“Did you really just say that?” I asked, pretty much stopping the meeting in its tracks.
“What?” asked Miles, the over-animated producer who I’d backpacked into this pitch meeting. Of course, I’ve changed his name to protect the guilty. As to why he’s in the room with me? More on that later.
“You just gave up my McGuffin,” I admonished.
“Really? I just thought he deserved to know where the movie was going.”
That “he” Miles was referring to was a popular executive vice president of a big movie studio with the juice to buy a story he really liked. And by my measure, he was really digging my pitch until Miles opened his big yap and gave up the McGuffin.
What is a McGuffin, you ask? Simply put, it’s the object or issue of importance around which a plot revolves. I’d been in the process of unfolding my tale in such a way that my McGuffin required a big reveal. In his excitement… or impatience… but certainly not wisdom, Miles had jumped the gun and spat out my McGuffin along with my big plot twist like a Turrets sufferer during a church prayer who couldn’t hold back his head-turning curse.
“Forgive Miles,” I begged the exec. “He gets so excited he can’t help screwing the pooch on my pitch.”
“It’s okay,” said the exec. “I’m liking the story you’re telling so why don’t you go on and I’ll try and forget Miles’ big mouth.”
We all laughed. I picked up my pitch somewhere near where I left off and was able to save the sale despite Mile’s nearly unforgivable faux pas.
Was I surprised that he’d opened his pie hole and blurted out of turn, nearly ruining the whole deal? Well, yes. Then again, I shouldn’t have. Why, you ask? Because Miles the producer had not only done it once before. He’d done it to me. So why then was I even in business with this apparent buffoon? First of all, we all say dumb things at inappropriate times. Secondly, ex-post the tongue trips, Miles was one helluva hustler and a never-say-die kind of producer. Qualities I admired.
On with the tale.
Some years back, Miles had hawked me on bringing a pitch over to Warner Brothers. He and his partner, an Academy Award-nominated producer with a number of tiffany credentials, were looking to break into the action franchise game. Around that time I’d become nauseated with offers from every Tom, Dick, and Harry of a studio chasing me what I’d come to call the DIE HARD DONNA offer.
What’s DIE HARD DONNA you ask?
It was the catch all for contained action thrillers, each broken down into a simple catch phrase: Die Hard on a…
Let’s see. There was:
Die Hard on a ocean liner.
Die Hard on a train.
Die Hard on a submarine.
But what Miles and his partner Claude had presented to me was something different. Based on a real life incident in a real life place, I’d sparked up a couple of compelling characters, one of whom was a ten-year-old boy living in an urban ghetto full of disintegrating streets and bloodshed. The kid was the youngest of two brothers, one of whom had already died in a violent shooting, the other was a gang banger slinging guns and drugs on the violent corners.
The pitch came together quickly and, in a matter of a week or so, the three of us were ensconced in a windowless Warner Brothers executive conference room with a production president and pair of junior executives.
I recall the lighting in the conference room as appropriately dark and moody, befitting the feel of my story. After the appropriate producer’s tee-up, I began to unwind my tale of an unlikely pairing between my story’s hero and this world-weary ten-year-old urchin.
“It’s important to understand this boy,” I said in my pitch. “It’s important we see the world through his eyes. Because he’s not your normal, suburban, get-up-and-go-to-fifth-grade kinda kid. This ten-year-old’s seen way too much shit in his young life. More blood and death and horror than any of us can imagine. A lifetime worth of human misery on display just from his front stoop.”
This was when I purposefully paused, hoping to let the strength of character sink into my audience’s skin. And I believe it was working because the studio prez and his flanking veeps appeared riveted, each with his spine tilted slightly forward, a general sign of engagement.
But I suppose Miles didn’t understand my use of dramatic pause. Nor was he able to read their body language. So the way gas desires to instantly fill a vacuum, Miles found it important to expand himself into the silence.
“In other words, this kid is like a black Macauley Culkin,” blurted Miles, using the superstar child actor from the Home Alone series as a mental avatar to entice our Armani-suited buyers.
Now, there are different kinds of dramatic silences. There’s the suspense-filled sort of silence which I was attempting to create in my movie pitch. Then there’s the shocked-into-dumbfounded silence that was the result of Miles’ uncontrolled lightning bolt of did-he-really-just-say-that?
So stunned was I, that even if I could’ve found the place in my notes from which to carry on my story telling, I hadn’t a clue how it might dramatically dovetail with Mile’s skull-numbing utterance.
Yet words did come to me. The only words available, messaged to my tongue directly from my brain’s amygdala.
“Miles,” I began. “That is without a doubt the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard in a pitch meeting.”
After a moment of dead-air the tumult of laughter followed. Like a pin-pricked balloon had popped and let loose the strain of unbound tension. Claude, Mile’s partner was bellowing, as well the trio of movie execs.
Even Miles, ever the salesman, joined in at his own expense while the egg was still dripping from his embarrassed mug.
When the laughter finally subsided, the studio prez made a simple hand gesture.
“Please,” was all he needed to say.
With that, I carried on with my pitch as if nothing odd or coarse or wholly inappropriate had been phrased.
As we exited the Warner Brothers administration building, Claude was growling.
“A black Goddamned Macauley Culkin?” Claude groused.
“We sold it, didn’t we?” defended Miles.
“Sold it despite you,” corrected Claude.
Sold it, indeed. At that point, I didn’t care what Miles had said or mis-said in the room. My goal was to sell the thing and that’s just what I did.
Some months down the road, another conversation with Miles on a completely different subject led to my coming up with the concept for the story I’d sold at the top of this post. You remember. The pitch where Miles uncontrollably spat out my McGuffin? By the time that opportunity had come around, years had passed. Miles had gone off to be a studio exec and had long absolved me from any obligation to keep him on the nascent project as a producer.
But I’m a man of my word. If a story had sprung from our loose collaboration, I owed it to him to backpack him into the deal. Mouth and all.
“Should I come to the pitch?” he asked.
“As long as you keep your trap shut,” I joked.
“Ha ha. No worries,” he promised. “As far as I can tell, there’s no black Macauley Culkins in it.”
Yes, I should’ve said, but there is a McGuffin.
Get more structure tips in Glenn Benest’s webinar
Story Structure Made Easy