In this particular post, I need to keep the names under wraps because some of the following are still “A” players. So for now, I’ll just say that an unnamed studio hired me to rewrite an unnamed script for an unnamed star. It was a two-step deal. One draft plus a set of revisions. I delivered on time and received good news. The studio was seriously jazzed and wanted to push toward production. That would usually mean a brief writing pause while they sought a director, followed by meetings, notes, and some relatively close supervision whilst I nudged the next pass closer to a start date.

But this was an unusual situation.

The studio, having felt burned by a variety of recent directors who’d steered scripts into story and budgetary oblivion, had an experimental business model they wanted to try. Shape the script without external input, set a start date, hire a talented helmer currently residing in “director jail,” and fire up the green light.

Excuse me? Did he say “Director Jail?” What the hell’s that?

Director Jail is a metaphoric condo complex for experienced filmmakers who’ve somehow crashed their careers due to some kind of cinematic flame-out. Usually, a big budget flop or two is the culprit. While serving time in the helmer hoosegow they can usually be found treading water in commercials or episodic television. Once released from the pokey, the theory goes that the reformed moviemaker is so grateful for the opportunity that he or she won’t mind being micromanaged by commissary staff.

The only catch for this word jockey was that I had barely five weeks to deliver a prep-worthy draft in order for the studio to start production and make their precious holiday release date. Cool enough. I informed the War Department (my wife) that I’d be spending nights and weekends in my office so please temporarily count me out of carpool duty.

As for the star, he seemed chill enough. That and while I was supposed to be executing a laundry list of studio notes he’d personally agreed to, he was scheduled to be well out of my way, filming another picture on foreign sod.

And so it began. I bike-chained myself to my desk and attacked the script. The studio notes, most of which I had to figure ways to retrofit into a screenplay the same execs had professed so much love for, required significant thought and rewiring, not to mention finding ways to keep the ripple effect of their notes from turning into a structural tsunami.

Then my phone rang. It was the movie star calling from his exotic locale. After a few days off from filming, he’d had a notion or two he wanted to discuss. Fine, I said. Let’s discuss. Only his notions were mostly dialogue related and in relation to the previous draft. Until I’d executed the studio’s macro notes, the dialogue earmarked for the star’s famed pie hole was pretty much irrelevant. Still, I made scribbles as to his thoughts, bid him a fond adieu, and continued on with my assignment. Until the next day when he called again. And then the next day. And the next day…

Note to writers who think screenwriting is like scrawling anything else… only a notch more glamorous. Sure, I suppose fielding calls from movie stars sounds like something worth fantasizing over. And to some with more shallow ambitions, I admit there’s a certain cache factor in working in those celestial orbits. But when that same big time actor is shoving his or her “genius” down your gullet, all the while unknowingly dismantling what you just constructed the day before, planet earth suddenly becomes the atmosphere of choice.

With my deadline fast approaching and the studio breathing down my neck, I worried that the daily distractions of Mr. Movie Star might hinder a successful delivery of the new script. So I packed a bag, gassed up my car and escaped to one of my preferred hideaways. The desert. Or to be more exact, the La Quinta Hotel Resort and Spa.

Before the War Department and I were blessed with a pair of attention-seeking, private-school-attending tax deductions – and I was crunched for writing time – I found I could double to triple my quality output by shacking up in a suite at a sunny hotel with an attached championship golf course. The routine went like this. Up at seven to a warm room service breakfast to write from eight until half-noon, followed by a sandwich and eighteen-holes of cobweb-clearing golf. Then a shower and dinner in my room, writing from six until midnight. Repeat the next day. It was usually a mash-up of gut-grinding and writerly bliss.

And the only person who knew where I’d vanished to was my beloved. Agents and the studio were both informed that I’d slipped away to better concentrate on the script. I turned off my cell phone, plugged in my laptop, and recommenced.

I know. You’re already way ahead of me. The movie star. He’d gotten used to stepping from whatever film set he was currently gracing, climbing up the steps of his air-conditioned trailer and dialing me for a little script confab between camera set-ups. Once he realized I’d shut off my cell phone, paranoia must’ve crept underneath his skull cap because he assigned his minions to spare no expense in digging me out of whatever hole I’d crawled into.

Then my wife called my hotel room. She told me both the studio and my agent had rung the house, urgently compelling me to call them back. What else was I going to do but as instructed?

“What’s so damn urgent?” I asked the studio exec.

“It’s (the movie star),” said the executive. “He’s flipping out that you’ve gone underground.”

“And to that you said?”

“That I didn’t know where you were. Which I don’t!”

“So we’re good then,” I said.

“Not at all. You gotta call him back.”

“I came down here to escape him. Calling him back would kinda fuck up the whole purpose.”

“Call him back.”

“How’s this?” I suggested. “You call him. Say that I’m executing this draft for the studio. And I promise the next pass will be just for him.”

“Why can’t you tell him?”

“Already have.”

“And?”

“And now I’m here.”

The studio executive cursed a blue streak, confessing to me this was a particular part of the job that he flat-out loathed. His bosses had passed the movie-star-management-buck to him. In essence, he was a lamb to the slaughter. Now he wanted me to wear the sheep’s clothes.

“Please,” he begged. “Why can’t you deal with this guy?”

“Here’s how I see it,” I said. “You, the studio, are paying me to deliver a draft suitable for budgeting. Plus I’m on a time clock. I need to construct your movie. Yet you want me wasting my time talking to (the movie star) who insists on de-constructing the very same movie.”

“Can’t you just hear him out, tell him what great ideas he has, hang up, then go back to working for us?”

