It’s Come to This

I’ve been a working screenwriter for more than ten years. (I was a journalist before that - see the other pages on this website.) I sold the first three or four scripts I ever wrote and thought “this is easy.”  I used to get hired to write movies that I pitched to studios. And sometimes I got hired to write films that they needed a screenwriter for.  I wrote a spec script based on John Hockenberry’s memoir, Moving Violations. Everyone loved the script, but no one wanted to make a movie about a guy in a wheelchair. (Can’t you hear the studio execs: “I love it, but can you lose the wheelchair?) That script got me work, but it never got made.

William Holden as the screenwriter Joe Gillis in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard.

I worked on some indie projects (most notably the cursed Janis Joplin biopic) and other things that collapsed or disappeared for reasons largely beyond my control. I say ‘largely’ because I’ve made some mistakes in judgement. I’ve sat and  waited for the phone to ring when I should have been banging on doors and selling myself and my ideas. And I’ve wasted too much time pursuing projects that weren’t good ideas to begin with.

I had an epiphany a few years ago when I was pitching a film over at Fox Searchlight. The exec said to me and the producer I was partnered with, “This is great.  Bring me a script, some talent and a director and we’ll seriously consider it.” And I thought, if I have a script, some talent and a director, what the fuck do I need you for?

I probably should have embarked on an immediate career course correction at that point, but I didn’t.  It was some combination of fear and inertia that kept me pitching ideas to producers, rather than producing my own ideas.  For example, several years ago, because people liked Moving Violations as a biopic, I was asked to pitch my take on the life of J. Edgar Hoover to Brian Grazer's company. (One of many biopics that came my way.)  I spent a month reading everything I could on Hoover, prepared a pitch and then presented it to some development people at his company.  I never heard from them again.  They ended up hiring Dustin Lance Black, who won an Oscar for Milk.  I don't blame them; I blame myself for trying to get a piece of someone else's dream project instead of chasing after my own dream project.

It took the writers strike, the collapse of the economy, and a boatload of frustration before I developed the resolve to follow my instincts and arrive at this: The only way to move forward is to write, produce and direct a film myself. That was last December.

As 2011 dawned I set out to write a film that could be shot on a micro-budget. I was thinking somewhere in the vicinity of a million dollars, or less. A film that didn’t require car crashes or explosions.   A self-contained story that would utilize interiors. A story that mattered to me.

It took me about six weeks to complete the script.

And here we are.  I’m hell bent on producing and directing this film now.  I've decided that I’m going to live-blog (so to speak) the process of making a film from scratch.  It’s risky, because:

a) I’ve never done anything like this before.
b) I’m most likely going to fail and embarrass myself.
c) I could be committing myself to 10 years of blogging this project.

I’m going write about things as they happen. (Some things have already happened, but I’ll get into that in the next post.)  I’m not going to name names...at least for now.  I don’t want to write about the people I’m talking to unless they give me permission to do it.

I've already gone to a number of friends and and asked for favors, for notes on the script and for introductions to people they know who might be able to help me.  That all sounds perfectly simple, I know. But I've never been good at asking people for favors. Or, another way to put it is that I've never been particularly entrepreneurial precisely because I saw it as asking for favors.  I'm being proactive, even aggressive, even though it's not my style. I don't have to be comfortable doing it. I just have to do it.

The first draft of the script was entitled: A Short History of Decay.  I took the title from a book of philosophy by E. M. Cioran that I love. I thought it sounded intellectual and indie-smart. The book’s subject is indeed apropos of the underlying theme of the film. (It’s a comedy, though a darkish one.) I also thought it was a signal from the start that this wasn’t going to be light summer fare.

A director friend in LA told me to change the title. No one is ever going to want to even read a script with that title.  My wife told me she thought it sounded pretentious.

The title of the script is now:  Sarasota.

Go to Part 2.

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29 Responses »

  1. What is it with studio execs and illness, physical challenges and death? Eva Longoria optioned my book, "Sixtyfive Roses: A Sister's Memoir," about a family dealing with their daughter's Cystic Fibrosis. We then optioned it to Hallmark, with Eva as producer. The Head of Development loved it, and worked for a year with the screenwriter on four separate treatments. At the end of the day, the suits in Kansas said their audience didn't want to come from work and watch a girl die. (I was secretly thrilled when CBS dropped Hallmark from their programming this spring. Perhaps they should have done a gritty film about a girl who was fighting for her life instead of the fluff they usually produce...)

    I applaud what you are doing. My husband has been an actor for over 50 years, and I was an actor for almost 25 before I turned to writing. We know the business inside out. Hope you'll make Moving Violations yourself too, after you're done with your first film. (And if you ever have a part for Len Cariou, he'd love to do a good, dramatic indie film.)

    Bravo to you, sir!

    • When we went out with the script for Moving Violations, my producing partner had a list of films & actors that won Oscars for their portrayal of disabled people. It's a long list, but it failed to impress buyers. (Though the script actually 'sold' three times in the room.)

