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July 11 2012 6:30 AM

I Was an A-List Writer of B-List Productions

Reflections on a career writing made-for-TV movies.

(Continued from Page 3)

It was even more startling to arrive in Morocco during preproduction on Cleopatra, the $30 million epic I wrote for the great Robert Halmi, Sr., the Hungarian resistance fighter, balloon pilot, and Life magazine photographer who went on to become the king of television movies and miniseries. In the Moroccan desert he had built not only ancient Alexandria but ancient Rome as well, a set so grand that one of its temples could have swallowed up all of De Smet.

That movie ended up being a tumultuous production. The original director either got fired or stomped out on his own weeks before principal photography, and a new director was hired at the last moment. The new director brought in a new writer, Anton Diether, who had done an excellent adaptation of Moby Dick a few years earlier for Halmi. This was the first time since Moonwalker I had been rewritten, but enough of my original work was left that I’m pretty sure it’s me, and not Anton, who must bear the responsibility for what has been pointed out to me as the worst line of dialogue ever uttered in a miniseries. Julius Caesar has just aided the young queen Cleopatra in crushing a rebellion in the Egyptian capital. In the battle, though, the great library of Alexandria, the repository of all the world’s wisdom and knowledge, has gone up in flames. As Cleopatra tends Caesar’s wounds, he turns to her and whispers, “I’m sorry about your library.”

I notice I’ve just written the phrase “he turns to her.” After I had been in the business for awhile, I started to grow aware of the word “turns,” and the more aware of it I grew the more determined I became to outmaneuver it. It’s the default word for the end of almost every scene: “He turns”; “She turns”; “She hesitates for a moment at the door, then turns back to face him”; “He looks away, and when he turns back to her she notices there are tears in his eyes.“ It became my personal challenge to write an entire script without anybody turning, like that guy in the 1930s who once wrote a whole novel without ever using the letter “E.” But after a while I gave up. It was too hard, maybe even impossible. People in my scripts just naturally needed to turn to each other to button up a scene, to give it a proper note of finality. Trying to write a screenplay without using “turns” was like trying to write a pop song without using “baby.”

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Other screenwriting challenges were not nearly so frivolous. Even on the most forgettable of the TV movies I worked on there was a Manhattan Project-like urgency and dedication, with sometimes a half-dozen people in the room with me throwing out ideas for how the story could be tighter, the characters clearer, the stakes higher. This was not the sort of gentleman’s editing I was used to from the book world; it was an anything-goes deconstruct-o-rama, a tribunal that was convened not just once but every time I turned in a draft.

Most of the advice from these producers and executives was reasonably on target—sometimes it was brilliant. But I discovered that good advice was something to be regarded with wariness as well as gratitude, since what seemed at first like a dazzling solution to a story problem could just as easily lead you into a trackless thicket of incoherence. Over time I learned I had to assume authority in those meetings, to be the strongest voice in the room, the one person who knew the script from the inside out.

I came to realize that the only things that really mattered in a screenplay were momentum and clarity. It was true that if you paid too much attention to the screenwriting gurus, with their how-to-write-a-screenplay books and seminars about plot points and inciting incidents and act breaks, you could end up with a script that was all skeleton and no heart. Sometimes you had to forget the rules even as you were slavishly following them, to give yourself a little room to improvise and explore. But the gurus had a consistent and undeniable point: The real writing was in the structure. Glittering dialogue meant nothing if it did not directly advance the plot, paragraphs of elegant screen description were merely ornamental obstructions that busy readers would impatiently skip over. Subtlety was too much like vagueness, and in a script nothing vague can survive.

You had to search and search until you found a story’s irreducible thread: a man on the run from a killer, a young girl growing into a woman, a victim seeking revenge. If the movie was about one thing, it could be about many things. But if you started out determined to make it about many things, it would be about nothing.

Over the decades I wrote about 40 movies on assignment, 13 or 14 of which were produced. Some of the movies were well reviewed, some were successful in the ratings, a few were both. Beyond the Prairie was watched by 23 million people on one night.

