Tuesday, July 8, 2014

#8. Titles, parties, agents, the Farrellys, and Act 1

#8.  The meaning of producer titles, parties, agents, the Farrellys, and the great Syd Field's Act One.

My God, these days it seems to be raining producers!

Years ago, back before that pesky Consent Decree  in the Forties, there were only a few that counted.  When David O. Selznick or Sam Goldwyn or Darryl Zanuck produced a movie, they actually produced the movie; from beginning to end, for better or for worse.

They all had wild egos, ulcers, smoked huge cigars, and slept fifteen minutes a night.  They were made out of film.  If you opened them up on an operating table, where their heart should've been, was a rack-over Mitchell 35mm camera, a drugstore girl, and a thousand deal memos.

One movie, one producer.  Here's the kind of guys they were.

The story goes when Selznick premiered "Gone With the Wind" in Atlanta back in 1939, he was so taken with it all -- the hurricane of adulation, the stars, the show itself, and the clipboard of notes he'd made for 'improvements' -- that he took off for the after-show soiree, leaving his wife Irene Mayer Selznick out in the street in front of the theatre.  And brother, this was not just any wife...she was Louis B. Mayer's daughter!  Producers.

But that was the good old Then.  Now, we are awash in producer credits, if not actual producers.  So here are some of the ever shifting Rules of Thumb about them.

In movies, the term 'Associate Producer' is a kind of producer's production assistant.  They are usually installed for their tireless energy and burning desire.  Or they are put in the mix by a friend or relative who wants them around while they make this movie.  So they can learn how it's done.  The pay is negligible, the credit small, and the work endless.  You're a Suit go-fer that everyone laughs at behind your back.  Or right to your front.  But if you are thick skinned and very patient, you will learn a lot, especially if you are working for a great producer like Walter Mirisch, Joel Silver, Scott Rudin or, back in the day, the doomed Harvey Weinstein.  Of course, ol' Harvey will go down in the Annals of World Class Assholes but they cannot take those great pictures away from him.  Yet.

In movies, the 'Executive Producer' title  doesn't mean that much.  It often indicates lots of back and forth phone calls by lawyers working out a deal.  It can mean that this particular guy once owned the property on its tortuous way to becoming a movie.  Maybe he had an option on the underlying rights or some version of the script he financed or shepherded in some prior incarnation at another studio, part of the endless pass-through chain.

Often these executive producers get some kind of payday along with the placement of the title but were not a part of the actual making of the movie itself.

The honcho in movies is usually The Producer.  They have an equal vote (more or less) about where and how the project is set  up, about script rewrites, the director hire, casting, and various other things like locations, scheduling, and the movie's overall look.  Of course the director figures heavily into this mix.  But the producer is usually the first royalty.  
In television, the opposite is true: the Executive Producer is king.  This is why you see so many of those titles now, gathered around the trough.  The Executive Producer (along with the Created By) and the last title at the end of the show usually means that they are the Big Cheese.  In all the CSIs, it was Jerry Bruckheimer.  In all the "Law and Orders," and the current crop of Chicago police and fire department shows, it's Dick Wolf.   And the amazingly fecund Shonda Rhimes who birthed "Grey's Anatomy," "How to Get Away With Murder," and "Scandal."  Most recently, "For The People."

Back in the day, it used to to be guys like Aaron Spelling, Steven Bochco or Norman Lear.  They're even above Show Runner: their word is absolute because they are utterly bankable.  They have made networks and studios billions.

I once counted twenty-two so-called producer titles on a movie.  The audience was actually laughing. And it wasn't a comedy.

The one that perplexes me (and most writers) is "A Film By."  I guess if you do two but preferably three of the major jobs on the movie...maybe.  One of the few actual 'auteurs' in movies is Woody Allen and he wouldn't be caught dead with A Film By credit.  His always say, in that same type-face all these years: Written and Directed by Woody Allen.

Yet I never begrudged Ridley Scott his film-by because he is the real deal.  And Wes Anderson.  And James Cameron, Steven Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese, and Coppola.  You know, the usual suspects.  Even some unusual ones like Peter Hyams who produced, directed, wrote and (get this) was the cinematographer on his movies which were mostly good if not great.  But you gotta give a guy props for doing everything but catering (meals) and honey-wagons (porta-potties).

My favorite credit of all time was just "The Hospital, by Paddy Chayevsky."  Possessive credit by the writer, now we are talking!  If there was ever a better screenwriter or a more complicated unhappy individual, let them now step forward.  Yeah, I didn't think so.

