“(In Hollywood) Nobody knows anything.” – William Goldman, Adventures in the Screen Trade (1983)*
“(In Hollywood) It’s not what you know or who you know, it’s what you know about who you know.” – screenwriter friend (1990s)
“(In Hollywood) They ‘yes’ you to death.” – same friend
Finally, we get to California!
Like a lot of writers, there was a time in my career when I believed I could wow the entertainment world with a drop-dead gorgeous screenplay or two, make a wad of cash, then quit in disgust over “creative differences” with beandip-brained studio execs who couldn’t see commercial appeal in my three-hour epic about a dysfunctional Italian family set adrift by a band of angry Inuits on an ice floe off northern Greenland. So, in fact, I wrote several screenplays back in the 1990s — not about Italian families or Inuits — and one of them caught the attention of an agent in Santa Fe named Lisa F, a woman who had sold several screenplays in recent years. With a lunch meeting and a contract signing, she became my agent, happy and optimistic about my future.
She loved the screenplay – a dark comedy whose lead role had John Cusack written all over it. Called “The Widower,” it’s about a man named Jack (Cusack) whose wife Carolyn is killed when a car, driven (oddly enough) by her psychiatrist, rockets through their picture window into their dining room during dinner. The big hitch is, the couple was on the verge of divorce: she was losing her mind, and he, craving affection from someone sane, was having a torrid affair. There’s much more that happens, but in the absurdly remote chance the movie were ever to get made I’d be spoiling things by saying anything else.
Some weeks later, Lisa called me. “You’re going to Hollywood. Paramount is interested. They like it. You’ll be taking a meeting with Heidi Bumgartner (fake name), and she’s a major player.” Her last words to me before I hit the road still ring in my ears: “If they want you to do a rewrite of any kind, do not do anything for free. You need to be paid.”
“Okay,” I said.
Paramount in the 1990’s was a cool place. First, it was run by Sherry Lansing, one of the most respected and powerful women ever in Hollywood. Second, it was the studio for Titanic, Braveheart, Forrest Gump, and a bunch of others. It’s on Melrose Avenue, in the heart of old working Hollywood, and it faces the street with an enormous arched entryway that actually looks welcoming – with open arms – rather than imposing. Driving in, I gave the guard my name, he confirmed I was on his list, and he directed me to Heidi Bumgartner’s office.
Heidi was pleasant as could be – smiling and gracious and full of praise for “The Widower” and its humor – dark, but not too dark. “The concept – how does a man grieve for a wife he didn’t really love – is very fresh, intriguing.”
“Yes. I”m sure it happens.”
“There’s something about the ending that doesn’t work for me, though.” Uh oh, here it comes. “Jack’s last action — he needs to take the high moral ground, and he doesn’t do it. He kind of… fizzles out.”
“Jack is like that,” I said. “He tends to fizzle.”
“He needs a moment of sudden evolution – to take the high moral ground.”
I thought for a short while and started to nod at her. “It’s doable. It means some reordering of things –”
“You can do it,” said Heidi.
“Yes, he can take the high moral ground. But I’ll need –”
And here is where my entire professional life was spinning in a blur around me, both glorious success and my own personal higher moral ground easily within reach, but not compatible with each other, but I’ll need a week or two fighting tooth and nail with but I’ll need to be compensated, and it just blurted out —
“– to be compensated.”
Heidi seemed to stare at me in disbelief. You want us to pay you to do that? She managed to squeeze out one of those small, tolerant smiles and lowered the boom. “Sorry, we can’t do that.”
“My agent insisted.”
So much for being “yessed” to death, and so ended my relationship with Paramount and possibly my best ever shot at getting a foot in the door.
A few weeks later after I was back home in Taos, Lisa called me again and said, “New Crime Productions really likes the script.”
“John Cusack’s company. That’s good news.” Go figure that the the production company owned by the guy I visualized in the lead role was interested in the script because the lead role had the owner’s name written all over it. Well, in time, they changed their minds, darn the luck, and I was back to my day job of freelance writing, which has been consistently satisfying and sustaining for years, and is to this day, and gives a wide berth to anything Hollywood might take an interest in.
What’s surprised me most about the film industry in Hollywood, from the several times I’ve connected with it over the years, is how frequently wrong “Nobody knows anything” proves itself to be. This is one scary-smart, highly educated set of people, and they know plenty. They know when a screenplay is good. What they don’t know is if other people will think it is good.
* For budding screenwriters, William Goldman was (and maybe still is) their first stop in the library. His screenplays? Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, Marathon Man, The Great Waldo Pepper, All The President’s Men, Misery, The Princess Bride, and many more. He’s also written a dozen novels and several nonfiction works on the entertainment biz like Adventures In The Screen Trade, and the beautifully titled Which Lie Did I Tell? He’s been telling tales “out of school” about Hollywood, and the guy still gets work!!
Why is this chicken so big?
The Ross 308. Bursting out of its skin. This photo was for our Chicken with 40 cloves of garlic recipe from a few weeks back.
I was going to write extensively about why broiler chickens are so big these days – about four times as big as they were 50 years ago – but we’re having chicken tonight and I wanted to stay hungry. The chicken we’re having weighs nearly 9 lbs. It’s almost certainly a “Ross 308” chicken, a breed engineered by Aviagen out of Huntsville, Alabama, to grow big and do it fast. If you’d like to hear how wretched their short lives are – 47 days to market weight – the ASPCA is happy to tell all right here, in an extensive study. The crusher is, many of the Ross 308s grow so fast in such small spaces that they aren’t strong enough to stand up. They just lie there, getting sores and infections and dining on feed laced with painkillers to ease their misery.
*Sigh.* There goes my appetite. My wife and I decided this will be our last culinary experience with a Ross 308.
There you have it.