Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Screwing the Writer

By Steven Pressfield | Published: September 7, 2011

I was at a Writers Guild meeting in Hollywood a few years ago; the members were debating whether or not to go out on strike. A microphone had been set up; one screenwriter after another stepped forward and spoke, pro or con. Each time the same Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation took place. The scribe started out low-key, logical, articulate. Within forty-five seconds the veins began popping out on his neck. His eyeballs bulged, his fists clenched. Finally, frothing at the mouth, he unleashed a rabid jeremiad. “F#@k the studios! Cut off the producers’ balls! Strike! Strike! Strike!”

Marcus Goodrich

Marcus Goodrich with wife Olivia de Havilland. He didn't know it, but I was his worst nightmare.

Writers carry around a lot of rage. Why? Because they’re always getting screwed. Studios screw them, directors screw them, producers screw them. And why do writers (and most other artists) get screwed? Because they invite it. They want to be screwed. I know. I’ve walked around for years with a KICK ME sign pinned to my back.

Where does this insanity come from? Some trauma from childhood? Does “talent” equate to self-chastisement? Are writers and artists imprisoned in Wayne’s World, declaring “I’m not worthy?”

I once optioned a well-known novel. In other words, I found myself in the role of producer. The first thing I did was screw the writer. I couldn’t help myself. I was driven by evolutionary compulsion.

The tale is a grisly one, which some impulse of confession impels me to recount here. The author was a legendary novelist and one of the founders of what was then called the Scenario Writers Union—Marcus Goodrich. His book was Delilah, a classic naval drama about a WWI destroyer. (Delilah was the name of the vessel.)

At the time I optioned his novel, Marcus Goodrich was in his 90s and in a nursing home in Virginia.  I negotiated with his lawyer and guardian; I never actually spoke to Mr. Goodrich, for whom, by the way, I had (and still have) the utmost respect. Marcus Goodrich was a war hero, a pioneer of the screenwriter’s craft; among other distinctions, he had been married to Olivia de Havilland. He was the kind of guy I would have loved to have met and gotten to know. But none of that stopped me from screwing him.

Here’s what I did: Mr. Goodrich’s novel built to a climax that culminated in the outbreak of World War I. For my adapted script, I immediately switched it to WWII. I never told him. One of the central characters in the book was a Catholic monk. I instantly turned him into a Buddhist—and Japanese to boot.

The good news is that the movie never got made; I could never find a buyer. So I wasn’t forced to face or inflict that horrible moment at the premiere when Mr. Goodrich (who was an elegant Southerner) was assisted to his seat in the theater, flanked by proud children and grandchildren, only to discover as the film unspooled that I had ruthlessly mutilated his story and never uttered a peep.

Writers demand to be screwed. Even I, a fellow wordsmith, was compelled to hose down the first author who wandered lucklessly into my gunsights, despite the fact that I revered him.

There was a famous spec script that lit up Hollywood in the early 90s called Gale Force, written by David Chappe. I remember it sold for a million bucks, which was mega-dinero in those days (and has become mega-dinero again). I had to see what a million-dollar script looked like, so I asked my agent to get me a copy, which he did. I read it. It was damn good.

The story was of a small coastal town—off North Carolina, if memory serves—that gets evacuated as a monster hurricane bears down on it. Meanwhile, waiting offshore, are a boatload of thieves who intend to land at the height of the storm and sack the town. The twist? One solitary lawman has not abandoned Dodge. He takes on the bad guys single-handedly. The script was Die-Hard meets Hurricane. A slam-dunk no-brainer box-office-boffo blockbuster.

Cut to five years later. I’m back in my agent’s office (I dropped in twice a decade) and there on his desk I spy a screenplay, Gale Force. What’s this? “Oh, that’s the script I showed you five years ago; it’s been through a bunch of rewrites by other writers.” I borrowed the document and tore through it. Here’s the short version of what havoc had been wrought by these overpaid locusts:

1. The coastal town was gone. There was no town at all.

2. The hurricane was gone. No storm at all.

3. The central character had vanished. So had every supporting character.

4. The story was unrecognizable.

5. David Chappe’s name had disappeared from the title page.

6. Oh, I almost forgot: the script sucked.

What is it about screenwriters that compels even their dearest compatriots, the rewriters, to screw them blind? (And we’re not even talking about producers.)

P.S. David Chappe died in 2002. I hope it wasn’t from a broken heart, though I’d certainly understand if it were. Gale Force was terrific. To watch it die—and such a miserable death … arrrrggh, the thought makes me so mad I want to go out and find a screenwriter and beat him to a pulp.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

24 Responses to “Screwing the Writer”

  1. September 7, 2011 at 3:14 am

    What a tale, Steve. Good stuff, well told… thanks for sharing it.

  2. skip
    September 7, 2011 at 4:09 am

    this explains what happened at the First Council of Nicaea.

    • September 7, 2011 at 12:04 pm

      Skip- that’s Hysterical!

  3. September 7, 2011 at 4:09 am

    Great story, Steve. It’s true about that writer’s rage–the perception is that writing isn’t hard work, that anybody (or worse, a committee of folks) could do it. And like the story of Gale Force, we see how that turns out.
    But writing, or any creative project, isn’t easy. That’s why it’s so important that we DO them.

