You don’t only need more than one script, you need more than one story.
BREAKING AWAY (1979) written by Steve Tesich, is one of my favorite movies. Hey, working class guys and bicycles, how could it not be? Tesich won Best Original Screenplay Oscar for that script, and if you’re on the Script Secrets newsletter mailing list, this month there was a nice big article about that film that used DVD box art from Tesich’s other films as art. Because I loved BREAKING AWAY so much when it came out, I became a huge fan of the screenwriter and tracked down every other movie he wrote and was in line to see it on opening day. Though all of them featured working class guy leads, none were as good as BREAKING AWAY. The one that came closest was his adaptation of THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, a novel I had read before seeing the movie. Tesich died with only six movies...
Last week the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles showed 2 of Tesich’s films, EYEWITNESS and FOUR FRIENDS - both of which I had seen on opening day. I did not like FOUR FRIENDS at all back then, but thought EYEWITNESS was okay - which is not the same as good. Later on I would rent EYEWITNESS on VHS a couple of times, and it was watchable, had some great stuff, but nothing I wanted to buy. So I haven’t seen either film in a long time, and thought I’d zip over to Hollywood and watch them again.
The American Cinematheque is like a film museum - they show older movies and foreign films and cutting edge indie films that have no distrib. It’s funny, but you’d think Los Angeles would be full of things like this... but it is not. I used to go to revival cinemas in the Bay Area all the time - and practically lived in the UC Theater in Berkeley where they had a different double bill every night, and “theme days” so that you could see every John Huston movie on Tuesday nights... get that day off from work! But in Los Angeles, movie capitol of the world, we have the American Cinematheque at Grauman’s Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, and the New Beverly down the street (now part owned by Quentin Tarantino) and the Silent Movie House between them. That’s pretty much it. Oh, the Nu Art and the Aero in Santa Monica. And the cinemas are not crowded - every time I go to the Nu Art I practically have the cinema to myself.
When I arrived at the Egyptian, it was almost empty... and pretty much stayed that way.
That’s a shame. In fact, it’s *shameful*.
Here we are in the film capitol, and no one is going to see films! The American Cinematheque has all of these great programs, and usually gets some great guest speakers between films. So they showed a couple of lost grindhouse movies a couple of nights ago and had stars and cinematographer and just about every living person involved in these two films made in the 70s. It’s like *live* DVD extras. And when they do these things... a couple more people show up. I went to one last year where there were more people on the panel between the movies than in the cinema seats! Hey, this is LA, can we get a full house? Can some studios push their employees to see some of these films? Would be wonderful if the development people would show up and see some films... I tend to think the priorities in the film biz get mixed up - it is about making movies. Movies are more important than anything else. If I ran a studio, I’d have a pop quiz every once in a while where I asked everyone at the studio to tell me what film they had seen in a cinema last week, and anyone who didn’t go to the movies gets fired. Bam, outta here. “Hey, I’m the head of production, I don’t have time to...” Bam, outta here. If you’re gonna make ‘em, you gotta watch ‘em.
So - studios and people who love film and live in Los Angeles - please go to the movies.
Side note - about 15 years ago, the American Cinematheque had no home cinema and was kind of squatting at the Chaplin Cinema at Raleigh Studios (across from Paramount). Those were heady days for me - I had movies shooting and would go to see a Sam Fuller double bill and Sam Fuller was there! So were all kinds of hot shot young filmmakers and screenwriters. I had “season tickets” to the Fuller movies and had a big name director sitting behind me and a screenwriter who was the next big thing in the chair beside me. That little cinema was packed! Then they renovated the Egyptian - this big old movie palace like it’s more famous sister Grauman’s Chinese - and had a permanent home... and people seemed to stop going. I don’t think one thing caused the other, I think there may have been some sort of tidal shift in the business, and all of those movie addicts who worked in the biz were replaced by ex-lawyers and ex-agents and dealmakers. People who didn’t seem to need to see pre-code movies with female nudity from the early 1930s or “Race” westerns (Black cowboys!) or Fritz Lang thrillers from the 30s and 40s. *I* needed to see all of those films.
