Tuesday, March 31, 2015

#21. "On the Beach" and the process of 'notes.'

#21.  "On The Beach" and the process of notes.

The greatest and the least; they all start out with a phone call.

You pick it up, it's one of  the agents, those caregivers that brought me into being then tended my working life: John Ptak, Rand Holston, Abby Adams, Pat Faulstich saying, "Puppy, we got a call this morning from CBS with an offer (three of my favorite words) about a miniseries remake of 'On the Beach.'  Remember the movie with Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner?  Stanley Kramer?"  Boy, did I ever!

From 1957, the classic novel was written by Australian transplant Nevil Shute, one of the early end-of-the-world nuclear sagas that later was made into memorable and very successful movie.

Scenes from its indelibly doomed love story were flying through my mind.  After a world-wide atomic war, American submarine commander Dwight Towers brings his boat to Melbourne, the last of the untouched cities, to assess the situation.  America was already a smoldering atomic graveyard.  Most of the rest of the world has already died under a massive cloud of radiation or nuclear winter.

"On The Beach" is that nation's cri de coeur for peace and love in a world gone mad.  Commander Towers and his U.S. Navy crew track down a mysterious, intermittent radio signal from Seattle then return to Melbourne to wait out their days.  Towers falls in love with Moira Davidson and after years of wartime command, finds peace with her.

But as the end time draws near, his crew comes to him; they know it's hopeless but they want to go home.  His sworn duty is to his men and his boat.  In a heart breaking sequence, he leaves Moira and, as she watches from cliffs high above, the last of the sailors drop into the boat from the conning tower.  The hatch slams down and the locking wheel spins shut as the USS Scorpion submerges into the Australian Sea, headed back to America.

It's been nearly sixty years since I first saw that movie and it haunts me still.  In those days we were on the verge of the Cuban Missile Crisis, "Dr. Strangelove," Mutually Assured Destruction, "Fail Safe," Peter Watkins' "War Game," and a kind of world-wide fear that bordered on panic.

The two biggest countries in the world hated us and things hadn't changed much on the morning I got the call from my agent.  "Does that sound like a job you'd want?"

My good fellow, does a cat have an ass?

The new version would be executive produced by and star Peter Strauss.  In the Seventies and Eighties, he was the king of the mini-series.  Check those credits!  I mean, please.  Right now.  Turns out it's not a stretch for Peter to play intelligence, honor, and conflict; he was apparently born with all three.  I thought he would be perfect to play Towers.  We went to the network and made the deal.  So I beat feet down to Blockbuster (remember them?) and bought VCR tape of the movie (still got it) and over to Borders for a paperback of the book and went to work.

Then, I did something I'd never done before.

I went to the art supply store in Westwood and bought a large 14X20 3-ring notebook.  At Kinko's I had them blow up the individual pages of "On The Beach" to about twice their normal paperback size on large format paper they had that would fit my oversize notebook.  When I got home and assembled the device, I had a large print (I hadn't yet discovered what I really needed was glasses) book with room on all four sides to make notes!  Such a simple rig did me so much good.  Even though, open, it seemed to take up half my dining room table.

After several read-throughs with the subsequent additional notes, I had enough to go back to Kinko's to make another large format copy to give to Peter.  So we could be, literally, on the same page.  As I recall we looked at the movie together a few times, too.  Once we were pretty well synced, I went to work.

I don't believe I have ever had such great, inspiring material to work from or a better producer to work with.  John Paxton who wrote Stanley Kramer's screenplay, novelist Nevil Shute, Peter and I were all singing this wonderful dream-like song about something we totally believed in: to slow the atomic pulse in an angry world's blood stream, to somehow expose national hatred to healing sunlight.

This was another of the very few Scripts That Wrote Themselves.  Thanks to the aforementioned guys.  The originals.

Since there was no WGA strike looming, I didn't go fast.  I tried to go good.  The story with its three-and-a-half hour running time had me by the throat.  I cannot remember my personal situation during this time; where I lived, was I still drinking, was I married?  I'm sure this lapse is no accident.  I was completely taken over by Dwight and Moira on her father's sheep ranch, by the American submarine's foray to Seattle to track down the endlessly repeating near nonsense Morse Code signal, taken away by Moira's scientist friend Osborne, blazing down an Australian desert highway in his Ferrari at 140 mph.

I was floating in warm maple syrup for the months I wrote "On The Beach."

