MISADVENTURES
 OF A 
SCREENWRITER FOR HIRE

Some people wonder why I tell stories in which I don’t fare well.  One, because they tell you more about the industry than bragging.  Two, so you avoid the same mistake.  Three, they’re actually pretty zany, entertaining stories … and in a slight way, writers need to be entertaining to read if they are someone you want to hire as a screenwriter.   How could this important?   Despite how much the winners of awards say, “It all starts with a great script,” screenwriters are the ugly cousin of the film industry. Almost no screenwriters are recognized in social circles, and few of them get invited to be the arm candy at social events.  Sycophants don’t get the kick from screenwriters, and Hollywood is full of people with a need to stand next to someone cooler than they are to go home happy about themselves.   

My overall intent with the gutter-truth stories is to wise you to the trade while building your passion for it, which can be met in an entertaining way better than lecturing you in a cold manner. 

I am very confident in my style and achievements as a screenwriter in Hollywood.   I can laugh about the misadventures and do find them amusement looking back on them now.  It doesn’t get more bizarre, random, or oddly timed than this …

From a previous blog I was left with a new agent I will call J.D..  J.D. was great — he really knew how to improve a script.  He bonded well with his clients.  He was at a small but good agency on San Vincente, can’t even remember the name of it.  I was only there for 4 months.  J.D. had read a script of mine sent to him by a woman in production that thought I was an unknown writer with a lot of promise.

The script was Blood, Sweat, and Gold.   That screenplay assignment started with a script named “Buffalo Gods” though, written about 5 months before time.  My liaison’s old office was close to John Badham, of Saturday Night Fever/War Games/The Hard Way, and finally Heroes TV show fame.   His partner was Rob Cohen (State of the Union, The Running Man, Witches of Eastwick, Bird on a Wire, and television series.)

“Buffalo Gods” was a futuristic film, but only slightly futuristic (a lot in it is playing out today.)  I wrote it in the 80’s. In this film story, the things happening in the world were the study of global Think Tanks and Davos-level summits. These summits were attended by unimaginably rich and influential men who are “interveners” that feel good about having new Think Tank missions to intervene to correct something that they previously intervened in (ironic.)

 In “Buffalo Gods” group of seven geniuses (music, bioscience, tracking, anthropology, etc.) are hired to go to where an oil drilling expedition ran into sci-fi-level trouble and the people vanished.  These geniuses were written to be a modern “Seven Samurai “type of team, the archetypes of mythology:   the hunter, healer, seer, protector, mother earth, artist, and greedy mankind.  Even now the opening is quite true-to-life:  Africa has been blockaded to contain the spread of a virus, seas are rising, communication is via something like global Wi-Fi, nanobots can be injected into bodies – I was way ahead of the imagination curve. The team goes there and finds that an Orb is being sought by aliens (think “Transformers”) that take on the shape of anything they overpower.   The aliens are drawn to highest order of survival genius close by them.  So once our Seven Samurai land at the North Pole, the alien now inhabiting a polar bear makes a b-line for our team.   The script did not get bought, the biggest complaint is that it happens in the Artic, and no studios had teams wanting to shoot a snow mega-budget film. Now it would all be CGI.   Maybe it will be filmed some day.

“Buffalo Gods” captivated John Badham.   His office execs called me for a meeting, but said, “He’s really passionate about making a movie in South America.  You’re a fantastic writer.  We here all felt we  really were in there in Alaska, freezing to death and trying to save mankind.  Can you find out the hottest action story in South America, and we’ll pay you as a Writer for Hire? Hell, I was lit up and singing!  I did a few days of research and found out that renegade gold mines were the hottest Soldier of Fortune arena.  (Later they did “The Rundown” in the same mine that I found twenty years earlier.   So I drew together a treatment, pitched it, and they said “Yes.”  I was writing so enthusiastically then that I think I was almost finished the script within 3 weeks.   I had to go through my agent at the time.  John was an A-list director, getting about $3 million a movie, which was one of the highest, and Cohen was getting paid a lot to produce.  Universal was balking at a film in South America, yet in classic studio style was  fighting Badham’s requests to be allowed to take it to other studios (he had an exclusive deal with Universal.)  “Bird on a Wire” only did so-sio, and John was going through a bad time in his life personally.  He wanted Sean Connery, and we were about to approach him.  J.D. got the idea to go to two funding sources that were in a pissing contest against each other  to see who could fund the most mega-budget movies—Andy Vanja vs Mario Kassar. Cinergy vs. the old head partner of Carolco.  Dubbed “The Boys Who Burned A Billion Dollars,” they were blamed along with CAA’s Michael Ovitz for blowing up star salaries. They were best buddies for years, and did “Basic Instinct,” “Total Recall,” “Rambo,” “Terminator,” and other films as friends. Their secret to fame and fortune was that they knew the international distributors by name at a time when few in Hollywood did or cared to know.   At one time, their company Carolco was overspending on Directors and actors so much that on just one floor of their company they had Dean Devlin, Roland Emmerich, Renny Harlin, Oliver Stone, James Cameron, Paul Verhoevan, and others working at one time.     Now, their feud got us traction.   Kassar loved the script first, Vanjay went for it as soon as he found out about it. There were a few volley’s back and forth. 

