Archive for the ‘Hollywood’ Category

I’ve seen a number of movies the last couple of years that end with one of the main characters sitting at a table, behind a huge pile of brand new hardback books, while a line of eager young men and alluring young women wait for a personally signed copy of their very own. It seems that the book signing has become a movie payoff moment, like birth, marriage, death, and loss of virginity. 

In truth, most writers claim they hate book signings, book readings, and book tours. Personally, I get a kick out of them. I wrote every day for twenty years before I met another writer. I don’t even recall talking to a reader. So, it’s fun once every couple of years to meet people who are interested in the same things I’m interested in.

Now, I have the Jackson Hole Writers Conference (send a Message if you might want to come. It’s an inspirational hoot) but before that, all I had was the occasional book tour. I lived in a hovel, back then, and I still carry my food stamp card at all times to keep myself humble, so sleeping in high-end hotels and eating without regard to costs made me feel like a kid playing dress-up. There was the fear of my mom bursting into a reading and shouting, “Tim, you are a fraud.”

Mostly they’re entertaining but even when the worst that can possibly go wrong goes wrong — no one shows up, the store has no books, someone hoists their unpublished memoir of growing up in a dysfunctional family on you — the traveling author goes back to the hotel room to watch pay per view over a mini-bar cocktail party. 

Book tours come in two sorts, with variations. The categories are air and car. When Honey Don’t came out I flew fourteen times in sixteen days, media escorts in each city, no entourage, no groupies. As a contrast, after Sorrow Floats was published I spent eight weeks driving around America, passing out t-shirts and reading the same chapter over and over. I gained twenty pounds.

I’ve learned better now. Garrison Keillor says the worst thing that can happen at a reading is for someone to read. I’ve watched the old pros — Chris Moore comes to mind — and most of them have worked up an act. They read less than three minutes out of thirty. I’ve heard Chuck Palahniuk sometimes throws body parts at the audience.

I used to think the media escort was purely an ego massage provided by the publishers to make us writers feel pampered, until I got one. A good media escort will help an author hit fifteen bookstores in an afternoon. These are called drive-by signings. You sign stock and tell the booksellers you can’t live without them. I do love people who sell books.

If you go on tour, I would advise against behaving like a jerk. The media escorts gossip. First, they tell you they aren’t supposed to talk about other writers, then, with a minimum of prodding, they dish the dirt — the women who meet up with extracurricular boyfriends, the men who drink themselves into a coma and refuse to leave the escort’s car. Jeffrey Archer is a legend for his bad behavior. He insists every escort address him as Lord Archer. Next most arrogant, rude, and demanding are the editors from the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. Think about that.

While it’s cool to meet fans who know my books better than I do and think I’m okay, every tour has at least one moment of crushing humiliation. Try driving 1,800 miles to Davis Kidd in Nashville and arriving to find out the events guy is off today, no one has ever heard of you, and no one can locate any of your books. I went to a Barnes and Noble in Kansas City and shyly said to the pretty girl at the information desk, “I’m Tim Sandlin. I’m supposed to be here tonight.” She disappeared for ten minutes and came back and handed me a job application.

I had a huge crowd, by my standards, at the old Hungry Mind in St. Paul. Halfway through the reading a bus pulled up and everyone but my wife and one other guy got up and left. Turned out they were an English as a Second Language group learning about American culture by attending my reading. (If you’ve read my books, you may find that appalling.) the bus came and they left. 

George Singleton ended a book tour in jail. He badmouthed George Bush on a Mississippi radio station and they busted his ass. The actual charge was being drunk and saying fuck on the air, but he claims he was arrested for trashing Bush in Mississippi.

Wherever two or more writers come together, they inevitably trade book tour horror stories. The worst (or best, depending on your attitude) story I’ve heard was told by Nancy Pearl. She’s the model for the librarian action figure, you may have seen. Has a TV show in Seattle where she interviews writers. She told me about a Canadian writer named Ian McSomethingoranother (this would be a better anecdote if I could remember his name). Anyway, no one showed up for Ian’s reading, which is okay when you’re not in your own hometown. Better than one or two coming because then you have to go through the motions while shoppers look at you with pity in their eyes. 

