February 8, 2010

THE TRUTH SHALL SET YOU FREE: BEHIND CLOSED DOORS

Since we are here to name and shame a few people for being... a lot less truthful than they were supposed to have been, let us talk today about closed doors. Closed doors are a very dangerous things. Unless there is sex involved, and by that I mean between two (or more, I'm not judgemental) consenting adults, nothing that ever happens behind closed doors is a good thing.

And if you don't believe that, Timothy Geithner sure enough has an AIG bailout to sell to you.

In the creative industries, pretty much everything takes place behind closed doors, insulated and isolated by various layers, usually starting with producers, then spreading to agents and managers, then further to marketing people and PR people, and they all are there to provide the public with a narrative while keeping the truth where it belongs.

Behind closed doors.

Nobody likes the truth, class, nobody in the history of this planet has ever liked the truth, because it is usually ugly, misshapen, and people like nice things. Or as Otto von Bismark once said, nobody likes to know how sausages get made (I do like to know, especially in the light of the scandals that have erupted in the past few years, where the meat industry is considered).

One of the people you will find between those closed doors is the script doctor. As I have written in the post you can read at that link, the script doctor has no name. He won't get any glory. He's there for one reason, and one reason only: to make somebody else look better.

He's a hired gun, and the understanding is that he comes in, does his job, gets paid and vanishes into the night, as gently as he can, without leaving any trace.

You could call him a Two-Gun-Whore.

In my case, it was to make a script called Devil's Pride look better. And if you have read my original post, I want you to know that I stand by what I wrote when it came to a very strange experience, but which also was at the time very nice. Why? Because I didn't have to fight for something. I could write things, try to improve things, but always tell myself, this is not yours. Your name will never show up. You can give them pointers, you can tell them where you think they are going wrong, but if they decide to run their toy over the cliff anyway...

... it will not be your problem!

And still, when I was approached, I really didn't want to do it. In fact, after reading the script four times – and I had done so only at the request of somebody I trusted – I had written out my thoughts about the script's problems, and how I would probably try to fix it, but ending with the following...

I'm sorry, but I don't think I can be of much help here. Could I polish up the dialogue? Sure I can, but this will only covering up some of the major faults of the script itself, it can't be more than that. It would need a re-write.

In Hollwood terms, that one's called script notes, and I said, I did them because my friend had asked me to give my opinion. And I quickly wrote down on how I would change a scene, because, remember this, class, opinions are like assholes, everybody has one. The question is always, sure, asshole, but how about you make it better? Can you do that?

That, ladies and gentlemen, is what makes you a professional.

That ability. To make things better. To come up with something better. And to those who can't do that within the industry, but have an opinion anyway, they should shut the hell up.

In case you are wondering, this was the original scene...

And what follows now, in blue, are my revisions (the 2nd version of those revisions) of the movie opening. Some things I was not allowed to change at all, and so the scene with Sherrif Ed here is a drastically shortened version of one I wrote as a first draft...


Now, in both versions, the cops are dumb hicks, but the problem with original scene is that the audience will not care about any of this. It's a scene that washes over you, and every character, as small as they can be, needs to have a defining moment.

It's movie shorthand.

And since this particular scene would have been roughly three minutes into the movie, you are still in the establishing phase. And class, remember, the first five to six minutes of a movie (not so much in a book, but definitely in a movie) make or break you.

And so, as opposed to just two assholes gloating over a magazine, now we know that Rodriguez is single, and apparently hasn't been laid in a while, Jones has a wife and said wife is wearing the pants in their marriage.

She said she didn't want me to misunderstand when she tells me to kiss her ass.

You have achieved not only a little insight into the two people sitting there, you also made a funny, and what's better, you made a dirty funny, which sets the mood for the movie. Even if you never go back and roll up the relationship between Jones and his wife, you as the audience know that bit about him, it will guide you through whatever scenes you have coming up.

Also, you know the two boys don't want to sit there, that there is an old man making them sit there in what they think is a waste of time... which gives us a good introduction to our hero. Well, boys and girls, shit's gonna happen, and it's gonna happen soon...

Is it great writing? No. It certainly isn't worthy of a Nobel (but then again, what is?), but the important thing is that it gets the job done. And the job is to lure the audience into the movie. Now, most in the industry will tell you that it's the job to get an industry reader interested enough to write a few notes on a sheet of paper for a boss who will never read it himself.

Bullshit. That thinking taints your writing. The audience. Always think of the audience. Put yourself into that dark theatre, look up at the silver screen, try to anticipate how they will react.