    • P.S. There is definitely a part for Len in this film. Pls email me and tell me how to get in touch. mmaren at mac dot com

  2. Good luck to you! All great ideas are risky!

  3. Michael, I not only wish you all the luck I can, but I'll look forward to following your...I guess adventures is the best word I can come up with. Thanks for keeping us clued in.

  4. Good luck Michael...! This is great and very courageous! Keep it up! I'll certainly follow you along the way... !! Love, C.

  5. I don't know anything about making movies but I do love a good story. I can't wait to follow you as you start this next project.

  6. Well good luck, Michael Maren. You know you can always count on me for a read. And when you get ready to direct I can give you the Ten Biggest Mistakes I Made On My First Movie.

    • Stephen,
      Thanks for the comment, and the offer. You will always be my rabbi in this business. I wouldn't think of moving ahead without consulting you.

      (For others, reading these comments, Stephen is responsible for the the first script I ever wrote/sold in this business. We wrote it together for HBO, and Stephen went to bat for me when HBO wanted me off the project. Everyone needs some help getting a start in the biz. If it wasn't for Stephen I probably would have been killed in Afghanistan years ago.)

  7. Well I loved the title A Short History of Decay. But I can see that perhaps Sarasota might cover more bases. Good luck on this project, Michael. My partner, David (an actor for 25 years) wrote several screenplays that had a fair amount of interest, but, in the end they now live in a drawer. I suspect success has at least a little bit to do with stickwithitness, and I get this from you. I have a good feeling....

  8. You go mikey.......I like it hearing about the project it's interesting. Good idea.

  9. This is a great idea! I look foward to following this journey of yours.

  10. Michael,

    Congrats on your Manifesto! I liked your first title it was different. Sarasota.. Hmmm. Probably need to know more about the script to have any kind of opinion on the name...Have you considered Kickstarter? I work in the film fest circuit a great way to get traction with an audience. Could you take it out as a short or maybe shoot a scene to get initial funding? I know your not asking how and I also know you have significant ties to the industry.. Just thinking out loud on this long weekend... Thanks for bringing us along on your film making journey... Why not you! Which is what I tell myself as I finish my first book.

    • Louisa,

      All advice is welcome and appreciated. Kickstarter is definitely on my radar, but not a first choice. I've pursued a few other avenues that I'll get into in subsequent posts. At the moment, I'm having a line producer do a budget.

  11. Michael -- I will be following this. Wishing you well every step of the way.

  12. Go, Michael, go!

    Been enjoying all your posts, but none have made me happy like this one.
    You are doing exactly what you should be doing, and I am very excited for you.
    I look forward to hearing about all the ups and downs, and can't wait to attend the premiere.

  13. This sounds really interesting, Michael. Can you make it possible for those of us who'd like to follow your journey to subscribe to the blog via an RSS feed, or something like that?

  14. Sarasota! Does this mean you'll be here for a visit soon!?

    Seriously, best of luck and bon courage!

    Jude

  15. Michael, Jude R. forwarded your blog post to me. Kudos to you on your decision to write/direct/produce your own film. I myself have been involved in indie production myself both in NYC and Asia. Two points:

    * Let me know if I can lend a hand and help you push this project through
    * Interesting title - as you know, I just moved from NYC to Sarasota

    Let me know when you'd like to shoot a trailer/teaser to gain awareness on the project. You can also leverage this to pitch/fundraise and get production and talent associated with the film.

    Ciao!

    • Ken,

      Thanks. I actually plan to shoot part of the film in Sarasota, though the title might not stay. I'd definitely want to shoot a teaser at some point, though it may be a bit premature. (Or not.) Let me know what you think.

      Also, I'm hearing from a lot of people who like "A Short History of Decay" better than "Sarasota" as title.

  16. Michael. This is great. We're the wind at your back! Thanks for letting us come along for the ride via the blog. I would love to be helpful. That being said, I have no idea what I can contribute but if you figure it out, let me know. I'm all yours.

    Tessa

  17. Good luck to you Michael. I will be reading your progress with avid interest.

    I like A Short History of Decay as a title better than Sarasota, but I understand why the change...

  18. Mike,

    We've put your script's title, A Short History of Decay, into our bt.ly-based software program in order to assist you in finding the optimal configuration. The program took several hours to run, but this morning spat out the following:

    1. Saratoga
    2. Sara Smile
    3. She-Cay! She-Cayn't!
    4. Toga! Toga! Toga!
    5. The Half-Life

    We hope you find this helpful.

    (signed)

    A.I. Dept

  19. 6 weeks to finish the script? C'mon, that makes you sound very unserious. Take a few years to write the script. You should have learned that from being a real writer, that it takes time to craft the right story. That you need to leave it in the drawer and come back to it. Any real writer (novelist) knows that process).

    • There have been scripts I've spent a year or more on. On the other hand, Werner Herzog wrote the screenplay for "Aguirre, The Wrath of God" in three days. That turned out to be an okay film.

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