Wherever I was, I wanted to be at home, writing.  Whatever I was doing, I wanted to put it aside and get back to the script.  Their story I knew would end tragically but it was more real and somehow better than my actual life.

But as I was coming down the homestretch on Night Two, things were rumbling over in Russia that would change everything.

As I recall, Peter Strauss loved the first draft but had some notes.  Of which I took every one with only a modicum of defensiveness.  Peter lived in Westwood at the time and after the notes meeting, we walked down to the Village for lunch.  Peter's two young sons, Tristan and Justin had gone five minutes earlier with Peter's assistant Andrew who the kids loved.  Andrew was basically a 6'5" kid himself.  I remember thinking as we walked through the Village, that this was what Melbourne might have looked like, right out of the story.  We stopped when we saw a crowd gathered at a street corner.  "What the hell," Peter said.

Up ahead, lay Andrew, Justin, and Tristan, flat on their backs on the sidewalk, laughing, looking up at the people, the cars, the buildings.  When we got to them, Andrew jumped up and explained that he wanted to show the kids what ants must see as they scurry under our lives.  Way up here.

As we ate our sandwiches and Peter drank a West German beer, there was rumored trouble brewing in East Germany.

When we turned in the revised first draft to the network, it was like some kind of glory bomb had gone off.  It had been assigned as the Weekend Read and everyone had loved it; very rare and there wasn't a dry eye in the house.  Peter and I were summoned the next day.

As we walked down the long hall to the honcho's office, everyone came out of their offices to look at us.  I know, a large part of it was Peter's Emmy-winning acting fame.  He was a genuine celebrity.  But, as I dimly remember it, a few of the readers, the assistants, the developers actually began to applaud.

I have never had anything like that happen.  I realized that it was the steel strong timeless story and its creators that garnered that kind of appreciation.  We were just its latest interpreters.  But still.

The network and Peter started to make preproduction plans before we were officially green-lit.  And the next day, the entire first page of the Los Angeles Times and every other newspaper in the world showed the Berlin Wall coming down!

"Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"  As Ronald Reagan's wish came true, our dream went up in smoke.

The unthinkable had happened.  Peace had broken out.  Suddenly in the warm fuzzies of what was now taken to be Pax Eterna, no one could see their way clear to making a mini-series about Atomic War.  Very quickly, the Soviet Union was over with a capital "V."

And so were we.

As the months rolled into years, we tried to set up "On The Beach" somewhere else.  Anywhere else.  No thanks.  As a movie, no thanks.  How about a radio show?  Umm, no.  And in the end, we had to give it back to legend and the movie god of broken dreams.  Both Peter and I went on to other but certainly not better things and as time passed, the sadness began to fade.

Then, one day, ten years later, I read in Daily Variety that Australian Film Commission and Greg Coote were going to make a 3 hour "On The Beach" for Showtime.  After a few calls back and forth calls to my agent, as we understood it, Peter and I would not be involved even though they were using my script to get started.  They had hired Aussie David Williamson to re-write me and as I said before, if you're gonna get re-written, it might as well be by somebody good.  And he is.

They told me they had left all my dialogue from the many submarine scenes.  I had a friend, a graduate of the Naval Academy, who'd gone into nuclear subs as a weapons officer.  He still remembered all the talk, all the details, all the drill.  I milked him shamelessly and gave him my gifted pinball machine as payment.  And to their credit the Aussies recognized the reality value when it was presented.

A few weeks later the trades released the casting on the show: Bryan Brown as Osborne the scientist, okay, I guess I can see that.  Rachel Ward as Moira, okay, she's been good before.  Then Armand Assante as Dwight Towers, oh-oh.  His credits speak for themselves.  Finally, the director, Russell Mulcahy.  Double oh-oh.  His credits, likewise.  To me, this seemed like simple miscasting in order to get the necessary points to make it an Australian project for financing and tax purposes.  But hey, what do I know?

Later I was informed by the Writers' Guild that I would be getting teleplay credit, second position behind David Williamson so at least I'd get some residuals.  I was invited to a huge screening of this new version at the Academy.

I flew down from my Pacific Northwest island and sat with my friend and "Lakota Woman" producer, Lois Bonfiglio.  The Academy Theatre was packed.  Lois introduced me to her friend Larry Gross, also a writer, another good one.

