Thursday, March 5, 2015
#19. My first long form television, the WGA, and fate.
#19. My first long form television, the Writers Guild of America, and fate.
If whining were an Olympic sport, most writers would have Michael Phelps' lopsided grin on his "Sports Illustrated" gold medal cover. There are, of course, good reasons for this.
To be blunt, many of the projects we get hired to do end up in the toilet.
It wasn't quite what we hoped for, they say, the star wanted to go a different way, we hired a new writer, and in one stunning case for me, the Berlin Wall had come down. I'll tell you about that one later.
But just know this: It's simply the way of things, the lay of the Hollywood land. It has mostly to do with who owns the copyright (them) and who doesn't (us). Which is why they pay us so well. This is the opposite of the theatre where the playwrights get very little to do the actual writing but end up with the copyright and control of the play. And a significant piece of the gross box office weekly receipts.
All of us in both businesses -- stars, directors, writers, producers even executives -- have had our share of heartbreak. Many of us have occasionally slipped in under the proverbial wire. And some have had a few real successes and happy working times.
My biggest one came two years ago on a mini-series about hillbillies I wrote back in the mid-Nineties. I will tell you about it later (yet another 'later'). Its birth had more twists and turns than Script du Soleil.
My first happy time came years ago on a sad mini-series I wrote for producer Steve Krantz about two hapless Australian boys who tried to smuggle some heroin out of Kuala Lumpur back to Melbourne and got caught. They were charged, tried, convicted, and hanged. This was a true story, names and all, about the first white people ever convicted under the new draconian Malaysian drug laws.
It was my first long form television. And it had another format entirely. Each night had seven acts, each ending with a bated-breath stinger so the audience would wait through the Ford truck and Campbell Soup ads to come back to us. I found to do this well and smoothly, to hide its trick, is hard...until you learn how.
That's where Steve Krantz came in.
Since I was from the movie world and this was my first TV, oddly but happily, he treated me like royalty. For a while. Steve was in his mid sixties, impossibly tall, with a tennis tan and blinding white teeth. He was a published novelist, had produced one of the first black youth films "Cooley High" which I had loved, and a very famous animated feature "Fritz the Cat" with Ralph Bakshi. A hit with the hippie and hipster set, Fritz won some awards that seemed mostly shaped like dildos.
Steve was married to Judith Krantz, a fiction factory as popular back then as Fifty Shades' E.L. James is today. Let's just say, the Krantz house up in Bel Air knew about writing for the mass market.
Steve had made wildly successful network mini-series out of three or four of his wife's best sellers. Not many Emmys but fat, FAT ratings which is the absolute key to happy television. But I sensed he was itching to break out of that mold. He wanted to do something that mattered to him, something true, something shocking that would make you cry real tears.
My agent Rand called us in to his office and basically said, "Steve, this is Chow Puppy. Pup, this is Steve Krantz. The network deal just closed so I now pronounce you producer and writer!" And thus began my Wild Long-form TV Ride.
The first thing he showed me was all the news footage from the so-called "Dadah Is Death" trial from Kuala Lumpur. Then, some interviews with the two boys and a mother. Then, he dropped off a pile of mini-series scripts. "This is for format purposes only, not for writing style, character, or dialogue. For all that, we want YOU. The short take on a two night miniseries is First night: crime. Second night: punishment."
"And by the time this is written, filmed, and gets on the air," he said, "people will have mostly forgotten what actually happened. They will not see the ending coming." So, once again, the network start money check cleared and I went to work.
First I read all the scripts of the Judith Krantz mini-series he'd given me. I began to see a structural pattern. Then I attacked the boxes of documents and videos. Finally, the translations of the Malaysian court transcripts. Oh, my God. Their perusal would have given Franz Kafka a woody. They had a completely different system of 'justice' over there: Islamic sharia law doled out by Cotton Mather in a British judicial wig and black robes.
Much of what I read revealed Geoff Chambers to be a cold-hearted dick, an experienced heroin smuggler and Kevin Barlow to be a nervous but good-natured young dork who made one horrendous choice about How To Strike It Rich.
I thought it best -- this being Eighties American TV and all -- to dial Chambers' drug history back and have them both be a little more Innocents Abroad. This was forty years ago, before Walter White and "The Sopranos" and I needed an audience to care about these guys. So in our version, they weren't big druggies, they just wanted to get ahead and thought one go to hell smuggling trip would do it. Since in my earlier days I had been tempted by just such dip-shit plans, I began to relate to these guys on a deep, personal level.
Also I came to think that Kevin's mother Barbara was the smartest, fiercest, most driven of the bunch. Her familial love and belief in her son was oceanic. As a result, the Barbara role kept getting bigger and bigger. Even her outline cards went from 3X5s to 5X7s. She was the one who talked the most famous defense lawyer in Malaysia, Karpal Singh, into representing them.
But finally, I had the cards all push-pinned up on the board; to me they looked like an innards flow chart of a goddamn Rolex. You know, a pretty good watch. So I went to work.
