Saturday, April 12, 2014

#2. My first days at Warner Bros.

#2.  My first days at Warner Bros.

They were magic.

I spent them just walking around -- sound stages -- speeding golf carts  -- silent tinted-window Rolls Royces -- people in costumes -- secret quiet gardens -- feral cats darting through the weeds on the Camelot castle back lot.  Here, kitty kitty.

My new home, I thought.  This is me, I'm really here, walking on sunlight, somehow I got in the door, God I love this.

Can I have more, sir?

I was told I had William Faulkner's old office in the Writers' Building!  And since we were now almost buddies, I began referring to him as 'Bill.'  Hey, we were just alike; two American men from the South, both writers, both named Bill, both employed by Warners, both award winners.  He had the Nobel Prize for Literature and I had a 2nd place ribbon for the stake-and-water-race at Arizona's Little Outfit Summer Camp when I was nine.

Then, in the middle of this glory and happiness, a realization dropped the bottom out of my stomach.  It was like suddenly being an architect, never having gone to architecture school, never seeing blueprints, even a drawing-board.  You'd been hired because once you had driven past a house and then said a few mildly clever things about it in a ten minute meeting.

Oh shit, what do I do now?  I had no idea of what a script actually was.  I'd never even seen one.

So I asked Richard Moyer, the story department guy who'd helped hire me, for some examples.  I thought I would read one, then screen the movie that sprang from it.

The first one they could lay their hands on was "Jubal," a weird western with Rod Steiger.  I read.  I watched.  I still didn't get it.  So I asked the studio if I could keep doing it.  Sure, they said.  The screenings would cost my project $15.00 a piece; cheap enough.   So every afternoon after lunch in the commissary (where, unfortunately I discovered empty calories of dining movie stars and the deep fried Monte Christo sandwich), it was movies, Movies, MOVIES!

Old UCLA pal Rob Reiner was there with Phil Mishkin with a writing/producing deal before "All in the Family" and directing gigs stratosphered him, and they were often in attendance.  This is where I learned that a writer will do almost anything to Not Write.  Especially when watching movies is concerned.

Eventually, the studio brass heard about the afternoon gatherings; Chow Puppy's hillbilly salons.  The crowds were getting bigger and we were starting to bring popcorn and soft drinks and talk back to the screen in familiar scenes.  I think the old projectionists finally ratted us out.

After a few months of this (and no pages), management told me the aggregate costs of the screenings were over a thousand bucks. What?!  Apparently they hadn't said "fifteen" they'd said "fifty."  Also around this time, I realized I was spending more time arranging a lunch date than I was thinking about my Clay Allison western.  It was becoming a social event.

Up on the second floor of the Writers Building were me, Jerry Lewis, Walter Hill, David Giler, and John Milius.  Lewis, the great comic and director was a taciturn, shuffling ghost.  We learned much later he was constantly on pain meds from one of his early Dean Martin prat falls.  Walter Hill was prolific, spare, a former 2nd assistant director who once had dated my ex-wife.  Giler was raised in show business, an extremely charming, bright and very funny guy.  But to me, Milius was the most interesting.  And perplexing.

John was from the USC film school, a double-wide surfer, an NRA gun nut (if he didn't know Ted Nugent, he should have), a Libertarian conservative, with a ready broad smile under perpetually scowling eyebrows.  I think the most truck he had with me was his amazement that a long hair, bearded Pinko dog like me had once been fire direction control for 81mm mortars in the Marine Corps.  And had stood General "Chesty" Puller's last inspection.

John used to pad around the halls with Ginger, his German Shorthair Pointer hunting dog.  He had done a significant rewrite on surprise smash "Dirty Harry" and another page one rewrite on "Crow Killer" (released as "Jeremiah Johnson"), so he was a legitimate big deal.  If he could button-hole you in the hall or men's room, he would tell you a scene he was working on, looking into your face carefully to judge its worth, its power.  When he saw the first signs of MEGO (mine eyes glaze over), he knew he had to work it more and better.  Finally, he would dictate the scene to his assistant...until they had a whole script.  She would type it, he would read it once, and that was it for the first draft.

