I had no sooner finished my little indie screenplay—written solely for my own amusement, really, and a script I’ll one day offer to small production companies, as it’s one of those quirky little low-budget projects that, if—big if—actually produced, sometimes even does quite well. “The Squid and the Whale," for instance, or “Sideways." Not to mention all the countless others that sink into oblivion every year. I’d no sooner finished it and was getting ready for a rewrite than a well-known and highly-respected production company in L.A. pitched me an idea for a film they’d like me to write.
No, nothing’s etched in granite yet, as we’re still developing the story, but one never knows.
How did this happen? Simple. Hollywood is built on one’s being in the right place at the right time. I’d been asked by a team of screenwriters to look at a script they’d written and add my two cents to it. The script was well-written; but I felt the story was angled in such a way that no one would make it. And the characters needed to pop a bit more on the page. So I did what’s called in the business a page-one rewrite, using most of their characters and beats, and building on the central theme of the piece turned it into something that I felt actually had a shot at selling. It’s still making the rounds, but when this company read it, and liked it and eventually passed on it, they asked to meet with the person responsible for the writing of the draft, namely me.
So being 3000 miles away from their office I found myself on the phone with their head of projects and one of the partners, and was given a three-minute pitch of an idea. They’d read me well; it was right up my alley, and I’m now in the process of putting together not (yet) a script but a treatment, a kind of prose overview of how I imagine the story could play out.
(Cut to the next day. By way of research I walk into a Barnes & Noble, pick out a book on a certain mental illness—let's call it Psychosis for Dummies—pick out another on homicide in Los Angeles, stroll up to the counter, pay for them, and seriously alarm the clerk who with uneasy eye watches me drift out of the store.)
Each time I send a treatment to them I’m given notes (as is the custom) and we have phone conversations, and I go back and add this or remove that, and eventually, I hope, we’ll get to a place where an agreement can be hammered out with them and I can start writing it as a screenplay, from FADE IN to FADE OUT.
Those of us who write novels for a living sometimes find this kind of writing difficult to imagine. Not the actual screenwriting part of it, but the collaborative aspect of having people gazing over your shoulder and telling you to change this or that, or even to go off in a whole new direction. A good screenwriter accepts these notes with grace and within days produces a treatment conforming to what the producers desire. Which is why 90% of a screenwriter’s career is in taking assignments, not selling original material. That I save for my fiction.
Negotiation isn’t impossible with producers, but in the early stages of the process the idea is to get the project to a place where everyone’s happy with it. Then you can riff off of it, as a seasoned musician will build his improvisation on a tune’s chord changes and make it all his own.
In fact a screenwriter is, in a way, like a jazz musician; he or she masters the instrument and once mastered he can pretty much take any ordinary song or show tune—something we’ve all heard a thousand times before—and make of it something amazing and original. Charlie Parker took a song that had been around the block a few times, “Cherokee,” and turned it into the masterpiece that is “Ko-Ko.” Think of Sonny Rollins playing “I’m an Old Cowhand,” for instance, or “There’s no Business Like Show Business.” The guy is one of the great improvisers, and can take the most maudlin tune and turn it into art. John Coltrane, famously, took a banal little song called “My Favorite Things” from “The Sound of Music” and lifted it into the realm of jazz classic.
Most screenwriters have their niche, their genre, and in order to write well they have to know all the givens of their genre so they can subvert them and still surprise an audience that has grown increasingly canny when it comes to predicting plot. I could no sooner write a romantic comedy (“romcom,” as it’s known) than I could become a member of the N.Y. Knicks. Though I love the romantic comedies of the Thirties and Forties, those that are made today simply don’t click with me, and other writers can do it consummately well. So screenwriters tend to brand themselves. As a novelist I can write (and have written) different kinds of novels, though each in its own way contains a mystery that needs to be solved (and sometimes isn’t), which is why on occasion they’ve been reviewed along with a cluster of thrillers or mysteries, though they really don’t strictly fit into either category.
As a screenwriter I tend to specialize in thrillers—political thrillers, spy stories, tales of intrigue, what have you. The model was set in the Seventies: “Three Days of the Condor,” “The Parallax View,” “All the President’s Men” come to mind. They were stories of paranoia that began with one small event and blossomed into something a great deal bigger and more consequential, and they clicked perfectly with the times (consider reality: a handful of guys are caught breaking into an office in the Watergate, a small item on page nine of the next morning’s newspaper), and would click again now that we have emerged from the Bush era with our paranoia glands still secreting on a regular basis.
All of the above movies hold an audience because what we’re watching is process: the step-by-step journey from ignorance to enlightenment, whether it's a police investigation or a TV chef preparing a meal. It’s like those little informational films they used to show us in school way back when: how the lowly almond gets from plant to table, which somehow held us first-graders in a kind of inert fascination while our teachers hid their yawns, daydreamed about their evening martinis and worried about the Bomb.
Process... We start with a room where a dead body is found and step-by-step follow the detectives until Kevin Spacey's on his knees and Brad Pitt's holding a gun to his head, and what we're witnessing is the end of the twisted logic of a killer with too much Bible on the brain and Morgan Freeman staring him down in his own implacable way. Take two eggs, a fistful of asparagus, a chunk of butter, and ten minutes later you have a beautiful omelette, exquisitely photographed as the chef prepares the ingredients and makes them into a delicious-looking meal for a warm summer night. A green salad on the side, a glass of Cabernet, "Se7en" in the DVD player and your evening's complete.
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