But the bookstore owner wouldn’t let Ian leave. She hustled around the store, begging customers to listen to the reading and finally one old guy who looked like he’d come into the store to get warm agreed to sit on the first row. 

Ian started the reading. His audience leaned forward, fell out of his chair and died. Repercussions were about what you would expect.


Read Full Post »


Four winters ago, toward the end of my Hollywood period, my wife Carol, Leila, and I house-sat for the woman who directed Skipped Parts: the movie. She and her husband had this monster truck of a house that the Welch family of Welches Grape Juice and Jelly built under the Griffith Observatory there in Griffith Park. The Welches planted grapevines all over the mountain that is now an upscale L.A. neighborhood. The house had six marble staircases, a veritable nightmare for a couple with a two-year-old daughter. More than once I called Carol on the cell phone because I couldn’t find her, even though I knew she was somewhere in the house.

Tamra, the director, who is wonderful in every way, is married to a nice guy named Michael Diamond who is in a band called the Beastie Boys. They had some interesting friends, coming in and out of the house. On their son’s birthday, Michael, whose friends call him Mickey D., played disc jockey all afternoon while the kids yelled and ran through the garden and down by the pool. I wasn’t familiar with any of the songs he played. They were all on vinyl record albums.

Normally, it would be bad form for a house-sitter to mention this stuff, but they have since moved, so I think it’s okay now. I enjoyed the winter, in spite of the constant struggle to keep Leila from tumbling down steps. They had a screening room where we watched eight-foot tall Telly Tubbies dance and fall down backwards. Imagine that.

. . telletubs.jpg

But this blog is not about house-sitting; it’s about fan mail. You see, street kids in L.A. stand on the corners of major intersections selling these things called Star Maps. Tourists buy them and drive around Hollywood, looking for the houses where their favorite movie stars live. So far as I know, the Star Map addresses are wrong. For instance, they gave the address where we were staying as belonging to Brad Pitt. This was back when he was still with Jennifer Aniston, so far as anyone knew.

Later, I asked Tamra and neither Brad Pitt nor Jennifer Aniston had ever lived there. Neither had ever visited the house or lived nearby, but this didn’t stop a daily dribble of cars from driving by the front gate while tourists craned their necks and sometimes even touched our mailbox. Once or twice a week, an airplane or helicopter swooped over the pool and some pushy type leaned out to take my daughter’s photograph.

Once we got past the fear of a nutcase fame-chaser climbing over the fence, we weren’t bothered by the gawkers. Heck, we probably would have had tourists anyway, if they’d known it was a Beastie Boy house.

But the thing was — the mail. Brad and Jennifer got a lot of mail. Someone must have posted the address on the internet. It tapered off later, but the first few weeks brought ten or twenty letters a day. I guess if I’d known where Brad lived I could have boxed up his mail and taken it to him. It would have made a nice icebreaker with Jennifer. But I didn’t know and I don’t think they wanted the mail anyway, so I did what any other normal American would do with a pile of unsolicited mail addressed to Brad Pitt — I opened it.

Not all of it, of course. I had better things to do, like watching eight-foot tall Telly Tubbies jump out of holes in artificial turf. But I opened enough to get the general drift.

I used to receive fan mail myself. Nothing like Brad and Jennifer, mind you, but enough to establish a pattern. Very few were scary. Most of the writers said they enjoyed my books and I should keep writing. Sometimes, guys who’d recently lost girlfriends would get drunk and write these two a.m. twelve-page rave-ons, putting down all the pain they would never dump on their friends. A surprising number of girls wrote to tell me how their boyfriends were in bed.

“I don’t much like him and I would break up with him but he’s so good at . . . ” and then they would describe a procedure I’m not sure is physically possible.

A number of letters started out, “I always wanted to write Such-and-So but then he died, so I decided I should write you before you die.” My not dying years ago seems to have gratified many readers.

