I was on my way from lunch to meeting at Paramount when my agent at the time called to inquire if I’d be interested in meeting a particular movie star to discuss a picture he had in mind. My agent said it was a passion project for the actor, but with solid commercial prospects in the growing international market. Either the mobile connection was lousy or the Bluetooth in my car was channeling those little green men Jodie Foster was after in Contact. I turned down a side street, found parking and redialed. My agent picked up on the first ring.
“So what part didn’t you hear?”
“Think I got most of it. Movie star. Passion project. Foreign prospects. What’s the one liner?” I asked.
“Dunno. All I know is it’s about racing or something like that.”
I’m not much of a race fan. Cars, horses, go-carts, airplanes. If it’s a seemingly endless loop of left hand turns, I get bored faster than you can say Herbie Fully Loaded. Still, movies are about characters. And if I could find an angle of attack, I was more than willing to be a convert. That and I was a big fan of the movie star.
“Okay,” said my agent. “We rep the producer and the director. But another agency reps the star. Okay if I give them your number so they can explain it?”
“No problem,” I said.
I hung up my mobile phone and continued east on Melrose when, nary two minutes later, the phone rang again. I answered. More static, along with an indistinguishable voice that sounded like it was coming from Jabba the Hut’s wine cellar. I said it was a bad connection and to please call back. I hung up, and no sooner had I found an empty meter and set my parking brake than my phone trilled again. I switched off the wireless and answered. As expected, it was the movie star’s agent. He was one of those serial speed-talkers, who was quick to the point so he could clear me off his sheet and move on to his next victim.
“Okay. It’s racing movie. There’s a producer and a director but we both know that it’s all about the movie star.”
“Yeah. When isn’t it?” I joked.
“Listen. I can tell you about it or you can see it for yourself.”
“Thought you knew. There’s a DVD. A sizzle real from a documentary the director made.”
“So the director is a documentary filmmaker?” I asked.
“Yeah, yeah. But it’s about the star. Get him in your pocket and you’re all good to go and pitch the five studios who want to be in business with him.”
Like I hadn’t heard that before.
“So you’re sending me a DVD?” I asked.
“Yeah. Better the DVD than the script.”
A script? This was news. Professional screenwriters like to know if producers or agents are talking about an original script or a rewrite. And often when it’s a rewrite, they don’t tell you until you’re more than a little pregnant with the idea.
“I hadn’t been told there was a script,” I said.
“It’s not technically a rewrite,” said the agent.
Now, this I had to hear.
“Look,” said the agent. “You can’t repeat this to him, okay? Because I’m his agent, I can’t exactly tell him the truth.”
“The star wrote the script?”
“Him and the director.”
At this point, I was already prepped to pass. Too many early qualifiers by an agent almost always means the situation is untenable, impossible, and a good reason to change my phone number.
“Your agent will back me when I say this. And I didn’t officially say this, knowwhatImean?”
I did. Sort of.
“But the script that (the movie star) wrote is the shittiest script ever written.”
“That good, huh?” I said, hoping to add some helium to the moment. Plus it was time to wrap it up. My meeting at Paramount was in ten minutes.
“It seriously is the worst screenplay ever written,” said the agent. “I’m not lying. Unreadable. Just watch the DVD. If you think there’s a cool movie there, I’ll set up the meeting.”
Whatever. I said goodbye, attended my meeting, drove home in the usual why-did-I-book-a-late-afternoon-meeting-at-Paramount-traffic, and arrived home to discover an agency package atop my mailbox. Ugh, I thought. Not the least bit curious about the contents, I stuffed it in my backpack and forgot about it for two weeks.
(Note to my blog fans who generally appreciate that I’m not usually so stingy with printing names: No. I haven’t changed my tack or forgotten my credo to Tell the Truth Because it’s Easier to Remember. In this particular case, I happen to like the movie star. He’s a genuinely sweet soul and I don’t care to embarrass him. So for the sake of protecting his industry stature, I’ll keep referring to him as “the movie star” and the others as “the director” and “the producer.” Onward.)
Fade up in Telluride, Colorado. My family and I are away on spring break as guests of friends with an amazing house on the slopes that I could never hope to afford. As I warm myself by the fire, I reach into my backpack for the book I packed and lo and behold, there’s the agency packet I’d deposited weeks earlier. Curious, I tear it open and out slip two discs and the aforementioned dubious screenplay. The first DVD was the five-minute sizzle reel I’d been promised. The other disc was the full-length documentary. Why not, I said. I jacked the sizzle reel into my laptop, strapped on my headphones, and received a five-minute primer on a kind of racing I wasn’t at all familiar with.
