Paul Peditto authored the book The DIY Filmmaker: Life Lessons for Surviving Outside Hollywood, wrote and directed the award-winning film, Jane Doe, starring Calista Flockhart and has optioned multiple scripts to major companies. He teaches screenwriting at Columbia College-Chicago, has professionally consulted on thousands of screenplays since 2002. Follow Paul at www.scriptgodsmustdie.com and on Twitter@scriptgods.
Have you ever wondered why it seems like everybody you know is writing a screenplay? I might have the answer to this mysterious question. First though, a couple case studies in artistic mortality…
When it came time to shoot Jane Doe, I wanted him in my movie. I tracked him down to the St. Francis Residence. To call St. Francis a rooming-house would be lying. This was beyond stew bum. This was the checkout joint—where they force the door open and find your dead body, two months late on rent no more. No relatives, no funeral words or sendoff, pauper’s grave. The last of life’s bad jokes.
So, I find him. Knock on his door. It opens, barely a crack. “Gene… I’m Paul Peditto. I called you about my movie.” He didn’t understand.”No,” he mumbled, “I…no…” “Gene, we talked. You said you might make it.” It took time to get through to him. He stood before me in purple-tinged hair, uncombed Roy Orbison sideburns and spotted shorts. I tucked fifty bucks into his palm. This helped his comprehension. “Hope you can come down. We’re shooting in the meat-packing district, tomorrow. Gave him the address. Christ knew if he’d show up.
Next day, he appears. I introduce him all around. Not a single person knows or remembers him. This was a renowned artist in his own right, long before his Taxi Driver fame. So we shot the scene. Our protagonist, Horace, shuffles along 9th and Hudson, the landscape depopulated, only Gene and his greased back purple-tinged hair, passes him. We did the scene twice, in the can unremarkably. Pretty forgettable moment unless you knew that the extra Horace past was once a legend.
He walked off, completely anonymous. And died shortly after.
I was honored to meet him.
Charles Bukowski was my friend. Only met him once, at a National Public Radio performance of the play I adapted of his work, Buk, The Life and Times Of Charles Bukowski. This was 1992 and he had seen better days. He was gimpy, in poor health. Not sure if it was before the leukemia diagnosis, that disease killing him in ’94.
He was still an imposing hulk of a man though, and when he cried during the performance, that was as good as it got for me. We corresponded for two years and some of those letters appear in his third letters book, Reach For The Sun. When he died, I went out to Los Angeles to pay tribute. He was buried in San Pedro and when I got out there, I found a simple plot. Certainly not the Jim Morrison Pere Lachaise cemetery plot covered with joints and wine bottles, graffiti declaring, “You were the Lizard King!” No, this was more…literary. Clean, simple tombstone, that looks like this:
Don’t Try. I couldn’t figure out what that epitaph meant. Even driving back, I puzzled—what’s that mean? From the horse’s mouth came this excerpt from openculture.com:
“In October 1963, Bukowski recounted in a letter to John William Corrington how someone once asked him, “What do you do? How do you write, create?” To which, he replied: “You don’t try. That’s very important: ‘not’ to try, either for Cadillacs, creation or immortality. You wait, and if nothing happens, you wait some more. It’s like a bug high on the wall. You wait for it to come to you. When it gets close enough you reach out, slap out and kill it. Or if you like its looks you make a pet out of it.”
So, the key to life and art, it’s all about persistence? Patience? Timing? Waiting for your moment? Yes, but not just that.
Jumping forward to 1990, Bukowski sent a letter to his friend William Packard and reminded him: “We work too hard. We try too hard. Don’t try. Don’t work. It’s there. It’s been looking right at us, aching to kick out of the closed womb. There’s been too much direction. It’s all free, we needn’t be told.”
Right now you’re asking what the fuck any of this has to do with screenwriting. The answer is mortality, and legacy.
So many screenwriters place soooo much importance on screenwriting contests placings at Page Awards or Nicholl Fellowship or Austin. Or scoring a place on the Black List, or getting optioned, even making the movie itself. So many writing screenplays with this sort of…desperation.
What is that about? Have you ever stopped to ask why it’s so important that you make your movie? Do you think you’ll be remembered 100 years from now? Seriously, how many movies from 1917 have you watched lately? What makes you think you’ll be one of the minuscule few who survives in 2117? Why is that so important you write this script in the first place. Is it about $$$$, about fame, about legacy?
Let’s try a quick test: Name ten silent film stars from the year 1917 or before. Don’t Google it. I’ll wait…
Done? Having trouble? OK, let’s make it easier:
Name any ten movies from 1917 or before. No Googling…
Ok, we’ll make it easy: Name any 10 film stars or movies from the entire Silent era.
Those of you who never took a History Of Cinema class might have trouble remembering the names of Edison film experiments like Record Of A Sneeze (1894), the earliest surviving copyrighted motion picture. Or any of the 1,400+ short films of the French Lumiere Brothers.
The website silentladies.com profiles over two hundred silent film actors. The only names I recognized were these:
- John Barrymore
- Lionel Barrymore
- Charles Chaplin
- Buster Keaton
- Douglas Fairbanks Sr.
- Lon Chaney
- Rudolph Valentino
- Clara Bow (The “It” Girl)
- Louise Brooks
- Mary Pickford
- Greta Garbo
- Joan Crawford
- Lillian Gish
- Jean Harlow
- Gloria Swanson
Notice how I didn’t ask to name ten screenwriters from that era. Other than teachers of film history, you think anyone, anywhere, in this entire world, gives a shit?
THE 100 YEAR TEST
Cameras were rolling on the birth of movies. Think about that. Film may be the only art form to be documented in its infancy. In 1895, audiences screamed when a train came directly at them in the Lumiere Brothers’ Arrival of a Train. 100+ years later, we have the CG of Inception and Avatar.
What will survive 100 years from now? And back to the first question: Why are people so utterly obsessed by trying to get their visions on film? Why are you?
Money? Fame? Legacy?
Humans want their time on earth remembered. I’ll go out on a limb to predict that the films of Spielberg, Scorsese, Eastwood, Kurasawa, Fellini, Wells, Coppola will be around in 2117.
Deniro, Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep and Daniel Day Lewis will be there when the next century rolls around.
Will they remember Shane Black? Will they be able to read his Lethal Weapon script? L.A Confidential will probably be around, meaning Brian Helgeland’s name will survive. Maybe folks in 2117 will be like moviegoers today, going to films without really giving a damn who wrote it. Ask 100 people on the street today to name ten current screenwriters, how many could do it?
Ultimately, if the work lives, if the movie survives, then the writer lives on, even if no one knows or cares about his name. You want your script made. Badly, desperately. But please take one moment to examine why it is you write in the first place. It might help get you on your journey faster.
Which finally brings us back to Bukowski tombstone riddle. Time to step off, to gain some perspective on your commitment to screenwriting.