Monday, June 29, 2015
#23. "Lakota Woman," what they want and 8 Simple Rules
#23. "Lakota Woman" -- What they want and don't want -- And 8 Simple Rules for success.
Recalling The Billionaire, the Academy Award winning Actress, and the Indians. Starring Ted Turner, Jane Fonda, and Mary Crow Dog. Featuring Lois Bonfiglio, Frank Pierson, and a Chow Puppy. Not exactly in this order but you want to lead with your good-looking, big-bucks people.
Ted Turner is a hero, my benefactor, and will one day be known as Film's savior for three initials: TCM. That's Turner Classic Movies where they show great old movies without commercials (at least so far) and uncut all day and all night! To me, this is one of the great exhibition achievements in film history. And let's face it, he's lots better looking than Louis B. Mayer, David Selznick, Harry Cohen or pretty much any projectionist who ever lived. He's Clark Gable to their Charles Laughton.
I also found Ted Turner to be bratty, narcissistic, and always in a hurry.
He'd had his eye on Jane Fonda for years. So when she and hardcore lefty politico Tom Hayden split up, the Tedster swooped in, all tall, grey, and handsome with the following portmanteau -- He's rich -- He scrubs up nice -- He is a good ol' boy with an adventurous spirit -- He (unlike Georgie Minafer from "The Magnificent Ambersons" which ran on TCM last night) can actually captain a racing yacht to win the America's Cup -- He's progressive and generous; he gave a billion (with a 'b') dollars to United Nations' direct-to-the-people programs back in 1997.
One of the best things he did, brought us together for a short time; Ted and Jane, America's Fun Couple of the Nineties, for a little while in search of an available screenwriter. Pledging 40 million dollars, Ted had set up a series of programs that would run on his TV network about the plight and heroism of the American Indian to be called "The Native Americans, Beyond the Myths and Legends." Well...maybe in addition to the myths and legends.
They would start off with movies about Geronimo, the great Shawnee warrior Tecumseh, and Crazy Horse.
It's my theory that part of the energy that brought this project to fruition was a non-fiction book that Ted and Jane had encountered called "Lakota Woman," a memoir by Mary Crow Dog with Richard Erdoes. This is one book that CAN be judged by its cover; a haunting picture of Mary, taken when she was young and beautiful. That one picture drilled me dead and still does. I think it's one of the reasons the book has been in print so long.
Turning that book into a Turner movie fell into the capable hands of Jane Fonda and Lois Bonfiglio. Lois was the one I saw most often. And I love that woman. Lois is from New York, in her middle years, a strong cookie with an arrestingly beautiful punim (and I am a face man), a great sense of humor, and a deep work ethic. She had toiled on the Sergio Leone masterpiece "Once Upon A Time In America," plus "See You In The Morning," and "Old Gringo."
I'm sure we must have met in Hollywood before we made the deal. But my first memory of our meet was in Santa Fe where Richard Erdoes lived. I believe Mary Crow Dog was there at Richard's house, too. Years, children, and troubles later, Mary looked nothing like the cover of "Lakota Woman." Life is harder on some than others, I'll leave it at that. And I was just discovering what the Res was like; the hard scrabble ass-end of existence.
This country is not exactly famous for its generous treatment of the vanquished. It's a known fact that you can take an American flag and fold it in such a way that, when held up to the light just right, it says Hooray For Us -- Fuck You. What with the mysteriously intentioned Catholic Church, the corrupt and self-serving Bureau of Indian Affairs, and Seagrams, the Indians never stood a chance.
This was our charge with "Lakota Woman:" show it. So we began.
Mary Crow Dog grew up a multi-race Sicangu Lakota Sioux on the Rosebud Reservation in barren, wind-swept South Dakota. Her autobiography and our movie showed her childhood up to her twenties as she became involved in the American Indian Movement's occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973. It was political, familial, and romantic. But mostly "Lakota Woman" was about institutionalized poverty and racism in America. As Mary found her way through old family, new friends, and first lovers into the protest occupation of the historical shrine, she let go of the girl and became a Lakota woman. And yet somehow held on to her innocence. She was a unique and powerful human being.
