This is a story that I never thought would see the light of day. You might agree it shouldn’t have after you read it but today I thought I’d share it. I dug it out when looking through old stories at 5 this morning, while thinking about the sad passing of William Goldman yesterday.
It’s a story about movies, and script-writing. It’s old: looking at the version details I see it was created in April 2000 – and I have a vague recollection that even that was a type up from a printed version I found. The age shows: VCRs? Blockbuster? Yeah. It’s an old one.
It’s not much. A silly little piece really, but today, thinking about one of the true greats of screen-writing, I thought, why not?
You ever see Casablanca?
That was one of mine.
Psycho? Scared the bejesus out of people and it came from my fair hand.
The Maltese Falcon? Thanks, glad you enjoyed it.
I wrote them all and about thirty others besides. You’ve seen them all and chances are you enjoyed the hell out of them. Together they’ve made about a zillion dollars at the box office. I got diddly squat for writing them and you’ve never heard of me.
So, what’s the greatest living writer doing living in a one-room bedsit and struggling to pay the rent? Well, it may be a mere technicality but the thing is this: I was never credited for any of those little pieces.
The working process is simple and it never fails. I get this idea and start writing. Sometimes it comes from a single image I see in my daily meandering; sometimes it comes from a dream. Either way I lock myself away for a couple of days or weeks, depending on how the muse affects me, and type away non-stop, vowing not to come out until I come up with something brilliant. And I do, I always come up with something brilliant. It seems each one gets better than the last. When I wrote Schindler’s List I thought that it was the crowning moment of my career. I finished the last line and sat back with pride. Two weeks later I’d finished Citizen Kane and realised I’d actually surpassed myself.
I took both manuscripts down to Charles Burant. He’s a movie agent. His reputation goes before him, a bit like mine. His reputation was that he couldn’t sell a glass of water to a man dying of thirst, but he was one of the few in town that hadn’t heard my reputation so I decided to give him a try.
I arrived at 12:20 and was out of there by 12:30. That was actually two minutes on my previous best. He was quite encouraging in a funny sort of way. He said I had a real talent. For the briefest of moments my heart soared, as I asked him if he really liked the scripts, and he laughed. I guessed then, so I uncrossed my fingers and stopped praying. I noticed the sweat had stopped running down my back and that I could forget any sale. Still, it had been encouraging in a way. He had said I had talent. I asked him what he meant.
“You print real neat kid. You describe the sets well, and you’ve got the dialogue right on the button…”
I thanked him and he shrugged, looking up from the two pages he had read of CK.
“You must have one hell of a video system and a numb finger from pressing the freeze frame button.”
I told him I didn’t have a video player.
He shrugged and sat back in his chair, lifting his feet onto the desk that separated us.
“You see this place, kid?”
I looked around the office, and wondered what I was supposed to be noticing. It was pretty much like all the other agent’s offices I’d trailed my scripts around town to over the past couple of years. This one had fewer photographs on the wall, maybe the ones that were up there were of less glamorous people than the others had been. I noticed the furnishings were more threadbare than even “Honest” Lou Redman’s place had been home to. Lou’s was the last joint I’d been kicked out of. I noticed all these things but I decided not to say anything. I guessed these weren’t the particular sort of things he wanted me to notice. Instead, I just nodded.
“It ain’t much, I know that. Things haven’t been great recently- the last script we had any joy with was ‘Zombie College Massacre’. You heard of it?”
I shrugged and had to admit that I hadn’t; not that that meant much.
“Course you haven’t. No one has. It failed to get the green light. But it did get to pre-production, and it did sell rights. It made its author peanuts and it made me the shells you throw away. I.e. it made next to nothing, but it was something.”
Something on my face must have shown I didn’t have a clue where this was going or what he was talking about because he sighed and lit a cigar, leaning back and exhaling before he made his closing remarks. I wondered if he’d gone to some ‘agent school’ where they taught these sorts of things. If so, I guessed he’d got straight A’s’ in mannerisms even if his office suggested he’d fallen down on the business modules.
“Look, kid, what I’m saying is that if you want this kind of work you should go to one of the publishing companies. Movie scripts are big business now. People want to buy them. Look at Tarantino: go into any bookshop and you can get a copy of Reservoir Dogs in paperback.”
I looked blank.
