By Will Mesce
Here’s how stupid I was about the movie business when I got out of college in 1977. I tried to get screenwriting work by sending out resumes.
Like it was any other kind of job.
Even stupider; it wasn’t like my college resume contained anything all that braggable. The University of South Carolina wasn’t noted for its film program then (or now). I’d had a few semesters of film production working with Super 8 cameras, and exactly one class – just one – on screenwriting.
William Price Fox taught my screenwriting class. Fox was a southern writer of some literary standing, and had worked in Hollywood for a time although he received credits on only two films: a for-TV adaptation of his short story collection Southern Fried (1970), and as a collaborator with Norman Lear on the screen story for Cold Turkey (1971).
My understanding was Fox hadn’t been teaching at Carolina very long when I landed in his class, and it showed. He wasn’t very good at it. In the two semesters I spent with him (I also took a creative writing class with him), I doubt he ever put together anything resembling a lesson plan.
But he did know good writing, and what it was that made it good, whether it was on the page or the screen. If you kept your ears open and sifted through the meandering conversations which took up our class time, you could learn a hell of a lot.
Example I never forgot:
The TV movie Collision Course: Truman vs. MacArthur (1976, teleplay by Ernest Kinoy) had just aired, and there was a scene in the movie Fox pointed to as a perfect example of how not to write for the screen. Henry Fonda is playing the egocentric general, and he’s with one of his underlings, and the other guy is saying something like, “Remember, General, when you did such-and-such a thing?”
“Yes, I remember.”
“And so on and so forth?”
“Yes, I remember.”
Or something like that.
“That’s not this guy talking to MacArthur,” Fox told us. “Of course, MacArthur remembers that stuff! He was there! That’s the writer talking to us!” What made it bad writing was that in order for the writer to get some exposition across to the audience, he had the underling talk to MacArthur like the general was senile.
Fox also provided some practical advice should our fortunes ever take us to Hollywood, like, “Your I.Q. drops 15% the minute you step off the plane in L.A. Don’t worry about it; there’s nothing you can do about it.” And he also tried to tamp down our idealism a bit: “You get out there thinking you’re going to change the system. Six months later, forget the system; it’s all you can do to keep your family together.”
What he never offered among all these gems was any practical advice on how to get started.
Which is why there I was after graduation, 22, living back home with my mom and brother in a cramped four-room apartment in a two-family house, bringing home a little less than $100 a week working for a company out in the Jersey swamps updating TV listings for crappy little free TV guides given away in supermarkets, and sending out resumes to movie studios and production companies. (FYI: I must’ve sent out a couple of dozen resumes and only received one response; some paranoid wanting to know how I’d gotten his contact information.)
So, let me clue you in: don’t do that. If possible, don’t do any of that!
Second bit of counsel: Hollywood doesn’t hire writers. What it does is it buys screenplays.
Ok, that’s grossly inaccurate and oversimplified. If you’re Akiva Goldsman or Aaron Sorkin, yeah, there’ll be a conversation like, “You know who would be good for this? Sorkin is great with dialogue, he does those fun walk-and-talk scenes, let’s reach out to him.”
But if you’re not Akiva Goldsman or Aaron Sorkin, if you’re some anonymous lower-tier writer, or – more relevant to our discussion – you’re a newbie with no track record at all, it’s not you they want; it’s what you wrote, providing you’ve written something they think is either worth making, or that they think is a strong enough calling card to try you out on something they have in mind.
Bottom line: you need to have written something.
And I hadn’t. I’d done some crappy student films, not the kind of things that get you into a short film festival and catch some agent or production exec’s eye, and I hadn’t written a screenplay. And even if I had, how the hell was I supposed to get it in front of anybody? You don’t just say, “Boy, I’d like to have Warner Bros. make my movie. I’ll send it to them!” Might just as well send them your resume while you’re at it.
