Culture Shock: Life In Los Angeles
March 1999 – June 2000
journal entries written by Daniel S. Duvall
© 2019 Daniel S. Duvall – all rights reserved
PREFACE – July 2017
In May of 2005, I returned from Los Angeles to my native Northeast Ohio. I’ve been prolific in recent years and have had five short stories published in anthologies from various outlets including Robbed of Sleep and Nosetouch Press. I’ve also continued to craft speculative feature film screenplays.
I spent May of 2017 writing a 101-page dramedy with supernatural aspects. I’d begun brainstorming this script’s characters and the tale’s broad structure (in traditional Syd-Field-style three-act form) on April 23, then commenced work on the actual scenes on May 4. I had a polished draft done on June 3.
Only one of my screenplays took me less time to write; I jammed out a first draft of that other project in two weeks and am keenly aware that it needs much revision and elbow grease before I’ll feel comfortable presenting it to any film industry allies (other than the two who have already read it). At the other extreme, I once took three years to write one script, and it’s quite a foul stinker, though I like its experimental structure.
The new dramedy, on the other hand, seems solid in its current form, and for that I credit Alley Cat Duvall, who passed away on April 6 at the age of seventeen years and five months. His death fueled the grief and anguish that infuses the screenplay. There’s much to be said for pouring emotion into one’s art.
I adopted Alley Cat on the 1st of May in the year 2000. He was (until I carried him inside) a scrawny, flea-covered stray who scrounged for food behind the apartment building where I rented a one-bedroom unit at the corner of Yucca & Argyle in Hollywood. The “alley” he lived in was technically a driveway, but “Driveway Cat” just didn’t have the same ring to it.
Alley Cat swiftly adapted to the comforts of life indoors, and within two weeks he began sleeping atop my comforter whenever I dozed. A handsome sandy-brown fellow, this feline had a distinct and pleasant personality and a gentle disposition.
Approximately one year after I took AC off the streets, I adopted a six-week-old Turkish Van cat who I named Thalia. She stayed quarantined in the kitchen until she got a clean bill of health from a veterinarian, and then I introduced her to the apartment’s other kitty.
Within two weeks, Alley Cat and Thalia had bonded and often shared the couch, which meant I had to sleep on the floor (I had no bed in all of the years I lived in that rental unit). The three of us lived in comfortable symbiosis, and both cats traveled via airplane with me in late May of 2005 when I relocated back to my native Northeast Ohio.
Alley Cat’s death was a profound seismic shock to my psyche. When it became apparent that he wasn’t long for this world, I stayed awake all night talking with him as he rested comfortably on the floor in front of my chair. He’d lost his mobility by then, though he did at one point move all four of his limbs as if imagining that he was walking. He left his flesh early in the afternoon on Thursday, April 6, but he’d stopped perceiving anything on this side of the veil a couple of hours before he stopped breathing.
I infused my latest dramedy screenplay with the raw pain I felt in the wake of my old friend’s passing. It’s my most emotionally honest work ever.
Thalia passed away on June 18 (Father’s Day), and I’m still reeling. I’m not ready to process her death by pouring my soul into another work of fiction quite yet. But I will do so.
The absence of both cats has evoked a flood of memories from my years in Hollywood. What better time to dredge up my old journal entries about that era?
Please enjoy these vintage glimpses of my mind from the spring of 1999 through June of 2000. I’ll see you again at the end of this document for an afterword.
Should Aspiring Screenwriters Live in Los Angeles?
“Should I move to Los Angeles?”
This question haunts many screenwriters who live far from The Industry. Why abandon a comfortable routine only to venture into the smog-enshrouded, crime-riddled earthquake magnet that Hunter S. Thompson wisely labeled “the Freak Kingdom”?
I uprooted from Cleveland, Ohio and moved to Los Angeles seven months ago. L.A. is in many areas not a pretty city. Gaunt, vacant-eyed figures shuffle from one street corner to the next like Romero zombies, mumbling and scratching absently. Smog chokes the joggers. Busloads of aspiring actors arrive every ten minutes, loaded down with suitcases of head shots and demo tapes. Many of them, within the year, will end up shuffling from one corner to the next, scratching and mumbling and bumping into the busloads of aspiring screenwriters, who outnumber them and lug suitcases full of spec scripts.
But aesthetics aside, there are practical reasons for screenwriters to live here. Los Angeles offers screenwriters access to two important flavors of muse chow: screenplays and movies.
An aspiring screenwriter who never reads scripts is like an aspiring composer who shuns sheet music. Thanks to interlibrary loans and the growing film reference sections of many bookstores, it is possible to obtain some screenplays outside of Los Angeles. Online and published scripts are often out of proper format, however, thereby limiting their value as learning tools, and the title selection is limited. In Cleveland, I once waited six weeks to obtain a copy of the Poltergeist screenplay via interlibrary loan. My first week in Los Angeles, I found and read three different drafts of it. I’m now swimming in copies of scripts for films to be released later this year: outside of Southern California, such current scripts are either totally inaccessible or wildly overpriced by underground mail order sources.
“Okay,” you say, “I’ll brave the airborne carcinogens and mumbling street denizens for easy access to scripts. Where in Los Angeles do I get them?”
The Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library is a great place to start: its collection of over 60,000 screenplays is available to the public, though all materials are non-circulating. For scripts that you can sign out, try the Los Angeles Public Library. Or plug yourself into The Industry at any level, and you’ll soon encounter the bustling network of script collectors who trade screenplays like baseball cards. You can also purchase scripts from retailers. Enroll in any of this town’s premiere film schools, and you’ll gain access to additional fine script collections. The UCLA Professional Program in Screenwriting, for example, gives its students free access to hundreds of current and seminal scripts. For a small quarterly library fee, students can also access UCLA’s library system, including the Charles E. Young Research Library, wherein the Department of Special Collections offers access to thousands of scripts, including rare drafts of many titles.
Just as aspiring composers must listen to music, so must aspiring screenwriters absorb movies in theaters as often as their schedules and budgets allow. Watching videos at home is of course necessary for extensive study of specific scenes and sequences: in a theater, you can’t yell at the projection booth, “Hey, run that sequence a couple of times and then bring up the lights while I scribble some notes.” But don’t totally forsake seeing films in theaters in favor of home videos. Aside from the tremendous increase in picture and sound quality, theaters offer the chance to feel the vibe of audience reaction, to develop a reflexive sense of what will and won’t work in a cinematic story.
Los Angeles has some of the finest movie theaters in the world. I was accustomed to the tiny mulitplex screens of Cleveland malls: I had no idea what a real movie theater is until I wandered into the Cinerama Dome and Chinese Theatre. The Westwood neighborhood is packed with excellent theaters within walking distance of each other; my first couple of weeks in town, I explored on foot and discovered new theaters every day, all showing different movies. Some have cool late-night screenings of older films. I’ve recently enjoyed theatrical screenings of The Godfather, Blade Runner, The Terminator, Taxi Driver, The Spanish Prisoner, The Omen, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Tootsie, Easy Rider, The Old Dark House, and The Invisible Man, these last two hosted in person by Gloria Stuart and James Curtis.
So should you move to Los Angeles? Only you can answer that question. Meanwhile, I’ll wade through the smog and seek out as many excellent resources for aspiring screenwriters as I can find in this town, and I’ll report about them.
Learn From The Masters
Before I moved here, I thought of Los Angeles as being much like Middle Earth: a mythical, magical world, totally inaccessible to mortals from the Midwest. Living, breathing screenwriters were like Hobbits and Centaurs: fascinating to read about, but certainly nothing one actually runs across in the real world.
Though I have yet to see any Hobbits or Centaurs (except out of the corner of my eye after long stretches of sleep deprivation), I have encountered many professional screenwriters in the eight months I’ve lived here. Believe it or not, writers are flesh-and-blood, generally approachable, and often generous with their time and wisdom. Consider Steve Zaillian (Schindler’s List) and Linda Woolverton (The Lion King), who spoke to an audience of about 150 members of the public in a small Westwood lecture hall last month at a Humanitas seminar.
“Imitate the masters. Learn from the masters,” Zaillian advised the crowd. Among the screenplays he considers seminal are The Godfather and Chinatown. He also suggested that screenwriters should enjoy quality novels, citing To Kill A Mockingbird as one of his favorites. His favorite films? “The 400 Blows and The Bicycle Thief.”
