Behind the Lines with DR: A Bitter Pill of Hollywood Writing Careers, Part 1

By Doug Richardson

Here we go again. The names have been changed for the most obvious of reasons.

I met Charlie A-List just inside the threshold of his Paramount office. He was riding high on his mega-hit, which he’d adapted from one of a series of bestselling books penned by Mr. Superstar Novelist. For that and other work, they’d rewarded him with an overall deal and a mountain of coin. Well deserved, I might add. He was looking to leverage his golden touch into producing other writers. He’d read one or two of my screenplays, liked what he’d seen, and wanted to see if we could cook up with something commercial for him to take to the studio.

writer for hireI found Charlie somewhat imposing, large in size with a crop of sandy brown hair and a gin-blossomed nose of a heavy drinker. He was twenty years my senior and, based on his world-weary posture, my guess is that he had seen his share of Hollywood trenches. We kicked back in his office. Charlie told stories. The young writer in me was duly impressed.

“You know, Doug,” said the king scripter. “The last four times I wrote ‘Fade In’ I got a movie made.”

I wanted to respond with something like, “Dude. I’m impressed already. No need to pour gas on it.”

Instead, I continued to act enthralled. We agreed to meet again over the next month or so and try to work up something pitch-worthy for the studio. And so we did. A few more meetings, most of which consisted of Charlie regaling me with his true tales of verbal fisticuffs and pissing matches with directors, producers, and studio execs. I believed all of them. There was something irascible about the veteran writer. A “take no shit” charm which I enjoyed and admired.

I don’t recall the story, if any, that we worked over. I did, though, retain some of his anecdotes and advice. All of which I’m grateful for. Still, nothing concrete came from our meetings. I moved on, as did Charlie.

Fade up on a year or so later. My first movie had been released, proving to be a lucky chart-topper. This led to a bit of a victory tour around the studios. As the new kid on the action block, I was getting pitched just about everything that screamed franchise.

One of these meetings was at Paramount with an executive I hadn’t before met. The appointment was in the late morning. Deciding to bundle my trip over the hill, I called Charlie A-List to see if he’d like to have lunch. Have a catch-up. I thought he might even want to congratulate me on joining the Blockbuster Screenwriters Club.

But first. The studio meeting.

The Hot Shot executive was a rising star. Youngish and brattish and responsible for overseeing a string of recent smashes. Viacom appeared to have a studio artist at the ready to stencil “President of Production” on his office door.

“Lemme get right to it,” said Hot Shot. “Loved what you did with the Die Hard sequel. Was a fan of the script long before that other guy got his grubby mitts on it.”

“Thanks,” I said, settling into his monochrome sofa that not-so-coincidentally matched his monochrome workspace.

“You a fan of (Mr. Superstar Novelist?”) he asked.

“Haven’t read the books,” I answered. “But really loved the first movie.”

We talked for awhile about the movie. Mostly about the genre and the space where it landed in the American psyche. Then there was the idea of turning the intellectual hero from the series into a full-throated action character without jumping the shark. From what I could tell, Hot Shot liked what he heard.

“Well, we’re already down the road on the next couple of films,” he said. The writer who’d taken the first crack at the last hit and ended up sharing credit with Charlie A-List to less than half the fanfare, had already begun the adaptation. “He’s good with getting the story down into a workable template. But he’s got no balls. So like we did on the last one, we’re gonna follow him up with another writer. You know. A guy with testosterone who can bring it to the finish line.”

“Right,” I said, first thinking of how quickly the world had flipped. Just a couple of years earlier, I’d gotten Die Hard 2 green lit, only to be replaced by someone who Fox and Joel Silver thought would bring the kick-ass and carry it over the finish line.

“We’d really like you to be that guy,” said Hot Shot. “We want you to take the next film over the finish line.”

The compliment-slash-offer warmed me. I was honored that Paramount wanted me to pick up the reigns to an obviously very important franchise. But I wasn’t exactly thinking as much as being reflexive. A question splashed its way to the front burners of my brain.

“Wait,” I said. “What happened to (Charlie A-List?) Isn’t this his franchise?”

“Hey. (Charlie’s) a great writer,” said Hot Shot. “But he wants way too much money and, between you and me and everybody else here at the studio, he’s a pain in the ass.”

“Doesn’t he have a deal here?” I asked.

“We may or may not renew it,” said Hot Shot. “Anyway, we’re moving on from (Charlie.) Are you interested?”

“This is really hard,” I said.

“Don’t answer now. Think on it.”

“That’s not it. I’m flattered and, the writer in me is very interested. But right after I leave here I’m supposed to walk over to (Charlie’s) office and go to lunch with him.”

“You and (Charlie) are friends?”

“Not exactly,” I said, going on to explain our brief, producer/writer relationship that never quite paid out any gold ingots.

“Well go have lunch with him,” suggested Hot Shot. “Just don’t tell (Charlie) what I just offered you. He still thinks he’s in the (Mr. Superstar Novelist) business.”

“Wouldn’t think of it,” I assured him. Hell, I didn’t want to so much as remember what had just transpired.

The meeting ended with the promise to reconnect after I’d marinated for awhile and/or discussed the offer with my agent. Then as I began the walk from the executive office building to Charlie’s bungalow, I actually thought of feigning a sudden case of Ebola and cancelling. And it wouldn’t have been that white of a lie considering my stomach was churning like a propeller on the Titanic. Hot Shot had not just offered me a seat on the franchise freight train, but had also informed me that Charlie had unknowingly been passed over.

God I hate secrets.

As I entered Charlie’s outer office, his assistant merely gestured for me to go on in. Charlie was waiting for me. No sooner had we shaken hands when Charlie let fly.

“So how was your meeting with (Hot Shot?”) he asked.

I was already caught off guard. How the hell did Charlie know where’d I’d come from.

“It was fine,” I said, parking myself. “How’d you know I was meeting with——”

“No secrets at this fucking studio get by me,” huffed Charlie, swerving back in behind his desk.

“How you been?” I asked.

“Fuck that,” said Charlie. “I wanna know what your meeting was about.”

I’m certain I swallowed hard. That and I wasn’t prepared to be as poker-faced as I would’ve liked to be. I’d planned on lunch, not an interrogation.

“General meeting,” I said to Charlie. “Hi, hello, we’re big fans.”

“Did he offer you one of (Mr. Superstar’s) books?” asked Charlie.

I searched for the right answer. I loathe lying. Abhor anything but the truth. But I knew if I told him right out he’d be hurt and furious.

“I wanna know right now,” pressed Charlie, “If that motherfucker offered you my movie.”

Next week, the conclusion of A Bitter Pill.

Read Doug’s new thriller, BLOOD MONEY. Available in trade paperback and ebook at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.

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