Screenwrite Your Way into Weirdness

Being a screenwriter – even as marginally successful at it as I am – sometimes leads to unbelievable weirdness.

Upon hearing that you’ve had one script optioned by a guy who lives in his Volvo and periodically shrieks anti-communist slogans, some people assume you must be rich. Others assume you must be a waiter.

In meeting with network execs, and spending a year of my life trying to please CBS, I had occasion to pitch a story to the V.P. in Charge of Some Damn Thing or Another. The pilot, a screwball comedy farce, was about an insurance agent, who is mistakenly assumed to be a CIA agent by his fiancÃ?©e’s favorite uncle, who happens to be Richard Nixon. Nixon, it turns out, was never really the president – that was just his cover at the time. The title, “You Don’t Know Dick” seemed to vaguely stun the woman. She nodded slowly, then asked earnestly, “You mean Richard Nixon, the politician?”

You have to be awe struck when somebody asks such a penetrating question. You also have to know your pilot is doomed.

Of course, how I came to be writing a pilot at CBS was weird all on its own. I wrote an action comedy about assassins, which lead to an almost well-know actress demanding that I write a sitcom pilot for her about a political action committee. I still don’t know why. CBS passed on that pilot, but read the assassin script and immediately and quite naturally assigned me to write a sitcom pilot about cute babies.

What the�?

About the same time, I sold an erotic thriller, filled with violence and lesbian sex and all the things that make America great. I would go from meetings about this dark, erotically charged film to discussing how to make babies more sympathetic to TV viewers, literally ten minutes later. That will do things to your head, many of which are not doctor recommended.

And then there are meetings you feel lucky to have survived. It seems producers often believe that writers are there to serve as some sort of abuse receptor, who should be thankful for the privilege of being abused. On more than one occasion, I quizzically asked, “What makes you think you can talk to me like this without being turned into a chalk outline model?”

But for sheer weirdness, nothing beats an hour long meeting in which a young woman who had sat silently through the entire first half hour – largely, it seemed, to perfect her uncanny owl impersonating – suddenly making the only statement she would utter all day. “I can say anything I want in a meeting,” she announced, apropos of nothing. Thanks for the update, I thought.

Of course weird doesn’t by itself equal delusional. That adjective would best describe the reaction of a famous action star’s manager to another script I wrote. It was a comedy and why I was even discussing it with the manager of a star who had no discernible sense of humor or acting ability was baffling. Not nearly as mind spinning as the manager’s plan to make the star viable in the role, though. “We’ll put him in a hat!”

I blinked. “A hat?” I asked, brilliantly.

The manager nodded in enthusiastic agreement with himself. “Nobody’s ever seen him in a hat,” he explained lucidly. “We put him in a hat, and man, I’m tellin’ ya, we got something!”

I nodded. And left. I was sure he had something. I was also sure I didn’t want to contract it.

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