An unvarnished look at what one scribe calls “the ignominious indignities heaped upon the unsuccessful screenwriter,” this WGA-sponsored compendium of brief essays by television and film writers could not come at a better time. The travails of the 50-odd screenwriters who recount the way they first clawed their ways into the biz just may soften the heart of a producer or two when the two sides meet across the bargaining table to consider issues like greater creative control and higher residuals.
Each essay examines what Goldman, in his hilariously self-deprecating account of placing his first novel with Knopf after years of rejections, calls those moments, “big or small,” when a writer’s life “took a leap, left a familiar orbit, landed somewhere strange.”
What’s surprising is that, even in the case of so many well-established writers — among them Cameron Crowe, Larry Gelbart, Richard LaGravanese, Caroline Thompson and Michael Tolkin — that leap was a long time coming, and marked by mind-numbing frustrations, mortifying rejections and dead ends.
Screenwriter/novelist Peter Lefcourt was “a couple of months away from a busboy’s job at Denny’s” when he landed a job in a tiny office at Paramount, writing “a script for a canceled cop show that was being shot as I wrote it.”
Playwright/performer Eric Bogosian learned his first lessons “about how movies don’t get made in Hollywood” when his solo show “Drinking in America” briefly made him the flavor of the month.
Charlie Hauk, now a producer on “Frasier,” got his start working for Business Week in Pittsburgh, where he was “one of the funniest people covering the coal, steel and aluminum industries.” April Smith writes of the first time she was felt-up in Hollywood — by a TV executive responsible for her first assignment.
The collection provides a remarkable cross-section of the industry, with some writers providing tangible accounts of sweaty-palmed meetings inside the corridors of studios and production suites.
Marilyn Suzanne Miller sharply captures the anarchy that ruled the early days of “Saturday Night Live.” Jan Sardi, who brought “Shine” to Sundance with no expectations only to find himself in the midst of a seven-studio bidding war, tells of the three Hollywood assignments he’s received subsequently, not one of which has yet been made.
But other essays misfire. Not all screenwriters are adept memoirists, and some treat their pieces as occasions to lavish effusive praise on various mentors or dispense dead-earnest inspirational advice: Tina Andrews belabors Alex Haley’s dictum to “write from the heart.” James V. Hart contributes an overwrought account of a pilgrimage to Francis Ford Copolla’s California estate.
But the grit and perseverance evinced in these essays should offer considerable encouragement to readers desperate to break into the screen trade.
And not all the stories are so dire.
Lawrence Kasdan tells how, after nine years of writing without a break, his script for “The Bodyguard” earned him a meeting with John Calley, who installed him in Robert Towne’s office on the Warners Lot.
Peter Casey recalls anxiously pitching “Frasier,” with his partners David Lee and David Angell, to a troika of NBC execs. The execs — Warren Littlefield, Perry Simon and Jamie Tarses — were so taken with the idea that they scarcely tinkered with the pitch, and there were no story notes.
“In the world of network pitch meetings,” Casey writes, “this was hitting one on the screws three hundred yards down the middle of the fairway.”