It was funny, actually, the way I got my first screenwriting
gig. I was working as a film editor
on an excellent—one might say "cutting edge"—TV show, and by the end of the second season the writing had begun to get a little thin, mostly because one man—the executive producer
—was doing all of it. On a typewriter
. Every single one-hour episode. He had to. Every writer on the network’s "approved" list was a hack. A drudge. A whore. An over-paid incompetent. The poor producer was slowly losing it and it showed. The ratings were sinking faster than the Titanic
I was sitting in the editing room one afternoon, like a frustrated Dr. Frankenstein at the moviola, struggling to breathe some life into a flatly-written and poorly-executed scene, and I said to myself hell, I can write better than this. Maybe you’ve done that yourself. Fact: we CAN.
That night, having little else to do but drink and feel sorry for myself (being recently separated) I knocked out a two page story and fifty-two "springboards," one sentence ideas for episodes; a year’s worth of overkill. It seemed like a nice round number. Once you got the rhythm, it was easy.
When you think about it, episodic TV writing may be the easiest sort of scribbling anybody can do. The characters are already developed. The conflicts remain the same week-to-week. TV is comfortable drama or comedy. The huddled masses want to invite their favorite people into their living rooms each week, and with very few exceptions those betubed buddies are…soft and cuddly.
Take a look, for example, at what happens when a hit movie gets turned into a television show. Elliot Gould and Donald Sutherland in M*A*S*H, a pair of bonafide maniac alcoholics, transform into Wayne Rogers and Alan Alda, a couple a nice guys who tipple. Homicidal racist Rod Steiger in In the Heat of the Night becomes twinkly Archie Bunker with a bad Mississippi accent. By the time the TV version ran its course, the redneck sheriff had up and married the black-but-curvy councilwoman. Similar examples are legion; I’ll leave you to think about them.
The problem in our case was that we’d brought most of the cast along from the hit film and these folks were dangerous. Incredibly talented; easily alienated by crap served up to them on a daily basis in the pursuit of an air-date. TV is like a freight train. Once the show leaves the station, once the script becomes film, there’s no turning back.
Next morning I ambushed the tired-looking Executive Producer. He was the hardest-working writer I’d ever met; in every morning at five AM, never leaving till after we finished shooting at nine or ten every night.
"Mind taking a look?" I asked respectfully, handing him the pages. He smiled. I got the sure sense that he’d been there before.
Around four that afternoon he calls me to his office and says "This is good stuff. Can you give me five pages combining numbers 24 and 52?"
He was a man who always thought outside the box. He’d asked me to mix apples and oranges when I thought the network just wanted a simple little country pie.
"Uh, well, yeah, I guess," I answer stupidly.
"Good. I’ll have a check cut in an hour."
"You have time to stay and talk a bit?"
This isn’t the way it’s supposed to happen is it? The storybooks always talk about writers knocking on doors till their knuckles are raw. Tossing out page after page of unappreciated genius before they shoot themselves. The tales of even "successful" scribes remaining unpaid for years in Hollywood are stultifyingly ubiquitous. Manuscripts are burned in frustration. Lives are ruined by drink. Success in Hollywood comes at such a price. In the storybooks.
This wasn’t about success in Hollywood. This was about a producer in extremis, a guy who’d been to the mattresses with the network about a show he’d created and then watched them destroy, as they tried to fit it into their short-sighted view of what the audience wanted. The show was doing fine, for a young show, but according to the bean counters at the network, it needed to do better.
It was a pleasant hour between us; wine was consumed. I felt blessed you know. This man had done it all. The residuals from his work would pay for his grandchildren’s grandchildren’s educations. He’d won Emmys. Written feature films. He’d done it all. By arriving at his desk at an hour even milkmen and farmers find obscene.
"There’s just one other thing," he said to me as he handed me that MGM check:
"I need this tomorrow."
Nope. Not supposed to happen like this at all. From idle speculator in the afternoon to full-blown professional TV writer at midnight. I struggled with those apples and oranges like a man possessed. Remember, we didn’t have computers in those days, oh my brothers. There was enough wasted paper on the floor of my little apartment in Venice, enough false starts and dead ends, to heat the crash pads of a thousand derelict Dickensians.
But by five AM I had five perfect pages on his desk. He smiled a tired smile:
"I’ll get this to the network today. We’ll know in a week."
Well, we knew by that afternoon. They wanted a script. Forty-five pages. And damned if I didn’t get another check in a couple days. A big one. It came to over three hundred fifty dollars a page. A buck-forty a word. A BMW in 20th century dollars.
I flew back home to Upstate New York to nurse my marital wounds and write my first Hollywood paid-on-the-barrelhead-aforehand script in modest triumph. I was greeted with unconditional love by the women of my childhood—my mother and her mother. This has always been, I do believe, where most of my problems begin.
