Looking back, I realize Chris was correct – I handed him a sheaf of shapeless unedited diary entries. Not only did they lack a story, they didn’t have a point. The only reason Joyce and I weren’t bored witless was we were in the cast of characters. This was neither the first nor the only time I resisted negative feedback only to recognize its wisdom later.
When readers fail to rhapsodize over my first draft – which has happened exactly never – my first reaction is, at best, defensive. Sometimes, I’m downright hostile. That’s one of the reasons friends like Chris are so valuable. They’re not afraid to tell me the truth because they know that after my ego settles down, we’ll still be speaking.
No writer enjoys criticism, but I’ve come to realize it’s a gift. Some people can’t accept it. If I recognize them, I tell them their first draft is perfect. Taking the time to analyze the strengths and weaknesses in someone else’s work is a sign of respect – even though it doesn’t feel like that when I’m on the receiving end.
I felt terrible about being tardy on the very first day of a nine-month class and the panicked rush to minimize the damage made me even more nervous than I would have been anyway (which is pretty darn anxious). A fight-or-flight surge of adrenalin takes over when I have to speak in front of a group of strangers and unless I’m very careful, I talk at supersonic speed. I felt like I was making a terrible impression on this new group of kids which flustered me even more. There’s an obvious solution – think less about how I’m coming across and more about the kids I’m here to teach. Gradually I leveled out. I took some admittedly poor photos of my class that first day.
This was the first day of my second year teaching Screen Writing Symposium at Columbia and I couldn’t imagine ever liking a class as much as I liked my first class. I kept up with them (as much as you can with occasonal updates on Facebook) but I actively missed our Thursday afternoons in Room E. I struggled to remember the names of my new students. I thought, it will never be the same.
I was right; it wasn’t, in the same way my second child isn’t the same as my first and my third is quite different from both siblings. Inevitably, every class – especially one that meets four hours a week for nine months – develops it’s own unique identity. Comparing them is futile, they’re both special – irreplaceable – in their own way. Just like I miss the kids in my first class on Thursdays, I miss the kids in my second class (except, I taught them on Tuesdays, Fridays, and finally Mondays, so I didn’t associate them with a day).
I hope to keep up with them as they traverse the real post-college world, probably via Facebook. I’d like to see all of them again too. I fantasize that if and when I retire, I’ll host a party at my house for all my former students and the ones that show up will regale me with the highs and lows of their careers. Hopefully, their wins will far outpace their losses.
This was an exciting, productive time in my writing career. Maybe a few lucky screen and television writers enjoy steady careers uninterrupted by unemployment; I suspect the majority, like myself, are either overbooked or out of work and terrified their career is over. My specialty, which kept me employed – mostly by NBC – during this period was my speed. I could deliver a Movie of the Week (MOW) ready for production in two weeks. It might not win any Emmys or Humanitas awards, but no one needed to use a pseudonym or hang their heads in shame.
I felt the pressure but didn’t mind it; I thrived on the crazy deadlines. I enjoyed and respected the creative people I worked with. I loved how MOWs (especially green-lit ones!) went into production minutes after I handed in a script. None of the months and years of development that went into film assignments only to wind up abandoned when the studio regime changed.
Another perk – television writers exert considerably more control over their work than feature writers; this is far truer for staff series writers than MOW writers. Either way, you are far less likely to be rewritten in television than features. That said, I did my fair share of MOW rewrites as well as originals; my name doesn’t appear on some of them because, unless it’s a page-one rewrite, it’s difficult for second or third writers to get credit and it always involves a WGA arbitration.
Kanan Road – which became Malibu Shores – has a special place in my heart because it was a backdoor pilot for a series which was ordered into production early in ’97. It turned out to be short-lived (being scheduled at 8 PM on Saturday nights – what some people called “the Tower of London” because that’s where NBC shows awaited execution – didn’t help. Especially since the target demographic was teens). That said, I learned a lot and appreciated every minute of it. I’m grateful to everyone who made it possible.
It was thrilling to explore a legendary venue like the Hollywood Bowl. Actually, any casual visitor to LA can explore its exterior – the site is neither gated nor guarded. Tourists can park in the lot, stroll up and down the shell, even take the stage if they choose on off-season days when no one is doing a sound-check or performing.
Backstage, of course, is off limits. That and its exclusivity endows it with irresistible mystique, at least to me. I’ve been backstage at a few rock shows (notably Bruce Springsteen, Motley Crue and Kiss) but on those occasions I was so in awe of the performers that specific details about the surroundings were a blur.
The tour Michael arranged was perfect. Our guide, who’d worked there for years,entertained us with anecdotes about the rich and famous and we could take our time. I took a lot of photos, many already in the clubs and venues section of my site, some reprinted here.
Why my interest in the inner workings of the Hollywood Bowl? I’m writing a novel about a defunct rock’n’roll band, famous in the sixties. One member went on to success beyond his wildest dreams. My hero did not. The book – half of which takes place in the 60s – is about their attempt to reunite 25 years later. Will the secrets and betrayals that shattered them in the seventies resurface in 2000? Have any of them really changed?
My MFA program at USC required a non-fiction book as well as a novel and a screenplay. I don’t remember who told me about Sontag and Evans but their story fascinated me. Basically, Chris Evans – a family man – and his buddy John Sontag became central California folk heroes by repeatedly robbing the hated Southern Pacific Railroad. The story everything – exciting robberies, a noble cause, escapes from jail, mountain communities aiding and abetting the outlaws and a shootout at the Stone Corral!
