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A Hollywood life, with or without Oscar

Novelist, essayist and screenwriter David Freeman has been working in the film industry since the early 1970s. In a perfect world, Freeman’s collection of stories called “A Hollywood Education” and his novel “A Hollywood Life” would be handed out at all points of entry into Los Angeles, along with the Thomas Guide. His new Hollywood novel called “It’s All True” debuts March 12, and so we asked him to jot down a few notes about the Oscars, filmmaking and life in L.A.

One of the virtues of tonight’s little hootenanny is it means the voting season is over -- the various guilds and of course the academy can finally get back to being out of work. People are dizzy from watching so many movies. I was so far behind that I had to go on a video viewing marathon. The voting is serious business. Well, actually the whole thing is mostly salami, but it can be amusing. I was on the foreign language committee at the academy this year, which required my seeing 18 movies for my vote to be counted. I didn’t even come close.

That committee is a pleasure even for a slacker. You see movies from countries you’ve barely heard of with actors you’ve never seen before, all unencumbered by advance publicity. At the moment the committee, a cinematically conservative group, is being criticized by the press and the membership for ignoring somebody’s favorites and nominating pictures that no one else has heard of.

ABC is going to put a five-second delay on tonight’s telecast, a result of the halftime mess at the Super Bowl. They may have confused MTV with the academy -- a bunch guilty of occasionally honoring lousy movies and once a year wearing odd clothes. Some of the dresses look as if they might fall off, though there’s not much danger that they’ll be torn off, at least not on camera.

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When I tell people I’ve never been to the Oscar ceremony, they look surprised. I can’t see why anyone would want to go if they weren’t a nominee or associated with one of the pictures. One year, when an actor in a picture I wrote was nominated, I had considered going to lend moral support. As it happened I was in New York on the big day.

Script and effects

Last week at our table at the Farmers Market, Paul Mazursky had some location photographs for our hoped-for movie. The picture is set in L.A. and Mexico, and today location shooting takes into account the possibility of CGI, which in case you’re not a 22-year-old tech wizard, means computer-generated image. If you require a Mexican town that features an old church on the plaza and the plazas you like have churches that you don’t (this is an aesthetic question, not a religious one) a photo of an appropriate church is inserted into the movie. Unlike all those exploding monsters that are a staple of studio pictures, some CGI is meant to not draw attention to itself. Sort of discreet magic.

The production manager, Tony Adler, came to my office and we made a version of the script with scene numbers on it. It’s an undertaking with meaning. I have to laugh when I see scripts by inexperienced writers with scene numbers already in place. They march down the left-hand side of the page and sometimes the right hand side too. I always want to say, ‘Aren’t you getting ahead of yourself here?’ It might be a little early to put the scene numbers in this one, but it has to be done if Tony is going to make a shooting schedule, without which he can’t make a budget. There’s more rewriting ahead, surely, but a corner was turned and it gave me a lift.

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Rewrite turnstile

A producer sent me a script a few days ago asking if I would consider doing a rewrite. He was so polite that I knew he didn’t have any money but would give me the moon out of the studio deal he was certain would come if only I would sort out the script’s problems. He was as optimistic as those writers who put scene numbers on their first drafts.

A few years ago I was sent a script under similar circumstances. It felt familiar in a way I couldn’t quite pin down. Somewhere in the second act I realized that I had already rewritten this thing. Apparently, my rewrite had been junked. The producer who hired me had been replaced. The new guy didn’t know about my version and sent me the same script I had worked on. I certainly remembered my version; what was hazy was the original, now once again in my hands. I was tempted to wait a few months and then deliver the rejected script that was surely somewhere in my files. I didn’t have the nerve for that and in fact told the guy about it as I passed on the deal. He told me to keep my mouth shut about the whole thing. Then he hung up on me.

Piracy, DVDs and blurry videos

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Now that an actor has been tossed out of the academy for getting mixed up in an alleged videotape pirating scandal people are starting to wonder if maybe Jack Valenti wasn’t right after all. The real burden in all this has been no DVDs, which are apparently easier to counterfeit. Videos are like blurry Impressionist paintings. No way to see a movie.

I recall once going into a video shop in New Delhi because a movie I had worked on was in the window and I had never seen the release print. The tapes came in two categories: “Watchable” and “Unwatchable.” The former meant a traditionally pirated tape, probably taken from a commercial video. Just routinely blurry. The latter category was taped from a movie screen during a commercial run. The rental fee was about a dime for Watchable and a nickel for Unwatchable. I popped for both. The Unwatchable was the most fun. The guy who made it kept jiggling the camera. People walked in front of him blocking the shot. For a few scenes the picture was sideways. It was, well, Unwatchable.

Share the DVD profits

The Writers Guild is having paroxysms again. The president recently resigned over her eligibility to be a Guild member. Now her replacement, the former vice president, has been accused of making questionable claims on his resume. He sent a letter to all the members that explained nothing. There’s a lot of talk about removing him.

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All this as we’re about to negotiate a new contract. There’s a real strike issue this time -- we want a piece of the DVD profits. DVDs have turned out to be big moneymakers for the companies. The conventional wisdom is that if a picture does even modest business, the DVD will make it profitable. They have to be the watchable versions, though maybe not in Delhi.

The book’s out already?

The first copies of my new book have arrived. Certainly looks like a book. The whole thing has taken so long to get published that it’s hard to take pleasure in it. I checked to see if my name was spelled right and that there were numbers on the pages, but I can’t seem to find the strength to look further. Recently, someone asked me what it was like to publish books. He added “in America” to give his question more weight. Without thinking, I answered, “It’s one humiliation after another.” I’m not sure he believed me, but, as the title of my book says, “It’s all true.”


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