Saturday, May 17, 2014

#5. Screenplay. And The Who's "Tommy"

#5.  Screenplay.  And The Who's "Tommy."       

More notes on the screenplay.  Because, finally, you gotta dance with the one what brung you.

I believe the single most crucial element in any script is the story, the narrative.  You'd think it would be the characters and the dialogue.  But it's not.  Not completely.  It's what the characters are doing and what they are saying or clearly not saying which is just as important.  Sometimes even more important.  It's the whole of it.

What is the story here?  What is the script about?  Is it strong?  Does it move forward relentlessly?  Is it a movie you would stand in line to see?  In the rain?  In other words, is it just good?  Or is it drop dead great!?  Be bruuutal.

Ninety-eight percent of all the screenplays and treatments are not quite good enough.  That includes the ones I've written, those you might be writing, those of our friends.  You know down deep in your heart-of- hearts when it IS good, truly good.  Even then, often nothing will happen with it.

You'd think the Big Kids would want to make a movie.  You'd think.  But a "yes" decision is so fraught with agida...with peril and worry, and the desperate fear of the unknown, everything within them is screaming, no, No, NO!  But most of the time, they get a grip midway in their Xanax hazed panic attack.

And they begin the question gambits -- who is behind this project, who is its "rabbi?"

How castable is it?  How interestingly familiar is it?  Is it cheery, funny, reflective, edgy (I came to hate that word), redemptive, and/or exciting?  Is it a date-movie?  How much will it cost?  Couldn't stop turning the pages?  Good.  Saw Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts as the leads?  Even better.  Could almost smell the popcorn?  Best of all!

These are the kinds of questions studio heads and executives will ask so they can know how to SELL IT, both to audiences world wide and to the other executives down the hall.

At the outside, only a few hundred people will ever read your script all the way through (most will only read two page book-reports called "coverage") and both the read-wells and the read-nothings will be asking the same two questions: can this be a hit?  And will I look good supporting it?

To ensure the widest chance of success, the script should be slightly familiar in its strangeness.  Mass audience acceptance is seldom keyed to trailblazing.  Years passed before "2001" made some kind of sense and was profitable for MGM.  Fighting, screaming monkeys and a bone that turned into a goddamn space ship?!  W.T.F?!

What they want, I believe, is something new and different...that, um, looks a little like something else that did well that was kinda like "Die Hard" in Chihouly's glass factory.  But with a love story for the women.  And PG so the kids can come see it.  Repeatedly.

Hordes of children can make a movie: see the grosses for the animated films like the Toy Stories or "The Lion King" or "Frozen."  Better yet, have something from a famous action comic book.  Like all the Marvel movies -- the government can't print money fast enough for them to rake in.  Executives want something pre-sold they can re-SELL, babay!  They'd like it to be easy to re-pitch in three lines of casual kibitzing at the Riviera Country Club or The Ivy, something they can give to George Clooney or J.J. Abrams or Brad Pitt or, or, or.

Screenwriter William Goldman said the smartest, most re-quoted three words about show biz ever: "Nobody knows anything."  No matter how much experience you have or how smart you are...really, nobody knows anything.

He also pointed out in his book 'Adventures in the Screen Trade' that the movie business was in the hands of ten or twelve actors, any one of which connected to your script is enough to get it made. When he wrote the book back in the dark ages (and when I was at my ten minute A-list apex), they were people like Barbra Streisand, Robert Redford, Clint Eastwood, Paul Newman, Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman, Warren Beatty, Burt Reynolds and Jack Nicholson.  These days movies cost five, ten times more than they did then.  And less than half of those people matter financially.  Oh, all of them (except Paul Newman and Burt Reynolds, now in Heaven) could get a meeting.  But a green light?  Only a few of them.

The newer names come in and out of the spotlight.  For a while, Mike Meyers was IT.  During that time, George Clooney was a TV actor who mostly lowered his head and looked though his eyebrows.

Shit happens and things change.

Now we have (for who knows how long) Leonardo DiCaprio, Seth Rogen, Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, Sandra Bullock, Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, the Jennifers (Anniston and Lawrence), Julia Roberts, Kevin Costner, Russell Crowe, Will Smith, Robert Downey, Jr., Ben Affleck and Matt Damon.