Well, maybe Aaron Sorkin....

On the other end of this possessive spectrum, I remember seeing a movie (I think it was "Message in a Bottle," a Kevin Costner - Robin Wright movie I actually liked) that said A Film By Luis Mandoki.

Seriously, dude?

When you see the ampersand sign (&) between two names, that means they did it in some kind of partnership.  Like the Coen Brothers or the Farrelly_Brothers  If the names are joined by the  word "and" that means that someone came along usually after the first one listed and did rewrites.

The Writers Guild of America has a good but not foolproof credit arbitration system that a screenwriter may use if he or she needs it.  And they usually do because these days there is so much rewriting by so many Script Doctors.  These are flavor-of-the- month gunslingers who get paid way too much for way too little.  I have doctored, I have been doctored upon; just part of the dance.  The Writers Guild arbiters (made up of working members of the Guild) are well aware of this and try to keep their eyes on the work of the first writer on the project.  The one who started with the blank page. The second and third writers often swear they never even saw the first, original version.  Uh-huh, right.

Speaking of ampersands: I knew the Farrelly Brothers from our mutual time living on Cape Cod.  I was mid-career, they hadn't started yet.  But, mamma mia, did they catch up.

I heard this story on 'Inside the Actors Studio' on Bravo TV when James Lipton interviewed Matt Damon.  He asked Damon what the best piece of direction he'd ever received was.  Damon laughed and said it was on the Farrelly Brothers' "Stuck on You," a comedy about conjoined Siamese twins.  Damon said they were in long shot and suddenly he heard them call CUT!  Then, the Farrellys trudged from back in video-village out to where the actors were, performing the scene.  The four men looked at each other.

Finally, Peter just said, "Suck less, okay?"

I met Peter first.  He was a bus-boy dishwasher in an excellent Italian restaurant named Cipolina on the Cape where I lived in the late Seventies, early Eighties.  Our regular waiter had told him that we were seated in his station and that I was a working screenwriter.  With that, Farrelly marched out and introduced himself.  With a winning angelic smile he said, "Skip told me you're a writer.  I'm a writer, too!"

All this time later and six days older than dirt, I cannot recall the exact details of our early friendship, only that it was and circled around racquetball, local gossip, and talk about movies and TV.  Petey was a completely authentic charming guy with an active curiosity and a wide ranging sense of humor.  Ran in the family.

Brother Bobby told me that when Petey was about fifteen, he'd taken the family's Dymo Home Labeler and clicked out "I JUST FARTED."  Then one morning when his mother was going out to play Bridge with her friends, he gave her a big hug and patted the sticky plastic strip on her back.  With that he went back to sleep.   He awoke suddenly about two hours later to find his mother standing on his bed, beating him with a plastic fly swatter.   Bobby was helpless with laughter recounting this Rhode Island well-worn family story.

These are, of course, the visionaries who, years later, made "Dumb and Dumber," "Something About Mary," "King Pin," and "The Three Stooges" among others, grossing many hundreds of millions of dollars.  And speaking of 'grossing,' Petey told me his parents' first day visiting the set of his first movie was the Jeff Daniel's Turbo-Lax toilet scene.  How perfect.

His last movie, "The Green Book" won him the screenplay Oscar and the movie itself won the Best Picture Oscar.  If you missed his acceptance speech, you can see him, all these years later, on YouTube and in his list of Thank Yous, he generously gave a shout out to his favorite Chow Puppy as 'the first actual writer he ever knew.'

I was stunned, touched, nearly brought to tears by my old friend.  It was the last thing I expected but, turns out, the very thing I needed.                 
I was never what you could call a Hollywood party-animal.  I had a kind of shell-shock after the Leslie Caron debacle.  But every few years I'd go to one.

And this one was a Friday night, up on Mulholland Drive, at a young producer's house.  He was the scion of a famous eastern seaboard real estate developing multi-millionaire.  Steve's father built whole communities named after himself, still on the maps, and now his son wanted to make movies.  So the first thing Steve did was throw a huge party.

On this particular night, there were so many invited that I had to walk the last two hundred yards because of all the cars parked on both sides of the road.

Inside, spilling over to outside, were both top flight and mid flight show-bizzers, dozens of drink-bearing waiters and waitresses, food, and ice-sculptures shrinking by the minute in the hot Santa Ana winds.

