Behind the Lines with DR: Writing Screenplays – So How Do You Do That ‘Thing’?

“So whaddayou do, Doug?”

It’s the usual, socially interactive question. Adults, stuck in the same mini-sphere, in this particular case it’s at a Little League team party hosted at my San Fernando Valley compound. Okay, it’s not really a compound. Nor is it a hacienda. It’s just your basic suburban domicile with a man-cave-slash-writing-lair in the back.

writing screenplays“I’m a writer,” I answer, unable to toss back the question with my usual spin (read The Bulletproof Lie). That’s because my kids are around and could easily blow my cover, not to mention some of the other parents know my profession, and last but not least, the omnipresent collage of movie one-sheets bearing my name that are often noticed when guests avail themselves of my office bathroom.

“What kind of writer?” is the general and polite follow-up question. “Films? TV?”

“Movies mostly,” I say. “I also write books.”

This is when the conversation usually splits down one of two divergent roadways. Fiction Boulevard or Movie Street. Considering my movies have so far proven way more popular than my still-growing thriller business, the subject often steers thusly:

“So how does it work?” he asks.

“How does what work?”

“The writing movies thing?”

“Oh that,” I say, knowing fully what they really meant. I was just hoping to be wrong for once. Nor do I respond to their referring to my chosen profession—a line of work with which I pay the mortgage on my compound… er… humble abode—a thing.

“I mean, who comes up with the idea? Does somebody give you a book?” he asks.

“Sometimes they come up with the book. Sometimes I come up with the book.”

“Only books?”

“Hardly,” I say. “Ideas can come from anywhere.”

“Like anyplace at all?”

“Someone can bring me an idea,” I explain. “Or a half-formed story. Or an article from a magazine. Or an experience they had. Or it can come from my own experience.”

“Anywhere at all?”

“Pretty much.”

“Like… anything?”

“Exactly,” I say. “And you never know when the idea’s gonna hit you. I could be at a gas station. Or the market. Watching a baseball game. Who knows? I might suddenly get struck with the bright idea that there’s a good story in something like this. A team pool party. Where the host is hit up by one of the parents with a question like ‘what do you do?’”

Usually I have to wait for it. The questioner’s brain to catch up with the concept that the weak premise I just suggested was about him. Then the goof would normally bust out a big laugh before continuing the interrogation.

“So then what?” he asks.

“After the idea comes?”

“Yeah.”

“I write the movie.”

“And how does that work?”

“I actually sit down, and I actually write it.”

“I figure that. But how long does it usually take, you know? To write the movie.”

“My first draft?”

“Sure. Your first draft.”

“Eight to ten weeks.”

This is when the whistle comes. Followed by:

“Wow. That long?”

“Sometimes a little quicker. Sometimes a bit longer.”

“How much longer?”

“Depends on the writer,” I say. “Some take six months to a year.”

“Holy crap. That’s long.”

“I suppose.”

“For just a movie, I mean.”

“You’d be surprised.”

“So it’s like what? A really long outline?”

“The screenplay for the movie?” I ask, though I know what he means. I don’t need him to clarify. This is about the time I’m attempting to devise an exit strategy to this particular conversation. That’s because I’ve been here before and know precisely where it’s going.

“Oh yeah. I’ve heard of that,” he says. “Screenplay.”

“That’s why it’s called ‘screenwriting.’”

“But this screenplay thing…”

There he goes again. To him, what I sometimes create from nothing is a “thing.” I should tell him that I have a “thing” in my office that has a trigger, takes lithium batteries and delivers one hundred and fifty thousand volts of Have-A-Nice-Day.

“What’s in it?” he continues. “You know. Your screenplay.”

“Description. Dialogue,” I answer.

“Dialogue?”

“Yes,” I say, preparing myself for the next and most obvious humdinger.

“So the dialogue you write is for…”

“The actors.”

“Actors, right,” he says. “And it’s like a description for what they’re supposed to say?”

“It’s pretty much exactly what they say,” I say.