Very rarely, someone would say, “I’ve had such an interesting life, everyone tells me I should be a writer. How about if I tell you my story and you type it up and we’ll split the money.” These letters tended to come from guys in prison. My theory is Sex and Sunsets was one of the few hardbacks with Sex in the title, so it sold well in prison libraries. Whatever the cause, I used to be the swamp where prison mail went to die.

Nowdays, I don’t get much post office reader mail. It comes in over MySpace or the Timsandlin.com guest book. I enjoy hearing from readers, although the occasional angry person can be trying. I got a message the other day from a man who said he would have been a best-selling author if he lowered himself to writing sex scenes, the way I do. Humorous fiction brings out the hate in people.

But enough about me, let’s get back to Brad Pitt: Before I grew bored and quit reading his mail, I probably opened twenty letters and not one followed the drift that I get in my mail. No one said, “I like your work,” or “Congratulations, Brad!” or even “I wanted to write you before you died…” Every letter to Brad wanted something from him.

They wanted him to read their script. They wanted him to get them a job as a producer. They wanted him to introduce them to Jennifer Lopez. A lot of them started out, “You’ve had luck and I’ve never had luck and I deserve to be as famous as you, therefore you owe me . . .” So on. So forth. A bunch came at once demanding that he stop smoking on screen. It must have been a campaign because those all hit in one week, then stopped. Any number of the letter writers simply wanted money. Postal spare-change artists.

So, here are the morals to my story: First, don’t write Brad Pitt, asking him to do something for you- The address is wrong. Second, don’t write the federal government and tell them I opened Brad’s mail. I will deny it. Third, don’t write me, asking me to stop smoking on screen. I don’t smoke and I’m not on anyone’s screen. Fourth, don’t go looking for any Beastie Boys over by Griffith Park. They moved. Fifth, don’t send me a CD and ask me to forward it to Mickey D. I don’t know him that well. I was his house-sitter, for Chrissake.

I can’t think of a sixth.

Read Full Post »

Did you ever wonder why certain mid-major to major studios seem to receive so many more Oscar nominations than others? The answer in some, if not a lot, of cases is that they pay for them. Not directly, of course. The people who run the Oscars are complete paranoids when it comes to bribing voters. No holiday gift baskets. No trips to Vegas at studio expense. Heck, for a while there they even vetoed the free DVD of the movie. Now, at least you get a free movie so long as you don’t copy it or loan it out or upload it onto any known electrical device. Screwing up is punishable by imprisonment and loss of Beverly Hills lunch privileges.

No, Oscar voters cannot be bribed. Golden Globe voters can. It is perfectly within the rules to fly a Golden Globe voter to Paris and ply him with Grand Marnier and wild French women. It’s done every year because Golden Glove winners don’t necessarily win Oscars, but they do, more often than not, win Oscar nominations.

The Golden Globe gatekeepers wield the same power in movies that Iowa and New Hampshire wield in Presidential politics. You have to win there to go on to the next level. And it’s so much cheaper to buy your way into a Golden Globe than an Oscar. The Golden Globe voters are made up of ninety foreign journalists — photographers, mostly, and we all know about entertainment industry photographer ethics — who have places to live in Southern California. Ninety voters. An Oscar campaign costs millions of dollars, while ninety journalists can be bought by ninety bottles of scotch.

How do I, a small-town former dishwasher, former screenwriter, presently happy-go-lucky novelist from Wyoming, know this information? For one thing, it’s not that hard to figure out. Take Pia Zadora, as an example. Yes, the same Pia Zadora whose most famous movie was “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.” Pia won her Golden Globe for a movie called “Butterfly.” Write me if you’ve seen it. I haven’t, but I’ve been told it doesn’t hold a candle to “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.” But then Pia’s husband flew all ninety Golden Globe voters to Vegas for a weekend of revelry.

Surprise! She won!

My theory was confirmed by an actor who won a Golden Globe himself, so his opinion is not likely to be sour grapes. For the blog’s sake, we’ll call him Paul Hogan. Paul played Shane in a movie I wrote, although, sad to say, the movie itself wasn’t called “Shane.” The movie, which should have been “Sorrow Floats” was entitled “Floating Away.” That’s because “Hope Floats” came out right before “Sorrow Floats” and Rosanna Arquette was in both of them, and the producer, Showtime, thought the public would get mixed up.

