Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Print The Legend

You may have read that bio over there and wondered why the hell I would ever turn down writing ANGELS & DEMONS. Was I crazy?

In the movie I LOVE YOU MAN Jason Segel is giving Paul Rudd lessons on being a man and explains the difference between telling a lie and omitting the truth. He asks Rudd when was the last time he masturbated, and Rudd doesn’t want to answer a question like that... but eventually admits he masturbated to a picture of his fiancĂ© a couple of weekends ago when she was away. Segel asks if he told his finace when she returned. “Of course not!” Was that a lie? No... but there was really no reason to tell her.

You may read that I turned down ANGELS & DEMONS and imagine Ron Howard or Tom Hanks begging me to write the script... and I still said no. I am going to allow you to believe that. Sounds really cool, doesn’t it? Telling Ron Howard to go to hell, you aren’t going to write a script for him... Or telling Tom Hanks - a guy who was born in the same hospital as I was - that I’m just too damned busy to script your damned film. None of that ever happened, but if you imagine it happened that’s okay with me. What really happened is kind of dull and uninteresting.

EXTRA SPICY

One of the problems with being a writer is that you automatically turn everything into a story. Some boring thing happens to you, and you find some way to make it funny or exciting when you retell it to somebody else. You embellish a little. You twist things a little or withhold some information to spice up the story. One of my problems when I tell a friend about a really bad movie I’ve seen is that I tend to make sense of it - I turn a bunch of unrelated incidents that add up to nothing, into something resembling a story. My friends think the film doesn’t sound so bad, but when they see it - well, it’s much worse than what I described. The problem with being a storyteller is that you can’t help but turn those crappy scenes from a crappy film into something that resembles a story when you talk about it. Your mind makes the connections that the person who made the film did not make. You smooth over all of those really rough edges. You take unrelated events and either leave them out when you retell the story or find some interesting way for them to relate. You tell a story.

And when I’m writing a blog entry or telling someone a story, I remove the chaff and retain the interesting parts, and often focus on what is interesting or exciting and leave out the dull stuff. And maybe that dog that just barked at you, growled in the story version and wanted to take a bite out of me? A slight embellishment. Makes the story a little more exciting and it’s not really a lie - the dog may have wanted to take a bite out of me, I don’t speak dog so I don’t know. When a storyteller tells the story, they tend to spice it up a little. The meat is still the meat, you’ve just added some garlic powder. You are still eating steak, it’s just seasoned.

Blog entries here often are written to be more amusing than the mundane and crappy truth - I look back on events and laugh. If I don’t, I’d go crazy. An when I tell some horror story about some film that has my name on it, I tell it from my point of view and try to make it amusing. I have no idea how long I *actually* talked to an actress on the set of one of my films while maintaining eye contact the whole time - difficult because she was dressed *only* in black lace panties and was hired because she was beautiful *and* could act... but when I tell the story it was 45 minutes. I’m sure it was probably ten or fifteen minutes, it just seemed much longer. She was discussing her role with me... I was trying not to look at anything other than her face. I am a gentleman... and probably a fool.

But all of that actually happened. When I tell that story, I stretch it out so that you think I might look down... I spice it up a little. But it’s still true. Probably more true than any film that says BASED ON A TRUE STORY in the credits.

BELIEVING THEIR OWN BS

I have met any number of people who had business cards printed saying that they were producers. Hey - you can get 250 free cards from Vista Print that say you’re President Of Warner Bros Studios if you want. There are websites galore for guys who made a silly movie with their friends with their video camera and now claim they are motion picture producers or even a studio! Hell. I have cards that say I’m a producer. I am kind of like those guys with the video cameras - I’ve produced and directed a bunch of short films, and even made an ill-advised feature on Super 8mm film before - but I’ve made no 35mm films that have played at your local cinema. I’m a *wannabe* producer at this point. So, don’t send me your scripts or loglines.

I’m fairly sure that most of the people with websites and business cards would probably be completely honest if you asked them what they’ve produced... though there was a guy on Done Deal’s message boards recently who was a complete scam artist but would not admit it no matter how many people offered proof. This “producer” charged a $350 script reading fee! And had not produced a single film.

I’ve also had “producers” in real life who have told me stories about all of their various projects around town, but would not get specific. When I looked them up later - no projects around town that I could see. I could tell you stories about fake producers all day - and what I don’t understand is why *they* are telling these stories. It’s pretty easy to look up someone’s credits these days, and even look up what they have in development. And, what’s wrong with being a new producer? Everybody has to start somewhere, right?

When you aren’t just leaving out the negative stuff, but actually making up credits that never happened and *lying*, you are going to get in trouble. I may have mentioned a guy I knew who claimed he wrote one of the BATMAN movies and actually showed me a copy of the script from Warner Bros with his name on the title page... and it was the actual script whichever BATMAN movie that was later released. He managed to attract a hoard of toadies and sycophants from that showing around that script. Later I discovered that he was a *typist* at Warner Bros who made up a cover page with his name on it. That’s why he was still mostly broke and working at his day job even after writing Warner Bros big tentpole film for the year.