I also needed to see if the Tesich films were better than I remembered them. The guy had written one of my favorite films... how could I dislike FOUR FRIENDS those many years ago? Was I in a bad mood the day I saw it? Was I just too young to get it? The film was directed by Arthur Penn (BONNIE AND CLYDE, LITTLE BIG MAN) and written by an Oscar Winner.
The small group of us turn off our cell phones, house lights go down, and...
FOUR FRIENDS (1981) was a mess. It’s obviously Tesich’s autobiography - a little boy and his mother come from Yugoslavia to live with his father - who works in the steel mills. Father ain’t the type to hug anyone. Then we get the first of about two dozen jumps ahead in time, since this is the characters *entire life* in one film. Now our boy Danny is in high school in the early 60s and played by Craig Wasson (BODY DOUBLE) and we also meet the other three friends: Jim Metzler (guest star on every TV show you can think of, star of the 2 NORTH AND SOUTH miniseries) as Tom, Michael Huddelston (who now plays pudgy middle aged guys) as David, and Jodi Thelen as the woman all 3 guys love, Georgia. The film has a half dozen different narrators, and instead of all being important characters in the story, our first narrator is Georgia’s next door neighbor. We only see her looking out the window of her house - she is not really a character in the story at all!
There is no main plot at all - except Danny’s life - but there are dozens of subplots. I’d list them all, but I’d have to pay more for bandwidth. Danny and his dad. Danny and his flute (plays it in band). Danny and his Black friend. Danny and his anti-steel-mill rant at career day. A bunch of others in this small High School segment of the film, but the main one is probably that Danny is in love with Georgia, when she wants to sleep with him thinks it’s too soon and turns her down, so she sleeps with the other two guys (separately). And gets pregnant by one of them. Oh, man - I forgot the school bully subplot! That one even plays out later in the film! Did I forget any other subplots that come back later?
To add to the story-mess, after high school the four friends split up and go their separate ways... So that we can introduce a whole new cast when Danny goes to college!
Film is a tonal mess, too. It has no genre at all, and seems to jump between teen sex comedy and class-warfare drama and druggy film and epic romance and TAXI DRIVER.
Yes, TAXI DRIVER... in more ways than one!
Anyway, Danny goes away to college where he has a disabled roommate (which is a whole subplot) and both guys are virgins and want to get laid. Their dorm room is wall-to-wall Playboy centerfolds and there are jokes about wacking off, etc, It’s ANIMAL HOUSE or AMERICAN PIE or whatever. Danny falls for his roommate’s hot sister, proposes to her, but her parents are filthy rich and they disapprove of him (especially her father played by James Leo Herilhey who wrote MIDNIGHT COWBOY and overacts like you would not believe. It’s a shame that he didn’t have any scenes with Georgia, because that actress is so over the top you’d think she was on some Broadway stage trying to make sure the people in the back rows can see her gestures.)
Anyway, rich father finally agrees to the wedding and we get this big epic wedding scene where working class Danny seems out of place, and then he jokes with his college roommate guy - hey, we’re kind of back in AMERICAN PIE territory for a moment, and then Danny’s new father-in-law gives a toast to the bride and groom and halfway through the toast pulls out a gun and shoots his daughter and Danny and then himself in the head. WTF?
In the middle of this mostly romantic and comedic streak when this hardcore violence erupts out of nowhere! Though there are some clues to the father-in-law being a bit wacky, the problem is that his motivations are kind of script spackled in there and none of the characters *behave* as they should before the incident. It’s as if *after* he’d written the shooting scene he went back and threw in a bit to justify it... but then didn’t change anything in between so it still comes off unmotivated.
