Friday, January 15, 2010

Who do you love?

I got a tombstone hand and a graveyard mind,
I lived long enough and I ain't scared of dying.
Who do you love...
                       - Bo Diddley

Relationships. What we all fall into at one time or another. It's what makes us and what breaks us. And in the film industry it's as essential as water is to earth. 

Simply put, you won't get anywhere in the film business without relationships, it just don't work that way. I have accumulated dozens of relationships, some of which last the duration of a movie shoot ("we must stay in touch"), some that lasted 40 years and some that dissipate when my services are no longer required. Meaning that either they've got a shooting script or I've been replaced by another writer eager to show how much better he or she is than I was.

I've been lucky, I've only been rewritten once by another writer. But on the other hand I've rewritten a half dozen or more scripts, called in by producers to polish or fix up or change a script that was written by someone else. Sometimes I got credit, sometimes I didn't. But it was always about a relationship.

In 1998 I wrote two screenplays that were produced by Paramount and rewritten 4 others, in most cases from Page 1, which essentially means a whole new script while keeping the story. If that sounds contradictory, it really isn't, keeping the story but changing 70% of the dialog or action is still possible.

And it all came about through relationships. It started with Steve White, a producer who read one screenplay of mine and wanted to do a movie with me. We got along well, he was accomplished enough that he didn't have any insecurities nor fears, and we got along just great.  I pitched an idea, a remake of a movie I did in Canada years ago but different enough that it didn't conflict and he gave me the go-ahead.

Then he and John Levoff weren't satisfied with a screenplay written by someone else on Roswell, the New Mexico town where aliens supposedly crashed in 1947. Well, it happened that I had been to Roswell with my brother and examined the alien mythology quite well.  So Steve asked me to write a completely new screenplay.


This led to meeting with Levoff, then head of drama for UPN network, a network arm of Paramount. That led to me going to Luxembourg to rewrite two screenplays of other writers in the dubious capacity of "creative consultant". But I was there for more than just writing. I've laid out this story in a previous blog but will repeat the basics; Levoff wanted me to be his eyes and ears to an extent as he was an ocean and continent away and knew he could trust me.

Once I finished the job, I returned to L.A. to find that Steve now had set up my two movies and another one in Winnipeg and I immediately went there to rewrite my own scripts and the other one.

Again, relationships. One thing leads to another. No stranger has ever hired me, only people who were introduced to me or knew me. Relationships lead to referrals and possible jobs. And on that note, relationships won't necessarily get you a job if for some reason nobody wants to hire you.

And there's usually two reasons for a writer, actor or director not getting work.

Either they're not very good or they're hard to work with.

Publicists come up with a lot of reasons when an actor or writer or director suddenly leaves the project, often before it starts. They will usually say "creative differences" which means that the two parties differ on some aspect of the movie, script, actor, etc.  How do they decide who leaves?

Simple, the one who has the best relationship with the studio or producer. They also call it clout, but it remains the same thing.

On a movie I rewrote called Lost in the Bermuda Triangle which was filmed in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, I had a falling out with the director. To be honest, I do not suffer fools easily, I know what I can do and what I can't, or won't do.

The director, Mario from NYC told me to make some changes in the script that the producer and network had signed off on. The script was ready to shoot. I I asked "what kind of changes"? His answer; "you know, changes".  No I didn't know, and I asked him to be more specific. His answer; "you're the writer, write anything". To which I answered that he was the director and if he wanted a change, he had to tell me what to change and why and to clear it with the producer.

It led to a shouting match and I left to go to the bar and find the dirtiest tequila they had. The director called the producer requesting I be fired, the producer said no. Jim stays.

Was that just because I was being bratty or high maintenance? No, the script was ready to go, sure there were minor dialog changes as he filmed, but otherwise, unless he came up with specific ideas, I wasn't going to do anything. But that's not why I wasn't fired.

Why? Because Bob, the producer, whom everybody on the crew hated (and I still think some of the Mexican drivers would easily have dropped him off in the jungle), liked me.  And I thought he was tough, but good and knew his job. I left before the film was finished, after nearly 6 months of travel I wanted to go home and they really didn't need me anymore. Last time I spoke to Bob which was about a year ago, he said Mario messed up the movie anyways.


Lesson here is if you work on a film crew, on any job, writer, grip, driver, anyone, make relationships. Most will fade 20 minutes after the wrap party, but at least for the filming schedule, you can be a little more secure in your job.

When I worked on a series in Vancouver, I made friends with the teamster drivers. I usually make friends with everyone I can, you get more rumors and gossip that way if they trust you. I had let it be known that I had difficulty finding a new fender for my 1977 Camaro. One day a slightly used fender showed up in the parking lot. The driver walked by and said simply, "Hey Jim, someone left that for you." No questions asked.



  1. I take it you never burnt bridges with the right people?

    In other words, did you ever mess up one of those relationships you talk about and a few years down the road think to yourself there might have been another way to handle it?

    And if so, would you care to share that story?

    (Great blog post by the way. I like the ones that have a little personal story in 'em.)

  2. Actually I was considering a blog where I did indeed burn bridges with the right people, thanks for the advice, I'll do it this week or early next at the latest. Some really big guys too.