The funny thing about development executives in Hollywood is that most of them aren’t writers. Becoming a development exec is the route one takes to become a film producer. That was the trajectory I was on had I continued climbing the ladder at Wolfgang Petersen’s company. I was there for about five years, beginning as an assistant, rising to Story Editor and finally settling as his Director of Development.
If I had stayed I would’ve eventually become Vice President of Development and ultimately a producer, or I would have made a move to become the president of a company where an actor, director or writer had his/her development deal. Or I might have segued to the studio to become a Creative Executive, Story Editor, Director of Development or Vice President.
What I did instead was what every writer/development executive I knew ultimately had to do: I got the hell out.
I knew around a hundred development execs. We went to all the parties, we tracked projects, we exchanged notes and recommended screenwriters we’d been reading. Sometimes we competed for the same project. We were buried in our work. It was a 24/7 gig. After a full day at the office I’d typically take two screenplays home with me to read at night. I read anywhere between ten and twenty screenplays every weekend. Sometimes I’d have a novel thrown in, just as a nail in my coffin.
Out of those hundred execs I knew, only three others were writers. For us the job was more difficult. We were on the writers’ side.
We knew what it took to deliver that 120-page screenplay. We understood the agony of facing the blank page.
I think the writer has it the hardest. At least the director has a place to start. He’s got a “blueprint,” provided by the writer. The production designer has the screenplay and the director’s vision to work with. The film editor has the footage; the result of everyone’s efforts, built upon the foundation of the screenplay. Everyone has something to refer to, except the writer. The writer faces the demons alone.
We writer/development execs often fought on the side of the writer against what we knew was a losing cause. The system wasn’t always set up to recognize good writing. It recognized attachments. Was there an actor attached? A studio? A major producer? A director? Who’s the agent? Often times it were these very attachments, or elements, that kept the projects from succeeding. Too many cooks. A producer will make the screenwriter change the hero’s gender because his deal is with Nicole Kidman, not Hugh Jackman.
When I was working on the movie Outbreak (Directed by Wolfgang Petersen, starring Dustin Hoffman and Rene Russo, written by…well, that’s another story…) we were rushed into production because a competing project with the same storyline was going up against us. We had a big studio, big producer, big director, big actors. They had a big studio, big producer, with Ridley Scott directing, starring Robert Redford and Jodi Foster. Theirs was based on the bestselling book The Hot Zone, by Richard Preston. Ours started off based on the book, but when the producer didn’t get the rights to the book he decided that any story based on the outbreak of an infectious disease was fair game. He decided to create his own.
This was the perfect example of the tail wagging the dog. Everyone seemed to forget about their respective stories, their non-existent screenplays. Each side made a mad rush to be first to the finish line. As it happened the rush was to the starting line. Both productions advertised the exact same production start date in The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. The industry awaited the head-on collision as only the film business can—with relish.
The screenwriters credited on the movie Outbreak are Laurence Dworet and Robert Pool. These were the credited writers on the screenplay that came to our production company in an effort to get Wolfgang attached as the director. From the beginning it was all about the idea of the story more than the script we were handed. I never saw a second draft by Dworet and Pool, although the draft I saw might have been their tenth draft, for all I knew.
Our company immediately set upon getting someone to rewrite the script, which was par for the course in Hollywood. Ted Tally was chosen (wrote the screenplays for Silence of the Lambs and All the Pretty Horses) and we were off to the races.
We had problems with the Tally draft and then he was on to another project, so we brought in another set of writers, I can’t remember their names. Their draft didn’t impress, so we brought in Carrie Fischer to punch up the dialogue. Meanwhile, The Hot Zone, which had become Crisis in the Hot Zone, was going through its own devolution. Redford and Foster apparently couldn’t agree on their script and the rumor was that each wanted the screenplay rewritten to make their character the principal role. The story took back seat to the attachments.
It was a race to meet the date to begin principle photography. Nobody had a produceable script. We hired Neil Jimenez (River’s Edge, The Waterdance) to begin a page-one rewrite while we were in the middle of pre-production. Ultimately, Crisis imploded, its stars unable to agree on the script. Yea, we had won! Now what? There was no way to stop the machine.
Poor Neil wrote day and night, faxing pages in at four in the morning for each day of production. Us development folk in the office alternately cried or laughed, and both reactions were appropriate.
Wolfgang is a talented director. He pulled it together. It wasn’t his best film, but it wasn’t bad. If he’d had a better screenplay it might have been great. But it really wasn’t about the script, anyway.
And I tell this tale to illustrate what, exactly?
It’s one of many reasons I stopped being a D-Guy. It’s one of the reasons I stopped writing screenplays. The whole environment was so rarely about the one thing I truly loved – storytelling.
Movies are a director’s medium. I know a number of successful screenwriters. I don’t know if I know a happy screenwriter. I think the happy screenwriters are the ones who direct their own screenplays. Artists expressing their visions. Otherwise, they’re writing blueprints for a director to do as he/she pleases.
I left to write a novel. I had this crazy idea that I might be able to tell a story the way I wanted to tell a story and that someone would actually want to share the vision I had in my head. I figured I’d write something similar to Philip Roth. I didn’t care if it sold. I just wanted the freedom to express myself. Thank God I read those thousands of thriller screenplays at Wolfgang’s company. Thank God that Three Act Structure was embedded firmly in my mind.
The point is if you’re a storyteller you’re a storyteller. I had to get off the D-Guy treadmill and do what had to be done. As did the other three writers I knew who had D-Guy or D-Girl gigs. The ones who stayed either burned out or became VPs, producers or presidents of companies with development deals. A lot of them drifted off into sane, stable careers. I didn’t know any who had become novelists. I didn’t know any screenwriters who made the jump, either.
Until I met Alex and Rob. Something tells me they’re a lot happier now than when they were in the “game.” They are storytellers, and people are loving their stories. This wonderful give-and-take with the audience is something I never experienced writing screenplays in the film industry.
Anyway, this is Part One in what will eventually be a series of tawdry tales about the glamorous world of Hollywoodland. It was a nightmare, but it was fun. I still love developing screenplays, usually for smaller filmmakers outside the reach of the giant attachments that make Hollywood such a charming place to do business.
I remember having this terrible epiphany – I realized that Robert Altman’s The Player wasn’t really a satire. It was a documentary. When I recognized myself on the screen I knew it was time to get out.