The public did get mixed up. I receive frequent compliments for writing “Hope Floats,” a movie I didn’t write. I rarely receive compliments for writing “Floating Away.”

As an interesting aside, the guy who did write “Hope Floats” was represented by the same agency that represented me. My belief is he saw the title on his agent’s bookshelf — they all had a copy back then — and he sublimated. I’m certain he didn’t steal, and I mean that without irony, even though I don’t know the guy.

You may wonder how the title “Floating Away” was chosen. The fine folks at Showtime set up a table on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, where they handed anyone who would take it a list of five possible titles. I wasn’t told the losers. But, the title of my movie — the movie I spent five years working on — was chosen by a committee of vagrant pedestrians with nothing else to do but fill out opinion polls. We were right next to the Pepsi versus Coke blind taste test booth.

Another tidbit you might find interesting: In lists of the most powerful people in Hollywood, you never hear about the psychics. Here’s some advice for you low budget filmmakers. Bribe a psychic. You want a big star in a cheap movie, find out which Hollywood Swami-type is calling his shots. A huge percentage of the creative talent uses psychics. The whole business of who is a star and who isn’t is such a mystery, and successful actors, directors, producers, and studio heads have no idea how they made it happen, so on top of being neurotic, they’re superstitious as hell. A lot of cash goes down the fortune-telling tubes in California in the name of career advice.

There’s big money in mysticism in Hollywood. The actresses refer each other to the psychics with the reputations, and, if you’re on the list, you’re in Fat City. Look at what happened with Tom Cruise and Scientology, or Madonna with her Kabbala. I’d like to set myself up as the Gnostic prophet. Any of you creative types want to know what to do next, send me your question accompanied by a small check. One thing I do know is what you should do next. I’m good at that.

Read Full Post »

Let’s say you’re hanging out in the campus Starbucks with a bunch of MFA students. You know the kind. The girls order their coffee decaf triple venti three Splenda extra hot stirred no-foam with double whipped cream and extra caramel. The guys call a movie a film. Some twit will jump down your throat if you use “party” as a verb. And these intellectuals (you can’t say pseudo-intellectual without being one) break out in a limerick reciting contest.

What you can do, after you’ve read this blog, is show them up by reciting the original limerick. Not only the first but also the most famous, it has nothing to do with Nantucket or Terlingua.

Here is God’s Own limerick.

Our Father who art in heaven
Hallowed be thy name
Thy kingdom come
Thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.

Some dork will call you on the rhyme of the second line, but limericks are defined more by rhythm than rhyme scheme. Tell them when Jesus first created the poem in whatever form of Hebrew they spoke back then, that “name” and “heaven” rhymed. Not many can prove you wrong there.

Whoever actually did translate the prayer for the King James version must have done it limerick form on purpose. You don’t just fall into that 8-6-4-4-8 beat thing by accident. Maybe the old monk or whoever it was had been drinking with Irishmen who started conversations with, “There once was a girl from Regina.”

I heard a guy at Pearl Street Bagels tell this nice looking girl that Jesus spoke Yiddish. She said that wasn’t true, that her Jesus was a Southern Baptist and none of them talked in Yiddish at all.

I seem to be on strike. I went down to the Cowboy Bar looking for someone to picket, but they weren’t shooting any movies, so I left. People say this Hollywood drama is like pro football players striking— millionaires trying to cut other millionaires out of the cut — but I disagree. Writers of TV and movies are being shafted by the non-creative types at the top, who have been somewhat Draconian in this deal. As the saying out there goes for writers: “You can make a killing, but you can’t make a living.”

There’s also an old Polish/blonde/North Dakota/fill-in-the-blank joke about the woman who went to a movie set and she wanted to get ahead so she slept with the writer.

I’m on page 300 of the fourth book of the GroVont trilogy. For those of you who haven’t read the story so far, the first three books take place in 1963, 1973, and 1983. At the end of the 1983 book, Sam Callahan’s mother, Lydia, went into hiding after the Secret Service discovered she’d Fed Exxed a poison chew toy to President Reagan’s dog.

