Hollywood’s Short Order Cooks – Life of a Screenwriter

By Bill Mesce

The screenwriting contest had been sponsored by a new, up-and-coming talent agency, and winning had gotten me the possibility of representation. I’d won with a monster-on-the-rampage piece, something of a throwback to the monster movies of the 1950s I’d grown up watching on TV; movies like The Thing from Another World (1952), and Them! (1954).

But representation was conditioned on my rewriting the piece. A conference call was set up so several of these young, eager, Mike Ovitz wannabes could make their suggestions. The one I still, to this day, distinctly remember, was:

“And you’ve got to have a scene where the woman (the protagonist was a woman Military Police commander) has got the monster right in her face.”

“That’s from Alien.”

“Yeah!”

“People are going to know we stole that from Alien.”

No response.

“It was even on the poster for Alien.”

No response.

“There’s not even a place in the script where that could happen!”

“Yeah, but I love that shot!”

So I walked away.

I was disappointed, of course, but hardly surprised. Actually, that kind of creative ridiculousness gave me reason to expect these boys had a future in Hollywood.

***

In his book, Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting, two-time Oscar-winning scrivener William Goldman writes, “In terms of authority, screenwriters rank somewhere between the man who guards the studio gate and the man who runs the studio…” And that being the case, despite all the glamour and glitz associated with Hollywood, very little of it is shed on the men and women who write screenplays (excepting, of course, writer/directors although that comes with the caveat that if you lose the “writer” side, you still get interviewed on Charlie Rose; lose “director” and you become invisible).

No film project starts without them, but, except for the occasional appearance at an awards ceremony, they’re rarely mentioned after it’s completed. Nobody calls them over when they’re walking down the red carpet to the Oscar ceremony. They are invisible, disposable, often treated dismally by the very business that depends on them, even on a property they originated. In his The Craft of the Screenwriter, John Brady, considering the historical status of screenwriters in the movie business, called them, “Hollywood’s doormat.”

Consider The Flintstones (1994), a live-action version of the vintage cartoon TV series. According to various sources, anywhere from 32 to over 50 screenwriters worked on the project off and on over the several years it was in development (and the movie didn’t get any better for all the hands on it). The Flintstones may be an extreme case, but it’s hardly a rarity (although I’ve heard more than three dozen writers were involved in screwing up Catwoman [2004]). It took seven writers to turn out schlock like the Arnold Schwarzenegger actioner Eraser (1996), and also seven to hammer together the Michael Bay silliness The Rock (1996). In his book, The Gross: The Hits, The Flops – The Summer that Ate Hollywood, one-time studio exec and Variety editor Peter Bart details the screenwriting process behind Bay’s Armageddon (1998) in which a string of screenwriters were brought in for tasks as specific as developing a particular scene or punching up dialogue for a given actor.

Again from Goldman:

There is a Women’s Liberation term called shitwork and it means work that when it is well done is unnoticed. Like dusting or cleaning…Well, screenwriting is shitwork.

Part of that attitude may come from the fact so few people in the business understand writing and writers. Brady quotes MGM’s Irving Thalberg, considered, in his time, to be one of the movie industry’s few, true class acts, as saying, “What’s all this business of being a writer? It’s just putting one word after another.” Hollywood Golden Age producer Joe Pasternak famously dissed the screenwriting profession saying, “You call this a script? Give me a couple of $5000 a week screenwriters and I will write it myself.”

But part of it may also come from the idea that, in a lot of eyes, screenwriting isn’t really writing, not the way working in prose, poetry, or even stagecraft is thought of as writing. And, in a lot of ways, it isn’t.

***

Steve Szilagyi was my co-author on my first novel. His first novel was the period fantasy, Photographing Fairies. Steve had the novelist’s version of getting his teeth pulled without anesthetic; watching the screenplay adaptation of his novel go through 17 drafts, only barely resembling its source material by the time it finally made it to the screen in 1997. Asked for comment for my book (and pardon the shameless self-promotion) The Rules of Screenwriting and Why You Should Break Them, Steve’s observation was:

Producers have no respect for screenplays, but they seem to have a deep and abiding respect for published novels and novelists…Why is this?… (screenwriters would) like to be writers, but aren’t up to the task of filling whole pages with prose…So, they open a screenplay. They look it up and down…and see lots of white space. They think, “White space. I can do that.”  Producers have crates full of screenplays by these people who are able to fill page after page with white space. A novelist, however, simply by virtue of filling a goodly number of pages — both sides — with words, demonstrates a better than average work ethic, a quality that recommends you to any potential collaborator in or out of film. And while a screenwriter is just a screenwriter, a novelist is his or her own screenwriter, director, cameraperson, set dresser, casting agent, lighting director, and continuity person. The people who actually make movies appreciate this on some level. The novelist is a peer; the screenwriter is a peon.

