Picture this. I’m on the fourteenth floor of a Century City high-rise, anxiously rocking in place before a bank of elevators, hoping to hell the lift arrives before I lose my temper. Behind me, I hear two familiar voices. One is a producer I’ll call Big Daddy. The other belongs to a former A-List movie director of English extraction whom I’ll refer to as Señor Brit. I know that sounds like a bit of a contradiction. But it fits. Señor Brit still has the accent, but he’s well assimilated to life in Los Angeles, including a spa-bought perma-tan to go with the Santa Monica hacienda he now calls home.
I just want to crawl into the elevator. Take the ride down to the parking garage alone, climb into my Beemer, and wind my way back to the Valley, my suburban cocoon of comfort, not to mention my family, dogs, and about eight fingers of mid-shelf scotch.
“Overall, I think that went well,” says Señor Brit. “Not exactly how we planned it but… So what do you think, Doug?”
This is the part where I pivot, launch into the A-lister, grip him by the suede lapels of his Fred Segal jacket, and drive my legs until his skinny ass strikes the floor-to-ceiling window that separates us from the sunny and seventy air that permeates Southern California winters. His neck snaps rearward, his skull penetrates the glass, and his body follows, cartwheeling one hundred and forty feet before splattering across the pavement.
Oh. But I’m way ahead of myself. Let’s go back a month or so. I recall I was in the conga-line of cars queued up for the grade school pickup at the over-priced institution of learning in which my son and daughter were enrolled. My phone rang. It was my old friend, Big Daddy, the movie producer of a string of semi-hit films, none of which I will name here. He’d gotten his hands on a non-fiction book chronicling the roller coaster career of a rebellious teen girl who went on to become a legendary Olympic skier. His thumbnail description was enough to get me interested in a cursory read. A messenger delivered the tome to my house. I read it cover to cover in practically one sitting and called Big Daddy back.
“I’m hooked,” I said. “Not so much the athlete biopic stuff. All of that rabble seems pretty stock. What gasses me is father-daughter story. I haven’t seen anything like that before.”
“I figured that’d get you,” said Big Daddy. “You being the father of a young girl. How old is she now?”
Now, I know Big Daddy pretty darn well. And I’m certain the last thing on his mind when he imagined putting me together with the book hadn’t a lollipop’s lick to do with me being a parent. More than likely his thought process had more to do with which writers he could call without having to trouble himself with a gauntlet of agents and managers. Big Daddy was old school. And he liked to keep things familiar. That said…
“Now, there’s a director I’ve attached,” said Big Daddy. “Maybe you know him.”
Another old school move. Hook the writer first. Only to inform him later there’s a director attached. This meant there’d be an audition of some sort in my future. How did I know this? Because directors want choices. They audition just about everything they can. And not just actors and writers. Give a movie director the choice between Coke and Pepsi and he might ask if there are any other cola flavors he hasn’t yet considered.
This is when Big Daddy told me about Señor Brit. He and the English director hadn’t made any films together, but I could tell they had a relationship that was more than a quarterly lunch at The Grill.
“No,” I said. “Haven’t met him.”
“Well, would you mind having a chat with him about your thoughts on the movie?”
Translation. Would you mind pitching your take on the book to my director pal so he can choose between you and the three other writers I’ve hooked with this tale.
“Sure,” I said cheerfully. “I’d love to meet the guy.”
Days later, Big Daddy and I are in the backyard of Señor Brit’s Santa Monica hacienda, sipping iced teas, trading movie stories, sharing laughs at the expense of the hooligans who run movie studios. Eventually, I pitched Señor Brit on how I expected to adapt the book. What followed was kismet. Writer and director finishing each other’s sentences. Señor Brit and I were not just on the same page, we were married with our vision for the movie. You see, as it turned out, Señor Brit also had a daughter. Thus, our mutual and parental inspiration.
Feeling like a genius, Big Daddy rubbed his hands together. Half his job was already in the bag. He had both the writer and director onboard. All that was left to do was setup some meetings at movie studios ripe for our Olympic pitch, sit back, and let the magic happen.
Pitch numero uno.
Paramount Pictures. Big Daddy, Señor Brit, and yours truly gathered one afternoon, each of us working through our own mash-up of pre-pitch giddiness and nerves. The good news was that we were all pros. It was like playing pick-up basketball with any group of seasoned NBA stars. Divide the teams, blow the whistle, and watch us play. The studio, I was certain, didn’t have a chance against us. The trio of execs we were about to enchant with our tale might as well gang-call the head of business affairs and have him cut a development check before we so much as exited the Melrose gate.