After an hour of wandering around, I noticed that everyone in the room, on the decks, the porches, down by the pool, were all 'A' to 'K.'  You know, Robert Aldrich, Jean-Jacques Annaud, Dyanne Asimow, all the way through half the alphabet to Michael Kane, Jonathan Kaplan and Ron Koslow, an old UCLA buddy.  At this point, I surmised there would be another party the following night, and that would be 'L' to 'Z.'

As a 'C,' I was here on Friday.  So I made the most of it by heading straight to Steve's bedroom's en-suite bathroom.  And its medicine chest.  Youth Wants to Know!  But before I got there, I heard a huge cheer from out in the main room.  Having the concentration of your average goldfish, I turned and headed straight for that sound.

In the main room, fully head and shoulders above everyone else, was retired Los Angeles Laker, at 7'1", 245 lbs., basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain!  'Wilt the Stilt' (a nickname he hated), 'The Big Dipper,' a nickname he at least would answer to, looked around with a beatific smile on his face.  Years later, his autobiography would claim he bedded, what, fifteen thousand, twenty thousand women?  Still, even then, we all knew that look.  It was the Daddy Lion on the hill, patiently scanning the veldt for his next wham-bam ten second sweetheart.

I slowly made my way over.  The closer you got to Wilt Chamberlain, the more you began to think, 'this is surely what God had in mind.'  He was simply a perfect specimen as a male human being, and standing next to the pool table, every eye in the house was on him.

Spread out on that green felt was now a growing pile of cash.  Here was the house bet:  Wilt Chamberlain could pick up this pool table, all six legs off the floor or fail miserably in the attempt.  We looked at the table, full slate, solid oak, massive, "leave the balls in the pockets, it won't matter."  That thing must weigh a thousand pounds!  A stunning Eurasian woman came to his side, touching his arm.  He smiled.  Is everybody ready?  He played it like the pro he was.

Finally, silence.

Then, he flung his arms across the pool table as everyone moved away.  Pulling it back against his thighs and with a huge roar, he lifted the immense table fully a foot off the floor!  The one pool ball that rolled out onto the carpet was the eight ball.  I love noticing things like that.

There was a cheer from the crowd as he set the table down and began raking the cash off in handfulls.  The beautiful Eurasian girl got credit for the money raking assist.  I saw twenties, I saw fifties, and brother this was the start of the cocaine snorting era, so I saw plenty of dusty hundreds.

"Where're you going now, Wilt?" someone called out.  Like they expected him to yell, "Disneyland!"

He looked down at the girl next to him and smiled.  She was probably number eleven-thousand-six-hundred-and-fifty-four.  "Tomorrow V-ball in Sammo, the next day, Philadelphia.  Good night, sports fans!"  And he was gone with the spoils of a fifteen minute visit.

We would later learn from his biographies that in his retirement, he had become one of the truly great beach volleyball players and also was addicted to long distance high speed non-stop driving in his huge Lincoln.  Apparently he made the cross country trip fifty or sixty times, setting records that still stand.

We have all heard of superhuman feats of strength, maybe even seen some.  This one is mine.  And I never got to prowl though Steve's medicine chest but I was later told by someone who did, it looked like your average Rexall prescription center.


John Ptak was nearly my first and surely one of my favorite agents.  If I wasn't his first client, I was right next to it.

I had known him at UCLA. During that time he'd been an assistant manager at the Stanley Warner theatre on Wilshire and used to let us destitute movie geeks sneak in through the side alley door.  In those days, we called him 'Jack.'

In his new incarnation, he was 'John' or to me, 'J.P.'  I tend to nickname everybody.  Ptak had, way more than most, an open door office policy at the hugely successful I.C.M. agency on Sunset.  I went up to visit him two or three times a week to see pretty girls and either report on my project's progress or to remind him that I was bushy-tailed and available.

During these visits, I would occasionally overhear his side of his phone calls.  One was him putting the "Jaws" deal together with Peter Benchley, Richard Zanuck & David Brown.   And some new kid named Steven Spielberg.

During those years, I got to meet Rod Serling who drove a vintage Auburn boat-tailed Speedster (the one with its own little golf club bag door), the cadaverous noirist and Herculean drinker Jim Thompson and lots of movie machers including Donald Sutherland.  At the time, he and I resembled each other -- blond pony tails, same height and weight, both favoring a modified cowboy drag.  The only real difference being he was a beloved, rich, handsome, successful actor dating Jane Fonda and I could type fast.

