On one of my early career assignments, I became acquainted with an older, gregarious producer who, by my count, had made nearly twenty movies without a single one having been a hit until his most recent. And but for one of the films that was considered a quasi-cult classic, the rest were as unremarkable as stucco houses in Burbank. Studio flotsam. Not the first producer a writer would want to fall in business with. Still, the old pro had sold the assigned project to the studio. Not to mention he was a big fan of moviedom’s fresh flavor of the minute. Otherwise known as me.
This old producer – let’s call him Mr. Hollywood – was a repository of Tinsel Town tales. Meetings with the man were twenty percent business, eighty-percent studio gossip, and usually as entertaining as a team of monkeys playing basketball on roller skates.
The first sign that the usual laws of physics didn’t apply to Mr. Hollywood became clear to me upon my return from a research trip. I’d already sealed the gig, signed the contract, and cashed the commencement check. All that was left to get my green flag to type “fade in” was a sit-down with the studio boss where I was expected to give a reportage of my adventures in one of society’s nastier underbellies. It must’ve been a slow day in Studioville, because there were three extra VPs and even more creative execs assembled for the “pitch.”
“Pitch?” I asked. “You said this was just to talk about my trip.”
“Sure, sure,” said Mr. Hollywood. “But you’ve got characters and a story to tell, right?”
I’d sketched some characters and the basic story beats, but had nothing that I felt was yet presentable in such a forum. I scraped the recesses of my mind wondering if I hadn’t gotten the memo. Panic formed in my arteries.
As the meeting unfolded, my blood pressure normalized as the studio boss kept his inquiries brief and to the subject of my research. I entertained the room with tales from my week exploring the underside of the script’s subject. Twenty minutes. In and out. And I was off to write. Hurrah.
The studio boss was rising from his chair to shake my hand when Mr. Hollywood, in a moment that escapes good sense, had to make himself heard.
“Doug. Tell ’em about the two characters,” encouraged Mr. Hollywood.
Okay then. The studio boss reseated himself and politely listened as I casually laid out my Romeo and Juliet characters. After which Mr. Hollywood asked me to talk a bit about this story beat followed by that set-piece scene and “the cool second act twist” I’d only contemplated up to that point. And while answering my producer’s rat-a-tat queries, I tried like hell to keep the narrative in context for the rest of those held captive. It was excruciating. With every question asked out of context, I worried my answers made the story sound like an incomprehensible slush of action, corruption, and romance.
Writer’s nightmare #384: Pitching a story that confuses. Only in this bad dream, the befuddlement was caused by my own producer who didn’t know when to shut his yap. Then as if every soul in the room, including me, was in sync ‑ thinking the same damn thought ‑ Mr. Hollywood said it aloud:
“I’m confused,” he said in the most bewildered way.
That’s it. We’re sunk, I thought. Return the new car I’d just paid cash for. The studio lawyers were going to ask for the check back before lunch.
“I think Doug has it figured out,” said the studio boss in a moment of utter mercy. And with that, the meeting was over.
But for me, it was just beginning.
Once I’d completed a first draft of the screenplay, I had my first “notes meeting” with Mr. Hollywood in the kitchen of his Beverly Hills home. With a constant supply of Dr. Pepper within quick reach, he pored over his copious and confusing notes, each thought represented by a red scribble in the script’s margins and in every available white space. And I’m talking on EVERY dog-eared page.
Holy Crap, I thought. The man not only had issues on every page… but thoughts that could only be quantified by the linear inch. Mr. Hollywood took over four hours on a sunny, Southern California Saturday afternoon to go through his screenplay notes. We continued on Sunday.
But upon reflection, were the notes so damaging?
None were really attacking the macro. Zero questioning of character or story. Most were of little or no consequence, confined primarily to word choices and phrases he found… well, confusing.
“Does it really have to say that he ‘twists the cap’ on the Coke bottle?” asked Mr. Hollywood. “It breaks up the dialogue and I get lost.”
“No,” I’d say. “I guess I could change that.”
“Now right here,” Mr. Hollywood explained about another one of his notes, “You write that he ‘smashes the man’s face into a toilet bowl filled with piss and cigarette butts.’”
“It’s just gross. I don’t need to read about piss and toilet bowls. It’s yucky.”
“Now I don’t get this here,” he said. “You introduce her as a dancer. But later on page forty-eight she’s working as a cocktail waitress in a nightclub. Now which is she? A dancer or a waitress?”
“Both.” I tried to explain the obvious. “When he first sees her, she’s practicing her dance. But dancing doesn’t pay her bills. So later, we discover she’s working at this club as a –”
“You don’t find it confusing?”
And so it went. On and on and on. From one crimson scrawl to the next.
Now, for the wannabe writers out there who are gagging while reading this – or even worse – terrified that one day your most molecular choices will be put to a similar test, let not your hearts be bothered. Not since working with Mr. Hollywood have I been at the receiving end of such bizarre and compulsive notes. And though so painstaking a Frenchman might’ve rightly screamed, “Enculer une mouche!” none of the changes mattered a whit to the tale, let alone the true readability of my written work.
Fade up a few years later. I’m seated at a movie premiere, only minutes before the lights are about to be extinguished. Next to me are the pair of seats my attorney has asked me to save for him. Unfortunately, because my lawyer is caught in a quagmire of schmooze taking place at the rear of the theater, those two empty cushions to my left are becoming harder to hold.
“Are those taken?”
Yes. There he was. Mr. Hollywood. Hoping to find a decent last-minute place to rest his butt is none other than that friendly blow-hard who’d employed me not so long ago.
“Oh, hey Doug,” said Mr. Hollywood, finally recognizing me. “Can me and my wife sit next to you?”
Before I could say I’d been saving the seats, Mr. Hollywood and his sprite of a wife are doing their best to avoid stepping on toes as they make their way to the pair of empties next to me.
The lights go down. The reels spin. And the movie premiere is underway. But as soon as the story is unwinding Mr. Hollywood nudges me and begins to half-whisper questions.
“Why do you think the boy wants those ice skates?”
“Just the first reel,” I said, quite hushed. “I’m sure we’ll find out eventually.”
“I’m lost,” Mr. Hollywood said only minutes later. “Is she his wife? Or are they just shacking up?”
“I dunno. Let’s just watch the movie and find out.”
That’s the way it went. Thoughout the entire movie. Questions about story. Questions about dialogue. As if while watching the actual movie, Mr. Hollywood had his ballpoint pen and was trying to write every little confusion and query in red ink somewhere outside the movie’s sprocket holes.
I began to openly wonder how this man ever got through school, raised scads of very bright and literate children, let alone mounted a very successful career as a film producer. Whatever undiagnosed malady ailed him seemed entirely antithetical to his job. Yet he’d persevered.
One simple word. Hustle. Mr. Hollywood was, simply put, one helluva salesman. What he lacked in cinematic or narrative acumen he had more than made up in a ferocious tenacity.
This is when I learned this very powerful truth about success. That purely relentless people will usually outshine the equally talented by their sheer force or will. And that for the talented to survive in show biz, they must learn to compete or otherwise see their dreams fizzle and fail.
For years and years following that early assignment, I’d bump into Mr. Hollywood. Usually at a screening of some kind. I’d be saving seats for somebody and moments before the lights were set to dim.
“Hey look. It’s Doug,” Mr. Hollywood would usually say. “Are you saving those seats for us?”
Read my new thriller, THE SAFETY EXPERT. Available in trade paperback and ebook at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.