The Eddie Murphys, Mel Gibsons, Richard Geres, the John Travoltas, once the supernovas of the biz, still twinkle...but over there somewhere.

At the beginning there is so much riding on so little.  And later, with the overages, the re-shoots, the special effects, the gross-participants, and the mass marketing, it only gets worse.  The network and studio executives come largely from a conservative, corporate, committee-based position of smiling fear.  They want what worked before.

And the screenwriters of course are the fungible first employed.  Our job is to sing these Big Kids to an orgasmic, dreamy sleep as we sink our story's fangs deep into their necks.  Forgotten what fungible means?  A wild-eyed producer runs in late to a studio meeting.  "I just bought the greatest script ever written!  Who can we get to re-write it?"

Which brings me back to what the actual script is.  It's an oddly formatted story.  And to find and keep that story, remember this ancient formula: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl again.  And most importantly, shot through the entire story, must be twists-and-turns conflict.  The drive to overcome this conflict, to break through it AT THE LAST MINUTE to victory and peace is the fuel that propels this hotrod racing tank.

A man.  A woman.  And a gun.  Let us pray.


Before boarding an American Airlines 747 to London to meet the Who, a few words about producer/ financier Eli Silver.  Of course, this is not his real name.  I changed it because he has children still alive, utterly blameless, and so I can tell you more of what I remember.

Eli was then in his late sixties, at the end of a long, strong, Academy Award-winning career.  A former trained dancer, he'd been a hoofer on Broadway and at some point, an agent.  He was the discoverer of a very famous star actor.

Somewhere back in the early 1950s, as a former Communist Party USA member, Eli had been called in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities.  In a wave of fear, he joined famous men like Elia Kazan, Sterling Hayden, Budd Shulburg, and Lee J. Cobb by ratting out his former friends.  Eli named names.

From a four generation Lefty family, if I'd known this, I think I would've passed on the job.  But I didn't learn it until much later when, one night, deep into his single-malt cups, Eli confessed it all.  "It's the worst thing I ever did," he said.  "Well, maybe not the absolute worst.  I stole a million five from that big picture we did in Africa with Yul Brynner.  

"Sit back down, pup -- the judgement's all over your face.  If you try to quit this project," he said, "I'll sue you.  And I've never lost."  I sat back down.  Silence.  Then...

"What's the worst thing you ever did," Eli asked.  That stopped me.  Several dark candidates sprang to mind.  And I was sifting them for the least horrifying when his young wife walked in.  "What are you guys talking about?"  Eli huffed and came up with something script related.  Thanks to her, I dodged a bullet because I was ready to tell him.

As she talked him out of another Last Nightcap, I looked around at all Eli Silver's framed one-sheet posters.  Ten, fifteen movies -- movies I'd seen and loved with major stars in all genres, big deal studio movies that either he or his company had produced.  All the way back to when I was in grade school.

Eli may have looked like a penguin, may have been an alcoholic, may have turned on his friends...but once he had been a certified Big Deal.  His Oscar was on the back of his guest bathroom toilet.

And riding home that night to pack for London, I knew I was in Hollywood, that I had wanted this.  All of it.  Even the part where he said he'd never lost a law suit.  Somewhere on Pico, I wondered honestly how I would have done on the HUAC red-hunting whipping post.  Even then, in my dark hours, I knew who I was.  So I couldn't come up with much.

London in the early seventies was beyond my fondest dreams.

Eli had wrangled a huge airport limo for us into town and arranged our stay at the oh-so-hip Blake's Hotel.  I had eye-wrench whiplash from gawking at all the history, all the mini-skirts, all the wrong way driving.  I was basically a Carolina hillbilly who'd deified the Brits since I was in utero.  My mom's favorite movie star was Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.  In England, they speak in paragraphs.  Even the bums sound like David Niven!                              

In Blake's, Eli went to his suite to drink and make phone calls.  I went to my room with fruit baskets from Eli and welcoming flowers from the hotel.  Man, this was the life.  I took a shower and slipped out to shop on Carnaby Street.  While I was gone, apparently Eli got a Hollywood call from our mutual agent and was informed that, in some kind of Writers Guild arbitration I had never even heard of, I'd lost my screenwriting credit on "The Last American Hero."