There was also Kitty Hawks, an agent down the hall from J.P.   Director Howard Hawks' daughter, she was about eight feet tall, cascading black hair, so utterly beautiful that after you saw her you wanted to run to the nearest desk and jam a letter opener into your eyes.

Did I say letter opener?  That reminds me...

An agent spends 3/4 of their time on the telephone making deals, massaging deals, repairing deals, and sometimes getting out of deals.  J.P. would be leaning back in his chair, talking his talk and tossing little push pins up into the acoustical tiles in the ceiling.  He got very good at this.  There seemed to be, at any one time, hundreds of them stuck up there.

Then, one afternoon, again on the phone, he was absently playing with a letter opener. And I actually saw the thought come from his nine-year-old bad boy mind into his hands and FLIP -- he underhanded the opener up into the ceiling!  It stuck.  I was agog.  And then, with the slamming vibration, all of those little push pins started raining down.  I think he actually jumped under his desk, never missing a syllable.

I loved his sense of humor.  One day I heard him spell his name for some harried assistant on the other end of the line.  "Ptak.  P. 6. T. A. K.  The '6' is silent," he said.

One morning I came in to his office and he had the biggest grin on his face.  "Chow Puppy, I just got you your first directing job!  Deal is closed.  It's a prison picture called 'The Slams' produced by Gene Corman.  Starring...Jim Brown!  You're gonna be a director!"

It was one of those moments where the blood actually runs cold.  I had to be the only writer in town who didn't want to direct a movie.  It's hard enough to write one.

If I signed off on this, I would become a white over-educated hillbilly directing a blacksploitation low budget quickie with ex-NFL star Jim Brown who had been arrested a few years earlier for allegedly throwing his girlfriend off their condo balcony.  When Brown -- the greatest football player who ever lived -- was at Syracuse, he was all-American in football AND lacrosse, in both their Halls of Fame, man.  Those lacrosse guys run around for hours in the snow in shorts with hardly any pads and beat each other with sticks.  They don't have their own teeth!

Besides, directing is a social job.  I don't give good social.  I like working alone, sitting at the typewriter in my bathrobe, drinking coffee, scratching that new rash, trying to unpaint myself from story corners; my idea of heaven.  That's why I was a writer.

"J.P., you gotta get me out of this!"  So he did and thank ya, Jesus.  My record of cowardice in the face of opportunity remains unblemished.

Five years later at Fox, working with producer Marvin Schwartz (more about him later), he told me that on "100 Rifles," a western he produced starring Burt Reynolds, Jim Brown and Raquel Welch, that the great football player was seemingly gentle until seemingly provoked.  Then apparently, he had a cold, murderous glare that made Clint Eastwood's death scowl look like the Gerber baby.


As a screenwriter, structure is your king, your god, your all consuming passion.  Because it's gonna lead you and your story to the promised Promised Land.

As you do your outline, you see where things go.  How much to tell, how much to hide.  Who does what and goes where, all rough strokes to be sure.  The cool detail of what it all looks like and sounds like will come a little later.  When you're sure about your first act, your second act, and your third act.  And what propels you from one to the other.

Most of my ideas about structure comes from Syd Field's book, "Screenplay."  To me, his was the first book of its kind.  And because of how big it hit in Hollywood, most of the network and studio executives have read it or attended one of Syd's workshops before he died this year.  So they now speak the language.  Or some Truby-Vogler-McKee version of it.

Scripts are built on the classic three act frame (Syd called it a 'paradigm') that stretches back to Aristotle's "Poetics."  This structure has a beginning, a middle, and an end although as Tarantino showed us in "Pulp Fiction," not necessarily in that order.

So let's start with --

                       ACT ONE

Act One is usually about ten or twenty pages long.  Maybe even twenty-five.  As you can tell from that spread, this ain't exactly brain surgery.  Only it kind of is: It sets things up, introduces most of the main characters, shows the tone of the movie, hints at the theme.

The beginning of anything is important, especially movies.  Down the line, its audience will be settling into their seats with a lap full of high-carb no-nutrient goodies as the the light show begins up on the wall.  In a short attention span culture addicted to The Next Ten Minutes, at this point, everything is still hopeful.  That's why you have to get this first part right.

For me, the set up stuff is the most fun to write.  Movies that fall apart usually self-destruct in the later pages of Act Two or the beginning of Act Three.

But Act One is getting all your balls in the air (as it were).  This alone takes grace, smarts, focus, and hard work.  Not to mention sleight-of-hand.  A good example of this would be "The Usual Suspects"  or "Sixth Sense," two movies that pay off slowly, that depend on the gathering and manipulation of detail.  And it all starts in Act One.