As I wrote and wrote, I felt that I was on my game because I was doing something that mattered. But as they read and read, so were Lois and Jane and for that very same reason. As we gave and rejected notes on the script, sometimes it felt like a free-for-all tennis match with the Williams sisters and Jimmy Conners. In the end, I think we all made things better.
And as we went about our business, I learned such interesting things. For instance...
When you build a house, be sure to put plenty of sound-dampening insulation into the inner walls. Not just the outside walls. When Ted's Atlanta Braves were in the World Series, we all lit back to the Turner spread just outside Atlanta. Lucky Lois got the guest room down the hall and I was given the common wall room next to Ted and Jane's master suite. Here's all I will say about that: they had, at least that weekend, umm, a very active love life. And the Braves won. I'm not saying one had anything to do with the other but....
Later at a meeting on their jillion acre Montana ranch, I discovered the guest room sheets were high thread count, scented and IRONED! Man, I love ironed sheets. And the guest bathroom had new toothbrushes, new combs, new toothpaste, new razors, new shaving cream, new everything! Apparently Ted and Jane would fly in periodically and their full-time staff would have it all sparkling ready. That staff made, to this day, the best coffee I have ever had.
I fell asleep that night thinking of the excuses I might invent so that I could just live there forever: I'd had a small, painless stroke and couldn't really be moved -- I was getting the best work ever and couldn't really be moved -- I'd give them free options on anything I wrote for life and couldn't really be....zzzzzzzz.
After Ted had showed me his Bierstadt painting that he'd paid a million dollars for, I decided this was a unique chance to politely ask a billionaire how much was enough. Ted mused for a second and then said, "I think about this. And what I came up with is Just A Little More."
Time passed, I kept typing, big wheel kept on turning, Proud Mary kept on burning. This latest fire was my actual life, back in North Carolina.
For reasons that pass understanding, Lois and Jane stuck with me through the death of my mother and father and the loss of my marriage. They easily could have Force Majeured my weepy sad ass out the contractual door but they didn't. And when my beloved ancient cat Frisco died, that was it. I packed up and moved back to Hollywood. Which was prepping its own little Chow Puppy type surprise for all of us.
At 4:31 AM on January 14th, 1994, Los Angeles was hit by the North Ridge earthquake. A booming 6.7, it was felt as far away as Las Vegas. Here are some of the things that happened that morning.
Sound asleep, I was shot out of my water bed on a surfable wave.
My little Hollywood house on Alfred Street shook and vibrated to its groaning foundation, producing a terrible sound of things coming apart that you never hear until it happens to you. It's all your furniture trembling around the rooms at the same time. It's your dishes, silverware, glasses all doing the St. Vitas Dance. It's pictures falling from the shaking, cracking walls. It's your refrigerator swinging open, disgorging its innards. It's your toilet flushing by itself, over and over. It's your neighbors screaming and calling out to one another in terror.
I heard the signed Tiffany standing lamp that had been in my family for eighty years topple over, its favrile glass lamp shade shattering on the hardwood floor, 3 inches away from a thick rug that might have saved it. My blood actually ran cold.
My dog Roxy jumped up on my shaking bed, ducked under the covers, scrambled down to the bottom and trembled against my feet. She had never done anything like that before.
All the lights were out; Los Angeles was without power. My phone rang. It was a friend back in North Carolina and their morning TV shows had been cut into by the We Interrupt This Program earthquake story. I told her it had seemed like 20 or 30 seconds of a war zone. She said she had to go to work but she put her land line phone down by the TV set, left it on so I could hear the over view of what was now being called The Big One.
Just as the first of the explosive aftershocks rolled in.
