Writing screenplays has often been likened to a Cervantes-esque quest in which a phalanx of word wranglers wield their laptops like lances and bravely tilt themselves toward windmills emblazoned with names such as Warner Brothers, Paramount, and Twentieth Century Fox.
That said, it’s really not quite the foolish quest of Don Quixote. After all, every once in awhile one of those screenplays gets turned into a hit movie. Careers are launched. The doors of Hollywood swing as wide as the arms of a welcoming mum. I ought to know. Such a fairy tale happened to me.
Twenty-five years later and with more than a couple of movies notched in my desk, plus four published novels and a weekly blog, the question I’m usually asked goes something like this:
So if you write movies, why books and blogs too?
One. Because I’m not a one-trick-pony. And two, because I flat-out must produce work printed on paper other than three-hole-punch; otherwise I might end up perforating something else—namely somebody soft, warm, and with a name like this guy:
“Hey, Doug. It’s Milton,” said the studio executive on the other end of the phone line.
Okay, folks. For starters his name’s not really Milton. I changed it to protect the guilty…and myself, considering I don’t plan to show this bozo any literary kindness.
“Hey, Milt,” I replied, pleased to finally get the man on the phone.
It was a Wednesday morning. And it had been five days since I’d delivered the studio the first draft of the screenplay they’d purchased from a pitch. Milton, the senior vice-president on the project, had been hounding me for an early delivery and seemed damned pleased when I’d messengered the script to his house on the previous Friday. Though, when Monday came around, I knew enough and possessed enough patience not to pester him for a response.
“So I read it,” said Milton. “And I gotta say, I’m pretty damn happy. But I have some thoughts.”
Of course you do, I said to myself. If you didn’t have thoughts, you’d be a vegetable. Wisely, I kept the voice inside my head to…well…inside my head.
Milton walked me through a few of his overall notions, mostly which had to do with the main character’s motivation. Pretty basic stuff. I answered him by describing the character’s primal drive.
“Well,” said Milton. “Wouldn’t it have been good to put a scene somewhere in the second act to address just that?”
“There is a scene,” I responded flatly. I didn’t want to sound defensive, as Milton had once accused me of being argumentative to a fault. I believe he was only half correct. I was argumentative with him—a virtue he viewed as a fault.
“Whatever the scene,” said Milton. “It’s clearly underwritten.”
Underwritten? I’d been worried that the scene in question was too on the nose. As if I’d hit the nail too hard on the head. I went on to walk the executive through the scene he’d claimed to have carefully read. He chose to let the note hang while moving on to his next big thought, which involved an issue of clarity. Once again, I walked him through the screenplay sequence that, in my opinion, proved the logic point in a perfectly transparent fashion.
I began to wonder just how careful the exec had read the script. Two or three notes later, both concerning either character or story, I felt compelled to ask this question:
“Milt,” I said. “Gotta ask you. When did you read the script?”
“Just this morning,” he said. “Finished an hour ago. You’re the first call from my office.”
“Appreciate that,” I said. “But lemme ask this. Did you have yourself some fun last night?”
“What do you mean?”
“Were you out late? As in maybe you went to a party. Met some actress. Got a little lucky. And now you’re kinda hung over this morning.”
“No. Went to bed after Letterman’s monologue. I feel just fine. Why?”
“Because it doesn’t seem as if you gave the script your best read.”
“Read everything the same, Dougie.”
“Not a good sign,” I said. “Seriously. Did you read it quickly?”
“I’m a fast reader. You know that.”
“So you didn’t skim?”
“I don’t skim.”
“Where did you read it?”
“At the gym.”
“So you read my script while you were working out?”
“Not like I was lifting or anything. Read it on the StairMaster.”
“You read my script on the StairMaster?” I said, momentarily gob smacked that he’d admitted as much. “So what was your heart rate?”
“At peak? Dunno. One-forty. One-fifty.”
“Impressive,” I said, the sarcasm turned up to a Spinal Tap eleven, “considering most quality reading is done when your heart rate is at rest.”
“What can I say?” Milton said. “I’m not a normal reader.”
“That’s for damn sure,” I said.
That may have been the first time it struck me. I have an audience. But not just any audience. A very specialized audience. Uniquely talented.
My audience was named Milton.
Now, imagine this setting. Beverly Hills on a crisp, fall morning. It’s a Saturday. And I’ve just rung the doorbell of prolific Hollywood film producer who I’ll call Big Daddy.
“Hey, Doug. Glad you could come by,” said Big Daddy. He was still in his pajamas. Cotton flannel and plaid, I recall. “Thought we could do this in the kitchen.”
I followed the aging producer as he padded across his lavish Beverly Hills home. In the kitchen, we found seats at a large table built and polished out of antique planks onto which Big Daddy thumped a copy of my screenplay. Instantly I could see that every page of the script appeared to have been dog-eared with some kind of notation. Not unexpected. At least this fellah had read my screenplay. But as we began to work through his page notes, I could see that nearly every white sheet of paper had been bloodied with copious amounts of red ink. Not from misspellings or grammatical errors. But question marks.
“Now. This bit of description on page twenty-seven,” he’d say. “Must the room really need to be so damn dark?”
“Just setting a mood,” I said. “Figure that stuff would be up to the director.”
“Then don’t tell him and let the director make the choice,” he said. “Dark is depressing. I don’t like dark.” He flipped to another note.
“And right here. This action on page forty. ‘His head is slammed into a toilet bowl filled with cigarettes and piss,'” quoted Big Daddy. “Sounds ugly, don’t you think?”
“We discussed making a gritty, New York kinda movie,” I defended. “It’s only a line of description.”
“I hate the word ‘piss.’ Can you lose it?”
Three hours and one hundred and twenty pages of similar earth-shattering notes, we finally finished the session.
I could go on and tell you a detailed version of another time when a studio chieftain, after pillorying me for hours with nonsensical script notes, told me along with a veteran producer that if we secured Tom Cruise for the lead we could forget every lousy suggestion. But I think you get the point: that he, too, among many others, is my audience.
And before you think I’m cranking up my WGA volume to a writers’ mega-whine, you can shove that thought back where it came from. Because as a screenwriter, that’s the job. And sometimes it means writing for putzes like Milton and Big Daddy.
I write movies. Which are, for lack of a better description, artful schematics. Blueprints for others to eventually interpret or invest into a motion picture. That means, as a writer, my audience is primarily agents and managers and producers and directors and executives. They are my peeps—the consumers of my created product. Though some may find it a pleasure reading mine or another word jockey’s screenplays, none of my target audience can say they are pleasure readers. At least not in regard to that never-ending stack of scripts in their constant queue.
So I had to face this not-so-subtle fact. Reading, in the showbiz game, is work. Drudgery even—antithetical, I might argue, as to why most writers toil. We write to be read. Hopefully enjoyed. Even to later be complimented. But most importantly, we’d like to know that we entertained. That we told the story well. That the reader either laughed or was moved to tears or struck by some worthy emotion summoned by the strings of words we’ve chosen.
This is why I write books. And to some extent, pen my weekly blog. Because, as a writer, I want to reach an audience that is looking to be compelled by the story, pleasured by the sequence of my words, and/or delivered to a place and time and situation that is not their own.
So how’s that going for me so far? How the hell do I manage the obvious down shifts between screenplay and straight prose and essayist opining? Am I entertaining a reader or entertaining some Ivy League-schooled cut-out attempting to quantify my work into some marketable movie studio paradigm?
Find out next week with the conclusion of READ ME AND WEEP.