Tales of Woe in Glitter Town

 

By Stephen Jay Schwartz

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.

 

 

30 thoughts on “Tales of Woe in Glitter Town

  1. Chuck

    Thanks for the journey into your past, and also into a place I’ve always been curious about. Congratulations for busting out and doing something you wanted to do, rather than had to do.

    And I did see Outbreak–I enjoyed it!

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  2. billie

    Such an interesting story of your work and progression to being a novelist… I lived in H’wood for about a year, wanting to try screenwriting. I knew a number of "assistants to" the big players at that time, and so had a sort of ready-made path into the industry via that route.

    I had two interviews for jobs as assistant to a VP of Dev. and a writer/producer. I didn’t get the first one – the assistant called to tell me, I was devastated, and his voice dropped low – "you’re way too smart for this job, trust me, go work on your own writing."

    The other one said yes and as we spent the next two weeks negotiating salary, etc., I realized I was going to be on call 24/7 to a 40-something year old man who basically had never matured past adolescence. The idea that I would be paid as an assistant while providing around-the-clock psychotherapeutic support hit me during that two weeks’ time and my response was to pack up and move back east.

    Had I gone to H’wood before graduate school, I think I would have gotten sucked in deeper and for longer, but I had graduated and worked a year as an intensive in-home psychotherapist by then – and seeing the dynamics of H’wood juxtaposed with the work I’d done gave me a slightly different perspective on things.

    I love good movies and I’m glad there are people who get them made – but I’m square on the side of the storytellers, that’s for sure. (and the support people who build and maintain the elaborate scaffolding that allows the big players to seem so… big)

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  3. Alli

    Stephen – what a brave and very smart move you made. Sure, novel writing is fraught with stress, deadlines and not being able to switch the brain off at 3 in the morning when an idea pops in BUT at least it is your work and you can remain true to the story. You now can live that passion and life doesn’t get much better than that, huh?

    I’m looking forward to reading more about your adventures in Hollywoodland!

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  4. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Chuck – my favorite film by Wolfgang is Das Boot – the director’s cut. It’s in my top ten favorite films of all time. Three and a half hours long, subtitled. Every moment is tense. Brilliant.

    Dusty – I’m both the studio exec who kills the writer and the writer who was killed. (Thanks for setting that up for me).

    Billie – amazing story. Trust me, you did the right thing by leaving. The first guy was right, you’re too smart to be the assistant to a forty year old child. Do you know that in the "Written By" magazine (magazine of the Writers’ Guild) there is a regular article written by a psychotherapist?

    Alli – I feel absolutely blessed about being able to tell the stories I want to tell. I had lost myself in the film industry. I had lost my sense of self, my sense of self-worth. I wasn’t Stephen then–I was the guy you had to schmooze to get you an audience with Wolfgang.

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  5. Allison Davis

    Love the story you’re telling about the transition and the epiphany…when do we get chapter 2? That was a tasty snippet with much promise.

    The Hollywood story is enthralling to all — no matter how bleak you make it seem, you’ll never stop people from wanting to climb in and see for themselves. My mom used to talk about Hollywood in the 1950’s when she lived in LA and dated actors (her mother moved her to Spokane, WA so she wouldn’t marry one) and instilled that lore in me. I’d love to hear more.

    I agree that movies are a director’s medium because they are visual and the director is in charge of the vision. The writer’s only part of the whole, and not the biggest part as you point out.

    I’m one of the lawyers in transition, was a writer, then a lawyer and now I want to go back (or forward) to writing again…I think there’s a 12 step program there’s so many of us. Why we veer off course from writing — many reasons, might be a good blog topic in itself.

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  6. Louise Ure

    "I remember having this terrible epiphany – I realized that Robert Altman’s The Player wasn’t really a satire. It was a documentary. "

    Damn. That just about says it all.

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  7. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Allison – boy, I could tell the Hollywood stories all day long. I still have this love-hate relationship with the town. One of the reasons I wanted to write a novel was so that I could re-enter the biz from a different level. There’s a chance to actually get things done when you own the rights to the thing that people want to buy. I’m hoping film/TV people will want to buy the rights, which will give me a little negotiating power on future projects. I still want to direct films myself. But that’s a long, hard road to ride. I promise to write more blogs about my adventures in the screen/D-Guy trade.

    Louise – another thought that occurred to me about The Player – I realized that I also loved an industry that would allow a film director to make a film that offers such a compelling criticism of the industry itself. Like I said, I have a love-hate relationship with the town.

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  8. pari noskin taichert

    Stephen,
    I loved this post. It fascinated me. Hollywood and film production are a foreign world to me. I have these fantasies of my new series being picked up, but know so little about the reality. You gave all of us an inside view that is both frank and heartfelt.

    Thank you.

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  9. billie

    I almost wrote in the earlier comment that I had too much of a sense of self-worth to remain in H’wood… it was fascinating in so many ways, b/c there was (from the POV of a young psychotherapist still learning) such a morphing of the sense of self in the people in the business – it could range from missing in action to grossly inflated – and much of that depended on external factors beyond the control of the individuals (except that they could leave altogether, as you did).

