My favorite writer is back! John Jarrell. You may remember him from the awesome interview I did with him a few months ago. The guy has a ton of screenwriting knowledge and unlike us hack bloggers, the man’s actually been in the thick of it for 20 years, fighting the good screenwriting fight, landing those six figure jobs we all dream of. Which is why I’m more than happy to promote his new screenwriting class – Tweak Class — starting this January. Who better to learn from than the guy who’s seen it all? Goddamit, he’s even taken his pants off for a publicity shot (that’s really him above!). This man is dedicated. And today, he’s going to share with us a couple screenwriting stories from Hollywood Hell. I enjoyed this piece so much I told John he needs to write a whole book of this stuff. Let him know if you feel the same in the comments!
“Will You Please Buy My Script Now, Please?” — One Writer’s Journey Into the Troubling Bowels of Development.
By John Jarrell
Back in 1995, I wrote a Horror spec called The Willies. It was essentially Carrie with Evil Twins. People are constantly abusing and shitting on these orphans, until at last, after making a pact with the devil, they take their bloody revenge.
My agent went out with it and immediately got a sadistically low-ball pre-emptive bid from a smaller studio in town. By that point in my life, my dream of becoming a legitimate screenwriter was nearing extinction. I’d been struggling in L.A. for four years, was stone-cold broke, about to lose my apartment, and my girlfriend and I were subsisting solely on the 49-cent value menu at Taco Bell. Facing even more of that ugliness, I did what struggling young writers have to do sometimes — I sucked it up and took the shit money, simply glad to survive and hopeful I would live to fight another day.
First day working, I go into a story meeting with the company’s “Creative” VP and Head of Development. We dug in and spent several hours doing notes starting Page One — discussing what they thought worked, what didn’t, and what I’d need to address in my rewrite.
At one point, the VP looks up at me and says, “Wow, John. This description on page fifty-two is really good writing. Would you mind reading it out loud?”
Flattery will get you everywhere with a screenwriter, and I’m sure I flushed with pride as I found the page and paused to clear my throat.
The set up was simple — a grieving daughter (our protagonist) looking through her deceased Mother’s belongings, which have been boxed up and stored in the attic. The beat offered a brief respite from all the genre action, gave us a further glimpse into our lead’s character, and prompted her discovery of an important clue at the end.
This was the description I wrote, verbatim —
“She rifles several of the boxes, finding little more than old letters and checkbook stubs, key chains and their forgotten keys. The meaningless remnants of our too brief lives.”
There was a long pause after I finished. The VP and Head of Development were nodding their heads in synchronized approval. Then the VP says —
“Yeah, it’s really great. Great stuff.”
“Lose the poetry, John, cut it all out. It’s slowing down the script.”
I’d never been quite so close to crapping my pants. Did he just say LOSE… THE… POETRY? a.k.a. LOSE THE GOOD WRITING? Wantonly kill off two short sentences — two sentences he actually likes — which perfectly sell the moment? And replace them with what, Mr. Hemingway? “She opens her dead mom’s shit and finds a mysterious clue!”
Like every other indignant scribe in Hollywood history, I sat hooded in a queasy half-smile, cerebral cortex locking up. Surely “development” couldn’t be like this everywhere? Surely this exec must be a nutter, a lone gunman of sorts, some soulless script assassin who didn’t value lightweight artistry over the groan-inducing stock lines which had been stupefying readers for decades?
But I was wrong. He wasn’t the slightest bit insane. In fact, Mr. Company VP was the Gold Standard — an Industry veteran and Number Two guy at the whole company! And if I didn’t “lose the poetry” voluntarily, believe me, he would have no qualms hiring another low-ball writer to lose it for me.
Way back at NYU, an older studio vet had once shared a bit of sage wisdom with me — “It’s better for you to fuck up your script the way they want then have ‘em hire somebody else to fuck it up for you.”
As baffling and counterintuitive as his advice had seemed, now I grabbed onto it like a life vest. I labored at “losing the poetry”, beat after tight beat, good scene after good scene. For nine agonizing months, they “developed” the script this way. Any nugget of goodness was ruthlessly ferreted out, any clever turn of phrase or interesting character tick was quickly sandblasted into beige. My reward, such as it was, was being kept onboard on as sole writer.
