Friday, July 21, 2006

A Lifetime In Vegas

A large part of this working vacation is finishing the horror script for Lifetime. It was supposed to be finished on the 1st of July, with holiday that means the 10th. You see, the 4th is a holiday in the middle of the week, and that pretty much closes down the biz for the whole week. Even if I turned in the script on the 5th, no one would get around to even looking at it until the 10th.

The good news about writing in Vegas - nobody here knows my name. I don’t have all of the distractions of home, where even in a random Starbucks there is someone who knows me and wants to talk. Let alone, my normal haunts. I am a creature of habit, and those habits lead to nothing getting done. For a long time I wrote at Priscilla’s in Toluca Lake... until I realized I was spending 95% of my time chatting with friends and only 5% actually writing. Unfortunately that’s what’s happening at my new writing places. It’s nice to have friends around - I go to dinner with the same revolving group almost every night - but sometimes I spend more time talking than writing. If I stay home, I spend more time doing all of those work avoidance tasks. So the good thing about Vegas is, no one here to distract me from writing. A slight problem is that the Starbucks with wifi (some don’t have it) that I need to post my daily tips closes at 6pm and isn’t open on the weekend. That means I can’t put off going on line until my work is done... and the internet is a powerful lure away from work. But I’m sort of doing okay.

The bad news about writing in Vegas is that it’s Vegas. It’s a 24 hour city and I am an insomniac. 3 of my days here have been wasted because, well, I was wasted. For instance, a few nights ago I actually finished my pages, put up my script tip, did a little thinking about my next day of writing, and went to see PIRATES again at a late show. The movie is about two and a half hours long, maybe three hours once you put in trailers and commercials and stuff. Anyway, I got back to the hotel really late. But instead of going to bed, I thought I’d have a couple of beers. Free beers. Free beers that come with gambling. The bad news was that the cocktail waitress was kind of slow making the rounds, so I had to gamble a lot to get 3 free beers. The good news is that I didn’t lose money, well, not much money. I basically paid for my 3 free beers. But the worse news was that there are no clocks in casinos, and I really had no idea how late it was... or, rather, *early* it was when I finally decided to call it quits and go up to my room. Most of the next day was spent sleeping. I raced down to put up my tip, but really didn’t get any work done on the script. I *did* waste time online, though. So I’m sort of behind on the script.

This whole horror script for Lifetime doesn’t make any sense. It began with my COMPLEX script, which has been to Lifetime 3 times. The last time it had a producer and director and the director actually went to Montreal and scouted locations - brought me back photos of the apartment building we’d be shooting at - indoor pool instead of outdoor pool, and more New York urban than the very So-Cal suburban building in my script. But after getting that far is was a victim of quotas - Lifetime had made enough genre films for the year and were only interested in women’s issues.

The script fell back into my hands, and I tried to set it up in a strange deal - a supporting actress wanted to star in a movie and had found the money to make the film... all she needed was a script. I didn’t know this woman, a pair of writers I know did. But they didn’t have a female lead script. But, since I knew they wanted a chance to direct, and this woman would allow them to direct this film, I told them they could use my script to close this directing deal. They said that was nice, but they’d really rather at least co-write something. I know these guys - they have egos the size of Jupiter. They want it all to be about them. I never co-write with anyone, but thought why not? The woman *has* the money, so the film will get made. I’ve had a frustrating few years where nothing got made, and this might start the ball rolling.

So I agreed.... and then realized why I hated co-writing. They expected me to be the typing monkey while they threw completely nonsensical ideas at me. And they never wanted to work! Weeks pass between meetings. They keep putting things off... until it has been *months* since we first started talking about this, and all we really have is the treatment I banged out for free and some talk. After a while, I asked if all of time we had wasted was working against us - was she finding another script? They said "no", but she had a different answer. She was tired of waiting for them to find or write a script, and took her money somewhere else. They wasted a chance to direct because they wanted to be the writer-director-producer-Gods on the project. I think they were afraid if they went with COMPLEX and the film was successful, I’d get all the credit. Like I care?

So when the Lifetime producer called me about COMPLEX, asking if it was sill available, it was. There was a new person in charge of Lifetime Movies, and they had done a little research. Seems the genre films attracted more viewers than the issue films. And the genre films cost less to make - they didn’t need that Emmy-bait cast the issue films needed. So Lifetime was gearing up to make more genre films. And with the Lifetime Movie Channel (all abusive ex-husbands all the time!) they needed *more* genre films and different genres. When I met with the (same) director about COMPLEX, he asked me what I was working on. I said I was just starting this horror film about a single mother who... And he cuts me off. Single mother? Lifetime might want this! I pitch him the rest of the story, and he asks if I have a one page synopsis and if he can show it to Lifetime. Well, of course.