Or, to nuance Steve’s view a bit, at least the screenwriter is treated as such. The screenwriter is often, not by his/her own choice, less a writer than a combination short order cook/tailor trying to fit an Armani suit on a short, fat man.

This becomes a bit more understandable if you understand the universe in which the screenwriter works. Picture, if you will, a long conference table. Around one end of that table are the star (or stars) of the project in development, the producer (or producers), the director, a “creative executive” or two from the studio producing the project, and someone from the studio’s marketing department.

At the other end of the table, sitting all by his/her lonesome, is the writer.

The only one at that table who doesn’t get a vote about what’s going into that script is the writer. He/she can make suggestions, try to channel and direct the conversation, but everyone at the other end of the table has an expectation that something they suggested is going to show up in that script. In fact, the screenwriter’s survival on that project depends on making sure that when a draft is delivered, every one of those people at the table can find something they suggested in those pages. It doesn’t matter if those various suggested elements don’t mesh, but some shred of them damned well better be there.

In a 1996 address to graduates of New York’s School of Visual Arts, Oscar-nominated screenwriter David Newman (one of the writers behind the 1967 classic, Bonnie and Clyde) said as much:

If you have the great good fortune to make a deal, you will then be gifted with a lot of collaborators…studio executives and producers who think they have creative input, and you’re going to listen to them, because they sign the checks…You will be confronted with actors who certainly don’t have any compunction about telling you in front of the cast and crew that “my character would never say this” – and you will listen because the actor is being paid more than you are.

In his collection of interviews with screenwriters, The Screenwriter Looks at the Screenwriter, William Froug put it more succinctly: “Everybody connected with every film knows how to make the screenplay better. Everybody is a screenwriter.”

If the screenwriter balks, if he/she says something like, “Hey, gang, ya know you’re turning this thing into a stew that makes no sense,” and if he/she continues this kind of resistance trying to protect the creative integrity of the piece, at some point there’s a conversation like this:

“Bill, we hear what you’re saying, and we respect your opinion. You’re a good writer, and we hope we’ll work together again one day. But we think you’ve given this everything you’ve got, and maybe we need to get some fresh eyes on this.”

At which point, depending on how much you owe on your mortgage, you, the screenwriter, say something like, “I’d like another shot at it. I’ve been thinking about what you guys said in the meeting, and the more I run it over in my head, the more I can see where it’ll work.”

Perhaps the most insane experience I personally went through was one where I had to ghost for a screenwriter whose name was big enough to land a development deal for a production company with a cable network. The screenwriter wound up in the hospital, the production company had a week left on their deal to produce a screenplay draft and asked me to pretend to be the real writer. As I raced to bang out a screenplay, I had to deal with notes from different people in the company’s New York and Los Angeles offices, from the network, and from the writer in the hospital. Mind you, none of these people were talking to each other, so the notes were often in conflict with each other, but the company’s development guy kept reminding me that something from everybody had to show up in the finished draft to keep them all happy.

Another example: I was once working on an adaptation of a post-nuclear apocalypse novel which had Russians occupying what was left of the United States. This was at a time when relations between the U.S. and the Russians were warming up; afraid Russian occupiers might date the piece by the time it came out (if it ever got made), and also worried that explaining their presence made for some clunky exposition, I smoothed the plotting out by replacing them with Americans trying to institute their own form of authoritarian government. The studio head got me on the phone and said he wanted the Russians back in. I explained why I’d taken them out.

“Yeah, I understand that, but I hate the Russians and I think they’re playing us for suckers! We can take a shot at them here!”

I was once asked by the late, colorful producer Eliot Kastner to try to think of an espionage thriller that began in the lobby of the Dorchester Hotel in London. When I asked why, he replied with great passion, “Because I love that hotel!”

