I heard this week that some people in Europe are opening a film school. I wish they had called me first. I think I could have saved them a lot of money, by telling them the following story:
I have a friend who grew up in Los Angeles. It’s strange for some of us, who can only think of Los Angeles as a place you come to rather than a place you come from, but my friend is an LA native, a guy who grew up in the shadow of the entertainment business, and he taught himself to write for the screen by slipping onto the Paramount lot, rummaging through the dumpsters, and collecting old television scripts.
He’d reassemble them, arranging various drafts of an episode in chronological order, tracking the script as it changed from the initial cast reading – what we call the “table reading,” because it’s read by the cast as they sit around a large conference table -- to the “shooting script,” the final production draft. Then he’d sit and try to figure out why certain lines, jokes, or ancillary characters changed, disappeared, reappeared, or got bigger or smaller.
This, for him, was film school. He learned his craft by rooting through the garbage.
Some of the script revisions were baffling -- dialogue and plot twists that delighted him in the first draft would vanish by the third. ‘Why did they cut that?’ he’d think to himself, poring over a script at the Astro-Burger on Gower Street, right next to the studio gates. ‘That was funny! That worked!’ And he’d conjure up some conspiracy – a nervous sponsor, maybe, or an insecure producer – to explain why perfectly good material got cut. Of course, some changes he saw coming – when a guest star had most of the good lines in an early draft, he’d sit there at Astro Burger, slurping up his Coke, shaking his head, ‘Guys, guys! Give the jokes to the star, okay? It’s not the Wacky Mailman Show, okay?’ And he’d turn to the next draft to see that the part of the mailman had suddenly been reduced to a single line: “Here’s your mail, sir!” followed by the direction, MAILMAN EXITS. The clever riffs on the weather, on junk mail, on a letter carrier’s blue shorts – all surgically grafted onto speeches delivered by the star of the show.
‘This is what writing for Hollywood is all about,’ he’d tell himself. ‘It’s negotiation and compromise and politics, and a willingness to make inconvenient, irrational adjustments.’ He was too young at the time to realize that that pretty much describes everything else, too: love, marriage, buying a car, children, dealing with a contractor….all of it.
But what was amazing about his self-taught knowledge was how complete it was, and how well-prepared he was, years later, to go become a successful television writer and producer. Aspiring writers of my generation never knew how much you could learn, and how cheaply you could learn it, by diving into a trash bin and mining it for gold. My generation sauntered off to film school, to gleaming classrooms and state-of-the-art facilities. But I’m not sure we learned anything more, or more indelibly, than my friend with his pile of smelly drafts.
A few years ago, I was volunteering a few days on a pilot written by this friend of mine, the guy who graduated from Trash Bin University.
The script he wrote was excellent, but the pilot production process is designed to undermine even the most confident writer. The phone rings in what seems like one continuous chirp all day long, with nervous studio and network executives offering panicked script notes.
Somewhere around the sixth day of production, as we were flying through an easy re-write, one of the writers pitched a small adjustment to the last scene. It was a breakfast scene, and all of the characters were gathered around the kitchen table. Wouldn’t it be easier for the actress, the volunteer suggested, if instead of pancakes, they were all just eating cereal and drinking coffee?
The guy who wrote the pilot shook his head.
“I want them eating pancakes,” he said.
“Yeah, but there’s all that business with the batter and it’s getting her all pushed upstage. Cereal is just a box and some milk and –“
“I WANT THEM EATING PANCAKES, OKAY?” the writer screamed. “PANCAKES! NOT OMELETS OR TOAST OR CEREAL OR ANYTHING ELSE! THAT’S WHAT I WANT! THAT’S MY VISION!”
(Although, to be totally accurate, he inserted a popular Anglo-Saxon gerund describing the sex act directly before the words pancakes, pancakes, omelets, toast, cereal, else, want, and vision.)
The room went deadly quiet.
“Pancakes,” said the guy who wrote the pilot, quietly, slowly, “pancakes is the last word in the script from the first draft. That’s it. In the past six days, every other word has changed. Every other word. The only thing from my original script is pancakes.”
(Although, to be totally accurate, he inserted a popular Anglo-Saxon gerund describing the sex act directly before the words pancakes, word, script, draft, it, days, other, changed, word, thing, script, and pancakes.)
It didn’t matter that the volunteer was correct: pancakes, and their accessories, are complicated and messy and inconvenient to film. It didn’t that the show was running about six minutes long, and that the last scene was certainly going to be cut on film. What mattered was that pancakes was the last remaining word of the original draft.
I hope there was another young writer, sitting across the street at Astro Burger, trying to figure out why pancakes, of all things, had stayed in the script. I hope there was another young writer sending himself to the cheapest, most educational, film school around.
I too am a self-taught screen writer, you know, the one you never heard of. Fortunately, I write novels too. God, is this stuff fun, or what?
Brilliant. I really enjoy reading your contributions to making our lives that much brighter. They’re worth every cent.