Now, in 1993, Lydia has been let out of prison. Her community service requirement entails taping an oral history of a 100-year-old codger named Oly Pedersen, who appeared in a paragraph or two of each of the other three books.

Did you follow that?

I’ve been searching for a title for a couple of years. At first it was “Oly and Lydia,” but that then Garrison Keillor started telling Oly and Lena jokes on his show and I gave it up. Then it was GroVont IV. I hate movie sequels that use numbers because no one involved was creative enough to come up with a name, so I threw that out. Then I read about this experiment where they hooked people up to a lie detector machine and read them lists of words, and the two words that caused the greatest emotional response were “Mother” and “Blood.” So, naturally, I named the book “Mother’s Blood.” My editor didn’t like it. He said a book with that title would not announce itself as a comedy. He said, “Mother’s Blood is dark.” Even though that was a straight line for the ages, I had to walk away.

So — drum roll. The new title of the new novel: “A Clean Catch.”

I can hear you now. “I don’t get it.” For some, the reference may not be obvious. “Clean catch” is a term used by people who are explaining the proper way to give a urine sample. Basically, you whiz two seconds, stop, position the cup, start again, and stop before overflow. This procedure can either be medical or legal. Everywhere you go these days, someone wants your pee.

Anyway, I told my good friend and internet guru (drop him a line if you need a web page designed) Curt the new title and here’s what he wrote back.

“To me the stream is a person. You start off full blast with a big hole to shoot for, but as time goes by, you come to a point where you suddenly have to stop and aim for the cup (society), without dripping, missing, or overflowing. Or the huge hole becomes a tiny cup whether you want it to or not. My dad’s simplification was ‘Piss on it.’ ”

Both of these explanations are brilliant. It’s like when a high school kid writes a paper on your novel and finds all kinds of symbols, metaphors, and motifs you never dreamed of. After you read the paper, you say, “Yeah. That’s what I meant. I just didn’t know it at the time.”

So, all you Blog Commenters — and you know who you are — this is a challenge. I’d like to hear your interpretation of the metaphor behind a novel entitled “A Clean Catch.” Go wild (although keep it short. The rest of us have to read these things).

Years from now, after the strike ends, when I’m interviewed on “The View” and one of those vibrant women says, “Tell us the meaning of the title,” I may go into your very own rap, and you can e-mail your friends and loved ones and say, “Tim stole that metaphor from me.”

How about this: If the title stays till publication, I’ll put the best one you guys come up with in the Acknowledgments. It can’t get more exciting than that.

Read Full Post »

I couldn’t sleep last night. I got to worrying about why ravel and unravel mean the same thing. What’s that all about? And why cleave is its own opposite. About three in the morning it hit me that if a semi-truck has 18 wheels, a whole truck must have 36. That’s the kind of thing that kills us literary types.

Onward through the fog. Or blog.

Attitude is language. Which means we are not only what we say but how we say it. Here is all you need to know about the difference between publishing novels and writing movies.

In publishing, if an editor doesn’t want your work, they send you a rejection letter. Rejection is the key word for New Yorkers. Editors like to look at writers from the point of view of Cotton Mather’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon, and they are God. Once misspelled word, or a margin too narrow or too wide, and they not only ship you a rejection slip, but a form rejection slip.

Compare rejection to how Hollywood turns you down. The producer who doesn’t want your work will say, “This is the best first draft I’ve read all year, buy I’m afraid I have to pass.” Isn’t passing so much softer than rejecting? It’s also sneakier because it leaves the door open for coming back, as in “I’ll pass on those pork chops but I may take you up on it later.”

And when they do pass, they do it by sending an e-mail to your agent. Down at the bottom of the e-mail are letters CF/rb, or whatever, indicating who said it and who typed it. But below that, at the very bottom, you’ll find this cryptic sentence:

Dictated but not read.

That means whoever said it said it but they reserve the right of denial, if it goes to court or their job is on the line. Isn’t that sneaky?

