Why the Heck are we in this Business?
Posted by The Brothers Heimberg on
Five years ago, we set forth from Maryland cross-country to Los Angeles. We were following a script we had sent out there a few weeks before. The script was being submitted to producers and studios as we drove across the heartland, and our agent informed us she'd call us on the road with an offer. We carried with us an ancient brick-like cell phone, and each time the routine was the same. Ring. (This was before Caller ID). We'd answer the phone in great anticipation of the million-dollar deal, only to hear our mom's voice on the other line checking on our progress and safety. It went like this all the way across the country. We have a series of snapshots of us on the phone, disappointed at every major landmark across the country. "Frustration at Mt. Rushmore," "Let-down at Great Dunes Park," "Disappointment in Yosemite." That set the tone for our entire Hollywood experience: Raised expectations, disappointment, all the while underscored with brotherly bickering.
During our first year in Hollywood, we were repeatedly schooled in a Hollywood etiquette that did not correlate to our own logic whatsoever. Chief among these was the idea of being "high energy" and "working the room." Why a writer should be high energy is still unclear to us. If you pitch with high energy you might be hiding the fact that there are no real ideas in your writing whatsoever. Logically, they should want you to be as low energy as possible, so the idea has to stand by itself, or better yet they could read the idea by itself (crazy!). But much like professional wrestling, there is a different sort of logic in show business, so writers pretend to be high energy and producers bark back with high energy and executives slather with high energy praise and everybody is high energy until they leave the room and say how awful the idea is!
The other thing we found common to any pitch meeting is the emphasis placed on the beverage. Perhaps it is a vestige from the days when people drank alcohol in their office and didn't need faux high energy. Or maybe the beverage is meant to compensate for the lies, backstabbing, and unreturned phone calls. We're not sure why, but people seem very concerned with others' thirst in Los Angeles.
As East Coasters, we did not fully grasp that everyone knows everything about every movie. During one meeting, as an executive mentioned the Blair Witch Project, our writing partner tried to impress them by saying that he "saw the poster for that" as if he was ahead of the curve. They gave us a perplexed look. It was a look that we would later both receive and give many times. We gave the look when a producer wanted us to write an idea that he was keeping ultra-secret because it was so good. We can't remember what the idea was, but it had something to do with the transference of genitals. We sat there with a frightened smile and tensed prayer hands much like as Alvy Singer did in Annie Hall when the old comedian tried to explain to him what was funny.
We soon fell into a routine for our pitch meetings. They ask us how we are, how long we've been in LA, where we're from. We relay a pre-rehearsed spontaneous story about our trip out to L.A. They tell us how much they liked our sample script, citing one specific, much like you would do when you read just the back of the book and you had to give a book report. Then we become high energy and explain our idea.
High energy is only half of it. We also learned we need to be high concept. The commonality here, apparently, is to be high. This stress on high concept eventually led us to write The Official Movie Plot Generator - the perfect tool to provide a writer with ideas for cliché loving execs and producers! In our experience, the more cliche and hack: "A cop who doesn't play by the rules" "A hooker with a heart of gold" "In the feel good comedy of the year" the more it seems to make studios salivate. We think it's Pavlovian.
For those of you looking for other ways to be high concept, there are many ways to do it. You can reverse it. "It's a reverse Shawshank Redemption. They have to break into the prison." Or the well-known "blank meets blank." "Die Hard meets Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Or "blank with kids" "It's Goodfellas with kids." "It's blank with animals" "The Great Escape with Pets," "Castaway with Dogs" or "Apocalypse Now with Gerbils."
Occasionally we tolerate and execute pitching logic and have to write a screenplay that creates a whole new host of problems. Collaborating is difficult. Collaborating on something creative is even more difficult, and collaborating with a family member is nearly impossible. Our standard method of writing together is outline together, break up scenes, write scenes, disagree, fight, rewrite scenes, fight some more, go over other person's scenes, fight, get tired, stop caring, and acquiesce out of fatigue and apathy. Repeat.
We have heard of more and more writing teams who never actually sit in the same room. Email is changing the way writing partners work, and demanding new angry fonts and emoticons to allow for written debate. In the end, though, email is a very healthy way to collaborate and cuts down on much wasted time. For our last written project, Kingpin 2, three of us worked together from three different cities.
When we finish a script, the studio and producers will generally tell us how perfect it is, before hiring someone else to make it even more perfect and then shelve it indefinitely. We've learned now not to put too much stock in the words "I think we can get this movie made." Now we won't believe the movie is going to be made until we're sitting in the theater complaining about how much they changed it and ruined it. Then we'll be happy. I think.
Our favorite pitch story concerns author Darin Strauss who wrote a fictional account of the original Siamese Twins, Chang and Eng. The executive explained that he loved the book and thought it would make a good movie. Then, in complete seriousness, the executive continued, "Just two questions," he said. "Do they have to be Asian? and Do they have to be attached?"
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