Zaillian and Woolverton discussed their differing approaches to screenwriting. “I honestly don’t analyze the themes of my films unless I’m forced to, like tonight,” Zaillian revealed, whereas Woolverton very consciously considers her themes. She said, “I always start with theme. The characters evolve from that, and the plot radiates out from there.” She works in a home office and prefers to write directly on a computer, unlike Zaillian, who writes his first drafts by hand in an office away from home. Woolverton, who performed uncredited rewrites on early drafts of Mulan, said, “I can do a first draft in three or four months… [including] a detailed outline.” These timelines apply to her assignment work; she recently completed a first draft of a spec script in eight weeks. Zaillian’s first drafts take longer: “I’m really lucky to get a first draft out in six months,” he said. “More like nine months, usually.”
Zaillian went on to describe part of his writing process. “Thinking and note-taking… is like doodling. Trying to see the whole thing. Most of the good stuff comes in the first draft. Then I’ll rewrite for a year.” Before he begins a draft, he prepares scene cards: “I’ll lay cards out on the floor… and make sure that the signpost scenes, the important scenes, are there. You can only plan so much, and then you have to do it.” He says that many flawed scripts halt their plots for scenes that only introduce characters: “I consciously make a point of introducing my characters as the story is being told.” Once he’s into a script, “It’s a matter of the writer inhabiting the character and trying to see things from his point-of-view… it’s about imagining the scene that’s taking place as if I was in it.” He tends to write long first drafts that he pares down in rewrites. A notable exception was Schindler’s List: his first draft was about 140 pages, but “Spielberg wanted more.” The shooting script ultimately weighed in around 190 pages.
On Spielberg, Zaillian commented, “He’s very much in touch with himself and his audience. He’s very good at [story]. There are a handful of directors who pride themselves on being good on story. He’s one of them.”
Zaillian stressed the importance of a quality script in the filmmaking process: “If it’s not good on the page, it can only get worse.”
Both screenwriters kept their Development Hell stories to a minimum, though Woolverton did reveal, “I had a difficult time working with Bob Weinstein and Miramax. It was war.” The project in question? Woolverton’s adaptation of the Madeleine L’Engle novel A Wrinkle in Time. “The book is really about communism. I had to dig deep down and find something relevant for today,” Woolverton explained. After she crafted “three or four drafts,” Miramax abandoned the project. Francis Ford Coppola then acquired the rights and wanted to make it as an animated film. Miramax has since reacquired the rights, though Woolverton says the project may soon shift to Miramax’s parent company, Disney. On the development process, she added, “I’ve always worked with studios, so I get a lot of notes. You have to dig through those and look for the gems.”
Zaillian says his Hollywood career has been mostly positive: “I haven’t had too many bad experiences.” He cites his worst experience as a showdown over a significant script change that he thought would adversely affect the story: “I was sitting down with a director, and he said, ‘Let’s cut to the chase. If you don’t do [the rewrite], I’ll do it myself.’ I couldn’t believe anyone would be that rude.”
Both writers encouraged aspiring screenwriters to be persistent. Woolverton said, “You can’t let the defeats defeat you. Just press on.” Zaillian agreed: “Every new project is another chance.”
Jedi Training with Tom Fontana & John Markus
“You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.”
Obi-Wan Kenobi’s description of the Mos Eisley spaceport in the original Star Wars at times seems applicable to Los Angeles, though the Chamber of Commerce routinely ignores my suggestions to add it to their promotional tourist literature. Jawa-like scavengers raid the dumpsters on Sunset Boulevard. Bounty hunters roam the streets in search of their prey. Edgy patrons in half-lit bars brag about their status as wanted criminals. The economy is largely in the hands of gangsters. Parts of Los Angeles even physically resemble Tatooine: I half-expect to see droids scurrying among the adobe apartments across the street from the east edge of the Paramount lot.
Never were Mos Eisley and Los Angeles more alike than the evening of Tuesday, May 18th, in the final hours before the midnight opening of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace at Mann’s Chinese Theatre, where costumed fans lined Hollywood Boulevard. Hooded Sith Lords skulked around with shining lightsabers. Jedi Knights, Wookies, and the occasional Naboo handmaiden flooded the neighborhood. Stormtroopers (well, okay, just normal Hollywood cops) busted bootleg t-shirt dealers, warning them to clear out or get a sales permit. (I swear I heard one bootlegger respond, “These aren’t the shirts you’re looking for. Move along.”) Gleaming metal airships (media helicopters) circled overhead with blinking lights. The overall gestalt was more surreal than many of the computer-generated landscapes in the film itself.
Like Tatooine, Los Angeles has its share of decent folk among the scum and villainy. Obi-Wan Kenobi, a wise mentor willing to share his experience with others, has many real-life counterparts. Last month, for example, veteran television writers Tom Fontana (St. Elsewhere, Homicide, Oz) and John Markus (The Cosby Show, The Larry Sanders Show, LateLine) spoke to roughly two-hundred wisdom-hungry apprentices at a Humanitas seminar in Westwood. They even paid their own way and flew in from Coruscant (er, I mean, New York City) specifically for their free five-hour seminar.
“My only goal at this point in my career is to constantly be better than I’ve ever been,” said Fontana. Markus also challenges himself to hit new heights: “The success of [The Cosby Show] gave us tremendous freedom from the network… I still aspire to do things that haven’t been seen before.”
Fontana’s commitment to innovative storytelling compelled him to lunge at the chance to develop Homicide with Barry Levinson. He explained, “Levinson called and said, ‘I want to do a cop show with no car chases and no gun battles.’ I said, ‘That’s impossible. I’ll be right out.’”
A solid concept like Homicide requires equally solid characters to flesh it out. Fontana stressed the importance of strong characters in screenwriting. “To me what’s always interesting,” he said, “is when a character says ‘this is what I believe.’ And then what makes a good story… is when those beliefs are put into jeopardy.” He later added, “What’s important is to write a character not in a one-sided way… On Homicide, the story is written [around] character and the theme. We always start with characters and let them lead us through the story.” He and the staff at HBO’s Oz approach the creation of antagonists the same way he did on Homicide: with sympathy. “We never write anybody as a villain. That person always has real human motivations.”
Markus, who recently signed a three-year development deal with Paramount, plans to continue writing comedies, and he revealed his very Zen approach to crafting jokes: “I laugh and then work backwards.” He admires the sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond, but lamented, “So much crap is made every year.” He believes that television networks place more constraints on writers now than in the 1980s. “It’s linked completely to the advertisers,” he explained, “[There is now] more business-related fear.” Because The Cosby Show quickly gained a reputation as an envelope-pushing show, critics expected them to tackle specific issues. Markus recalled, “During the first season, I was getting a lot of calls from the press asking when we would deal with interracial dating… Bill [Cosby] said, ‘Tell the press we’re leaving all the racial issues to Newhart.’”
Fontana, known for his critically-acclaimed dramas, believes in weaving humor into even the most serious of stories: “It’s important to find the humor in each character you write when you’re doing a drama. Through the humor, you reveal as much about their humanity as through the dramatic situations.”
Both men know with clarity when they’re ready to begin a script. “If I can tell someone the story that I’m about to write, and I can stay interested,” said Markus, “then I know it’s going to work.” Fontana, who writes for an average of five hours per day beginning around 5:30 in the morning, described his scripts’ origins: “Every story that I do comes… when I experience something that just seems at the core of what it is to be human. It’s a thing that only writers really understand.”
As the seminar neared its end, Markus advised the attentive padawan audience, “Don’t be afraid to be honest with yourself. Always ask yourself of what you’re writing, ‘What is it about?’”
Like many in the crowd that day, I ventured back into the world eager to apply Markus’ and Fontana’s shared wisdom by crafting stronger scripts, humanizing my antagonists, and defending the Republic from evil Sith Lords.
June & July 1999
An Eyewitness Report: Writers and Directors are Real Flesh and Blood People
“I do not think of The Exorcist as a horror film. It’s a film about the mystery of faith,” director William Friedkin commented to an appreciative audience at the Egyptian Theatre the evening of June 5, 1999. Friedkin fielded questions from the crowd after a screening of a new 35-mm print of his 1973 adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s novel.