He sighed, holding out his arms in a ‘whadda-ya-gonna-do’ gesture, “I do not sell adaptations of scripts. Faber and Faber might. But I’m guessing they don’t need no-one to transcribe them – but it’s just a guess: that’s not my side of things. All I know is you type well and your layout is good. If they can work around the copyright, they might be able to find you a job. Maybe they won’t. I don’t know if they just package up the original scripts. Like I say, I don’t have a clue as to how these things work. Me? I’m looking for original scripts. Preferably, extremely low budgets ones that will sell for fortunes.”
“You’re saying I should do other people’s films?”
He shrugged again; obviously bored with the conversation now it was clear it wasn’t going to benefit him financially.
“But how would I do that?” I asked.
He shrugged again and I wondered if his suits wore out at the neck first. “Jesus kid, how should I know? All I know is this is no good to me.”
“But I wrote these…” I started, realising it wasn’t worth the effort even as I said it.
“Cute Kid, real cute.”
He threw both scripts back across the table at me.
I picked up my scripts and walked out of his office, not even bothering to ask if he wanted to see any more examples of my work
So how does it work? I don’t know. After I was thrown out of David Griffin’s office (advertised in the trades as “The Premier Agent of Hollywood”), I took the only advice he offered me and went to see a head doctor. I was confused. Here I was having just handed over a script for a comedy thriller called South by South East, a mistaken identity man-on-the-run piece. It was funny, it was thrilling, and it had a couple of stand out scenes: the bit where the hero is chased across a desert by a helicopter for one, the end fight on the Statue of Liberty for another…but I digress. Griffin told me three things. One, I was a lunatic. Two, he had no desire to be laughed out of town on plagiarism charges, and three, I should go see a shrink.
Seeing as this was roughly what Sid Romero had said when I handed over the script for The Godparent, an epic gangster idea, I decided I might as well take the advice.
Dr Gruber had been fascinated with me and certainly gave me a lot more time than any of the agents I had been to see (of course I was paying him $250 an hour). He asked me if he could read my script for South by SouthEast. I handed it over and he sat and read it on the spot. He tutted and ahhed a lot as he read it, but considering it was costing me around $15 a page I figured that was only fair. I lay there on his couch looking at walls filled with prints of star patients. I didn’t recognise any of them, but I guessed they were famous by the personal messages scrawled on them.
When he’d finished reading, the good doctor started to ask me things about fixations and paranoid delusions. He also spent quite a lot of time asking me about my love for the cinema. He couldn’t believe it when I told him I hadn’t been to the cinema in twenty years. He kept asking me why I would want to get involved in an industry I had no interest in. I tried to explain to him it was just something that came to me. He was fascinated.
After a couple of weeks of daily visits, the doctor decided two things. The first was that I had some rare combination of ailments he described as “selective amnesia coupled with photographic memory”. The second thing was that I was not such an interesting case as he’d first thought. Coincidentally this was when he discovered my small savings had gone after our first two weeks together. His final piece of professional advice was that I go out and spend any remaining money I had on a TV, (He’d found it difficult to take in the fact I’d never owned one.), rent a video machine for a night and keep an eye open for some movie called “North By North West”.
I took his advice and picked up an old black and white Binatone. Two nights later I went down to the local Blockbuster store and hired a machine. The young man behind the counter had seemed quite amused I’d never heard of my prescribed film and dug a copy out from what was advertised as the ‘golden oldie’ section.
Watching the movie was a revelation.
It was more or less exactly how I’d envisioned it (although I must say I think my desert/helicopter scene would have worked a little better).
As the final credits came up, I sat stunned.
I decided two things on the spot.
Firstly, I was obviously doing something right: all I had to do was come up with a really original script.
Secondly, I was going to throw the television out the window.
I got rid of the television and settled down to some serious work. I stocked up on frozen dinners and sat in my room with my curtains closed with nothing for company but my old typewriter. I wrote like a man possessed. In only three days I completed a final draft of It’s A Terrific Existence; a heart-warming story about a man who comes to realise how valuable life is at Halloween. A week later I’d polished of Insurgent without a Reason, a biting social commentary that would also appeal to the kids (I figured it wouldn’t hurt to hedge my bets in finding a market for my pieces). A week and a bit after that I created Gone with the Wind, the longest piece I’d ever written and with perhaps the single most memorable line. (“Bluntly, my dear, I couldn’t care less”). I emerged three weeks later with severe sun blindness, an untidy beard, and three masterpieces. I set off for Agentville.