Anyway, Danny survives, though he has lost an eye... except it seems to grow back later (huh?) and he gets a job driving a taxi, because that way he can introduce a whole new cast... and see Danny hit rock bottom - kind of a homeless taxi driver.
Meanwhile, Georgia and David are married and raising Tom’s baby and Georgia decides to split for New York to find herself and gets involved with hippies and drugs and some sort of glam-rock thing. She goes to a far out party with her friend where there is sex and drugs and rock and roll... and a pretty new sports car in the middle of the loft where the party takes place. Everything is wild and fun and hippish! Her friend - who has just been introduced and I’m not even sure what her name is - hops in that sports car in the middle of the party, and it starts and goes into reverse and zooms out of the top story loft and plummets to the street below where it explodes like something in a Michael Bay film. WTF? One minute a swinging good time, the next Georgia’s friend is incinerated.
While the tone is jumping around from light to dark to just weird, the story is too. Danny meets a nurse and they have a relationship and then Georgia shows up and Danny finally gets a chance to sleep with her, then she splits... and Danny’s relationship with the nurse is over and Danny becomes a steelworker like his dad and has a relationship with some other girl and we get more and more incidents and subplots and things that probably happened in Tesich’s life but don’t mean anything, and then he goes home to patch things up with his dad and... well, remember that bully from high school? He’s a cop now and there’s a zany comedy bar-room brawl with him, that Danny wins by barfing on him, and I’ve left out some subplot stuff - his Black friend from high school marching with Martin Luther King (off screen) and his college roommate dying and not being able to see man landing on the moon and Dave losing his toupee and Tom marrying a Vietnamese woman have having two daughters but still visiting the kid he had with Georgia and... well, there just isn’t enough bandwidth for all of it. Danny’s eye grows back and he ends up with Georgia at the end... but that hasn’t resolved his issues with his stern father, so we get some scenes about that. Finally it ends!
House lights go up at the Egyptian... and when the lights go back down for the second film, we’ve lost a chunk of the audience.
EYEWITNESS is an okay film - with a great thriller concept. William Hurt plays a janitor in an office building who discovers the body of one of the tenants - an evil Vietnamese ex-General who got Hurt’s fellow janitor, played by James Woods at his James Woodiest, fired. Hurt worries that Woods may have killed the guy, so when the police question him (Detective #2 played by Morgan Freeman) he lies and says Woods hasn’t been at the building since he was fired. Actually, Woods was there the day of the murder. On his way out, he spots hot TV reporter Sigourney Weaver and realizes this is his chance to try and charm her into bed. He offers an exclusive interview... then hits on her on camera. In order to keep seeing Weaver, he has to claim to have information about the murder... yet never give it to her. Problem is, evil Vietnamese hit dudes overhear him and come after him. This is a cool idea - but the script pretty much ignores it. Sure, every once in a while some inept action scene pops up, but the story spends as much time on the romance and on all of these subplots (including Hurt’s romantic relationship with Wood’s sister played by Pam Reed, which includes an *amazing* great scene where they profess their non-love for each other) and Weaver’s romance with pretty-man Christopher Plummer who is involved in raising money for Jewish causes (huh?) and several scenes about horses and some scenes about Hurt's dog who is kind of the canine version of Burt Kwouk from the PINK PANTHER movies. Oh, and some *great* stuff with Kenneth McMillan as his disabled and drunken dad. But it’s a lot of light dramedy stuff crammed into a thriller concept.
The thriller scenes do not work at all. There’s a chase scene that’s okay... but a scene where bad guys give Hurt’s dog rabies or something as a way to kill him makes no sense at all, and the big action end (sarcasm) where Hurt fights the villain in a Manhattan indoor horse barn in some *building* makes no sense at all. Not enough thriller scenes and the ones we get don’t work at all. Oh, and who the villains are and what they’re after? Weirdest and most unbelievable coincidence in film history. Kind of a “Are You Effing Kidding Me?” moment.