After some of the usual chitchat, it was go-time. The usual dance when pitching with a producer is to let the big dog tee it up. This means the producer will usually begin the presentation by imparting a little history of the project before handing the actual storytelling over to the writer. In situations where both the producer and director are in the meeting, what’s required is a bit more dexterity. After the producer does his soft-shoe, the director might take a quick turn, flashing a few bits of red meat to get the studio salivating before handing the pitch off to the writer. Sometimes, though, a real clever director will remain eerily silent until the story is told, only to surge in after the writer’s close to add his or her own special sauce to the concoction in order to seal the deal.
So there we were, wedged into one of Paramount’s signature closet-sized VP offices. Big Daddy, a pro’s pro, begins with his little sketch of the movie, perfectly dusting off the plate for my turn at bat. Next, it was Señor Brit’s turn to charm the three executives seated across from us.
“So,” begins the director. “The screen is black. And we hear this thump, thump, thump of heavy rap music. Next, we see her eyes. We pull back, and there she is. Our Olympic skier. Headphones on. But we’re in her head. The music going. Thump thump thump. The sky is blue. Like chromatic blue. You know what I’m talking about. And the snow is so white it practically burns the film…”
Nice setup, I was thinking. He appeared to be dressing the table with some color and contrast before I thrilled them with the story.
“Now, it’s almost all POV stuff from here,” continued Señor Brit. “Looking out her goggles. Downhill. Skis. And that sound of the snow crunching on every turn. Faster and faster. Whoosh. Whoosh. Whoosh.”
Not that this is news to you, but much of storytelling is about timing. Not unlike delivering a joke. That and attention spans are short, especially at movie studios where meetings get stacked and racked like planes on approach to JFK. Big Daddy had done a bang-up job of warming the room for the story. And it would by my task to bring it home. But first I’d have to wait for Señor Brit to finish painting his own rambling pre-amble.
Ten minutes later…
“See?” continued the director. “I want to put the camera in the snow. On the skis. I want it to fly. With her. Because this movie is about flying. Not just flying for real. But flying from the heart. Because I’m telling you, I’ve seen the videotape. And when you see this movie, you’re going to believe that this woman can actually fly.”
“On skis,” added the Señor VP, glancing at his watch while looking for a way to kick the meeting over to me. The writer.
“On skis,” agreed the director. “Of course. She won’t really be flying. But you get my point. You see, this movie is about learning to fly. A father teaching his daughter.”
“Exactly,” I said, hoping to launch my portion of a presentation that was bordering on top-heavy. Señor Brit had already been going on for over fifteen minutes, directing—shot-by-shot—an opening sequence that had yet to be written, let alone described as part of a cogent, character-driven narrative.
“A father and daughter story,” continued Señor Brit as he attempted to tell my tale as if he’d concocted it somewhere between the parking lot and the main administration building.
Meanwhile, Big Daddy’s stare was burning holes through me as if Señor Brit’s directorial diarrhea was somehow my invention. I tried to shrug as inconspicuously as possible, yet could tell that my distressed body language had already been clocked by all three bored execs.
Twenty minutes into Señor Brit’s yammering, the Exec VP finally interrupted.
“Do you think we could ask Doug to tell the story?”
“Oh,” said Señor Brit, a bit lost in his own snow drift of monologue.
Finally, some thirty-five minutes into the meeting, the reins were handed over to me. Though I was tasked as the closer, I already knew we were sunk. Team Professional looked about as coordinated as three clowns changing underwear in a phone booth.
Once the meeting concluded and all the glad hands were shaken, I feigned an urgent phone call from my wife and slipped out to the parking lot ahead of Big Daddy and Senior Brit. This is because I was so smoking mad at the former A-list bozo that I wasn’t sure what might come out of my fire-breathing pie-hole. He’d single-handedly screwed over our chance at a sale because he was too intent on proving to the room he could direct.
I called Big Daddy from my car.
“What the hell was that about?” I steamed.
“I dunno,” said the producer. “Maybe he was nervous.”
“What does he have to be nervous about? I’m the one who’s supposed to tell the story. All you guys had to do was tee me up.”
“I think maybe because it was Paramount.”
“What about Paramount?”
“Well, that’s where he made his last picture. You know, the one that tanked. Big fat flop.”
“So what? He decides he’s going to direct the whole damn movie in the meeting? He does know he needs a script to direct, yeah? And if I can’t sell ‘em a story, there’s never gonna be a script.”
“Look,” said Big Daddy. “It’s only our first pitch. I’ll talk with him. Get it all smoothed out. He’ll be good by the time we go to our next meeting.”
Finally, I was beginning to chill. After all, it was just the first meeting. And even pros need a game plan and time to practice it.
“Where’s the next meeting?” I asked.
“Friday afternoon. Walden Media. Do you know where that is?”
“Century City,” he said. “Fourteenth floor of one of those high-rises.”
“Okay,” I said. “Let’s hope the next one goes better.”
Next week, the conclusion of THE MIGHT TO REMAIN SILENT.