A Short History of Decay

On Friday morning, I met in New York City with a legendary producer of many independent films that I admire, films that have risen above the crowd to critical success and Academy Award recognition. He’s a hands-on producer who often doubles as first assistant director, something that I as a first-time director absolutely need to have. He can do a budget for the film, hire a crew almost anywhere I need to shoot. He’s got access to everything I need from casting director to key grip. And, very important, his name on the project would signal the talent and investors I need, that this is a serious undertaking with an experienced hand at the helm.

Michael Lerner as producer Jack Lipnick in Barton FInk

I had no idea how the meeting would go. My fear and my expectation was that it end with him offering only mild encouragement: “I enjoyed reading your script. It’s not really what I’m looking for right now. Best of luck with it.”

But, let me back up. Meetings at this level don’t just happen.  If you stick your script in an envelope and mail it off to a major producer it will likely be tagged, sealed and filed, unopened and unread. The reason is that if ten years from now the producer makes a film about a zombie roller derby, and your script was about zombie ice hockey, he or she will need to be protected from your suspicion that your brilliant idea has been stolen. In other words, you need an in.

Let me back up again. I had a friend in graduate school who I used to hear from pretty regularly for years after we’d last seen each other.  We went in different directions, and had very little in common, but a few times a year the phone would ring and there he was, though we had less and less to talk about.  When I finally asked him about his regular calls he told me that he made a point of cycling through his Rolodex (yes, it was a long time ago) and staying in touch with three or four people a day. “You never know when you’re going to need someone’s help,” he admitted.

I wasn’t quite appalled by this, just puzzled. I had to admire his foresightedness, but I also knew that I could never do something like that. It’s not in my character to network and to spend time talking to people I don’t genuinely enjoy talking to. (Years later, when I was an editor at New York Magazine, he got in touch and sent me a a copy of a book he’d written.  I told him that I couldn’t help him because it wasn’t right for New York. I never heard from him again.)

All I’m saying here, is that while I’ve made some friends in the film business, I’ve never stayed in touch with or even kept a list of contacts who might be able to help me out in the future. I have, on the other hand, made some real friends. And I knew that I’d need to ask them for favors to start to move this project forward.

Tim Robbins in The Player

And the first favor I needed was for some of them to read my script.  And that’s a huge favor.  You’re asking someone, a busy someone, for two hours of focused attention when they could be doing any number of other things.  People ask me to read their scripts all the time. And I do it only for good friends and as a favor for friends of good friends. I’ve learned over the years that what most people are looking for is affirmation of their talent and are hoping that I’ll be able to pass the script along to someone I know who can move them to the next level. (Though I do sometimes feel the way this guy does.)  So when I ask people to read a scripts of mine, I insist that they read them with a brutally critical eye.  After I’ve spent however many months in my cave writing a script I honestly have no idea if it’s any good at all. I need a massive dose of reality.

The first person I gave the script to was an actor friend. He’s an amazing actor and one of the smartest people I know. He’s done a ton of theater and has had tour de force roles in any number of feature films. I wanted an actor’s read, because if this project was going to have any chance at all to succeed I need to have written roles that actors would want to play, and play for a lot less money than they would normally get.

We met for lunch several days after I’d handed him the script.  He came with notes, some really insightful critiques of the characters as well as some plot points that he thought I’d left undeveloped. It was an encouraging meeting, but also one that sent me back to my cave for a month. (It shouldn’t have taken me a month to do those revisions, but that’s a story for another time.)

I’m not going to pretend that there’s no luck involved.  Because if I were living in St. Louis or even in LA, this might not have happened. But I live in the northwestern corner of Connecticut, a beautiful rural place that is also the weekend or permanent home to a lot of people in the arts.

So I asked a good friend, an academy award winning director, if he would read my script. I did this with a pit in my stomach, even though he never hesitated. He had read some of my scripts before, but only after he’d asked me for them. But that was just one friend curious about another’s work. This time I handed him a script looking for help.  Looking for affirmation that I wasn’t totally deluded about what was written on those 118 pages.

It was this director who passed it on to the producer in New York.  And there’s no way in hell that the producer would have even  read the script if it hadn’t come from this director. (He’s in preproduction on a film in New York at the moment.)

So when I walked into the production office on Friday, I had reason to fear that our meeting was a courtesy to the director who had handed him the script in the first place. After some small talk — anecdotes exchanged about our mutual friend — he started talking to me about the script. It slowly dawned on me that he was talking about it in the manner of someone who had thought about what we would need to shoot it, where he could find the crews and how many shooting days we’d need in various places.

And after talking to him for a while, I needed to hear him say it, so I asked him directly: So are you going to work with me on this movie? And he said, yes. Yes, we’re going to move forward and try to make this movie.  It’s been a while since I’ve heard a “yes.” And I know that this “yes” by no means gets this film made. There still lies heartbreak and tribulation ahead.  But it’s a step. An important step that makes this all the more real. I wanted to hug him, but I didn’t.

P.S. He preferred my original title, so it's back to A Short History of Decay. For now.

See the Next Post in this series.

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