I arrived at the Argyle Hotel extremely hungry. Having been to one of these events before, I knew that the Writers Guild had invited the screenwriters of current movies as well as the members of the press in order to foster visibility and PR for America’s Storytellers. I expected that the evening would be both entertaining and rewarding, and it was. But of most immediate concern to me as I walked into the candlelit reception room (only sparsely peopled at the very beginning of the night, so I wasn’t shirking any journalistic duties) were the snacks. Mind you, the likes of me rarely visit the Argyle, or see food arranged in any kind of geometric pattern, so I was delighted to find gleaming trays full of colorfully sprinkled Christmas cookies, sliced brownies stacked high, log rafts of perfect celery sticks supporting tiny puffy crabmeat sandwiches, and so on. And an open bar! I wandered briefly with a ribbon of prosciutto curled around a pencil-thin breadstick, trying to chew and smile at the same time to the bartender on the terrace with a view of L.A. sparkling beyond; and having sufficiently made acquaintance of the only server carrying the substantial appetizer trays, I enlisted the aid of a very friendly WGA rep who enabled me to schmooze with the writers of my choice by bringing me straight to them, like a live-action website navigator.
The question I always led off with was: what advice do you have for writers who are just starting out? Here’s what the screenwriters had to say.
John Hancock (MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL) ^ “The important thing is you’d do it if nobody paid you.” ^ John Hancock was the first writer I was introduced to. He was hungry too, and we sipped wine and accepted the offerings of the server with the appetizer tray while we chatted. Are Savannah’s town eccentrics (the man who walks the invisible dog, the man who wears horseflies attached to wires around his head) really like that? I asked him. “No, I tamed it,” he said. “No one would believe it. You’ve gotta do it all in one bite, there’s no way. I did.” While I munched on a tiny toasted tomato and mozzarella sandwich, he described drag queen Lady Chablis’ first meeting with Clint Eastwood: Clint took her by the hand, put his director’s chair in the shade so she could be comfortable, utterly charmed her, posed for a picture with total ease and friendliness. “It was like Nixon and Elvis,” John said. John was a lawyer in the Houston, Texas area for 11 years before coming to LA to write plays and screenplays. When I asked him why he’d chosen law first and then switched, he said, “There weren’t any writers that lived on my block. NASA was near my house, so I knew kids whose dads were astronauts. It was like, Sure, you can be an astronaut, but a writer? It just wasn’t seen as a viable career.” John was by his own account starving to death in Los Feliz when his spec screenplay A PERFECT WORLD was made into a movie starring Kevin Costner and Clint Eastwood. This, not surprisingly, opened a few doors. Even so, he said, “I’m the luckiest guy in the world. I’d do it anyway. Never lose faith-I was out here for five years writing nonstop and having a ball, and if I’d never had a big break I’d still be fulfilled.”
Curtis Hanson (L.A. CONFIDENTIAL) ^ “There’s such an appetite for good scripts out there, and no one cares where [the script] comes from. Beyond that, it’s work hard and stick to it and don’t give up.” ^ Curtis got started writing because he’s “always loved storytelling. If there hadn’t been movies to write for, I would have written novels.” When I asked him what novels had influenced him in particular, he said, “I loved great storytellers who entertained and then gave you something else as well.” Dickens, Stevenson, Dumas, and Hugo were favorites; just as in screenwriting, he said, it all came down to the way they used the words on the page. “That’s the purity of it.”
Stephen Schwartz (CRITICAL CARE) ^ “It’s very difficult to figure out what the marketplace wants. If you’re writing something you care deeply about, that passion will communicate itself.” ^ Stephen was a rarity in the group of invitees, having just flown in from his home in Connecticut. “It’s harder to be a writer for film and not be here [in Hollywood], but there’s also something preferable about not being out here,” he said. Since so many people in L.A. are in the industry and avidly interested and involved in all the latest events, “it gets a little inbred. Where I live, people know Clint Eastwood, Harrison Ford, Tom Hanks, Mel Gibson, and that’s about it.” The fact that his neighbors’ lives don’t revolve around film is “better for me as a person, and better for me as a writer. As a writer, I get fed by real people.” As for how he came to this career: he went from journalist, to entertainment businessman, to TV producer, to full-time writer, which naturally drew on all his journalistic experience. “It’s circular,” he said. “Sometimes the circle is the shortest distance between two points.”
