Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Why we fight.

There are always stories in the trades and even newspapers and of course on the thousand TV entertainment shows  about problems on movies.  Lawsuits because someone stole an idea, scandals, Lindsay Lohan stealing my friend's son's SUV with him in it. (that's a whole story by itself).  Then there's "creative differences".  

A nice term for two egos going against each other.  

It is usually actor against director but also writer against director, and producer against director.  And in the scheme of things, it's not very important at all.  This business has some of the largest egos around, imagine that everyone around you tells you that you are the best, the smartest, the richest and the most talented.  It can get to anybody.  You start feeling like God.  Better than God.

They say there are two reasons why someone doesn't get work in Hollywood; either they're not that good or they're too hard to work with.

I've learned that it's best when you work with someone better than you.  It's the old tennis rule, you just seem to play better.  And when you work with someone not as good, it can be hell, because they are trying to kill you every chance you get.  And it's not only the movie business, it's everywhere.  It's just that the movie business seems to get more attention, and can be pretty dark.

Joke in Hollywood is that the best way to get ahead is to have pictures of someone in power, either with a dead girl or live boy. How's that for a shot.

I have had my share of battles, always over scripts, and mostly with people not as good as me.  Sometimes I was wrong, but sometimes I was right.  And while it isn't anything big to most people, it can be hell, it can and has sent people into deep depression, heart conditions and almost anything else that can harm you. Because many of these lesser talents sometimes tend to be psychotic and will do anything they can to harm and destroy you.

I think part of it is the fact that we are dealing with a product that actually isn't there. It's just pictures and words and everyone has an opinion on that.  Remember this:

It is always the writer's story, no matter who takes it over.  Always.

The problem comes when someone has no real ability to do anything but get a job in management and then sets about to destroy anyone in their way.  Everyone thinks they can write, after all they write birthday cards and grocery lists, so what's the difference. There's a saying among writers,  most people want to "have written", the hard part of that is having to write.

Some years ago I was working in Luxembourg on a Paramount TV movie called Riddler's Moon.  It was written by someone else and I had been hired to rewrite it.

Riddler's Moon was a good script but with one major problem.  It called for a drought in the midwest. We were in Luxembourg with beautiful yellow canola fields and rich green forests. Not a drought, not even close.  Since it was a science fiction story with a spaceship landing at the end, I figured we can make our own rules.  So it became a land with crops, but they were tainted by some unknown force.

Okay it's a stretch, but this is sci-fi.  

I was also sent there by the request of John Levoff, who was head of drama at Paramount TV, he wanted someone he could trust as  he was a 10 hour flight away in Los Angeles and didn't quite trust the Europeans or the Canadian producers. The screenplay went through massive changes, so much that the script supervisor asked why the original writer's name was on it. It was the deal I had, I would come in and fix scripts and be credited as "Creative Consultant". Had my own office and a white sheet of paper on the door that read my title.  I was continually being asked what exactly what my job was.  I often said "I think".

We all got along well, Don McBreaty the director was great to work with and the movie started filming with no real problems.  Until a new exec producer entered.  He was from Los Angeles, known by Levitt and was one of those guys who you never quite figured out how he got into the business, but he was smooth.  Let's call him Dan Eureka. Eureka assured me that now that he was there, all would be just great.  But that wasn't the case at all. He would start meddling with almost every department, the producer and secretaries, always insisting that he was the boss here.  In short time, everyone began to wish he would go home.

I didn't react well to his script notes  as they were very poor and showing a lack of real ideas, it was just his need to show how powerful he was.  And again, he assured me that it was okay with Levoff.  Of course I would call Levoff normally every other day and Levoff assured me that Eureka was not king.  I didn't like being in the middle, but continued working with the director.

Then, the big showdown. I had written a pivotal scene for the lead, Kate Mulgrew, who you would remember from the Paramount Star Trek series Voyager. Kate was enjoying her popularity from the series and her relative power as a TV star. And she was great to work with, we'd have dinner now and then and talk about the character and being in television, Kate knew and respected writers.

She and I worked on a long 8-page scene in which a confrontation happens.  This was Kate's big scene, and it took us a few days to make it work well enough for her.  During this time, Eureka continued to meddle, often changing the scenes I wrote and arguing with me about them.  On the day of the big scene I was walking through the hotel when Kate rushed up, demanding to know why I changed her scenes.  She showed me the mysterious 2 pages.  

They were not mine. 

What was worse, they were Kate's big scene.  Actors don't like it when you take away 6 pages of them acting.

Everyone on the crew had the new pages.  It seemed Eureka had re-written Kate's 8 page scene down to 2.  Not a good idea for an actor with power.  The assistant director approached, angry as the pages were not labeled correctly and it could mess up the schedule.  Again I said it wasn't me.  We all knew who it was.  Kate glared at the pages and said simply, "we do Jim's pages".  That was it.  I won the battle, but what about the war?

After that, Eureka and I had frequent arguments, it bugged the hell out of him that he really couldn't fire me as Levoff was the only one who could do that. But I was getting tired of dealing with him.  The production wanted me to stay but I was looking for a way out. It's not fun going to work every day ready for a major battle over words. Not to mention whatever other schemes he was attempting. 

Finally another producer doing Paramount movies wanted me to go to Canada for my screenplays and I decided it was time to go.  Several of the crew wanted me to stay and the idea of living on expenses in Europe was hard to decline, but I just didn't want to spend every day fighting with someone who was, in my mind, a sociopathic liar. So I left. 

In Manitoba I worked again with Steve White, a really good producer and a smart man.  It was a pleasure to work with Steve and we got along well.  In the end, does it really matter if writers and producers and directors and actors fight over the words of a story that will be lost to the ages in a hundred years.  Of course not. Does anybody care that writers fight for what they think is right?  Probably not either. But for that moment, the little bit of time in which we can matter, we will fight for what we think is better for the audience.

What happened to Eureka? Last I heard he was on the board of directors of a small university.

They always survive.         

1 comment:

  1. Great blog Jim!
    I couldn't help but think as I was reading it that you've been employed at the same fine institution as me.
    Keep up the good work....always looking forward to the next.