Finally, they were ready to go out with it. And they did. And in a matter of three short weeks, the company blew a sure-thing co-financing deal, flatlined similar offers via absurd distribution demands, then shelved the project out of self-loathing and/or shame, never to see daylight again. Their epic fail also left The Big Question still looming — Had sacrificing all my poetry to the Commercial Film Gods made my script better… or worse? Now, tragically, there was no way I’d know for sure.
Instead of my project — and I’m totally NOT kidding here — the company produced the urban side-splitter “Don’t Be A Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood” in its place. It survived three demoralizing weekends before being euthanized and laid to rest in the VHS market.
During what I thought a poignant last ditch appeal, before all the lights had been turned out, I’d made the case to the company that horror was an American genre mainstay, essentially a license to print money when well-executed. This is what that same VP told me —
“Horror’s dead, John. Nobody wants horror anymore. It’s all about the urban audience.”
Scream opened that same December and made $173,046,663 worldwide. In its wake, an uninterrupted avalanche of extremely profitable low-budget horror pics overran the coming decade.
And me? Exactly one year after the sale, my girlfriend and I found ourselves back at Taco Bell.
* * * * *
Those first professional cuts for any young writer are excruciating. Everything about your script — every flat character, every lousy throwaway line, every unnecessary parenthetical — feels personal and inviolate, gifted from the heavens and written in stone, like some multimedia take on Moses’ holy tablets.
“Change something? Why? It was plenty good enough for you to buy it in the first place, wasn’t it, douchebag?”
Some version of this is what the working writer yearns to bark in his benefactors’ (read: torturers’) faces. If you loved it enough to put real money behind it, why in the fuck do you want to change every last thing about it now? Why date a tall, skinny brunette if you really wanted a short, squat redhead? Where’s the logic in that?
This mentality is, of course, completely understandable. The script is quite literally your baby, your winning Powerball ticket, the lone vehicle by which you hope and pray to escape the nagging self-doubt and just-getting-by poverty of a middle class kid with a mountain of student loans. This is your shot — perhaps the one and only shot you’re gonna get — and if it’s mishandled somehow, if somebody shits the bed and drops the ball, you and you alone will pay the ultimate price for that.
On the other hand… there’s a couple big problems with sticking by your guns every damned time. One, without question, you’ll be replaced as soon as your steps are up, and most likely won’t work for that company or any of those people again. Producers hate writers as it is, see them as largely unnecessary evils. Certainly nobody wants to work with a “difficult” one sitting in meetings with his or her fingers jammed in their ears.
Two, and this can be a tough one for us writers to swallow, what if all these developmental numbskulls are actually right??? What if a few of those “shitty notes” you keep bad-mouthing to friends turn out to be gems, pure gold, BIG IDEAS that help take your script to that hallowed “next level”? Some writers are so busy being defensive that they’re throwing away the very ideas which can dramatically increase their odds of success… and survival.
So John, you ask, how in the hell do I know when to do what? How do I discern between the gold and the gravel, the shit and the pony? How can I insure I do the right thing creatively while traversing such treacherous industry tundra?
And that, my friends, is the eternal question every writer faces, every time they book a gig. Because there aren’t any right answers one-hundred percent of the time. The whole endeavor is entirely subjective, a complete crapshoot, with the looming possibility of some ravenous tiger waiting to bite your head off behind every corner.
Your creative action — or inaction — affects not only this project, but the possibility of the many unseen projects yet to come. Of prominent producers and execs putting in a good word, greasing the skids for a full-freight first draft at 100% of your quote… or not. Of you being able to pay off those loans, buy your hard-working parents a house of their own, live the creative lifestyle you’ve always dreamt of and suffered so damned much trying to actualize…
Best advice I’ve heard? “You’ve got to choose your hills to die on.”
But hey, no pressure, right? Best of luck on those pages.
* * * * *
Spring of 1999, I was coming off saving a film for a big studio. My stock was high and I was starting to make my first legitimate splash.
After years of obscure, unpaid laboring, I was really feeling it, finally discovering my groove. All that “woodshedding” had vastly improved my writing. It was becoming much better crafted and far more intuitive. Better still, proof of this breakthrough was now coming across on the page, for anyone and everyone to see.
A hungry young agency saw it and took me on, and they had enough juice to start getting me into the right rooms. As every artisan in Hollywood knows, if you can’t get into the room, you sure as hell can’t get the job. My new agents totally had my back in that department and very quickly it became plug and play — they’d send me out, after that, everything else was on me. As you might imagine, this was a really good time for a young writer.
