Behind the Lines with DR: Rewrite and the Actor, Part 1

In this particular post, I need to keep the names under wraps because some of the following are still “A” players. So for now, I’ll just say that an unnamed studio hired me to rewrite an unnamed script for an unnamed star. It was a two-step deal. One draft plus a set of revisions. I delivered on time and received good news. The studio was seriously jazzed and wanted to push toward production. That would usually mean a brief writing pause while they sought a director, followed by meetings, notes, and some relatively close supervision whilst I nudged the next pass closer to a start date.

But this was an unusual situation.

The studio, having felt burned by a variety of recent directors who’d steered scripts into story and budgetary oblivion, had an experimental business model they wanted to try. Shape the script without external input, set a start date, hire a talented helmer currently residing in “director jail,” and fire up the green light.

Excuse me? Did he say “Director Jail?” What the hell’s that?

Director Jail is a metaphoric condo complex for experienced filmmakers who’ve somehow crashed their careers due to some kind of cinematic flame-out. Usually, a big budget flop or two is the culprit. While serving time in the helmer hoosegow they can usually be found treading water in commercials or episodic television. Once released from the pokey, the theory goes that the reformed moviemaker is so grateful for the opportunity that he or she won’t mind being micromanaged by commissary staff.

The only catch for this word jockey was that I had barely five weeks to deliver a prep-worthy draft in order for the studio to start production and make their precious holiday release date. Cool enough. I informed the War Department (my wife) that I’d be spending nights and weekends in my office, so please temporarily count me out of carpool duty.

As for the star, he seemed chill enough. That and while I was supposed to be executing a laundry list of studio notes he’d personally agreed to, he was scheduled to be well out of my way, filming another picture on foreign sod.

And so it began. I bike-chained myself to my desk and attacked the script. The studio notes, most of which I had to figure ways to retrofit into a screenplay the same execs had professed so much love for, required significant thought and rewiring, not to mention finding ways to keep the ripple effect of their notes from turning into a structural tsunami.

Then my phone rang. It was the movie star calling from his exotic locale. After a few days off from filming, he’d had a notion or two he wanted to discuss. Fine, I said. Let’s discuss. Only his notions were mostly dialogue related and in relation to the previous draft. Until I’d executed the studio’s macro notes, the dialogue earmarked for the star’s famed pie hole was pretty much irrelevant. Still, I made scribbles as to his thoughts, bid him a fond adieu, and continued on with my assignment. Until the next day when he called again. And then the next day. And the next day…

Note to writers who think screenwriting is like scrawling anything else… only a notch more glamorous. Sure, I suppose fielding calls from movie stars sounds like something worth fantasizing over. And to some with more shallow ambitions, I admit there’s a certain cache factor in working in those celestial orbits. But when that same big-time actor is shoving his or her “genius” down your gullet, all the while unknowingly dismantling what you just constructed the day before, planet earth suddenly becomes the atmosphere of choice.

With my deadline fast approaching and the studio breathing down my neck, I worried the daily distractions of Mr. Movie Star might hinder a successful delivery of the new script. So I packed a bag, gassed up my car and escaped to one of my preferred hideaways. The desert. Or to be more exact, the La Quinta Hotel Resort and Spa.

Before the War Department and I were blessed with a pair of attention-seeking, private-school-attending tax deductions – and I was crunched for writing time – I found I could double to triple my quality output by shacking up in a suite at a sunny hotel with an attached championship golf course. The routine went like this. Up at seven to a warm room service breakfast to write from eight until half-noon, followed by a sandwich and eighteen-holes of cobweb-clearing golf. Then a shower and dinner in my room, writing from six until midnight. Repeat the next day. It was usually a mash-up of gut-grinding and writerly bliss.

And the only person who knew where I’d vanished to was my beloved. Agents and the studio were both informed that I’d slipped away to better concentrate on the script. I turned off my cell phone, plugged in my laptop, and recommenced.

I know. You’re already way ahead of me. The movie star. He’d gotten used to stepping from whatever film set he was currently gracing, climbing up the steps of his air-conditioned trailer and dialing me for a little script confab between camera set-ups. Once he realized I’d shut off my cell phone, paranoia must’ve crept underneath his skull cap because he assigned his minions to spare no expense in digging me out of whatever hole I’d crawled into.

Then my wife called my hotel room. She told me both the studio and my agent had rung the house, urgently compelling me to call them back. What else was I going to do but as instructed?

“What’s so damn urgent?” I asked the studio exec.

“It’s (the movie star),” said the executive. “He’s flipping out that you’ve gone underground.”

“And to that you said?”

“That I didn’t know where you were. Which I don’t!”

“So we’re good then,” I said.

“Not at all. You gotta call him back.”

“I came down here to escape him. Calling him back would kinda fuck up the whole purpose.”

“Call him back.”

“How’s this?” I suggested. “You call him. Say that I’m executing this draft for the studio, and I promise the next pass will be just for him.”

“Why can’t you tell him?”

“Already have.”

“And?”

“And now I’m here.”

The studio executive cursed a blue streak, confessing to me this was a particular part of the job that he flat-out loathed. His bosses had passed the movie-star-management-buck to him. In essence, he was a lamb to the slaughter. Now he wanted me to wear the sheep’s clothes.

“Please,” he begged. “Why can’t you deal with this guy?”

“Here’s how I see it,” I said. “You, the studio, are paying me to deliver a draft suitable for budgeting. Plus I’m on a time clock. I need to construct your movie. Yet you want me wasting my time talking to (the movie star) who insists on de-constructing the very same movie.”

“Can’t you just hear him out, tell him what great ideas he has, hang up, then go back to working for us?”

“Last time I talked to him he wanted to see pages to prove I was executing HIS changes. Says he has a fax machine in his trailer.” With that I thought I’d rested my case.

That was me being diplomatic. What I really wanted to say was that managing the movie star was his problem. Not mine. And if he thought getting paid a mid-six figure salary wasn’t enough lubricant to ease being stuck between a rock and a hard place, maybe he should try sitting in a cold passenger van at three AM, trying like hell to pen clever dialogue while a hundred-man film crew looks on with blue-collar disdain.

“I’ll deal with it,” was the last thing I recall the executive saying.

An hour later, the room phone was ringing once again. I answered, expecting to hear either the voice of my wife or room service informing me that today’s roast beef had been replaced by braised pork loin.

Instead. I heard the familiar voice of the movie star.

“Found you.”

Next Monday, Part 2.

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