Behind the Lines with DR: What are Bad Films? From the Mouths of Babes

So here’s the scene. It was a Saturday backyard birthday party and barbeque for a friend’s ten-year-old. The winter afternoon was crisp enough for sweaters. I’d assumed my usual posture, Diet Coke in one hand, enjoying a little adult conversation while keeping one eye on the unheated swimming pool. No kids were swimming. And that’s just the way I planned to keep it. Me and my invisible pal, Hyper D. Vigilance, planned to make certain no children would be dunked or drowned on our watch.

bad filmsI really couldn’t call this a purely showbiz gathering; it might be more accurate to refer to it as “showbiz-lite.” There were a few actors and directors and industry tradesmen attending with their offspring along with a host of other professionals and homemakers. Otherwise, a pretty darn typical kiddie bash. As the magician warmed up his rabbit act, white wine glasses were being topped off by our gracious hostess while our host leveled off the ice chest with cold beer and soda.

Then came the conversation. Three other grown-ups and myself had somehow veered from age-appropriate TV shows to the trials and tribulations of one woman’s quest to break out of her homemaker rut and hyphenate her way into working mom status. Some years earlier she’d graduated from film school with the usual hopes and dreams but had since been waylaid into marriage and raising a pair of hard-charging children. With both her kids finally ensconced in primary school six hours a day, she’d taken on a script partner and was preparing for a return to her chosen career path—writing movies that mattered.

“Awesome,” I told her in my de facto, always-be-encouraging mode. It’s both my nature and polite. I then asked, “What kind of movies are you working on?”

“Movies that mean something,” she insisted between swigs from a lime-choked bottle of Corona. “I mean, it’s not like I spent all that money on a film education to end up writing crap movies.”

“Crap movies. Yeah. There’s a few too many of those,” I added reflexively.

“I seriously don’t think I could live with myself if I had to support myself writing shit like Die Hard.”

Did she really just say that?

Even more acutely, did she know my credits or even have a clue that I was a working screenwriter? The woman, both pretty, petite, and if I recall, quasi-charming, was not much more than an acquaintance. Our shadows had passed a few times. Most of our encounters had been limited to me holding the preschool gate for her or at events like, well, children’s birthday parties. To date, this had been the most substantive discussion I’d ever had with the woman.

“Of course you can’t,” I responded, assuming either she or I had just been struck by the unlucky stick. After all, she was probably just being honest. And if anyone appreciates clarity and candor over the kiss-ass, candy-coating that permeates showbiz it would be me.

“It’s not like Die Hard or that kinda crap doesn’t have its place in the culture, I suppose,” she continued. “But I can’t imagine the lack of intelligence it takes to put that kinda crap on paper.”

Yeah. She went there. Definitely had my attention now. And I must admit I was really quite amused.

This is when I felt a certain and familiar tug on my shirtsleeve. My six-year-old daughter had snuck up on my blind side.

“Daddy?” asked my baby girl. “Didn’t YOU write Die Hard?”

“No, sweetie. I actually didn’t,” I said.

“Yes, Daddy. You did. I know you did.”

I looked at my daughter directly. Smiled. Careful not to flick my eyes in the direction of the mom who’d—accidentally or not—just pasted me with a sack of rotten tomatoes.

“Sweetie,” I said. “I didn’t write Die Hard. I wrote the sequel and little bits and pieces of the third.”

“Then what’s the movie you’re writing now?”

Die Hard 4, honey.”

Now, I’ve had more than my share of foot-in-mouth moments. Hell, I’ve even chewed and swallowed. So I was hardly cheesed by the mom and hoped that I’d be facile enough to quip something clever to ease her embarrassment. When my gaze finally returned from my adorable daughter to the adult conversation, the quasi-charming mom was… gone. While I wasn’t looking, she’d scratched out a precise one-eighty and applied the gas.