The opportunity to hear filmmakers speak about their craft is a huge perk of living in Los Angeles. Last fall, after a screening of Vampires at UCLA, the audience engaged in a lengthy question-and-answer session with John Carpenter and the film’s stars, Sheryl Lee & James Woods. Screenwriter Pamela Gray also spoke at UCLA after a screening of Walk on the Moon (not to be confused with this winter’s Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon), and she testified about the importance of persistence and patience in the lives of aspiring scribes. Gray rewrote her script (originally titled The Blouse Man) countless times for myriad producers before it finally got made. She also encouraged writers to be passionately interested in at least one non-writing activity, both to stay in touch with the real world and to stave off depression until a script sells. Gray survived many lean years, but is now working regularly: she scripted Wes Craven’s upcoming drama Music of The Heart (formerly known as 50 Violins), and has enough projects on her agenda to keep her booked up for a couple of years.
Also in June, screenwriter Millard Kaufman (no relation to Andy) spoke after a screening of Bad Day at Black Rock, and director Matthew Bright showed up to chat after the L.A. premiere of the uncut, pre-NC-17 version of his film Freeway.
Glance at the calendar section of almost any edition of LA Weekly, or check the schedule of upcoming events at the Egyptian Theatre, and you’re bound to find numerous opportunities to speak with filmmakers after screenings of their films and learn the answers to burning questions like:
If The Exorcist is not a horror film, what is? “Rosemary’s Baby is a great horror film,” Friedkin said, “Alien is a great horror film. Psycho is an absolutely marvelous horror film. I didn’t care for The Omen.”
Nor does Friedkin care for the first sequel to The Exorcist: he called part II “the worst film I’ve ever seen. It trashed Blatty’s great story and characters.”
Friedkin emphasized the importance of the screenplay in the success of The Exorcist. He described it as “just a great story… brilliantly written by Bill Blatty… it was irresistible to me.” It was, however, resistible to Stanley Kubrick, Mike Nichols, and Arthur Penn, three of the directors who turned down the chance to film Blatty’s tale of demonic possession, according to Friedkin.
Readers of Blatty’s screenplay (based on his own novel) know of several scenes that do not appear in the extant film. The most infamous is known as the “spider-walking scene,” in which the possessed girl scurries down her staircase on all fours, face up with her back bowed. This scene and several others were filmed but not used, until now: Friedkin revealed that the film will be re-released theatrically this Halloween with roughly fifteen minutes of previously unseen material. “Over the years as we’ve aged and mellowed, I’ve decided to do this for Billy [Blatty],” said Friedkin. Blatty objected to the removal of the scenes when the film was originally edited. Friedkin says he cut the material “for reasons of pacing,” but he remembers Blatty defending the scenes as “essential.”
Living in Los Angeles also affords one a chance to chat with screenwriters in private, not just at public events like those described above. At a friend’s backyard picnic, I met a staff writer from Suddenly Susan who offered some off-the-record insights into the daily routine of television scripting. On the record, she stressed tenacity and persistence as a key to breaking through; she kicked around town for years before landing her first professional screenwriting gig. As a freelance journalist, I’ve also been privileged to chat with and interview screenwriters. Most recently, I visited David Koepp (Stir of Echoes, Jurassic Park, and more) in his Santa Monica office. I can’t stress just how remarkably cool it was to see a glass-cased velociraptor model with a signed card from Steven Spielberg outside his inner office door. A dry-erase board held a broad outline for his Spider-Man feature script (based in part on the treatment by James Cameron), which was encouraging to see; some successful, working writers start with the same three-act outlining process that aspiring writers go through with specs. Koepp’s board essentially held a Syd-Field-style diagram with an inciting incident, end of Act One, midpoint, end of Act Two, and resolution. (Don’t worry, Mr. Koepp: I’m totally mute about what I read in the outline. Not even the pleas and bribe offers from my friends have gotten any details out of me, partially because my friends are also aspiring screenwriters and therefore incapable of scraping together anything resembling a serious bribe.)
So has Los Angeles hit me with true culture shock? Most shocking is how generous so many working filmmakers are with their time and wisdom.
The Art of The Meeting, or Why Screenwriters Should Live in Hollywood
In a world where fax machines and speaker phones now outnumber Spinal Tap fans, shouldn’t screenwriters be able to live anywhere? E-mail can whisk a script to an agent’s printer, right? Isn’t the quality of a spec script more important than a zip code that begins with 90?
Sure, there are some screenwriters who get their Big Break while living far away from the needle-strewn beaches of southern California. For one such success story, check out Laura Schiff’s interview with New Jersey denizen Bryan Lynch (The Next Muppet Movie) in the Stanley Kubrick issue (July/August 1999) of Creative Screenwriting. Also, Kevin Smith (Dogma) still lives in Jersey, his home when Clerks found its audience. The filmmakers behind The Blair Witch Project are based in Florida. It’s certainly empirically possible to catch the attention of The Industry without relocating to Los Angeles.
However, all the producers, agents, and working writers I’ve encountered agree that aspiring screenwriters increase their odds of success exponentially if they grab an oxygen mask and dive into Smogville. All other things being equal, producers will offer assignments to writers they can meet. Wouldn’t you rather get a sense of someone in person before forking over a sizable check if you were in their calfskin Oxford shoes?
I recently enjoyed my first face-to-face meeting with a producer in a swank Beverly Hills café. This is a guy with a lengthy track record of producing and directing television movies: Variety recently announced his attachment to an upcoming NBC movie-of-the-week. He’s for real, as opposed to the many bottom-feeding Bowfingers who slink around town in search of writers who won’t demand unreasonable amenities like paychecks.
“How,” I’ll insist you ask so that this essay may logically continue, “did you land this meeting?” Well, first I spent dozens of hours crafting some decent sample scripts. Then I spent hundreds of hours refining, honing, and polishing them before I dared to query anyone. A very wise screenwriter named Richard Hoblock (Central Park West and the Mira Sorvino film Tarantella) advised me to “never never never never never” show any scripts until they’re really, truly ready. It’s excellent advice.
So, Step One: WRITE A GOOD SCRIPT so that you’ll be perceived as a serious writer when an opportunity arises to show your work. Worry about how to find or create those opportunities AFTER you have a portfolio.
One of my scripts placed as 1 of 233 quarterfinalists out of 4,446 entries in the 1998 Nicholl Fellowship competition, so I felt reasonably confident about using it as a writing sample. I gradually trickled some query letters into The Industry in search of producers who might want to read it.
Query letters? Who needs them? I ended up bumping into a producer when I went to see Payback at the Chinese Theatre. He was sitting nearby and noticed me reading a script Steve Martin’s Bowfinger) before the film started. We struck up a conversation, and he gave me his card and offered to read one of my scripts.
So, Step Two: MAKE INITIAL CONTACT with producers through any means necessary. Query letters, seminars, schmoozing at parties. It helps if you live in Los Angeles and can bump into them in movie theaters.
I promptly sent a polite e-mail thanking him for the pre-film conversation, and then I popped my spec script in the mail. This is why it’s essential to have a strong portfolio before worrying about networking: this opportunity would have been wasted if I had no writing samples to show him.
A few weeks later, I got an encouraging fax: he liked my script and promised to arrange a meeting to discuss potential writing assignments.
Eventually the call came. Could I meet him at his Beverly Hills office that week? Certainly.
Step Three: BE PATIENT. It was several months from initial contact to scheduled meeting. In the meantime, I kept writing, expanding my portfolio. I also made initial contact with some other producers during this time and sent out sample scripts to two of them.
My meeting went reasonably well, and the producer gave me the current draft of a movie-of-the-week he’s developing. He described how he’d like it to evolve in a rewrite. He asked me to read the script and schedule a follow-up meeting with another producer he works with to discuss potential revisions. That meeting ended with the second producer, who is shepherding this project, offering to read one of my sample scripts to get a sense of whether or not I might be right for this assignment. Which brings us back to Step Three: BE PATIENT. I might be on the verge of getting my first professional screenwriting assignment. Or I might be on the verge of a polite “thanks, but we’re handing this gig to someone else.” While I wait for the verdict, all I can do is keep plugging away at my specs. It’s quite an agreeable way to pass the time.
Halloween in Smogtown
Wandering down Sunset Boulevard during Halloween weekend, it’s impossible to distinguish the actual homicidal maniacs from the costumed revelers. The streets of Los Angeles are not so much a melting pot as a diversely-stocked buffet table that has been overturned and sprinkled with mad cow disease. And that’s on a normal night. On Halloween, the weirdness is magnified exponentially. Masks encourage people to cut loose.