And on such whims do mighty plot points turn…often badly.

Particularly galling to any screenwriter worth a damn is that a production company’s marketing department often has creative input based on what they think they can sell. Marketing departments typically look for the easy sell. For instance, on a low-budget thriller I worked on, I made sure to include a car explosion not because the story needed it, but because I knew the company would like it for the trailer.

On that same thriller, I was working with a very astute development guy named Abraham Gordon. Abraham was, in my experience, an exception: a company man who cared about trying to find quality even in the kind of low budget schlock his outfit often produced. We had a great working relationship, and every discussion was about how to make the script tighter, the characters more shaded, the dialogue sharper. Until this phone call:

“Hey, what do you think about getting the hero in bed with the girl?”

“Oh, I don’t really think that works. He’s on the run to draw the bad guys away from his family. If he cheats on his wife, he’s not such a good guy.”

“Yeah, yeah, you’re right. What about if she sleeps with the police chief?”

“That doesn’t work either. Through the whole story we’ve got this will they/or won’t they tension between the chief and the girl. They wind up in bed, we lose that.”

“Yeah, yeah, you’re right. Can you get her naked?”

“What?”

“You know; like coming out of the shower or something?”

This was uncharacteristically exploitative of Abraham, so I asked him what was going on.

“Our marketing guy says if you get the girl naked, it adds 15% to our overseas sales.” Then he offered me this consolation: “Look, just write it in. If we get a big enough name for the part, she won’t do it anyway.”

And that’s how it played out. I wrote in a scene where the lead female comes naked out of a shower which made the marketing guy happy, and then a big enough name accepted the role and said her gratuitous nudity days were over and the scene was rewritten to keep her dressed.

Possibly the worst such experience I had to deal with was when I was working on an adaptation of a bestseller for RKO which, at the time, was in the process of trying to revive their production arm. Again, I was working with a sharp development person, a woman named Leslie Werner, and it had been a productive relationship until, yes, another one of those phone calls:

“You’re going to have to bring the violence down a bit.”

“Leslie, this is, at worst, a PG-13 flick.”

“I know, but So-and-So thinks it’s too violent.”

“Who the hell is he?”

“He represents the bank that’s putting up the money for the production.”

End of discussion.

Says William Goldman:

…cameramen have much better lives than writers…because nobody says to a cameraman, ‘I’ll fix the lighting,’ because nobody knows how to do it. But everybody knows words…The only one who gets screwed around with basically is the writer, because…everybody knows the alphabet.”

***

There are other aspects of screenwriting that also impact on the creative side that also have nothing to do with the creative side and with which the likes of prose writers and poets don’t have to deal.

Said Oscar-nominated screenwriter Billy Ray (The Hunger Games [2012]; Captain Phillips [2013]) in a 2015 interview, “…95% of what we do is problem-solving. It’s really not waiting for a moment of artistic inspiration…It’s just grinding.” And the problems are not always about plotting and character. Sometimes they’re just about making a project doable.

On that adaptation with the Russians, there were a lot of considerations having to do with a tight budget and that the production, if it happened, would be carried out in New Zealand because that’s where a lot of the financing was coming from.

Because of the budget, I was asked to try to change some night scenes to day scenes because day scenes are cheaper to shoot. I was also asked to try to trim the principal cast by eliminating one of the major supporting characters: a great-grandfather. “But keep his dialogue.”

“How do I do that?”

“Give it to the great-granddaughter.”

“He’s talking about World War I! The old man is talking about it because he was there! Obviously, she wasn’t there! Why the hell would she be talking about the First World War?”

“You’ll figure it out; you’re a writer.”

The source novel and all the drafts up to that point were set in Vermont just as winter is coming on, with the climax playing out on a frozen lake. Because of the New Zealand shoot, we weren’t going to have snow let alone a frozen lake.

“What do I do without the lake? A helicopter is supposed to crash through the ice!”

“We couldn’t afford to do that anyway. You’ll figure it out; you’re a writer.”

You get told that a lot; “You’ll figure it out; you’re a writer.” What’s funny about that is they tend not to listen to you because, you know; you’re a writer.