The next week, I have a meeting with producer and director. Lifetime loves the idea - horror is hot and they want to jump on the horror bandwagon. In fact, they’d love to see a 15-20 page detailed treatment. Now, the bad news is that Lifetime does not pay to develop scripts, so I would have to write this on spec... but I was already doing that, right? So now I’d be writing a script on spec with a deal at the end of the rainbow. But Lifetime would like to read a treatment, just to see where the story is going, and make suggestions on where they would like it to go. Would that be okay?

I decide it would. I was writing the script anyway - might as well have a producer who makes movies and buys scripts waiting with a checkbook.


I spend a week and a half writing a treatment. Should probably have taken me less time, but I was preparing for Denmark and Hong Kong at the same time. Somewhere along the line, I ask if the new folks at Lifetime ever got around to reading COMPLEX... and the director tells me no. In fact, it was never sent to them - they were so excited with the horror story that they’re focusing on that. I finish my treatment and deliver it before Denmark....

They read my 23 page treatment and we have a meeting after I’m back from Hong Kong. "Do people have to die in this script? Do there have to be victims other than the leading lady (who survives)? Can there be a love story? Can more of it be about parenting? Can the cop be the love interest... and her ex-husband? Do we really need this "letting go of anger" theme? (It means characters have to be angry.) I don’t understand the supernatural element - can we get rid of that? Too many suspense scenes - there’s one ever 15 minutes (right before the commercial breaks, I explained). This whole first act has to go - we hate it."

Some of the notes were from not paying attention - the director questioned a supernatural element in the middle of the treatment that had been set up in two earlier scenes. When I pointed this out to him, he became defensive and told me he though the set up material had been a joke. This is one of the things I hate most about these meetings - the ego issues. Look, he skimmed the treatment and missed something - no big deal, just admit it. We’re all busy people. But instead he wants me to either lose the supernatural element or spend more time setting it up. Right. Same skim & ego issue with the little bit of dialogue in the treatment - he hated it. Except what he hated was the opening scene dialogue that was part of a crime show reinactment... and written trite on purpose.

Oh, and then we had the kind of note I hate the most - the ones that show lack of imagination. The ones that require you to take them step by step through something that everyone in the audience will instantly understand. In this case, it was an *in scene* segue from reality to reinactment. I swiped this from a DePalma film called SISTERS which opens with a guy in a gym changing room watching a hot blind woman enter by mistake and begin taking her clothes off. At first we think it’s really happening, then it’s revealed as a CANDID CAMERA type game show. I wanted to do the same thing - open with the serial killer attacking a victim, then after the horror stuff was over, the trite dialogue pops up and the lighting turns crappy and we realize we are watching a reinactment. If you were to ask me if this is real or reinactment, I’d say BOTH. It changes at the end. But the director couldn’t see how that was possible and hadn’t seen SISTERS. He also hadn’t seen many of the horror movies I brought up as example - this is going to become a much larger issue later on. So I have to make all of these changes that do not improve the screenplay...

"Oh, and can we still get the script by July 1st?"

So I throw away the whole first act and now have to start from scratch with the same deadline. And their notes really make no sense - they are turning a horror story into a woman in jeopardy thriller (Lifetime staple). With no victims other than the leading lady, this guy isn’t much of a serial killer, is he?

I decide that since I’m not being paid, I’m going to ignore the really stupid notes and see how may of the others I can work in. Problem is, now some scenes that worked with the cop being just a cop are not going to work if he’s the ex-husband and the love interest and the father of her child. This guy is now the center of the universe! What an amazing coincidence that he’s assigned to the case! I do some fancy footwork and hide as many coincidences as I can. But this is hard work. Time consuming. I had solved all of the story problems in my outline stage, and now they had given me more problems. I had to solve these on the fly - as I’m cranking out pages.

So, the script missed its deadline and I’m in Vegas playing catch up... and slowly coming to realize that this script is going to suck. Because their notes have destroyed it. The characters were all reflecting the "letting go of anger" theme - but now they’re not. Now they aren’t characters at all - just names. And the relationship between the female lead and cop doesn’t work at all. I have a way to make it work with him being her ex-husband, but it’s 100 times darker than the original version. Lifetime just isn’t going to stand for it. And I’ve toned down the horror so much it’s bland.

This script isn’t going to make Lifetime happy, and it doesn’t make me happy.

That kind of adds to the lure of the gambling tables. I could be down there getting free beers right now! I started out writing a spec, then I was working on a script for Lifetime, now I think I’m writing for nothing. Just wasting my time....