When he heard my name he asked if I was the guy who wrote "Clay Allison" back in the day (see post #2) .  I guessed I was, my very first job, nearly thirty years before.  His grin took over as he began quoting lines from that script.  I was struck dumb but appreciative and thought maybe it was a sign that things tonight might go better than anticipated.

Or not.

It was, as they say, a long, LONG evening capped by a new scene at the end where endlessly mumbling and Method-y Commander Towers abandons his command, stays in Australia with Moira and sends his men home alone.

Apparently this little change was a mandate from the head of the cable company who didn't think today's audience would sit still for the tragic real ending.  He can think what he wants.  Here's what I think: he has doubtless done some good things at Showtime.  But when he made that decision, he left his heart and his courage down in the trunk of his Mercedes.  I hope he remembered to get them back.

After the screening, I saw Peter Strauss for the first time in years.  Utterly crestfallen, we embraced and then, just shook our heads and I went out into the jasmine-scented Wilshire night, alone.

I flew home the next day.  Landing in Seattle, taking the shuttle to the ferry and then the boat across to my island, as I was walking in the door to hug my beloved wife, I realized I had not spoken a word to anyone since I left that screening the night before in L.A.

It's Hollywood, Jake.  Hollywood.


The notes process can be the bane of screenwriters' existence.

Typically, after you hand in your first draft, the producer, the studio, or the network executive and their staffs will call you in for a meeting that always runs an hour longer than anyone thinks.  You are dealing with one script.  Often the exec is facing forty or fifty so sometimes these folks are unable to focus or express themselves in helpful ways.

Occasionally they are at odds with you and even each other about their ideas.  Mostly, they just want to mark it like an old tomcat so they can feel like they helped out, you know, bringing them into the creative process.  Even the most highly paid and successful screenwriters have to endure this.  The great Pauline Kael once described this period as "being helped to death."

Yet bewilderingly, some of these half-baked, soul crushing ideas will be good.  The writers' job in these meetings or at a later date is to recognize which is which, yet seem "open" and reasonable to ALL of it.

Even the stupid ideas that are not likely to help the script.  I once had a studio vice-president suggest we reset my Western in Seventeenth Century Russia.  He'd just read coverage of this book, see.  As you first hear these ideas, concentrate on your breath -- in, out -- and keep a friendly look on your face and say "let me think about that and find a way to make it work."

Never say 'no.'

It's contentious and mostly unnecessary.  Because as one of "The Good Wife" writers pointed out, "The absence of 'yes' plus time equals 'no.'"  Or was it the other way around?  Russia?  Interesting idea; let me get back to you.  On that.

And all this while you take notes.  Nobody will be totally fooled but believe me, this kind of attitude will help.  Unfortunately I was often unable to do it: that's why I know.  Later, they will not remember 70% of their notes and the few that you used, you will lily-gild while you rain praise around them.  There isn't much real world embarrassment in Hollywood.   They seem impervious to it.

So now, you want to rake all the typos and format hiccups out of the script.  To me, the easiest way to do this is to read through it, page by page, backwards.  Then once more from the beginning to make sure the plot points are there and clear.  And that you have done the very best job it is possible to do.  If you have any doubts AT ALL, hold the script for another week and do whatever needs to be done.  Remember, us Chow Puppies have only one chance to make a good first impression and this is it.

So, praise the Lord and pass the Milk Bones!

See you next time for a discussion of Jane Fonda and Ted Turner, America's Fun Couple of the Nineties and their "Lakota Woman."  And what I learned about the screenwriter's actual life.  You know, some goals to achieve and some pitfalls to avoid.


  1. "Their story, doomed as it was, was more real and somehow better than my actual life." Beautifully put. I know that feeling well, regarding the characters I love in the novels and movies that I love. Doomed as they are.

    Now, that's an ironic story. Destroyed by peace!

    "[H]e left his heart and his courage down in the parking garage in the trunk of his Mercedes." Damn right.

    "The absence of 'yes' plus time equals 'no.'" Oh, that is splendid! Splendid! And very good advice.

  2. On the Beach saga: Boy, that is familiar and I feel the pain.
    And the advice on notes, never say no and seem open to even the most inane of ideas, is important. No one likes to hear that their idea is stupid. One of my favorites while pitching some story about a strong, resilient woman in the 80s (OMG did they really exist), was: could you just put her in a nudist colony? Try not to look horrified, nod and say, “Interesting idea.”