By Cory!! Strode
"So," the man said, smiling and offering me a seat, "tell me a story."
I smiled, knowing I already had him in the palm of my hand. I am a storyteller, even if I can't get a damn script onto paper from time to time. Put me in a room with an audience and I'll keep them listening. Not because of any of the writing classes I took, but because that's what I can do. I can tell a story.
"It all starts with a man who is just let out of prison," I begin. Remembering that this is a movie guy and wants a "hook" I make sure to put it in terms he can understand as I continue, "Just like the one in Shawshank Redemption. He's served his time, and has actually changed. However, the only offer for a job is from someone he was pen pals with in jail, someone who offers him a job taking care of rescue dogs. St. Bernards. Like in the cartoons, except they aren't wearing the little wooden barrels full of hooch."
"So this is a kid's movie," he said, reaching for a yellow legal pad and a pen.
"Not really. It has cute dogs and there's a lot of humor, some of it slapstick, but it's a fish out of water story. You see, he's lived here in LA his whole life. He's never even seen snow." I hoped to strike a chord with the executive in the suit that cost almost as much as my car, trying to get him to forget anything about it being a kid's movie.
I paused, hoping he would put away the damn pen and paper, but it was too late. I was doomed. I could see what he'd written. "St. Bernards, slapstick, winter release, PG."
I should have just finished up right there, promised a script and told my agent that I want "story by" credit and nothing else. But no, as any of the women who have left me can attest to, I refuse to give up. I keep at it until all hope is not only lost, but a long distant memory. Worse, I saw it as a challenge. How can I get you to add two more of your chicken scratchings to your little yellow legal pad of doom, you backbiting slime weasel? How much do I have to do to get you to put a 13 after that PG?
"We show him trying to get a job here in LA and no one will hire him for anything since he's an ex-con. When the economy is good, it's hard enough for an ex-con to get work, but when jobs are scarce..."
"I hear ya on that, " he interrupted. Normally if someone interrupts me telling a story they get a glare or comment about how their genealogy must go through various animal phylum, but this was a man who could give me a check for thousands of dollars. And I had never seen a check that big. In fact, until this meeting I had never had any of my writings go for more than 3 figures, and that check started with a "1".
Keeping that in mind, I let him interrupt and smiled as he went on, "Before I had this job, I saw tons of people get laid off over at Paramount. And those bastards at Fox would fire you for saying something bad about the President. My agent had to call everyone before they were able to get me a job here, but this is what I wanted anyway. This is the studio of the future!" And he believed it. I still think he would have set new records in a decent drug test.
Seeing him pause, I thought that this must be my turn and started back in, "Anyway," which is the universal word meaning, "Shut the holy hell up," "he calls his friend in Canada and says he wants to take the job. Problem is, he doesn't have any money to get there, and his friend is skint as well."
"Yeah...sorry...broke...skint means broke." I had just used one of my worthless little tricks to give me a bit of power over him. If you know slang the executive doesn't, he thinks you are far more hip than him, and therefor better to tell him about what is cool. I also know that tonight he'll be using that piece of British slang at one of the many fetish clubs less than a mile from his office to appear to be a hell of a long more cool than he was, and it would work. Only because of the cost of his suit and his love of being called slime, but as long as if makes you happy, who cares, right?
I saw him smile, and knew he was putting that word away in his painfully empty mental Rolodex. Score one for me and being a manipulative, pretentious bastard.
I spin my tale about how our intrepid hero hitchhikes to Canada, meeting people along the way that teach him about life. Real heartwarming stuff. The kind of stuff that's in movies, unless it's about drifters picking up hitchhikers and killing them in inventive ways. Then, when I get to the part about him learning to train the dogs, I'm interrupted again.
"Does it have to be Canada?"
I smile, "No. It doesn't. But it does have to be where they have a lot of snow, and when people think Canada, they think snow. It's an easy fit."
"I see..." he said, a nice way of saying forget it, "Canada's not going to work for us. With the new 'Patriotic Correctness', I can't get a damn thing through the studio set in another country unless it's a US Soldier blowing the shit out of it. I want to film in Canada, because their dollar is worth about 23 cents, so the studio can save money. Could we say it's in Iowa or Illinois?"
"I could do that," No, I couldn't you Jell-O brained empty suit, "but if we need it set in the US, Alaska would be a much better fit. They have the mountains and snow that neither Iowa nor Illinois are known for."
He thought a bit, reaching for his legal pad. Her paused and I wished I knew a potent form of black magic in order to control his hand and write Alaska on it, as well as the 13 next to the PG that would save me from being a Disney Sunday Night movie writer. He wrote Iowa, and it took a supreme effort of will not to leap over the desk, strangle him with his Jerry Garcia tie and dangle the body out his window, but after he wrote it he said, "You're sure there aren't any mountains in Iowa? Because we don't have anything coming out this spring for the Midwest. Farmers go to movies too, you know."
I gave my biggest fake smile, the one I used when explaining to the bank clerk that there must be some mistake and there IS money in my account and said, "I'm afraid that Iowa doesn't have any mountains. We could set it in Colorado, but..." and shrugged, letting him come up with the reason why not. I'd already proved I was cooler than him, and hoped my silence would work in my favor. Thankfully, it did and he crossed out Iowa and wrote Alaska.
One down. One to go.
Sadly, from here it was a typical Hollywood three-beat story. Hero has obstacle of not knowing anything about Alaska or dogs and thinks the townsfolk are all morons. After being saved by one of the dogs he turns over a new leaf and takes his job seriously. After he does this, he saves the life of his friend who is trapped in a freak snowstorm. Much rejoicing and love with a fadeout of happy snow covered people.
Of course, I made it sound a lot better when I told him, and was far wittier, but let's be honest, it's not a very original story. It's not even a very good story. However, it would be a movie that would get made and give me enough money to write a great novel that no one but a host on your local Public Radio Station who speaks in a hushed, sonorous tone usually reserved for announcing funeral services would read.
No matter what trick I pulled out, he didn't grab for the yellow legal pad again. Not once. The magic numbers "13" did not get written next to the PG, even when I suggested a hot sex scene toward the middle being interrupted by one of the dogs thinking his cries of pleasure are the same as yelling "Come here" to them in training.
I wanted a semi-adult vehicle and he wanted a Green Machine. And he had the money.
We shook hands, I said goodbye, he said he'd call me, I said I looked forward to it. I was lying. He wasn't. He said it was all but in the bag and I went out of his office and said, "I don't want to write a damn kid's movie." You have no idea how shocked I was that there was a check waiting for me at the desk of the receptionist with a hand scribbled note saying, "Get that bastard to start writing."
I left his office and was out on the streets of LA, and wished I was anywhere else in the world. For all the talk of how great or horrible LA is, I don't find it much different for anyplace else, just more of it. The pierced teenagers are in bigger groups and have more piercings. The jerks have more money, which makes them bigger jerks. Morons, however, morons come in all stripes out there. But that's not all that important to the story I'm telling, unless you want to know why I don't live there anymore. I could say it was to be more secluded to be a better writer, or that I wanted out of the rat race or any other lie, but the truth is that people there piss me off to no end. And that's enough for me.
I was to meet my girlfriend at the Hollywood Smoothie a couple of blocks away when we got done so she could shop with my new money. The Hollywood Smoothie used to be the Hollywood coffeehouse and still had the coffee machine as big as a car embedded in the wall. Before that it was probably the Hollywood Evian Palace and before that the Hollywood Crack and Hookers stand.
I take that back. The Hollywood Crack and Hooker shop was a few doors down, but they called themselves a tattoo parlor with while you wait, with guaranteed to piss off your parents no matter how old you are piercings while they make you a soda.
She was having a banana smoothie and talking to a guy who looked like he really missed the Grateful Dead more than life itself. I wish I could say something nice about her at this point, but I find myself utterly incapable of doing so. Even in the abstract.
She was blonde, tall and loved the latest fashion for people 5 years younger than her, but she could still pull it off. That's why we broke up, really. Her pulling it off.
