I was trying to keep from getting fired. Now, this was obviously before I discovered my full magical powers. Otherwise, I would’ve just waved a wand or recited some incantation that cast a spell over the axe-wielding studio minion assigned to deliver me the bad news.
But first, maybe, how about a little context?
I’d pitched the movie, written the snot out of it, and while on vacation at a resort with little access to phones, had both the producer and the studio’s president of production track me down just to express how over the moon they were about the latest draft. In no time at all, star names were being tossed around. Agents and managers were queuing up to suggest their top rung actors.
The movie I’d conceived was a two-hander. A young bad boy mentored into a life of higher crime by a sage old con man. When the producer and I discussed our dream cast, we landed on hot-as-a-pistol Edward Norton and the still very bankable (at the time) Al Pacino. Scripts were messengered. Offers made. Pacino jumped first with an asking price of eleven million dollars. We’d also heard Ed Norton was keen to work with the icon and was readying to come aboard. What could go wrong?
About the time our two leads were being cemented, the studio CEO weighed in. That’s right. The CEO. The honcho of honchos. The supreme commander of the movie studio.
Important safety tip: No matter how much the studio president LOVES the script, always remember his word is not the last word. Or even the next to last word.
The studio CEO wasn’t certain Al Pacino was worth his asking price. Nor was she convinced Ed Norton should be the first choice to play the young, hotshot co-lead. But before she was going to make her own casting suggestions, she wisely thought she should take the weekend to read the screenplay.
Yes, ladies and germs. The head honcho had yet to read the script from which her underlings were making eight-figure offers. Now don’t blame her. All top dogs have their own certain skill sets and styles for chasing the box office squirrel. Hers was to let her minions whip a potential picture into a state of excitement for her to then escort it home, oil it up with her own spicy perspective, and decide how best to consummate the act.
In the case of my screenplay, her judgment was that before cementing movie stars into pay-or-play deals, a director needed to come aboard and put his or her special spin onto the script. Fine, I said. I’m a pro. I’ve been here before. Bring on the helmer and I’ll fold their thoughts into what was still clearly my very hot stew.
But oh no. The director she had in mind—a popular commercial shooter, buzzworthy after just coming off his recent gig helming a successful action-comedy sequel—would only consider the job if one of three A-list word jockeys were to step in and take over the scripting reins.
My scripting reins.
It’s not as if I hadn’t been there before. I knew the game all too well. It’s a business about stars. Not just actors. But star directors and star producers and star writers. At any given time, there’s always a list of ten or so of these in-demand word jockeys who, for a staggering weekly fee (I’m talking enough to buy a small house in the San Fernando Valley,) will make themselves available to polish screenplays in process to near-certain production. And no. It’s not that these writers are that much better than the average pro. Or me for that matter. They’re merely the last writers to have massaged a particular studio’s most recent hit movie. And in studio speak, nothing succeeds like success.
Like I said. I’d been there before. I’d written drafts that green-lit a movie only to be pushed aside for someone with a more desirable flavored lipstick. So I did what any self-respecting writer would’ve done. I phoned my lawyer. Not that I imagined I had a crumb of legal standing. I’d signed the contract. I’d cashed the checks. In exchange for dough and the opportunity to get my movie made, I’d agreed to hand all power to the great and powerful Jabba the Movie Studio.
No. I called my lawyer because he’s a very straightforward and convincing fellow who also knew nearly all the power players by their first names. Why not see if he wouldn’t mind picking up the phone and strongly recommending to the CEO that she sit down with me and allow me to argue the case that I should be allowed to shepherd the screenplay through the director phase. After all, hadn’t I worked it to where it was—in a pre-greenlight weigh-station of nearly unchecked enthusiasm? One draft, that’s all I was going to request of her. I desperately wanted the opportunity to make that simple and rational appeal.
“Now why would she do that?” said The Werth, my attorney and consigliere, not really asking the question so much as suggesting another perspective.
“I just explained the why of it to you,” I said. “Is there a flaw in my argument?”
“No,” he said. “You make perfect sense. And in a more perfect world, you’d get your shot.”
“So you won’t even try?” I asked.
“Let me explain something to you,” said Werth. “Studio execs. Most producers. They don’t have a clue what it is you do.”
“Yes. They know you write. But how you make a script good or bad or whatever? They don’t have a glimmer.”
“I still don’t follow.”
“They all think what you do. What other writers do. All of you. They think it’s magic.”
“So if they believe in magic—which they do—it goes that some writers are more magical than others.”
“Therefore…” I cued, nearly up to speed with his superhuman brain.
“Therefore, why wouldn’t they go with a writer they believe is more magical than the original writer?”
I was pissed. And also, illuminated. It was so sickly and ridiculously simple—yet utterly understandable. In my gut, I knew it was the truth. In such simple terms, Werth’s rationale had explained so very much.
“They don’t have a clue what’s good or what’s bad,” I concluded.
“Nope,” he conceded.
“Just what succeeded before.”
“I’m glad we had this conversation.”
“Glad to help.”
So there it is. That’s how I found out I was, indeed, magic. Of course, beyond doing what I do—or what I’ve always done—I can’t really say anything has changed for me other than my understanding of those who worship at the altar of last week’s box office.
Now, you may not be big on magic. But I know you believe in luck. Or for that matter, Lucky Dey in 99 PERCENT KILL. Buckle up with him and I promise he won’t disappoint.
Well, words are mightier than a sword, people say. And those who wield them…
In my case they’re kinda like a hot potato. Thanks Milo.
An excellent piece of magic. Thank you for sharing your journey and reminding us to keep creating.
Teri. It wasn’t my intent to remind you of anything. But since you seem to require commands, HEY TERI! KEEP CREATING!
My research indicates a lot of luck too. If you can get the Universe onside you’re golden.
Dear Phyl. “Universe onside?” Not sure that’s something I want to catch, gold or no gold.
How about “… if you can get Universal on your side…”
After I released my fist balled in rage… I sat down with a glass of wine and did a face palm.
I write and sometimes produce. How do these people get into studio positions of power? Have they never read a “good” book or seen a “good” film? For that matter, have they never seen how many hands and transitions a script passes through before a red carpet premiere? You can tell if something is quality even if you don’t understand hocus-pocus.
Oi vey. That’s my PG version of WTF!
Your response is understandable Erin. They’re job security is no longer based on their ability to know good from bad, but to quantify commercial from non-commercial. In the end, quality is primarily left up to the writers, directors, actors, and some producers.
I sympathize with your pain, Doug. But, at least you got paid if not produced. For most of us, our bleeding scripts hit the dust bin, the prey of tired, overworked readers. Thanks for the head’s up.
I feel your pain, Dona. And yes. I’ve had the good fortune of getting well paid for many of my unmade beds. But before that fortuitous career turn, I was in the same precise spot about which you so understandably lament. Doors do open. Opportunities come. Your job is to keep pushing and be ready.
Did it ever see the light of day, Doug? D.