“Love what you’ve done so far,” says the studio executive. “Think we’re well down the road to a really great movie.”
“We owe you for another pass, so I’m going to slather you with this tired, lame-ass compliment and hope there’s enough lube left over to ease the friction as I bury you with an avalanche of ill-thought out notes produced by my collective of corporate minions.”
Yeah. I’ve heard this all before. I’m presently teed up in the studio executive’s historic office. Lord only knows—as well a conga-line of after-hours custodians—how many writers of how many classic films have been seated in the very corner sofa. Pencil poised. Ready to receive whatever comes next. Whether I fail or succeed at this next step in the process may hinge how fast I am on my feet.
Ah. The fleetness of foot question.
If we were kids, we’d think being fast on one’s feet had something to do with how quickly we could get from one side of the basketball court to the other. Or if we had the talent or speed skills to outrun a bully.
But we’re not kids. We’re adults. And how fast we are on our feet is a metaphor for our quickness of mind. How elastic and with how much alacrity can we calculate—or more importantly—recalculate.
Mathematically speaking, I’m a dunce. Sub-intelligent. Without a math teacher as my golf coach, I might not have graduated high school. Thankfully, I’m a writer. So my ability to quantify is relegated to the stuff that is story, structure, character, and dialogue.
But back to that studio office where I’m way quicker than you. That’s because I have to be. The reason is simple and practical. I’m in the hot seat in this executive’s lair. And I’m scared shitless I’ll be killed by the bell.
What is that? Glad you asked. Read on.
Whether it’s an idea, a finished screenplay or something in between, writers are constantly in the position of filtering the tsunami of ideas from others. Producers, directors and executives view themselves as creative contributors in search of a bettered or more commercial product. Namely, your movie. They’ve essentially taken on the roles of having been put on earth to make you a stronger, more successful, and higher paid writer. Cue the song from the Lego Movie soundtrack:
Everything is awesome…
Over the years, I’ve built a sophisticated filter fashioned from a constant fixation on my own intentions. Therefore any notes I choose to include in the next incarnation must fit or improve the narrative. Yeah. That sounds simple enough. Until I add to the calculus the low percentage of others’ ideas that are useful.
Generously speaking, it’s around fifteen percent.
Meaning eighty-five percent of those “golden” notes are basically worthy of the trash bin. Some writers might disagree. Some might believe there’s a pearl in each pile of poo and willingly dig until they discover the aforementioned gem… Or better yet, the germ of the bad idea. Other writers will stoically hear the horrible notion followed by an acknowledged smile or nod and scratch down some incoherent scribbling, knowing all along that he/she will ignore the bad idea whilst hoping to hell that the note givers will forget their own unsound missives.
In my opinion, this is not the wisest move. Some execs/producers/directors forget their vapid musings while an equal number think every evacuation of their bowels is worthy of artistic display. Simply put, they expect whatever bell they chimed to sound through loud and clear in the next pass.
How does one undo this? How do I and other pros perform the impossible? Ergo un-ring the proverbial bell? This is when it’s about speed and mental dexterity and knowing your script, characters and story in all their most elastic form. That bad note needs to be turned into a brilliant idea before the discussion ends.
“We have this big idea,” says the studio executive. “Instead of making it a buddy movie—you know, two guys who can only conquer adversity as a team—how about a battle of the sexes thing? Like Will Ferrell and Sandy Bullock.”
“So you want a guy/girl buddy movie?” I positively frame it, seeing if he’s serious about his bad idea or if it’s just a lousy error made from thinking aloud.
“It makes sense,” he continues. “How many times have we seen Will in a buddy thing? Will and Kevin Hart. Will and John C. Reilly. Will and Zach Galifianakis. Will and Mark Wahlberg. See what I mean?”
I do see what he means. And all too well. Somewhere, somehow, in a very recent conversation, either Will’s agent or manager or a fellow executive has repeated something that lands wildly between rumor and fact. Something that sounds like, “Will and Sandy ran into each other in the valet line at Mastro’s and decided they’d love to do something together.”
That’s just dandy. But up until now, neither Will Ferrell nor Sandy Bullock have once been mentioned to me or by me or by anybody else in the meeting or in memorandum. I hadn’t so much as pictured him or her in the idea we’re discussing and am certain they’d be absolutely wrong. And the tone and style of the movie I’ve already pitched and penned is something most would never have associated with either comic icon. Yet here I am, faced with not only un-ringing the Will Ferrell bell, but trying to erase Sandra Bullock or any other female co-lead association from this executive’s plans for my screenplay.
“I see where you’re going,” I say. “Sandy Bullock and Will Ferrell would look good on a one sheet.”
“That’s a comedy I can sell,” pounces the executive. “And really, if you think about it, it’s practically as simple as changing a character name. Scenes, structure, all stay intact.”
Now, I know the second this horrible idea passes his lips, it’s a massive re-write. Way beyond a global name change and some newly-minted descriptors. My urban buddy movie has suddenly turned into a romantic action comedy. If not in the executive’s mind, it surely would in the mind of others who would eventually enter the mix, especially the stars who would expect a script built around sexual tension and heat. Every scene would need to serve those principles. It’s a page-one screenplay blow-out which is guaranteed to kill everyone in the car if I don’t turn it around.
“Let’s go back to the original note,” I suggest. “You’re afraid the urban buddy movie bromance stuff is stock. Been there/done that.”
“Exactly,” says the executive.
“But the guy/girl action comedy vibe feels been there/done that too,” I continue. “There was that Jennifer Anniston and Gerry Butler thing. Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz. Katie Heigl and Ashton Kutcher. What was that called?”
“Killers,” says the exec. “Don’t remind me. My ex-boss green-lit that piece of shit and look at him now.”
“Where is he?” I tamely ask, knowing by the tone of his previous reply that wherever his former boss ended up is nowhere this executive would like to land.
“He’s following the advice of his lawyer,” says the executive. “Sitting on some beach with his thumb up his ass and waiting for the phone to ring.”
“Who doesn’t want to be on a beach?” I ask.
“Only beach I wanna be on is my own island after Gisele leaves Tom Brady.”
I politely laugh. Then shift gears back to the work at hand. Let’s see if I can make the third turn without skidding into the wall.
“What you want is something that doesn’t feel stock,” I continue. “Fresh and fast. Something that rings with ‘Holy shit, why didn’t we think of that?’ Right?”
“Always,” says the exec.
“I get that and I totally agree with you. That’s the bar. And I gotta clear it. That’s what this next draft is for. And if it’s as good as we both want it, every star in town will be throwing themselves at it.”
“Script’s really close,” chimes the exec. “I really love what we got. It just needs an extra push.”
So from there, I push. I elevate. As I listen to the rest of the notes I pull out all stops to make sure my urban buddy movie is something the exec will contemplate as entertaining and cool. I want to eliminate his need to mention Will Ferrell and Sandy Bullock in the same sentence.
All while I remain committed to my original narrative and characters.
Sound easy? Well, it’s not. Nor is it always successful. I once got fired off my own original movie about two brothers on an undersea adventure. After the studio boss and his missus had recently shared a cozy dinner meal with the very married Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan, he demanded that I turn my script into a vehicle to service the star couple’s desire to work together. I was unsuccessful in my salvage attempts. My movie project failed to launch and, shortly thereafter, the superstar marriage publicly sputtered to its predictable collapse.
To paraphrase the poet John Donne: Ask not for whom the bell tolls. Just dance like a mother****er until it tolls for anyone other than thee.