Tonight some lucky and surely deserving scribe will mount the stage to accept the Oscar for best original screenplay. In some far-off parallel universe, I'm sure I've been awarded something similar.
It's like this: Just as there is matter and antimatter, for every Oscar I'm sure there is an anti-Oscar. That's what I won. It was for having my name attached to perhaps the worst movie ever made, although you wouldn't know this because the only people who ever saw it were four to six Egyptians at the Cairo International Film Festival.
But, to paraphrase Fitzgerald, I can see that I'm starting wrong. So let me try again: Here is a cautionary tale for anyone flirting with screenwriting, anyone tempted to enter that realm of Mystical Potentiality--that place where the present is put on hold and the future recedes ever farther into the distance, transformed into a pinhole through which is glimpsed a life of riches, glory and deliverance from the toil of daily life.
I didn't move to Los Angeles to get into the movie business, but rather to further my journalism career. In November 1989, I lost my job when the Los Angeles Herald Examiner folded. I started working as a freelance writer, and made less money than a third-tier word processor. As it happened, in 1990 I wrote a story for this magazine called "Taxi Dancers." It documented the shadowy world of taxi dance clubs in downtown Los Angeles, where lonely men at that time paid 35 cents a minute to dance or keep company with younger, mostly troubled women.
After the story appeared, I got a call from a woman I'll call Monica who had teamed up with a man I'll call David who had one credit along the lines of deputy associate assistant producer on a withering third sequel to a lame comedy. They loved my article and thought it had movie potential. Could we set up lunch? And by the way, did I have an agent?
I got one the next day. He was married to a friend of my girlfriend. He was acquainted with the "producer" in question and suggested we have a story meeting. It went like this:
David: I'm thinking this could be the next "Dirty Dancing."
Me: Have you been to one of these clubs? It's not about dancing. It's about loneliness and desperation. It is a dance, but it's a dance of deception.
David: Who's our main character?
Me: Let's call her Nicole. She is in a tight spot, having to taxi dance to pay the rent day by day at a welfare hotel. The big question for her, is there a way out or does she succumb to prostitution?
Monica: Why do we like this character? What's her character arc?
Me: We don't like her! We pity her. Her soul is on the auction block. She represents the compromises we all make in life.
Monica: (Offended) Nobody's soul is on the block in this movie. Now why do we like this character?
David: What if she's a medical student paying her way through school?
Me: She's not a medical student! She's a fallen woman.
David: I can see her leaving home for the big city. She's driving a yellow Volkswagen. A convertible.
Historians spend careers looking for defining moments, those turning points when opportunity and choice come together to change everything. Looking back, I realize that my conversation with David and Monica was just such a point for me. By the time we finished, my concerns about their misunderstanding of my story had drifted away. What difference did it make, as long as I was writing a movie? I no longer saw myself as a low-paid journalist. I had entered the realm of Mystical Potentiality, where I joined thousands of other Angelenos projecting themselves into that iridescent future when they sell their screenplays for three-quarters of a million dollars and retire to the country.
To be a producer, you need lots of money, or access to it. To be a director, you need a producer. To be an actor, you need a part and lots of time for auditions. To be a screenwriter, all you need is a computer, a copy of Syd Field's book on screenwriting and maybe some software. This gives screenwriting the illusion of relative accessibility. Take a seminar from screenwriting guru John Truby, learn those 22 Building Blocks! One brilliant idea, brilliantly executed, and the world is yours!
A few days after my story meeting with David and Monica, I got a call from the development assistant for a well-known television actress, married to a TV producer. I referred them to my agent, who set up a meeting, with the caveat that David and Monica come along since they were already nominally attached to the "project."
"We'll go to their house, sip Campari and soda, and see where it goes," the caller said. He seemed to have a thing about Campari.
Where it went was nowhere. The meeting went south when the actress asked if there was a part for her in our story.
"To be honest, we were thinking of someone younger," Monica said firmly. Meeting over. Campari denied.
But I still believed. I pounded out a draft of a script loosely based on my article. I worked out of the Onyx in Los Feliz, the quasi-legendary, now-defunct bohemian coffeehouse lair for the literarily unemployed. In those days, it seemed every neophyte screenwriter worked there. The Onyx was our office, and tens of thousands of screenplays must have been written amid its peeling walls. That not one of them, to my knowledge, ever saw the light of day is fairly impressive, especially when you consider it strictly on odds.
I finished the script. I couldn't get anybody to read it. So I gave it up for dead and embarked on a collaboration with my friend Michael. We had a viable idea for a thriller and were off to a good start. But Michael, a master of avoidance, started flaking on me. He began making guitars and losing track of time. (He now has his own guitar factory.)
Before exiting the scene altogether, however, Michael did me a favor. He gave the taxi dance script to Suzi, a friend from Austria who was coming out of New York University's film school. Suzi had wangled a grant from the Austrian Film Commission for a low-budget movie. She loved my script. It was a sort of a romantic fairy tale involving a small-town girl stranded in Los Angeles by a loser boyfriend. She ends up working in a taxi dance club, where she is wooed by both its misogynistic proprietor and a mysterious mystical drifter with a pure heart. Will she choose love in uncertainty or sell out to security and be a kept woman?