I am proud to report that neither Roxy or I doo-dooed the bed as we rode out another fifteen minutes of these major tremors and listened to the cacophony of the police and EMT sirens woven into the million howling car alarms set off by the quakes.
By eight that morning I had swept up all the Tiffany glass as tears rolled down my face. Roxy came over and actually licked some off: salt I guess.
I called my friend Dee, a knockout widowed paralegal, who oddly had been to every Academy Award show in the last decade and years before had co-invented flavored douches. What's not to love?! I was so glad to hear her voice.
We drove around until we found a place open for breakfast and then we all, perfect strangers, did the heart-pounding Look We've Come Through data dance as we wolfed down our eggs and extra bacon. It was during my third English Muffin that I remembered my computer was in Santa Monica at the Lakota Woman offices on Montana Ave. Yikes. It had all my research and 3/4 of the first draft stuffed in it!
When we got there, the Earthquake Police were already slapping up the no entrance red tags all over the rickety wooden two-story. It had housed the offices of the Indo-China Peace Campaign for years and some of its staff were there with Jane Fonda and Lois, all of us stunned to silence.
I wish I could remember what happened next. All I know is the following day, I somehow had my old Zenith laptop (one of the first) dented and covered with sand and dust. I took it to the hallowed, first-of-its-kind Writers' Computer Store down on Santa Monica Blvd. and had them retrieve everything they could, dump it down on ASCII file discs and then download that onto a brand new Toshiba T-1900 laptop. My heart was doing the 1812 Overture as I opened the first file. But there it was! We were in business. And I went to work on the plow horse computer that would faithfully serve me the rest of my screenwriting days.
I knew if I could get my script past Lois Bonfiglio and Jane Fonda who had, between them, been dealing with scripts for a combined fifty years, we would have something.
Eventually, we did. And when they hired director Frank Pierson who hired actress Irene Bedard to play Mary Crow Dog, we sure enough DID have something. They invited me to casting sessions, on locations scouts, and even to the set out in Rapid City, South Dakota. Frank, a writer to his marrow, had the company treat me like a prince. The production was largely made up of various peoples of color and as many qualified tribals as they could find.
Some months later, Turner Films held an industry screening of "Lakota Woman" at the Directors' Guild's huge theatre. The place was packed and the movie played well. Of course, I saw all the mistakes I'd made and yet it was still a great night. I felt as if I'd finally done something that counted even though I wasn't quite sure what. But I got a single card "Written By" credit, my very favorite kind.
While cast, crew, and audience milled around after the movie, congratulating, drinking, and eating, I snuck out and went home. I always thought this would be my favorite part but I never know what to say except "thank you" over and over as my embarrassment rises; pretty soon it begins to sound to me like I'm speaking in tongues.
Thanks to The Program (which is what us alcoholics call AA), I had stopped drinking some years before. So when this kind of social situation begins to overwhelm, I go home where it's much clearer; just me and my dog and cats and my huge Go to Hell television set bought after my divorce when I finally settled into who I really am.
Later that year, "Lakota Woman" won a bunch of awards, including one for me. Ironically it was a best screenplay award from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame...for a movie about Indians. Go figure. That bronze wrangler award is on the back of my commode where I happily see it every day. I named him Floyd.
But my biggest thrill came at the Humanitas Awards luncheon. This is an annual screen and teleplay prize (with cash!) given by the Catholic media mafia. I was nominated. However, we didn't win, swept away by "Shawshank Redemption" and "The Burning Season." But afterward, a golden age Academy Award winning screenwriter Daniel Terradash sought me out to say that as a juror he had voted for "Lakota Woman." Best of all, it was in front of Lois and my new love Paula. That was one thank you it was easy to say.
WHAT THEY WANT AND DON'T WANT
For a Hollywood screenwriter to find work and keep it (no small task), comes down to who you are. And just as importantly, who they think you are.
