Premise: A young man moves to Los Angeles and spends the next 30 years trying to break into acting.
About: Edward Ford is considered by many to be one of the best unproduced screenplays in Hollywood. Lem Dobbs, the writer, wrote the script based on a real person. It is loved so much that even though it was never made, it led to a ton of work for Dobbs, basically giving him his screenwriting career. Dobbs did a substantial but un-credited rewrite on Romancing The Stone. He also wrote Kafka, Dark City, The Limey, and The Score. Reading this extensive interview from Dobbs, it’s clear that he’s not a fan of Hollywood, and the fact that he hasn’t had a produced credit in awhile may have more to do with his disgust with the business than not having the opportunities. Dobbs is also a bit of a character. Check out the commentary track on The Limey, where he takes Soderbergh to task for rewriting his script. It’s as entertaining as it is awkward, but with or without the drama, there’s plenty of screenwriting advice to find. For example, Dobbs discusses Soderbergh’s choice to write “cool” dialogue without any purpose, something he finds detestable (as do I!).
Writer: Lem Dobbs
Details: 114 pages – undated (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).
You read an interview by Lem Dobbs and you immediately come to the conclusion that he’s a lot smarter than you. And that your analysis – or in this case my analysis – of his screenplay, will probably embody the kind of moronic thinking that has ruined Hollywood. Namely that simplistic criteria can be applied to any screenplay to determine whether it is “good” or “bad.”
For example, can 2001: A Space Odyssey, be judged by fatal flaws, likable protagonists, and a three-act structure? I’m inclined to say no, though I’ve never broken it down. I bring this up because Edward Ford is a different kind of screenplay. It’s a strange cross between Forrest Gump, A Confederacy of Dunces and the documentary, The Cruise. In fact, I don’t even know if those comparisons are accurate because this is so much its own thing.
While reading Ford, I kept going back and forth between, “This does not work,” to “Maybe I just don’t get it.” One thing it does have going for it is that it’s different. It’s not like many scripts you read. The question is, is it different good? Or different bad?
Edward Ford is a deceptively simple man. Sure he’s weird. Yeah he’s eccentric. But he desires only one thing: To be a bad guy in B-movie Westerns. Yes, Edward wants to be an actor. But you get the feeling even that accomplishment would be tainted if he couldn’t snarl at a Robert Redford or a John Wayne before quickdrawing a six-piece with the twang of an Ennio Morricone score playing in the background.
Problem is, Ford’s not a very good actor. And he’s got about as much “bad guy” in him as Tom Hanks on laughing gas. Edward wouldn’t kill a fly if doing so cured cancer. Yet here we are, in the sixties, with a 20-something Ford arriving in Hollywood, ready to make a name for himself.
Ford finds out quickly that Hollywood isn’t all its cracked up to be. There isn’t a movie premiere on every corner three times a week. You have a lot of free time (especially if you’re an aspiring actor). So Ford fills that time with his passion, watching movies.
Not only does Ford go to the movies all day every day, he develops a sort of primitive IMDB, taking notes on all the actors in the films, writing their names down on cards, then filing those cards back in his apartment in a giant database drawer. Today this would be considered forwad-thinking. Back then it was just weird.
Eventually Ford finds his future wife, Mitzi. He doesn’t really like her and she doesn’t really like him but on the plus side, she forces Ford to network more. It’s “who you know in this town!” she says, and he won’t know anyone unless he starts talking to them. Within a few days, Ford is hanging out with some of his favorite B-movie Western stars, just because he went up and talked to them. Strangely, however, Ford doesn’t think to use these connections to get any parts. He just enjoys their company and keeps on living.
This laissez-faire attitude takes Ford through the 70s and eventually the 80s, as he drives a cab, does third-rate Christian theater, has sex with a lot of ugly weird women, and keeps trying to get that elusive SAG card (the card that gets you into the Screen Actors Guild).
But because Ford is so mellow, so clueless about the industry, he never gets anywhere. In fact, Ford doesn’t even seem bothered by the fact that he never gets anywhere. It’s more a curiosity to him, like trying to figure out why some people win the lottery and others don’t.
Ford makes a few friends along the way, including a TV writer with anger issues, an “Ed Wood” like director, as well as the director’s son, who is so taken by Ford’s oddness that he wants to make a movie based on him. But really the script is about a guy who moves to Hollywood and never makes it. Some might call it depressing, other accurate, but I think the legacy of Edward Ford is that when it’s all said and done, you don’t know what to think. It’s a really odd script!
I guess I’ll start with the biggest problem I had: the lack of conflict. Conflict occurs when two opposing forces meet. In this case, that would be Ford and Hollywood. Ford wants in. Hollywood doesn’t want to let him in. That’s where the majority of the drama is going to be found.
The thing is, I never got the sense that Ford cared whether he succeeded or not. He talks about his desire to get his SAG card. We even see him go out on auditions. But he’s always indifferent to whether he succeeds or not. I got the sense that he could just as easily be in Oklahoma City and be content. If your main character doesn’t display passion about his goal, then how are we to muster up any enthusiasm to root for him?
Another problem is that watching someone watch movies isn’t dramatically compelling. By no means are we stuck in a theater for ten pages at a time, but it is a big part of the script, and while it does inform us to one of Ford’s quirkier characteristics (his card filing), it pushed me away from the character. Several times I wanted to scream, “Dude! Stop sitting on your ass and go get an acting job!” It was infuriating. Although I concede that may have been the point.
The script also has a very drifty quality to it that takes getting used to. Once we realize Ford isn’t going to actively pursue his goal, there’s nothing to really drive the story. As a result we simply exist along with him as he makes friends, loses friend, does his job, goes to the movies, etc. That’s the part that reminded me of Forrest Gump. The difference in Gump, however, is that his drifting is a series of spectacles, mind candy that’s fun to watch. Here, Ford’s existence is very mundane, bordering on depressing. He’s not an easy character to get excited about.
What I liked about the script was how it captured Los Angles and the pursuit of the dream. Speaking from experience, it’s very easy to get lost in Los Angeles, to let the city and entertainment business beat you down. If you’re told “no” enough times, you retreat back into the city’s concrete shadows, and years start drifting by without you even realizing it. It’s pretty scary and I think part of the reason this script unnerved me is because it reminded me of that.
So in a roundabout way, whether Dobbs intended for it to be or not, the script is inspiring. The message? Don’t be like this guy! Don’t wait for success to come to you. Go and seize it. Because if you don’t, your life could disappear in an instant.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Dobbs was asked what he believed constituted a good screenplay. He cited Chinatown, and followed with this: “It’s literate and intelligent and fresh and compelling and unusual and deeply-felt and personal and entertaining. The dialogue sings and sparkles, there are memorable lines. You’re stimulated and engaged and surprised and moved. And even if a great director makes it his own and changes the ending and this and that, it’s still essentially what it was meant to be from the mind and heart and soul and talent and experience — both creative and autobiographical — of its sole author… Most of all [with every good script], the writer starts with himself, his own private obsessions and interests and agonies — and makes them public.”