I’ve got a mind-bending idea for a story. I can see the plot, the twists and turns, and the characters are speaking to me. I can’t wait to dive in and see where the road leads.
How do I make that happen? First off, I’m a movie buff. Have been since I was old enough to ride a bike. Most of my childhood friends couldn’t wait for the next release of a DC Comic, or the latest and greatest from Marvel. Other friends, mostly girls, sat in their rooms with the Asterix Adventures or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Imagine Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, sitting at his typewriter hammering out a wildly popular children’s book. Forgive my personal jab at those who think a writer should write for a singular niche.
Anyway, back to my story. I didn’t read comics, I hated the feel of the paper they were printed on. I didn’t read novels, I was an incredibly slow reader. So, like most kids, I consumed my free time with TV. Westerns were the rage. And they were ok. But for me, I found movies captured my attention. I suppose that’s reason I chose screenwriting for my first attempt at serious work.
Watching a good movie is almost like magic. The visuals, the sound, and great dialogue create a two-hour world that you can climb into. And hopefully, if the movie is any good, spend some time talking about it. I wanted to be part of that magic.
So I began my writing journey with my first script, The Last Angry Man. No, this isn’t a story about a disgruntled husband. And it’s not about poor man lamenting his failures and blaming the world around him. It’s a story about a football player. The most feared defensive lineman in the NFL. The idea sprung from my own background of high school and college football. I wanted it to be authentic. I wanted it to be more than another sports story with the hero held on high at the end. To this end, I arraigned a meeting with Lyle Alzado at his restaurant in L.A. Many considered him one of the meanest, toughest, players of all time. And he was. He was a world champion with the Raiders.
So, late one afternoon, while sitting at his bar, Lyle walked in. Without fanfare, he limped across the floor and stuck out his paw of a hand and crushed mine in a handshake that was meant as a warning. I squeezed back as hard as I could to let him know I got the message. I wasn’t there to waste his time. I jumped in, told him I was a former professional baseball player, and now a writer. I’d hoped the baseball thing would level the playing field. He got it and smiled.
For the next couple of hours we talked. Not so much about football, but why he was so intimidating. I wanted to know where that anger came from. His ferocious on the field play stemmed from a tumultuous childhood. As he told me his story a change came over his face. Sadness. The sadness of a little boy. And that was the kernel of truth I needed. I thanked him for his time and honesty. Again we shook hands. This time there was no bone crushing. His massive hand had the gentleness of a child.
So off I went to write the story of a beast on the football field with the heart of a wounded little boy. It would be easy. I knew football inside and out. I knew what it took to be a professional ballplayer. I knew the pain of failure and rush of success before thousands of fans. What I didn’t know was how hard it is to write a screenplay. At the time 120 pages was the standard length for a feature film. Who couldn’t write a measly 120 pages? After all, I’d read Syd Field’s book, Screenplay. I didn’t need anything more. Ah, the hubris of youth. Fifty pages in and I was a babe walking alone in the woods. I needed help and fast.
I reached out to anyone for help. There had to be screenwriting coaches somewhere. I contacted UCLA and USC, knowing that they had award winning courses for the movie industry. It was too late to register and the thought of sitting in a classroom for another four years didn’t exactly light my candle. This was pre-internet so word of mouth was the way we communicated. Imagine that, having to actually pick up a phone and talk to someone. And then, if you made a contact, sit down with them over lunch and actually speak face-to-face. But that’s the way it was done. I miss those days.
The effort led me to Ken Rotcop. An unassuming man with a long history as a screenwriter and Hollywood studio exec. Among his pursuits, he held weekly screenwriting classes in various homes in Woodland Hills, Ca. They were no nonsense sessions with ten other aspiring writers. Each week we were expected to produce at least ten pages. Ken would read the pages to the group and wait for critical dissection
from those assembled. At times the criticism was gut wrenching. At times heart warming. Either way, Ken always had a way of finding the nugget of gold and would encourage with humor.
Ken created an atmosphere of trust with his students and challenged us to produce the best that we had. To that end, he developed the first Pitch Mart. Using his industry connections he brought studios executives and writers together, twice a year, to pitch our scripts. Let me tell you, if you think writing a script is difficult, try sitting before a studio exec with two minutes to convince him or her that your script will make the greatest movie since The Godfather.
I’ve stood at the plate with a man on second in the bottom of the ninth with two strikes. It’s nothing compared to the bullets of sweat during a pitch. After all, a baseball game is just a game. Telling someone about your script, face-to-face, is a little like peddling your baby. It’s your heart, your dream, and you’re trying to convince a total stranger that your baby is the cutest thing on earth.
Back to my script, The Last Angry Man. I was buoyed by Ken’s effusive praise and six hard months of rewrites. I pitched it with high hopes, and got a few requests to read the script. For four excoriating weeks I waited with eternal optimism. What I got was the bitter taste of Hollywood. It was always preceded with praise for my writing. Each exec loved the depth of the characters and most appreciated the original voices of dialogue. That was followed with, “We don’t do sports movies. They don’t make money!”
I was heartbroken and dumbfounded. This was an era of The Natural, Chariots of Fire, Rocky, Raging Bull, Victory, American Flyers, Hoosiers, etc. After a heated meeting with Ken we came to the conclusion that what they meant to say was, “We don’t make football movies.” Indeed, we could only come up with few movies centered around football. North Dallas Forty, Paper Lion, and Brian’s Song. Since then a plethora of movies have used football for the storyline. Football had not become the national obsession it is today. Starting in the nineties, countless football movies have been made. Some of them made money. The Last Angry Man became the victim of bad timing. At the same time, another member of the writing group was working on a script featuring characters from the Marvel Comics. Like me, he’d written a good script. Like me he got nothing but rejections. Nobody was going to put money into film that featured comic book heroes. Look what’s happened in the last few decade.
I’d poured my heart into it and nothing substantial came of it. Or so I thought. It took a while to lick my wounds and realize that something did come of it. I’d learned how to write a script. A damn good script. And that’s all a screenwriter can do. Unless your uncle has a pocket full of money and wants to be a movie producer, you’ll always labor under the golden rule. “He who has the gold, rules!”
Sounds awful, right? It’s a tough business. And yet, we who write continue to write, because magic does happen. When that moment happens, when you’re sitting in that darkened theater and the screen comes to life with events and characters that came from your mind, it’ll be worth all the heartache and pain that came before.
To this day, I still write screenplays. My latest, The Sun Also Rises, was a semifinalist in the Motion Picture Academy Nichol Fellowships. A period piece set in the mountains of Idaho. A story about two unlikely friends, Ernest Hemingway and my grandfather Ore Paris. To date it has been optioned five times by various production companies. At one point cast and crew had been set, filming was to begin in August of last year. Covid put and end to it, temporarily. It will get made, of that I’m sure. When? That I can’t say.
Some of you are aware that I also write novels. If you’ve read Gabriel’s Rule, or Hideous, or Haunting Amanda, you’ve read stories that started out as screenplays. I’m notorious for not outlining stories. I’m what they call a pantser. I get into a story and write as if I was watching a movie. Recognizing this, I turned my skills of writing scripts and use them as my outline. A hundred and twenty pages of screenplay makes for a great novel template. More on that in another post. Thanks for joining me on this trip to the beginning. It will be interesting to see where the road travels.