That day we walked down the street, her arm in mine as I told her about how I was the next Walt Disney. Two weeks later she left the concert we were at saying she was bathroom and not coming back. I later heard she spent the rest of the night snorting coke off of some guy's pierced penis. I figured we were no longer in love, since I had neither coke nor a pierced penis. Two months after that night she called and asked for things back I had never heard of. Before she hung up she said I had ruined her life because I had stayed at the concert and didn't save her from the abusive guy she ended up with. A week after she left, I had found someone else to go to concerts with who knew how to come back to me from the bathroom. I think that was a better choice for my time out there.
I didn't hear another thing from her until the first ads for the movie hit. Someone must have shown her my name in the credits because she called to ask how I was, tell me about her medical problems and to ask if I wanted to see her when I came to LA for the premiere. I told her that I wouldn't be coming to LA. But we'll get to that in due time. She asked if I still thought about her, and I truthfully answered yes.
I just didn't tell her it was only after Letterman had done the top 10 list and I didn't have a woman in bed next to me. Then I thought about her.
Parts of her anyway.
I fully expect to hear from her when the movie opens and then again about 6 months after that when she has to send me her AA apology letter.
But that day I had someone to tell my story too and show my first Hollywood Writer's check. And she helped me spend about a fourth of it on things I didn't get to take home. And all I could think about was how to get that "13" added to the yellow paper on the legal pad.
I had a message waiting for me when I got home. I was being given 8 weeks to write the full script. They wanted the story bad, even though there wasn't a damn original thing in it.
So, I wrote the script the same way I write everything. I carefully consider the deadline and plan out how many words I have to do a day in order to get the script done in time to edit and re-write and still make the delivery deadline. Then I screw around for four weeks, call it research, and write the first draft in a caffeine and No-Doz induced haze of typing. Then, whomever I'm dating at the time in pressed into service as the first editor while I sleep after finishing that draft.
I then do the real re-write, usually in a couple of days without a break, another full day of sleep, then take the script on pristine sheets of white bond paper to a coffee house with old furniture, go over it with the Red Pen Of Doom and cut it down to size.
This script was no different. My novels I treat with care, because there won't be a committee going over it telling me what to change and paying me to change it. My novels are my children, raise with care until they are ready to go out into the world on their own. Scripts are sperm donations at best.
If you know anything about movies, you know what came next. Other people have talked about it in far better detail than I ever will, so I'll spare you my repetition. Look for when Kevin Smith talks about writing the Superman movie and being asked to put in a big mechanical spider because the producer's daughter likes spiders, then when he refused, the movie was shelved and the big spider showed up in "Wild Wild West." You could also read Dorothy Parker talking about how Hollywood killed her will to write.
All the stories about writing in Hollywood end face down in Gloria Swanson's swimming pool. I knew it going in, so the minute I delivered my script, I gave up on having any control of it at all. They paid me way too much money and I was happy.
However, for those of you who don't know how movies are put together, I will pull back the curtain and go over one of the meetings I had. The rest were just like it, only with minor differences. They all blur after a while.
I went in on the second re-write of the script on a rainy afternoon and the office had five people dressed alike in the same sort of suit, and a perky guy from Marketing who was dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt for the company store. I guess that's how you know he's the "creative" guy of the group. I know he was from Marketing because everything that came out of his mouth sounded like it was a commercial. Remember when Shakespeare said to first kill all the Lawyers? He wasn't even close.
Bill Hicks. He had it right. If you are in marketing or advertising, kill yourself, but I add that if they won't do it to themselves, we need to help them out as best we can. I found out why the very first minutes I had to go to a meeting in the office job I had, the marketing people ran the meeting and ran through the buzzwords they had gotten in the latest magazine even though they had no clue what any of the words meant.
In that meeting, I asked what the word "Synergized" meant in a honest, heartfelt way. I was told I didn't have a "team mentality" and that there was no "I" in team, so I had better get on board. I said that there was a "me" in Team and if they didn't explain what they were talking about, it was a waste of time for "Me" to be there.
I lasted about three months at the job.
But back to the meeting.
I was pretty sure it would be another meeting where someone who was paid to hate scripts had read it and had a bunch of stupid changes to make, like a character's name or taking out a scene that explained the rest of the movie or something like that. This was a different meeting.