The evening of October 30, I enjoyed a Fairport Convention concert at the Roxy Theatre. After, I found the sidewalks of Hollywood clogged with demons and clowns, aliens and reapers. Outside the Chateau Marmont, vampires danced with astronauts and pirates. Ghosts carried leering pumpkins. Mutants shambled. Hobgoblins gawked. Tourists recoiled in fear.
Weaving my way through the costumed masses, I was struck by what a wonderful town Los Angeles is for people-watching. We writers spend so much time isolated in our caves, filling notebooks and typing. We immerse ourselves in our make-believe worlds for days on end. Halloween on Sunset reminded me of how important it is to get out and stay in touch with human nature. How are we to imbue our characters with realistic souls if most of our sensory input consists of our own words on our computer screens?
As I strolled past a gaggle of cheerleaders outside the House of Blues, I reflected on some of the people I’d observed at the Fairport Convention concert. At one table, a weary father played cards with his wife and two teenaged sons before the music began: I wondered how his family had ended up at this show. I imagined the conversation between the parents the previous night: “What shall we do for family night this week?” “Let’s take the kids to see some middle-aged British guys who sing about murder and adultery!”
As the band performed some fast-paced tunes, an Irish dancer in the audience jigged around the floor like a leprechaun who had overdosed on caffeine. Where had she learned to dance so well? Why had she pursued Irish dancing instead of, say, watercolor painting as a creative outlet? Had she practiced these moves to Fairport albums in the privacy of her living room, or was she just swept up in the spirit of rhythms she’d never heard before?
The dancer zipped past a waitress who would probably have enjoyed the concert a lot more if she were not on the clock. She served drinks to two yuppies who were on different wavelengths: one wanted to hear the music, while the other wanted to nap.
Meanwhile, I wandered to the edge of the stage so I could gawk at Dave Pegg’s fingers as they glided across the neck of his bass. Dozens of people are walking past this club, I thought, with no idea that one of the world’s best musicians is working magic on a bass guitar inside. Would they care even if they knew? Would they stop to listen to his melodic bass lines, or would they totally tune out the bass and focus on the lyrics or the violin? Would they tune out all of the music and just gawk at the Irish dancer? Would they just hurry on home to watch sitcom reruns?
I fleetingly wondered what the protagonist in my current script would think of the concert. “Stop writing,” I scolded myself. “You’re here to enjoy the music.” The Muse scampered back down into my subconscious. Doesn’t the Muse ever need a vacation?
Just in that tiny club for those three hours, there was so much raw humanity on display. Ecstatic faces, depressed faces, body language for a thousand occasions. After, as I walked down the Halloween-drenched sidewalk, I reflected on all I’d seen. Some of those raw observations may eventually serve as fodder for future screenplays. Some will just end up as fond memories of a great concert. Others will vanish from my conscious memory altogether, perhaps to re-emerge in a dream a decade from now.
But the important lesson of the night will remain in my thoughts: stay in touch with the human condition. Live. Breathe. Then return to the cave for a stretch of writing before absorbing more of the real world.
Cable Network Pitchin’: A Gonzo Report
I recently survived a pitch meeting in the executive suites of a national cable network. Many of the How to Write and Market Script Your Script books stress that a solid writing sample can open many doors. I’m happy to report that this theoretical advice works in practice. I landed this pitch meeting when one of my specs caught the attention of a cable development executive: she called to tell me that my script is too high-budget for the original TV movies her network produces, but she loved the writing. “Why don’t you come in and pitch some other ideas?” I maintained a calm, civilized tone while I performed a hyper-kinetic victory dance on my sofa. “Sure,” I replied. “I’ll work out a few ideas.” She asked me to call and schedule an appointment whenever I was ready.
I promptly hopped on the Internet and dug up as much information as I could find on every original movie her network had ever aired. I wanted a deep sense of acceptable genres and stories. Thanks to the Internet Movie Database and the network’s own site, I quickly assembled a detailed dossier on the network’s original feature programming.
I shelved my current spec script and spent two weeks brainstorming and fleshing out potential pitches. I narrowed down the ideas to three that I really liked, and I developed each as double-spaced two-page summaries. I took another week to hone, reword, refine, and practice until I could verbally present each idea from beginning to end in under five minutes.
After a couple of days of phone tag, I set my appointment. A few days later, I was on the sidewalk gazing up at the cable network’s skyscraper headquarters.
Maybe it was the half-pot of Irish Breakfast Tea I’d gulped down in ninety seconds before I left my apartment. Maybe it was the intoxicating bus fumes. Whatever, I was suddenly terrified. Butterflies? I had mutant bats in my stomach, clawing and biting and buffeting their wings against my innards.
I located a coffee shop and decided to ride the wave of nervousness out to the end. If I accelerate this phase, I thought, it’ll pass sooner. So I guzzled additional caffeine in the form of a 20-ounce café au lait. When the fire is raging, I reasoned, what are a couple more gallons of gasoline?
I mentally ran through my pitches over and over to make sure I hadn’t forgotten them. Nope. My rehearsals had paid off. Fifteen minutes before my scheduled meeting, I ventured into the network headquarters.
The security guards glanced at my recently-washed hair, my yuppie-style briefcase and designer eye glasses. I strode to the elevator bank unaccosted.
Upstairs, I made small talk with the temp who was staffing the executive suite reception area after he notified The Office that The Appointment Has Arrived. He guessed I was a writer. I asked how he could tell. “You kind of look like a writer,” he said. Hmmm.
Then – the door opened. “Dan?” I managed to find my feet, smile, and shake the exec’s hand. I think I vocalized an articulate greeting. It’s all a blur.
Once I was actually seated in the office, the stomach bats went away. I was fine. Enjoyed myself, even. The exec spoke at length about her network’s development process.
Then, the ride began: “Do you have anything you want to pitch today?” I took a deep breath and launched into my heavily-refined but spontaneous-sounding patter. That high school Drama Club training finally paid off.
She summarily shot down my first two pitches. Those were the ones I really liked and had invested the most time in.
She was intrigued by pitch number three. I wonder if, had I told them in a different order, she still would have liked pitch number three. Perhaps it was a test to see how I responded to her comments on the first two. I guess I passed, because she asked me to write up the third one as a three-page treatment and e-mail it to her.
So… a foot firmly in another door. I hope I made enough of an impression that, down the line, I’ll be able to set up additional pitch meetings even if she doesn’t like this particular three-page summary.
Meanwhile, I’ll resume work on my spec scripts. As always, it’s an agreeable way to pass the time.
The Architecture of the Contemporary Script Page
I generally don’t like to discuss the minutiae of screenplay formatting: if you have a format question, look for precedents in extant scripts or create a solution that makes sense to you. However, I’ve received several email inquiries about the nature of modern format. So let’s roll up our sleeves and dissect the “architecture of the page” (a term I first heard from screenwriter Richard Hoblock, though I’m not sure who coined it). Once you’ve taken the time to outline a brilliant story, make sure you craft each scene in a way that keeps the reader turning the pages.
Below are some pointers I gleaned at a December 4 seminar by UCLA screenwriting chairman Richard Walter plus examples I’ve observed in current scripts.
ECONOMY OF WORDS / SLUGLINES
“If you’re not sure if you need a line, you don’t need the line,” advises Richard Walter. “When in doubt, throw it out.” Walter refers not just to lines of dialogue, but descriptions and actions. Indeed, this advice is timeless: there will never come a day when readers crave scripts that are padded with extraneous, repetitive descriptions and dialogue.
Walter suggests this litmus test: remove any given element, sentence, or word from your script. Does its absence make a difference in the meaning of what you’ve written? If not, lose it. Use your words economically. Walter says writers should pretend that the toner in their printers is worth a fortune: put no ink on the page that need not be there.
On the subject of sluglines, Walter takes his “save your ink” advice to the extreme: he suggests removing all periods and dashes from sluglines, though he acknowledges that many contemporary scripts do still include them. For example:
INT. MUSEUM – DAY
INT MUSEUM DAY
(Walter suggests five spaces in lieu of the periods and dashes.)
I’ve observed many variations in slugline format from script to script. Just make sure you consistently use the same format within any given screenplay. Some examples:
INT. ANDY’S APARTMENT – NIGHT [Man on the Moon]
INT – PAUL’S HOUSE – NIGHT [The Green Mile]
EXT. PARKING LOT – DAY (DAY 2) [Dawson’s Creek “The All-Nighter”]
INT. GAS-STATION GARAGE. MOMENTS LATER – NIGHT [eXistenZ]
When should screenwriters capitalize entire words? “Use all caps sparingly,” says Walter. Appropriate uses include important sound effects, important props, and a character’s name the first time that character appears in the script. This last advice is an update: several years ago, Walter advocated capitalizing character names every time the characters entered a new scene.