At the time, I was subscribing to a couple of film magazines including Take One, a cheaper, shabbier-looking Film Comment wannabe. Along came an issue with this bearded, balding guy on the cover, reaching out toward the camera to make a film frame with his hands: Brian DePalma. Take One was partnering with DePalma on a screenplay contest, the winner of which would get a contract with the filmmaker.
Today, if you’re an aspiring screenwriter, you can go online to look for screenwriting competitions and drown in the search results: BlueCat, Austin Film Festival, of course Shore Scripts!, PAGE International Screenwriting Awards, the Nicholl Fellowship, Scriptapalooza… The list goes on and on (and I’m not counting websites like InkTip and the International Screenwriters Association which offer the opportunity to showcase your stuff for window shopping producers).
But in those pre-internet days, this kind of thing was rare, and it wasn’t easy to stumble across them (it would be a dozen years before I would find another screenwriting contest). And even the ones you see now don’t offer what this one was offering.
Today, a lot of them offer some money, maybe meetings with producers and agents, feedback, freebies to a film festival, etc. This one was offering a nice paycheck and a contract to write a movie for a hotshot, honest-to-God, major movie director.
DePalma was a rising star from among that generation of film school brats who’d come out of the top-of-the-line film schools like NYU and USC and had started filtering into the movie business in the 1960s/1970s; directors like Coppola, Scorsese, Lucas. And at that particular moment, DePalma was on a hot streak and getting hotter.
After some under-the-radar indie films, he’d started generating some buzz with the thriller Sisters (1973), then came the culty rock musical Phantom of the Paradise (1974), then he’d gotten buzzier with another thriller, Obsession (1976), and finally had a commercial breakout with the screen adaptation of Stephen King’s first novel, Carrie (1976), following it up with another supernatural thriller, The Fury (1978). He was just coming off working on a return to the indie scene with Home Movies (which wouldn’t be released until 1980) and was now looking to give a wannabe a break.
DePalma was a self-admitted “disciple of Hitchcock,” and, if you liked him, his thrillers were homages to the Master of Suspense. If you didn’t like him, they were empty knock-offs. Either way, his biggest successes had been with oddball, bloody, (some would argue) over-the-top thrillers, and now he was making noise about turning to work a bit more real-world connected. That seemed to be where he was trying to go with the Take One contest.
DePalma had provided the magazine with a scene-by-scene outline of a project entitled, “Personal Effects,” a political thriller set in Canada. Each entrant was to select two scenes, script them out, the judges would pick the best of the two for each entrant, and, out of those, select five finalists. The finalists would then complete a full draft and the winner would get a contract with DePalma and a payday.
The story of “Personal Effects” ran like this:
Jack does sound effects for cheapie exploitation flicks. One night while he’s out in the boonies recording natural sounds, he witnesses a car go off a bridge. He dives into the water, the guy in the car is dead, but there’s a young girl whom Jack manages to save. At the hospital, he learns the dead guy was some big shot political figure, and, for the sake of the dead guy’s family, Jack is advised to keep the business about the girl – who is not the decedent’s wife – to himself. But then, after pictures of the accident surface in the press, Jack begins to suspect the accident was no accident, that maybe this had been a set-up. Turns out the girl – Sally — regularly worked with a cameraman – Manny — on blackmail cases, seducing married guys while Manny covertly took pictures. Jack gets Sally to help him figure out what the hell’s going on, she manages to steal the film from Manny, and Jack tries to put it together with his recording of the incident as evidence of a set-up.
Meanwhile, a maverick agent working for a largely off-screen conspiracy has tagged Sally as a threat to whatever’s been going on, and has been strangling girls who resemble Sally to get people thinking there’s a serial killer on the loose. Jack’s evidence gets stolen, Sally gets lured into a meeting with the killer which Jack tries to monitor electronically, the meet goes bad, Sally is murdered like the other girls, and an emotionally burned-out Jack uses his recording of her death screams in another cheesy slasher flick.
The story plugged into a strain of political conspiracy paranoia running heavily through the zeitgeist of the day. This was the late 1970s; the country was still trying to recover from the tragedy – and lies – of Vietnam, Watergate, the Church Committee’s revelations of CIA hanky-panky. Out of that sense of suspicion and betrayal and powerlessness in the face of dark goings-on within the circles of power had come movies like Executive Action (1973), The Parallax View (1974), The Conversation (1974), Three Days of the Condor (1975), Marathon Man (1976), and All the President’s Men (1976).
Problem for me was I wasn’t a DePalma fan. I was one of those people who didn’t think his flicks were Hitchcock homages, but Hitchcock knock-offs. I also thought he was a filmmaker more interested in eye candy than telling a good story.
DePalma described himself, in a 1984 interview with Film Comment’s Marcia Palley, as “…a visual stylist, a visual stylist…” [his emphasis], more interested in the visual opportunities a piece promised than storytelling. Film critic Gavin Smith gave, I thought, an on-point description of the DePalma style in a review of the director’s 2002 neo-noir, Femme Fatale, ironically praising him for the very same stylistic tics cited by his detractors:
(DePalma) delights in taking liberties with suspension of disbelief in sequences of absurd, impossibly escalating jeopardy…logic and believability aren’t important…(his movies are) adventures in cinematic form…
I also wasn’t too comfortable with how the kick-off event in the story – the accident – echoed the true-life Chappaquiddick incident in 1969 which almost derailed the political career of Ted Kennedy and forever destroyed his presidential ambitions. I didn’t like the idea of a knock at my door and some guy in a suit standing there handing me the blue-covered paperwork of a lawsuit courtesy of a Kennedy attorney.
So, on the one hand: not a fan, and creepy-crawly feel about the topic.
But, on the other: Living with mom, making less than $100 a week, entry into the circle of Hollywood pros with money in my pocket on the arm of a hot director.
Kind of hard not to see which way the see-saw was going to tip.
I picked my two scenes, wrote the hell out of them, sent them in. I don’t remember how much time went by; in those situations it always feels like forever. Then I received a notification that I was one of the three finalists (what happened to five finalists? We’ll come back to that). I now had to sit down and do something I’d never done before: write a full-length screenplay.
The first thing I did was change the title from “Personal Effects” to “I.P.S.” standing for “inches per second” – the rate at which the speed of magnetic tape passing through old reel-to-reel recorders was measured. I thought my title was cooler, but, frankly, it was a pointless, stupid change, the kind of thing that can bring a reaction like, “You even changed my title?” I should’ve left that alone.
Bigger change: ditching the Canadian setting for New Jersey. In retrospect, I’m pretty sure the Canadian setting had less to do with DePalma’s interest in politics north of the 49th parallel than something having to do with film financing. My reason for moving it was simple; I didn’t know anything about Canadian politics, about Canadian geography, about Canadians, about Canada. I felt I could do a better job setting the story where I knew the ground and could take advantage of settings familiar to me.
I’ve since become a big believer in this. Whether it’s prose or a screenplay, I try to set pieces where I’ve walked the ground. That’s not always possible or even practical, but when I do, the advantage of being able to use unique and not overly familiar and trite settings can add a flavor to a piece that can’t be accomplished purely in the text. Would The French Connection (1971) have been The French Connection if it had been set somewhere other than a New York cinematographer Owen Roizman brought to life in all its gritty glory? Same thing for Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Mean Streets (1973). Would Bullitt (1968) or Dirty Harry (1971) have worked as well if they hadn’t been shot in San Francisco?
I thought DePalma might appreciate this since it was a tenet of Hitchcock himself. In a 1969 interview for the book, The Celluloid Muse: Hollywood Directors Speak, the Master discussed “…a particular approach I have to settings. I’m a great believer (that) if you have a setting, it should be dramatized, and be indigenous to the whole picture, not just a background.” You can see it at work in the way Hitchcock used Mt. Rushmore and in the classic crop duster scene in North by Northwest (1959), or the way he used the small California town of Santa Rosa as the setting for one of my (and Hitchcock’s) favorite Hitchcocks, Shadow of a Doubt (1943.