Think like a stand-up comedian.The audience is your friend. They want to like you. They paid money already. They want to like you, just for that!

Make them like you!

Still,  I wrote that, just to prove that I am a professional, but thought that – due to my harsh notes that accompanied the scene – that would be that. I'd never hear from that producer again (and remember, I only did it because a friend had asked me to).

And so I was rather surprised to get a reply that stated, this is great, can you do a script polish, but there's going to be a problem, because it needs to be done very fast, because the actors are already lined up, the script you have here is the shooting script, this needs to be done, like, now.

It was Saturday. It's always a Saturday, it seems. This is starting to feel like Groundhog Day, I thought to myself. It's 6 AM, and god, how does the weather look out there, Pete?

Sat down and had an iChat with the producer. So, okay, I said, I just want to repeat here, of course I can punch up the dialogue, but there needs to be xyz addressed in it, or all I could really do is to patch up certain scenes, you know, like plugging a gunshot wound.

Not a problem, he said. Listen, we are a small budget production, and so we can't pay you a lot, how about a 1,000 dollars? That sounds okay, said the little whore in the back of my head. It's money! Take the money! Glorious, sweet money! And when I was asked as to why I wasn't able to do a video chat, I – with some shame and embarrassment – said that my Mac was too old, and the sound card was a bit fucked up, so I couldn't. Well, you need a new computer then, I was told, what is your preference?

Uh. Okay. Well, the problem is that all of my software packages are Mac (does anybody want an old Adobe Collection? LOL), including Final Draft, so I would need a Mac.

A Mac it is, then.

Uh. Wow. A real Mac? No "i" shit? I thought. And the whore in the back of my head went, do it, for fuck's sake, the 1,000 bucks can pay to extract your broken molars, and get you the chance to actually eat food again without having to worry about something. And a Mac? Don't be stupid! It's a few days of work, a maximum of a week! And your friend is vouching for him! This time it will be different! Trust me!

And this time there were names! Peter Fonda! Don Johnson! Daryl Hannah!

And a few days of impossible work. I can do this.

And I said that I won't fight for anything, don't worry, I'll make my points, but the decision will have to be made by you guys, I'll give you options, and as long as I get paid, I have no skin in the game.

So I was given three days. That melted away, on Saturday night, to Monday morning, L.A. time, and I thought, shit, three days was cutting it close, it would have meant to go through roughly 40 pages per day, now I had to do the whole whopping thing in 28 hours?

Welcome to Hollywood! I was told (now, isn't that funny? Remember this phrase, class. It will come back to haunt people later)

And I did it. I skidded past the goal line with roughly 17 minutes to spare, my Monday late afternoon. By this point I hadn't slept for more than 60 hours, and there moments – as they sometimes are – when my tired brain had started to translate my English thoughts back into German, and I had to be careful, because that same tired brain would see the German sentences in English! (has happened to me only twice before in my life). So, carefully I went through the script and my changes. No German there. Oh. Good.

The script had grown by roughly 10 pages, because two major plot points had to have been changed, and I have somewhat of a lengthy style (you surely have noticed, but at least I consider myself to be interesting enough to listen to, eh?), but if shot correctly, the running time would still be in the vicinity of 120 minutes, and some of the things I had put in to provide alternatives.

Shot off the script, said, here it is, use what you like, drop what you don't.

And there was much rejoicing!

And I literally crawled to my couch. The tremors in my hand had become unbearable again, and my stomach was killing me, way too much coffee and diet coke to squeeze those hours out of my brain, and it comes with a price.

Impossibility, I mean. It always comes with a price.


Welcome to Hollywood!

And so i sat and waited to get the address as to where I should send my bill (having fucked up taxes once before due to my own stupidity, I only do things very, very, extremely legally). There was no answer, but then again, I had been told that shooting was about to commence, so I thought, oh well, they must be on set, and the producer had promised me that payment would be made...

(A Mac! A Mac! And money to fix your teeth! And a Mac!)

... within three weeks. And besides, my friend had vouced for this guy. he was a good guy. No way would he screw you over.

Three weeks passed. Then I finally got a billing address. Okay. Sending off the bill through courier service, was received in LA on October 7. Good.

Happy. Happy. My mood was picking up. Maybe not all of them were assholes! Please god, don't let all of them be assholes! And here we watch the author turn into a real-life version of Calvin in Hobbes in the infamous "Beanie" strip.

Did my Mac arrive today? I asked my parents (for my shipping address I chose to be theirs, for the simple reason that I live in a really bad part of town, and I certainly didn't want my Mac to ... uh... disappear, and before somebody laughs, there were two murders here the past six months alone, and one was in the same building as I live in. And when I say "murder", I mean, "murder for money").