I also know an actor who claims he is related to a big movie star - and they have the same last name - but both the big movie star and this actor changed their last names when they went into the biz. So it’s a complete lie he tells people to land roles that is so easy to disprove I wonder why anyone believes it.

SCREW YOU OPIE!

But you want to know the truth behind Bill Turning Down ANGELS & DEMONS, right?

Just as I had that year where all I did was write one treatment forever, I also had a year around the same time where - for some reason - everyone wanted me to read books and pitch my take on them. This is pretty common. Someone reads some spec script from you, likes it but doesn’t buy it (few spec scripts actually sell, most just get you assignments) and thinks you might match a project they are working on. Now, these projects can be anything from a rewrite on a script (I turned those down) to magazine articles and books the production company has an option on that they need a screenwriter for. To get the adaptation gig you read the book or article and then come back and pitch your take on the story. “Your take” is how you would go about adapting the book or article into a script. Sometimes it’s focusing on a specific element as the spine of the story, sometimes it involves a little more imagination - I have never pitched my take on a *board game* but people do that.

So after doing a bunch of these things I landed one - a New York Times best seller. An erotic thriller kind of thing that perfectly fit my skill set. The producer was packaging it with stars and director and, well, things stalled out. He eventually sold the project to another producer... meanwhile I was meeting a whole bunch of other people who owned the rights to books and wanted me to pitch my take. I read a stack of books.

And one of the producers had an option on ANGELS & DEMONS.

At that time it wasn't high profile at all. This was pre DaVINCI CODE, and ANGELS & DEMONS was some odd-ball book published by the new age division of Simon & Schuster. It was probably a “worst seller” at the time.. The publisher had basically dumped it. This producer who I had never worked with before had read some of my scripts and liked them, had read the book and optioned it probably for carfare. I don’t know if anyone else was interested in the film rights to ANGELS & DEMONS at the time, but I doubt it.

The producer was kind of a character - he had a bunch of actual credits (I don’t know whether I looked him up on IMDB or somewhere else) but was an indie guy who worked out of his pool house when he didn’t have a deal with a studio. We mostly met in restaurants between the lunch and dinner hours when they were mostly empty. He liked to eat. He also loved conspiracy theories... and that’s what attracted him to ANGELS & DEMONS. That, and he knew where he could get a Rome set somewhere like Bulgaria. This, friends, is how movies get made. A producer knows where there is a set that looks like Rome and reads a book that takes place in Rome that he likes because he also believes that everything Art Bell says is gospel. We had maybe 4 or 5 meetings, once in the poolhouse office and the rest at restaurants - but never Italian restaurants. Maybe he was concerned that Italian restaurants might have some connection to the Vatican or the Illuminati or whatever.

He gave me a copy of ANGELS AND DEMONS (which I gave back - stupid - probably could have sold it for a fortune on e-bay) and asked if I wanted to adapt it. I read the book, and didn't like it that much (Dan Brown is not a great writer) - but the big problem for me was that the book had two plots that met at the end. This is great for a book, but not so great for a movie. You only have 2 hours to tell a story, and that’s tough to do when you only have 1 plot. I thought we should either go with one or the other - and I think I suggested killing the Cardinals because the blowing up the Vatican thing seemed silly. The producer wanted to do the whole damned book. Could I come back with a version that covered everything in the book? I tried - made notes, tried to outline how I might turn the book into a single movie under 120 pages that stressed the conspiracy aspects and only showed the portions of Rome that existed in Bulgaria... and couldn’t make it work. So on our last meeting I gave him back the copy of the New Age version of the book and told him I didn’t think I could do it. I turned the job down.

I’m pretty sure that I was not the only writer this producer approached... and I think *everyone* turned it down. The producer allowed the option to expire... and then DaVINCI CODE came out and became a bestseller and I felt like an idiot. The producer probably did, too.

If I had just written *one* draft of ANGELS & DEMONS, I would have been first writer on and I’m pretty sure my name would be in the "story by" credits.

But I didn't turn down a best seller, I turned down a non-seller that I didn't think was well written and I didn't think would make a good movie... I guess we will all find out on Friday whether they cracked it or not. If you want to imagine me telling Ron Howard that I simply refuse to write this script and he can go take a hike, that's okay by me.

- Bill
IMPORTANT UPDATE:

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: The Story Is The Story and HOUSE BUNNY.
Yesterday’s Dinner: Hot Pockets Calzone and carrot sticks.

3 comments:

ObiDonWan said...

My "world" is the one about children's books. I've got dozens of them, so far unsold. And one friend who's also in the same line, except he has a well-paying day job, keeps telling these fantasies about how one of his books was loved by so many great editors, but somehow didn't get published.
Is that the "Billy Liar" story?

wcdixon said...

Way to tell it the way it is, Bill..love the stories, embellished or otherwise...keep them coming. (I've turned down, or rather, given back 2 books that I couldn't figure out a 'movie' from, over the past couple years but keep expect to see them pop up as In Production.)

The Moviequill said...

Dan Brown is writing another book in the series... maybe there is hope that one day I can turn down something of his heh

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