Actually, you’re lucky to get a Pass in Hollywood. Mostly what you’ll get is silence. People out there hate to say “No.” It might be awkward and awkwardness is not tolerated. Stars never say “No.” You send them the script and if they like it they say, “Maybe, depends on the money,” but if they don’t like it, eight phones calls, twelve e-mails and four months later your agent’s assistant lets it slip, “Too bad that didn’t work out with the star.”

“First I’ve heard it didn’t.”

“Oh, they passed a couple months ago.” This always comes from the assistant, never the agent. No agent who wants to stay alive in that town will tell a client anything the client doesn’t want to hear.

And then here’s what happens more often than could be statistically random. A friend of yours at a hummus and pita bread party will be standing next to your star and your friend will say, “Too bad you passed on Such-and-So’s script. You would have been great for the part.” And the star will say, “What script? I didn’t see any script,” which means either the star, his agent, or your agent, or all three, are lying through their teeth.

You’ll never know for sure, but the odds run to his agent. Agents love to protect their clients from artsy character-driven passion projects by turning them down without telling the star the offer existed. Nothing an agent hates more than a client taking on a project for some reason other than big bucks. Better to keep him mindless tentpoles.

Or maybe your own agent didn’t want to tell you the famous actor will never in this lifetime play in your cross-dressing musical and he told you he submitted it but instead he stuck it in a file cabinet for three months before telling his assistant to leak it to you that the star loves the script but it’s not for him.

Or maybe the star is lying.

If you plan to work in the movie business you must accept that everyone lies and it’s normal behavior and your job is to figure out what they really mean. They don’t even know they are lying. They think they’re speaking in a code (which we will discuss in a future blog) and, if you’re a professional you will be able to translate the truth. For instance, in that earlier statement, “This is the best first draft I’ve read all year,” the only part of that you need to hear is “first draft.” That means if they take it you’ll be doing rewrites on your death bed.

Richard Price once said, “Thank you, in Hollywood, means you’re fired.” It my experience, the studios said “Thank you,” but the producers said nothing. Remember when your first girlfriend broke up with you in high school? You talk on the phone every day for a few months and then it stops. No Goodbye. No thanks for the memories. If you throw a wall-eyed cat fit she has her best friend tell you you’re being shallow. That’s how it is with producers. One day you call them and their assistant says he’ll call back in ten minutes and that’s the end.

Your progression should be idealism to cynicism to acceptance. Otherwise, the business will destroy you.

Here’s an example of Hollywood and language. Early in my career, an actor — we’ll call him Tom Skerritt — hired me to adapt an unpublished novel. Mind you, I never talked to Tom in person. That isn’t done. I talked to his son the producer who said Tom wanted the script aimed at sixteen year olds. He also said when the movie came out he and I would share screenwriter credit. I was so green at the time, I didn’t realize a producer taking half the credit for a script he didn’t write is as ethical as parking in a handicapped zone and as legal as gunning down a Git Shit clerk.

Anyway, I wrote for four months, turned in the script, waited a few more months, then I called the son who said, “I misheard Dad. He wanted the script aimed at sixty year olds.”

He hung up and that was that. I was out four months of my life and they were out a fairly large chunk of money, because Tom said “Sixty” and the son heard “Sixteen.”

Or maybe he didn’t. Maybe it was a case of Dictated but not read.

Read Full Post »

Friday night I drank a glass of red wine and Saturday morning I woke up with the stigmata. Not full blown stations-of-the-cross stigmata, I grant you, but I had big red blisters at the base of both my palms.

For those of you not familiar with the term, stigmata is a Catholic thing where beatific vision types bleed from the spots where Christ got himself nailed. It’s considered a miracle, if you are devout, and if you pull off three miracles you qualify for sainthood. For those of us who aren’t devout, it’s a reaction to the histamines in red wine. Francis of Assissi had it. Catherine of Siena didn’t bleed any more than me. These saints with stigmata were all from France and Italy, as far as I know. They probably drank a lot more than one glass of red wine, so it’s no wonder their blisters broke.

