Thursday, December 01, 2005

The Emerald City

I don't know whether to refer to this as a 'wake up call' or a 'reality check' or maybe just skip the cliches altogether and present the facts.
For the last few months a thriller I wrote has been haunting the atrium of the Creative Artists Agency, ringing ever more faintly, like someone’s lost cell phone. I was just hoping someone might find it behind the potted ficus tree before the last bar ran down. But that begins to seem more and more unlikely.
Still, some people there like the script, and they’ve been trying to get clients interested in making the movie. If enough of them commit, the people who get in-house projects financed there could go out and get the money for the production. It’s an odd situation. I’m not a CAA client. I suppose I might become one eventually, if some creative ignition happens. But for the moment my script is as anonymous as a Shaker quilt.
We were given a list of possible directors and then watched as each one took a different movie. It was like reading Ten little Indians, except that nobody died. Most of them never even saw my screenplay. There’s not much incentive to read some unknown’s work when big stars and Academy Award winning writers and studio deals with big paychecks beckon. Finally the only one left was Peter Weir. When I first saw the list it never occurred to me that they might give him my project. He’s in a different class than the others. He's an auhentic artist, a giant. I couldn’t imagine he’d be interested in my paltry adventure story. The last thing remotely like a thriller he did was Witness and this was no Witness, even I could see that. But I amused myself with some wary moments of hope as the weeks wore on. Finally he passed, as I had always been pretty sure he would.

What did he choose to do instead?
Well, he’s making film out of Shantaram, a book I read last year when I was looking for something long and engrossing. The first paragraph won me over as did the aphorism spouting love interest ("Truth is the bully everyone pretends to like") and the story, based on the author's life. He went to prison for drugs and robbery in Australia, escaped, wound up in Bombay, running a free medical clinic in the slums, and became the protege of the head of the Bombay mafia. I've given the book to many people, all of whom devoured it much the way I did.
Great book. Owned, produced and set to star Johnny Depp
Script by Eric Roth. If you think he isn't the best book adapting screenwriter in Hollywood, check out the novel of Forrest Gump. Then you'll want to give him another Oscar. He didn’t just solve story problems, he created the whole feel of the story, from the feather to the bus stop bench. (In the book Forrest and Lieutenant Dan didn't even meet in Viet Nam.)
I'm supposed to compete in that league?, asked the house painter from Nantucket.
I don't think so. I don't get to be ball boy in that league.
So that's today's humbling tale of Hollywood.
As a fan I'm looking forward to Shantaram. As someone who doesn't believe in portents and signs, I'm not taking this as the big blood red sky-writing message (SURRENDER DOROTHY) that it seems to be.
I'm more used to the other OZ paradigms. For writers, Hollywood is full of them: the poppies and the flying monkeys, the friendly munchkins and the angry trees.
All the quotes feel chillingly familiar: “Off to see the Wizard” (or is it the Head of Development); “Bring me the broomstick (or the next unnecessary free revision) of the Wicked Witch of the West.” And don’t forget that old favorite, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain”.
Of course it ends with “There's no place like home” as you flee back to Kansas and tell yourself it was all a dream.
But I did that 20 years ago. And I'm still dreaming.