When John had delivered "Dirty Harry 2" to Clint Eastwood, the other writers in the halls had already heard many of the best scenes, acted out by John.  So we knew what he had was great.  I was totally in awe of the guy.  As barf-o-rama as I thought his politics were; John Milius was a writing mammy jamma!  

As John watched Eastwood read his script, his face began to fall.  Eastwood was smiling, sometimes even laughing as he crossed out line after brilliant line.  Finally, John worked up the nerve to speak. Clint, what're you doing?  These lines are great!

"I know, John.  I know.  But I don't look good talking.  I look good killing people." 


It was about this time, I packed up my Warner Bros. office, took the C. Puppy sign outside my door (still got it), and moved home for a while.  If I was ever going to get a grip on this, I needed quiet, my cats, no lunch distractions; nothing but me and Clay Allison. 

The day I first got fifteen pages was one of the best of my life.  I mean, they weren't all good but they were pages...and I got 'em!  This was still my only script, the time of wandering in the story's desert, half blind and frantic with fear and excitement.  I had no idea about structure; these were the days before mass script writing teachers Robert McKee,  William Froug, Syd Field, or their like.

So -- having no idea of a goal -- naturally I redoubled my efforts.  I emptied my lifetime pockets of good lines, God-I-wish-I'd-saids, cool things I'd heard about if not actually seen, and the revised stuff from great movies that I ransacked like a Pict.

Then I handed it in to Warners.  And heard nothing.  Then, nothing.  And finally, even more nothing. But my hard-charging agent had gotten me another job at Warners, a story about a military school insurrection, with director Jim Frawley, so I figured they must've seen something they kind of liked.

A few days later I was in an elevator in my agents building.  Two agents I didn't know were laughing, pounding a script they were sharing.  One would quote a line and laugh.  Listen, listen to this, Ben... and he'd read a line.  Then, one of them actually said the four sweetest words a writer can hear. "This shit is great!"

Only seconds before, gob-smacked, I had realized the script they were reading was mine: "Clay Allison, Down By The River."  The elevator stopped, they got off, and I nearly wept with relief.  I thought, you know, maybe I can do this for a little while.



Long before you see the movie in your local theatre -- before the studios fly to Hartford, Connecticut to, you know,  'borrow' the money from the insurance companies -- before they hire the actors, build the sets, get the cinematographer, the sound guys, the costumes -- before the publicists, the special effects -- before the dolly grips, the best boys (you always wanted to know what they were, I still don't know) -- before the juggernaut of production actually starts -- there has to be a script.

Ideally for me, it was always 117 pages, in which you will find the characters, where they are, what they say, how they are dressed, who they like, who they don't, what they are hiding, what they are doing, what they want, what keeps them from this need, and how they can overcome it.  In short, the story.


The screenplay is so important that, Akira Kurosawa one of the greatest directors who ever lived, said that a bad director with a great script could make a good movie.  But a great director with a bad script could only come up with, at best, a mediocre one.   So we love Akira Tokyo Dude!

Millions of people will see a movie yet only a few hundred will ever see the actual script.  But, believe me, this is where it all starts.  It's right there in the Holy Bible: IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE WORD.  I mean, who're you gonna believe, me and God or some fancy pants director or star on Jimmy Kimmel who said he did it all?

People understand this in a lot of different ways -- here's mine (courtesy of Jean Luc Goddard) in kind of a cartoon manner.

A man.  Well, you have to start someplace.

A woman.  Now, we're getting better.  So many stories have these two elements; love stories, thrillers, family dramas.  But on its own, still not enough.

A gun.  Now, we're talking.  We have just placed a classic and deadly item between the first two elements that can suddenly give us the start of a story.  And story is what movies are all about.  The same is true with plays, novels, TV, opera, our justice system, even religion.  A story that we can enter for a while and come out the other end, changed.  What kind of gun, whose is it, what happens to it?  Who gets their hands on it and who uses it?  And for what?  

Now, we are back to the three basic character questions of all drama: What am I doing, what do I need, what’s in my way?

See, drama is fueled by conflict, by contention, by general bad-assery.