So… as a last ditch effort, the big studio had hired me, and against all rational odds, I’d saved their movie. Not only that, but to everybody’s further surprise, it became a big hit.
In this town, you always strike while the iron’s hot. My agents quickly set me up with a very famous director, one of the old school legends, in fact. There was a new company in town spending real money, and he’d set up a project there. All they needed now was a writer.
We met on his studio lot, the Director and I immediately hitting it off. This guy was a blast, regaling me with wild tales of ’70’s Hollywood, each more x-rated hilarious than the last. These were the classic movies I’d grown up with and deeply loved, back to front I knew them all. Now here I was talking to the guy who’d actually made some of them! For a good hour we jawed warp-speed, then spent maybe ten minutes talking broad strokes about his project. It was to be a modern-day Robin Hood — the big twist was casting a famous Brazilian MMA fighter as the lead and setting it in the violent ghettos of inner city L.A.
Now remember, this is ’99, way before the whole MMA/UFC thing fully turned the corner. But within two years, Dana White and Co. would radically reinvent the marketing of that world and find themselves sitting on a multi-billion dollar business.
So in a way — even though it wasn’t on purpose — the Director’s idea of casting an MMA superstar with international appeal in a kick-ass action film was perfectly timed. By the time it was ready to roll out, the U.S. would be beginning its new love affair with the UFC. And we’d be standing there waiting with lightning in a bottle, boffo box office certain to ensue.
I drove back home. Two hours later (just two hours!) my agent calls. Business affairs from this new company had called and made an offer — $100K against $275, or 100/275 in film biz parlance. The Director was crazy about me and knew immediately I was the perfect guy for the job. Just like that it became a spontaneous four-way love fest; Company, Famous Director, Agents, Me. My cup runneth over with this highly-addictive first burst of adulation.
It was pretty hard to wrap my head around. A guaranteed ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND DOLLARS for drinking a free bottle of Evian and listening to one of Hollywood’s most successful filmmakers tell epic war stories? For just being (GASP!) me???
Abruptly, the lightbulb went on. So THIS is what everybody was chasing. Everyone knew there were heaps of money to be made — Monopoly money, from where I was standing. But what about having all the heavyweight ego-stroking a film-addled shut-in like myself could desire? Wasn’t that shit awesome, too?
Next came a company meet-and-greet to discuss our collective vision for the project. My honeymoon continued unabated. We were all on the same page! We all agreed EXACTLY what this film should aspire to! From the top down, everybody on-board was euphoric with developmental glee!
Our homage to Robin Hood would be set in the impoverished jungles of East L.A. Our Lead, forced to flee Brazil because of his heroic actions against homicidal police, would join his Uncle in L.A. to start building a new life for himself. But after witnessing dehumanizing oppression in the sweatshops, and running afoul of local gangsters who violently extorted and terrorized the good-hearted (but powerless) immigrants who had befriended him, our Lead is compelled to take the law into his own hands, seeing justice done, whatever the cost. I was urged to think of the story as gritty, raw and realistic — “Robin Hood ’99” if you will, with someone like Jay-Z playing Friar Tuck.
Robin Hood is one of the oldest legends in all of Western Civilization, and for good reason. The timeless themes of rich vs. poor, the corrupt haves vs. the honest have-nots, still speak as loudly to audiences today as they did in Medieval times. So our ripped-from-the-headlines take involving sweatshops and immigrant labor, oppression and cultural inequality, would fit perfectly alongside the honorable intent of the original.
After a few frenzied white-guy high-fives (“I love this guy!” from one goofy exec), and another complementary bottle of Evian, I was sent off to knock out a treatment so we could quickly proceed to first draft.
* * * * *
Ensconced back in my bungalow, I set about creating my masterpiece. Like I said, I was totally in my wheelhouse at this point, doing the very best writing of my young career. I buckled down and poured my heart and soul into the idea. I skipped concerts, cancelled dates, ate nothing but bad Chinese and Mexican delivery. Day and night, I labored to make the story not just a kick-ass MMA thrill ride — the essential dynamic of the entire project in the first place — but a film which would actually have something to say as well.
I saw it as a classic have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too opportunity — killer action and ultra-cool, franchisable genre characters, with a timely message to the contemporary audience nestled behind all the head-butting and hard talk.