It was rather mannered and self-consciously arty, but at least it was coherent. Suzi came to town and we set to rewriting and trimming. We reviewed other movies for other ideas. One day, while watching the David Mamet film "House of Games," Suzi hit the pause button.
"We've got to use that!" she said.
"Use what?" I asked.
"Those lines! They're perfect for that scene in the dance hall where Tom tries to seduce Nicole."
"But those aren't our lines. We didn't write them."
"Who's going to notice?"
"David Mamet's going to notice, and I don't particularly want to be known as the writer who plagiarized David Mamet."
She yielded. I should have been troubled. Instead, we soldiered on. The script became taut and lean. Suzi insisted on a few corny romantic flourishes, but I could live with them. My movie would be an art house hit.
Oh how hauntingly naive. Suzi cast a fabulously beautiful actress as Nicole, the main character, and the film, now known as "Dreamland," was shot in South Amboy, N.J.
The actress had the talent of a lobotomized Rottweiler. She was so bad that in the end, Suzi cut nearly every scene she inhabited, which left about 25 minutes of usable footage. So Suzi constructed a new story line around Harley, the loser boyfriend who had left Nicole stranded in the taxi dance club, and who in my original script never appeared onscreen. To "give the story more tension," she threw in a drug-smuggling plot involving a batch of heroin hidden in a statue.
About three pages of my dialogue survived. The characters spend most of the movie yelling at each other about money and drugs.
So much for my romantic fairy tale art film. It was never released, although Suzi did get it into the Cairo International Film Festival. I made a cool $1,000 off it. At least I was now a professional screenwriter.
Just as there is a difference between intelligence and wisdom, there is a difference between stupidity and foolishness. I might well have folded my tent, but then I met the man I refer to as the Wise Hack--a term I borrow, with apologies, from Gore Vidal. The Wise Hack had been in and out of the industry, had children in the industry, had connections, and now he was making a go at being an independent producer.
The Wise Hack read a script I wrote with the truly lamentable title "Wilder Roads to Fear." Never mind the story. "I see flashes of brilliance," he told me. "You've got the makings of an A-List Writer!" The Wise Hack invited me to breakfast. He drove a six-story SUV. At Jerry's Famous Deli, I ordered lox and eggs. He asked for a muffin after inquiring about its cost.
The Wise Hack had recently had dinner with a prominent actress who'd had a string of expensive flops and badly needed a hit. And WH knew the kind of story she needed: a "medical thriller," which at that moment, and for the duration of a sneeze, was the Hot Genre. And WH had a great idea. A cross between "The Fugitive" and "Coma." If only he had a script, he could present it to this needy star, and riches would follow.
Here was the deal: I'd write the script under his tutelage and we'd split the money, which he predicted would be a minimum of $250,000, but probably more like a half mil. He could get me an agent, launch me into the business. "I can give you a career," he told me solemnly. "But will you agree to do this?"
"Can you tell me the idea?"
He leaned forward and whispered: "DNA. Do you know anything about DNA?"
"Ah, the double helix. The very blueprint of life," I said, unfurling the full extent of my knowledge. "Um, what exactly about DNA?"
The Wise Hack's eyes raked over me, assessing my integrity. Then he said, in a low-pitched conspiratorial low voice: "OK. I'm trusting you. . . . There's a doctor. A female. She is doing some sort of research with this DNA thing. Trying to do good. Trying to help people. But unbeknownst to her, her superiors are using it for evil. And when she discovers this, she must go on the run. Because the villains want to eliminate her."
Three years--and nine drafts--later, I still had an incoherent plot, but I did have plenty of chase scenes, love scenes, betrayals and conspiracies, red herrings and visual pyrotechnics. I was living off credit cards, awaiting the day when I would cash in on my script. But the day seemed never to arrive. I found myself avoiding rewrites. I started writing songs. They poured out of me as guitars had poured out of Michael.
Oh, I still wanted to believe in the Wise Hack, even as his story notes became ever more surreal--it's like "Pulp Fiction," he would say one day, like "Road Warrior" on another.
"OK, so she's working for this genetic engineering firm," I began one conversation.
"No genetic engineering!" bellowed the Wise Hack. "That's old hat! It's DNA! She's working with DNA."
"But that's what genetic engineering is," I explained.
"You know, from what I read, the problem with this DNA is that it's too small. Maybe she finds a way to make it bigger."
Like finding a way to enlarge atoms so you could split them with a hatchet?
We eventually agreed to a deadline for a final script. Then, as the date loomed, through my peculiar karmic Austrian connection, I was invited to Vienna by a music producer to make an album--provided I left immediately. I rewrote the script in a three-day blur of caffeine and bourbon, then drove to the San Fernando Valley in rush hour to deliver it to the Wise Hack. We met in a supermarket parking lot. I handed him the script through the window of his SUV and flew to Vienna the next day.
A month later, back from Europe and thoroughly stripped of any illusion about my future in music, I called him. The news was not good; the script had not been well received. He stopped returning my calls.
A Buddhist might say that the Wise Hack was my Trickster Guru. Though I believe he was sincere in his ambitions for me, in the end, it was my own self-deception that he revealed to me. It brought me to clarity. I had wandered in and out of the realm of Mystical Potentiality for six or seven years. Now I could return to the functional world. I got back to the business of daily living, of doing productive work.
I never saw the Wise Hack again.