Big time Hollywood writer goes and rents a big time Selectric typewriter from the little man whose paper I used to deliver five days a week. I set myself up in my garret-that-is-not-a-garret, my childhood APARTMENT, the whole third floor of the house in which my grandmother was born. The surviving women in my life bring me cool drinks, and hot coffee late at night. I write, ten, twelve, fourteen hours a day. The script is shit.
Too much comfort do you suppose? Too many old tapes being replayed on a daily basis? It didn’t help that both of them always disliked my wife of nearly ten years anyway. (Nice to know, Ma, thanks for telling me now). Regardless, the worst sort of writer’s block ensues—you’ve been paid, they’re waiting, and you can’t deliver. It's worse than trying to knock out a writeup before the votes roll over.
Weeks slip by in that insidious way they have. I have battered my two slim little ideas into something like a script and it’s time for a little R&R. My grandma suggests a ride in the country. Which is predictable. Car rides and professional wrestling are her sole source of entertainment.
I’ve always liked to drive and I quickly agree. We head into the Berkshires (Not as pretty as our mountains says Grandma, referring to the Catskills, but they’ll do.) I owned the Berkshires when I was growing up. Just about everything good that ever happened to me happened in those hazy green hills that run between eastern New York and western Massachusetts.
We’re somewhere between Lenox and Pittsfield, and I’m thinking about James Taylor’s "…turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston," when we come upon the sign: Herman Melville’s ARROWHEAD 1850-1862. It’s the ante-bellum home of the author of Moby-Dick, a lovely two story farmhouse. "Let’s stop," says Ma, who loves her museums.
The place is empty except for the guide, a lovely lass from Mount Holyoke who wears a nicely-tailored tweed skirt, a silk blouse, a scrimshaw bracelet and an insouciant intelligent look in her eye. Call her Isabelle. She directs most of her history lesson to me, and we’re having a fine time of it. Lit major jokes and innocent flirtations abound, and the facts come fast:
Melville bought the place in 1850 after falling in love with the solitude and the view of Mount Greylock. He named it after the native American relics he found while plowing in the surrounding fields. In the upstairs library he created a refuge from the chaos of family, which included four children, his wife, his mother and his three sisters. A fourth sister would frequently visit, as would countless friends and relatives. The crush of family during the act of writing was something to which I could relate. Hadn’t I come east to work because of (estranged) family? Hadn’t I taken this drive today at the behest of the two women who fed me, clothed me, and insisted on vetting every girl and woman who had ever come into my life?
During the time he lived at Arrowhead, Melville didn’t make a dime. He composed, in that farmhouse, surrounded by distractions, Pierre, The Confidence-Man, Israel Potter, The Piazza Tales, some of his best short stories including Bartleby the Scrivener and Benito Cereno, and of course, his masterpiece, Moby-Dick. It took him twelve years.
Finally, reluctantly, with debts mounting perilously and discouragement and the Civil War occupying more and more of his thoughts, he sold the farm and moved the family back to Manhattan, where he took a job as a customs inspector. For twenty years Herman Melville worked six days a week at the New York Customs House. He earned four dollars a day.
As the loveliest girl from Mount Holyoke ushered us into Melville’s study, and as we swam in the green-gold light of the Berkshire spring that afternoon, my mind tossed, like Ishmael’s life-preserving coffin, on thoughts of the roiling sea of Hollywood success that I had ridden precariously to that place.
Isabelle gestured to the simple oak table Melville used as a desk: quill pens, an inkwell, a candle and a couple of books. "If you look carefully," she said, directing us to the windows framing Mount Greylock, "you can see that the mountain does resemble a whale, doesn’t it? Imagine it in the winter."
"Oh yes," said my mother, who used to point out fantastical shapes in the clouds to me. "I can see that."
Four dollars a day. Three hundred fifty dollars a page.
My grandmother got that light in her eye that suggested she knew I fancied the little girl from Mount Holyoke. She looked at me proudly, turned to the scrimshaw lass, and said:
"You know, my grandson's a writer too."
On Hollywood and filmmaking:
Below the Line
sex drugs and divorce
a little life, interrupted
- Hecho en Mejico
- Sam's Song
- Hemingway and Fortuna
- Hummingbird on the Left
- The Long and Drunken Afternoon
- Safe in the Lap of the Gods
- Quetzal Birds in Love
- Angela in Paradise
- And the machine ran backwards
a secondhand coffin
how to act
Right. Me and Herman Melville
Scylla and Charybdis Approximately
snowflakes and nylon
I could've kissed Orson Welles
the broken dreams of Orson Welles
the last time I saw Orson Welles
The Other Side of the Wind
Below the Line
Final Cut Pro
king of the queens
Kubrick polishes a turd
movies from space
Persistence of Vision
Apocalypse Now Redux
The Jazz Singer
We Were Soldiers