I touted all three around the offices and was laughed at. Only one agent gave me any encouragement, “Nice title son. Unfortunately, I think Gone with the Wind has already been used. Go see if you can find it in a local video store.”
He laughed as he said it, but I took his advice.
Back to Blockbusters and I went through the golden oldies again. I found Gone with the Wind. I also found a couple of other boxes that looked vaguely familiar. I spent the last cash I had on hiring a TV and another video player for the night. I stayed up late and watched all three.
It started bad and it got a whole lot worse. ‘Existence…’ was bad enough: same town, same guy, and same angel. There were some differences in the dialogue and the ending. (In my version, the protagonist still went to prison at the end and had a tough time in the showers with Mr Big, the local drug baron). ‘Insurgent’ got worse. The James Dean version was very close to mine; only a few key phrases and set pieces different. (In mine the James Dean character goes berserk with the gun at the end…there are a few casualties). But Gone with the Wind was the worst. It was identical, bar my own personal favourite line. (I mean really, “Give a damn”? It lacks a certain something).
Clearly, I had a problem, and it appeared my problem was getting worse.
And so it’s continued. Over the years, I’ve written Jaws, Star Wars, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Grapes of Wrath. Sometimes, the films I’ve written have been ‘classics’; or at least that’s what the people who read them have told me. Other times they’ll be something that’s still playing in theatres now. It’s passed the point where there are any differences. Forget the titles. Forget subtle plot changes, dialogue or even character names: they are identical twins in each and every way.
Can you possibly imagine the artistic strain it places on you to come up with King Kong and Annie Hall in the same weekend? Take it from me, it’s not easy. It’s even harder to be laughed out of an office for your efforts.
All I do know is that after today I don’t think I can take much more of this.
12 Months Later
The world’s greatest writer is no longer living in a one-room slum. I’m now residing in the comfort of Fairview Rest Home. A polite way of saying that they’ve stuck me in the Loony Bin.
After my intervention at the Oscars ceremony where I tried to mug Francis Ford Coppola of his statue he was trying to receive for best screenplay (“Glorious return to form”, read the reviews, “carbon copy of my latest piece”, felt I.), they decided I should rest at the home for a while.
The doctors have been great. They’ve even managed to piece together what they think happened and why I’ve been plagued by this nightmare.
The doctors feel the whole sorry business has been something to do with childhood trauma. Something to do with ‘an episode’. We tried to piece together what it could have been and under deep hypnosis apparently I remembered a time when my parents took me to see Dumbo and I was attacked by some drunken guy in a clown costume who’d just been sacked from the local circus. Apparently, I’d fallen over the balcony amid popcorn and pom-poms. It was serious at the time- I ended up in a coma and everything; almost like a movie.
The doctors tell me I’ve blocked out all memory of it, and while I’ve denied to myself that I’ve ever visited a cinema since, I’ve actually been having black-out spells where I’ve gone along and watched all these late night features. Somehow I’ve forgotten I went, but managed to retain every detail, and then gone home and written them up.
They’ve told me to avoid watching any films for a while. I’m not allowed to watch any TV in here and they’re trying to channel my energy into other directions. They say I might even have some creative leanings in other directions, if I can only find ‘the right outlet’.
Me? I think they’re right, even if I still have no recollection.
It’s not really important.
The important thing is that I’m feeling better than I have in years.
Even more important, I haven’t even thought about writing any more films since I started my treatment.
I’ve tried a few things to see if I can find this creative element they seem to think I might have. I tried taking up painting but couldn’t tell my apples from my landscapes. I moved on to short stories but found they didn’t flow the way things did when I was writing my screenplays.
Recently I’ve even tried music and it seems to be going better. I don’t feel any pressure and I find it relaxing…it’s strange because I’ve never even liked popular music, at least not since that juke box fell on me when I was a teenager.
Still, it’s good to be out of the nightmare that was movie writing. At last I’m doing something that is mine, all mine. Now if you’ll excuse me it’s back to my therapy…
“You never shut your eyes, any more when I kiss your mouth.
And there’s no gentleness anymore in your fingertips
You’re trying hard not to reveal it, Baby, but Baby, Baby I know it.
You’ve misplaced that caring feeling….”
It needs a bit of work, but I think I might have found my calling…