Though my deal hadn’t been closed, I was already writing the studio sequel I’d sold the movie star, Rodney Redux (name obviously changed to protect the guilty). The studio’s partner, the foreign financier I’ve coined El Franco, insisted the script land on his desk within six weeks. So I reckoned I’d better get to it.
To generate a polished screenplay in a mere six weeks required me to get my first pass done within three short weeks. That’s one act per week. Somehow, locking the door to my home office didn’t feel like it would be enough to jump-start me into word-vomit-overdrive. I needed incentive and distance from Los Angeles. Ojai, came to mind. The Ojai Valley Inn and Spa, a resort roughly ninety miles northwest of Los Angeles, had a room available. It was time to employ my technique of wake-write-golf-write-sleep-repeat (briefly chronicled in an older post titled A Rock and a Hard Place.) By shutting myself in a comfortable hotel room and bisecting my writing sessions with a round of nerve-easing golf, it maximized my hours at the keyboard while allowing an afternoon on the links to glimpse the forest through the trees, so to speak.
About three days and twenty-some odd pages in, my phone rang. It turns out El Franco wanted to send me some kind of commencement gift to thank me for starting work on the screenplay before my deal was fully inked. Whatever did he have in mind? I wondered. Flowers? A bottle of Dom? I hadn’t a glimmer. But I gladly passed on the address of the Ojai Valley Inn and was settling back in to begin my evening session when my phone rang again.
“(El Franco) is really disturbed that you’re so far away from L.A.,” said my agent.
“So?” I answered. “And I’m not far. I’m in Ojai, for God’s sake.”
“Makes him nervous that you’re not close by while you’re on such a tight schedule,” he replied.
“Let him be nervous. Tell him this is my process. He wants it fast, this will maximize my output.”
As my agent continued his game of shuttle diplomacy with El Franco, I stopped wondering about what sort of gift might be delivered to my door, certain the messenger had already been turned around. To make matters worse, with every new volley, El Franco appeared to grow even more paranoid that the writer who’d just sold Rodney Redux on a sequel was about to take him for a six figure ride.
“Okay,” said my agent about the time room service arrived with my dinner. “Don’t freak out. But (El Franco) is clearing up some office space for you in his building.”
“Like that’s gonna help anything,” I replied.
“He’s insisting that you write the movie on the premises,” he continued. “In Santa Monica.”
“No way,” I said. “I have an office at my house. If I’m not here in Ojai, I’ll work where I’m comfortable.”
“Very kind of him,” I said, dryly sarcastic. “But it doesn’t help me get the job done.”
“I realize that. But this guy is going nuts, now. And I’m trying to close out your deal.”
“So you have leverage.”
“I’ll have more if you work out of Santa Monica. Seriously. I’ve seen him lose his shit over smaller obstacles. And he doesn’t trust writers. Seems to think they’ve screwed him over too many times for too much money.”
“If he wants to look over my shoulder then he can get in his Gulfstream and visit me anytime he damn well wants. In Ojai.”
I hung up. My hamburger was already cold. And so, I discovered, was my word-spinning mojo. Part of me wanted to blow up the deal out of sheer protest. The other part wanted to finish the story I’d sold our movie star in his Aspen living room.
I cursed the short, gesticulating Euro. Then spent the next couple of hours reminding myself that he who has the gold makes the rules. And El Franco had a giant pile of the precious metal. Otherwise, the studio wouldn’t have sold the franchise rights to the Napoleonic S.O.B. I slept fitfully then wisely packed up my stuff for an early return to Los Angeles.
The internationally famous financier owned an office building in Santa Monica. It was a converted industrial space, redesigned by a name architect and decorated with massive canvases by elite modern artists. There were executive offices, foreign sales suites, and production facilities in the back where editors toiled on a pair of El Franco’s most recent pictures. At least I wasn’t the only shoulder El Franco would be peering over.
I set myself in a large, executive office in a corner with pebble glass windows that allowed for plentiful daylight without surrendering so much as a peek at the zombie-like homeless who traversed the back alley. Oh well. I lifted the lid on my laptop and did my level best to channel the movie I’d passionately sold Rodney Redux.
For all the weeks I sat there, pounding out script for my over-protective patron, El Franco, he never once stopped by my door. Never asked about how the script was coming. Didn’t even inquire about reading pages. He seemed pleased enough to know that I was working on his turf, under his tar and paper roof, and would soon deliver him a sequel that he planned to produce for under ninety-million dollars, calculating he would triple that number in foreign pre-sales.