The marketing guy seemed to run the meeting, and started by talking about how much he loved the idea of the movie, and had just a few changes to suggest. All of which had to do with toys. Could there be four people who go to Alaska to train the dogs because toymakers ship things in lots of four. Did they have to be St. Bernards, since it would be easier to have Dalmatians since toy molds of them already existed. Could we figure out a way to get a monkey in the story because there was a toy company he wanted to work with who had a ton of leftover monkey toys from a failed "Planet of the Apes" toyline.
I swear that if he could, he would have made movies about Legos, Tinkertoys, Barbie and Lincoln Logs. Everything had to do with toys. Nothing about the script, nothing about the movie, just toys.
Until he got to the part that got him fired.
After 45 minutes of letting me know that they toy market was waiting for something that had to do with dogs, and they were damn happy to be a part of it, he said that he felt the lead character should be black. Because research had showed that people liked watching black people do slapstick, and that they could guarantee we'd have a big weekend if the black guy got smacked around a lot in the script.
I actually saw the five executives attempt to melt into their seat and ooze away as he dug himself deeper and deeper talking about how the urban market loved that style of humor, but he didn't want any of the individual scenes to last too long because "They had such a short attention span. That's why they like sketch comedy so much."
The he followed it up by talking about how black people know nothing about snow, and it would be really funny and add to the fish out of water concept he'd read about on the synopsis page. From there he actually said it would be an aesthetic thing, since a good black actor would really stand out among all the whiteness.
It wasn't for a good five minutes that he registered my shock and revulsion, mostly because he had the gift of being able to talk without paying attention to anyone he was talking to. When he paused and looked around, I figured I was the only one who wasn't going to be around when the movie started filming anyway, and flush with movie cash, I simply said, "I think we should let the casting people figure that out. I wrote the part for a human being to play it, not a prop."
He tried to apologize for the rest of the meetings but it didn't do him any good. His desk was packed by the time he got back to it, and his final check was waiting for him at home before he got there. The courier actually waited for him to show up and sign for it just so he could call him the dumbest motherfucker he'd ever heard of.
And even with all of that, they did cast a black lead. They said it was because the comedian they cast was hot with the 18 - 24 year olds. I think it was because no one had the brains to shred the minutes of that meeting.
There were lots of meetings. I learned an easy way to get paid for them by only preparing two re-writes after the third meeting. That was the meeting where they sat down with me and cut out anything that I was happy about writing. They cut out all of the scenes of the lead character hitchhiking. Instead he got to Alaska by selling his dog, which I still don't know how he got. They said it was ironic. I guess, in an Allanis Morrisette kind of way, which is to say, not at all. They cut the sex scenes, but I later got a small writing credit when they showed up in another movie, proving to me that I could write that sort of stuff after all. So, now I am ready for a career in porn. They cut anything that I liked and had someone else write scenes that were blander and had more "laffs" (their spelling, preserved for your protection).
Why did I only have two re-writes? I learned that the only reason they would ask for changes was so they could justify their jobs. So, they would tell me they wanted changes but not be real specific. "I think he needs to be more streetwise." "I don't like how he talks down to some of the people, make him more likable." "The third act doesn't build fast enough for me."
I'd nod. I'd take their money. Then, I would give them the other script and they would praise my speed and understanding of what they wanted, and why didn't every writer just listen to them the way I did.
I can't remember which of the two they finally settled on, but there were only about 5 pages of differences. And most of the difference was done with a thesaurus and moving scenes back and forth.
When they settled on a cast and crew, I had enough money to move back to Iowa. You may laugh, but in a small town in Iowa, you can basically multiply your money. A house there costs less than a third of what it would in LA, and you only have to go to meetings important enough for them to pay for a airline ticket from Cedar Rapids. I have a fax machine, e-mail and am so far from marketing people that they don't even know I exist. It also made it so the ex girl friend had to expend a little energy to find me.
Yeah. I may have my name on a movie poster but I still need the ego fed.
The next time I had anything to do with the movie was when they had the first audience preview. Now, an audience preview is when they get a bunch of people who were going to a movie and give them a pass to a free movie, but they don't know what the movie is they are going to see. Since they had decided that it was a kid's movie, the audience was filled with families.
