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Great Art and Muppet Hatred by Dean Koontz
Writing the first draft of a screenplay is not as enjoyable as making love or eating a big plateful of kibby with garlic-flavored yogurt sauce, but it's close behind those activities on the list of Experiences that Prove God Exists.
The screenplay format is so flexible, allowing for such easy revision, that it has a special appeal for obsessive-compulsive scene polishers like me. Totally restructuring a 100-page film script to accommodate an inspired new twist to the story is a breeze when compared to the nightmare of performing the same task with a 500-page novel.
Furthermore, a screenplay is not meant to be published and read by the public, as is a novel. One is relieved of the need to refine the prose in which one sets a scene or describes the action; only the dialogue must be spot on, while all else is written with telegraphic brevity in respect of the interpretations that will come from the director, the DP (director of photography), the set designer, the visual-effects specialists, and other creative elements in what is, after all, a collaborative medium.
Although a novelist has the luxury of going internal with his characters, the screenwriter is limited by the inherent shallowness of film and cannot reveal the thoughts of characters -- short of the clunky device of a voiceover, which is long out of fashion. This presents the pleasant challenge of revealing characters solely through the actions they take, while freeing the writer from the complex task of directly portraying the numerous -- and revealing -- harmonies and contradictions between the characters' internal and external worlds.
In addition, the word count of a screenplay is but a small fraction of the word count of the average novel. Hallelujah.
As the author of a novel, even if you are treated well by ninety percent of reviewers, you can count on being savaged occasionally by a reviewer who 1) wants to be a novelist himself but can't sell his work and loathes you because you're published, or 2) is a published novelist who sent you his new script for an endorsement and didn't get one and loathes you because you either didn't have time to read his book or didn't like it, or 3) is a deranged literary stalker who has been striving to kill you with words in every publication that will allow him space for the past fifteen years, solely because he has fixated on you much as that sociopathic slasher fixated on the actress Teresa Soldana. This never happens to screenwriters because even the most famous film critics seem to be oblivious of their contribution and think that every frame was extemporaneously conceived by the auteur director and his cast. Screenwriters are often anguished about this lack of respect, but anonymity ensures against the assaults to which novelists are subjected.
And though a novelist occasionally catches reviewers in the act of criticizing a book without having read it (their fecklessness revealed when they confidently cite inaccurate plot and character details from a publisher's error-riddled press release), no film critic has such a short attention span that he cannot sit two hours in a dark theater before expressing his opinions.
In the course of performing his work, the screenwriter has a shot at meeting Sandra Bullock, Peter O'Toole, Winona Ryder, Gene Hackman, or even whatever wonder dog has most recently starred in a box-office-shattering canine epic. Novelists mostly sit alone in their studies.
Screenwriters can have names like Babaloo Mandel and be hugely successful. Novelists must have more serious names if they wish to sell books.
Screenwriters can look like Joe Esterhas and be acclaimed as great talents. But novelists who look like Joe Esterhas are under continual surveillance by state and federal police agencies.
By now you probably believe that I would exhort every aspiring young writer to focus his or her efforts entirely on the screenplay and to forego writing novels at all costs. If this is what you think, you did not sufficiently ponder the words "first draft" in the opening sentence of this introduction, and when you read the third paragraph, you did not give the proper ironic edge to the words "collaborative medium."
The first draft is the sole effort of the screenwriter, the joyous exploration of his heart and soul, the exuberant expression of his talent. Then he gets notes from producers, directors, studio executives, and ultimately actors. The fate of the project -- whether it languishes in development hell or eventually goes before the cameras -- and the quality of the finished film depend on the talent, intelligence, perceptivity, sensitivity, humility, mental health, sobriety, and personal grooming habits of those who become the writer's collaborators on the second and all subsequent drafts. Because the actors, studio executives, directors, and producers are human beings -- well, most of them, anyway -- it is a rare project indeed that does not require the writer to be involved with at least one megalomaniac, or incoherent cokehead, or homicidal sociopath. Only one is required to wreck either a five-million-dollar art film or a hundred-million-dollar extravaganza.
Allow me a single anecdote:
After writing the first-draft screenplay based on one of my novels, I was delighted when the studio green-lighted the project conditional only on the signing of an acceptable director. Often, the green light is also -- and primarily -- conditional upon the signing of a name actor for the male lead, which is much more difficult than nailing down a good director. The producers sent the script out to major talent agencies, expecting eight or nine directors to express strong interest, of which three might prove acceptable to the studio. Instead, twenty-two directors responded enthusiastically, and twelve were of sufficient caliber to excite the studio brass. Perversely, the producers rejected all the Oscar-nominated, critically acclaimed directors and all those with box-office hits to their credit, asking the studio to accept, instead, a director whose body of work included one obscure film with minor cult status and a truckload of direct-to-video shlock that made Ed Wood appear the equal of Orson Welles. More perversely still, the studio agreed.