“Kah-ching,” El Franco would smile as he passed me in the hallway.
Not that there weren’t distractions at El Franco’s Santa Monica film factory. His development exec, the son of an almost famous screenwriter, would stop by my office with concocted tales of his uncredited scribbling on movies he could only dream of having written on. So thick was his smoke that he couldn’t see past his own lousy bullshit – that if he was such a pedigreed ghost-writer, he wouldn’t be toiling as El Franco’s D-Boy. And by the whacky story ideas he’d throw at me, I could see his one and only talent might’ve been that of a con artist on salary who’d wormed his way into the financier’s fold.
Then there was the high-concept sex thriller the financier was casting. For nearly two weeks, it seemed every half hour was marked by the most desirable ingénues in Hollywood clicking their spiked heels past my door. Some would enter, lost and looking for the casting director. Others would curiously wonder if I was the writer of the movie for which they were auditioning, hoping that by distracting me they might get the inside rail on the part. I was sad to see Jennifer Connelly didn’t score the part.
After six weeks, I had my draft. Twenty minutes after I gave it to El Franco to read, he called me to his office. He had a thought about the scene on page eight. I made a note and encouraged him to read on. But strangely, he wanted me to address and fix the note before he would continue. Okay, I said. I quickly made the silly fix and returned him a new, updated copy. Ten minutes later, he buzzed again. El Franco had a note about some dialogue on page thirteen that he needed addressed before he’d read any further. I strongly suggested he write down all his notes as they pertained to the screenplay, promising to attack each one after he’d made it all the way to Fade Out.
“I can’t read that way,” he begged. “Please. This is how all my writers work with me.”
In retrospect, I think the famed financier was less power mad than he was a high-functioning autistic. But because El Franco’s notes were so insignificant and easy to adjust, I chose to humor him for the sake of getting on to the next phase which, I hoped, would involve packing my laptop and heading back to the Valley.
“I love it,” charged the financier, once I’d spent all day assisting him to the end. “(Rodney) will be sure to say yes, especially considering I’ve agreed to pay him five million more than the studio first offered.”
The next morning I received a phone call from my agent.
“You see Variety?” he asked me.
“Nope,” I said. “Still in the car.” I recall feeling remarkably adjusted to my daily commute over the hill.
“Read it and call me back,” he said.
“Why don’t you read it to me?”
With that, my agent read from a front-page publicity blurb trumpeting a writing deal El Franco had struck with another word jockey to pen the same sequel I’d just delivered.
“Gotta be a mistake,” I said.
“Didn’t come from us,” he said. “We don’t even rep that writer.”
Upon arriving at my Santa Monica digs, I decided to cut right to the chase. I picked up a copy of Variety from the receptionist and marched into El Franco’s office.
“What’s this about?” I asked.
“Oh, that,” said the financier. “That’s a mistake. I made a deal for (the writer) to write me the next sequel.”
“The sequel after the one I was hired to write?” I clarified.
“Yes,” said the financier.
“So if I called (the other writer) right now, he’d tell me he’s writing the sequel after the sequel?”
“Why would you want to do that?”
“Just wondering if he knows he’s writing the sequel to the sequel.”
“What does it matter? It’s a totally different story!”
“Pretty sure it’s a breach of WGA policy. Can’t have two writers writing the same movie.”
“I told you. It’s not the same movie!”
“It is if they have THE SAME GODDAMN TITLE,” I insisted, shoving the Variety article in his face. “Or is that a mistake, too?”
I can’t rightly say that all the egg was on El Franco’s face, but he had just been caught in a big, bald-faced lie. He was clearly trying to hedge his bet on Rodney Redux climbing aboard the sequel by developing two different movies under the same brand banner.
With that, I walked out, packed up my office and headed back home. From there I planned to let my agent and lawyer sort it all out.
Though Rodney Redux didn’t see the article in Variety, his manager did. Unhappy as he was, it was decided that they would present both screenplays to the movie star in a sort of “pick a sequel, any sequel” kind of option.
Well, Rodney Redux chose to read neither screenplay and, once again, walked away from the picture…
… until two years later when El Franco paid him even more money to stamp his fat name over the title. Of course, by then it was an entirely different script by an entirely different screenwriter.
As for yours truly? Don’t feel sorry for me. I was paid handsomely for my efforts. And it wasn’t all for naught. The third act of my film ended up as the third act to another movie by the same damn distributor. But I’m saving that for another post.
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- Primetime: Getting Your First Job in Hollywood
- Mapping the Journey for Professional Screenwriters: An Interview with Diane Drake
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