Thursday, October 26, 2006

4: Story Story Die

The first time I met him - "Jake" - was at Columbia University in a screenwriting class.

It happened to be the week one of my screenplays was being presented and he was visiting the professor, an old friend, who was teaching the class. We were actually short a reader, so being a good sport, he took a part and read.

I remembered two things about him from that afternoon. The first was that he had a gruff voice that seemed to justify every bit of anxiety I had about whether or not he'd like my script.

The second was, after the reading was done, he gave me the best, most insightful fucking advice I ever got on a screenplay - advice that actually started from an understanding of what the story was about.

But then, what else did I expect from one of the best, most respected story analysts in Hollywood?

I certainly didn't expect him to call me back when I arrived in LA. And I certainly didn't ever expect to be sitting across from him at the Broadway Diner in Santa Monica one morning listening to the story of how he became one of the best.

"When I came out here I didn't come out to be a reader. But I had this interest in comic books and Joseph Campbell and it turned out that I was good at analysis. I'm not even sure I'd say I was the best at it - there was one guy who was very successful and actually in some ways I just followed in his footsteps. When he left a studio for another studio, he'd call me up and say, Hey, I'm clearing my desk and they need someone. Call so-and-so this afternoon and tell them you're ----- and I recommend you. Usually I got the job. It was the easy way, really."

Over hash I told him that I'd gotten quite a bit out of his book, a book that outlines the heroic journey at the heart of so many movies and that most people must know if they're interested in writing screenplays.

"I'm more crafty than anything," he said. "Every studio has its own way. If you can't figure out what that way is, then you're not going to fit in. {One of the studios} I worked at was run on memos. It was the way the top guy did things. If he wanted something, he didn't have a meeting so much as sent out a memo. So everyone there communicated that way. I was sort of low on the totem pole. I couldn't just send out one of those things. But I had these ideas about story that I'd been kind of building on from my interest in comic books and Joseph Campbell - eventually I became the guy everyone turns to when they want to work with comic books - yet, back then, what could I do? I decided to write a memo that outlined some of my thoughts. Then, I'd just left it on the copier. Other people saw it and read it. Eventually, people started copying and holding onto the memos. I know someone's really been around when they tell me they read my book on the Xerox machine."

Though I'd been a reader in New York for a theatre company or two, that wasn't what I was out here to do. Did he have any advice?

He said a few things that have been echoed by many others, but also built on it: "You'll need an agent or a manager. But you can't get one until you've done something or have a deal cooking. What you'll need to do is go over to the bookstore and pick up the creative directory. Look through it for studios that might be interested in the type of material that you have. That's how you'll have to start."

I've got an MFA in playwrighting. Will that help?

"Right now, playwrights are respected. So when you sit down with people, you've already got something going for you. They'll expect you know how to create good dialog. It's a good thing."

We split the bill and walked down the promenade.

I told him about the type of material I had to see if there was any direction he could give me there. I unfortunately realized that I was pitching him right there. He seemed disappointed - like this was a transgression of our breakfast relationship. I regreted it since it was unnecessary. And on reflection, I know it came across as a desperate, giant, "Please save me" sign in little verbal blasts of story idea.

That was not only NOT within his power to do. And it wasn't why he'd agreed to see me.

Stupidly I pressed on saying that none of my work was tricky. That I was developing simple, straightforward stories with large social contexts that people could hook into easily. I put story over style since I never knew who'd be reading the scripts.

"That is very smart," he said tersely. "How do you like LA?"

"It's great. Not just the weather, but the people. I'm finding that most people will talk to anyone at least once since no one seems to know where the next big thing will come from. I like that."

We shook hands. He seemed like a very gentle man to me.

Then I wondered which of my screenplays to leave on the copy machine at Kinkos.

No comments: