Thursday, August 31, 2017

#30. "The Hatfields & the McCoys" and always rewrites

#30.  "The Hatfields and the McCoys.  And endless re-writes.

Now a few words about the History Channel's TV miniseries "The Hatfields and the McCoys," the award-winning ratings bonanza from a few years ago.  It turned out to be my last job.  And outside of a annoying little page 1 rewrite late in the game, oddly one of my most fulfilling.

Back in the mists-of-time Eighties, I was hired by producer Leslie Greif and CBS to write a four hour mini-series about the legendary family feud.

We were to start from scratch; the true story of two families' civil war that grew and grew until it swallowed whole generations.  Agonizingly, this was in the days before Google and Wikipedia, so I headed to Book Soup on Sunset and left with four tomes on the subject.  Then on to the next bookstore.  And the next.  My credit card was actually warm when I got home.

I probably should've gone to the public library but they have always filled me with dread.  I mean all those cards...and numbers?  Eeuuu.

Starting a big historical project is hard.  WHERE to start is one reason why.  Fortunately I had one of my favorite producers on hand.  I have worked with older producers, more experienced, sideboards groaning with awards and buddy celebrity photos.  But I have never worked with a more focused, tenacious, funnier guy, and one that I treasure.

Los Angeles Leslie is his family's Crowned Prince; why he would be so obsessed with this violent hillbilly saga from a hundred-and-fifty years ago is anybody's guess.  Very soon, partnered with the legendary Al Ruddy on the project, Leslie became my guy.  He believed in the primacy of writing, and in the first ten years, before he replaced me with "Deadwood's" Ted Mann, I was his guy.

I had been living back in North Carolina then and Leslie and I were both fans of "L.A. Law."  Since he was often out at night, I taped the shows for him and FedExed it the next day.  He didn't know how a VCR worked or, more likely, just liked the idea of me taping it for him.  He especially loved all the local southern commercials.

Once my parents passed, my marriage and my cat followed suit.  I had suddenly run out of reasons to stay Southern.  When I moved back to Hollywood, I found sweet little house on Alfred Street to rent that would accommodate a couple of Chows like me and Roxy.  With the expert help of a move-in specialist (LA is covered up in specialists): a woman who had once, back in her day, been a British horror movie queen at Hammer Studios with Christopher Lee, we set up one of the bedrooms as my office first, then the TV.  I loved my new little house.

Once I was ensconced, I called Leslie and we immediately buddied up on seeing Stupid Guy Movies like "Batman" and "Tin Cup" or anything with Bruce Willis. 

I was still finding unopened Bekins boxes in the garage, when I made my first Hatfields-McCoys research trip to Eastern Kentucky and Western West Virginia, the two feuding families' homes.  I talked to people, I went to small town libraries, I looked at Bibles, often a coded fount of odd family information.  I remember someone had written "Peeuw!" beside some wayward McCoy cousin's name.  Grist for the mill.

I stopped at historical societies and burrowed into old land purchase and sales records.  I sorted through process services, arrest records in old courthouses, up rickety wooden stairs where, in Pikeville, an ancient marmalade cat followed me from room to room.  I talked to local politicians, veteran newspaper folks, and even a large animal veterinarian.  And then I went home to write.

But first -- being me, no surprise -- I whipped through a copy of Syd Field's "Screenplay."  He'd finally written it!  All those plot points and paradigms apply to most all dramatic narratives.  In fact each scene should have those wheels.  I made a massive 3X5 card display taped to my dining room wall and invited Leslie over for a little walk-around read.

He was mesmerized and most of his suggestions were like, "Flip those two scenes, Pup."  Or "Take that card out, we don't need it." And time after time, he was right.  This is a crucial ability given to only a few producers.

Four months later, when I finished the first rough draft at 250 pages, I thought I had something.  So did others.  We polished it, cut it, revised it, worked it over like a blurry speed bag.  Got it where we wanted it and then officially Sent It Out.

As they say: crickets.

We couldn't get anyone we and/or the network wanted.  No one would pull the trigger.   People liked it, some even liked it a lot.  Just not the Right Ones and not quite enough.

After I went through all my rewrites and polishes for the network and a director, there was nothing left for me to do.

I didn't want to go, I didn't.  These characters and their real history had become archetypically real to me.   But eventually, I drifted away to another project; I knew Leslie would never let The Hatfields and the McCoys die.  And sure enough, he didn't.