    After I moved back east and had been here for about 8 months, I had an offer that would have meant moving back there totally on my terms, with the ability to write w/o having to do assistant work. And part of me wanted to go – but it was sort of like Oz – I had seen behind the curtain a little bit and didn’t quite trust the offer.

    Now, of course, all I can think is that it would be nightmarish to be living there with horses! I had fun while I was there but I’m glad I didn’t stay.

    I hope you get the chance to go back with the hottest property in town in your pocket – and that you’ll write about the experience here… 🙂

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  10. Rob Gregory Browne

    Amen, brother.

    I didn’t so much leave the business as it left me. I was in the thick of it around the time you were working on Outbreak. I remember a pitch meeting with Nana Greenwald and Sanford Panitch where we talked about the movie, but the rest of it is a blur. Both great people, but just another in a slew of development people I was pitching to back in those days.

    Then it gradually started to go away. And when the only gig you seem to be able to get is writing cartoons for Fox Kids, you’re pretty much done in Hollywood. Maybe I had lost interest by then, so it was easy to whore myself out to the toy companies. I didn’t really enjoy the work, but I enjoyed the guy I partnered with (Mr. Brody) and I liked being able to put food on the table.

    But I was unfulfilled, and when that work started to dry up, too, I decided, hey, I’m going to finally write that novel I’ve always been threatening to write. And thanks to the encouragement of my friend Kathy Mackel, KISS HER GOODBYE was born and I was soon working in publishing, a business that was (and still is) such a breath of fresh air I could almost kick myself for not making the leap much earlier…

    Welcome to a world where good writing actually counts.

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  11. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Hah – this post gave me hives.

    But Hollywood taught me to write a story, and working there has made me grateful every day that I’m a novelist, now. I knew tons of great D people, who really did try in every way to help the story survive the process. I still pray for some of them! 😉

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  12. Tom

    " . . . hives . . . "

    That’s the most sincere back-handed compliment I’ve ever read.

    You’re right, Stephen, and that epiphany gives me chills. I worked in the talent end and then the documentary research side. Miss some of my colleagues. Don’t miss the distorted values.

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  13. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Pari – you reminded me that I have so many bizzare, comical anecdotes that I want to share. It’s so weird, but when you’re in it you ALMOST think it’s normal. But your soul knows the world is skewed. It really took me years to heal.

    Billie – It ain’t easy having horses in L.A. There’s a horse stable in Burbank and you get to ride trails that give you a view of the busiest freeway in the world, the 101. No wonder the horses look so nervous. There are some nice spots for horses, though, like Palos Verdes. Ya gotta be a billionaire to live there, though.

    Rob – we gotta have a drink and trade war stories sometime.

    Alex – sorry for bringing back the nightmares. I’ll send over some Valuim.

    Tom – that’s exactly the word for it – distorted values. It was a hell of a ride.

    I really feel like I’m in heaven now, living in the "book world." I, too, wish I would have started earlier. But I don’t think I was ready. I needed some life experience, I think.

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  14. Julie Kramer

    I came from the desperate world of TV news. So people are always asking me why I wrote a novel instead of a screenplay. They think my skills would have been better suited in the world of pictures and sound. But I decided to play the odds – about a 100 movies are made each year; thousands of books are published. The odds worked for me. But it also worked because, like you said….it’s all about storytelling. Now should I ever be tempted to try a screenplay…I’ve heard you really have to live in Hollywood. Is that true?

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  15. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Julie – You don’t HAVE to live in Hollywood, but it helps. So much of the process is doing the "meetings." The last spec script I wrote didn’t sell, but it got me about 17 meetings with producers and development execs at all the important production companies. The execs are only interested in what you’re going to write next. Sometimes that can be parlayed into a little development deal with one of the production companies, where they hire you to do a rewrite on one of their projects, or they develop one of your original ideas with you. You can’t get these opportunities if you aren’t readily available and meeting everyone you can.

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  16. Allison Brennan

    Terrific and terrifying insight. I wouldn’t trade being a writer for anything. But again, sometimes I don’t think we choose our paths. I did something completely different for 13 years, but I didn’t love it. I love being a writer, warts and all.

    Thinking about what may happen to one of my books should it be optioned and produced, however, is terrifying as well. But I still dream about that day . . .

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  17. Chuck

    I have seen Das Boot, but not the director’s cut. Ich habe schon einmal in Deutschland! I love Germany, and loved the standard version.

    I’ll make sure to grab the director’s cut for my next long flight.

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  18. JT Ellison

    What a fascinating glimpse into Hollywood, Stephen! I’m always surprised to hear how much creation by committee happens. Granted, I have sounding boards, and critique groups, and an agent and editor’s opinions, but the work is still essentially my own. I wonder how it would feel to have your baby torn apart and sewn back together again in a different way…

    Nice job. I look forward to learning more.

    Reply

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