Well, not really. I still have my original first act (with human tongue removal) and I think with a week or two of rewrites can turn this thing into a real creepy, scary horror script. The idea was always really good - and most of the writing can be salvaged.

So the current plan is to finish the script in the next week, send it to Lifetime, wait for them to reject it, and then start turning back into what it would have been without their notes - an easy to sell spec horror script that’s kind of THE RING (characters) meets NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (story elements).

Lesson learned: write specs the way you want to write them. Hmm, I already knew that!

Oh, and if anyone is interested in a really creepy female lead thriller that Lifetime keeps *almost* buying called THE COMPLEX... I guess it’s still available.

- Bill

PS: I've decided to rewrite a couple of scenes and let the blood flow. If Lifetime *does* want it, they'll make me cut it... but at least there is some horror in this horror script!


vanpet said...

Guys in Denmark do not pay you, guys from Lifetime do not pay you... How the hell do you make a living?

wcmartell said...

Every couple of years someone actually does pay me... and I buy my shirts at Sears.

Unknown Screenwriter said...

Don't take insurance or play the proposition bets... Take at least double odds behind the line and progress your bets as you win...



Emily Blake said...

That's why I hate Lifetime. It's not television for women, and I resent the statement that it is. That network doesn't represent me.

Lifetime is television for angry, bitter divorced women who like to spend their time reading Cosmo and moping about how sad it is that life is meaningless without a man, despite their constant affirmations of how "strong" they think they are for surviving living on alimony.

Screw Lifetime. And Cosmo.

The Moviequill said...

I just got back from Vegas myself (stayed at Flamingo) and did some work on my next spec, by the pool, sipping two for one pina coladas, winning only on the nickel slots, getting rained on (been in Vegas 3X and it rained all 3X, weird), thanking God for inventing high heels and low morals... but I digress

wcdixon said...

So, what's in it for you exactly with this Lifetime ordeal (I don't know what else to call it)? I mean I know its a relationship business and its difficult to say no as a freelancer - but you said it yourself...Lifetime doesn't pay for development --- and the spec was for you, something you wanted to write that wasn't intended for Lifetime. So what's the carrot?

That it 'might' get produced (fees, that's a good thing)...that you'd be inside Lifetime which could lead to more gigs with them (fair enough)...this director is someone you really want to work with and could lead to bigger better things (another good reason)...but sounds like you're trying to force a square peg into a round hole, and growing miserable doing so. And if you're getting paid to do so, the misery can be tolerable. But since you're not...

Just wondering...

The Moviequill said...

BTW, got the Script Secrets Insider and link over to your cool Cafe Press products page. Just a note you need to add a Male "Ask Me About My Screenplay" t-shirt, I only see the female one and I'd love one in XL for moi

wcmartell said...

wcdixon - all of those things. This producer makes a stack of films for Lifetime, so this is the doorway to multiple sales. And I really like the director (despite some of his notes).

But you're right - this seems like a non-Lifetime story they are trying to make fit (actually, they want me to make it fit).

This wills sound pornographic: The problem with many notes is that you have a peg that fits onto some hole perfectly. But you keep finding people with different holes. Now you think your peg may fit, just let me give it a try... But these people want you to alter the shape of your peg to fit. So you take a knife and trim part of your peg off... and maybe it fits and maybe it doesn't. No matter what, there's a period of "OUCH!" involved when you're hacking away at your peg. Usually you get paid for that period of "OUCH!"... this time was different, and seems more painful.

My current way of thinking on this is that I'm handing in the script, they're going to probably say it doesn't work, then I'm going to sell it to someone else... probably for more money.

I've already put the blood back in.

- Bill
And if they say yes?

- Bill

wcdixon said...

Are you in any position to put some conditions on next step if they say 'yes' (which they probably will now just to mess you up)?

And you're so right with the peg/hole comparison - oh, for the project that all parties involved have more or less the same hole so that the peg trimming may be painful but may only have to happen once...hmmm pornographic indeed.

Anonymous said...


You're the man, never afraid to wipe the gloss off the big myth of screewnwriting. I'm a young aspiring screenwriter and reading your blog scares me man, it really does! I don't want to get fat, and most off all I want to try make a living one day. But in all seriousness, keep up the good work, I read your posts here in South Africa and your insight is what keeps me motivated.

All he best

DJ said...


When are you going to do a gig in NY?

A beer is long in order.

Daniel aka EJ Pennypacker

wcmartell said...

My plans are to do my 2 day class in NY *next year* - sometime between may and sept. So tell everyone in NY that I'm coming!

- Bill

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