Released to my new life/career course, I passed from pitch to pitch, from draft to draft, from show to show -- some got made, some didn't.  Some were good, some not so much.  One even brought me back to Leslie; a low budget war movie taking place in modern Korea.  I got paid, it got made but as the kid said in the McCoy family Bible, "peeuw."  The best thing about it was it co-starred R. Lee Ermey, a former Marine Corps drill instructor which he then brilliantly portrayed in "Full Metal Jacket."  If you want to know what Parris Island was like for ten generations of Marines, see this movie.  It is the experience itself.

Finally, months turned into years.

And one December, my year count added up to sixty plus.  Momma mia, how does this happen?  In my mind, I'm like forty-something.  But suddenly, I have trouble putting on my socks!  And my agent was honest enough to tell me that he was encountering resistance getting me jobs because I was...too old.

When that shock wore off, I looked around and realized I actually was pretty old for a Hollywood pup.

So I called in the rest of the dogs and pissed on the fire: I retired and began my Hollywood uncoupling.  First to the Valley.  Then to Santa Barbara where my sweetheart Paula became my wife.  Finally, all the way up to an island in the Pacific Northwest.  But I never stopped thinking about the Hatfields, an epic that, during its long night, had entered my bloodstream.

And speaking of blood, a brief note about open-heart surgery.  They call it CABG ("cabbage") which stands for Coronary Artery Bypass Graft and bubba it is one of the medicine-man's better tricks.  Eleven years ago, at Providence Hospital, I had it.  A quadruple!  And in four hours of surgery with four days of recoup and four weeks of rehab, my actual heart GOT REWRITTEN!  Thank ya, Jesus!  And thank you Dr. Pat Ryan, my surgical lighthouse.

Somewhere in those years, Leslie encountered his three lighthouses -- Kevin Costner, Ted Mann, and the History Channel.  I don't know which came first, but one morning -- years later -- up here on island sleepy land, I got a wild-ass Hollywood call from Leslie.  "We're a GO!  We got
 Kevin Costner and Kevin Reynolds to direct, we're shooting in Romania, six hours, and I promise you'll get credit!  It's happening, Dog!"

I was thrilled and dead flat sure I had been rewritten, maybe even re-rewritten.  Whoever did that was likely rewritten.  As I may have mentioned, the movie and TV biz is fueled by fear and doubt.  Until the big Kahuna (usually a star or a director) gets there and says "STOP!  This is the script we shoot."  I believe in our case that was Mr. Costner who I never met but who has my everlasting gratitude.

When they were done eight months later, I read their scripts and looked at the DVD they sent me.  They covered much of the same ground mine did, the same events, the same characters, even many of the same moments.  I liked what they'd done; even though theirs was more violent, Ted Mann is a very good writer.  But hell, I still liked my version better.  Just the way of things I reckon.  And it was somewhat ameliorated by getting a big ol' single card first position story credit in the main titles.  On all three nights!

A few months later, it hit the air and all hell broke loose.  The reviews were kindly and the record setting ratings went through the roof.  Those three nights were some heady days for all of us.

When I look at my "Hatfields and the McCoys" Emmy nomination certificate, I think of Costner and Leslie.  When I look at my bronze Writers Guild Best Teleplay Award, I think of Leslie and Costner.  And when I get those green envelope residual checks, I think of the whole gang of 'em, right down to craft services and the Port-a-Potty honey-wagon guys (in one end, out the other) slaving away in the wilds of Romania, shooting a mammoth historical six hour mini-series that I birthed and pretty much almost kinda wrote!

My night at the Emmys was...something.  There is one winner per category and four losers.  That night us screenwriters found ourselves in the latter group.  Hey, somebody has to do it!  But for a second or two, it was great.  When they called out our names, instantly and without thinking, we grasped hands and squeezed tight.  Instant fellowship, hard work, ascending prayers.  Ahhh, if we could only bottle that moment.

Then the other dork's name was called out and we were crestfallen.  In that huge room, for us, the air was gone.

Of course it's great to be nominated but when you get that close to that big Kahuna Emmy trophy, the one everybody knows everywhere, the hit to the heart is serious.  And since I'm totally retired and unlikely to ever be there again, I will share my unused acceptance speech with you.  Here it is in its entirety.