    Thanks again, Steve!

  4. Walt
    September 7, 2011 at 4:52 am

    I read something like this in one of William Goldman’s books, probably “Adventures in the Screen Trade”. He said to never expect what you wrote to wind up on the screen the way you left it.

    Just take the money and run.

    But can’t one make a goodly chunk of money off a screenplay that never takes form? Say if someone keeps optioning it?

    Walt

    • September 7, 2011 at 11:54 am

      I’m with Walt and Mr. Goldman on this one–at least so far. I’ve been lucky enough to have my book picked up by a production company and I don’t have nearly as much emotional attachment to the screenplay as I do the book.

      If it ever does become a film and it’s good, win. If it’s crap, people will say “The book’s better.” Win!

  5. September 7, 2011 at 5:34 am

    You accept a welfare of writing good, significance grabbing destruction. I actually am a blogger and crave to polish this slowly ever.

  6. September 7, 2011 at 6:04 am

    Awesome! Thanks for sharing this, Steve.

    The description of writers going from articulate to frothing at the mouth made me re-watch this little (somewhat related) clip of Harlan Ellison:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mj5IV23g-fE

    • September 8, 2011 at 1:44 pm

      Jeff, this is fabulous! Never saw it before. I’m gonna rip it off and use it for next week’s post totally. Thanks. Harlan Ellison … my kinda guy!

  7. Tina
    September 7, 2011 at 7:16 am

    What humor…that is so funny!!

  8. September 7, 2011 at 8:34 am

    The British sitcom ‘As Time Goes By’ had an entire season revolve around this theme.

    • Tonya
      September 13, 2011 at 10:23 am

      Indeed, Susan… I remember it very well. Lionel and Jean’s story took a horrible turn didn’t it? At least we know the un-Hollywood truth. :) That storyline did make me twinge at the thought of having my work (when it’s finally out there) produced for the screen. But I guess I’d remain happy with my book as Jeremy points out above.

      Steve, very interesting situation! Thanks for sharing it!

  9. September 7, 2011 at 11:55 am

    I have a friend adapting a novel into a screenplay right now and it’s been an eye opener. She’s an excellent writer herself but what she’s had to do to a perfectly serviceable book to turn it into a script that will sell – wow. I wouldn’t be surprised if the storm, lawman, and thieves from Gale Force make an appearance, at this point.

  10. September 7, 2011 at 12:07 pm

    what a great site.
    I am a big fan of Mr. Pressfield’s books.
    screenwriters never really get any credit but this article explains why they may not actually want any once their efforts make it to the screen. oh man.
    cinematographers get very little credit either…nor do 2nd Unit Directors ever even get a mention…and I believe their work (directing & choreographing, with the stunt coordinator, all the ‘action’ sequences is usually my favorite part of most historical dramas.

  11. September 7, 2011 at 1:31 pm

    At first glance as artists seem to be nothing but gophers…as soon as one gets picked off by a car, the rest of us race in and starts pecking on the remains…

    But what I really think is that creative types have a compulsion to ‘pee’ in everything we can.

  12. September 7, 2011 at 3:56 pm

    Question:
    Do people like Stephen King and other most sought after writers get to have the cliche’ ‘artistic control’ put in the contract and if so, is it worth a damn?

    • September 8, 2011 at 1:45 pm

      One writer who truly pulled this off was John Irving with “Hotel New Hampshire” (I think I’m remembering this right.) Would love to hear his story on that. He hung tough and made it work.

  13. Nancy Nigrosh
    September 7, 2011 at 8:39 pm

    You know where I stand on this issue, Steven.
    ONE writer under G-d, residually indivisible,
    with liberty and justice for all who toil and scriven to the point of
    carpal exhaustian with numbness so intense it seriously inhibits
    quality of life… Skip’s allusiion to the council of Nicaea resonates…would that th WGA looked at the dogmatic canon and revised it in accordance with universal law and we could all bath in the healing waters of forgiveness. I hazard to guess that Marcus Goodrich, wherever he may be, is smiling large at todays’ blog.

  14. September 8, 2011 at 12:59 pm
  15. September 11, 2011 at 12:24 am

    Wow, marvelous blog layout! How long have you been blogging for? you made blogging look easy. The overall look of your website is great, as well as the content!

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  17. June Stoddard
    April 14, 2012 at 4:24 pm

    Steven,
    Thank you for this. Sorry it took me so long to find it. I appreciate your empathy for what David went through. I think this is why some writers take less money for more control and frequently become directors as well. Yes, this did break his heart. I still have much of his work, a few are still out there being packaged. We’ll see. Hard to get my hopes up in this town. He lived for his twin daughters and reveled in writing two novels, more screenplays, playing classical piano, and creating a body of photographic work prior to his death at age 54. Way too soon. He burned brightly.
    Thank you,
    June
    PS feel free to get in touch. I never saw those other 10 drafts, just heard about them.

  18. ivan
    June 9, 2012 at 3:36 pm

    sounds like that film” hard rain” with cristian slater