Sunday, September 14, 2014

#11. Pitch meetings, assorted stories, and Act 3!

#11.  Pitch meetings, assorted stories, and Act 3!

It's likely clear from #10 but I don't really want to be done with UCLA and the Sixties.  At least in the remembering of it.  No possible way could I ever live through it again.  So, like General MacArthur, I shall return.

But in the meantime, back to the Pup in Hollywood and some notes on the typing that kept him there.


A little background: Pitches are dirt common in Hollywood.  Every day writers, producers, directors and sometimes even stars traipse into some studio or network big shot's office, schmooze a little, settle in, and then pitch their idea for a movie.

Sometimes it's simple; one of the most famous consisted of just three words: cowboys and aliens. Bought on the spot for mid-six figures.

Sometimes it's forgotten; like the legendary MGM, no-notes, on-the-fly pitch by Norman Wexler. The executives were dazzled, Wexler's agent in attendance was amazed, apparently even the secretary standing in the door was blown away.  It was the best pitch in history for everyone except poor Norm. He had some mental issues to begin with and was allegedly so baked on Thai stick, that on the ride home, he couldn't remember a word of it.

Sometimes it's complicated; with beat outlines, charts, detailed full color story boards, people acting out scenes in a desperate assault to sell the project.  For those fifteen or twenty minutes, hearts are pounding because futures are on the line.  Half way through most of these fire-fights, M.E.G.O. sets in with the executives.  That's what my friend David Freeman (who has written plenty o' scripts and some of the best books about Hollywood) calls it: Mine Eyes Glaze Over.  Most pitches are turned down flat.  And yet on they go, rolling over successes, failures, and endless careers.

My particular pitch happened at Columbia.

They had just bought the film rights to that year's publishing sensation "Real Men Don't Eat Quiche," a clever meditation by Bruce Fierstein on what it meant to be a man back in the early-Eighties.  It was on the Best Seller list for fifty-one weeks.

As a real he-man myself, doncha know, I have always been interested in this sort of phenomenon and its subsequent media fallout.  There were Quiche opening monologues, Quiche comedy routines, Quiche NY Times Magazine articles, Quiche Phil Donahue and Sally Jesse Raphael shows.  For a year or more, that little book was everywhere.  I guess Columbia smelled money.  My agent heard them sniffing.  Then, finally, my phone rang.

I read the book many times which kept me laughing.  And buried in that consuming frenzy, I ghosted up a story that I thought might serve.  Here is the part of it that I can remember.

Most families have, somewhere, a deep vein of crazy, sometimes hidden, sometimes not.  Movies of course do better with "not."

So my version was a romantic comedy between two unlikely people -- Bobby Wade, an easy-going second generation cast off who grew up in rural Oklahoma and ended up a derrick monkey in the oil fields -- and Hannah, a bright, good-hearted girl from the highest echelons of Philadelphia society.  In my story, they are plot welded together by Bobby Wade's loving but insane Philadelphia grandmother who has just died and left her vast fortune to him...IF he can renounce his wastrel Okie ways, return home to Philadelphia which he has not seen since he was five, and become a complete and full functioning gentleman.  In a month.  The beautiful cross-purposed girl will be his teacher.

I tell you all this not to seek an opinion but to say I had this mammy-jammer completely worked out.  And I mean six ways from Sunday!

So I boiled it down two a two page ten minute pitch whereupon I was summoned to a pre-disposed Columbia vice-president's office (they owned the rights) and started my audition.  After about a minute, all smiles and excited desk pounding, Robert jumped up and stopped me.  "This is just what we're looking for, Chow Puppy!  Let me get the rest of the gang together; they'll love it!  Can you wait about a half hour?"  The only acceptable answer to this question is, um, yeah.  And then you look around for that day's Trades, the "Daily Variety" or a "Hollywood Reporter" to read.  My friend  Tom called them The Green Lies and The Red Lies.

At this point I was happy because Robert seemed to like my story ideas.  But I was getting more and more nervous.  I hate memorized pitches because my so-called memory can do a Super Duck face-plant AT ANY TIME and without warning.  The more I try to calm myself, the worse it gets.

In his inner office, Robert began rounding up the other Columbia honchos and I worked up a really good flop sweat because my memory was beginning to fall out in chunks again.  I had three beloved cats at home, and at this point, I could not remember one of their names.  I looked for my notes, my two page story pitch.  Hook back in, hook back in!  But they were gone!

Then, I heard Robert laughing, reading one of my gags to someone on the phone inside.  I had left the pages in his office!  Then, he came bursting out, waving my pages.  "Let's go," he said.  "Everyone's waiting in Frank's office.  I'll keep these.  This thing is a home run!  You have a copy....

