When I first moved to Los Angeles I was invited to a screenwriters’ group. This was a place for struggling writers to come together, develop camaraderie and support, and work on developing our craft. The way it was supposed to work was that we would all sit in a circle and read each other’s scripts, then take turns critiquing them.
Great. It was time to lay aside my high-minded literary prejudices and give the screenwriting delivery system (stories are a drug, didn’t you know that?) a real try. I’d just placed a novel with a lovely little Canadian press at the time, and decided my first experiment would be to adapt it into a screenplay. So I wrote the first few scenes and headed off to the group.
Let me set the scene for you. There was only one other writer there besides myself who’d actually written anything outside the script format. The rest of the group liked to remind themselves, as such folks too often do, that screenwriting is so much harder than writing a novel, because in a novel you get to write down any old thing that pops into your head, whereas in a script there are rules! I’ll save the old “which is harder” debate for another time (along with other such blistering controversies as which will get you drunker, water or tequila?), and merely point out here there is nothing uglier than a group of wannabes scrabbling up and down ladders to stroke the massive phallus of a collective ego. It’s like watching minions in Gru’s secret lair building a fart gun.
“As you all already know, we’re trying to do something here that’s so much more difficult and complex than mere literature.”
“Well said, Bob.” Knowing nods all around the room.
Bob (I’ve changed his name from Joe, or something, for obvious reasons) (actually, I can’t really remember his name.) (Lord, I hope it wasn’t Bob) …Bob had exalted alpha status in the group because he had worked for one of the major studios. Obviously he was “in the know.” At least that’s what I’d initially been told. As it turns out, he hadn’t actually worked there. He’d done an internship, which means he read scripts from a slush pile and got to hang out with other wannabes and talk like he was in the industry. But everyone in the group deferred to Bob’s opinion. Yes, he was their Gru.
When we came to my script excerpt, we assigned people to read the various roles and went through those first scenes. After the last line was read, the circle began it’s critique. Folks let out a collective breath, made appreciative noises, shook their heads to signal their ironic pleasure. They made helpful comments like: “I don’t know why, but I really liked it,” and, “that was scary—where do you come up with an idea like that?”
And then it was Bob’s turn.
“Really good stuff, Andrew. Of course you already know you’ll never sell this anywhere in the industry. Not ever. Just not going to happen.”
It was like watching metal filings aligning in a magnetic field, as everyone shifted to the Bob zeitgeist.
Knowing nods all around. I guess that was settled.
Then there was this really strange moment that stretched on, as Bob tried to hold eye contact with me, as if beaming some sort of arcane screenwriter insight telepathically into my brain.
Los Angeles is a weird place.
I was surprised to find that the next aspiring writer up that night didn’t actually have anything written down on paper for us. But he had a story idea, he said, and he wanted the group’s opinion about it.
“This story has been bothering me for months. I’m just having trouble figuring out where it’s going.”
Bob was eager to take the lead.
“Well tell us about the idea, and maybe together we can work through it.”
“Okay. So here it is.” His hands fly into the air on each side of his head. “There’s a car, right? headed down the PCH.”
“It’s PCH, not the PCH. That’s how you can tell someone’s not from LA.”
Knowing smirks all around. In spite of the fact I don’t think anyone in the room was actually from LA.
“Oh, yeah, okay. So this car is headed down PCH. It’s early morning, I think, and the top is down.”
“I think it should be a Ferrari.”
“Okay, yeah, that’s good. So this is the image I’ve got: This guy is racing down the… racing down PCH, the wind is blowing his hair as the car races along beside the ocean. And I think he’s worried about something. And I think there’s something about a ghost, maybe following him…”
The group is silent.
“And that’s what I have so far. The idea just won’t let me alone.”
Bob starts nodding, slightly, at first, but with growing enthusiasm.
“That’s a great image. This guy. He’s obviously haunted.”
Others around the circle start to chime in, now that Bob has given the stamp of approval:
“The ghost could be his dad!”
“Or maybe an ex-girlfriend. She could have been murdered…”
“He could have killed her himself. Now he’s fleeing the scene and her ghost is following him.”
“Wait,” says Bob. “I like the dad idea. That whole father-son thing, you know? That plays very well in Hollywood.”
“The father image resonates with me, too,” says our aspiring storyteller.
Bob, still nodding: “Yeah, the dad is dead, but there has to be some unfinished business with him and the son, right? That’s what’s going to drive the story.”
Another eager collaborator: “Maybe they just never got along. The dad was a big corporate mogul, and the son just wanted to be free of all that, and had, um, eschewed that whole ultra-rich lifestyle. But now he’s been left all this money…”
“Wow, I like that.”
“…and he’s angry with his dad about it.”
“Well, maybe he killed his dad.”
“Or… his dad was murdered!”
“That’s what I just said.”
“I think there should be a dog in the car with him, you know? His long time companion.”
Bob again: “That’s a great idea. But what kind of dog is going to match the emotional angst we’ve built here?”
And on and on. Until Bob finally sums up the discussion for everyone.
“This was really great! You’ve got your work cut out for you now. But I think you’ve got a really powerful story. I can’t wait to see it on the screen!”
Knowing nods all around the room.
Yeah, Los Angeles is a weird place.
As fascinating as this was on an anthropological level, you might not be surprised that I never returned to the group. I wish them all the best, and I’m waiting for Hollywood to release the man driving in his car haunted by the ghost of his wealthy dad story. You know it’s bound to happen, dog or no. Maybe it will be a parakeet by the time it goes into production.
What I had stumbled on was a microcosm of how a lot of people seem to think the creative process works around here. And rather than chafe at the absurdity of it, these folks wanted to be a part of “the industry” so badly, they’d bought into the paradigm completely. It just wasn’t for me, and I put any further screen writing in my own life on hold for a while to do the easy stuff.
You know, write another novel.