Behind the Lines with DR: Screenwriting Assignments – Late to the Party, Part 1

I loathe being late. Be it a movie, a meeting, a flight or pretty much anything. I hate it so much that I get anxious and sweaty and snippy as hell. Just ask the War Department. My timeliness can be traced to a base fear instilled by my father. If he was to pick me up at school or from baseball practice, or just about any other activity, he’d give me a warning followed the letters A.O.C.

writing assignments“Doug!” my father would bark. “I’ll be back to get you. Three o’clock A.O.C.”

Translation for the acronym was painfully simple. A.O.C. equals Ass On Curb. If I failed to be ready and made him wait, I’d be in for an old-fashioned ass-whooping.

Suffice it to say, I learned how to be on time and continue to be that way to a fault.

That said…

I’d been hired to perform a rewrite. Page one sort of thing offered by one of the studio’s senior vice presidents of production. Signor Veepi, who we’ll call him for the sake of this true tale, was a fair bit younger than me, but whip smart, good with story, and had a strong knack with writers. His plan was for me to keep the concept and two main characters but reconstruct the plot and action and put some spank to the tone. Pretty much a bumper-to-bumper renovation. Because I didn’t want the studio surprised by anything more than how winning the new draft would be, I insisted on a process of outlining the re-write nearly scene for scene. After all, it was their property. I was being paid for a service and my marching orders were to deliver something that would attract stars and a green light.

The contractual delivery time was rather standard. Twelve weeks. A number that’s usually not so much carved in stone. It’s more of a guideline, printed and signed in quadruplicate usually months into the actual writing process due to the wet cement that plagues most corporate business affairs offices.

Enter a previous writing commitment. Something that often trumps the current assignment. A project in prep at another company demanded my attention due to the hiring of a director. I politely informed Signor Veepi that before putting metaphoric pen to paper on his rewrite I’d need to first attend my earlier commitment.

“I get it,” Said Signor Veepi. “How long?”

“Thinking four weeks,” I said.

“Not a problem,” said Signor Veepi. “We probably won’t have contracts by then anyway.”

So off I went. I tended to my crime thriller for roughly a month before returning to the romantic action comedy I’d been contracted to retool.

Then my mother had a heart attack. She’d gone in for routine ankle surgery, suffered a heart attack, survived open heart surgery, then was thumped with a post-operative stroke as if to punctuate the cruelty of the joke. My father and sisters were a mess. Over the following two months, I was back and forth to Northern California at least five times. I tried to get work done. But I was obviously distracted and not feeling so crafty as my mum spent weeks in the ICU plugged into a ventilator.

“Sorry,” I apologized to Signor Veepi over the phone. “Slow going with all the stuff dealing with my mom.”

“Totally get it,” Signor Veepi said. “Family is always first, man. So no hurry. Seriously. Take care of business.”

With August came our annual Ireland trip, the birthplace of my beloved War Department. Still, I took my laptop and only part-timed the vacation, spending most mornings in my corner booth at The Fisherman’s Bar, local pub, sucking back pints of Diet Coke while working away at the rewrite. The going wasn’t easy as I took a fateful step and suddenly froze as I heard the distinct click of a landmine. Not a real landmine. But the mental kind that happens when composing a screenplay. Something on the page went boom as I realized that something within the architecture of my storytelling was unsound.

“Top of the morning,” said Signor Veepi as he jumped on the long distance call. It was still AM in L.A. and well into the evening in County Kerry.

“They don’t really say that over here,” I answered. “Nor does anybody seem to have a clue the origin of it either.”

“No shit?”

“Not matter,” I segued. “Just an FYI. Hit a story landmine. Kind of a structure flaw. Mind if I run the fix by you?”

We talked through the structure fault and the fix. And with Signor Veepi’s blessing, I moved on.

The next day came a phone call from an executive at CBS. They wanted to buy a TV pilot and hadn’t formally pitched. Nonetheless, after subsequent discussions with my agent – along with untold overseas mobile minutes – it appeared that if I were to write the script under the stringent and late-in-the-pilot-script-season deadline, I’d once again have to delay delivery of my studio rewrite.

In hindsight, I should’ve said no. Instead, upon my return from the old sod, I sat down for lunch with Signor Veepi and laid down my cards.

“You seriously have to write the TV pilot,” insisted Signor Veepi.

“No I don’t,” I said. “I owe you the rewrite.”

“We’re not in a hurry on it,” he said.

“I’m way late already,” I said. “I hate being late.”

“C’mon. After all that stuff with your mom. And you had to handle that prior commitment.”

“Who are you working for?” I joked. “Me or the studio?”

“Listen,” he pressed. “Here’s why you have to write the TV script. I’m really interested in TV. Have been thinking of moving that way in my own business. This way, you can clue me in on the process.”

“You’re not serious.” I still didn’t believe him.

“Totally,” he said. “Do the pilot. Just keep me in the loop. And I wanna read it as you go along.”

“What about your boss?”

“Not your problem. Just as long as you get the rewrite done right after the pilot.”

Wow. I had a Get-Outta-Rewrite-Jail card without having actually reached for it. So with the blessing from Signor Veepi, I said yes to the pilot deal and spent the next twelve weeks outlining and writing multiple drafts of the CBS show.

Now, please. Don’t get too far ahead of me. Because here comes the curveball.

Whilst writing the pilot, an old director pal had become obsessed with an original movie story I had in my back pocket. After begging for me to spec the screenplay and followed by my multiple and apologetic refusals, the director pal volunteered to ghost write the movie script. The director’s plan was to work off my dictated outline and compose the initial drafts with my characters, structure, while I lightly supervised. Upon my schedule showing some daylight, I would bat in the clean-up spot, eventually revise the draft in my own voice, and we’d sell the script with the director attached. The plan intrigued me. I’d never collaborated in such a way and, in the immediate, required little if any of a time commitment. So I said yes.

As fate would have it, the ghost written screenplay and my CBS pilot were finished at precisely the same time. And while my TV show was warmly received by the network, I was knocked out by the work my director pal had put in on the secret spec script. I was so impressed by how far down the road my director pal had been able to take my original tale, I couldn’t honestly live with putting my name on it as the sole author. Thusly, I gladly offered to share writing credit. By my estimate, my actual writing contribution would take little more than a singular and dedicated week.

But when and where would I be able to find a week? I still had the studio rewrite to do. You know, the one that had been delayed by my previous commitment, my mother’s illness, and the CBS pilot Signor Veepi had insisted I do?

But hey. When you’re late, what’s one more week, right?

I was about to be catastrophically wrong.

NEXT WEEK PART 2 OF LATE TO THE PARTY

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

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One thought on “Behind the Lines with DR: Screenwriting Assignments – Late to the Party, Part 1

  1. Anne

    So far, it is making me feel so much better about being “late” with mine. I have no actual deadline and I, too, was told that there is “no rush” but my prioritising other commitments, projects as well as health issues have pushed that draft beyond what I am comfortable with.
    Looking forward to part 2. Thanks for sharing!

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