My ratio of produced-to-unproduced movies isn’t bad. There are plenty of screenwriters who have worked steadily for years and years and never had anything at all made. But it’s a disheartening thing to ponder as well, because among those 20-odd movies that were never made is some of my best work. Of course, any screenwriter will tell you that his unproduced work is his best, because it is still pristinely preserved in his imagination and uncorrupted by budget realities or by the competing visions of directors or actors. In the category of never-were, among the real losses for me was a movie about the Donner Party that I originally wrote for CBS (“Just a thought,” said the squeamish CBS execs. “Do we really have to mention cannibalism at all?”), which was later acquired by HBO, who hired me to rewrite it. (“It’s a good script but it needs to be much darker. We want to see people gnawing on human bones”). The darker and better version was almost made but at the last moment, for reasons I was too demoralized to inquire about, it was not.

I once wrote a movie for Robert Altman, a feature adaptation of S.R. Bindler’s classic documentary Hands on a Hard Body, about a group of people desperately trying to win a contest for a Nissan pickup truck. Altman was close to the end of his run when I was hired. He had cancer, was undergoing chemo, and only had the energy to work a few hours a day. It was clear that, if this movie got made, it was going to be his last. But he was still full of renegade conviction and not in a mood to fret over the fine points of screenwriting. He had a bracing indifference to received wisdom about the primacy of character and story. He just wanted to make a movie. He was famous for running all over his writers, for throwing out their carefully wrought scripts and improvising. Knowing that my contribution would be ultimately disposable proved strangely liberating for me. By that time I was tired of story and character myself, tired of scripted dialogue, aware that the traits I prided myself on—reliability, coherence, thorough craftsmanship—were the very traits that bored a visionary like Altman.

“Go ahead and write it the way you want,” he told me with a conniving grin one afternoon in his Malibu living room, after I had ventured that it would be a good idea if we thought ahead of time about which of the 24 characters should win the pick-up truck. “Just remember that I’m going to double-cross you in the end.”

I had more fun working with Altman than I’d ever had with anyone. I sent in the final draft on a November day in 2006 and got a call from him a few days later. I’d never heard him so revved up. The script, he said, was “brilliant and masterful”—which I knew meant he would take even more delight in completely ignoring it when the movie went into production. Among the actors who had agreed to play the people competing for the Nissan pick-up, he told me, were Meryl Steep, Hillary Swank, Billy Bob Thornton, Jack Black, Chris Rock, John C. Reilly, and Steve Buscemi. Filming would begin in three months.

A week later I got a call informing me that Robert Altman had died.

And then there was an adaptation of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea that was to star F. Murray Abraham. I won’t even try to avoid the obvious comparison: writing that movie and not having it produced was like hooking into a 1,500 pound blue marlin and fighting it for three days only to have it eaten by sharks.

Hands on a Hard Body, The Donner Party, The Old Man And The Sea and various other stillborn projects were all heartbreakers for me. But maybe, in the end, my heart wasn’t breaking enough. Even though writing movies was my line of work for three decades, screenwriting never struck me with the force of a vocation. I satisfied myself with a middling successful career because the work kept coming without me having to go in pursuit of it, and also because I was wary of that pursuit when I knew it might lead me permanently away from the sort of writing that mattered the most to me, novels that I could hold in my hand, that had no budget restraints, and in which my own voice spoke for itself.

Maybe my lack of an edge had something to do with that lack of an all-or-nothing commitment. In the end, I think I loved the craft of screenwriting more than the art of it. But I really loved that craft: the well-turned line of dialogue, the well-placed act break, the meetings in which I would put the producers’ fears to rest with a sudden clever solution to an intractable story problem.

As I said at the beginning, it’s mostly over now, though there are still a few hibernating projects of mine out there with a just-detectable winter heartbeat. It would not take much to get me excited about them all over again. I remember, only a few years ago, sitting in a restaurant in Burbank, killing time before a meeting I was about to have at the ABC offices on the Disney lot about some forgettable inspired-by-a-true-story movie of the week. The meeting was still two hours away but I had arrived early because I didn’t want to take a risk and get caught in traffic or lost on the Hollywood Freeway.

I was 58 years old, probably almost twice the age of the executives I would be meeting. I had been doing this forever, but I was still an outsider, still an outlander. At my age the odds were growing slimmer and slimmer that I would ever write the next Lawrence of Arabia, but that didn’t matter to me. I was content with my hard-won place on the B Team of American culture, happy to be sitting in a booth in Bob’s Big Boy psyching myself up for a meeting that after all this time still seemed to hold the promise of a dazzling new career in the movies.

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.

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