In that same Hitchcockian frame of mind, and feeling I had a read on the kind of material DePalma would connect with – something where he could find opportunities to exercise his visual elan – I came up with a visual plan for the movie. I gave each of the four major characters – Jack, Sally, Manny, and the killer – a visual identity matching their character.
Jack I had as a burnout, socially disaffected, somebody who had retreated from the world and buried himself in his work. I slid in suggestions that something traumatic must’ve happened to him during the storm-tossed years of the late 1960s/early 1970s, implications someone close to him had died back then, but I liked the idea of it not being too specific; it seemed more haunting that way. I had him living in a converted storefront on a back road, the interior barely furnished but cluttered with recording equipment.
Sally was immature, a young woman with no particular skills, relying on her only tool – her sexuality – but who was, in many ways, still an innocent. Sally’s small apartment was cluttered with stuffed animals and dolls, big girly pillows, and the like.
Manny I made a Latino; an ostracized outsider (a bit of racism sadly credible in the late 1970s). Like Jack, he didn’t have much going for him either, and his place was cluttered with photographic equipment.
I wanted the killer to be an outsider, too. From DePalma’s original Canadian setting I got the idea of the killer being French Canadian, only unlike Jack and Manny, he wasn’t ostracized but observing from a remove, an alien who stood above the goings-on, a sociopathic commentator who played with assassination as if it was a game, and with the players like they were game pieces. His place, then, was a playground, a loft cluttered with games and toys.
I submitted my draft, and waited. And waited. And waited. During the wait, Take One folded which meant there’d be no public platform for the announcement of the results. I’m a little embarrassed to admit I’d been hoping to be trucking that issue around if I’d won; “Oh, I didn’t tell you about this little contest? I just happen to have a copy of the magazine with me, you can read all about it. And I insist that you do.”
I remember it was warm — spring or maybe summer — I was coming home from my job out in the swamps, had just parked my car when my mother stuck her head out the front door and yelled across the front yard, “You just missed him!”
“Him” was a phone call from The Man himself, DePalma, telling me I’d won.
There is nothing like a First Time. First car, first girlfriend (or boyfriend), first job, whatever. And when the first is the first of something like this?
For a brief moment, you see all your fantasies coming true. I was going to get a gig on a major motion picture. I was younger than Orson Welles when he’d done Citizen Kane, younger than Steven Spielberg when he’d gotten Jaws. Ok, I wasn’t a director and this wasn’t Citizen Kane, but I was still buzzing, still imagining talk show interviews (not yet knowing how disregarded screenwriters are, but I’ll get to that).
But here’s the biggie, at least it was for me. There are people who get into this kind of work with a huge, unshakeable ego. They have absolutely no doubts about their ability, even when there’s a universal consensus their work sucks (their rationale being, “People just don’t get me!” as if they’re ahead of some cultural curve instead of just being bad at writing). Doesn’t matter to them; they know they can do this.
I don’t have that. I can talk a good game, but there’s often – and still – a niggling doubt about whether I really know what I’m doing, whether I should be doing this or studying accounting instead. At least when it came to screenwriting, hearing I’d won put that particular demon to rest (for the moment; in my case, this happens to be a resilient demon).
Soon after, I received a letter from DePalma with my contract, and not long after I signed the paperwork and returned it, I got my check. I wrote to him asking, what was the next step? I knew there’d be rewrites, that was a given, I’d read enough about how the business worked to know that, and I couldn’t wait to be working with him.
I wrote a few more times.
I suspected I might be bumped, and I understood that, too, but wondered if there’d be a novelization of the movie (back when people used to read for fun, novelizations of presumed big releases were common, and since I was angling to get published as much as produced, this seemed a way into print). So I wrote another letter.
And then, finally, an answer: a curt, two-three sentence letter saying Mr. DePalma had no further need of my services.
