The longer I stay in this business, the more I think I’m ultimately not cut out for it. At least when it comes to movies.
I sold my first film script about 6 years ago, and began a feature career marked with, well, eventually being rewritten by somebody else. This is par for the course with movies — you do your contractual drafts and then they bring in a Closer, someone with a track record, as extra insurance against the weakness of their own wills, and their flibbertigibbet bosses whose taste remains a mystery to even their closest foot-soldiers while their aversion to risk only multiplies with each vertically-integrated corporate restructuring. Meanwhile, while slowly growing a TV career that would eventually steal my full attention, I was also trying to write feature specs. But because of a very commercial-minded manager and my own mounting confusion over how to navigate the studio system, I started writing worse and worse shit. The nadir coming when I found myself, somehow, writing a movie about a talking dog. (Specifically, a dog who turns into a person. I know. I hate myself too.) Around that time my TV career was hitting a good stride and I basically gave up on movies. I stopped taking meetings on assignments. Stopped writing specs. Stopped becoming excited even about seeing movies. TV captured my imagination fully. I couldn’t sit in a room anymore and be told by an executive that they were looking for the next Liar, Liar. Liar, Liar is, I assure you, a terrible thing to try to aspire to. And they know it too. They hate themselves for saying it, but they say it anyway. “We need the next Liar, Liar!” (Eventually they just said fuck it and remade it as Yes Man.)
I needed some time away from film and took it, honing my voice in television, which, for the most part, values strong voices and point of view. And so recently I found myself getting the old movie itch. I started paying attention once again to the film section of the trades and kicking around some ideas, until decided on something I’ve wanted to write for years. And in between TV stuff, this summer, I found three weeks to pound out a first draft. And it flew. I was sailing with it. I was personally invested in the story and I found a group of characters that tickled me and the script was funny without being set-piecey and it avoided pandering and most importantly, I was having fun writing it. I finished and got notes from a trusted friend and did a rewrite and finally turned it in to my agent, my feature agent who hadn’t really had much to do with me in 2 years.
And here’s the shitty part of writing in this town. Your agent, no matter how much he loves you, can, much like a judgmental parent, destroy your enthusiasm for a project with one single phone call. And I got that phone call last week, in the middle of a very exciting whirlwind of TV stuff. “I love it. It’s fast, it’s funny, it’s so you. It’s great!” he gushed. “I just don’t know how to sell it.”
See. Here’s the dilemma: you try chasing the market, writing something with its poster and marketing campaign in mind, trailer moments for everyone to see, and you end up with an embarrassing script about a talking dog that not only doesn’t sell, but doesn’t help generate any new fans and can’t be used as a sample and you hate it and want to kill yourself for having produced such an unlovable pile of calculated garbage. Take the opposite approach: write something for yourself, a movie you would want to see, personalize it, cut open a vein and tell the truth, the uncomfortable truth, the ugly truth of yourself that’s squirmy and horrible but therefore relatable because it’s how people actually behave… and the market doesn’t know what to do with it. And of course in the end, having a script you love but no one else does (or no one else even gets the chance to try to love) is better than having a Sloth-baby so ugly and hideous you have to chain it up in the basement and try to forget you had any hand in putting it out into the world. But the former is only marginally better, after all, because you are doing this for a living, and all the unloved jewels in the world won’t pay the bills.
This was all stirred up today because I’m in the middle of a Waiting Period, which is my least favorite time in a writer’s career. I’ve done my work (for the moment) on all my various projects, and I’m waiting in every single case for someone else. For a producer to be done cooing over his newborn and want to work again, for a network to greenlight our pilot, for animators in Colombia to finish drawing my characters, for a Creator/Executive Producer to decide if she wants to sit in a room every day with me for the next year. And so I have time to read the trades and come across this:
“Fox has locked the Jonas Brothers to make their feature starring debut in ‘Walter the Farting Dog.’”
This is a book about a farting dog that I was given years ago by a company to see if I could come up with a “take”. I decided that I would rather go back to temping than write a movie about a dog who farted a lot. I mean, call me crazy, but a movie where the whole point is that the dog is very flatulent seemed a bit one-note to me. And I’m not above writing for the masses, but I am someone who loves Shaw, Ibsen, Chekhov, Miller, Williams, and while I would never in a million years presume to put my work even in spitting distance of any of those guys’ fucking shopping lists, I do aspire to, you know, explore More Important Themes than that of a dog for whom excessive farting is an issue.
But, as it turns out, the Farrelly brothers have no such qualms. And so they’re going to make a movie of the book with the three over-dressing, Jesus-loving brothers, (and their poor neglected non-musician younger brother Frankie), and it will make one trillion dollars at the box office.
Peter, who is a pretty good novelist, stokes the flames of funny by describing their vision for the farting dog movie thusly:
“By the time they’ve driven the dog home, everybody’s head is out the window of the family station wagon but Frankie, and only because he has a serious sinus problem and doesn’t notice the stench coming from Walter!” said Peter Farrelly, afterwards running off to numb the pain of self-loathing with copious drugs.
So fans of farting and dogs and the Jonas Brothers have this to look forward to:
“While his brothers play music, Frankie and the gaseous hound get involved in a plot that involves liberating a koi fish and thwarting jewel thieves.”
See, and that’s my problem. When given the book to consider, I didn’t have the vision to see a semi-gay tween band cavorting with a lovable but sphincter-challenged canine. I just saw the cynical acquiescence of my last shred of dignity. Silly me.