How Hollywood Beats Up Writers

The Argument

Or, how I found out what I already should have known about the movie business

October 24, 2004|By Craig Nova | Craig Nova,Special to the Sun

My favorite mode of education is the school of hard knocks. I am a novelist, and that is how novelists like to learn.

There are two basic aspects of this preference, and they are, in ascending order of danger, the fact that novelists don't take advice easily and that they like to take chances. When you add Hollywood to this mix, you have all the elements of a conflagration.

I must say, right from the beginning, that I should have known better, since I grew up in Hollywood, attended Hollywood High, and in the miserable childhood that seems to be crucial to the formation of the novelist's sensibility, I left home at 17 and moved in with the family of a friend. The friend's father was a screenwriter, and the business had broken this writer's heart. When I left California for New York to become a novelist, this screenwriter took me aside and said, with tears in his eyes, "Whatever you do, don't come back here."

The question remains: What is so troubling about this work? Everyone knows that writers get hurt in the movie business ("jerks with typewriters" was one studio executive's description), but the question is why? And why with such a wallop?

My first call to do a script came from a man running a "major studio" who had an idea for a movie. In Left Coast language, this was it: "A hot shot young lawyer gets his father, a physician, acquitted of murder charges." Did I want a whack at it?

The voice on the phone seemed to suggest that the hard work had already been done. All I had to do was to fill in the blanks. I discovered pretty quickly how these blanks were supposed to be filled.

A "hot shot" is someone who drives a Porsche and wears Armani clothes. A doctor is someone who either appears at society fundraisers or wears surgical greens and carries a stethoscope. And so on.

The studio executive had already paid for one previous version of this script. It was standard Hollywood stuff. I guessed they wanted something fresh from me. Maybe the way Ford Madox Ford would have enlarged on the fragment of a story they had given me.

My version didn't, ah, fly, and after I had done an obligatory second draft, the project was dropped.

The insulting aspect of this is how the studio shows you that you don't measure up. In the beginning, they have a vague idea that you might produce, but they aren't sure how. "Talent", like a beautiful woman, they seem to say, is a mystery. Who knows what she is going to do? Maybe after you fly her to Italy for the weekend, she spurns your advances. The ingrate. What a pain these writers are, the studio seems to say. Why won't they just do the job, you know, a script not that different from those that have already made money? Don't they get it?

The cutting edge here is the difference between how you are treated before you go to work and how you are treated afterward. The friendliness and respect of the first conversations turn s into a particular tone, which you realize is the attitude a dog owner turns on a puppy who has made a mess on a new rug. But, that's the writing life: You are either on your way up or on your way down. Mostly, you aren't too troubled by this up and down quality, that is, if you are writing a book you care about. It seems ridiculous to get into this misery because of someone else's half-baked idea.

But this first experience was fun compared with the second time around.

The next call came from an independent producer, who wanted to option a book of mine and have me write the script. I would get paid so much for each draft and polish, although the real money (the "pick-up" payment), would come with the "beginning of principal photography" (an ominous phrase if there ever was one). This payment is usually a percentage of the budget.

Now, the man in charge of this project, whom I will call "Mr. Big," couldn't possibly be involved with the work I did on a week-to-week basis. So, he hired a secondary producer, whom I will call Mr. Little Big.

Mr. Little Big and I went to work.

In many ways this was the happiest time of my life. I did a draft of the script, got notes, went back to work. We had story conferences, one of them on an island. The producers and their wives and my wife and I met at an airport, and took off in a private six-seater.

The story had to do with a young fighter pilot in World War II, and this was much on my mind when we flew out to sea. The sky was filled with pillars of thunder heads, and we flew between the curdled, white towers of mist. I was seduced by the power of imagination, in that I had dreamed up afternoons like this when I was writing the book, and here I was flying through clouds like the ones I had described. My wife reached over and gave my hand a squeeze.

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