"I would like to thank Kevin Costner, our star and rabbi for saying yes.  And producer Leslie Greif, who would not let this die.  And finally, Margaret Swann, my high-school typing teacher."


When someone rewrites you, it's catastrophic and you take to the bed.  When you rewrite someone, it's an interesting and lucrative way to pass the time while you take to Musso & Frank's restaurant, waiting for The Big Score.

I found these rewrite assignments can be fun and keep your rep and your writing chops sharp.  The best writers in the business as well as the worst do them.  Somewhere on that sliding scale, I did enough in my time.  Here's what I found.  Even the most wonderful journey has unforeseen stops at ugly out-of-everything places.  Deal with it, keep going.

After you've carefully read the script the studio or network or producer sent you, you have to decide if it's a job you want.  What can you bring to the party?  Who is involved?  I recall years ago I was being poached to work on "Hillman," a good but odd script by Don Petersen.  It would be produced and star Paul Newman.  Did I want the job?  Oh, mamma, does a cat have an ass?!

Once I had made up my mind, there was a Big Meeting scheduled wherein all parties sniff each other carefully for type, possibility, and skill.  I always found it best to tell them clearly and succinctly what you liked about their script and, if pressed, what you didn't.  And tell them that inside of a month with their input, you are the one to get this off life-support to a green light.

Then, you will patiently take all their notes.  Some will be good, some bad, some will seem like a Chinese crossword puzzle.  Take 'em anyway, don't argue (I was very bad at this), and whatever problems arise, figure it out later in the privacy of your own home.

I found it was a good idea to make the first script shorter.  Most early drafts are over done, over long, with way to much sugar.  Jump in making cuts, tightening wherever possible.  Your fealty is to the narrative arc, to the story itself.  Not the Poetry.

The most important question one can ever ask: "What is this movie about?"  Rent, food, getting a car that runs, paying off your AmEx bill may all be true but none of them are a good enough answer.

How do your characters face this question?  How are we drawn deeper and deeper into its web?  You have to know these things or you will die and this fifty million dollar project will die, too.

The ABOUT question is, I believe, the most massive inquiry a project can face.  That's why you can never let it go.  Why are we huddled masses gathered together in this theatre on this night looking at this movie?  Director Sidney Lumet once said, it's not just the plot, it's the beating heart and soul of the film.  As Ben Affleck pointed out, the plot is the meat you throw to the various guard dogs.  The "about" is why you must climb over that wall in the first place.

In the effort to tighten things up, cut words, lines, even scenes if you can.  If the story flows without it, sayonara sucker.  Was Steven King's thousand page version of "The Stand" really better than his earlier, shorter one?  And if possible, rewrite as much of the first twenty pages as you can.  Because that's when they are really paying attention.  And show some class by leaving the first writer's name on it; the Writer's Guild will work all that out later.  But at this point, don't be a credit hog.

And understand this -- as you are contemplating rewriting someone's script, somewhere, someone has that same furrowed brow contemplating rewriting yours.  Nearly EVERYONE gets re-written.  In my years in Hollywood, the only times I wasn't rewritten were on "Dadah is Death" made in Australia during a writers strike.  And on "Lakota Woman" for which I thank director Frank Pierson and producers Lois Bonfiglio and Jane Fonda who held the line for me.  God love 'em.  There was nothing for the Guild to work out.

If you are lucky, they will hire a spiffy writer to come in and mop up.  On "The Rose" I got rewritten by Bo Goldman, two time Academy Award winner.  He did some really good stuff (along with an uncredited Bruce Vilanch) and now, thirty plus years later, I can no longer tell who did what.  But the Guild can.

I rewrote the legendary Terence Malick on "The Dehon Brothers."  He was so pleased with my efforts that he changed his name on the movie to David Whitney.  And then fifteen years later, he rewrote me on some movie I can't remember the name of.  Maybe "Great Balls of Fire."  Alan Sharp and I rewrote each other many times.  Keep in mind, I have never met any of these people.  But the Guild had.

The line between so-called success and failure is thin, twisty, and fades in and out.  Especially in show business.  If you get real close to it, you can hardly tell the difference between a home run and a strike out.  Because longing is an actual currency in Hollywood.

