A writer unblocked
BACK IN THE LATE ‘90S, the Writers Guild decided that screenwriters were “America’s Storytellers.” The sobriquet was printed on T-shirts, coffee mugs, souvenir notepads. As a public relations campaign, it landed with a hollow thud. As a mood-elevating mantra, it was less effective than a dose of St. John’s wort.
You know it’s hard out here for a pimp. It’s even harder, let me tell you, for a whore.
A few years ago, I called the guy at my agent’s office who handles book projects to say I was taking a break from writing movies to try my hand at a novel. “When you’re done, I’ll send it to New York,” he replied, “but probably under a false name. Publishers don’t think highly of screenwriters.”
As for what Hollywood thinks of novelists, it’s simple: Books are things to be adapted. You’ve seen the Oscar category: best adapted screenplay. And “adapt” means (look it up) to change or modify -- words to give a prose writer pause unless, of course, that prose writer wants to change or modify his bank account balance. Having signed both book contracts and movie contracts, I can confirm there are more zeros in the latter.
A few more differences:
YOU WRITE A BOOK knowing it’s the thing itself -- not a prelude to the thing. Scripts, on the other hand, are annoyingly referred to as “blueprints” for the movie. Actors mangle and paraphrase our dialogue. Directors rewrite us on the set -- and, later, in the editing suite. Disappointing test screenings result in panicky reshoots.
Whether in success or failure, a film’s authorship remains obscure. Never mind the oblivious public -- even most movie critics can remember just one screenwriter at a time. In the dark ages (read: late ‘80s) it was Joe Eszterhas. Later (cue sun breaking through clouds) it was Charlie Kaufman. Right now it’s Paul Haggis.
Quick -- who wrote “Citizen Kane”?
WHEN YOU PEN a studio script, the goal is perpetual forward motion, at a clip; movie audiences are presumed to have the attention spans of hummingbirds. So when I’m cooking on a screenplay, I’ll wake in the middle of the night and think, “Wait, I don’t even need Scene 96. I can cut from the chopper touching down in the jungle to the president chewing out his national security advisor.” Whereas, on my novel, I’d wake in the middle of the night and think, “I want to delve deeper into the prewar L.A. jazz scene, the weirdness and perversity of white cops mixing with black musicians.” And next morning, I’d sit down and riff on that for three pages. Not that novel writing is a license to digress and waste trees. But to be freed from the tyranny of page count? What bliss.
LATE IN THE PROCESS, my editor sent me an e-mail listing 10 final areas of concern. Then he added: “This is not an all-or-nothing editorial letter. It’s your book, and these are just suggestions.” In two decades as a Hollywood writer, I’ve never had a producer or studio executive tell me, “It’s your movie,” or even, “It’s your screenplay.” Umpteen months later, I still haven’t gotten around to deleting my editor’s e-mail.
WITH A NOVEL, reviews start trickling in before your publishing date, taper off, then end a few weeks later. If you’re lucky, you wind up with a handful. But when your film opens, every newspaper in the country gets its licks in simultaneously. If the critics don’t hate your film, it’s like being licked to death by cats; if they do hate your film, it’s like being mugged by soccer hooligans. Further proof that movies remain (despite industry fears) a national pastime while hardcover fiction is a niche product, the home latte machine of mass culture.
Of course, most movie reviews center on the director and star, whereas a book review focuses entirely on the author. Book critics aren’t likely to blame the publisher the way film critics (often rightly) fault a meddling studio; nor do fiction reviews question (or applaud) an editor’s contribution. The good and bad news: A book is considered to be purely the work of its author. If a critic is lukewarm about my novel, I can insist (and I have!) that said critic didn’t understand my novel. But I can’t confide to my friends that some uncredited hack writer screwed up my work.
So: If you subscribe to the auteur theory, buy a book.
AS MY NOVEL has circulated around town, reactions range from “Gee, that’s great” puzzlement to faux admiration (“Wow, you’re a real writer now”) to the suspicion that I must now be a leper in Hollywood -- why else spend a year on work that pays the equivalent of what I’ve commanded in a half-day’s worth of script doctoring?
It isn’t phrased quite that way, of course. The comment usually goes something like, “Cool, I guess you got sick and tired of the whole movie thing, huh?” This always makes my palms sweat, especially if I’m out and haven’t checked my phone messages or e-mail lately. Like every Hollywood drudge, I know that one day the President of Show Business (picture the love child of Jack Valenti and the Grim Reaper) will tell me it’s over, it’s been a good run but now I’ve got 24 hours to leave L.A. County.
LASTLY, the big question I’m asked is whether “it’s a movie”?
Here one must be careful lest, after all that soul-cleansing work, one starts to feel like a whore again. One has to stay clearheaded and steadfast, and remind oneself that the reason one took the time and trouble to write the novel in the first place is that it wasn’t a movie.
But now that the book’s been out awhile, I find myself thinking, Go ahead, Hollywood: Change it, modify it. Don’t be shy. Fire me, hire Steve Zaillian to adapt. Just send one of those checks with lots of zeros. And make it payable to my real name.