Listen, end of the day, if all you wanted was to see somebody’s trachea stomped into tomato soup, or some asshole’s nutsack blown off, yeah, you would get that in spades. I mean, this was a MOVIE afterall, mass escapist entertainment. But for the more discerning genre lover (like myself) there would also be a legitimate subtext they could hang their hats on. A little something… more.
One month later I submitted my twelve-page, single-spaced treatment. I was anxious, but extremely confident. Never had I felt better about the work and what I was trying to accomplish. I believed it awesome that Hollywood execs were willing to push for a meaningful story, even within the confines of a tiny little genre pic like this. Maybe the self-serving, head-up-ass development stereotypes I’d been brutalized by before would be proven wrong this time around.
A week passed. Then a second. Neither my agent nor myself heard so much as a whisper.
Believe me, if there’s anything a writer learns in Hollywood, it’s this — the silence is deafening.
Silence is never good. Silence says disinterest, displeasure or — scariest of all — disappointment. When you put finished pages someone paid for in their impatient little palms and they don’t get back to you a.s.a.p. something is terribly and irrevocably wrong. In my experience, there are no exceptions to this rule.
Sure enough, start of week three we finally got word. It wasn’t good. Let’s just say nobody loved it. The company didn’t hate it initially, per se, but the Director’s people did. They loathed it with a passion. Which meant the company had to start hating it as well.
Judgment Day came in the company’s flagship conference room. Picture a Hudsucker Proxy-sized oak conference table, all five of my company inquisitors massed at the far end, and me — best of intentions, isolated, confused — docked in a half-mast Aeron chair at the other.
The Head of Development led the prosecution. He was a real trip, an IMAX D-Guy Cartoon, 3D cells brightly penciled in by Pixar. We’re talking Aliens level development exec here, with him playing the egg-laying Queen, not one of the day-player xenomorphs. For the safety of all involved, let’s call him Producer X.
“This treatment is too preachy, too grim, too goddamn G-L-O-O-M-Y,” his first salvo whistled across my bow. “Where’s the fun in this world, John? The Lethal Weapon III of it all? The wink-wink, the hijinx, the Wow Factor?”
Where’s the fun in… illegal immigration? In the callous rich taking advantage of the struggling poor? Is that what he was asking?
“Look, John, trust me — it’s not THAT BAD down there. There are plenty of happy stories to tell. Happy stories which give those people plenty of hope.”
Whoops. My Spidey Sense began an ugly twitch. “Down there.” “Those people.” This couldn’t be going anywhere good.
“To some, you know, this might sound controversial. But I’m going to go ahead and say it anyway, ’cause frankly I’m not a P.C. person and I don’t give a damn,” Producer X leaned forward now, Sunday smile, as if confiding in me. “You know what? I have a maid, and she’s an illegal. That’s right. An illegal. And guess what, John? She LOVES working for me. Loves it! She couldn’t be happier!”
“Me too.” The famous director’s D-Girl piped up. “My husband and I have an illegal nanny. Always smiling, that woman. Very Zen.”
“In fact,” Producer X blazed on, “Recently I had a bit of a funny conundrum. My maid’s daughter was having her quinceañera, and she told me they didn’t have enough decorations for it. So guess what I did? This is great — I let her go around the house and gather up all the old flowers that had been there a few days and take those to the party! Isn’t that terrific? She was soooooo happy.”
There was one exec in the room I’d met before, a good guy, coming from the right place. I watched the same horrified shockwave blitzkrieg across his face that I already wore on mine. So they weren’t all Replicants, I thought. Thank Christ.
Oversharing kills. No doubt, I’m every inch as white boy as the next white motherfucker out there. But there was one huge problem.
I wasn’t that kind of white.
Both my mother and father had Ph.D.’s from Teachers College at Columbia. Their specialties? Education for Gifted Minority Students. My girlfriend was Hispanic, a social worker born literally — true shit — in a dirt-floored shack in Pacoima. So yeah, this probably wasn’t going to work out too well.
All this time, Scriptshadow Reader, I’d been racking my brain, trying to figure out why they hated my treatment so much, why everyone was acting like I’d totally butt-fucked the pooch on this one. Now it hit me full-force — my pages were too, well, Robin Hood. I’d done exactly what we’d agreed upon, gotten it pitch perfect… which was criminally out of tune for these folks.
Class struggle? Rich vs. Poor? What was I thinking? They envisioned our heroic Brazilian as a grubby street urchin, crashing Beverly Hills parties, stuffing his shirt with hors d’oeuvre and stealing thick wads of cash from mink coat pockets. Which is precisely the take they pitched me.