And that’s the big problem, here. Tesich wrote one great script, did a really good adaptation... but seemed unable to do anything else. He did not seem to have the skills to pull of a thriller, and FOUR FRIENDS may be his life story but it has no story. The thing I liked about the movies was the working class background of his characters - whether it’s working in a steel mill or working as a building’s janitor, he shows real people doing real work and makes it part of the story. We need more of that. But it seems as if he’s just parting out the same story again and again. Like he has *one* story to tell - educated working class guy locks horns with immigrant father and enjoys bike riding (did I mention that aspect of EYEWITNESS? Sorry... and AMERICAN FLYERS is all about bike racing). The relationship between Danny and Tom in FOUR FRIENDS is similar to the relationship between Hurt and Woods in EYEWITNESS. It as if he has a few dozen scenes and a few dozen characters that he rearranges to make a different script.
We all have our “mega themes” that pop up in our scripts - those elements of our lives that show up in many of our character’s lives. That’s fine, in fact - that’s great. We want our screenplays to be personal rather than generic. But we need to have *many* stories to tell, and *different* stories, and be able to work within some popular *genre* so that once we’ve won our Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and the phone starts ringing with people who want to buy our next original screenplay or have us come in and pitch stories, we can keep our writing career going.
There’s a script tip in rotation about having enough screenplays finished, so that when someone reads a script and likes it but doesn’t want to buy it and asks “What else you got?” you can give them some other script... and *keep* giving them scripts until they find one they want to make or hire you to write a script for them. You *need* more than one good screenplay...
But you also need the screenplays to be different stories with different characters. If all of your scripts are the same basic story with the names changed - or just similar stories - you burn out fast. Chances are, that producer is going to be reading script #2 and wonder why it all seems so familiar. Did he pick up script #1 by mistake? Even though it is smart to specialize in one genre, you want different stories within that genre. That means you need to be able to come up with dozens, maybe hundreds, of different stories... and different characters... and different scenes.
One script may open the door for you, but one script is not a career. If you spend 25 or more years writing screenplays and get paid for one script or assignment every year - that’s at least 25 *different* stories you’re going to need... but actually maybe 4 or 5 times that many, because you will also need fresh new stories for the scripts and pitches that *do not sell*. When I get called in to pitch ideas for some cable producer, I have to pitch 5 *different* story ideas the day after tomorrow... and if I get a call like that every month? That's 60 ideas a year - 60 *different* ideas a year. That’s a lot of different stories - do you have many different stories with different characters? Can you imagine yourself *writing* 100 different stories in your career? Do you have that many stories in you?
Hey, Steve Tesich won an Oscar for BREAKING AWAY, but I don’t think anyone will really remember his other films. (There *are* people who saw FOUR FRIENDS as kids and loved it, a small buy seemingly loyal fan base - the film is filled with topless scenes, has an anti-authority lead character, and deals with father-son issues... many teen boys liked these aspects - but the film was a flop when it was released and was not a hit on VHS or DVD... and the print the American Cinematheque showed was old and faded because there is no demand for it today.) I think someone should remake the *concept* of EYEWITNESS, just not the script... but the other films he wrote (with the exception of GARP) are forgotten now and will only become more forgotten as time goes on.
You don’t only need more than one script, you need more than one story.
* AMERICAN CINEMATHEQUE
* NEW BEVERLY CINEMA
* SILENT MOVIES ON FAIRFAX
* Nuart Theater
TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: OPENING GRABBERS - and old movies from the 1940s that took the time to introduce characters and stories... not like today's movies.
Dinner: Togos Tuna sandwich... whole wheat.
Bicycle: Zipped up to NoHo, then managed to get back to the Ventura & Vineland Starbucks with *perfect* timing as people began leaving for dinner.
Pages: Well, finished and turned in my interview with the A-Team writers only one day late... and then we had that quake, and now I'm working on the new assignment.