I was still outside those unscalable gates. Pushing my mostly unread screenplays up that very steep hill called a future movie career. I was mere millimeters from signing with my first agent when he phoned me up.
“I really like you, kid,” said the old agent, his voice an amusing mix of foghorn and lilt. And yes, he really did call me kid. “But before I sign you, I want you to read something. After, we can have ourselves another talk.”
“Sure,” I said.
“You know Bill Goldman?” he asked.
“You mean William Goldman?” I guessed, referring to the genius word-master who’d written Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, The Princess Bride, and one of my all time faves, Marathon Man.
“That Bill Goldman,” he said. “He’s got this book I want you to read. It’s called something about the screenwriting business.”
“Adventures in the Screen Trade,” I clarified.
I’d heard of the book and surely wanted to read it. Only the non-fiction tome had yet to become available in the more affordable pocketbook edition. Hardcovers were pricey for a young man on a penny-rolling budget. And since I was living on the downside of cheap, the application of every precious cent was a constant consideration.
“That’s the one,” chirped the agent. “Go get it. Read it cover to cover. And call me back.”
I was dying ask why. But I wasn’t exactly in a position to argue with an agent so close to signing me. All would be revealed once I sucked it up, peeled off some singles and purchased the book, ripped through it and got back to my potential future rep.
At the time, to make my meager ends meet, I was part-timing it at a tiny, Melrose Avenue playhouse, running tech for one fly-by-night production after another. I’d been allowed to park myself and my typewriter at a small prop desk in a dark backstage corner. I toiled there between setting light cues for a showcase featuring a cruise-line act starring a pseudo-Samoan percussion king and his collection of electrically colored congas. Instead of writing, though, I was plowing through every word of William Goldman’s oh-so-entertaining recollections of his screenwriting life. He chronicled his comic frustrations with egomaniacal movie stars, testy directors, and over-reaching moving studios. All this while balancing the quality of his work with the ever changing demands on his time, craft, and patience.
To say the least, Bill’s book was illuminating. Sure, it was an exciting, amusing, yet terrifying view inside the candy store. But with each tale, full of the never-ending trials and errors of grinding out movie meat, I was building my own personal roadmap. I was applying his experiences with my own ambitions. It was a master’s primer on how to succeed, survive, and maintain an even keel.
I read Adventures in the Screen Trade in two days. I phoned up the agent who’d threatened to sign me.
“So what did you think of it?” he asked.
“I loved it,” I said.
“Loved it?” he asked. “Why?”
I then blathered on and on about how inspiring I found the book. I could easily see myself in Bill Goldman’s shoes. Staring down pushy movie stars like Dustin Hoffman. Solving production snafus with screenplay revisions.
“I was hoping you’d have that reaction,” admitted the agent. “Lotta writers, those Goldman stories put a scare into them. Make ‘em think twice about being a screenwriter.”
“I don’t see why,” I said, clearly only understanding my own narrow perspective.
“Screenwriters want to sit home and just write,” said the wise old agent. “At least that’s the way with most screenwriters who are trying to break in. They think that’s the whole job. Stay home and write. But that’s only half the job. The rest is like what you read in the book. What it really takes to make a movie. Solving problems. Dealing with all the bullshit.”
Now, to be perfectly frank, at that particular moment, I was still looking to end up in the director’s chair. Which meant not just dealing with all the BS, but creating a big sort of stink of my own.
“I’m all in,” I assured the agent.
“You better be if I’m going to sign you,” he said. “The hard work hasn’t’ even started yet.”
“Better than what I’m doing right now.”
“I don’t care what you’re doing right now,” said the agent. “I only care where you’re going.”
“All the way,” I said.
“To the Oscars, huh?”
“Why not me?” I reasoned.
Some years later, as I write this post, I have no Academy Awards. Not even a nomination. But after all my time working inside the candy store, I’m far less interested in accolades and much more focused on the process – the constantly shifting landscape that is Hollywood. I have to be. Otherwise, I’d be unable to navigate. Which means I still owe a debt of gratitude to William Goldman for sharing his adventures.
Four-plus years ago, when this blog began, it was quickly compared to that Bill Goldman book I’d so fully appreciated all those years ago. By detailing my own misadventures of both screen success and even greater failures, I’d hoped my readers would use my words as an assist in their own career mapping, all the while being entertained and enthused as well.
Well, as some of you are clearly enthused and engaged, it seems an equal number of you are utterly terrified by some of my harder-to-swallow tales.
Translation? I’ve done my job.
Presently, while I continue to knock out near-weekly missives, I’ve distilled some of my most popular tales into a book called THE SMOKING GUN: True Tales from Hollywood’s Screenwriting Trenches. I’m hoping you pick it up and add it to your own collection of must-have books. More importantly, I’m hoping you take after that wise old agent of mine and suggest others buy the book – and gift it to somebody you know who needs to learn there’s a load more to just writing in Hollywood. It’s about building a roadmap mix of sage advice and knowledge about how others have erred, succeeded, and ground it out until the job was done.