One of my screenwriting credos goes like this. Do you want it fast or do you want it good? I usually reserve this lightning bolt for pushy producers and execs who somehow hope I’ll cut a contractual delivery schedule in half or more. Twenty days into a draft the phone rings and the nagging begins. Thus the pithy salvo.
I’m surely not the first writer to say those words. Nor are some of the producers and execs the first to retort:
“I want it fast AND good.”
Snappy repartee aside, when Signor Veepi rung me up the following week, I didn’t quite have the moxie, let alone credibility, to fire up my witty guns. I was red-notice-past-due-turn-off-the-electricity-and-near-evicted over the limit.
“I know I’m late,” I defended to him. “And I’m really grateful for the long leash. But hey. If I recall you were in on every delay but one.”
“My boss is up my ass. You gotta get it done.”
“It’s right in front of me,” I said. “I’m strapped to my desktop until it’s delivered.”
“Two weeks,” I promised, knowing spring break was fast approaching along with a planned family vacation and a fistful of non-refundable airline tickets.
For the next ten days, Signor Veepi rode me like a pack horse. Despite that, I cut zero corners and when I tapped out a succinct THE END I was damn pleased with the result. I’d delivered the movie I’d been engaged to write. I’d steered closely to the approved outline so there shouldn’t be any unpleasantness but for the lateness of my delivery.
Cut to: Hawaii.
I was enjoying the pressure-free feeling of sand between my toes and an icy afternoon vodka cocktail when I received a message that my agent was trying to find me. When I finally called him back, he cut directly to the issue.
“(Signor Veepi) says the rewrite is a disaster,” said my agent. “Said the script took ‘a giant step backward.’”
“That’s a load of crap,” I defended. “Impossible. We had copious meetings on the outline. There were no surprises.”
“Well that’s what he’s saying,” said my agent. “Suggest you get on the phone with him ASAP.”
Except Signor Veepi wouldn’t take my call. So I left a message with his assistant and made her read it back. To paraphrase, it sounded something like this:
“Considering how carefully we outlined the draft, I can’t imagine how or why it has gone so horribly sideways for you. That said, upon my return from my family holiday, let’s sit down with the script and figure out where I went wrong page by page. I want to fix this for you.”
And it wasn’t spin. As certain as I was that I’d served up pretty darn close to what I’d been asked, I was still embarrassed. In my career, I hadn’t once delivered on a job and received such negative slap-back. A giant step backward? I couldn’t stomach that kind of talk going viral. What positive rep I possessed would surely take an unceremonious hit if I didn’t fix it stat.
A week later, I was seated across a studio conference table from Signor Veepi. He was flanked by a pair junior creatives. Each of us had copy of my rewrite and a legal pad.
“So let’s start over,” I began. “Let’s go from page one and rip it to pieces. Find out what went wrong so I can get to fixing it.”
And then began one of the oddest couple of hours of my career. We went through the rewrite scene for scene. I was merciless on my own work. Arguing to demolish everything in order to set things right. Yet scene after scene, I’d hear:
“No. Great scene. Don’t touch it.”
“Maybe a tweak to the girl’s dialogue. But I love where it ends up.”
“No. Keep this. It’s super funny.”
Wait. Was this the rewrite that took the screenplay a giant step backward? As I vigorously attempted to render my work into recyclable wood pulp, Signor Veepi and his lieutenants would reach in and rescue pages I was more than willing to trash. By the time we reached the last scene, the screenplay I’d delivered was virtually intact with a standard list of minor studio notes. Smart ones, easily achieved in the next contractual pass. When it came to story, Signor Veepi was damned smart and worth working with.
“Next draft is on me,” I said when the meeting ended and it was just him and me left in the conference room.
“No need,” replied Signor Veepi.
“You cut me a lot of breaks on delivery,” I admitted. “I owe you. But I’m kinda perplexed over something.”
“You told my agent I’d taken the script a giant step backward. We just went through the movie scene for scene. These notes aren’t that unexpected or major.”
“Sorry man. I was just pissed about it taking so long. I like where we’re going. Script is gonna be great.” He slapped my back and the meeting ended.
It didn’t take me long to execute the notes. But because I was still rather shaken from that vacation scud missile that Signor Veepi had lobbed across the Pacific weeks earlier, I was extra cautious and diligent. I wanted them to… No. Needed them to love the next draft.
And they did.
“Awesome,” said Signor Veepi not long after I’d handed in my revision. “Great, great job. We’re all really happy over here.”
“So what’s next?” I asked, disguising my relief. I wanted to move on. Forget the bomb-scarred territory we’d left behind.
What was next? Another surprise phone call full of Operation Iraqi Freedom shock and awe.
“We’re fucked!” shouted the exec.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Parent company has a competing project!”
After a minute of me showering enough verbal flame retardant to cool the worried executive, Signor Veepi went on to describe the big sister studio’s competition.
“They’re not similar at all,” I argued. “One’s a gothic period horror film and ours is a modern day, romantic action comedy.”
“But based on the same characters. And they have the green light.”
“It’s no more than a title change.”
“You don’t get studio politics. We’re fucked. And it’s all because you were late.”
“Whoah,” I cautioned. “I didn’t know about the competing project. I assume you didn’t know either.”
“Nobody knew. But it doesn’t matter now.”
“As far as me being late, if I recall, you signed off on all but one week of delay.”
Not true? So I read Signor Veepi each chapter and verse of my lateness. From my prior contractual commitments, my mother’s complicated illnesses, to the CBS pilot he strongly encouraged me to write.
“I never encouraged you to write the stupid pilot,” he defended.
“No? You want me to refresh your memory?” I pressed. “I can tell you the day, the restaurant, and the table we were sitting at when you practically insisted I write it because YOU wanted an inside ear on the TV development process.”
“Never happened,” he insisted.
I exhaled heavily, hating that I’d gotten sucked into a verbal blame game. It felt juvenile and unproductive. Especially when I knew Signor Veepi was merely putting his final moves on the old cover-your-ass soft shoe.
Officially, blame and responsibility for the movie not moving forward would be assessed, once again, to the writer.
Oh well. Such is the business. I did my level best to put the ugly mess behind me and, once again, move on.
Not long after, the parent company absorbed the little sister studio and all its property and employees. There were copious layoffs. Signor Veepi didn’t make the cut. He has since moved on to another job and producing success.
Someone who didn’t lose his job was one of Signor Veepi’s junior lieutenants. He phoned my agent, confessed how much he’d always loved the work I’d done on the rewrite, and wanted to know if I was available for rewrite on another project.
Was this a cautionary tale? Please. Well, maybe for some. But if there’s a lesson to be gleaned it goes something like this. Rewriting for dollars is about recognizing that the picture is their property and you’re just the tool-for-hire. It’s their rules. Their game. If you’re not willing to play, then don’t take the pay. Truth be known? I still like Signor Veepi. Think he possesses worthwhile ideas and if he called me tomorrow with something worth discussing, be it a rewrite, adaptation, or original, I’d weigh whether the potential pain was worth the gain and make my move.
And so it goes.
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- Behind the Lines with DR: Holding a Grudge
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