No.  I didn't.

Life lesson # 352,891: always make copies.  OF EVERYTHING!  I tried to ask him if we could stop and make me one.  But he was already headed down the hall.

He led us into Frank's huge office and there they were: Frank, a former screenwriter himself, now the co-head of Columbia.  Robert, my pages in his hand, all grins and excitement.  And two Development Girls from the story department, their Wallace Stegner grants from Stanford nearly visible, clipboards at attention.

And me, mouth dry as the second reel of "Lawrence of Arabia," moving toward that chair over there.  "Leave that one for Guy," Frank said referring to the other co-head of the studio.  "He's on the phone with Warren."  I guessed he meant Warren Beatty, who, as an agent, Guy used to represent.  There was one tiny place on a sectional couch and as I headed for it, I hungrily eyed my pages in Robert's hands.  I would have gleefully sold my entire family to the Gestapo for a five second look at them.  "Let's go ahead.  We can catch Guy up when he comes in," said Frank.

'Go ahead?'  WITH WHAT!?

The only thing in my mind were the howling Voices of Judgement, all screaming: Why are you here?  What are you doing?  You can't remember anything, you're a schmuck, a phony, know, THOSE voices, now joining in a kind of dissonant harmony, the Thousand Voice Choir of Recrimination and Self Hate.  Let us just say I am not unfamiliar with their sound.  Personally, I don't think anyone who makes up shit for a living is.

I perched on the edge of the couch and looked around.  All eyes were on me.

Since I was a toddler, this was all I'd ever wanted.  An attention starved pill of the highest order, I was always the last one out of the pool, goose-stepping off the diving board, one hand up the the Heil- salute, the other one indicating the Hitler mustache.  "Look, Mommy, look!"  And that was when I was in my thirties.  Or near.

But in that office, I just wanted to die.  I had nothing.  After about ten or fifteen seconds, I looked at Robert and I knew he knew.  The color drained from his face as I kept my slow scan of the assembled.  Then, I did something I have never done before or since: I shook my head violently once and made a sound that was a cross between a scream and a loud grunt.  They all jumped, leaning back in unison, away from the psycho on their couch.  But somehow, it cleared my mind of the voices.

Tector, Lyle, Duke -- my cats' names came back to me and suddenly, I could see in my mind's eye, the first page of my pitch.  So with the biggest smile I could find, I started in.  I could hear poor Robert sigh with relief.  Pretty soon, they were all nodding along and I began to pick up speed as my second act came to an end.

Now, THIS was a pitch!  Hell, I was going great guns -- Ooops.

And there it was, the first reappearance of the Judgement Choir in nearly seven minutes.  See, not all judgements are bad...but they are distracting because they give rise to further judgements about the first judgements.  Suddenly I was in a hall of mirrors and the story began to swim away from me again, farther and faster, and pretty soon I was desperately scanning the empty horizon of my mind's eye.  I never thought to ask Robert to hand the pages back to me and he didn't know that such a simple act could save me.

I can no longer recall how my pitch ended -- the third act -- only that it somehow did (although occasionally in my nightmares all these years later, it's still going on).  Most of them had a stunned look on their faces; embarrassed yet hopeful witnesses to a minor catastrophe.  I could not read the small smile on Frank's face.  But if anybody in that room knew what this was like, it was going to be him.

At this point, Guy strolled into the office, sunflower seed hulls trailing behind him.  "What'd I miss?  Give me the two minute version."  My blood actually ran cold.  Frank said they would catch him up after I left.  Thank you, Frank, thank you, Frank.  Thank you.  With that, I left the scene of the accident.  Couldn't get out of there fast enough.

On the car ride back to my agency, I replayed the pitch meeting over and over and could find no solace anywhere in it.  I had embarrassed myself, my agents, the material, and Robert who'd only wanted me to succeed.

It had been a tap dancing disaster.

With every replay, their originally kind faces hardened into a Day of the Dead mural.  By the time I got to my agents' office, I had convinced myself that part of my massive failure was their fault.  Yeah, that's it.  My agents got me into this, they should've known I was unfit for this kind of job, it was them!

So by the time I strode into their offices, I was fuming.  My agent Rand came out, a big smile on his face.  "How'd it go, Pup?"  I gave him both barrels.  The more I stamped around, pissing and moaning, more and more of the agents came out.  They were all laughing and smiling.  "What's so goddamn funny," I yelled.

Rand put his arm around my shoulders.  "Columbia called.  They said it was the weirdest pitch they'd heard all year.  But they loved it.  You got the job!"

