The double life of a studio exec turned screenwriter

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Dan McDermott has actually admitted the ugly truth, the secret that screenwriters everywhere have always firmly suspected--executives are envious of writers! He’s one of the writers who penned ‘Eagle Eye,’ the Shia LaBeouf futuristic thriller that is playing in practically every multiplex this weekend. The reviews for the film have been pretty lukewarm, with a number of critics blasting the D.J. Caruso-directed picture for ripping off various Hitchcock and Kubrick films. But what caught my eye about McDermott was that he’s the Hollywood equivalent of a double agent.

He understands the well-hidden thoughts that rattle around in executive’s brains when they’re taking phone calls in the middle of pitches and passing on great material because the characters aren’t sympathetic enough. They’re actually all jealous! McDermott knows firsthand. Before he turned to full-time screenwriting, he was a successful TV executive, first as a VP of current programming at Fox, then as head of DreamWorks Television. Everything was going swimmingly....


And then he almost died. Actually, the way he tells it, he was clinically dead for several minutes, suffering heart failure as a result of nitrogen poisoning from a scuba diving excursion. He was in the middle of nowhere, on a small island off Bali. His girlfriend at the time--Maria Bello, if you must know-- helped get him back to Bali and then to Singapore, where he recuperated in a cardiac clinic, spending a night hooked up to an EKG machine. It might be too corny and on the nose to write as a scene in a biopic, but the near-death experience completely turned him around.

‘After I spent 2 1/2 hours laying on a stretcher, not being able to breathe, I thought to myself--what a waste,’ he told me today. ‘I’ve got a ton of money in the bank, I’ve got this hotshot job at DreamWorks and it’s all meaningless. I’ve just been living through my ego. From that minute, I promised myself that if I managed to survive, I’d live the life I wanted to live, not the way I thought other people wanted me to live. And however well I end up doing as a writer, whether I just eke out a living or win a bunch of awards someday, I’ll be happy because, to use the sports analogy, I’d feel like I left it on the field.’

How did McDermott end up as an executive in the first place? And how did being an executive give him a different approach to writing? Here’s what he had to say:

McDermott had grown up wanting to be a writer, going to UCLA Film School in the early 1980s, where he was surrounded by all sorts of great writing and filmmaking talent, including Brad Silberling, Todd Holland, Ed Solomon, Shane Black (who was in the theater school) and Neil Jimenez. ‘I thought they were a little ahead of me,’ he says with a laugh. ‘Actually, I was a little panicked about trying to catch up with them.’

McDermott went to the American Film Institute and proceeded to knock around, unable to land much in the way of writing jobs. He finally took an offer as a low-level executive at a cable TV production company. ‘I was dead broke, $40,000 in the hole and had nowhere to turn,’ he says. ‘I just had no idea about the commercial side of the business. I wasn’t the kind of kid who’d read Variety when I was 14. When I went to film school, I didn’t know the difference between a producer and a director.’

But as an executive, he was a fast learner, rising quickly through the ranks. He tried to keep writing on the side but by the time he was landed a job at DreamWorks in 1995, he was focused on the executive life. It took him a couple of years to shed his entanglements after the 1999 scuba accident, but by 2001, he’d sold his first spec script to 20th Century Fox. Not long afterward, DreamWorks production chief Adam Goodman phoned with a tantalizing offer--was McDermott interested in working on an idea Steven Spielberg had that could be written as a futuristic thriller?

Who would say no to that? McDermott ended up writing several drafts of ‘Eagle Eye,’ which turned out well enough that Goodman assured him that DreamWorks would make the movie. During some down time, McDermott started work on a couple of other projects, which is when he heard the news writers invariably always hear--the studio had some new writers working on the picture. I asked him how he felt, since he’d surely seen that happen from the other side of the fence.

‘You just can’t take it personally,’ he says. ‘The paradox of Hollywood is that if a studio gets a script they really like, the first thing they do is hire some other writer to rewrite it. It stings a little, but that’s the nature of the business. If they didn’t like the script, they wouldn’t be rewriting it--it would just be sitting on the shelf.’

So back to our original question--if the executives are in charge, why are they so envious of writers? ‘I think most executives come to Hollywood wanting to work in a creative capacity, but the nature of the job is that the higher up you go on the totem pole, the father away you tend to get from the creative side of things.’ But, as the writers strike dramatically pointed out, there are deeply embedded tensions between executives and screenwriters, a tension that dates back to the ‘schmucks with Underwoods’ quips made about writers by the early studio moguls.

‘I think it’s a law of nature, like gravity,’ McDermott says. ‘Whenever you have a creative enterprise and try to shape it into something commercial, you’re going to have conflict. It often involves a lot of spillage of blood. But having been on the other side, I can tell you that the life of an executive isn’t really a stroll through the daisies either. You sometimes have to check your feelings at the door. So when executives look at writers, living by their creative wits, the envy is definitely there.’

Even though he was once on the other side of the desk, McDermott admits that he still finds it hard to judge when a pitch meeting is going well. ‘I’m terrible at reading the room,’ he says. ‘My agents must think I’m an idiot, since you’d think I’d have a better idea of how things are going. But it’s impossible to view anything you’ve created objectively. Sometimes I’ll think the pitch was terrible and I’ll go, ‘They’ll never buy that.’ And it turns out they loved it. But often I’ll be convinced everyone loved the pitch and 30 minutes later, we’ll get a call, saying ‘It’s a pass.’ ‘

He has few illusions about how ‘Eagle Eye’ got made. ‘It’s a rare event--an original idea that actually went all the way through the studio system,’ McDermott says. ‘But let’s face it. If it wasn’t an original idea by Steven Spielberg, it probably wouldn’t have had a prayer in hell of happening.’

Photo courtesy of Dan McDermott