as a whole.

When you get down to it, all writing is hard. If done well – be it a screenplay, sit-com script, novel, or poem – the result is always something special.

The old cliché that everybody’s writing a screenplay in this town isn’t so far from the truth. I’ve met grips, juicers, prop men, sound guys, and security guards who write screenplays, along with actors, extras, stand-ins, and production assistants. I’ve read a few good ones, a few really bad ones, and lots more that fall somewhere in the tepid nether-world in between. I know people who worked hard, caught a break, and became highly paid professional writers in Hollywood. I know others who worked just as hard but never managed to get that crucial break, and years later, they’re still pounding away at the keyboard, striving to achieve that elusive goal.

I applaud them all. It’s a miserably hard business to crack into – and if you do break through, there’s no guarantee you’ll being able to stay. It’s a lot like trying to play major league baseball: just getting a shot in the big leagues is almost impossibly hard, but staying there is even harder. All but the established superstars of the screenplay game lead a life of constant struggle, always trying to write and sell the next script so they can keep the mortgage paid. They’re freelancers, just like the rest of us, only more so.

I stumbled across a several items recently that got me to thinking about what a bitch it is to be (or try to be) a writer in Hollywood. While catching up over at “Burbanked”, I came across an interesting/entertaining post detailing the life of a “D Boy” (or D Girl) -- a Development Person. Charged with finding, reading, and analyzing scripts suitable to pass on upstairs, the life of a “D Person” is one of a Hollywood hunter-and-gatherer, foraging for suitably literate cinematic sustenance on the vast wastelands of the urban veldt. In this post, ex-D Boy Alan tells the story of one script that came across his desk, and eventually worked its way via the magic of studio peristalsis through the digestive system of Hollywood, finally to appear on the big screen.

Anyone trying to write and sell screenplays will be interested – and maybe a bit horrified – at what happens to those scripts once they’ve been fed into the studio bureaucracy. Having spent so many years in the trenches below-the-line, this post offered a rare peek through the keyhole at life above that ephemeral but oh-so-real line of demarcation.

It’s worth a read.

Then I saw yesterday’s post by the Anonymous Production Assistant, which directed me towards an interesting piece on John August’s blog, detailing the down-to-earth realities every successful screenwriter must face. August points out -- albeit in a much less crude manner -- the life of a screenwriter ain’t all bourbon and blowjobs, as the old saying goes.

The last item came from Patrick Goldstein, who covers the movie world for the LA Times in his column “The Big Picture.” First on his LA Times blog, then in the print edition, Goldtstein recently pubished a great piece about the screenwriter of Clint Eastwood’s latest film, “Gran Torino.” The guy’s name is Nick Schenk, and his story is one you really should read for yourself.

I can imagine what an impact this story must have on those trying hard to break into the business of screenwriting: would-be screenwriters, fresh out of college and raring to go, will probably find it inspirational. But those who have been working hard at the keyboard for years now -- beating their heads on the hard brick wall surrounding the golden circle of Hollywood Success -- might find it more infuriating than encouraging. Like so many others, they came to Hollywood to write and sell screenplays, but have thus far found only frustration. After all that, it must be extremely galling to read about some shlub – a construction worker, for God’s sake, who sometimes drives a fruit truck to make ends meet -- who stayed home in Minneapolis rather than come to Hollywood, and managed to hit it big anyway. Nick Schenk got up every morning and went to work, then came home, grabbed his notepad, and headed down to the local bar (Grumpy’s) for a beer or three, which doubtless unlocked the wellsprings of inspiration. With an assist from a couple of young producers, he managed to get the script – supposedly* his first feature screenplay – to Clint Eastwood, who liked it, bought it, and made the movie just as it read on the page, refusing to change a single word.

This is nobody’s blueprint for Hollywood success, offering yet more evidence that William Goldman was right.

Not only did Nick Schenk keep his day job while writing (a good idea, according to John August) – and thus not have to starve, work nights as a waiter, or borrow money from his parents to survive, but rather than hole up in some dusty attic living like a tortured artist, he wrote his script while sitting on a barstool, sipping beer.

Well played, sir. Were I wearing a cap, I would doff it in your honor.

