I Was an A-List Writer of B-List Productions
Reflections on a career writing made-for-TV movies.
Maybe it was partly to advertise the edge that was visible to no one but me that I agreed to write The O.J. Simpson Story for Fox TV. This project was notorious at the time for presumably ushering in a new low for exploitative programming, since it was conceived as an almost instant TV movie, hurled into development mere days after the murders of Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman in June 1994.
The national paroxysm created by the murders of Simpson’s wife and her friend, as the prime suspect tried to make his escape in his famous white Bronco, was an out-of-nowhere phenomenon at the time, before helicopter freeway chases and wall-to-wall coverage of lurid crimes began to fill up the longeurs of 24-hour news coverage. I was as transfixed as the rest of the country, though when Robert Lovenheim—who had produced The Last of His Tribe and bestowed upon me my screenwriter’s chair—called me a few days after the Bronco chase to ask me to write the movie I thought the idea was insane. Rupert Murdoch wanted it on the air in September, less than four months away. I wasn’t sure it was possible to make a movie that fast even if there was already an approved screenplay in place. But there was no screenplay—that was what I was for. I would have something like three weeks to come up with an approach that would still be credible in the face of a daily torrent of new information, and then write a screenplay that was acceptable to the network, clearable by its army of lawyers, and palatable to me.
It wasn’t the money that made me decide to take the job. I had another offer at the time, for another project that would have paid the same. As a magazine writer, I couldn’t quite resist the crazy deadline involved, the chance to throw myself into a project that was weird and impossible and that directly addressed an urgent national obsession. And the character of O.J. had Shakespearean depth, even if the critics would eventually unite in agreeing that the screenwriter did not.
I started writing the script in late June and the movie went into production in Los Angeles in August. The average script that is made into a movie spends years in development, during which time it is rewritten at least a dozen times, usually after the original writer has been fired. So it was a novel experience to be sitting at my computer tweaking dialogue or writing entire new scenes, and to have the pages almost instantly delivered to the actors who were waiting on the set.
The movie’s air-date was postponed, not because it wasn’t ready, but because we had made it so fast that it would be broadcast before the trial even reached jury selection, thus possibly tainting the jury pool. When The O.J. Simpson Story finally aired about six months later, it was a ratings success despite being the point-blank target of a critical fusillade. I think I recall reading a positive review from some lonely TV reviewer somewhere in the Midwest, but otherwise the critics universally chose to be appalled. (“This is another of television’s scavenger productions, eager to pounce on the bare bones of any sensational story that might turn up a few gold fillings for the network bottom line.” Tut-tuts courtesy of John J. O’Connor of the New York Times.)
It felt good, a little, to be reviled; I’m not sure why. Maybe because I had spent my whole career as a writer courting critical approval, there was something liberating about working on a project for which it was unachievable. And I wasn’t ashamed of the movie. The notion of an instant drama about O.J. Simpson had never struck me as unseemly in the first place, and I still maintain that as TV movies go (a low standard, I admit) the final product was triumphantly better than average. I was particularly fond of a scene I had written that really irritated Mr. O’Connor, in which the young O.J. Simpson gets a dressing-down from none other than Willie Mays.
But my reputation as a quality writer of noble Indian movies for HBO had taken a hit, and for my penance I had to turn down various lucrative but seedy assignments that came in the wake of O.J. until I could regain my middlebrow prestige.
There was no longer much of an incentive to try to break out into features when the TV work was so steady. And in television the odds of actually getting a movie made were much greater, maybe along the lines of 10-to-1 instead of 100-to-1. The budget for a typical TV movie was much smaller, the stars were less expensive since they were either on the way up or on the way down or, like me, static inhabitants of a realm of generally low expectations.
I grew to learn not to think of myself as an author, as the creator of a stand-alone piece of writing. A screenplay is not a book, it’s not exactly a text, it’s not really even a thing. The physical form of a screenplay—120 or so pages held together by brass fasteners—is not to be taken seriously, because the script is in reality a sort of floating proposition, an ever-evolving set of instructions. The words “final draft” are eventually used, but since important changes are made all the way through the editing room, the idea of a final draft is notional. As a writer you are brutally reminded again and again that your script is not the end product; the movie is.
But that was part of the fun, knowing that my contribution was crucial but not definitive, that an unproduced screenplay, no matter how brilliant I thought it was, was just an evolutionary dead end.
And there was always real pleasure in the work itself, in setting down dialogue and screen directions against that blessed field of white space, in endlessly wrestling with plot and structure, in discussing the next draft with producers and executives, who with a few exceptions were not brain-dead Hollywood sharks but thoughtful and intelligent people.
Sometimes I encountered the thrill of literally walking into a world I had created. That happened with Beyond the Prairie: the True Story of Laura Ingalls Wilder. “Do you want to see your town?” Dori Weiss, my producer, asked when I arrived at the production office in Utah. I wasn’t quite sure what she was talking about until we got in her car and drove to the set, which was the main street of the railroad town of De Smet, S.D., circa 1881, where the author of Little House on the Prairie had lived as a girl. I had described the town in my script but somehow it had never occurred to me that it would actually be built. But here it was, real and three-dimensional, abruptly springing to life like an image in a child’s pop-up book.
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.