Of course, try foisting this advice off on David Mamet. His adaptation of the Thomas Harris novel Hannibal is written entirely in caps (except for the dialogue).
Richard Walter recommends removing almost all parentheticals from your scripts. I suggest you read as many scripts as you can and make your own observations about appropriate use of parentheticals. I tend to use them only to clarify who a character is speaking to when that information is germane, but you’ll find actions and adverbs in parentheticals throughout many contemporary scripts. For example, from page 83 of the first draft of The Green Mile:
Ran down there. Don’t think he’ll
Awful tired now, boss. Dog tired.
And from the Charmed episode “Déjà vu All Over Again” (page 12):
Can’t believe what a klutz I am.
(takes dress bag)
I thought I was going to have to
pull a Celine Dion and wear my
Piper, listen to me —
— I had a premonition. Of Andy…
Agent Leslie Kallen describes fragments as “tedious for the reader.” Plentiful fragments “grow numbing,” she opines. Indeed, descriptions of action in modern scripts tend to be in complete sentences. Fragments were more acceptable several years ago: here’s a fragment-peppered excerpt from William Goldman’s 1997 adaptation of the David Baldacci novel Absolute Power:
COINS. Antique ones. They disappear into the duffel.
STAMP BOOKS. Gone into the swelling duffel.
LUTHER as he hears the distant laughter.
Not so perfect.
He moves quickly out of the vault, takes a step toward the door – the giggling is getting louder, closer. Two people. A MAN AND A WOMAN.
Remember: established professionals play by different rules. An early draft of Sleepy Hollow includes an illustration of the round birdcage token that delights young Ichabod Crane. David Koepp’s script Stir of Echoes includes a page with nothing but the word “DIG” in a huge font. But when you’re a new writer hoping to impress a producer or agent, err toward the conservative.
Of course, individual readers have individual tastes, and William Goldman’s most famous quotation certainly applies to the architecture of the script page: “Nobody knows anything.” If you write an incredible story, readers will forgive minor deviations from contemporary format.
Two Carters, One Hurricane, Zero Looters
As the clock approached midnight on New Year’s Eve in 1999, I peeked out the window for any early signs of rioting and looting. If Y2K was going to turn the streets of Los Angeles into a primal Trigger Effect style nightmare, I was prepared to defend my stash of bottled water, precious caffeine, and other supplies. I’d rigged a wireless battery-operated surveillance camera in the hallway outside my apartment to give me a heads-up on any marauders.
To take my mind off the imminent collapse of civilization, I looked over some notes I’d taken at a December 14 Humanitas Seminar at which the guests were X-Files creator Chris Carter and his frequent collaborator Frank Spotnitz.
“The truth is that people want to buy good material,” Spotnitz had told the crowd when asked about the difficulty of selling screenplays.
I wondered what the value of a great script would be in a post-Y2K society in which canned food would be the currency of choice.
Another writer at the seminar asked about common mistakes in X-Files spec scripts. “Entry into the story is something people don’t understand,” Carter said. “Setup is so important.”
He also said few writers seem to grasp the dynamics between lead characters Mulder and Scully: “It is not a combative relationship.” Spotnitz added, “[Scully’s] voice is the one that is most injured by people who don’t really know the show.”
All of this information will be useless, I thought, when the streets are flooded with starving citizens.
Just in case the alarmists were wrong about Y2K, I read over Carter’s comments on the convoluted UFO/alien mythology of the show: “I had a big idea. It’s played out in ways I’ve never imagined. You make choices as you go. The mythology started to tell itself. It began to thread together perfectly. I didn’t have it all worked out [in the beginning], but the big idea is still in place.” He added, “The show is about faith. That is a thematic constant.”
The year 2000 arrived. The computers didn’t crash or evolve into a sentient Skynet menace. I yawned, listened to the Art Bell radio show until three in the morning, and fell asleep. Society was still intact when I woke up, so I called some friends to ask about any upcoming events of interest to screenwriters. A UCLA buddy tipped me off: Hurricane producers/co-writers Dan Gordon & Armyan Bernstein would be screening their film and speaking on campus on the 24th.
“Writing is the closest place I’ve even been to heaven,” Bernstein told the dozens of students, instructors, and professionals who showed up for the event. “It’s such a noble and worthwhile profession. But it will break your heart and test your character.”
Bernstein fought for years to produce a film based on the life of boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. He phoned Rubin Carter and implored, “You can’t get off the phone until you’re convinced that I’m the right guy to do this.” After his passion persuaded Rubin Carter to let the project move forward, Bernstein wrote a 267-page first draft by himself. He recognized that he needed help to cut and refine the story into a more efficient form, so he enlisted the help of Dan Gordon.
“Dan is a ‘let’s-get-down-to-work-and-get-it-done’ kind of guy,” Bernstein explained.
“I don’t know of any other writer in this business who would ever turn over anything they’ve written to another writer,” said Gordon. “That act of humanity and transcendence astounded me. It transcended ego, craft, and art.” Gordon warned the screenwriting students that Bernstein’s attitude is a rare exception in the Industry. “There are very few people in his position who are heroes. Most are slime. Get ready for that.”
Both men are proud of the finished film. Bernstein says it “reminds you of what’s best in all of us.” Surprisingly, the studio wasn’t confident about his first choice for a director. Bernstein “offered Norman Jewison the job, and he jumped at it. Almost everybody at the studio encouraged us to get a young MTV director.”
A gray-haired gentleman in the audience asked Bernstein about alleged ageism is the Industry. “Your passion doesn’t get old. Your talent doesn’t get old,” Bernstein responded.
I returned home and crafted several pages in my current spec script with renewed vigor. Society will probably be around for at least another millenium, and the studios will need a lot of movies to fill all that time.
UCLA Exercises (Part One)
Before I moved to Los Angeles, I wrote spec scripts in Cleveland. I also devised exercises that I imagined might be similar to lessons taught in film schools. I’d watch a favorite movie scene-by-scene, stopping the tape to jot notes and reverse-engineer an outline. I’d read the movie’s screenplay scene-by-scene, too, noting major differences from the film. I’d then puzzle over my notes, dig up interviews with the screenwriter, reflect, and enjoy epiphanies about the nature of story structure.
Screenwriting is a pursuit in which self-motivation is essential. No one is going to craft 100 engrossing pages for you, but you can create a first draft in under two months if you write as few as three pages per day, five days per week.
While everyone’s creative process is different, I’ve found that my daily page output improves significantly when I take the time to develop a coherent beat outline.
When I got to the UCLA Professional Program in Screenwriting, I found that I’d already done much of my homework; students were encouraged to reverse-engineer a beat outline of a favorite movie by writing one or two concise sentences to describe each scene. Once you see that a movie can be distilled down to about fifty or sixty beats, the prospect of outlining an original screenplay seems less intimidating.
If you’ve never set aside a few hours to examine a movie beat-by-beat with pen and paper in hand, I highly recommend the experience. Below is the beat outline I reverse-engineered while I watched Jaws scene-by-scene.
At a bonfire beach party, two intoxicated TEENS flirt.
The teen boy, too drunk to swim, flops onto his back while the girl dives into the ocean.
Far from shore, something pulls the flailing, screaming girl under the water.
Police Chief BRODY receives a phone call at home while his wife cleans a cut in their older son’s hand.
Brody and the teen boy from the opening trot down the beach in response to a deputy’s whistle; the swimmer’s corpse has washed ashore.
At his office, Brody types “SHARK ATTACK” on his report about the girl’s death.
Assorted townsfolk intercept Brody with petty concerns as he retrieves materials to make “NO SWIMMING” signs.
Brody, en route to warn a group of swimming Boy Scouts, is intercepted by the MAYOR, who insists that the beaches must stay open to attract tourist dollars.
As Brody watches from a crowded beach, a young boy’s raft explodes in a spray of blood.
At a town meeting, after the Mayor announces over Brody’s protests that the beaches will only be closed for 24 hours, a weathered old fisherman (QUINT) offers to catch and kill the shark for $10,000.
Brody reads up on shark behavior.
Two fishermen chain a giant hook to a dock, bait it with a roast, and toss it into the water.
Brody stays up late reading more about sharks.