If they're rich, they don't have quite enough.  If they're on a roll, they have nightmares about the next two being failures.  When folks would ask the great 40s director Preston Sturges what he was doing, he would tell them he was "between flops."

Hollywood rookies' complaints sound indistinguishable from the high rollers: the biz is in the hands of idiots, there is no justice in This Town, he couldn't direct a two car funeral and he gets a goddamn Oscar, we got so screwed by being put in the wrong Emmy category (hey, waid a minit, dat waz us!).  Why is it only tentpole D.C. and Marvel movies get green-lit?!  We are poor little lambs who have lost our way, blah blah blah.

And, truth to tell, I was often a soloist in this choir.

Yet, I was ever grateful to have a job.  That became a calling.  That miraculously morphed into a career.  I thought I would be forever lost.  But somehow... somehow I was found.

Right up to the present moment wherein I recently got word that a rock and roll movie I worked on (see posting #15) back in the Pleistocene Era finally came together with some producers that 20th Century Fox trusted enough to begin work on a Broadway-bound musical.  And magically, wonderfully, we are all still inspired by two wildly talented women at its original heart: star
Bette Midler and Amanda McBroom who wrote the timeless title song "The Rose."  Of course, "many a slip..." but still.

A young, very smart woman I knew once described life as just things coming in and things going out.  To me, that about nails it.  And with that, I bid you farewell.  Because -- for a while -- this is your Chow Puppy thing...going out.

But as always, he is probably watching TV and thinking happily about Show Biz: the very cat litter box of our hopes and dreams.


  1. Damn, Billy.....reading your blog has been, with each entry, like sharing a huge feast of magical proportions....wondrous stories laced with great highs, humor, colossal dives and an ever present resilience which clearly, has served you through a lifetime career as a Hollywood writer . The whole of it should be required reading for all film school kids. Thanks for the joy of it! ❤️Sheila

  2. It's so amazing how recent it was that we had to go to bookstores or libraries and haul away big stacks of books that might each, if we were lucky, contain one piece of information worth using. Do you ever wish your career had taken place during modern computer times? Or are you sentimental like me, with a fondness for the hardships we once endured?

    "He didn't know how a VCR worked or just liked the idea of me taping it. He especially loved all the local southern commercials." I love that! And then, "Once my parents passed, my marriage and my cat followed suit. I had suddenly run out of reasons to stay Southern." Billy, I'm so sorry—what a heartbreaking series of events! I'm glad you had the help of a "move-in specialist"(?!) to get you settled in your sweet new little house. (And I'm wondering whether move-in specialists still exist, and how much they charge; I've lived in my current apartment for more than four years and still have no furniture but the bed, and no pictures on the walls. I long for such a specialist—and if she's an ex-horror movie queen, all the better!)

    "I talked to local politicians, veteran newspaper folks, and even a large animal veterinarian." Billy, your life has been so rich with people and experiences! I wish you would come out of retirement just long enough for one more project, and that I could tag along and try to help.

    Oh, my God! "[H]e was encountering resistance getting me jobs because I was . . . too old." What a stab in the heart! But, then, that was before the cabbage; that surgery must have knocked years off your age! I was so happy when you told me, at Anne's 60th birthday party, how much it had helped you—not just to stay alive but to feel so much better! Is it easier to put your socks on now?

    How utterly cool that you got an Emmy nomination and a bronze Writers Guild Best Teleplay Award for the mini-series that you "birthed and pretty much almost kinda wrote!" (Ha ha!) I should check it out—do you recommend it, or is it not close enough to your version to be worthwhile? What I should really ask is this: of all the screenplays you've written, which ones make you proud enough that you would recommend them to friends? 'Cause I'd sure be interested in looking them up!

    "When someone rewrites you, it's catastrophic and you take to the bed. When you rewrite someone, it's an interesting and lucrative way to pass the time while you take to Musso & Frank's restaurant, waiting for The Big Score." Ha ha! Love it.

    Oh, wow. What an adventure you've taken me on. What a LIFE you've led—you have endless things to be proud of. And you've written about it beautifully! You really convey the overwhelming feeling of what it must be like to work in the Business.

    I hope you're not bored on your little Northwest island now, after all those (famous) people and all that excitement! And getting credit—even though not always the fair amount—for your art! What a life. I admire and envy you, Billy.

    Thanks for the wild ride!