Behind the Lines with DR: Writer as Sacrificial Lamb aka Doug a la Carte

Gary Ross, writer-director of films such as Seabiscuit and Pleasantville, invited me to join in a round-table luncheon with Massachusetts Rep. Ed Markey. The congressman had shown interest in meeting with movie-making word-merchants to discuss a subject plaguing that particular news quarter: Violence in Movies. The tragic events of Columbine were still in the rearview mirror and the spotlight of guilt was looking for someone to blame. Hollywood. Many in town had already thrown up their hands in surrender, all too willing to make those of us in the “action business” pariahs.

I was a notch late to Gary’s Universal Studios office, sliding into my seat just as our host was introducing Rep. Markey to the gathered scribblers, some whom I knew, others whom I was meeting for the first time. Starting with the lady in the house, there was Callie Khouri (Thelma and Louise), followed by pal Tom Schulman (Dead Poet’s Society), Chris Gerolmo (Mississippi Burning), Scott Frank (Get Shorty), Paul Attanasio (Quiz Show) and, well, me…

Ahem. There exists a caste system in LaLaWood. Those having won Oscars (or having been nominated for the elusive golden dude) and those who have not. From the nanosecond I sat my action-writer’s ass in a chair and clocked my fellow lunchees, I was pretty quick to figure which category I fell into. It didn’t take long to count to one.

As I was introduced along with my dubious credits, I couldn’t help but humbly point out to the Congressman that I was the designated sacrificial lamb in the room. Not only was I the only writer who hadn’t earned award-worthy attention from the Academy, but I was also the lone “action” writer-slash-violence peddler.

“Sure,” Gary apologized, “But you’re the only writer here who’s also a published author.”

Yeah. That said my presence at the round table was no longer a mystery. And it wasn’t because I’d been successful with a couple of books. I’d just come off a TV and radio publicity tour for my second novel True Believers where I’d spent most of my on-air time discussing the ever-present hot button subject of whether movie violence begat real-life-actual-danger-to-the-community-violence. My so-called expertise was personal, in that one of my movies had, according to many media reports, inspired a copycat crime that left a New York subway worker burned and near-dead. The film was Money Train. And the story behind the crime is worthy of its own blog. But for the sake of keeping this five-hundred-plus word column on point, let’s just say the subject of fictional violence versus real crime is a very complicated subject that puts both modern psychology and the first amendment to the test.

Lunch arrived. Everybody wolfed on designer sandwiches and sucked back Diet Cokes while attempting to wrestle with the riddle of the writer’s social responsibilities to his or her audience. I don’t recall that anything was resolved by our screenwriter summit. I recall Paul Attanasio cutting out early, saying something like, “I don’t write those kinda pictures so I don’t know why I’m here.” Paul thanked Gary, shook hands, and vanished.

Upon the discovery that my sister was an NRA lobbyist, Callie Khouri thought she’d found the axis of evil that rested in my soul. That theory lasted about two minutes after I described my sister’s daily battle for women to have the God-given right to protect themselves from men who want to deal them great bodily harm. Thankfully, I didn’t need to ask Callie if I’d missed one of the omnipresent themes of Thelma and Louise.

The lunch ended. Ed Markey, who I cynically figured was more interested in picking Hollywood pockets than brains, politely thanked everybody for participating in the discussion… Okay, he thanked everybody but me.

I recall Gary Ross ending the event by pledging to never write or direct a film containing violence. Nobody else joined in. I mention this because Gary recently wrote and directed the adaptation of the popular Y/A novel, The Hunger Games. I wish him luck with it. I’m very interested to see how he deal’s with the novel’s very obvious violence.

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