If a young writer has the personality for it, I suppose he or she could write anywhere – even a Starbucks – but it’s got to be more fun to write in a bar. The resulting script might not sell at all, much less to such cinematic royalty as Clint Eastwood (the magic of lightning rarely strikes the same spot twice), but at least the writer might have a reasonably good time in the process. Remember, though, Mr. Schenk used a notepad rather than a laptop. Drinking beer in a bar means making regular trips to the restroom – and unless you take the laptop with you each and every time, some low-life barfly is sure to steal it.

But a notepad? No problem.

I suppose the real lesson here is not to take any screenwriting advice from a juicer – hey, there’s a reason I haul cable and hang lamps for a living. Sure, it would be nice to do lunch with my agent at The Ivy, then take the Ferrari up the coast to my palatial Maibu estate (returning Spielberg’s call on the way, of course), but that ain't gonna happen. That sort of lifestyle is enjoyed by a tiny number of people, very few of whom are screenwriters -- but you get my drift.

The great mystery that has always confounded Hollywood is figuring out what will sell and what won’t. Sex and violence can be relied upon to draw certain viewers, while gauzy, dewy-eyed romance attracts others, and there always seems to be an appetite for dumb-ass, sophomoric humor -- Adam Sandler, anyone? – but nobody really knows the recipe for making the next big hit. It’s a crap shoot every time.

For every would-be screenwriter, this is a very good thing. The day some nerd-genius develops an algorithm good enough to predict hits and misses, the door to opportunity will slam shut in Hollywood. So long as this remains a dark mystery, the money-men and producers will be forced to take chances, roll the dice, play the occasional wild card – and that’s when new ideas, new approaches, and new writers can get their shot.

Given my far-distant perspective, any advice I have for would-be screenwriters is probably worthless -- but this being Christmas, I'll offer it anyway. If you enjoy writing screenplays, if the process is rewarding in and of itself, and makes you feel good at some point of the day, then go for it. You may or may not sell your work, or be able to make a living at it, but at least you’ll be pouring your heart, soul, and creative energies into something you believe in. That’s always a worthwhile endeavor, and in following your heart (or your “bliss,” as Joseph Campbell said) you’ll learn a lot, and eventually find your way. The more you write, the better you’ll get, and maybe -- with a little luck -- you might eventually hit the jackpot every screenwriter dreams about. But even if luck chooses not smile upon you, at least you will have made an honest, do-or-die effort. And if you do make it, maybe the rest of us will be reading a heartwarming piece in the LA Times about your rags-to-riches ride to into the Hollywood spotlight.

But if you’re only doing it for the money – if writing screenplays is merely a means to achieving some fantasy lifestyle that exists only in your head – then save yourself the heartbreak and go to law school instead. Unless, of course, you’re so bursting with talent that you can write great screenplays in your sleep -- screenplays that sell, I mean. And if you’re that good, you can probably write anywhere.

Even in a bar.

That’s all for this year. I’m catching the next rocket back to my home planet, where the realities of the Holiday Season will likely preclude further posting until 2009. Until then, thanks for tuning in. I wish you all a very Merry Christmas.

*read the comments at the bottom of Goldstein's column. I didn’t chase down the Variety story referred to, but at least one reader seems to think Nick Schenk wasn’t quite such a virgin after all...


D said...

Hi Michael, I read the story of Nick Schenk also with a mixture of wonder and awe. I too know grips, juicers, props etc who all have screenplays to sell. i actually know one who still works as a grip, who wrote and sold Hellraiser 3 (or was it 4?) and it was made. but he still works as a grip because the insurance is better. Kind of lets you see how we're all in the same boat.

Nathan said...

I'm always amazed that anyone (other than those who have already sold words on paper) thinks they'll be able to sell what they've written. That mindset just seems to show an amazing level of optimism and confidence (or hubris) that I can only look at from a great distance.

Have a happy bunch of Holidays.

Burbanked said...

Terrific post, Michael, and thanks as ever for the link. I've read a little about Schenk, too; it seems like each movie season has a similar story. What I've noticed, though, is that for these come-from-nowhere first-spec sellers, it's their second script that'll really get the town's attention. The first time around, someone was lucky to find these gems. The next time, every D-kid worth their Blackberry will be tracking the spec to its completion date. If that one doesn't wow the town, newcomers have a way of fading into obscurity, just like a lot of us.

And please allow me to offset that little bit of cynicism with happy Christmas wishes for you and yours! Ho ho ho!