“So what the actors say in the movie—“

“Is pretty much entirely written by a writer. Yes.”

“No kidding?”

“I kid you not. It’s written by a writer so when the actor opens his mouth something that propels the drama comes out of it.”

“Jeez. And I thought they just made it all up. Well, not all of it. But most of it. You know what I mean.”

“I do know what you mean,” I say. All too well, in fact. At this point I’m mentally writing a memo to The War Department. Please never volunteer us for one of these team party things again.

“So all the dialogue. Everything the actors say. Is written by you?” he asks.

“Or another writer. It’s a profession. There’s lots of us. We even breed.”

“So what else do you write?” he finally asks.

“Like I said. I’m also a novelist—“

“No,” he interrupts. “In the movie thing. You write the dialogue. But what else do you write or is that it?”

“No. There’s more,” I say with a dryness that might infer that a) I need another beer or b) I need something a lot stronger than a beer.

“Like what else?” he asks.

“Okay,” I relent. He’s a guy between the age of twenty and forty-five. The odds are with me here. “Did you see Bad Boys?”

“I did. Yeah. I know that movie. You wrote that?”

“I did.”

“No kidding. Wow.”

“Okay,” I continue. “So you remember how it starts. With the Porsche roaring down the highway. Miami. Palm trees whizzing by. Fast.”

“Yeah. Okay.”

“Then we’re inside the car. Will’s behind the wheel. Martin’s in the passenger seat. Will starts complaining about Martin ‘havin’ a picnic’ in his brand new Porsche.”

“Yeah, right. I remember that scene. That was funny stuff.”

“It was all written first,” I say. “The Porsche and the palm trees and Miami and the car going fast and the characters in the car and the hamburger and the complaint about the picnic and the dialogue where Martin drops the French fry between the seat the console and Will tells him his has to go down and ‘git it.’”

“Uh huh.”

“Like that,” I say.

“So you wrote all that.”

“Pretty much everything from the beginning to the end,” I tell him. “Until the screen goes black and the credits roll.”

“You write the credits too?” laughs the guy. “Only jokin’ about that. I know you probably didn’t write that.”

Now, before you curse this harmless boob for being a moron, just know he’s merely ignorant of how the puppeteer works the strings. In fact, the fellah I might’ve been having the conversation could easily have been a heart surgeon or a Verizon Wireless technician or an attorney or even a movie set construction chief. I’ve even had the conversation with a computer programmer for a defense contractor. And in all those years he’s been figuring how to build a new binary system to thread through an eye of a needle in order to make a smart bomb even smarter, he’s been more than happy to buy a ticket, a Coke, and a fat bucket of popcorn and gladly watch my movie unspool without any more expectation than did it entertain his over-worked ass? The truth is, without this curious fellow or his ilk, I wouldn’t have a job, let alone a dreamy pseudo-compound-slash-hacienda in the San Fernando Valley.I ’m serious, here. He may be annoyingly curious, but the proverbial shoe could easily fit on either of my ugly feet if I was the person machine-gunning him with questions about his day job.

“Hey,” he says. “I know somebody who works in your business.”

“You do?” I ask, feigning surprise.

“Neighbor of mine. Well, not really a neighbor. I woman who used to date a divorced neighbor.”

“Oh.”

“Maybe you know her.”

“Probably not.”

“She works for that studio.”

“Which one?”

“I forget the name. The one with the lady with the thing –“

“The thing being the torch.”

“That’s it.”

“Columbia.”

“Right.”

“What’s she do there?”

“Not a clue.”

“And I bet you don’t remember her name.”

“Can’t think of it. Nope.”

“Small world,” I say.

“Damn straight it is,” he says. “Very small world.”

“… But I wouldn’t wanna paint it,” I say, cribbing one of Steven Wright’s best lines.

“Man, you should write comedy,” the man laughs.

“Maybe I should.”

“You don’t?”

“Not usually.”

“So how’s that work? You know. The writing comedy thing?”

Sigh.

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

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