I could make a lot of snide, nasty remarks about what constitutes a family in LA, but I'm not as bitter since I got my first royalty check.
Until that check showed up, this story had the word "Manson" in the same sentence as "family" every time I talked about seeing this preview.
After the movie, people filled out long sheets asking them in every detail what they liked and didn't like about the movie. It was as if every line of dialogue had to be approved by people who had nothing better to do on a Tuesday night but watch something at random for two hours. They had to buy their own popcorn, so if they hated dog movies, they were pretty much screwed have to waste the night with a movie they didn't like and no free food.
I don't know why they did the surveys anyway, because one of the producers was at the preview and had already decided what would be done with the movie. He threw out the results of the survey with a loud and dramatic flourish, showing that he, like everyone else I had met in that city, was a frustrated actor. He told all of us the next morning that he had watched a couple of kids in the front row and knew how to make the movie the biggest hit since Titanic.
He thought the skies had parted and Divine Inspiration had come unto him as if touched by the hand of God.
25 of us sat in a large room and listened as he stood in front of us and related his tale:
"I watched our movie and it was plain to see that it needed something. Something that will give it that push over the cliff. It's not that the movie is bad. It's good. It is very good. It's one hundred million dollars box office good.
"But, we can do better. We were racking out brains by having rewrite after rewrite done at great expense (you got that right, bucko) and then while in production. But last night I saw the answer. It was right there in the row in front of me. As I watched our movie, our work of art (yep, Monet, Dali and a dog movie for 7 year olds all are equal in the eyes of this man) there were two little kids making up dialogue for the dogs during the scenes when the people weren't talking. It was brilliantly funny. That's what this movie needs."
I knew enough to keep my mouth shut. For three months I wrote dialogue for the dogs to say during the "boring" scenes, which I was informed were scenes where no one was talking or the humans were advancing the plot. I put myself in the brain of myself at age 7 and wrote the dumbest jokes that I would have been able to get away with in school without getting sent to the Principal's office. When I turned in the script, they laughed as if it was Tom Stoppard and told me I was brilliant. Brilliant and Art are words that have lost all meaning to me after this whole experience.
They paid me for a bunch of jokes about dog crap and fat people falling down, because fat people are the only minority you can still make fun of in Hollywood. They hired some name actors to do the voice work for the dog's voices. A couple of times I actually got to see William Shatner and Sally Field read my inner 7 year old's jokes, nodding and giving a thumb's up when they thought one was really good. It was strange. Not as strange as sitting at my desk and writing the jokes while listening to Beethoven, but strange nonetheless.
All that matters is that they paid me. They paid me to go write the dog crap jokes, they paid me when I brought them the dog crap jokes and they paid me when I would make changes based on the fact that William Shatner didn't like how one line about dog crap sounded when he said it.
I took the money and rented a U-Haul and moved to Iowa. A small town of about 2000 people where you could buy a house for less than $15,000 because no one in town had a job if they weren't a farmer, a farmhand or repaired farm equipment.
The movie came out and did fairly well, but did killer on video. It was so popular that they decided to make both a sequel and a cartoon series out of it. I wrote a script for the sequel that they didn't like but paid me for anyway, but I was too well respected to write for the cartoon. That, and they had a team of toy people to do that. The toy people always win.
Every few months, I get a call and someone flies me out to LA to get the "magic" of my dog movie, because it's so obvious that I have my finger on the pulse of people, having written such a perfect movie. They pay me, and I listen and I give them ideas that I wouldn't put in a novel for any reason. Sometimes they give me money and I write a script. Sometimes they give me a script and I re-write it so that it is full of jokes for 7 year olds. I take their money and go home and thank God for e-mail, because when I was in LA, I actually thought that this sort of shit matters.
It doesn't. It's like working at a factory, only it pays better and you have heard of the people in charge of the union.
At least that's what I tell myself most of the time.
Truth is funny. It changes depending on who I tell, and it changes depending on what city I am in. Right now, between you and me, here in this little moment of time we're sharing?
I would have stayed there if I just could have gotten that guy to put a 13 after the PG. But I'll never admit it.
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