But sometimes these details can be deadly.

Back in the 40s, when Warner Bros. was in the middle of shooting the first "The Big Sleep," director Howard Hawks (Kitty's dad) and star Humphrey Bogart became so confused about one of the early murders, they actually called Raymond Chandler, the original author.  I believe they finally tracked him down in the bar at Musso's.  He heard them out...and then admitted he'd never known who did that one.

Since the studio was way past the point of no return, they continued shooting fast and stylishly on that thin ice and the result is a classic.  Even if you have to squint your eyes just a little.

This opening act closes with what Syd called

                          PLOT POINT ONE

But you can call it anything you want.  It's here in the story, just when you think you have it figured out, that comes some wowie-zowie action or event that happens usually to the main character that plausibly swings the action around to a different course.  We are off on a W.T.F. new tangent.

This is just Newtonian Physics: cause and effect.  Of course, there can be lots of little plot points -- twists and turns are always good -- but only two major ones, the kind that completely alter the flow of the river.

If the plot point is real enough, the new direction can be mind bendingly wild.  A good example of this is the car crash about fifteen minutes into "Erin Brockovitch." written by Suzanna Grant.  It comes out of nowhere, it's stunning, and after it, everything for Erin is different.  It sends her, with casts and crutches, to the Albert Finney attorney where, because of a languishing old case he has against Pacific Gas and Electric, she will eventually change all their lives.

Hard on this plot point's heels comes another one, even more important because it's more personal.  Erin is so destitute and stove in by her accident, she ends up interning for this lawyer.  A naturally flouncy and somewhat brazen babe, she is motor-mouth nervous in her new job and has big gazingies to boot.  Julia Roberts said on "Oprah" that her push-up bra should have gotten the Oscar.  The secretaries and para-legals in the office hated her and when they went out for lunch, she was pointedly excluded.

It was one of those lunch breaks where a delivery comes regarding the PG&E case.  That box of files is fobbed off on Erin, eating at her desk, to "keep busy with."  If she had been at lunch with the others, it would've been a different movie.  But when she opened that first file and began to read, it became hers.

I believe this is the Real Plot Point one.

In more recent movies like "Gravity," we have these: About a third of the way in, plot point one happens when George Clooney unhooks himself from Sandra Bullock' tether to save her life after their space station is smithereened by flying Commie space junk.  About two thirds of the way later, when she is totally out of options and ready to give up, comes -- as you sensed it would -- plot point two!  She gets (semi spoiler alert) an unexpected visit from an old friend who goads and inspires her to dig deep and find a way home.

Once you get used to identifying these plot points, your friends and loved ones will hate you.  Because unless you are smarter than me, you will tend to mutter "plot point one" in what you assume is a low voice, meant to be heard by only the twenty or thirty people nearby.  Sometimes this disease is catching; your friends or loved ones will begin to search for plot points, too.  And then we will all be living in a world of movie structure smartypants.

Be still my heart.

For next time, the dreaded Act Two, great glory or the graveyard of broken dreams.  And my worst pitch meeting ever.


  1. "Suck less." That's perfection. I can't wait to use it on my first yoga students.

    " . . . he was a beloved, rich, handsome, successful actor and I could type fast." Fabulous. Even better is "after you saw her you wanted to run to the nearest desk and jam a letter opener into your eyes." And the push-pin scene, never missing a syllable! But this: "The 6 is silent." I've never heard anything like that! I'm getting all kinds of good jokes to steal from this!

    Oh--and this one defines my own life: "My record of cowardice in the face of opportunity remains unblemished." Yes! Yes! Yes! I just wish that was merely a joke in my case, as it is in yours . . .

  2. hi bill-
    herb van dam writing to wish you a happy birthday tomorrow.i love your blog. my first blog ever.do you remember Herb -elaine's friend. i was at your wedding in sandwich. you came with ep to our high skool reunion and had an awful time yadda yadda-
    i am at mr.show@comcast.net. let's correspond for a moment or three.-herb- have a great birthday too.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Reading about John and the silent 6 brought back good memories of our UCLA days.

  5. Ah, John Ptak.
    While we were still at UCLA, I bailed him out of jail after he had ben arrested for not paying too many parking tickets.
    I rushed to get the cash, rushed to the jail to free him.
    He complained I got there too soon - they were just about to serve dinner!