Well, Jesus H.  Nobody knows anything, least of all me.  So like a good screenwriter, I apologized profusely and headed for our nearby Sunset Strip restaurant-bar, affectionately known as Le Dump.

Later that afternoon, I made many copies of my pitch, sat down at my IBM Selectric II with its lovely hypnotic hum and went to work.  That night, fueled by excitement and a little Herradura tequila (tuhhh-keeela), I got 14 pages!

Speaking of Le Dome: one last story.

I was to have a business lunch there with two legendary producers who had a rock and roll project they wanted to talk to me about (as they call it) 'coming on board.'

One of the producers was a billionaire who controlled record companies, rock bands and assorted stars, studios, concerts, the whole nine.  The other was a famous flamer millionaire and together they had just done the period movie musical of the year, maybe of all time.  An hour late for the meeting, they alit from a vintage purple Rolls out front and were instantly surrounded by fans and early paparazzi.

When they were finally seated, with no apologies for the hour they'd made me wait, they began a back-and-forth about their historical triumphs, about who they'd laid low, about how many were in their debt, about who they wanted to screw (economically and otherwise...with cringe-inducing details), and all the menu items they were about to order to eat one select bite out of the middle, then send the rest away, for the peons ha-ha-ha-ha.

I really couldn't tell if they were joking, fueled by years of success and pre-lunch cocaine.  Or just assholes.  In any case, clearly they didn't need me.  So I excused myself for the men's room, walked downstairs, right past the men's room, out the back door into the parking lot.

On my way to the car I saw the well-travelled beat up Rolls Royce belonging to production designer Leon Erickson with its famous pipe vice welded to the rear bumper.  It never failed to make me smile.  I got in my car, and drove home.

Have I mentioned?  I love the actual writing.  It's all the other stuff I hated.

When we left 'our script,' we were riding the second act to glory.  Here is where you get dead flat serious about the Hero's journey and all the things that are trying to stop him (sorry about the masculine pronouns).

Think of all the bad things that can happen.  Take a couple a three days and make a list.  Even the crazy things, the absurdos, even the beyond belief ones.  When you are first listing these, it's hard to overplay this hand.  You won't use them all, clearly; they have to be believable, they have to grow out of what has come before and what a reader/audience will accept.  So whittle the list down.

All right, you say to yourself (and to your hero) mid list -- I got bad news and worse news, which one you want first?  BOTH OF THEM!

Okay.  The Hero loses his job.  His wife and family no longer understand or care.  His car gets repoed, he gets beat up, someone puts a bullet or a scorpion in his mail box.  He reaches out for help and almost gets it...but it turns on him instead.

Starting to panic, he wonders if even his own family is somehow part of the cabal out to get him.  The forces that compel him nearly sink him and yet, he is unable to let go.  Through betrayal, pain, even death itself, he hangs on beyond his understanding.

This is the veriest dark heart of the Hero's journey.  If it was easy, anybody could do it.  If, in his heart of hearts, a Hero isn't afraid, he isn't really heroic.  Just nuts.

This second act is about piling on the troubles.  Remember Jason Bourne in the "Bourne" movies, especially the first one?  Just because he can kick the shit out of Superman doesn't mean he can find his way to knowing who and what he is.  Every way he turns is wrong, getting him in deeper and deeper.

It will take two-by-fours and mud chains to get him out.  This plagues all heroes on this journey.

Take Richard Dreyfus in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind?"  It's about his box getting smaller and smaller until it looks like there is no way out.  And then, we get Plot Point Two!  For hapless Roy Neary in that movie, will he see that the huge construction he has compulsively forged in the basement is a double for the Devil's Tower mountain on the TV news bulletin behind him!?  In the audience, our hearts are screaming to him, Turn around, man, it's right there behind you!  And then, it happens.

Plot Point Two -- the second believable but stunning major event occurs, growing out of the story itself, which propels the action into the unforeseen first wild tangent of

                        ACT THREE
This is the completion, the time and place where all the chickens come home to roost.  This is where most (if not all) of the secrets are revealed.  Act Three is the climax, the hash-settling last 15 or 20 pages of just deserts and hammering paybacks.

It is the conclusion.

Your hero can die as John Wayne did in "The Cowboys" or Bette Midler did in "The Rose," both directed by Mark Rydell.  Or Tom Hanks in "Saving Private Ryan."  This is dramatic but not an altogether good idea even if there is often an Academy Award nomination in it for the hero.  Hollywood loves death scenes.  If you ask an audience to go through two hours of hell (or at the very least, heck) and then kill the hero?  This kind of ending needs careful consideration.  Because it turns out that what Hollywood loves is the IDEA of a death scene.

