My interest in writing a movie began 10 years ago, when Esquire ran a cover photo of a chimpanzee sitting at a typewriter, under the headline "Is Anybody in America Not Writing a Screenplay?"
So I started immediately.
I had a great idea for a movie, about how a famous newspaper obituary writer and his young sportswriter colleague (played by Richard Dreyfuss, I strongly urged) connected the dots on a string of seemingly unrelated deaths of old baseball players and uncovered a murder plot by the vengeful son of a former teammate. In honor of the obituary writer's nickname at the paper, I called the movie "Doctor Death." It would've surely swept the Oscars had the lunkheads made it.
A major motion picture studio paid me $2,000 not to continue writing it, and I thought: Wow, this is great. They'll pay me not to write. I'll do it for EVERYBODY!
Unfortunately, it was a one-time-only deal.
So 10 years go by, and I still haven't gotten rich. Realistically, I know I'm unlikely to invent anything important. My best idea, "Tartar Control Peanut Butter -- When It Sticks to the Roof of Your Mouth, It Helps Prevent Gum Disease," hasn't exactly taken off.
I figure I'm down to two shots: play Lotto America with the rest of the suckers, or write a wildly successful film -- screenwriting being, essentially, the lottery for people with an IQ over 115. (Listen up, I'm giving you three good reasons for writing a screenplay. One is you'll get paid about $300,000 for the first one, and at least one million dollars for the next one. Now, do you really care about the other two reasons?)
Since the slobs who ran the studios 10 years ago are long gone, sacked, selling real estate in Van Nuys where they can't hurt me now, I recently enrolled in a weekend screenwriting seminar at American University given by Richard Walter, chairman of the screenwriting department at the UCLA film school.
Walter pounds in three basic principles:
1. Whore for bucks. "You can't be aloof. You can't be a snob when it comes to audience. If you're not interested in how it plays in Peoria, write novels."
2. Sex and Violence. "Nobody wants to see 'The Valley of the Nice People.' 'Oedipus Rex' is about a man who murders his father, sleeps with his mother and pokes his eyes out. Whatever grand psychoanalytical themes it has, it's a sexy, violent, vulgar story."
3. Don't tell the truth. "Truth you can get for free in the streets. You don't need to spend $7.50 a ticket for how things really are. What people are looking for when they go to the movies are sophisticated, seductive lies. Lie through your teeth." (Oh, and one other rule: "Beware of any place that calls it cinema. ... USC now has a course in 'filmic writing.' Mike Nichols once said, 'The only excuse for using the word filmic is with two Irishmen, and one says to the other, "Have you seen the film, Mick?" ' ")
There were about 50 people taking the course -- including paying journalists, a group previously believed to have vanished from the Earth -- and they were all there for the same reason: much money. "You get De Niro, I get dinero." (Film too intimidating for you? Think episodic TV. They pay $8,000 for a two-page, double-spaced story. Raise your hand if you can't use $4,000 a page.) Walter and real live Hollywood agent Leslie Kallen offered practical advice, like what kind of cover letter to write to accompany your script. "A sensational two-thirds-of-a-page letter," Kallen said, which I took as a sign that the new generation of screenwriters are now busy working at USA Today. (I'm terribly sorry, Mr. Faulkner. We're unable to read your script. Your letter is simply too long.)
Many of the students had already written scripts -- one of the perks was that Walter agreed to read everyone's script -- and Kallen was asked about submission to studios.
Actual question: "Let's say you sent someone a script a year ago, and you haven't heard from them, and now you have a rewrite, what do you do?"
Kallen's answer: "Resubmit. Pretend you didn't make the first submission."
My answer: Kill yourself. And give back that Porsche.
Q. "Suppose you got a favorable critique from a professional script reader. What do you do?"
A. "Mention in that sensational letter that 'seriously favorable coverage' came with your script."
My answer: Buy two new homes.
Look, I'm not going to tell you all the secrets, because why should you get rich instead of me? But this is a direct quote: "What really counts is story. Story, story, story. Character and dialogue are important, but first comes story."
... I've got this idea for a movie. It's in Rome -- beautiful, passionate Rome, right? And they're, you know, by the fountain. And it's a spy thing and a love thing, you know? Whaddaya mean, what happens? They're a couple of cute kids, they're in Rome, they're spies and they're in love. Whatever happens in Rome is what happens in the movie. Don't worry, it'll write itself ...
No it won't. That's a location, not a story.
So first, you have to get a story.
"No," Walter corrected. "You have to make a story."
Here, for free, is what Richard Walter thinks producers want to see:
Upper-middle-class adults in gentle stories of human relationships.
So I'm changing "Doctor Death" to a story about a Kuwaiti freedom fighter's college roommate (played by Tom Cruise) -- you can stop me any time this sounds familiar -- who's a successful executive who comes to L.A. on business, and he just broke up with his girlfriend, so he pays a woman (played by Demi Moore) $3,000 to be on his arm for a week, and gradually they fall in love. Either that, or he's a ghost, and she was his girlfriend, and he's going through a medium to warn her she's in danger. Don't worry, it'll write itself.