Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Things I shouldn't have done

In response to a comment on relationships in the film business, someone asked about my burning bridges with good companies, rather than the less respectable parties I mention in that blog.

Generally I try to not burn bridges with companies who are fair and treat me well, but sometimes my ego can get in the way, as with these examples.

I did 2 movies for Granada, a major British production company, the second of which I supplied the story and screenplay, while the first was only for the screenplay. I was owed payment for the story and they refused to pay, so I sent the WGA on them. With pressure on them, they paid and then turned around and hired another writer to rewrite the screenplay.

They never used me again, but I was owed the money, so this example is a conflicted one; should I have not asked for what I was owed and maybe get a job, or should I get paid for what I did.

Writers are always asked to write or rewrite for free, always. They'll pay for the script but then discretely ask for polishes and rewrites, all of which have to be paid for as per their being signatory to WGA guidelines. But that doesn't stop them from asking. And if you refuse to work for free, they just might hire another writer, probably a friend of the producer, to do the rewrites for money. And you lose the money and probably more work up the road.

Who said producers had to be fair?

Then there was a Universal TV series I was up for, it was a "re-imagination" of the Three Musketeers. I love that term re-imagination, obviously created by a board meeting of executives.  I arrived at the studio, having read the script, which was, to my feeling, not very good

But a job is a job.

I met the 2 writers and it was almost immediate dislike on both sides. They weren't very good writers and I wondered how they got this series. They began by saying they didn't really like my writing sample, Emperor of Mars, which got me more work than any other script I wrote.

Okay, I can deal with that. They don't have to like one particular script of mine, I have 20 others on the shelf. But the meeting was going downhill, whatever I tried to come up with, they didn't like and I knew then that even if I got the job, it would be hell because we were simply not on the same level. I learned long ago that if you work with people not as good as you, you will be sorry.

Then one of the pair asked if I liked the rapping. 

The rapping? 

He then went on to explain how one of the Musketeers "rapped" his dialog rather than speak normally.  Like P-Diddy and 50 Cent and all those other guys. These 17th Century Musketeers were hip and cool apparently.

I was speechless. It was at that moment I realized this was going nowhere for me and them. I just stood up, thanked them for the meeting and walked out. I wasn't hired and they did 7 episodes and it went off the air in 2 episodes. And I never got a call from that department of Universal again. I lost out on money but also the stress and frustration.

But the biggest one was one I truly regretted. It was with Amblin' Entertainment. You might know it's boss -- Steven Spielberg.

I had written a screenplay called Rage, about road rage when it was in the news every other day and featured a male cop and a female traffic helicopter reporter. My agent Frank set up the meeting saying they liked it. Amblin' then was on the lot at Universal and was a rambling Spanish-style hacienda on a chunk of land near the studios. I always liked going there, it had a good feeling, the people seemed reasonably happy and it reflected the informal ambience of it's boss.

I met with two people, can't remember their names but we sat down and they talked about how they liked the script. I felt pretty good, already seeing the movie being made and meeting Steven himself maybe. 

Then they asked about one of the characters and suggested he be dropped.

 I said he should stay there, he was vital to the story. They didn't think so. I was quite adamant about it. Then they said they'd like more of a Men In Black feel to the story and wondered if I'd like to rework it.

I still can't believe what I said.

I said I didn't really like Men In Black, and that my story was very different and couldn't imagine how I could possibly change it.

Once again, they suggested I might want to try.

I said I wasn't sure. We chatted a little more, exchanged some jokes, I finished my coffee and they looked at each other, the meeting was over.  I left thinking this deal would be already happening with my agent. When  I got home I called Frank, ready to hear the great things they had to say about my work.

Frank said they decided to pass. Because they thought it would be too difficult to work with me on the script. I didn't believe it, how could I have misunderstood them. Then I replayed the meeting by stepping outside of myself.

And I realized how I must have sounded.  Contrary, argumentative and difficult. Much of that arrogance came from the response to Emperor of Mars, the screenplay that every exec in town had at one time,  and the complements heaped on it, Steve Tisch, producer of Forest Gump, said it was one of his favorite scripts. I got meetings with Paramount, Universal, Warner's, with Ridley Scott's company, Dustin Hoffman's, and virtually every name that was anybody.  No wonder I felt so good about myself.

And then I remembered that saying; there are two reasons people don't work in this town... either they aren't very good (I was reasonably good, they did like the script) or they are difficult to work with.

Difficult to work with. That was me.

I learned the lesson that day, and still haven't had a meeting at Amblin or Dreamworks yet. But ultimately it really doesn't matter if you burn bridges as most development executives one meets usually are gone with 2 years and replaced by new ones who don't know you.

That's the great strength for writers and directors; you last longer than the d-girls and boys who turn you down. Of course the ones who buy your scripts are gone too.

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