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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.