***

The honeymoon period on a screenplay is the first time the writer takes a run at a project. Said David Newman to those film school grads, “…the only pure vision of the movie is the one that exists in your mind when you write your first draft. For that golden time, it’s yours, and you see this movie that no one has seen and nobody knows about.” William Goldman told John Brady the same thing: “The only…‘fun’ in movie writing for me is the first draft. That’s the only time it’s really yours.” “Unfortunately,” said Newman, “that is not the draft that is going to be filmed.”

I did have the good fortune – once – to see how the process should work.

I had done a screenplay with Bill Persky, a five-time Emmy-winner, back when he was the executive producer, director, and often writer for the hit sitcom, Kate & Allie. Although we couldn’t place the project, Billy and I came out of the experience close friends, and would often spitball possible projects. In the mid-‘00s, Billy came up with the idea of a screenplay based on one of history’s footnotes: Italian prisoners of war kept in the U.S. during WW II. We would regularly meet, frequently email, but we couldn’t seem to nail down the story.

Billy decided we needed to spend a few days away from everybody and everything and concentrate on our script. We gave ourselves a three-day retreat at a house Billy kept on Shelter Island, a colony of the wealthy reachable only by ferry.

Morning each day would find us in the corner of his in-ground pool walled off as a hot tub, then a quick rinse-off in an outdoor shower, then Billy, who’d taken some gourmet cooking courses, would fix us a light breakfast, and afterward out would come the laptop and we’d work for a few hours. We’d break for lunch and maybe a drive around the island, or cruising around the harbor in his 16-footer. Then we’d work a couple of more hours, and go out for dinner at one of the many fine eateries on the island.

But the experience was more than sitting in a hot tub wondering what kind of payday it took to work like this all the time. Billy and I meshed together perfectly; we were like two lobes of the same brain, not worrying about marketability, budgets, or any of the kind of b.s. that turns good ideas into bland, multiplex-filling generics. We were focused on only one thing: telling a good story as well as it could be told.

And that, aspiring screenwriters, is how it should be done. And it works: we turned out a screenplay I consider among the best things I’ve ever written.

I would love to give that tale a Hollywood ending and say how we placed the script and it was made into a touching, affecting, often humorous story about people overcoming their differences to find their essential, shared humanity…but I can’t. We came close once or twice, but we never did find a home for that piece.

Which is something else to understand about the screenwriter’s universe. It’s not enough to be good, to be politically astute Hollywood-wise, to understand how the machine works, and, like a good pinball player, to know how to put a little English on the play and maybe get to save some shred of your original vision. It’s not enough to be likeable (don’t underestimate that), and to be well-connected professionally.

You also have to be lucky.

***

Director Robert Aldrich, the guy behind classics like The Flight of the Phoenix (1965), The Dirty Dozen (1967), and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962), had, over the course of his decades-long career, more ups and downs than a Great Adventure roller coaster. In a 1972 interview, Aldrich said, “…if you must make a choice between luck and talent, you have to opt for luck. It’s nice to have some of both, or a lot of both, but if you can’t, luck is the answer. Nowhere else more so than in this business.

A few years ago, trying to reboot what can only be euphemistically referred to as my screenwriting career, I entered two pieces in a screenwriting contest. One was a piece of B-movie, shoot-‘em-up schlock called Carjack, and the other was the piece I did with Bill Persky.

Carjack took the winning slot in one of the genre categories. The prize was a phone conversation with a veteran from the film financing side of the business. I confessed that this was, as the saying goes, not my first rodeo.

“I could tell,” he said. “There’s nothing I can tell you. You know how to write, and it’s just a matter of luck as far as you getting anything made.”

“Frankly, I’m surprised Carjack won,” I said. “It’s a fun script, but it’s not a smart picture. I thought if one of them was going to win, it would’ve been Surrender. It’s the smarter piece, it’s the classier piece.”

He chuckled and agreed. “That should tell you something about where the movie business is at.”

I will leave you with a screenwriters’ joke. There’s a screenwriter, a director, and a producer stranded in the desert. As they crawl across the burning sands, dying of thirst, they look up and see, sitting just ahead of them in the sand, a chilled, open bottle of apple juice. Before the screenwriter and director can make a move, the producer jumps to his feet, stands over the bottle, and begins pissing into the apple juice.

In unison, the screenwriter and the director cry out, “What the hell’re you doing?”

Says the producer, “I’m fixing it.”