Elmore Leonard wrote a fine book about a non-Catholic with the stigmata. His characters made a big deal out of it. The hero was so sensitive a high-quality woman fell in love with him. Nobody genuflects when I bleed. My wife feeds me an antihistamine and tells me to drink white next time.

But then my stigmata doesn’t stream down my wrists. Maybe I should drink more.

I used to drink more. From 1977 to 1987, or so, I got drunk six nights a week. The drink itself changed every few years, but it was never red wine. Like all good hippies, I made the transition from drugs to alcohol by way of tequila. Anyone who’s ever snorted a dark powder only to find out he has Maxwell House Instant crystals up his nose — another mistake I’ve made — will tell you don’t buff the stuff, so I started on straight, pure shots with a lemon chaser. Slowly, I worked my way through sunrises and bloody Marias, although I never sank so low as the yuppie margarita. From tequila, I went on to whiskey. I always figured I wasn’t a true drunk because I avoided scotch.

I did waste a year or two on Grand Marnier. I was working in a terrible Italian restaurant — “Nobody Eats Here Twice” — that closed at midnight and every night at ten I chugged a coffee cup full of Grand Marnier. If tequila is the missing link between booze and mescaline, Grand Marnier is the Quaaludes of the alcohol kingdom. Taken in large quantities, it’s a rank concoction. These days, I put a dollop in pancake batter, but that’s my limit.

I ended my run on Jim Beam with a splash. Bars in Wyoming closed at ten on Sundays, back then, and the band didn’t play that night, which means I didn’t dance, which means I didn’t drink on Sunday. I can’t remember what I did do. Movies, maybe.

I finally quit after I married an alcoholic and saw what a stupid maneuver self-destruction is. The world over people argue about which is worse: being an alcoholic or being married to an alcoholic. To me, that’s like choosing between death by cancer or emphysema. It’s more academic than practical.

Emily is dead now, which is a drag. I’m not shooting for false pity here. I hadn’t seen or heard from her in fifteen years when she died. Her niece, who didn’t know who I was when she first sent messages to my web site and only a couple years later discovered I used to be married to her aunt, told me the news. One more weird irony in the life of a writer.

My doctor told me more alcoholics die from lung problems than liver or heart disease, because most alcoholics smoke and the cigarettes kill them before the alcohol. I think that’s what happened to Emily, but I’m not sure. She got pneumonia. I’ve found cigarette and alcohol addicts often die before they have to because they’re afraid of doctors and hospitals. Being sick is bad enough without withdrawal, so they put off seeking help way later than the rest of us would.

Here’s a tip you won’t find in the standard writing manual. Recovering alcoholics should never go on a book tour. It is almost impossible to spend six or eight weeks flying around, sleeping somewhere new every night, living though hours of boredom between moments of exposing yourself to strangers, without resorting to mood enhancement. It’s the only time I drink more than one glass of wine a month. I can name more than one writer whose tour ended in rehab.

The only novelist I know personally who can pull the totally drink-free book tour off is Chris Moore. Chris has the self-discipline and willpower of a Samurai. When you’re on the road, the publisher pays for everything. An ex-professional dishwasher and spare change artist like me tends to wallow in hog heaven, to the point where I gained fifteen pounds on the Sorrow Floats tour. Chris, when faced with the endless possibilities of dinner on someone else’s tab, chooses Caesar salad.
Imagine that.

Read Full Post »