My in-laws invited me to make their home my research base and I stayed with them for several weeks. Most of my destinations were less than thirty minutes away. Today I could do it all faster on my laptop but in 76, I had to drive to actual locations, scroll through microfilm and handle old newspapers. It was hard work but to my surprise I loved it.
I wanted to focus on Evans’ oldest daughter Eva, seventeen. Eva broke them out of jail and married bachelor outlaw Sontag. Their union was brief because Sontag died from his Stone Corral wounds.
Information on Eva was hard to come by but I believe I discovered a few things nobody else knew. So why can’t you find my Sontag and Evans book at Barnes and Noble? Why didn’t I go the extra mile and write it after all that research?
Ironically, all that research sunk the project. I fell in love with how much I knew and got mired in minutiae. The smallest detail had to be accurate and corroborated. The net result? My first paragraph required seven footnotes. Nobody wants to read a pedantic tome like that.
I put the project aside, intending to resume when my research was less fresh in mind. That’s where it sits today, in cardboard boxes in our garage.
This was an amazing day, full of promise, and it retains its magic quality in my memory even though almost nothing unfolded like expected. I got the assignment to adapt S. E. Hinton’s classic novel, the Outsiders, for the screen. I did pose as a high school student and return to the high school I graduated from (more than a decade earlier) without getting busted.
Augie didn’t direct the movie, Francis did, which was the good news and the bad news. I’m awed by his talent; he directed some of the greatest movies of our time IMHO. How could this development possibly be bad? He’s an equally talented writer and took over the rewrite himself. When I saw the final shooting script, my name was nowhere to be seen.
Under the Writers Guild of America rules, this triggered an automatic arbitration because a production executive (director, producer etc.) sought screenplay credit. Three anonymous writers read all of our scripts and rendered a decision about screenplay credit. After a second and third arbitration and a Policy Review Board, I prevailed. It was a tense time.
This experience piqued my interest in the arbitration process and I volunteered to serve as an arbiter. Eventually I got to serve on the Policy Review Board, which I continue to do to this day.
Reading multiple drafts of the same script to decide who deserves screen credit provides a spectacular education in screen writing or, more accurately, rewriting. It was a front row seat to see exactly how scripts assume their final shape. I also learned a lot about human nature.
There are significant financial rewards for getting your name on a script, even if the movie’s a bomb. That might have motivated a few writers to battle but I think most of them fought because they believed they deserved to win. It reminds me of the joke about the actor playing the gravedigger in Hamlet, who’s convinced the play is about the gravedigger. Time after time, writers clearly saw – and frequently exaggerated – their own contribution and missed or minimized the contribution of writers before or after them. I doubt I’m immune to this self-serving blind spot; no doubt I do the same thing, despite being aware of this trap.
I suspect this tendency isn’t restricted to actors and writers – that many, if not most, human beings focus on their own contributions to the exclusion of others regardless of their line of work.
My absolute all-time favorite game growing up was dress-up (today, it’s called role-play but it’s the same thing.) I was up for a part in any fantasy – princess, boarding school, teen-ager, Rapunzel and Bonanza were perennial favorites. The only role I couldn’t relate to was horsy. Then as now, the appeal of prancing around pretending to be a palomino eluded me. For starters, playing horsy pretty much precludes costumes unless you count tucking a fake tail in the rear of your pedal-pushers (I don’t).
I have only two requirements for a good game of dress-up.
I play a human (no horsys!)
I wear a costume – and hopefully a wig.
Beyond that, anything goes.
It’s a shame that dress-up tends to be cast aside before adolescence. It’s all but forgotten by the time we’re adults. IMHO, this is a real shame. Luckily, like riding a bike, the requisite skills reside inside you, ready to resume active duty if called. If you can get past your self-consciousness for a trip into fun and silliness, dress up is even more fun to play as a grown-up.
Technically, each of us gets only one life to live. Dress up role play lets you dabble in as many lives as you can make up. If – like me – sometimes you get sick of being yourself, take a break. Cut loose and be somebody else – someone without a mortgage, congested kids, or pets pooping on the rug. All you’ve got to lose is your dignity. Isn’t it about time?
If you’re over 18 or past the age of consent: Dress-up role-play is unlikely to be hazardous to your sex life, if you get my drift. Enough said.
To put this in context – I’d just learned that my spec script, which had been optioned by Steve Friedman’s Kings Road Productions to be a feature film, was going to be re-written by another writer. Bill Froug was my screenwriting professor and mentor at UCLA.
My agent and my mentor were correct. Having your work rewritten by someone else is part of a writer’s life in the film business (less so in television but it still happens). I ended up rewriting many more scripts by other people than having my own scripts rewritten which ought to make me feel better but it doesn’t. The fact is, it always sucks to be told you’re off the project – especially when it’s your own original spec script.
I suspect other professionals would react the same way if this was routine practice in their business. Imagine a surgeon being told that a new surgeon in town had been hired to remove the heart he’s just transplanted in order to insert a better one – or an interior decorator who gives her best only to learn all of her work is off to Goodwill and a new interior decorator will start from scratch. It hurts to be replaced. And it never got easier, although I did get better at hiding my emotions. (Hint: It is considered bad form to cry like a baby when – not if – this happens to you.)
I understand why it sometimes has to be done. Sometimes it even works out for the best. It’s easy for a writer to get tunnel vision and see only one way to solve a problem. New eyes spot new solutions. Given the fortunes and executive jobs attached to the success or failure of a film, no wonder so many execs play it safe and bet on the flavor of the month instead of a newbie. If the “hot” writer tanks, at least they had a reasonable basis to believe he’d succeed.
If and when it happens to you, remember it’s not personal. It’s only business. And then cry your eyes out in solitude.