In my thirty plus years, I only had maybe three Scripts That Wrote Themselves. You've probably heard of those kinds. This was my first. And they all came off strong outlines. I was getting fifteen pages a day! When I finished, I did one more pass, cutting three or four pages out of it. Satisfied, I made copies and Fed Exed one of them to Steve in L.A. I heard from him a day later: my Movie Guy tiara already shined and set at a rakish angle.
He wasted no time. "This ain't good. Meet me in New York at the Carlyle Hotel." Umm, okay. When? "Tomorrow morning at ten. I'm taking the red eye. We have work to do, kid."
Since I was then living on Cape Cod, I caught an early morning puddle-jumper to LaGuardia; Scare New England was still flying DC-3s in those days. When I met Steve to go over the script for night one, the bloom was off the rose. Remember the old Carole King song "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?" Well the answer to that question is almost always NO. As it was here. There was no more flattery, small talk, or show biz gossip.
The next hotel room six hours were balls-to-the-wall tough. I listened hard because I realized he was Willy Sutton and I was there to learn how to rob banks. So for one of the few times in my professional life, I took every single note. When it came the usual time for lunch, he just shook his head. He ordered room service coffee. Again. And we kept going.
It was dark when I packed up to leave. Steve stopped me at the door. "You can do this," he said. "Or I wouldn't have hired you." I straightened my tiara. "CBS wants a first draft of Night One in three weeks."
They got it.
You know, without that iceberg, Titanic would have been just another spiffy trans-Atlantic cruiser. Our iceberg was a looming strike deadline by my beloved Writers Guild of America. And once it rolled around on the back of a strike vote, I would have to stop work right in the middle of whatever paragraph or cool line of dialogue I was typing. We all would. So everyone in Hollywood was racing to get their ducks in a row.
When Steve got the new version that addressed all his notes he called me to tell me how happy he was (always a nice call to get) and to go ahead and start Night Two. He laughed wildly when I told him I was already on page 46.
A few words about the Writers Guild. They protect their own. If it weren't for them screen and television writers would get maybe $1000 a script, there would be no residuals, no health care, no pension plan, the producers and directors would end up with the writing credits, and (the new political climate in America would love this) there would be no collective bargaining at all.
As usual, the so-called rising Tide of Management's dreams would lift the yachts, leaving our banged up little row boats on the bottom. This is what passes for business logic from the top. But the Writers Guild, with all their faults, protects their own and I totally supported them, then and now. I voted for the strike.
But that didn't mean I couldn't hurry to get this thing done, especially since it was going so well. Steve and CBS were already sending out Night One for casting as I was coming down the homestretch of Night Two. They'd hired the estimable Jerry London to produce and direct -- this bird was gonna fly, Mabel!
And I was still its only writer.
When they were casting, a lot of actors turned it down. It was a depressing story; when you got to the last pages and the cavalry was nowhere to be found, people were doubling up on their Xanax. Plus not many of them were willing to go much farther than the Fox Ranch for three months of shooting, much less to Australia.
Then Steve had a flash: he would take the script to London where he had a whole raft of connections due to his making many of the Judith mini-series over there. He knew everyone. He knew Julie Christie!
It quickly came to pass that she read it and loved the politics of it enough to immediately sign on. It was the first time I had ever heard the expression 'over the moon' which was used to describe her reaction to our project and ours for getting her. Then came John Polson and Hugo Weaving. Next was Victor Banerjee who had stared in David Lean's "Passage to India" and Sarah Jessica Parker, post "Annie" but pre "Sex in the City." I couldn't believe our luck. But would it hold? And would the WGA still love us tomorrow?
The Writers Guild went on strike. But not before I got Steve and CBS Night Two. So they were in business and thousands of writers were suddenly out of work. I had planned to be in Australia, on the set of "Dadah is Death," making cuts, adding dialogue, getting Ms. Christie more tea.
Not this time.
I kept thinking of that good-looking line I had written for her when she sees dawn of the last day her son may live to see. She says, "I never knew a night so long could go by so fast." I thought, awww, she's in good hands and with that, and I went out on the picket line.
The Strike of '88 was ugly, unprofitable, and went on way too long. At 155 days, it was the longest strike in Guild history and got both sides very little except sunk into an anger that has not abated to this day. At least by me. The Strike's biggest crime was that a significant part of the TV audience went away and and never came back. Lots of them discovered books and conversation (the swine).
And our phones had stopped ringing as agents and producers got out of the habit of calling us. When the strike finally ended, a lot of that didn't come back either. Also it was in this time that networks discovered the true crime series like "Dateline" and "20/20" which did well and cost about a third of what regular programing cost.
Most of the writers I knew began to ransack the storage lockers of their imaginations. Madly searching for ideas we could build into a spec script, our poor little squinched up faces reflected the hope and despair of our shared situation. Nothing was going well.
Suddenly with no income, some writers had to sell their houses, take their kids out of private schools, fire Maria the maid, and what was worse for the spouses, the writer was now home, under foot, grumbling about Management's latest offer, and eating Cheerios all day. Most of this didn't apply to me; I don't have kids, I already cleaned my own house, and I ate Grape Nuts, not Cheerios. But twice I had to borrow money from my aging parents and I'm sure I was not alone.