I’ve heard that there is a man in Easley, South Carolina, who believes Karl Rove quit for the reason he said he quit (to spend more time with his family). I’m trying to track down the rumor, but so far is appears to be one of those urban legends, like the honest Jacuzzi salesman. Wouldn’t it be funny if, after all this time, right at the end of his job, Karl were to make a statement that wasn’t a lie?
Meanwhile, let us continue with the inside dish on screenwriting. To those of you actively working in Hollywood, this will be old hat. The rest, however, might find entertainment value.
Some of you may have said to yourself, “I can’t write my way out of a legal pad, but I have hundreds of great ideas. How can I hustle my way onto the screenwriter A list and get a million dollar advance for a script I can’t write?” To be frank, it’s fairly easy.
Here’s how many of the movies you see are created: Executives and producers go on ScreenwriterOnline@screenwriter.com, they keep an eye on the hundreds of contests, they read student work or stuff written by the nephew of their Provigil connection — somehow, some way, they find a script with an idea buried deep down on page 65. They make their assistants write up coverage and they use the coverage to get the development person who controls the cash flow to cough up some money, then they option or buy the script. Some of these scripts are good; some are bad. It doesn’t matter one iota. Until a screenwriter with credentials rewrites the script, no one in a position to actually move the movie forward will read it.
I have honestly, no kidding or exaggerating, heard a Touchstone executive say, “This is the best script I’ve read in a year. Who can we get to rewrite it?”
At this point, whoever owns the script puts out the word to agents around town, “We need a writer.” Eight or ten writers are brought in to pitch their version of the story. Sometimes those writers are given the original script, but often all I got was coverage. Most of these eight or ten (twelve to fifteen, if we’re talking Dreamworks) don’t stand a chance in holy hell of getting the job. The development guys just want ideas they can use in meetings later. But the dream is your pitch will blow them away and you’ll get a deal. I found, roughly, I landed one of every eight pitches. It’s like gambling. You invest four or five days or your precious time and usually it’s a bust, but when you hit, the payout is amazing.
(Interesting aside. In one of the Touchstone pitches, with the company who made the Mighty Ducks movies, my agent’s assistant called the producer’s assistant and said, “What do they want to hear?” The producer’s assistant told my agent’s assistant exactly what they were looking for, the agent’s assistant told me, I went into the meeting and spewed their own ideas back to them. They said, “You are the writer we’ve been looking for,” and I got the job.)
Columbia is especially known for paying low six figures for screenplays that are worse than anything any of my students ever turned in. But since no one (okay two people, maybe three) read the original script, the original script writer may ride this thing all the way to the Oscars and beyond without being found out as illiterate.
So then the writer for hire is paid to write two drafts and a polish, which, in reality, means six drafts, if you’re lucky. Then, a second writer is brought on and so forth for so long that after a few years the studio has so much invested in the project they have to make the movie.
Example: I read what was labeled Draft Four of Runaway Bride over ten years before the movie was made. It had nothing, except the opening before the credits, in common with the final version. A vice-president for Jerry Weintraub Productions told me the average Warner Brothers project has been in development for thirteen years when it is made. He was bemoaning the fact that after thirteen years, they were going into production on a sequel without a script. All the actors from the original had a window of time, so script or no script, they were going to spend 120 million making a movie.
I got sidetracked, as usual. Where were we? Okay, your movie gets made. WGA is brought in to decide on the credits. The one who came up with the characters and situations — you — gets at least a story credit, probably screenwriter credit. The next to last writer usually gets credit (the very last was nothing but a polish by a script doctor) and everyone else is cut out. Multiple writers or writing teams does not mean each one builds on the work of those that came before. Shared credit means shared production bonus. Leaving a line from some prior script in your version can literally cost you a hundred thousand dollars. No line is worth that much.
So, ten to fifteen years after you wrote this embarrassing piece of crap in film school, the movie comes out with your name on it as the writer. If the movie makes a bunch of money, you find yourself suddenly on the A list. Offers of million dollar advances flow in, only no one knows you can’t spell sic. You can’t write a sentence. You can’t create a character. What are you going to do now?

This scenario is not an aberration. It is business as usual out there in la-la land. Not all movies are made this way and, in fact, very few good ones are. But this, or something close to it, happens every day.
Here is why. And why I write novels instead of movies. In novels, the writer owns the copyright. In movies, whoever pays for the script owns the copyright. Big difference. Every day in Hollywood, people who have given two years of their lives to a movie are thrown off the project. Sometimes, it is the writer, something the original producer or director. You can almost always tell when a project is about to go because someone gets their heart broken.

p.s. Ten minutes ago, the page proofs of Rowdy in Paris showed up at my door. So there probably won’t be any new blogs for a week. Those of you who find yourselves bored to distraction, can reread the old ones.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »