Thursday, January 5, 2012

They Also Serve Who Paint Houses

“I’ll think about it” means nothing in L.A.

-Karen (played by Rene Russo).  Get Shorty

So here’s the thing.  If you work in film or theater, there is this constant comparison between New York and Los Angeles.  You know all the clichés.  People in LA are plastic.  New Yorkers are heartless.

Like everyone else in this business, I spent time here in NY and time in LA.  Like everyone else, I had a screenplay, or, like everyone else, should I say I had screenplays.  Though I was born and bred (I always loved that term – what am I, a racehorse?) in New York, these two incidents, years apart, represent my interaction with the differences in the screenwriting scene in New York and Los Angeles.

I found myself in theater because I loved English and I loved writing.  I loved everything about writing.  I loved, and still love, research, and I think I loved research more when “google” was not a verb, not a word, not even a thought.  It is easier, but it’s not about easy.  It’s about the whole process;  having one book in a library leading you to another in a bookstore to some microfilm in the main library on Fifth Avenue in New York.

The first full-length piece I wrote was a play.  It was called “The Beast” and it was about Aleister Crowley.  Before you assume I am some demon worshiper, I was more fascinated with Crowley the man, the Charlatan, the guy who would do anything for a buck and use religion as his excuse.  It was the Eighties, and there was a lot of that (and still is) on the holier-than-thou preacher side, and I was fascinated by this guy who literally sold out his country, England, for a price to Germany in World War I, and got believers to put up money to support a “religion” he didn’t believe in for a moment.  He made money by being called the worst man in the world, and reveled in the attention it brought him.  He watched the woman he “loved” go mad after being bit by a bat, and though he professed himself a superior mountain climber, he abandoned a group of fellow climbers, leaving them to their death.

Crowley was a Mamet character running around in turn-of-the-century England. 

I researched a civil trial he instigated where he sued a newspaper for calling him the ‘worst man in the world’, not because he was offended, but because there was a possible buck in it.  The trial became about his character, which was in no way good for Crowley.  I found trial transcripts in the NY Public Library, saved on microfilm from an old London newspaper.  As a mentor of mine used to say, you couldn’t make this stuff up.  At one point, one of the opposing attorneys challenged him to turn him into an animal.  It was great stuff.

That said, “The Beast” went nowhere.

Undeterred, which is another way of saying I couldn’t take a hint, I wrote a script called Never Waver.  This time, I was shooting not for the small theater crowd, but for the big time – movies.   This was my first full-length screenplay.  Loosely inspired by a true incident when a one-term liberal Upper West Side Congressman is killed by a former student, Never Waver was a story of a former “true believer” from the Sixties who fled to Canada and remained in hiding after an ROTC bombing went terribly wrong and someone was killed.  He was not responsible, but he was the prime suspect.  He came back to “Reagan’s America,” where Abbie Hoffman now said he didn’t trust anyone under thirty to find the truth.

I still think it was a good story, but, hey, I wrote it, what do you expect me to think?  My reference to True Believer is because it is the film that most reminds me of the script, though the stories are very different. 

I spent a lot of time writing this script in bars.  I wrote a lot in bars because it allowed me to observe other people and feed off that energy.  I also wrote a lot in bars because I liked to drink.  The romantic notion of writers feeling the pain of the common man with every sip worked for me as well.

Geisler: Mayhew, some help, the guy's a souse! 
Barton: He's a great writer... 
Geisler: A great souse! 
Barton: You don't understand... 
Geisler: Souse! 
Barton: He's in pain, because he can't write... 
Geisler: Souse! Souse! Can't write? He manages to write his name on the back of his paycheck every week! 

-Barton Fink

The script is finished, and I start sending it out.  I send it to all the “indie” film companies in New York, all the “indie” film companies in Los Angeles, and to as many agents as I think might like it in either city.  Maureen, ever supportive, helps me get the script typed and copied.  She is temping, and a much better typist than I am, and I’m not working with screenwriting programs.  This is somewhere around 1987, 1988. 
We get responses from New York that look something like this:

“Thank you for considering (company) for your project.  We are not looking for new material at this time, but please keep us informed about your progress.”

You get it.  They are never going to represent you or produce your film, but, on the odd chance that someone else thinks it is good and decides to go forward with it, hey, keep them in the loop, because then they will be interested.

This reminds me of something I once heard writer and director John Sayles say at a script-writing conference.  He had many short stories before his success with Return of the Secaucus Seven, and they were almost all rejected repeatedly.   After Return of the Secaucus Seven, many of the same publishing companies approached him, and a collection was published. 