I got one Australian post card from Steve Krantz as they finished shooting which just said "Everything copasetic, thanks to you." I learned from the WGA that my screen credit on "Dadah" was to read 'Written by Chow Puppy,' the best credit one can get. I was stoked.
Plus which, I had just thought of a spec script idea. I began working on it, I worked on it later, hell, I'm still working on it. It'll probably never be ready but I love it. It's about three people, two men and a woman, for different but intersecting reasons, mountain climb The Sears Tower in Chicago, then the tallest building in the world. I would call it "Enough Rope."
GOD, I love titles.
The WGA could strike the studios and the network but they couldn't strike the grapevine. I had heard that "Dadah" was cut, scored, and scheduled in CBS's fall lineup. This was as smoothly as any project had ever gone for me, starring one of the most beautiful women who had ever won an Oscar. I can't quite remember but I believe the network held my check; I think they probably held all writers' checks during the strike. Added pressure to settle. And they got the accrued interest on those millions they held for the five-and-a-half months. Fuck 'em.
Since I had not seen a screening of the mini-series, like the rest of America, I would have to wait to see it aired. And because I have a little surprise for you, you have to wait, too.
So while we're waiting, let's talk again about screenwriting.
In almost any kind of writing, there is waged an endless war of too much, too little, too dark, too light, too simple, too complicated, too sour, too sweet, revealing secrets too soon or too late. This knuckle-gnawing worry about proportion is a dread companion of all artists, all of the time. Its balance is one of the chief elements in a piece's success or failure.
As for script devices, pay no attention to Conventional Wisdom. Nothing is totally forbidden in Hollywood except failure. And getting old. Or fat. Or publicly ranting about Jews. Or being Bill Cosby or Harvey Weinstein.
I have used a narrator. I have used title cards, used characters talking directly to the screen, used songs. Of course, all these devices can be (and usually are) cliched but I am willing to try anything to help tell my story. If it ends up not working, out it goes no matter how cool it seemed or what good writing it may have harbored.
I found it useful to resist explaining everything, even though they want you to. It will kill the magic. The Man For All Seasons, Sir Thomas More once said, "in the end, the human heart is a mystery." I say leave it that way. If you show them how the trick is done, for a about 1.4 seconds they'll be grateful. Then it will turn to anger because they had to have it explained to them.
Iago, probably the greatest villain in all of dramatic literature, refuses to tell us and Othello why he did it. Any of it. "What you know, you know," he says. "From this time forward, I will never speak word." And he didn't.
In "Close Encounter of the Third Kind" we never find out why it's Dreyfus the aliens want. We don't know where they're from, what their mission is, or what's going to happen. In spite of an 'expanded version' later on, part of that movie's lasting greatness is it's mystery. The same with "2001." That's why all these years later, it still stays ahead of you. Kubrick and Clarke explained nothing; they just presented it.
Open the pod bay doors, Hal.
Suddenly, the air-date for "Dadah is Death" was upon us. It had been advertised and reviewed favorably in 'TV Guide.' In one of the Boston papers' reviews, my script got singled out as 'a very effective but somewhat over-wrought teleplay.' Hmm; that's a scorpion's kiss, but at least they had spelled my name right. And now, we would get to have a look at it.
Friends of mine who had a very large TV, made a small viewing party for Night One at their house with a picnic dinner and lots of beer. As nine o'clock rolled around, my heart was trip hammering. And then, there it was. My friends all cheered as my Written By title card came up. And from that moment on, everyone of them was talking for the entire time. Non-stop. Loudly.
As I explained before, this is my karma; when I was a kid, I held forth in movies, a full running commentary. Godfrey Daniels, what a pill! My payback is that, for years, I have gotten every like-minded jerk in the audience, sitting right behind me, yacking through the whole movie.
This night was no different, even though they were MY jerks and I loved them to death and one of them had made me a dozen deviled eggs, my fave. So as I was listening to comments about how Ms. Christie's breasts weren't near as big as they used to be, I was shamefully wolfing down the eggs.
Fortunately, I had taped the show at home on my trusty VCR. So I looked at it the next day by myself. Oh, lord.
It started with Julie Christie and my Great Line about a night so long going so fast or whatever it was. It just plopped there like a dead fish. And I realized that if a great actress like her couldn't make the line work, like one of Rodin's hands, it should've been cut. I thought the show was pretty okay but, truth be told, it had too many 'hands' sticking out all over the place. Like Emperor Joseph II's famous movie critique of Mozart: "Too many notes."
And now you can check it out, too. "Dadah is Death" can be seen on Youtube in all its low-def glory. I'm not sure I can join you; too much water under that bridge. But it's there. For the full Chow Puppy experience, make yourself a plate of deviled eggs.
The '88 WGA strike finally settled and I went on to another mini-series, this one a remake of "On The Beach" with Peter Strauss as the Executive Producer and its star. This was an even happier experience but, in the end, odder yet.
See you next time, buckaroos!