Before my life and career was divided into the academic holy trinity of Teaching/Service/Scholarship, it was divided into the three creative pursuits of a professional screenwriter: Original/Adapted/Uncredited.
Screenwriting was, of course, its own pursuit - and that pursuit was primarily 1) Getting it sold, 2) getting it good, and 3) getting it made.
But looking back I see that so much of the work I did then was preparing me for what I do now. I averaged about one paid project a year for my 25 years in Hollywood. Below are a few of the most personally and professionally consequential. (I also wrote and directed a short play in 2013.)
From Los Angeles to Rochester
These are projects started from virtually nothing: a notion, a memory, a semblance of an idea - little to constrain and little to fall back on. Original projects are often the most rewarding and the most frightening to pursue. What if all this creative effort is to no avail? What if I am wasting my time and, when on assignment, my employer's money?
Adaptation is a challenge of craft. "Here is a story, now turn it into something we can film." What do you include? What do you leave out? Can the source story be altered? Or is that story sacred in some way to a dedicated readership or to the powerful person who came up with it? Adaptation is the realm of both creativity and politics.
After several years of professional scriptwriting, I became good at diagnosing, and hopefully fixing, the issues in existing screenplays by other writers. Sometimes it was a script that was purchased for a lot of money, but didn't quite work. Sometimes it was for a production that was "green lighted" before the script was actually ready. These assignments were the most personally lucrative and the least creatively fulfilling.
I was 25 years old when Tri-Star Pictures proposed to me the idea of a Western set in an inner-city high school. At first I thought it ridiculous, but then the idea percolated. I could research and understand the subject and do something that illuminated an important social issue. I Interviewed teachers, social workers, principals, and police. But the research details I wove into script were lost in the execution and the film became the first in the "white savior" genre. Perhaps I was naive.
Click here for the screenplay.
This project originated with director Martin Brest (Beverly Hills Cop, Scent of a Woman) and his longtime film editor Billy Weber who wanted to do a film about two brothers. The story I proposed was based on my own relationship with my younger brother Sam who had an irrational fear he would be sent to Vietnam as a child soldier. Josh convinces his own Sam that he is a "Strategically Altered Mutant" and the lie sets the brothers on a car adventure to Canada and perceived safety.
Click here for the screenplay.
I researched, outlined, and wrote several drafts of this script in the years 2002 and 2003. Marshall Herskovitz was set to direct it but the project fell apart in casting and was never made.
This is technically an historical adaptation, but I put this in the original category because it felt like an original - to me. The project originated with a discussion of the historical inaccuracy of the classic 1994 film "Becket," based on a play of the same title. The story of the broken friendship between Henry II and Thomas Becket is well known in its basics, but not in its nuance and details. The 1964 film completely ignored the important role of Henry's queen Eleanor of Aquitaine and the destructive manipulations of the English nobility. I was very proud of my work on this script and hope to revive it in the future.
Click here or on the picture to see a late draft of the script.
Lukas Haas, Steven Spielberg, and Roberts Blossom on the set of "Ghost Train"
It was a thrill at age 24 to by chosen by Steven Spielberg to write an episode of his new NBC anthology series "Amazing Stories" after the noted director had read a script I wrote in class at UCLA. It took me several weeks, but when I turned "Ghost Train" in, Steven was so pleased with my work that he decided to make the episode the first one in the series and to direct it himself. He invited me to the set to watch the production, but I was only able to go the first day as the Writers Guild subsequently called a strike and I was not able to cross the picket line in front of Universal Studios.
My episode was featured prominently in the promotion of the series in the fall of 1985 (see left). The whole process was a lesson for me in necessary compromise. I wrote the teleplay imagining fine details and ideal locations not fully appreciating that a TV episode absolutely may not go over budget in cost and length, but must conform to the exigencies of commercial filmmaking.
This was my first broadcast network TV project. The producers were impressed by my adaptation of "The Starlite Drive-in" and hired me to rewrite this biopic of Ingrid Bergman directly from the book on which it was based,
I found the story of Ingrid Bergman leaving her controlling and emotionally abusive Swedish physician husband for the brilliant and passionate film director Roberto Rosselini and the public shunning she suffered for making her own life decisions to be fascinating and relevant to the present.
Click here or on the title page to see a draft of the script.
This was an assignment from Turner Network Television and The Polone Company to adapt a little-known novel about about the agoraphobic wife of an abusive 1960s Drive-In Theater owner who engages in a doomed love affair with a handsome but itinerant laborer. The lover helps her overcome her fear of leaving her tiny home, but then ultimately, and tragically, disappears.
I loved this book and the writing of the screenplay but the producer of the project was about as abusive to me as the husband in the story. I was pleased with the final result. Unfortunately, TNT didn't see fit to make the film.
Click here or on the picture to read a late draft of the screenplay.
This did not have to be the ridiculous film it became. I was one of many writers on this bloated project, but it was interesting to work with Steven Spielberg again ten years after our initial collaboration. Dreamworks SKG was formed while I was writing and the pressure to perform skyrocketed at that time.
Click here for a detailed outline I worked on with Spielberg and Walter Parkes. I was chewed up and spit out by very important people in 1994.
Because I had demonstrated a facility for writing children, Castle Rock hoisted me on a project against the will of the director Fraser Heston. The first thing I said to him was that he had my word that I would not seek credit on the project. I gained his trust and was able to convince him of more aggressive changes, especially having to do with the villain character played by his father. (Charlton Heston invited me to his home to privately discuss his character. He was very thoughtful and gracious and read the lines I wrote for him just the way I wanted.) Fraser was so pleased with my work and my attitude on this film he invited me to help on another project that did not get made.
This was a very quick assignment in 1994 when I was writing "Small Soldiers" for Amblin. I was hired by Bonne Radford to script a live-action prologue and epilogue to the animatic which are part of the film.
Having just made "Josh & S.A.M." for Castle Rock, partner Martin Shafer asked me if I might help solve some script problems for a project that was going into production in six weeks. I was familiar with the subject of film having traveled to Myanmar before then. John Boorman was initially not thrilled with my involvement, but I won him over by assuring him (as I do) that I would not seek credit but was only there to help solve problems. Once he felt comfortable with me, we worked well together both in person and by fax when he was on location. We did, however, disagree with the fate of the character "Min Han." I believed he needed to be killed by the military to raise the stakes and jeopardy for the Patricia Arquette character. John strongly did not. (see fax below) I thought he had prevailed in the matter until I saw the film.
Min Han was shot and killed.
Uncredited rewrites were very lucrative for me at the time, but also made me disappear as a writer in the industry because I was not out generating new material with my name on it.
This kind of work, however, was excellent training for being a screenwriting professor as it developed my ability to read stories and scripts and diagnose problems and come up with their solutions. That is what I do every day in the classroom and while evaluating screenplays and outlines.
The other thing I learned is how do deal with huge and delicate egos. This has helped with collegiality as even the most difficult colleague does not even come close to what I dealt with in Hollywood.
Walter figures out the name for Steven's new studio - and frames the notes.
A few weeks before I left for Rochester, I wrote and directed a one-act play, one of 8 others as part of a fundraiser for our writers/actors group SAFEHOUSE. The play was performed three nights to a full house in a 100-seat theater in Venice, CA.