“Last time I talked to him he wanted to see pages to prove I was executing HIS changes. Says he has a fax machine in his trailer.” With that I thought I’d rested my case.

That was me being diplomatic. What I really wanted to say was that managing the movie star was his problem. Not mine. And if he thought getting paid a mid-six figure salary wasn’t enough lubricant to ease being stuck between a rock and a hard place, maybe he should try sitting in a cold passenger van at three AM, trying like hell to pen clever dialogue while a hundred-man film crew looks on with blue-collar disdain.

“I’ll deal with it,” was the last thing I recall the executive saying.

An hour later, the room phone was ringing once again. I answered, expecting to hear either the voice of my wife or room service informing me that today’s roast beef had been replaced by braised pork loin.

Instead. I heard the familiar voice of the movie star.

“Found you.”

Next week Part II of A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE.

Read my new thriller, THE SAFETY EXPERT. Available in trade paperback and ebook at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.

Doug Richardson
Doug Richardson
Author and screenwriter. Books: THE LUCKY DEY THRILLERS: BLOOD MONEY, 99 PERCENT KILL, AND REAPER, THE SAFETY EXPERT, AND THE SMOKING GUN. Movies: HOSTAGE, BAD BOYS, DIE HARD 2.
  • Guineapiggypiggy

    How anyone working in those conditions doesn’t reach for the Xanax after the first week and start main-lining vodka to “balance it out”, I don’t know.

    What’s becoming more and more apparent is how little the writer is thought of by some of the people who rely so heavily on him.

    If writing is so damn easy, why isn’t the movie star you mention, or the studio that’s paying you simply writing the damn thing themselves?

    I am constantly flabbergasted by the meddling that goes into the script-writing procedure by people who simply don’t have it in them to trust the writer to come up with the goods.

    How does one cope and actually get the words down on the page when you can’t even go into hiding from persistent movie stars?

    • Movie stars generally don’t write because deep down they know they can’t. Why doesn’t the studio write it? Because that’s what they pay writers to do. That and they can’t write, either. Anyhow, it’s not about writing. It’s about power. No different at any other job. Those with power want to swing it around.

  • One method for dealing with people like this is to reach over and start pushing their buttons, ie, insist they could do their job so much better if they followed your suggestions. Granted, a person doesn’t always have time to figure out an effective and/or inoffensive way to do this. Perhaps you can take some comfort in the fact that this personality type exists in every vocation. If you’re lucky you don’t come across them too often.

    Looking forward to see what happens next.

  • Cortez Law III

    Wow! It takes a certain personality to deal with that type of scenario and Mr. Richardson, you’ve obviously got it. I too write books but keep my eyes and ears on the left coast just to remind myself if I so dare to engage my creativity in the biz, that this is what awaits. I like to keep those screenwriting chops as sharp as I can by adapting some of the more cinematic books I pen. Like sticking a pinky toe or two in the water, not the full bi-pedal immersion. I realize that avenue’s just as tough, though. Whew! I look forward to reading Part II on this one. Hurry up next week!

    • Suppose it takes all kinds of personalities. Successful screenwriters learn how to firm but pliant. I’ve been known to be more brittle than most. And never have learned how to take getting it up the a** without wanting to reciprocate.

      • Cortez Law III

        Understood. Rise above it and keep thrilling us with your talent.

        • Dunno about thrilling anybody. But I’ll keep writing. How’s that?

  • James

    OMG you’re giving me PTSD flashbacks from a writing assignment where the two producers had very different visions and who fought through me and apparently had Memento syndrome. Every meeting was a screaming match between the two of them- I might as well not even have been there.They both emailed me multiple times a day with story notes that made no sense and contradicted not only each other but the last email they sent. Every time I saw or heard the words “Why didn’t you >insert wildly inappropriate concept, note, line that was totally opposite to what I was asked to do<." Things began to get scary when one of them started with veiled accusations that I was making up the emaIls that I forwarded back to him showing he asked for something specifically and that's what I gave him. I still start shaking today when someone says "That isn't what I had in mind." or "I think we need to have coffee" in a menacing tone where by coffee we mean we found a great place to hide a body.

    • Yeah James. Feel your pain. But please don’t blame me for your PTSD therapy bills.

  • Great post as always Doug. I wanted to ask if you would consider writing a blog sometime about the gaping black hole that a nice, polished screenplay falls into once it has been optioned. What happens to a screenplay between getting optioned and starting shooting, and finishing shooting? How many rewrites are we talking about? How many script meetings are there typically, and who tries to change the script!
    Thanks,
    Jamie.

    • Gee whiz, Jamie. That’s not a blog post. That’s an entire book. That said, I might do something on development hell… though I think it might be the most oft written/griped about subject amongst fellow writers. If you’re looking to answers to your questions, there are none. Because there are no set rules. One rewrite, a thousand rewrites. A writer can never tell. I’ve worked on movies that have been greenlit after the first draft. And others that have taken fifteen years to reach the launch platform. I will, though, continue to answer all questions here. Thanks.

  • Em_Boogie

    I had a funny experience. I was asked to do a page one rewrite of a script, which, as per my contract I completed. I then started getting conflicting notes from the THREE producers on the project. One of the said. ” what does the hero learn from his journey?”

    I replied in large red letters. HE DIES!

    The response was… So he does.

    • Sounds like a blog story. If I run out of mine own, I might need to start using yours, Marvin.

  • Eva

    Wow! That’s just amazing. How stubborn can they get. You must be a very patient man.

    On a side note though, this seems straight out of a sitcom

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  • Pertinax

    Yikes, but funny. I can’t read this fast enough. Best part of it all, there’s more.