Budget shrinks, script blamed

Special to The Times

Budgets and the endless shenanigans that go into them have been on my mind lately because the budget for “An Honest Man,” our much delayed Mexican picture, is being redrawn -- downward, of course. The present hope is that money can be raised if less of it is required. In a studio picture this would be bad news for the screenwriter because the problem would very likely be blamed on the script. In an independent movie, which means one that the studios might distribute but won’t finance, cutting the budget is a practical response to ever-changing circumstances. The script stays blameless for at least a few more budget reductions.

Things aren’t yet at the “Can’t the writer defer his payment?” stage, though that is always a possibility. A studio would likely fire the writer and hire another. Independent movies don’t have that ghastly flexibility. In situations like the one I’m in, it’s usually said in a collegial spirit -- something like, “Hey, you want to get the movie made, don’t you?” What’s implied is no different than what the studios say, which is something to the effect of “If the script hadn’t been so profligate with lavish big money scenes there wouldn’t be a budget problem.” Then they thank you for your good work and tell you a fresh voice is needed. Once production starts, studio or independent, a budget is adjusted frequently. By then it’s possible to blame the weather or the lab or the Teamsters along with the irresponsible script. If stars are involved, they usually get blamed. Seems only right.

A few years ago I wrote the script for a four-hour miniseries. It was an assignment. The idea came from the network. At each step, I reminded the executives that it was going to be an expensive proposition. “Keep going,” they said. “Let us worry about that.” When I delivered the mammoth script, they said, all shock and dismay, it would cost a fortune to make this thing. Then they said they’d send me a check, which meant pay me off, which meant I was fired.


I remember once in the 1970s being involved in memorable budget talks of a sort. I had written a TV movie that was also a pilot, which wasn’t unusual then. It was shooting in a city that I hesitate to identify. The producer invited me to join him for a discussion of what city services we would require should our movie become a series (which didn’t happen). We were to meet with an assistant commissioner of police in the steam room of an apparently police-friendly hotel. The producer identified me as his associate. Mr. Commissioner laid out his terms.

The production company would make weekly payments to several police officials -- a few hundred dollars a week for each one, as I remember it. We weren’t told their names. Our steam room friend would be the bagman. We could then expect cooperation along the lines of closing streets and using public buildings as locations. In other words, make these payoffs or forget about shooting in their town. No one else was allowed in the steam room while our talk was conducted. We wore towels that we put on under the eye of the assistant commissioner. That caution worked both ways. He obviously didn’t want any secret record of the discussion. I came to see that the producer and I felt the same way.

Trial by interview

I was in New York recently, working to promote my book. There was a radio interview on WBAI, an influential New York station. It was a trial. The interviewer had an anti-Hollywood bias that was surprising. It was a reminder that people still believe that stuff about the movies ruining art and artists. That was her view, one she no doubt had held for years, and any argument would just prove her point. She liked novels set in Hollywood only if they treated Los Angeles as a version of hell. I like L.A. I don’t think I’m a booster -- I’m always griping about something. But this city and the movie business are endlessly fascinating to me. The interview reminded me of lines from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Last Tycoon”: “You can take Hollywood for granted like I did, or you can dismiss it with the contempt we reserve for what we don’t understand.”

A favorite in common

I was also in New York for a reading of a play of mine. In the course of that I spoke at some length with actors about James Gandolfini’s performance as Tony Soprano. We agreed that one reason it’s so good is that the character and the scripts have developed together over several seasons. Tony has grown in a way that would be unlikely in a single movie. That makes it all the more astonishing when a great film performance comes along. I’ve had the opportunity to ask both Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder which actor, of all they had known, they thought was the best. Both said Charles Laughton. Wilder said, using his unique syntax, “He goes right up to a point where one-tenth more and it would be ludicrous.” Hitch didn’t define it so succinctly, and Laughton’s demanding ways often irritated him, but when he spoke of Laughton’s performances, a blissful smile came over his round face.

What both of these very different men meant was that Laughton could be grand and theatrical and, at the same time, quiet and human. It’s quite a trick.

A Gatsby for the ‘80s

I’ve been contemplating a novel about a character based on the producer Don Simpson. I see him as a Gatsby figure of the 1980s.


His brother, Lary, heard about the possibility and got in touch with me. He’s planning a documentary about Don and wondered if the book I’ve been sucking my thumb about might be a part of his venture. I don’t think Don Simpson is a likely subject for a full-scale Churchillian workout. An illustrated biographical essay tied to the documentary might be interesting. Don was a fabulous Hollywood creature who died young from the pharmaceuticals he consumed like popcorn. He made up his past as he moved into his future, never the least bit concerned by such mundane matters as the truth. He demonstrated his brilliance every time he took a script apart.

The late 1970s to the mid ‘80s -- Simpson’s time -- was an anarchic era before AIDS tore us all apart and before the multinational companies took over the studios. What Fitzgerald (who is on my mind, I guess) said of the 1920s also fits the ‘80s in Hollywood: “It was an age of miracles, it was an age of art, it was an age of excess, and it was an age of satire.”

The bargaining process

WGA negotiations have restarted and the news blackout is on again. This is the second act of this adventure, which means that what happens now will precipitate the endgame. A so-called final offer is on the table from the companies. Chekhov said, famously, if there’s a gun on the mantel in the first act, it had better go off in the third. Well, second act or not, the gun is on the mantel or maybe on the table. What happens now will tell us if it’s going to get waved about, fired, or put away discreetly. Because of the blackout this whole thing seems quieter than what we’re used to enduring in negotiations. There’s usually a lot of public swagger at this point. No telling if this is going to be a more productive approach.

Counseling youth

When I was in New York, I talked to two Yale undergraduates. I was having a drink with the father of one of them and they joined us. One lad had the idea he might like to give screenwriting a try. I found myself advising him to go light on irony. He looked puzzled, I think because irony is the gospel of the high church that is the Yale English department. Irony is fine, I told him, for independent movies, but if he wanted to join the big circus, which was his hope, he’d have to forgo much of what he had been taught. Look at what the studios make, I told him. Do you see much in the way of irony there? He nodded, though I’m not sure he understood. In exasperation I told him he’d best pay attention because like it or not, “It’s All True.”

David Freeman is a screenwriter and author, most recently of “It’s All True: A Novel of Hollywood.”