In my first telephone conversation with this director, he was literally incoherent. His voice repeatedly slid away into a wordless mumble and strange quiet laughter -- as if voices in his head were not yet urging him to kill the President of the United States but were telling him jokes. During a torturous forty-five minute conversation, I got from him only the observation that he wanted the script "pumped up," to ensure that our project would be "the bloodiest, sexiest, craziest fucking movie ever made." As the original story involved very little blood, no sex, and a meticulously logical storyline, I grew alarmed. He told me he wanted to "emphasize the themes of incest and buggery," and when I noted that no such elements existed in the script, he said, "so we'll put them in, and then we'll emphasize the hell out of them."
Subsequently, when I phoned the producers to express my concerns about the director, they told me not to worry. "He's eccentric," they said, "but he's a genius. We know how to control his eccentricities and elicit his brilliance." They cajoled me into taking a meeting with them and the genius.
This meeting, which the director was too busy to schedule for two months, lasted more than ninety minutes. The genius excused himself to use the bathroom five times, and each time he returned, his eyes were more bloodshot and watery than before. He was even more incoherent than he had been on the telephone months earlier. He spoke of the "incestuous, sodomizing, fascist bastards" who would be exposed and held up to scorn by this film, and he envisioned "massive gut-ripping machine entities blasting through buildings with such dramatic realism that we'll blow the heads right off the candy-ass audience."
Half an hour into the meeting, he noticed that both his shoes were untied. He gave me a baleful look and said, "Did you do that?"
I assured him that I had not been tampering with his laces.
Not twenty minutes later, noticing his untied shoe again, he leaned forward in his chair to frown down at them. "This again," he said with a weary sigh, as though plagued to destruction by trickster gremlins, but he made no effort to tie new knots.
As he was leaving he caught sight of his loose laces once more, gave me a look of high suspicion, and said, "Okay, enough of this." Scowling, he pointed a finger at me and said, "Neither of us wants this to be a fucking Muppet movie, do we?"
"No," I assured him.
"I hate those cute furry-assed little bastards," he said -- and departed.
When the director was gone, I expected the producers to burst into laughter or, at least, to shake their heads in despair at their poor colleague's decline. Instead, they were solemnly enthusiastic about the prospects of the film.
As none of this -- from the incestuous fascists to the gut-ripping machine entities to the Muppets -- seemed to relate to either my novel or the script that I had based on it, I asked the producers -- call them Tweedledum and Tweedledee -- if they had understood anything that this pitiful man had said during the meeting. "No," Tweedledum replied, "not really. But the guy's a genius. We don't operate on his level." When I calmly suggested that a blazing genius, by virtue of his superior intelligence, should be a more effective communicator than the average Joe, not an incoherent rambler with bloodshot eyes and body odor, both producers disagreed with me. "Geniuses," said Tweedledee, "usually don't make sense to the rest of us -- until we see their finished work, of course, and then we understand and we're humbled by it." And Tweedledum said, "Like Mozart or Andrew Lloyd Webber."
I decided that life was too short to work with our genius and to wait for that humbling moment, so I left the project. This infuriated Tweedledum and Tweedledee, because it was my script the studio had conditionally green-lighted, and the responsible executive would at least temporarily pull the green light if another writer came aboard. "You will," said Tweedledum, "never work in this town again." And Tweedledee said, "Worse, when this picture becomes a monument to art, you won't have a chance to be associated with it, because we'll leave your name out of the advertising."
Two years later, after numerous drafts by another writer, the project died. The director moved on to more direct-to-video shlock. The monument to art was never constructed, and the world is richer for that. I am still working in this town -- and have endured numerous variations of this story.
I keep subjecting myself to this torture because the screenplay offers a supple format with enormous promise. And because, once in a while, a project goes well. As I write this, my screenplay based on my novel Phantoms is in production at Miramax/Dimension, under the guiding hand of Joe Chappelle, a talented young director. Joe has shot my script ninety-eight percent as written. When Peter O'Toole wanted to change just one pronoun in a speech, he called me and talked about it for half an hour. The dailies and all the early assembled sequences are dazzling, even without music or special effects yet laid in, and I'm confident that Joe's cut will be terrific. I'm even willing to hope that the studio's cut, after Joe, will be respectful of my words and his vision -- though nothing is certain until the day the finished film is actually released. Whatever the outcome, I've had a chance to work with people I respect, not only Peter and Joe but Bob Weinstein, one of the legendary founders of Miramax, and a great producer named Joel Soisson -- instead of sitting alone in my study. Oh, yeah, and I've got a great "Phantoms" crew T-shirt.
I've no doubt that all of the novelists in this book are driven, like me, to write the first drafts of their screenplays out of the sheer love of the form. They persevere through the vicissitudes of the development process in the hope of working with a special team, like ours on Phantoms, that will be free of megalomaniacs, incoherent cokeheads, and homicidal sociopaths. When things go wrong, the dream is never visualized, and the script lies on a shelf, unproduced: all that passion expended and hard work done for nothing. Courage is required to risk precious time and one's heart in the writing of a screenplay when a novel is far more of a sure thing; therefore, when you read the scripts herein, I hope you'll make a special effort to visualize the stories -- both those that have been produced and those that have not -- on the authors' terms and, by doing so, give them a life in the theater of your mind that is as similar as possible to their creators' original intentions.
Copyright ©1997 by Dean Koontz. Reprinted with permission of the author. All rights reserved.