Monday, April 13, 2009

Sour Grapes, Notes From the Hollywood Underground

The Los Angeles Times interviews star screenwriters. They discuss the trials and tribulations of success, fame, money and unlimited artistic freedom. Studios are demanding; critics are unfair. The need to 'top yourself' makes writing difficult. And writing itself is no longer enough. They want to direct and no one will let them. The glamorous party life distracts them from serious work. Mercedes dealers charge a small fortune for a small repair...

I know, I know -- as an unsuccessful screenwriter there is a limit to how much of this you can read before it starts to give you the dry heaves. After all, it was just this sort of article that got you out to Los Angeles in the first place. You had gritted your teeth -- you were ready for the six-figure salaries, the saturnalian parties and the larcenous Mercedes dealers. You expected a cosy bungalow on the studio lot with ceiling fans, and studio guards who would be proud when you remembered their first names. You imagined yourself hovering around closed movie sets, advising suitably humble movie stars on correct line readings; you wanted to travel across country and see your name in The Hollywood Reporter's L.A. to N.Y. column.

No one told you the truth.

No one said, "You will be rejected. You will be treated with jovial contempt by hundreds of clearly brain-damaged persons. You will meet with studio executives who will doze while you tell your stories. The few who like your stories will be overruled by their superiors. You will be put on hold. You will write scripts on speculation for TV shows and the shows will be cancelled. Any high-ranking executive who likes your work will 'ankle' his job soon afterward. You will do non-guild work for slimy guys at coolie wages. You will pitch ideas at networks, be rejected and be certain you see them on the fall schedule six months later. You will start to get paranoid. And you'll continue to read interviews with star screenwriters and absorbing in great detail the hardships of life at the top. The articles say 'It's lonely at the top'. But I dispute this. In fact, it's lonely at the bottom. At the top there are lots of interesting, beautiful and talented people. Whereas, at the bottom you get mostly guys in dirty raincoats drinking sterno from paper bags.

So you wait for a fluke, because success in Hollywood is random. That's the dark secret that the young screenwriter learns. It all has to do with what I call the Fluke Zone. If you are not in the Fluke Zone, no matter how good you may be as a writer, you will never work. Clearly then, the trick is finding your way into the Fluke Zone. Having film directors as close friends is one way in. Marrying a movie star is even better. Best of all is to be the son or daughter of a successful Hollywood family. But don't despair--chance encounters can work also, on rare occasions. Save a movie star's Pomeranian, or refuse to sue the producer who totaled your Corolla with his BMW, and you may just get lucky.

One thing is certain, once you're in the fluke Zone, it's almost impossible to get out. There are writers who have been making flop films for more than twenty years because once in the Fluke Zone, no matter how bad you may be or how senile you become, you will work continuously. People didn't read your work before and they won't start just because you're in the Fluke Zone--but the movies will get made. Look at all the other crap that gets made every year. Why? How? Because some jerk with an awful script just sort of stumbled into the Fluke Zone and got a three picture deal. It happens all the time. You can dial a wrong number trying to get a pizza, wind up talking with the head of a movie company and selling the rights to a book you haven't written yet for half a million dollars. Not that it has to be you. An unassuming, undocumented Mexican could make the same deal, completely by mistake.

The next morning, Variety would be trumpeting Illegal Alien as a major motion picture in pre-production. He'd have an agent and a business manager before he knew what hit him and he'd be investing in cinnamon futures with the money he expected to earn on the foreign distribution rights of the film to be based on the book which he couldn't even write in the first place.

All he wanted was a pizza.

The central fact you have to face is that, as a writer you have no power at all and the only way to get power is to become a director. When that becomes your goal you become like everyone else in Hollywood--trying desperately to be somebody else. Actors, for instance, want to write, writers and producers want to direct. Producers think they can write, and agents think they can be producers. Business managers think they can be agents. But it gets even more complicated than that. Actors think they have to write but they really want to produce. Writers know they have to produce but secretly want to act. Ex-agents like to produce films their ex-actors have written and business managers want to be the agents who package the films by ex-actors who are producing an ex-agent's script for an ex-producer to direct.

And directors are the bane of every writer's existence. Along those lines, it occurred to me the other day that you could account for all the apparent mistakes in the natural order of things with a Hollywood theory--A Guild Arbitration theory of the universe. Some guy wrote a terrific world, some demi-god with talent. There was no war, no prejudice, no gum disease. Six seasons instead of four; fresh water oceans you could drink from, No menstrual cramps or waxed vegetables in the stores. It was a promising effort and that great Studio in the Sky bought it outright for a good price. They put into pre-production and hired some writers to work on it. After six drafts they hired God to direct it. He made more changes and it came out so badly that the original writer took his name off the project. So, everyone thinks God created the world. But he didn't. He was just the guy with Adidas and a view-finder who fucked it up..

Of course, if I ever get a movie made, I'll be too busy with the grueling party scene and finding the best places to service my Mercedes to worry about this stuff. I'm looking forward to being corrupted by success and ruined by money. I'll retract this whole post instantly, as soon as the first check clears.

It's just sour grapes after all.

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