The fishermen barely escape alive when the shark takes their bait and pulls the whole dock into the water.
As dozens of hunting teams set out haphazardly in their boats, shark expert MATT HOOPER arrives and introduces himself to Brody.
The hunters dump huge quantities of blood and chum into the ocean.
Hooper examines the remains of the first victim and announces that she died from an attack by a shark much larger than normal for those waters.
One of the hunting teams poses with a dead tiger shark, much to the delight of the mayor, though Hooper expresses doubts that it’s THE shark.
Hooper shows up at Brody’s house that night and says that it’s likely the shark has become territorial: it will continue to feed in the area until its food supply is gone.
Hooper and Brody slice open the tiger shark to be sure it’s not the one that killed the little boy on the raft.
Hooper and Brody find the wrecked boat and corpse of another fisherman in the stretch of water where the shark has been feeding. Hooper finds (but loses) the tooth of a great white shark.
Hooper and Brody plead with the Mayor, who insists the beaches will be open for the 4th of July weekend.
Thousands of tourists arrive as Brody phones for extra help to serve as shark spotters.
The Mayor notices that nobody is swimming, so he coerces one family into swimming.
As helicopters and boats of shark spotters keep an eye on the water, the tourists swim.
Brody’s son Michael and his friends go boating in The Pond, an area connected to the ocean.
A fin in the water creates a panic, and tourists trample over each other to get out of the water.
Armed shark spotters surround the fin, which turns out to be a cardboard prank propelled by two young divers.
A lone girl calls for help when she spots the real shark heading into the pond.
Brody races to the pond as hundreds of witnesses watch the shark swallow a boater.
Brody’s son, in shock from watching the boater’s death ten feet away, goes to the hospital.
Brody coerces the Mayor into signing a voucher to pay Quint to kill the shark.
At Quint’s place, Brody insists that Hooper will come along on the expedition, despite Quint’s protest that Hooper has “city hands” and has been counting money all his life.
Quint, Hooper, and Brody load equipment onto Quint’s boat (The Orca), including an anti-shark cage that Quint observes couldn’t possibly hold up against THEIR shark.
Brody’s wife bids him a tearful farewell.
Brody throws chum and blood into the water, then nearly blows up the boat when he disturbs a tank of compressed oxygen.
The line on Quint’s giant fishing pole plays out quickly, and moments before the line snaps, Quint declares that the “smart big fish” has gone under the boat.
As Brody throws more chum, the shark surfaces and snaps its jaws near him.
The shark charges the boat, affording all three men their first good look at it, and Quint proclaims that it’s a 3-ton 25-footer.
Quint shoots a harpoon (attached to a barrel) into the shark.
The men pursue the barrel, but the shark disappears.
In the cabin, the men bond while trading scar stories and singing songs moments before the shark slams into the hull.
Quint shoots at the circling shark with his rifle.
The next morning, as Hooper and Quint work on fixing the hull & engine damage, Brody spots the resurfaced barrel, and the shark again rears out of the water snapping.
Quint smashes the radio when Brody tries to contact the Coast Guard.
Quint shoots another barrel into the shark.
Brody shoots the shark with his pistol while Quint shoots a third barrel-harpoon into it.
Brody and Hooper tie the barrel-lines to the rear of the boat, but the shark starts to tow them out to sea.
The ropes snap off after the boat takes on much water.
The shark pursues the boat as Quint pilots it back toward shore, pushing the engine harder and harder until it burns out.
Hooper proposes that he go into the water in his anti-shark cage and try to inject the shark with poison.
The men build the shark cage.
Hooper drops his poison and flees to the ocean floor after the shark tears his cage to pieces.
Moments after Quint and Brody haul up the ruined cage, the shark lunges onto the back of the sinking Orca and swallows Quint.
Brody shoves a tank of compressed oxygen into the shark’s mouth.
Brody climbs the crow’s nest of the rapidly-sinking ship and fires at the shark with his rifle.
Moments before the shark reaches him, Brody shoots the oxygen tank in its mouth and blows it up.
Hooper resurfaces. He and Brody swim toward shore.
UCLA Exercises (Part Two)
In the last column, I described the “beat outline” exercise encouraged by UCLA to help you uncover the concise spines of your favorite films. Another UCLA exercise in reverse-engineering of stories is the Ackerman Two-Pager. For the first quarter of his Professional Program lecture class, Hal Ackerman requires each student to distill one film per week into a two-page (or slightly less) double-spaced 12-point font outline.
It’s not as easy as it sounds. Try it. One point of the lesson is to illustrate how difficult it is to write concisely. Generally, my first drafts of these “two-pagers” were four or five pages long. In deciding what to cut and what to keep, I gained more insight into what makes up the very core of a story, and the outlines I created for my original specs became more focused and coherent.
Below are the two-pagers I reverse-engineered while I watched two excellent horror films that I’ve enjoyed repeatedly across many years: Poltergeist (written by Steven Spielberg & Michael Grais & Mark Victor) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (written by Wes Craven).
POLTERGEIST [1982 version]
ACT ONE In an upscale suburban home, STEVEN FREELING (late 30s) dozes in front of the TV as a local station signs off for the night. As the TV goes to static, the family dog wanders the house, visiting all the sleeping Freelings: DIANE (late 30s) the mom, eldest daughter DANA (15), son BOBBY (11), and youngest daughter CAROL ANNE, who awakens and wanders downstairs to the TV. She wakes the rest of the family as she shouts at the static-filled TV, “Talk louder! I can’t hear you!”
The next night, a thunderstorm scares Bobby and Carol Anne into sleeping in their parents’ bed. They all doze with the TV on. When it goes to static, Carol Anne reaches for the screen… and a GHOSTLY HAND reaches back. She watches as eerie phantasmal mists stream out of the TV and into the wall. A rumble like an earthquake wakes the others: Carol Anne announces, “They’re here.”
After breakfast, Diane pushes all the chairs in around the kitchen table, turns her back for six seconds, and turns back to find all the chairs stacked on top of the table. Carol Anne attributes the stacking to “the TV people.” That night, chairs are pulled from one circle on the kitchen floor to another by an unseen force. Steve and Diane vow to keep this mystery “in the family.”
ACT TWO During a thunderstorm that night, Bobby’s tree crashes through his window and pulls him outside. When the family races outside to save him, a blinding light erupts in Carol Anne’s closet and sucks her in. The family searches for her. Bobby hears her voice coming from the television.
Steve invites three parapsychologists to help the family recover Carol Anne. As they inspect the house, jewelry and dirt materialize in a flash of light. That night, the team captures on videotape a procession of spirit-lights parading down the staircase. Diane talks with Carol Anne through the TV set; Carol Anne screams that someone is in there with her.
Steve learns through a conversation with his boss that the whole neighborhood was built where a cemetery once stood. It was moved to make way for the houses. Steve’s boss wants to move another cemetery to expand the development.
The team invites TANGINA (late 50s), a psychic, to lead a rescue attempt. Tangina explains that a terrible spirit is using Carol Anne to keep other spirits restrained. The team tosses a rope into the spectral light in Carol Anne’s closet – “the way in.” The rope emerges from thin air in the living room – “the way out.” Diane ventures into the light. She emerges in the living room clutching Carol Anne, both covered in ectoplasmic slime. Carol Anne’s eyes bounce open: “Hi Daddy.” Tangina pronounces the house clean.
ACT THREE The family loads a moving van. That night, with only Diane and the two youngest kids home, the spectral light reappears in the closet. As Diane struggles to rescue Bobby and Carol Anne from being sucked into the light, CORPSES spontaneously erupt from the yard. Steve and his boss return to the house after a meeting. Steve collars his boss, who spearheaded the construction of the neighborhood: “You moved the headstones, but you left the bodies.” Diane and the kids rush out of the house. The family piles into their car as more and more bodies erupt from the yard. Dana arrives home and lunges into the car with her family. As they speed out of the neighborhood, the house collapses in on itself and vanishes into the spectral light.
The family, together and safe in a motel room, shoves the TV set out into the rain.
A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET [1984 version]
ACT ONE TINA, 16, wakes from a nightmare. She joins her friend HEATHER at school, who also reports a bad dream. That night at a sleepover party, Tina dreams of a scarred man with a knife-glove chasing her. Her boyfriend ROD wakes to her screams. Unseen blades slice and kill her. Rod flees. Heather’s father, the SHERIFF, finds and arrests him. In class, Heather drifts off to sleep. She dreams of the scarred man (FREDDY) chasing her through a boiler room. She wakes to her own screams.
