I Was an A-List Writer of B-List Productions
Reflections on a career writing made-for-TV movies.
Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.
Yesterday was a green envelope day at our house. It happens probably seven or eight times a year. A green envelope will appear in the mailbox, and I’ll pretend to be in no particular hurry to open it as I nonchalantly sort through the bills and catalogs and reminders from the vet that our deceased dog is due for a dental cleaning.
But beneath the affected calm, my heart is racing. For screenwriters who have been fortunate enough to have their scripts actually made into movies, a green envelope is a Pavlovian trigger. Green is the color that the Writers Guild of America, the screenwriters’ union, uses when it sends out checks for residuals, which are the payments due to writers when their movies or TV shows are reshown.
On occasion during my 30-year screenwriting career, the amount on these checks has been life-changing, enough money to buy a car or temporarily pay off our credit cards. But I don’t really expect to see that kind of windfall again. I haven’t had a movie made in eight years, and my current career status is somewhere between emeritus and irrelevant. Still, the check that came yesterday was a nice surprise. The total was $2,588.95. Included with the check was an itemized list of movies for which I had received sole or shared screenwriting credit and that had been shown again and again around the world. The biggest amounts were for Cleopatra ($716.41), a lavish and maybe-just-a-little-bit-cheesy ABC miniseries, and for King of Texas ($854.30), a Western retelling of King Lear with Patrick Stewart and Marcia Gay Harden that had originally aired on TNT. A half-dozen other movies were on the list. They included a few boilerplate TV movies like In The Line of Duty: Blaze of Glory (56 cents), an “inspired by a true story” bank heist movie starring those then-titans of the small screen Bruce Campbell and Lori Loughlin; a steamy Lifetime murder mystery called Widow on the Hill ($341.60), which remains the only thing I’ve ever written that my mother implied she would just as soon I hadn’t; and The Colt ($122.53), a nicely rendered little Civil War movie that aired on the Hallmark Channel that I had adapted from a seven-page short story by Mikhail Sholokov. The Guild statement provided scant information about which parts of the world embraced these movies most fervently, but I doubt that I’m far off the mark in imagining an unwatched TV screen in the back of a kebab stand in Kota Kinabalu.
Sholokov, Shakespeare, Campbell: such was my considerable range as a screenwriter for hire. Nowadays when I open a green envelope, it feels less like reaping a reward than confronting a feverishly hardworking and naively idealistic ghost of myself. By idealistic I mean that even when I wrote something like In The Line of Duty: Smoke Jumpers (sample note from NBC exec: “Can the Smoke Jumpers take their shirts off more?”), I never thought of myself as a TV-movie hack. I wrote with the anguish and conviction of an uncompromising indie auteur. And by ghost I mean that it’s pretty much all over. The kind of stuff I specialized in was, for the most part, Movies of the Week, known in the business as MOW’s. They were called movies of the week because, in the days before reality television swept away the old scripted paradigm of TV entertainment, every broadcast network had at least one night a week devoted to the airing of an original movie or miniseries. As a writer of what I call colon movies (such as Beyond the Prairie: The True Story of Laura Ingalls Wilder, or Take Me Home: The John Denver Story), the ’90s were my golden decade. I was an A-list writer of B-list productions.
I had wanted to be a screenwriter since 1962, when I walked out of the Tower Theater in Corpus Christi, Texas as a very different 14-year-old boy than when I had walked in. The movie was Lawrence of Arabia, and watching it was like being sucked into a wormhole and delivered to an alternate universe. The unworldly disorientation I experienced was due in large part to David Lean’s direction, to his unprecedented sense of scale and pace and purpose, and to the Maurice Jarre score, which half a century later was still so haunting to me that I sometimes use it as the ringtone on my cellphone. But Lawrence of Arabia had another dimension, one that I had never really noticed before. For the first time, I was aware that movies were written, not just somehow fortuitously assembled. It was obvious that the dialogue—“The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts” or “What attracts you personally to the desert?” “It’s clean.”—had to have been set down somewhere in cold print, not just thought up on the fly. And it was more than the dialogue itself that made me take notice of the name Robert Bolt; it was the wordless action as well, the way the scenes steadily built and drew upon each other to produce such a satisfying impression of momentum and coherence.
That was who I wanted to be, not the guy behind the camera but the guy behind him, the one who created the story in the first place, who gave the characters words to say and destinies to fulfill. After Lawrence of Arabia, I fell into the habit of casually shaping and framing everything I saw, imagining daily life as a story I had written and that was now being filmed. But for a long, long time it was just a mental exercise. When I was in my early 20s, I made a half-hearted attempt to write a movie about the 16th-century explorer and castaway Cabeza de Vaca, full of lines like “I claim this land for his Most Catholic Majesty Don Carlos of Spain!”, but I had no idea what I was doing and I soon gave it up for the greater dream of writing a novel, in which the final product would be an actual physical object with my name on the cover and not just the movement of light on a screen.
But there was a basic enchantment with the idea of writing a movie that I could never quite get out of my system. About 10 years after that first attempt, my friend Lawrence Wright and I decided to take two weeks off from writing magazine articles to hammer out a screenplay. Neither Larry nor I had ever seen an actual script and when we finally got hold of one we were heartened by the way the dialogue ran in a narrow, centered column in the middle of the page. There was so much white space! After years of grinding out margin-to-margin prose, we interpreted that white space as material that we didn’t have to write. The screenplay whose form we were studying was less than 120 pages long. We figured we could write something similar in two weeks or even less.
We had a story in mind: an aging Apollo astronaut who has been to the moon and doesn’t know what to do with the rest of his life falls in love with a younger female shuttle astronaut. It never occurred to us at the time, but it was essentially the plot of A Star is Born set in space. We hammered it out on manual typewriters in Larry’s basement office, one of us writing one scene, the other writing the next, leapfrogging like that all the way to our various alternate endings—the hero dying in one version, the heroine in another, and in yet another both of them surviving to take care of some unfinished emotional business between the Apollo astronaut and his estranged daughter.
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.