I didn’t know if this meant he’d pulled the plug on the project, or had just pulled the plug on me, but in either case, it meant as far as I was concerned it was over.
But then, not quite.
The episode was not without its consolations. My paycheck was enough to pay off an uncle who’d loaned me money to buy my first car, and helped bankroll my move out of my mom’s place into my first apartment (a basement studio in Weehawken). And, it helped keep me fed because by 1980 I had a job in New York for what was then Elsevier-Dutton, a midsize New York book publisher (it’s now E.P. Dutton, an imprint within the Penguin/Random House empire of imprints), and even though it was better money than I’d been making out in the swamps, it was still little more than subsistence pay.
One of the reasons I was happy to be at Dutton was I thought being inside a publishing house might help me get my own work published. I hadn’t yet heard the old canard that everybody in publishing has a novel in their desk. I did soon learn, however, that that wasn’t quite true; not everybody had a novel in their desk. But a lot of them did, and they’d been there a good deal longer than me and it hadn’t helped them a damn in getting published.
In the company’s library I came across a booklet simply titled “The Author-Publisher Handbook.” It was a 95-page primer for the new author on the mechanics of the publishing business: how to submit, what happened to books after they’d been picked up, how to go about getting an agent, etc.
On this last point, a New York agent had written the chapter on agents and had included his name and address. I figured he wouldn’t do that unless he was trawling for clients, so I wrote to him, told him about what had happened with “Personal Effects” and that I had a fiction manuscript I’d like to show him. He had me submit it, then called me in for a visit.
On the chance he’s still alive and might see this and might not agree with my take on our relationship, let’s call him something other than his real name. Let’s call him Bombastic Bushkin (reference to an old Johnny Carson joke; kids, look him up).
Bushkin’s office wasn’t far from Dutton, so he had me meet with him one evening after work. The building didn’t look like much on the outside; a three-story pre-war walk-up over a corner store, but Bushkin had turned his floor into a rather impressive suite of offices. His particular office, which looked out over the Avenue of the Americas, was set up not to look like an office: hardwood floors, arty bric-a-brac hanging on fashionably bare brick walls, Persian rug, Chinese-styled stone dragons guarding a cushy settee. Bushkin sat behind a small, almost petite desk in a corner. He was maybe in his early thirties, tanned, fit, shirtless, sock-and-shoeless, and munching on a bunch of grapes: “I’m trying to eat healthy these days.”
We’ll come back to Bushkin in a later chapter, but he has a relevant role here and also illustrates something about the reliability of agents.
I brought up “Personal Effects” saying I wasn’t sure what had happened. For all I knew, the project was going forward; just without me.
“I had lunch a few days ago with somebody who works for DePalma,” Bushkin said. “I asked him about it. He says they’re not making the movie.”
The summer I’d moved to Weehawken was the same summer DePalma’s Dressed to Kill (1980) was released, maybe just a few weeks after my meeting with Bushkin. Even though I still wasn’t a DePalma fan, I went to see it, curious, thinking maybe this was the movie he’d shot instead of “Personal Effects.” As I passed through the lobby of the theater, there was a stand for a small, free movie magazine (the title escapes me). I had a while before the movie started, so I picked up a copy, and thumbed through it in my seat while waiting for the lights to go down.
There was an interview with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond in which he talked about having recently completed shooting a film in Philadelphia for Brian DePalma. It was about a guy who did sound effects for seedy low-budget movies, and he witnesses a car accident involving a political figure…
I could feel a sense of heat creeping up my neck into my face. The more I read… Yep, you know it: same story as “Personal Effects,” only now it was called Blow Out, and, according to the story, it was written by Brian DePalma. And only Brian DePalma.
Part of me immediately thought I’d been screwed, while some small, reasonable part of me told me to hold off making a judgment. The story Zsigmond described sounded a lot like “Personal Effects,” and it gave DePalma sole screenwriting credit, but in those days before there was an internet to poke around and see what any other source was saying, I figured I couldn’t be sure until Blow Out came out.
