I Was an A-List Writer of B-List Productions
Reflections on a career writing made-for-TV movies.
I can’t remember what ending we finally tacked onto it when we sent it off to an agent we had met, but I do remember being on the phone a few days afterward and—in that era before call waiting—hearing the operator break into the conversation and declare she must put through an emergency call. It was the agent announcing the news that the script had been sold to the brand-new theatrical wing of CBS and that Sydney Pollack—whose most recent movie had been the blockbuster comedy Tootsie—was attached to direct it.
First class flights to Los Angeles, rooms at the Miramar Sheraton, Larry’s speculations about how maybe we ought to buy a six-story office building that was for sale in downtown Austin because we would need a place to work. ... Our life as the hottest new screenwriters in Hollywood didn’t all come crashing down exactly, but it did become clear in our meetings with Pollack that we had been the beneficiaries of beginner’s luck and had no idea how to really write a screenplay. He wanted to know things like where the end of Act 2 was and what the character’s arc was. We didn’t know characters were supposed to have arcs, we didn’t know scripts were supposed to have acts, and in our guileless delight at having hit the big-time we certainly didn’t know that the leading impediment to this project ever getting made would be our continued participation in it.
Moonwalker—that was the movie’s name before Michael Jackson appropriated the title for his 1988 feature-length music video—never made it to the screen. It was the first of maybe 30 projects over the years for which I was duly paid but never had the satisfaction, or just as likely the horror, of seeing produced. Retitled Ocean of Storms, it was written and rewritten by other writers, bought and sold by other studios or producers, attached and unattached to other directors. The last I heard, Warren Beatty still owned it. If it’s still in development somewhere, it has the distinction of having outlasted the space shuttle program.
Larry and I wrote several more scripts together, including a comedy for Jane Fonda that did not make her laugh, but none of them were produced either and we were still too green to realize what was wrong with them or to have any real point of entry into understanding how the movie business worked. No doubt it would have helped our careers to move to Los Angeles, but something kept me from going all in. I still wanted to be a book writer more than a movie writer, and I was cautious about uprooting my family, especially since I was becoming painfully aware that the progression from “Hollywood screenwriter” to “failed Hollywood screenwriter” could be alarmingly seamless.
As the movie industry’s indifference to us mounted, the once-hot screenwriting team of Harrigan and Wright (or Wright and Harrigan—not sure we ever settled that) slunk back into the business of just-prose. But we each still dreamed and dabbled a bit on our own. Larry would eventually go on to write The Siege, the sadly prophetic 1998 Denzel Washington thriller about a terrorist attack in Manhattan. I first saw my name on a screen six years before that, when a script of mine was finally made for television by HBO.
The Last of His Tribe was the true (well, true enough) story of Ishi, the sole surviving member of the persecuted Yahi tribe of Northern California, who ended his days as a kind of living exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Anthropology. Graham Greene was cast as Ishi and Jon Voight as Alfred Kroeber, the anthropologist who both shelters him and unthinkingly exploits him. I had my own chair on the set, with my name embroidered into it, a courtesy of rank I was soon to discover was a whopping anomaly for a screenwriter.
I had already written the script so there was nothing for me to do on the set except sit in my special chair and eat red licorice from the craft services table while everyone around me was in urgent motion, often miserably trying to achieve some effect that I had thoughtlessly set down in my screen directions. “A raven lands on a rock” had cost me only a few keystrokes, but that mindless literary flourish translated into thousands of dollars of precious production time as a frustrated raven “wrangler” tried in take after take to make his trained bird hit its mark.
It began to dawn on me during the production of that movie that as much as I yearned to be part of the team, my real role was going to be that of lonely outlier. Screenwriters are less like actual filmmakers than like wedding planners: we work for months or even years making sure everything is ready, every detail is in place, but in the end it’s just not our party.
The Last of His Tribe set a bar for mild cable television success that I could never quite vault over. When I think back on that script today its rookie limitations are glaring. It was a fluently written and well-constructed story, but it was full of the very clichés I thought at the time I was cleverly avoiding. (Emotionally closed-up scientist taught how to be fully human by saintly Indian—did I really go there?)
Nevertheless, I assumed I would climb inexorably to the next rung of the Hollywood ladder, that I would now write movies that would premiere not on television but in actual theaters, with popcorn and coming attractions. But few feature assignments came my way, and gradually word came down to me from my agent that I was lacking an edge. Nobody in the movie business can really explain what an edge is, but it is understood that to be without one is the direst of all creative assessments. It means that you are a mild-mannered craftsman who was put on earth to write, not Lawrence of Arabia, not Taxi Driver, not The Dark Knight, but perhaps a “very special” installment of Hallmark Hall of Fame.
Stephen Harrigan's latest novel, Remember Ben Clayton, was published by Knopf in 2011 and recently issued in paperback by Vintage. This essay will appear in his collection The Eye of the Mammoth: New and Selected Essays,
to be published in spring 2013 by the University of Texas Press.