It was just a gig. An all-terms upfront, uncredited production rewrite. Pack quickly, climb on a plane, fly to the location, find a quiet corner in the production office, and vomit pages of wannabe box office gold. In exchange, a healthy weekly check deposited into my bank account until the studio or producers cried no mas and sent me back to Lalaland.
I had a good few week’s start before the picture’s principal stars – let’s call them the Three Amigos – arrived for wardrobe fittings and three days of rehearsals before the cameras rolled.
Thank God for rehearsals, I wheezed. Most pictures don’t budget for them. The script is semi-locked but for some quiet tweaks. The cast arrives a day or so before their respective starts. And the show marches forward. But with rehearsals, casual or otherwise, the writer and director get to hear the words, clock where the cast members might be tongue-tripping or missing with the character, and make the adjustments without having turned a sprocket of unexposed film stock.
Then came a whisper from one of the producers, a solid guy I like to call Wong Fu because he used to self-describe his management technique as Chinese Water Torture.
“Uh, er,” began Wong Fu. “Got some unfunny news. It appears you’re not invited to the rehearsals.”
“What do you mean I’m not invited?” I retorted, waiting for the actual joke to be sprung.
As it turned out, the film’s director, a fellow I’ll refer to as Tommy Tantrum, had other plans for the rehearsal time. He hadn’t yet had the chance to bond with the movie stars and expected to use those three precious days to perform his own Vulcan mind meld on them.
“He’s got the whole picture to bond with his leads,” I said. “I need those rehearsals more than he does.”
“If there are changes,” said Wong Fu, “He plans to pass them on to you.”
If my brief experience on the picture had taught me anything, Tommy Tantrum wasn’t going to be able to pass a kidney stone without me writing it first.
“Unacceptable,” I said. “Are you gonna talk to him or do I have to get up in his face?”
“No,” said Wong Fu. “You getting in his grill would be bad. I’ll handle it.”
As it turned out, Wong Fu didn’t need to lift a rhetorical finger. Upon getting wind of Herr Director’s genius plans, our biggest star, Amigo Numero Uno, openly scoffed at Tommy’s plan to exclude me. He insisted that I not only sit in, but that the rehearsals were more for the writer’s benefit than the director’s. End of discussion.
For the rehearsals, the company had secured a huge, hotel function room. Cavernous. High ceilings scrolled with ornate moulding. Empty but for the small, round banquet table at the center and a craft-service buffet set up against the wall with the requisite carbs and caffeine.
Day one’s rehearsals commenced and closed, leaving me to burn up the late night lamp oil to execute the changes. Then came day two where the Amigos and I began to hit our stride. New and better scenes were blooming from the fertile collaboration. Then, after we wrapped our second day, Tommy Tantrum took me aside and hooked an arm around my shoulder.
“Listen,” said Tommy. “Before I begin shooting, I really need some alone time with the actors. How about you give me tomorrow morning? Just the director and the cast. You come after lunch?”
“I really hear you,” I said. “But tomorrow’s the last day we have and there’s a lot more work to do.”
We ended up agreeing that he could have the stars for the first two hours—nine AM to eleven. Part of the decision went against my better judgment. Yet this had been the first time the director had appealed to me with something other than a brash, egocentric pronouncement of “how films are made.” Since I’d been handed the gig, Tommy’d made it no secret that I was the producer’s hire and not his. From then on, our relationship had been relegated to nuts and bolts discussions, scheduling issues and such, with very little talk about substance. My job was to write the picture. His was to direct. And nary the twain shall meet.
Once again, I wrote through much of the night, slept in a bit, treated myself to a late, sit-down breakfast of hotel pancakes dusted with powdered sugar, then set off to finish up our last day of rehearsal.
This is where Great Dane droppings hit the proverbial fan.
I will never forget the moment I entered that hangar-sized rehearsal space. The instant I stepped through the doors, all three of the Amigos snapped their famous mugs in my direction. Each fixed me with his own, strongly practiced accusatory glare.
Holy crap. What the hell had I done?
“Morning,” I said, approaching with a hot stack of rehearsal pages. “What’s going on?”
Amigo #2 stood to stretch, turning a one-eighty from me, his body language unmistakable. Meanwhile, as Amigo #3 looked ready to bust some angry stitches, Amigo Numero Uno turned to me with a more polite appeal:
“Gotta say. We’re having a rough time with the new pages,” said Numero Uno. “Somethin’ you wanna say cuz they’re not up to your usual standards?”
My initial reaction was, What new pages? As my fingers pinched the pair of scenes handed me by Numero Uno, I could instantly tell by the font and layout that they hadn’t been generated from my laptop. I clocked misspelled words and punctuation that would offend my third grade teacher, Missus Dalrimple.
“Okay, I’ll come right out and say it,” broke Amigo #3. “What the fuck is this shit?”
“For starters,” I said. “It’s not my stuff. I didn’t write any of this…” I didn’t quite have the words to describe what I held in my hand.
“You’re kidding me?” spat Amigo #3, pointing at where the movie director had been seated. “He told us you wrote ‘em.”
I looked for Tommy Tantrum, who’d conveniently slipped away to the craft service table to smear cream cheese on a fresh bagel.
“Really, man,” whispered Numero Uno. “You didn’t write any of this? Cuz the man over there said you did.”
“You guys have been working with me for days,” I said. “This read like anything I’ve put in front of you?” I flipped the pages onto the table. “Whoever the hell wrote this, it didn’t come from my computer.”
As you might expect, underneath my skin there was a nuclear reaction in play. Atoms were colliding. A chain reaction of Biblical scale was unfolding. So to say I was angry doesn’t quite describe it. Clearly, Tommy himself had written the unspeakable scenes. Probably during some midnight, cocaine-fueled lapse in sanity and dictated to his comely and oh-so-willing assistant of just nineteen years. That would explain the gross lack of craft, misspellings, and typos contained therein, more akin to a high school freshman’s rough draft than a seasoned word jockey’s. And then when the actors had pissed on the work, Tommy had conveniently lied and told them I was responsible.
“Sorry your morning was wasted,” I feigned to the frustrated stars, beginning to distribute the new scenes I’d intended to work through. “Let’s get back to working on the movie I’m writing.”
With that, Tommy smugly returned to the table and we somehow worked into the afternoon without uttering a single word to one another. As far as I can recall, Tommy stole hardly a glance at me—not unlike the doomed inmate too daunted to look his assigned executioner in the eye.
Yes. As far as I was concerned, Tommy Tantrum was a dead man. He’d crossed a hazardous line I’d never imagined would be… let alone could be crossed.
The rehearsal ended. The stars grabbed their cell phones and assistants and disappeared back to their private lives, thus removing the diplomatic buffer between myself and the Great Offender.
He was, in simple terms, about to be owned.
Part two of The Great Offender next week…
- More Behind the Lines with Doug Richardson
- Behind the Lines with DR: Die Hard Doug Meets Don Simpson
- Mapping the Journey for Professional Screenwriters: An Interview with Diane Drake
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