You have to be at least pretty good and you have to be ON. They want writers who are passionate about their project. They want excitability. They want to see you dance because they want to dance, too. Put yourself in their shoes: If you had the choice of a good writer who is sullen, defensive, and constantly whining -- and an only slightly less good one who is receptive, positive, and up-beat...who would you chose? Unfortunately, I have been there, I know.
It helps to keep in mind that many of these studio and network execs have no real skills in the business they are running. All they really have is judgement and they are as nervous about that as you are. Although they may call themselves "creative," they would do just as well at Boeing or Coldwell Banker. They probably got their job in the same kind of accidental oddball way as you did. Most of them know this and it fuels guilt and resentment for the true creators who they see as sketchy, unreliable flakes.
These executives are often over-worked: your script is but one of the many they are shepherding through the smokey fens of development hell. They wouldn't actually mind the writing being good, the story problems being solved but it only means more work for them. And since you created the damn thing, you are the enemy.
Yet it pays real dividends to be kind to these executives. Even though they are now your gatekeepers and make twice the money you do, in a few years, most of them will be somewhere else or out of the business. They know this. And the life fear this engenders gives rise to a bunker mentality and anger. Whatever you can do to defuse this will not only be decent human behavior but is likely to help your career.
In the end, it doesn't really matter how brilliant you are if you are sitting at home with no food, a repoed car, kids in a school you can no longer afford, with credit cards that glow in the dark, and the bank calling you night and day in a house you are trying to sell for less than you bought it for ten years ago.
Back when you were fresh and hot, you know, the bulletproof bad-ass, the new fast gun in town. When you were good, in demand, arrogant, and a royal pain in the ass.
Things change. And as Bob Dylan said "The first one now will later be last."
It's all about attitude. Given the equality of talent and hard work, the writer who is open, forgiving, and passionate will usually get the job.
Believe me, sitting at the Farmers Market over a double latte, unemployed, re-running the part where you told the producer and the development exec to tandem kiss your ass is a soul deadening exercise. Because unlike Mark Twain, you must learn to "suffer fools gladly." And speaking of Twain, you are not allowed to ask an executive (as I cruelly did once) how he could have lived so long and learned so little. In fact, stay away from recycling Twain altogether; he mostly worked alone and was an unhappy hardcase to the end. Plus which, he burned the ground behind him so do not try to stand on it.
8 SIMPLE RULES FOR A SUCCESSFUL SCREENWRITER LIFE
1. Learn to sort the good ideas from the execrable without making those who sold you the bad ones feel foolish.
2. Smile and nod knowingly as others steal and spout all your ideas. The legendary former Governor of Texas Ann Richards once said, "You'd be surprised at what you can accomplish if you don't care who gets the credit."
3. Always be on time...even if they are not. And you should be good natured about the wait. I think the Kindle was invented for this purpose.
4. You must be empathetic. The shoe could so be on the other foot. And probably will be soon enough.
5. Your time is their time. You must be willing to work on weekends, at night, on holidays, whenever. What they do with their time is of little consequence to you. Comparisons will only serve to enrage. Your mom told you years ago that life isn't fair.
6. When they have helped you to death with their notes, when you cannot take any more, when they have fubarred the whole mess, you must tell them. Peacefully and with the greatest equanimity. You are your script's attorney. If you let it go down the tubes, you will be haunted by its failure for the rest of your life. And I am not even kidding. So take a deep breath and calmly make its case, point by point, ending with a positive suggestion about where you might start -- together -- to get this train back on the tracks.
7. During all these rules or ANYWHERE, do not call attention to yourself; it's the script that matters.
and most importantly
8. Keep going. Do not listen to the Bad Judge voices in your head; the ones in your heart are the ones that matter. Fuck those Bad Judges and the horse they rode in on. Nothing worthwhile to say, they are old news. So snap that rubber band on your wrist and just keep going. Keep going. Never stop. And