ACT TWO Heather visits Rod in jail. He reports a nightmare about a man with knives for fingers. That night, she falls asleep in the tub and dreams about Freddy pulling her under the water. She asks her boyfriend GLEN to watch her while she sleeps and wake her up if she seems distressed. In her dream, she sees Freddy hovering over Rod in his jail cell. Freddy then pursues her and nearly slices her with his knives. Her alarm clock wakes her: Glen drifted off to sleep. Heather races to the jail and begs her father to check on Rod. Meanwhile, Rod’s bedsheet is knotting itself around his throat. It pulls him up and hangs him moments before the Sheriff and Heather arrive. At a sleep disorder lab, doctors monitor Heather while she sleeps. She thrashes around while her brainwaves indicate a state between dreaming and waking. A doctor wakes her up. She produces Freddy’s tattered brown hat from beneath the covers: she pulled it out of her dream, and she has a bad cut on her arm. Back home, her mother (who has now put bars on the windows) explains that neighborhood parents cornered and burned a child killer named Fred Krueger after he went free due to a paperwork technicality. She shows Heather the knife-glove he used in his murders. Across the street, Glen drifts off to sleep and is pulled into his bed. His mother watches as a torrent of blood erupts out of his mattress.
ACT THREE Heather watches as the police swarm Glen’s house across the street. She prepares a series of traps in her house and drifts off to sleep with her alarm set to wake her in ten minutes. She pulls Freddy out of her dream and into the real world. Her booby-trap hammer swings and smashes into his torso. She flees to the front door, but the bars and locks keep her in; her parents anticipated that she would try to sneak over to Glen’s house. She douses Freddy with gasoline and ignites him. Her father races to the house; he and Heather find a trail of fire-footprints leading upstairs. Freddy kills Heather’s mother. Freddy reappears when Heather is alone. She turns her back on him and wills him to vanish. Heather dreams of being trapped in a car with a roof painted like Freddy’s sweater. The car vanishes down the street while kids playing jump-rope chant a warning about Freddy.
Culture Shock: Life in Los Angeles
In my ongoing efforts to comprehend the strange rituals of the film industry, I have just read three books by wise guerrilla anthropologists who have examined the culture of Southern California for decades. The books are Which Lie Did I Tell? More Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman, The Big Picture: Who Killed Hollywood and Other Essays (also by William Goldman), and Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind.
Everywhere I turn, Industry professionals are already quoting William Goldman’s Which Lie Did I Tell? Since a common frame-of-reference often serves as an ice-breaker at pitch meetings and schmooze-worthy parties, this is a handy book to read so you can begin conversations thus: “I read the greatest anecdote in the new Goldman book.” But the book is an excellent read even if you never intend to discuss it with anyone; when a writer as talented and successful as Goldman offers observations about the craft and business of screenwriting, take the time to pay attention.
The book is divided into four sections: More Adventures, Heffalumps, Stories, and THE BIG A. The common element that bonds one section to another is Goldman’s wry humor: it’s hard to put down a book that keeps you laughing so heartily and so often.
My only complaint about the More Adventures section is that much of the material was previously published in the essays within Goldman’s Four Screenplays, Five Screenplays, Absolute Power, and The Ghost and the Darkness. The section traces Goldman’s interactions with the blank page, studio executives, directors, and stars as he wrote the following films between 1986 and 1997: Memoirs of an Invisible Man, The Princess Bride, Misery, The Year of the Comet, Maverick, The Ghost and the Darkness, and Absolute Power. His experiences convey the fluid, collaborative nature of filmmaking: don’t become deeply emotionally invested in the draft of your script that sells, for as Goldman’s anecdotes illustrate, the pages are going to change before (and while) the cameras roll.
In the Heffalumps section, Goldman examines six of his favorite scenes from scripts by other writers (plus one of his own). Goldman often breaks down the scenes line-by-line, moment by moment, and he points out how each component thickens the plot. This section alone is worth the price of the book; if Goldman wasn’t such a talented screenwriter, he could have become the world’s best development executive. The examined scenes come from There’s Something About Mary, When Harry Met Sally, North by Northwest, The Seventh Seal, Chinatown, Fargo, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
The Stories section explores Goldman’s process of sorting the gold from the dirt when he brainstorms ideas for new scripts. He describes the genesis of four ideas that may or may not make interesting screenplays, and he rambles pleasantly about whether or not the concepts could be expanded into fully-functional blueprints for films.
THE BIG A section offers multiple professional perspectives on a Goldman script fragment: you read about half of a new original Goldman script (THE BIG A) followed by commentary on the strengths and weaknesses of the story up to that point. The commentators are the Farrelly brothers, Scott Frank, Tony Gilroy, Callie Khouri, and John Patrick Shanley. Their lucid notes are a great reminder that no matter how much experience and talent is behind an early script draft, it’s still a rough lump of clay in need of painstaking sculpting.
Which Lie Did I Tell is packed with wisdom from the trenches of the screenwriting profession. Before you venture to the front lines, consider the observations of those who have gone before you. They may just save you from stepping on a landmine or snagging your arm on some rusted barbed wire.
In The Big Picture: Who Killed Hollywood and Other Essays (a collection of articles that were originally published in Premiere, The Daily News, New York Magazine and Los Angeles Magazine), Goldman offers advice like, “Remember that Hollywood makes no sense. Remember that movies began as entertainment for illiterates.” The essays span the nineties and comment on dozens of studio films that were released in that decade.
The book is laced with Goldman’s humor and frank honesty: when he has a problem with a film, he pulls no punches. On Saving Private Ryan, for example, Goldman writes, “What the movie has to do is simple: get the rescue squad going after the kid. The Spielberg of Raiders of the Lost Ark would’ve taken maybe a minute to set that up… after more uninteresting stuff, forty minutes the movie, Hanks’ squad finally sets off on their odyssey to find Private Ryan.” He raves about the ensuing hour, then opines, “Guess what: the rest of the movie is a disgrace.” He deconstructs the inconsistent motivations of the characters, puzzles over the dying words of the Hanks character (“My only explanation is this: Spielberg was up half the night before reading Philosophy for Dummies and he wanted to inject that nugget into his flick”), and points out why it is absolutely impossible for the Matt Damon character to be the old man at the cemetery in the bookend scenes. Ouch.
Some of the essays offer glimpses into the minds of studio execs: Goldman conducts informal surveys every year before and after the Oscars to get predictions and hindsight commentary from various unnamed Players. Goldman concludes that more than ever, “Nobody knows anything.”
Even more than the Goldman books, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind (an exploration of Hollywood politics) is a vivid reminder that screenplays do not exist in a theoretical void. Movies are made by real human beings who are sometimes brilliant, sometimes flawed, and always susceptible to stress and pressure.
Biskind investigates the major Players from the late sixties to the early eighties. Based largely on lengthy firsthand interviews, the book more often than not delves into tabloid-style scandals: Coppola’s taste for multiple girlfriends on location while making Apocalypse Now, the crushing low morale throughout the filming of Jaws, and such. No matter which anecdotes you perceive as apocryphal, the book offers a sharp contrast to the glittering front that Hollywood shows the public via studio tram rides and press releases.
Hollywood Parties: A Schmoozing Taxonomy
“If you’ll excuse me, I should really be talking to people who are somebody.” This bit of dialogue punctuates a scene from the television series Angel. Cordelia, an aspiring actress at a swank Hollywood party, delivers the line just before she vanishes into the crowd to schmooze anew. I was reminded of the scene at a party in Beverly Hills this weekend: an aspiring actress chatted with me for approximately twenty-three seconds, found out I was a writer, and swiftly merged back into the crowd in search of producers and casting agents.
I don’t blame her. There is no distinction between working and socializing in Hollywood. Every party is a chance to meet people who can advance your career, and a common belief is that it’s healthy (if not polite) to extricate yourself from conversations the moment you ascertain that you don’t want the business card of your new acquaintance. I take the more diplomatic approach of talking and joking with whoever’s around… after I’ve collected a business card or two. After all, today’s bartender may be tomorrow’s studio exec with Greenlight Authority. Karma is magnified within the coyote-infested Hollywood Hills.
Below, I have sketched three different types of parties and my experiences therein. Of course, schmoozing is hardly an exact science, and most parties are variations on these broad profiles.
1) THE ALLY POW-WOW: A small, intimate gathering of friends and acquaintances with few or no outsiders.