Everything quickly became a vague blur, Charlie Brown’s teacher shot-gunning syllabic nonsense. The only part I remember was Producer X’s take on our protagonist — “It’s like Ché Guevara. He was sexy, he was hot, did a couple of cool killings. Cinematic stuff, right?”
Talk about mind-fucks. Their collective brainstorm now was to take the Robin Hood out of Robin Hood. Regrettably, it was kind of, well, getting in the way.
Meeting over, we shook hands with the nauseous smiles of strangers who’d eaten the same rotten shellfish. I grabbed my ’66 Bug — the same car I’d driven out to L.A. eight years earlier — and puttered straight up Wilshire to my agent Marty’s office.
When I walked in, I just unloaded. Play by play, line by line, vomiting up details of the nuclear winter I’d just lived through. From Marty’s expression, I could see he was having trouble making sense of it all. He knew my background, knew the guy I was, but still. After I’d slaked my desperate need to rant, I punctuated things with this cute little gem —
“They can keep the money,” I said. “I don’t want it.”
In Marty’s entire life, I don’t think a single client had ever told him that. And why would they? Idealism and moral outrage are the privilege of a rarified few in this Biz. At the grunt level, the level I was at, those concepts played worse than kiddie porn. Besides, who the fuck was I? Claude Rains in Casablanca? “I’m shocked, shocked to find that half-baked racism is going on here!” It’s not like I’d signed up for the Peace Corps or anything.
Still, I had my principles, and I was willing to put all that Monopoly money where my naive pie-hole was. Marty’s advice was to go home, cool my tool and let him do some reconnaissance. Once he’d sussed things out, he’d get back to me.
Two things bailed me out. First, the exec I knew called Marty and totally vouched for my eyewitness testimony (told you he was a good guy). Second, Producer X himself knew how badly he’d fucked up and called trying to smooth things over. “Listen, Marty,” he told my agent, “This is a big misunderstanding. Nobody over here wants to make an… irresponsible movie.”
They scheduled a second meeting trying to salvage things, but in many ways it was worse than the first. My time was spent daydreaming about putting Producer X in a chokehold and pulling a Sharky’s Machine — pile-driving us through the plate glass and then plummeting 200 feet straight down to the pavement below.
So that’s it. The deal died. They paid for the treatment, and I — insisting on principle — left the other $65,000 sitting on the table. SIXTY-FIVE THOUSAND DOLLARS. Just walked away from it. And yeah, it kinda stings to write this, even now.
You may have wondered — what about the Famous Director, the one guy who surely would’ve had your back? Predictably, after that first, glorious filmic dry-humping, I neither saw nor heard from him again. No phone call. No nothing. To this day, I don’t know if he actually hated it, or his D-Girl with the illegal nanny had cut my throat without giving him the real scoop on any of what went down.
And Producer X? Was there any Bad Karma due a producer like that? Would the bold heavens take a stand and angrily smite down what the film industry itself would not?
You’re fuckin’ kidding, right? This is the Film Biz.
A few years later, I was over at some friends’ place watching the Oscars on auto-pilot. About ten hours in, after two dozen absurd dance numbers, they finally got around to Best Picture.
And who should win but Producer X.
This go ’round I did crap my pants. Openly and without restraint. But this wasn’t even rock bottom. Because up next was his acceptance speech —
“I’m soooooo happy you’ve taken my movie into your hearts, this wonderful little film about compassion, racial harmony, the end of prejudice of all kinds, and, of course, hope. Always hope, for all those people less fortunate than ourselves.”
Producer X had just won an Oscar. That’s right. A fucking Academy Award. By playing the “Can’t we all just get along?” card.
Before he even left the stage, I was stumbling into the backyard, begging the hostess for a frenzied bong hit. A writer can only take so much, you see, and my mind was dangerously close to snapping. My only real hope of retaining any sanity now lay in a bright, protective sheen of cannabis.
As I slipped into oblivion, a single thought ran roughshod through my mind —
“I wonder if Producer X’s illegal maid is back at his house watching this, too.”
Carson again. Naturally, I’m asking the same question you are. Who the hell was the producer?? John refuses to name names, but I will find out. Mark my words! In the meantime, head over to John’s Tweak Class Page and sign up for his screenwriting class that starts this January. It truly is a unique opportunity to study with a produced, working writer. You won’t be disappointed!