The Writers Guild's current contract with the TV networks and movie studios expires at midnight on Halloween, a spooky moment of disharmonic convergence which has created an industry-wide anxiety that feels eerily like a sequel to Y2K. All interested parties are holding their collective breath, unsure exactly what will happen when the clock strikes twelve but bracing for what my aunt Doris would call a "disastrophe." (Hey, do you think I can sell a pitch of this "Y2K2" idea before the deadline hits?)
I've been watching these developments with a mixture of fascination and detachment. As one of the unfortunate legions of WGA members not currently employed, the prospect of going on strike from work I'm not doing suggests the proverbial tree falling in an ear-deprived forest. Then again, should a strike be called, it'll be nice for my unemployment to seem suddenly noble and principled instead of, well, pathetic.
I fully support the WGA's goals in these negotiations, especially their attempt to ensure that writers (and actors and directors) will share fairly in whatever revenue emerges from the still nebulous "new media", after decades of screwdom on VHS and DVD. And while I thought nothing in this business could surprise me any more, I was honestly stunned when the notion was floated by the studios to rethink the payment of residuals until a given project has made back its money. That loud cackling you've heard echoing off the Hollywood hills was the ghost of Art Buchwald, laughing from beyond the grave. In some dusty ledger, Gone With The Wind is probably still struggling to make its way out of the red. And I didn't hear any accompanying suggestion that the executives who greenlight, supervise and occasionally fuck up these projects would also be docked future pay in the event of unprofitability.
If any proposal was ever going to unite the creative community, this was it. If it was merely a negotiating ploy on the conglomerates' part, I can't comprehend what psychological game they thought they were trying to play by putting this issue on the table. It's as if a bully told you, "I'm going to rape your sister," then later said, "On second thought, I'm not going to rape your sister," and you're supposed to think, "Gee, what a great guy! He's not going to rape my sister!"
I've grappled at length with the absurdity of the literary-industrial complex in what seemed the only suitably illogical form: farce. I wrote a screenplay titled Creative Differences, in which a struggling female screenwriter, who feels her autobiographical labor-of-love was butchered by an obnoxiously-successful male screenwriter's rewrite, is given her chance to exact revenge by rewriting one of HIS scripts. Then an Oscar-winning diva and a studly actor, considered the sexiest (and dumbest) man alive, get their hands on the script, each trying to contort it to suit their own agendas. And once the word-impaired actor enlists the deposed male screenwriter to ghost-write his script notes and mash notes to the smitten female scribbler, closet doors are flung open, cell phones get slammed shut, and love doesn't conquer much of anything.
I like the script. It was even optioned. Directors and producers have flirted with it but, as I knew could happen before I put a single finger to my keyboard, it has been hampered by its very Hollywoodiness. Much like musicals and Westerns, projects about the entertainment business are deemed by conventional wisdom to be terminally uncommercial, with every failure viewed as proof and every success seen as a fluke. My condolences to anyone out there who's writing a musical Western about Hollywood. Make the lead characters women over 35 and your doom will be sealed!
Regular people don't give a hoot about showfolk, we are told, despite the existence of Extra and ET and EW and E! (and their latest bastard child, TMZ) or the check-out rags which inform us each week that Brangelina are splitsville, reunited, expecting, wasting away and secretly in love with George Clooney. My best friend from high school's mother-in-law in Milwaukee read my script and she "got" it.
Well, seeing how there soon won't be anything to read in Hollywood because nothing's being written, I offer the following scene for your time-killing enjoyment. Here Dick, the writer of many "lots of shit blows up" blockbusters, has his first meeting on Down Beat, the gritty cop drama which he impulsively sold to the highest bidder. Read this scene now because, once the strike ends, the situation depicted here will seem a relic from a distant age, as scriptwriters will finally be accorded the full respect they deserve.
(In the spirit of Radiohead's recent album giveaway, if you'd care to read more, just drop a note here and we'll send you the whole script -- for FREE!!! What a deal.)
JUSTIN, a baby-faced secretary, ushers Dick into a lavishly
furnished office. TRICKLING WATER is heard in the next room.
Would you like something to drink?
I'm fine. What's on that billboard?
Dick points out the window at a billboard across the street.
It's covered with typewritten text in screenplay format.
Some writer's posting his script,
one page a day. I'm sure he hopes
somebody will read it and buy it.
MALE VOICE (O.S.)
Like any of us has that long an
A FLUSH, then SKIP GOULD enters, zipping his fly. He looks
more like a high-school sophomore on prom night than a powerful executive. Skip offers his hand. Dick hesitates before shaking it.
Skip Gould. Damn glad to meet you.
Uh...hi. Dick Hackett. Will Arnie
Goldschmidt be joining us?
Uhhh...Arnie has left the studio.
Since yesterday. He wants to spend
more time with his family.
He doesn't have a family.
Maybe he wants to start one. So,
let's talk about this script. T?
No, I don't need anything to drink.
Oh. No. T is my assistant.
Skip beckons to the outer office. A skeletal young female
executive named T enters. Justin leaves, closing the door.
T, Dick Hackett. Dick Hackett, T.
Just T? Are you married to Mr. T?
T grins weakly. She's endured that one before. They all sit.
The studio's been looking for a cop
movie, and this is a cop movie.
Well, that was my intention.
I loved your writing. The words
leaped off the page. Literally.
It's so great to read a script that
can be shot without having to
change a word. We have some notes.
Dick grabs his legal pad. T hands Skip some stapled pages.
Dick tries to look at Skip's notes. Skip pulls them away.
Uh-uh-uh. No peeking! Okay,
first, can we change the setting
from L.A. to, say, San Francisco?
L.A.'s been shot to death, and San
Francisco would give it a neo-noir
flavor, like "The Maltese Falcon".
But..."Chinatown" IS in L.A.
I meant the one in San Francisco.
Dick lets it slide. He jots down "SF" on his legal pad.
Sure, San Francisco could work.
Great. Plus San Francisco will
give us more chance to play up all
of the homoerotic undercurrents.
Dick's pen stops in mid-note. He's baffled.
We loved how you suggested the
attraction between the two cops,
but we'd like to make it clearer.
It can't be made clearer, because
it isn't there.
Well, we certainly saw it. That
scene with the two cops in the car
all night? What was that?
They're on a stakeout!
"Make out", more like.
Why does any script where two men
are friends automatically have some
gay subtext? You must have male
friends who are just friends.
I'm a studio executive. I don't
T, don't you have any female
friends who are just friends?
Well, yeah. But then, I'm gay.
If you're uncomfortable with the
gay angle, fine. The suits would
probably prefer to keep it vague.
So, who do you see in the leads?
James Woods and Harvey Keitel.
Sure, we could make it with them.
Or we could just burn eighty
million bucks on the back lot. The
end result would be the same.
But they're perfect for the roles.
Don't get me wrong. Jimmy and
Harve are wonderful actors.
They were amazing in "GoodFellas".
But the two of them together
couldn't open a jar of pickles.
Okay, I grant you, they're not A-list.
Who were you thinking of?
SKIP AND T (UNISON)
Skip and T are very excited. Dick stares in astonishment.
Is that a problem? We heard you
two got along great on "ATF".
Yeah, but...he's barely thirty.
Twenty-seven. Or so he says.
So how is he supposed to play a cop
on the verge of retirement?
See, that's one of our problems.
The male lead has to be younger.
You can't just make him younger.
The script is ABOUT aging!
People my age worry about aging.
Yeah, I'm sure you're petrified
you'll hafta start shaving someday.
I'm sorry. But that's such a huge
change. I'll have to think about
it. Do you have any other notes?
Well, there is...the title. "Down
Beat" is just so...downbeat. We'd
like something more upbeat.
Hey, how about "Upbeat"?
Skip reacts as if T has just split the atom. Dick is irate.
But the story isn't upbeat! And
"Down Beat" is a reference to the
fact that Dave plays jazz trumpet.
We're thinking of losing the jazz.
Rocco would be more into hip-hop.
The streetwise cop.
The streetwise cop is Dave.
We don't think Dave's a good name.
Well, I do! I spent two weeks just
deciding on the right names!
Relax, Dick. What does it really
matter what the character is named?
If it doesn't matter, then let's
stick with the names I gave them!
Look, why don't you meet with Nick
and hear his ideas on the script?
Nick King has already read it?
Yup. He's dying to play the part.
Which part? Dave, the arthritic
old jazz musician, or Rocco,
the gay young hip-hopper?