July, 1981, and you can bet your ass I was at the multiplex for Blow Out’s opening weekend.
Lights down, projector on, credits roll, up comes “Screenplay by Brian DePalma.” Me sitting there going, “Oh, yeah? We’ll see.”
Was it “Personal Effects”?
Well yes…and no.
Did I get screwed?
The story was pretty much the same, but then it had been DePalma’s story to begin with. It was now reset in Philadelphia probably for the same reasons it had originally been set in Canada; something to do with financing, tax breaks, that kind of thing. Jack (John Travolta) didn’t have the same sense of disaffection I’d given him, but was now a guy who’d used to be a techie for the cops and had been responsible for an undercover agent’s death when a wire he’d rigged on the agent shorted out and blew the agent’s cover. Sally was played with a Betty Boop voice by DePalma’s wife at the time, Nancy Allen. Instead of the outsider Latino, Manny was now a big-gutted slob played by Dennis Franz in a stained T-shirt, and my French Canadian commentator was now John Lithgow as a renegade agent speaking in that movie assassin lingo where killers say “terminate” and use a lot of other multisyllable words to not say what they’re saying. And, as for that visual plan of mine; out the window. The usually high-style DePalma went with what was, for him, a more natural look.
There wasn’t much left of my screenplay: a line here or there, an image or two. I’d had one of the stranglings take place lit only by the fireworks of an Italian street festival; DePalma has Sally murdered under the lights of fireworks over a political parade. The only thing close to resembling a whole scene of mine is a confrontation between Sally and Manny where she tries to get his film of the accident from him. If you add it all up, even with some generous interpretation, it probably doesn’t come to more than five minutes, if that, out of the movie’s 107.
I still felt burned, and for years I remained ticked off at DePalma. The goal of the contest had been to give an aspiring screenwriter a break, and if he was only going to keep a few shreds of my material, “Hey, Bri, give the kid a break, throw him a bone, give him some kind of screen credit, like an ‘Additional Material by” (me not knowing the Writers Guild had done away with that credit).
But the fact is that even under the standards of the WGA, DePalma had not kept enough of my material for me to warrant a screen credit. And as for throwing me some kind of bone? Welcome to Hollywood, kid.
Here’s what you need to know. It’s the screen credit that matters. The money’s nice, but a screen credit is the currency of the realm. When you’re starting out, that’s what you want: your name on a movie that actually gets made. Your name on a movie that actually gets made and actually makes money is even better, but your name up there at all is what the next guy weighs when considering whether or not to hire you.
As for Blow Out, the movie was reviewed quite well (some think it’s among DePalma’s best, and I’ve heard Travolta say it’s one of his personal favorites), but it cost $9 million to make, another $9 million to market, and its box office plateaued at $13.7 million. That’s the kind of math typically defining what, in Hollywood parlance, is referred to as a flop. One theory for the film’s failure I remember hearing was that DePalma’s usual fans were disappointed by the movie’s (comparatively) real-world grounding, and the viewers who might’ve liked it didn’t go because they suspected it would be another bloody DePalma Hitchcock clone. The movie fell into the gap in between.
What do I think?
Does it matter?
If you cruise around on the internet, some places where the movie pops up do have my name listed either as a co-writer (not accurate) or an uncredited writer. I guess that’s something. And I did get paid well, so while I can still be unhappy things didn’t break my way, I really have no grounds to complain and have to – if begrudgingly – give Brian DePalma credit for giving me my professional start.
But don’t go away; there’s more.
Sometime after Blow Out was released, I received a letter from one of the other two finalists; the Third Place winner. Seems him and Mr. Second Place were considering suing DePalma.
It was their interpretation of the contest that in doing a full draft they were entitled to what the winner had gotten. It didn’t matter the movie had died; like me, they saw this as a once-in-a-lifetime shot and felt they’d been screwed out of it. They felt he’d taken material from their scripts and incorporated it into Blow Out. Third Place wanted me to be a part of the suit.