Sayles’s quip : “It’s amazing how much better my short stories got once I was successful.”

From the Left Coast, I got a much more promising letter.  It was from a company that had a few indie hits, and although they had a big office in LA, their main office was in London.  They showed more enthusiasm, and when I suggested I could come out and meet with them, the person who sent the letter suggested that would be a great idea.

Wow.  They liked me.  They really, really liked me.

I was nervous before the first meeting, but not afterward.  The person I met enthusiastically told me how much he enjoyed the script, so much so, that he wanted me to meet with his boss, who subsequently met me enthusiastically, and set up a meeting with his boss.  This was all happening within a few days, and it had finally happened.  All those days and nights writing, all that typing and copying  and collating, and now, finally, I was going to be recognized.  Inside of two weeks, a meeting was set with the head of the company.
This was the guy whose name you saw on the door.  This was the guy magazines interviewed about the company.  He was the  guy, and he was in from London and was going to meet me.

The meeting went something like this.  He started by telling me that he hadn’t read the script yet, but all of his people told him it was very good.  I should be very proud of my work.  There was one catch – his company didn’t produce scripts like this – ever.  They had no intention of producing scripts like this any time in the near future.  If I ever had another script that was nothing like this script, I should send it to them.

Thanks for your time.  Handshake.  Nice meeting you.

It was the same brush off I got from the NY companies, only many meetings later.  I learned later what I should have known, that it was the job of these people to take meetings.  It’s what they did.  It didn’t mean anything.

That was my first taste of the difference between the business in New York and the business in Los Angeles.

So, it’s now some time later, and I have my second full-length screenplay.  It is called Chump Change, and it’s about a guy whose father was in the same union he was now in and the way the union was selling out the workers to the evil company.  It was On The Waterfront with skyscrapers.  It was very much a tribute to my dad and my grandfather, both of whom were honest shop stewards in places where honesty wasn’t always valued.

More time in bars.  More time typing.  More time copying.  More time mailing.

I am about to go out to Los Angeles for other reasons when I hear from an agent in Los Angeles.  He is sure that he can sell my screenplay.  No, he doesn’t want any money up front or anything sleazy like that.  He will, however, need copies of the script – lots of copies.  I don’t remember the exact number, but we are talking, I kid you not, boxes full of scripts.  Maureen and I sitting on the floor of our large Upper West Side studio apartment collating and binding in just the proper fashion, with the brads bent back so no one gets cut, etc.  Scripts stacked into boxes; boxes packed securely, boxes  taken to the Post Office. 

I’m in Los Angeles, I think for my friend Annie’s wedding, though I am not sure right now.  I know I’m not there just to meet the agent, but while I’m there, why not drop in?

Before I go out to see him, I remember watching this local news cast where they did a man-on-the-street interview segment with random people, asking them how their screenplay was going.  These are random people – post men, door men, shoe shine people, business women, women with their little kids, construction workers.  The great part is that so many of them actually do have screenplays.

What most of them don’t have, though, is an agent.  I have an agent.  

Geisler: Look, you confused? You need guidance? Talk to another writer. 
Barton: Who? 
Geisler: Jesus, throw a rock in here, you'll hit one. And do me a favor, Fink: throw it hard. 

-Barton Fink

I head out to the address on a slip of paper, and, a few buses later, walk up to a house.  Ed Begley Jr. and I are the only people who don’t drive in Los Angeles.  The New Yorker in me just never learned. 

Can this be the right place?  It’s outside of Hollywood proper, outside of Los Angeles proper, in a suburban house.  On the lawn by the driveway are painting supplies, not easels and watercolors and oils but rollers and ladders and paint pans.

Maybe he is remodeling?

I ring the door bell, and he is pleasant enough when he comes to the door, until he realizes who I am.  Then, he is a little embarrassed.  I am out here with no car, and he really has no choice but to invite me in.

Once inside, I see boxes, boxes like the ones Maureen and I had sent.  Our boxes were there, but so were other boxes, all of them with screenplays from authors like me.  The house was filled with them.  The guy explained that he really did have connections, and though he hadn’t gotten any sales yet, he just knew that he would get one soon.  Until then, he was paying the bills by painting houses.

He reminded me how much he loved my script.

In New York, I knew waitresses that wanted to be actresses, and bartenders that wanted to be directors and cab drivers that wanted to be rock stars. 

I had to go to Los Angeles to find a house painter who wanted to be a literary agent.

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