There's not going to be much drama in a story about Billy Graham, Mother Theresa, and St. Francis. But if you introduce a true wild card, the elements of a story start to jell.  In your life, you want good people, gentle, kind, patient, and normal.  In drama, things have to seem normal.  But true normalcy is the death blow to narrative.  The metaphor for this is a peaceful day, small town, an average family, and sweet music.  Then the doorbell rings.

There on the front porch stands Andrew Ward (yes, his real name).

Until he escaped, Mr. Ward was in jail for stabbing his 12-year-old brother to death and is now being hunted for (and I am not making this up) the murder of his Maricopa County cell-mate who was beaten, stabbed in the eyes with a golf pencil, had his throat cut with a plastic playing card, his head smeared with peanut butter, with a plastic bag jammed down his throat.

Yeah, things get different real fast when ol' Andy shows up.  So invite him in.

Drama thrives on hate, jealousy, rage, bitterness, suspicion, and psychotic behavior of all stripe.  The worse it gets, the more yummy it is.  However, when it becomes too awful, to keep it from being comedic, sometimes you have to go back and hide some of these elements.  Which will fuel-inject the deep horror even more.  It's like the butterball turkey you're secretly loading with X-lax.  This will make for a shorter but much more interesting Thanksgiving dinner.

Put the sociopaths (real and imagined) in your life to sending them straight to your screenplay.  You will never be sorry. 


That's all for now.  But stay tuned for chapter three of the Chow Puppy's Hollywood adventures.  We will discover the tiny studio/suites above the Rexall across the street from Warner Bros and How I became a Drugstore Girl.  How I learned everything from a guy who won his Emmy directing The Monkees.  My afternoon encounter at 20th Century Fox with Gene Kelly.  Also more notes on the screenplay (cause you gotta dance with the one what brung ya).  And some stories about fame.  You don't want to miss the one about Jack Warden and Peggy Ann Garner.



  1. I remember visiting Bill at his new Warner Brothers office, back in 1970. As Bill writes, John Milius had an office in the same building. The walls were covered with maps of Vietnam. There were deactivated artillery shells and hand grenades placed around the office as decorations. Sorta G.I. chotskies. And replica military firearms, the really authentic-looking replicas then available from Slater Arms in Arlington Va. Milius was working on a screenplay for Francis Coppola's recently established San Francisco-based film company, American Zooetrope. A screenplay to be directed by either Francis' UCLA Film School classmate, Caroll Ballard, or former USC film student, George Lucas. The working title was…Apocalypse Now.

    PS: Godard once said…all you need to make a movie is a girl, a guy and a gun.

    PPS: Encountered Jerry Lewis on the staircase to the second floor, where he had his suite of offices. He was drenched in very strong cologne. I've always remembered that, that cologne was sorta like Proust's cookies…

  2. it was a great time. Down the hall from Rob and Phil was the Dirty Harry production office with me and WD Richter working as junior assistants to Irv Kirchner, who was producing and directing the movie before Clint. It was a Frank Sinatra project then!, and later CAA Uber agent Rhonda Gomez-Qinones was the receptionist.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. This stuff's amazing! I love the architect metaphor. Your stories keep astounding me with just how real Barton Fink was. Oh, and that a writer will do almost anything to not write: that is so, so true! (Why do we hate our own calling so much? Even when it isn't writing on demand.)

    John Milius--what a freak! (Had to look up who he was. Wow!) And how cool to read the verifying comments about him. The story of him and Clint Eastwood is priceless: "I don't look good talking." (If only he'd remembered to keep that in mind . . .)

    And, yes, of course I always want to know what best boys were. What a funny comment you had on that, even though unilluminating.

    How wonderful to have your value as a script writer confirmed by the great and powerful Kurosawa! (Maybe that explains the few, FEW bad ones among his countless masterpieces . . .)

    I sure agree about what to do with the sociopaths in your life. That's really the ONLY thing you can do about them (most of the time . . .).

    Director of the Monkees? That's nothing to scoff at! Me and Erika were kids when that show came out; we LOVED that piece of shit.

    Billy, this stuff is great. Very much looking forward to reading more.

  5. As a fellow writer, the Kurosawa comment made me feel great!

  6. The “who you gonna believe, me and God or” made me laugh out loud.