It's better (but still dangerous) to kill the hero if, at his death, he metaphorically hands off the Torch of Truth to his confused, flawed young protege (us).  Great sacrifice has great meaning and should bring tears of sorrow, gratitude, and recognition.  To me, this is what saved "Saving Private Ryan."  They left Matt Damon alive.

Your hero can turn into a deeper mystery like Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles in "The Third Man" or Lee Marvin at the ghostly end of the brilliant "Point Blank."  These are fascinating but dangerous picks (and of course, attractive for that very reason).

Or your hero can save the day which is what happens in most movies.  Like chocolate; simple but always a good choice.  Most star actors will respond best to the classic hero's journey with its clean, unfettered triumph in the end.  Plus you get the possibility of a sequel.  This way we can do an "almost death scene" and yet keep chuggin'.

Or your hero can dissolve into a big question mark like Tom Hanks in "Cast Away," one of my favorite endings, standing at a deserted country crossroads, looking up for a sign, even a hint toward his future as the camera cranes up and out....

While you're juggling story elements to wind up this hero's journey -- wherever it's going -- don't forget his friends and enemies.  They are called 'b' and 'c' stories and give the main story, the 'a' story dramatic richness and texture.  So-called real life hardly ever does any of this but movies, TV, plays, and novels always should.

If you end in Bitter/Sweet, like "The Family Man," "Dirty Pretty Things," or the great "Men in Black," do it verrrry carefully with the accent on Sweet.

While we're speaking of Death and Bitter (and at our age, who shouldn't be?) one of the worst things they can say about your script is that it's DARK.  I know this because I was unfortunately addicted to night and the D-word was used often on my work.  This simple accusation can keep an option from being renewed, a script from being bought, a movie from being made.

On the other hand, fuck 'em.

Remember, anyone can create a surprise by killing the hero.  But there are good surprises and bad surprises.  Unless you are doing a true story (as in "Hoffa") or one in which the death is utterly necessary (as in "American Beauty,") killing your star is an idea whose time has went.  Unless the hero can enter his house justified (as in Sam Peckinpah's "Ride the High Country") or having done all he can do on this earthly plain, is now happy to be 'going home' (as in "Gladiator"), leave your hero ALMOST dead.

Well known inherent tragic material is something else again.  If you are doing a version of "Romeo and Juliet," it would be unthinkable not to end it with their deaths.  I had an experience which confirmed this in a heartbreaking way.

I wrote the first three drafts of the mini-series "On The Beach" from the famous book by Nevil Chute and the movie by John Paxton and Stanley Kramer.  It is about the end of the world from an accidentally started nuclear war.  Driving its clockwork is a love story, a time-honored tale of sacrifice and duty.  In the end, the American submarine captain has to leave his newly found love in Australia and take his men back home to a certain high-rad death in the completely obliterated United States.

Simply, his men want to go home.

When a giant American cable network bought into this project, they had a few changes they wanted.  One, naturally, was a new writer.

The other modification was a new ending in which the sub captain abandons his men to their own homesick wishes so he can stay in Australia with his girlfriend.

Apparently, there was no talking the president of the company out of this  change and I must say, I'm glad I wasn't around to try.  He felt that today's audience wouldn't sit still for that kind of a "downer ending."  I had, um, other feelings.  Chowpuppy Screenwriter Goes Berserk In Meeting, Maims Three!

In the end, it was their dime, so they made it their way.  Oh well.

And on that note, we end this posting.  But, kids, STAY TUNED!


  1. OK now, first, as an aside, I've noticed you often use the word "mammy jammer"--a term I could only relate to the funky Carl Carlton. Nope--turns out he's singing about a "mama jama," which is apparently something completely different. Billy! I can't believe you've been saying "motherfucker" all over the place and I didn't even know it!

    Now to this post. I love, ". . . acting out scenes in a desperate assault to sell the project." "Assault" is perfection.

    I like your metaphors. "Sold my entire family to the Gestapo" is much more original--and quite a bit more disturbing--than "sold my soul."

    I also love "fueled by years of success and pre-lunch cocaine." Aaah, the days. (And I'm not talking about success.)

    "Hollywood loves death scenes. . . . Hollywood loves the IDEA of death scenes even more." How nicely put, and sadly true. As far as their recoiling from anything "dark," it sounds like Hollywood fans haven't changed a whole hell of a lot from Depression-era audiences. Uplift: always the one surest sell.

  2. Horrifying pitch scene! Holy shit,