A friend was recently house-sitting for a producer, and she invited a half-dozen
fellow writers over for a poolside dinner. The Black Tower loomed a few blocks away, and the Universal Studios logo hung in the sky like a second moon after the sun went down. We chatted and laughed about non-industry matters for the majority of the evening, but vital tidbits of info were traded here and there. I’d recently spoken with a producer who was looking for historical dramas, a genre in which I don’t write, but I passed along the tip to a friend with an amazing historical spec in her portfolio. (She followed the lead, sent a query, and got the producer to read the script.) Someone else’s friend had just become an agent at a well-respected boutique. We swapped opinions about the managers who had participated in a panel discussion at UCLA that week. We debated which films in current release are must-sees and which are wastes of valuable time. (The Virgin Suicides got high marks from most present.)
These casual get-togethers are useful for pouring good karma (in the form of useful contacts and other information) into a pool of communal resources. In return, you receive information from your trusted allies.
2) THE MINGLER: A larger affair with many strangers, some of whom are worth querying with letters that begin “We met at so-and-so’s party Friday night.”
These are the parties where efficient, cordial conversations can yield many fresh contacts. Make a good impression, and try to carry on intelligent discourse about something other than movies. Save the film-chat for the query letter you’ll mail out the next day.
3) THE POWER ZONE: Much like the Mingler above, but with a higher concentration of well-connected executives, producers, directors, and writers.
Recently, I attended the premiere of a studio film. At the post-screening party in a swank Westwood bar, I mostly just mingled silently and eavesdropped, catching snippets of conversation like: “We’re finally on hiatus, so I can finish up my feature script and shop it around.” “That guy over there: what’s his name? He played the science teacher in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” “They offered you how many points? What an insult!”
The night turned out better than I could have hoped when a filmmaker I admire (and had spoken with before) extended an offer to read one of my scripts. I was floored, and I thanked him. “You hear so many stories of Hollywood being so cold and inaccessible,” I said. He’d observed my respectful, professional behavior for several months, and so he was treating me with respect in return.
It takes dozens of hours of networking to get to such moments, but the visceral thrill is worth it. Move west and pan for gold. Get out there and schmooze, and drop me an invitation to your next party.
A Night of Staged Performances at the UCLA MFA Showcase
I can smell free food from up to seven miles away. Platters of free cheese, crackers, croissants, and grapes have distinctive scents that cut through the Los Angeles smog and activate special receptors in my nose.
Unfortunately I live more than seven miles from the Geffen Playhouse on Le Conte Avenue in Westwood, but my friend Fernley invited me to the June 12 UCLA Master of Fine Arts in Screenwriting Showcase. I would have gone even without the promise of free cheese and gourmet coffee, for UCLA events are fun schmoozing free-for-alls somewhere between Type Two and Type Three (see the May 2000 operational definitions). Also, the Showcase itself sounded cool. It’s an annual event in which excerpts from five screenplays are performed on stage for the benefit of studio executives, producers, agents, managers, and other interested parties. The scripts are selected in a competition among the students in the UCLA MFA in Screenwriting program. (A script that won in 1996, The Affair of the Necklace by John Sweet is now in production with Hilary Swank starring.) The scheduled host was Mike Werb (co-writer of Face/Off). In 1999, James Cameron was a featured speaker.
I cancelled my plans to play “toss the toy mouse” with Alley Cat that evening and headed into Westwood.
Before the event started, the lobby was awash with pro writers and agents. UCLA veteran Sacha Gerasi (The Big Tease) worked the crowd and joked around, as did Screenwriting Department Chair Richard Walter. Fernley (who won the UCLA Advanced Professional Program in Screenwriting competition) spotted Michael Colleary, with whom he had studied in a workshop class.
I eyed the empty tables along the far wall. The free food apparently would not be dispensed until after the event.
Minutes later, the doors opened, and the crowd filled the auditorium.
Richard Walter and Dean Bob Rosen greeted the crowd and then turned the microphone over to Mike Werb, who made a few jokes at the expense of studio executives. Adopting the tone of Haley Joel Osment (the actor who plays the kid in The Sixth Sense), he said, “I see illiterate people. They’re all around. They don’t know they can’t read.” He explained that Showcase offers a chance for non-reading execs to actually see the material performed by actors. If they like what they see, they can have their assistants read the complete scripts.
Each performance lasted approximately fifteen minutes, or about to the end of the first act if you subscribe to the Lew Hunter paradigm of seventeen-page Act Ones.
In between the staged performances, host Mike Werb implored the producers and execs in the audience to snatch up the material. After the final performance, Werb introduced this year’s recipients of UCLA’s lifetime achievement awards. Standing ovations greeted Madelyn Pugh Davis & Bob Carroll Jr. (most famous as the creators and writers of I Love Lucy) and Ernest Lehman (screenwriter of North by Northwest, Family Plot, The King & I, The Sound of Music, Somebody Up There Likes Me, The Inside Story, Black Sunday, and many others).
Bob Carroll Jr. joked that after fifty-three years of writing together, he and Madelyn had nearly split up the previous night while bickering over what sort of remarks to make to the UCLA crowd.
Lehman addressed the aspiring screenwriters in the audience; he said he wished he could impart a magic shortcut to success, but there is none. “I hope you’re lucky enough to lose all the right battles,” he said.
Werb then invited everyone to enjoy the “marginal food and even more marginal booze,” and the crowd flooded the lobby.
I enjoyed plenty of brie, brin, and bresse bleu. The cheese was so good that I cursed myself for not bringing Tupperware n my briefcase. Still, it would’ve been a fine night even without the refreshments. How often do you see an auditorium full of people who have gathered to honor screenwriters?
AFTERWORD – July 2017
As you process the rambling advice that I dispersed throughout Culture Shock: Life in Los Angeles, keep in mind that some of these insights remain relevant while other observations are outdated now, over one and a half decades beyond the turn of the millennium.
The UCLA exercises that I describe in the February & March 2000 sections are still useful thought experiments for those who seek insight into the construction of tales for the screen.
Those who seek to earn a living in the film industry can still gain a substantial edge by living in Los Angeles, though in this era of PDFs and email and Skype and cell phones, it’s more possible than ever to write and network and have a career as a screenwriter from anywhere on the globe.
I miss the atmosphere of Hollywood. I miss the copious revival screenings and other events at venues like The Egyptian Theatre. I miss the corner of Franklin & Tamarind (where The Bourgeois Pig coffee shop still sells an array of beverages and foods). I miss the comrades I met at UCLA. I sure miss those Humanitas seminars.
Most relevant in the present: my October 1999 advice about the need to experience life now and then (when not holed up in front of the computer writing fresh scenes or pacing and muttering while jotting handwritten notes). If I had my time in California to do all over again, I would enjoy more live music, more spontaneous conversations with strangers, and additional hikes through Griffith Park. I would spend less time hunkered down in my rental unit for days on end, reading and writing and watching movies. Ironic that I dispense such advice from my native Ohio in 2017, as I now lean toward staying in as much as possible. Hell, I’m 46 years old and have aching muscles and mental traumas to process; I was young when I wrote these journal entries, and some would say that 46 isn’t all that old, but I feel ancient and often snarky. I crave and require solitude more than ever.
I’m glad that I wrote the May 1999 piece about the atmosphere in the streets during the final hours before The Phantom Menace premiered. Reading that section brought back memories that I didn’t document at the time, memories of striding down Hollywood Boulevard just before sunrise after I’d attending a 3 AM screening of the first Star Wars prequel. Here in my twilight years (mid-40s), I no longer have the courage for such antics; I dread the thought of ever setting foot in California again, for I fear the inevitable massive earthquake that some seismologists predict. If I were in my old neighborhood again, I sure wouldn’t stride alone down Hollywood or Sunset in the wee morning hours. What was I thinking? The canister of pepper spray that I kept in my pocket back then gave me a sense of security, and I feel fortunate that I never had to douse any muggers. I roamed around on foot (and used public transportation) throughout most of my seven years out west; I owned a car for part of 2001 but ultimately found I liked walking and taking the bus better than driving.
I still love cinema, and in 2017 I’m wiser than I was during my 90028 existence.
I’m thrilled that home video technology has advanced so much since the bygone days of square televisions and VCRs. The modern Internet? Fabulous!
As I reflect on my journey from Ohio to Southern California and back, I have few regrets.
Now get the hell off my lawn while I hole up and craft some fresh scenes.