Every week, now, and let's say it all together.

Did my Mac arrive today?

In December there was still nothing, and I started to politely inquire as to what had happened to my three weeks, and uh, what about the payment? I got told that things had moved a bit slower than anticipated, but soon...

Did my Mac arrive today?

Maybe Christmas! A Mac! For Christmas! Whoopee! I mean, it wasn't a gift, yeah, sure, you worked for it, but still... god, will this not be the best Christmas in a long time? I will huggle it, and I will cuddle it, and I will take it home and introduce it to all of the other toys!

Christmas came and went. So did New Year's. Nothing. No reply. Nothing. And I went through the fives stages. Oh, did I ever. Oh dear god, not again. not this all over again! Please, not this again! How could I have been this stupid?

Remember. Your friend vouched for the guy, but I'm not blaming her.

And so on Monday, January 18th, I emailed this...

Hi Frank –

– I was wondering if you an update for me on the whole Devil's Pride thing,
since I am beginning to wonder if there is going to be a movie and if there
is payment. I'm still in my polite phase, but as Elisabeth may have told
you, being polite is only my way of expressing my own definition of what I
consider to be the way a professional behaves, until it is time to stop
being polite. I do not wish to stop being polite, but one should know that I
am fully prepared to do so, and if and when I do, there's an entirely
different side to me that... let's just say, folks wouldn't like it if I
stopped being polite.

Best,
Thomas
And one week later, a reply...

Hi Thomas,

We are still struggling with the financing and the movie is on hold
until that happens; when the money comes in David will honor his
payment to you, he's not the kind of person that wouldn't; it has been
a very difficult 3 months as i myself am struggling to keep a roof
over my head and food as i was depending on this film to survive.

I will keep you informed of any updates on the financing of the project.

Frank
You got to be kidding me! Please tell me you are kidding me! And did you remember in the last post, what I said there? Be polite? Don't kill anybody? Well, this is what I replied...

Frank –

– from a personal point of view, you have my sympathies with regards to your financial situation. You really do.

That personal sympathy, however, does not the change the fundamentals of the situation as seen from a professional point of view. This was not a situation, in which you and me were partners in developing a project from the ground up, and where everybody is expected to do his or her fair share of the heavy lifting involved. I was brought in to perform a specific task, in a specific time frame, and the reason I was so easy-going through the whole thing was that I believed I had no skin in the game. I didn't fight for things, because that was not why I was hired.

Note the phrase
hired. It was a job. It wasn't a favour.

I didn't do it for my
ego. I didn't do it for exposure.

I knew there wouldn't be any.

I did it for the payment that was agreed upon, and for no other reason.

I was a hired gun, and I was okay with that. But the thing is, Frank, you do not hire a gun, unless you are willing and able to pay said gun. It's called
professional behaviour, and if I had known that your financing wasn't stable enough to pay me, I would have politely but firmly declined to waste a single second of my time and talent on another man's project.

That is also called professional behaviour.

Welcome to the
real world.

It's where – as opposed to Hollywood, apparently – these things
matter.

And so every piece of dialogue, ever word of it, every story note, every story idea that I brought into the process is from this moment on until the time of full payment off-limits to Mr. Krae. He is not allowed to use any of them in the process to piece the movie together, nor is he allowed to put them up on the big screen. And please, don't think that I don't have the exact time line of what was done by whom as back-up. Again, that is called professional behaviour, anticipating these things.

I just wished that once one of these people actually honoured their commitments.

Don't think that I care about titles, or "my reputation in certain circles". See, the German tax payer essentially had to chip in for Mr. Krae (and a few other "creative" people on your side of the ocean) to think he would get something for free. That is going to stop now.  I almost consider it to be very liberating, knowing you won't get paid no matter how professionally you behaved in a given job.

Regards,
- Thomas
Yes, these things are all supposed to happen behind closed doors. Only one party has a benefit from it, and has the power to then do whatever they want. Because they can say, as the email writer three posts back stated, "it is normal for you to get screwed over" Think about your reputation! That's what they tell you. That's what they all tell you. Don't burn bridges!

Oh, you mean that one in Brooklyn you just sold me?

I'll blow that one up, gladly.

This is not my reputation that is on the line here, it is the reputation of so-called "professionals" like Mr. David Krae and Mr. Frank Desmarais. you know, the ones who have IMDB entries that makes them look respectable. And if this only helps one writer the next time they google for these names, wondering if they should do a job for them...

... well, thank god for that, eh?

Did I mention already I'm no longer polite?