I found the initial DVD compelling enough to give the actual documentary a spin. Ninety minutes later, I was hooked. I found the sport visually arresting and the characters both exotic and full of wonderful human defects. Filled with a rush of optimism, I next reached for the script. I mean, how bad it could it be if it were based in such a riveting world?
Okay. So you’re ahead of me.
The reading experience was indescribable. I can’t say I’d ever read anything so God-awful. Sure. About every ten or so pages there was some pretty intense racing action crow-barred in just to break up the buddy-whoring-slash-cocaine-cowboy-lesbian-threesomes-fantasy that, in my view, appeared to preoccupy the writers to some kind of anti-literary distraction. There was no story. Zero characters in which to find even a casual rooting interest. And nothing that related to that damned fine documentary I’d viewed only hours earlier.
“Can’t say he didn’t warn you,” said my agent. “The worst script every written, right?”
I explained how disappointed I was considering how ebullient I’d been about the potential I’d found in the accompanying DVDs.
“So look,” said my agent. “They want to have dinner with you. The movie star, the producer and the director.”
“Oh right. That won’t be awkward.”
“Forget the script. Pitch the movie as you see it.”
“Pitch the movie as I see it?” I repeated. “To the writers who wrote it?”
“They know their script sucks. That’s why they want to partner with you.”
I said I’d think about it. While I slept I let my subconscious wrestle while in a dream state. The fantastic movie I saw in my head, starring a great actor I truly admired—versus the script I’d just read. Did I have the stones to break bread with the writers who also happened to be the director and that much admired star?
Telluride sits in the Southern Rockies at ten thousand feet above sea level. So I blame the altitude and my oxygen-starved brain. A dinner date was inked with the star, the director, and the producer. And a week later I was meeting with the power trio at an Italian joint in Brentwood. We drank plenty and had loads of laughs. The movie star proved to be a guy’s guy with a hysterically ribald sense of humor. His friend, the documentary director seemed easy going enough. And the producer was there to keep pouring grease on the gears with more bottles of wine. Eventually, we arrived at the subject at hand. I pretended to have never read the horrible script and pitched out a movie inspired by the documentary. The movie star was gassed by my approach and we went on to discuss the movie possibilities for another hour. The producer was thrilled. The director, I noted, barely uttered a syllable.
The producer walked me to my car, telling me all the way how awesome the evening seemed to go.
“The director didn’t seem too happy,” I said.
“Oh, he’ll come around,” said the producer. “He’s nowhere without the star and the star digs where you want to take it.”
The next day, the director phoned me. He confessed that he knew the script wasn’t all that good, which was precisely why they needed me to come on board. We agreed to meet the following week at Junior’s in Westwood to discuss how best to proceed. By then I’d sketched a simple outline of the story I’d pitched over dinner. Despite the director’s continuous claims that he needed me, I could sense a weird discomfort leaking from him as we discussed characters and how I planned to structure the new story. It was as if he were putting a Herculean effort into exhibiting this peaceful warrior exterior as I was describing in excruciating terms how I planned to remove his spinal cord without anesthesia or an epidural block.
After breakfast, I called the producer and put forth a simple question:
“Is this the director’s very first script?” I asked.
“Yeah. Think it is,” he said. “Why do you ask?”
“I was afraid of that,” I told him. “Gotta strong feeling it’s not gonna work out with him and me.”
“Naw. Stick with it,” the producer begged. “Once the movie star figures the director isn’t able to get with the program, he’ll dump him for someone who does.”
“Sorry. Not my job to be the wedge that busts up their friendship,” I said.
The producer argued. But I insisted on sticking with my instincts to run far, far away.
I explained that a first screenplay is rarely written with much skill or craftsmanship. Good or bad, a virgin script pretty much finds the page as if directly etched from the writer’s own DNA. It’s about genetics. The same reason tigers can’t change their stripes.
It was my opinion that there was no way this talented, well-meaning director could ever get past someone toying with his internal wiring. Let alone direct a subsequent screenplay with any veracity.
As far as I know, nothing’s ever happened with the project. I’d like to say I’ve moved on. But I sometimes wonder what could have been.
Read my new thriller, THE SAFETY EXPERT. Available in trade paperback and ebook at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.