It was an awkward position for me. It would be the height of ingratitude to say, “Well, Mr. DePalma, thank you for this opportunity and this very nice little pile of money, but now I’m going to help these guys beat the crap out of you in court.” But I also didn’t want to be one of those I-got-mine-to-hell-with-you types if these guys had a legitimate beef.
I read the contest rules and contract over a few dozen times and couldn’t see in them what these two guys said they saw. I asked to see their scripts, and I shared mine with them.
Mr. Third Place had the weakest screenplay, so weak, in fact, I was surprised it had made the top three. It was no more than a filling-in of DePalma’s outline, adding almost nothing in terms of plot or character, and filled with stilted dialogue.
Mr. Second Place, on the other hand, well, frankly, I was surprised he hadn’t won. It was a beautifully written script and had only taken DePalma’s inciting action – the accident – before going off on an entirely original path. The only reason I could think this guy hadn’t won was because he’d departed so far from DePalma’s story.
But I didn’t see any incidences of theft.
We had all exchanged phone numbers and I called Mr. Second Place to get his take on this. In that conversation, I got the feeling he was more or less in the same boat as I was; he didn’t quite buy Mr. Third Place had a case, but felt he’d be a bit of a schmuck if he was unsupportive. Neither of us thought this would come to anything.
I told Third Place I’d split the difference; I wouldn’t be party to the suit because I had no grounds, but I’d answer any interrogatories frankly and honestly. He seemed satisfied with that, but then the whole affair seemed to evaporate. After that initial flurry of letters and calls, I never heard anything more about the suit.
Some of you might wonder why anybody would fight so hard to be associated with a box office loser. This goes back to what I said about screen credits being the currency of the realm. It’s better to have your name associated with a produced flop than to have it attached to nothing.
Back in the days when I was still miffed at DePalma, I’d written to some entertainment magazine (can’t remember which) about the whole affair, thinking I had this juicy expose to hand them, and they sent a guy to interview me. He gave me my first practical lesson in the position screenwriters hold in the movie business.
“The way you were treated is pretty typical.”
Here’s another thing you need to know: with some exceptions, and depending on the character of the people you deal with, by and large screenwriters are valued about as much as the tissues in a box of Kleenex, and may be used and discarded similarly.
Take The Flintstones (1994), a live-action version of the 1960s animated 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. Only three got an on-screen credit, and the critical consensus is that all that cumulative talent produced was a brontosaurus-sized turd. 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 ). It took seven writers to turn out the forgettable Arnold Schwarzenegger actioner Eraser (1996), and also seven to hammer together the hyperkinetic, nonsensical Michael Bay pyro-fest 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 Michael Bay’s Armageddon (1998) in which a procession of screenwriters were brought into the project sometimes to do something as specific as develop a particular scene or punch up dialogue for a given actor.
Even if I had been a veteran pro at the time I worked for DePalma, there’s a reasonable possibility the scenario would’ve played out the same way; me being told my services were no longer needed, here’s your check, and don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.
“Your first movie,” says veteran screenwriter Robert Towne in 1981’s The Craft of the Screenwriter, “is terribly traumatic.” I do wonder what’s worse: the first time when you don’t know what you’re in for, or the times thereafter when you do know what you’re in for.
There’s a little coda to this story. A couple of years later, I was in New York City’s Chinatown one night, going out to dinner with some friends, when I bumped into Sam Irvin, Jr. This is incredible it’s-a-small-world stuff; Irvin (now a filmmaker himself) had been the grad assistant for my first film professor back in Carolina. Flukier still: as we chatted, he congratulated me on the DePalma win and that’s when I learned he’d been working for the director at the time of the contest, and had actually been one of the people stuck with having to read the screenplays which had been submitted.
“Hey,” I said, “there’s something I always wondered about. When Take One first announced the contest, they said there was going to be five finalists, but you guys only picked three. What happened?”
Irvin smiled. “We couldn’t find five good enough to be finalists. We had to stretch to find three.”