God, I felt bad for her. That and I had to hold onto the emotional Advil I’d strung into words in order to salve the large caliber wound she’d inflicted upon herself.

Glad you said it. It was honest. And fair. And I appreciate it. There are plenty of folks out there who think my movies are crap. In fact, I can personally vouch that one of my pictures is crap. I’ve even had a New York Times reviewer blame me for wasting two hours of his life. So there. We’re all good, right?

Well, at least I thought it was a worthy speech. I regretted being unable to employ it, considering that quasi-charming mom had chosen to hoof it as far as physics would allow.

Now, for those of you reading this who might surmise I’m full of hooey in my hardcore appreciation of the unvarnished truth, try and follow me for a few more paragraphs.

First of all, who doesn’t like a compliment? Especially when it concerns one’s own work. If I deserve it, dammit I want to hear it in a clear, bold font. But I’m not foolish enough to believe that everybody thinks my farts smells like puppy breath. Over my career I’ve found it excruciatingly difficult to get people to tell me the plain truth—at least from those whom you’d expect to give it. Time and time again I’ve begged my reps to keep it real and tell me the honest truth. If they didn’t like me in the meeting, tell me. If the studio hated the pitch, tell me. I’m a big boy. If I can’t handle the truth I have no business suiting up for the game. I’ve even employed classic dialogue from the Godfather as an example of my need for clarity rather than dipping every hard fact in maple syrup before serving it up.

Mr. Corleone is a man who insists on hearing bad news immediately.

Of course, there’s the dark side to demanding the cold truth. I recall one agent who finally heeded my instructions, fulfilling my wishes with long steak dinners where he’d proceed to unload every bit of bad news about me, his other clients, and the state of the industry in general. The War Department and I began referring to him as the Grim Reaper. I believe he’d begun to see me as not only a client, but a psychoanalytical vessel for him to deposit his turgid views on the business as a whole. Our conversations had turned so depressing that I eventually had to let the poor man go.

I’m a man of significant faith. But I’m also a writer, which means I’m a natural cynic. So it goes that I’m a believer in both light and dark and that without one we cannot truly understand the other. I prefer laughs in my drama. A little sweet with the salt. And fair and honest criticism with acknowledgements to anything I might have done that worked well on a reader’s palate.

Yet I’ve also come to understand this. The truth about the truth is that few in entertainment want to tell it to your face. That and they’re so accustomed to powdering everything with sugary sweetness that it’s often impossible to know where you truly stand.

It was destiny that I’d bump into Quasi-charming Mom again. That moment of inevitability occurred when I was lunching on Lebanese food with a director pal. The wannabe screenwriter entered the restaurant with one of her SUV-driving friends. We noticed each other, exchanged polite smiles, after which I turned to my lunch date and regaled the tale of the kiddie birthday faux pas.

“So here’s what’s gonna happen,” I later explained to my director friend. “As we leave, I’m gonna introduce you to her.”

“Think she’d recognize you?” asked my friend.

“Already made the connection,” I said.

“Damn,” said my friend. “Cuz if she didn’t, you could remind her you’re the guy who wrote those worthless, shitty Die Hard movies.”

“No need to twist the blade,” I said. “What I wanna do is let her off the hook. Explain that I’d appreciated her candor that day. Maybe that’ll let some air out the balloon.”

“You are wayyyyyyy too nice,” said my friend.

“I’m not that nice. I can be as big an asshole as anyone. But I’m glad you think I have my moments.”

The check came. We promptly paid and pushed back our chairs. Yet as we headed for the exit, I was utterly surprised that the corner two-top once occupied by my writer mom was suddenly empty. Had I missed her as she’d excused herself to the ladies’ room?

“And there she goes,” said my director friend, gesturing toward the window.

That’s when I saw her, hauling ass across the parking lot, climbing into her Euro-built mom-mobile.

“Betcha didn’t see that coming,” said my friend.

Nope. I surely didn’t.

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

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