When I got back, Eli was berserk, pacing up and down in his silk bathrobe and his little elf slippers.  "This is terrible," he said.  "I sold you to The Who as the guy who just wrote the Tom Wolfe stock car picture, they loved that book, now it's going to look like I made the whole thing up!"

Holy fuck-a-roonie!

I was heartsick at the news anyway and especially to hear that the whole endeavor was about to torpedo our rock opera project with one of the greatest rock and roll bands ever.  I mean, when I first heard the Who's 'My Generation' on the radio, I was so stunned, I had to pull off the side of the road on Sunset Blvd.  It was our age's National Anthem -- 'P-p-people try to p-put us d-down...'  A mere Grammy would be a joke, a Pulitzer is too little, a Nobel can't t-touch it, Sainthood, boys!  And whoever added the stutter will go straight to heaven, do not pass Go!!

Are we now facing the embarrassing doom of forged cards of identity?!

"We're having lunch with The Who tomorrow," said Eli. "You can tell them then."  Me?  Oh, dear.

Their manager Chris Stamp was the first to arrive.  Rock and rollers run late, managers not so much.  It was a nice restaurant, high-end, one of those places with blinding white tablecloths and soft pastel napkins with squint-making print on the mostly white space menu.

Once Pete Townsend, Roger Daltrey, and John Entwhistle arrived looking more like wastrel daylight casualties than rock and roll stars (in spite of everyone peeking over their menus at them), I ordered some fish I'd never heard of called turbot because it had hollandaise sauce.  I'd eat out of a used dog's dish if it had hollandaise sauce.

We were making small talk.  Microscopic.  It was so clearly two different universes.  Stamp apologized for Keith Moon's absence.  It seems their legendary drummer was in yet another different universe even from them.  Then Eli leaned forward and said, "Our writer has something he needs to tell you."  He looked at me.  Now, they were all looking at me.

Suddenly there was a commotion at the restaurant front entrance; screaming, yelling, and cackling laughter.  Townsend and Daltry rolled their eyes as Keith Moon, wild hair and cape flying, came running across the room, careening off tables, knocking over buss stands, yelling something unintelligible as he picked up speed.

Then, in full flight, he did a belly-flop on our table, sliding from one end to the other, raking dishes, wine glasses, food and condiments into laps.  At the far end of the table, I lifted my plate of turbot and hollandaise sauce as Moon, covered in food, looked up at me with a smile. "Good move," he said.  I should have kissed him because anything I was going to say was tabled (actually un-tabled) indefinitely.

Three days later, we had their official signed blessing and went back to Hollywood to start writing "Tommy."  I think they were pleased that my plan was to screenplay their plan.  I wasn't going to cock it up making it a western or a science fiction epic; I thought it was already enough just as it was, perfect.  They seemed to like this approach a lot.

For a while, the writing was going well.  At one point, we were working with director Milos Forman and his then squeeze, the great Bibi Andersson to play the mother.  Let me just say, when she's in the room, as she was often, nobody is looking anyplace else.

Four months later, mad English film genius Ken Russell managed to sell The Who a totally different plan (which you can see on Netflix) and, stunned, we were shot from the rock and roll revolving door, out onto the street before we realized where that new breeze was coming from.

So goodbye Eli Silver and The Who -- hello Burt Reynolds and stuntmen.  Told you.  Nobody knows anything.


  1. Hell of a disappointment! (Your experience--not the story. The story is beautiful! [Now who can we get to rewrite it?])

    So Elia Kazan ratted out his Comrades? Well, I still love him--even though that's so much worse than "Eli"'s stealing a million five from "King & I." Stupid movie anyway.

    I love how you were saved twice by accidents--with Eli's wife and with Keith Moon. Man, your description of Keith Moon careening into the restaurant is one of the funniest things I've ever read! If you made it up (as you surely must have?), bravo. But I'm confused by "more like wastrel daylight casualties than rock and roll stars." Isn't that EXACTLY what rock stars look like? (Chris & I were counting on that during Lava Toad's one summer of very localized fame.)

    I can't believe you got to be in the same room as Bibi Andersson; that's all the proof I need of your fame. Lucky bastard.

  2. “Greatest script ever”... “who can we get to rewrite it.” Perfect!

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