Jordan Katz (INCOGNITO) ^ “You know what? I don’t have any advice whatsoever. Be lucky. That’s the best advice. And persistent. Beats talent. It’s better than talent.” ^ Why did you decide to write a script about art forgery? I asked. He said that, among other things, he figured that “an actor could tap into that need for recognition, that feeling that the fame of others was undeserved, and the resentment that your own greater talent hadn’t brought you nearly as much recognition.” The server with the appetizer tray came by us then, and at my polite refusal of the mini-latkas gave me the barest smile, as if to say, Sure, now she’s dainty. Meanwhile, Jordan-who, like many of the screenwriters, had taken an indirect route to his profession (via law and playwriting, in Jordan’s case) encouraged me to look at the bright side of my own accomplishments and said that my mother shouldn’t give me such a hard time. Incidentally, Jordan recommends Curtis Hanson’s movie BEDROOM WINDOW as being even better than L.A. CONFIDENTIAL.
Paul Thomas Anderson (BOOGIE NIGHTS) ^ “You hold the cards.” ^ “He’s a little tiny skinny fellow. He looks about ten,” said the WGAW rep who navigated me through the room. Upon seeing Paul, I’d have put him at 19 at least. Sort of like an early Beatle separated from the rest of the group, wire-rimmed glasses with tousled hair, one side of his zipped-up jacket’s collar sticking up, full of good-spirited energy and unfailingly polite as he wrapped up his conversation with Bob Welkos of the L.A. Times. Paul set the group around him laughing by ending a story with “It’s like being in a bad relationship, you know? You give them something and the other person wants more more more, and you’re like, I just gave! I just gave! I need to replenish!” He shook my hand as the WGAW rep inserted me deftly into the group, right next to Bob Welkos, and told me that he had to run, he was late for a dinner appointment, but he’d like to talk to me– “I’ll walk you to your car,” I offered. Oh, that would be great, he said, he had to wait for it anyway. Valet, you know. I nodded and said in a wry, worldly aside to Bob Welkos, “L.A.,” and Bob Welkos of the L.A. Times nodded back with wry, worldly understanding. Out in the crisp night in front of the hotel, Paul gave his ticket to the valet and lit up a cigarette immediately, fidgeting anxiously about how late he was for dinner, apologizing kindly to me all the while for being in such a rush, one sleeve of his shirt now sticking out from under his jacket. No problem, I said, we’ll get straight to the questions. What’s the best and worst thing you’ve done for yourself? “The worst thing I’ve done? éPeeing in the shower, I guess. The best thing I didé Talk Mike De Luca into paying for this f*****g movie!” He grinned, puffing on his cigarette and practically hopping from foot to foot with the cold and his nerves. As for advice to writers: “You hold the cards. They try to make you think you don’t hold all the cards. All the time. And you do. If you’ve got the script they want, you hold all the cards. Don’t develop scripts. Just write them. That’s my advice. Oh, cool, my car’s here!” And with another heartfelt apology for having to rush off like this, he jumped into his car with a happy wave.
And by the way, I have Paul’s word that that really is Mark Wahlberg in the last shot of BOOGIE NIGHTS. No stunt doubles. If you’ve seen the movie, you know what I’m talking about.
Harry Clein, publicist, Clein & White ^ “Become a doctor.” ^ No, really. ^ “Keep doing what you’re passionate about. Big money comes from passion-get involved for the work and the passion for the work.” ^ Harry was at the cocktail party because he’d just given a brief talk to the writers on how to be their own PR reps. If the writers were listening to Harry, I figured, then so would I. His advice: “Writers can do better bios for themselves than a publicist can. All it takes is finding out how to approach it, and not being embarrassed to approach themselves like that. They know what makes them special, what makes them special to a particular project, what they’ve done and who they are, the themes and feelings in their work. If a writer gives a journalist an interesting, personal answer with a strong point of view, the journalist is able to do a much better story on the writer and the project. A better story sells the movie better; the public reads the story and wants to see the movie now, and the movie makes money and the writer gets hired again, which is the goal. Make your answers personal. This is part of my life, this is how my wife and I met. And suddenly, the answers become interesting in themselves. Have a point of view, which a writer should have anyway, and take it to the public. A writer already has skill with words. Just move that skill from the script to yourself. Explain yourself the way you would a character. It’s not just about your past credits, though it doesn’t hurt to have credits. But if you’re interesting, you’ll always be able to eat at cocktail parties. You’ll always be a wanted guest.”