But … we took several flak hits.

First bomb came when news about the nightmarish situations on the set of “At Play In The Field Of The Lords” flooded Hollywood.   That mega-sale was filmed right about where we would  have our location shoot set up.  Stars and crew on that movie got assaulted by bugs, threats from local jungle clans, and sickness from water and bad food.  Then headlines about Kassar crashing financially after the split began reeling.  Realizing his foe was going down, Vanja suddenly dropped out of bidding on my script.  Interest vanished faster than it should have all over town.  Something was going on without publicity yet, we could sense it.   Vanja still loved the script, though. Badham would still shoot it if Connery would go for it.  But surprisingly the agent we could previously get on the phone for Connery was not available.  In a few days, we knew why:  his rival Mario Kassar beat us to Connery, and they would do “Medicine Man.” A softer script. But the project had the funds and overpaid Connery for it.   Damn!  So close!  It was a mega-deal that was days away from closing.  Badham lost interest. 

That’s when I was getting on a really good roll with my agent.  If I stayed with him, I would have surely been a multi-millionaire writer-director. He had the eye for talent and the magic touch with people, and closed deals like those of a “Terminator” level.  But this is what happened, and Justin never found this out to this day. 

Justin had a friend named S.B. that was a mid-level agent at another boutique agency.  S.B. read all my scripts, and thought I was one of the most talented rising writers he’d met. He was making a move to a major management company near Paramount that repped several top female stars.  Their A-list of actresses was very strong, and all the movies I wrote up until then had excellent female leads.   S.B. needed to go into the management company with some talent.  So he began working me behind J.D.’s back – and J.D. was his best friend supposedly.  To convince me to leave Justin, S.B. told me downright lies he thought I would believe that was negative against Justin. S.B. advised me on just how to leave Justin, and what to say.  He promised me immediate writing assignments or script sales to the top actresses in the management company.   I felt bad because Justin was nice, good, and was referred by a friend.  But, S.B. was on the phone with me first thing in the morning, pushing me to dump Justin.

So I drove to Justin’s agency, and sit with him. When I said I was leaving, he was stunned. Shocked. This never happened to him.  Looking back, if I was smart, I would have listened as he urged me to stay, promising he’d make a sale for me. He said he had big plans for me, but wouldn’t say what.   S.B. told me he would say that and told me what to reply to ensure Justin would stop trying to keep me there.  And most important of all to S.B. was that I must never let Justin know about his involvement, or it might prevent the new management company from repping me.  After I officially left Justin, I called S.B. and he said, “Atta-boy.”   Three days later, Monday morning, I called S.B..  In a flat tone, he says I misunderstood him about representation at the management company.   It won’t take any new writers or me until I’m produced.  Sorry. Click. 

He set me up and screwed me!  Screwed my career up royally. I had already heard through the grapevine that Justin was upset and would not take me back.  Justin was extremely well-liked and well-respected, so others would avoid me for this, I found out.  Crap.

In a few months, Justin made his move from the small agency, and quickly became the head seller in Paradigm.  A fantastic agency.  He would have made me a star, like he promised! Damn S.B.. betraying bastard.   He saw me later and gave me a “What? I didn’t do anything wrong” look. 

About that year, Justin was listed as one of the most influential literary agents in Hollywood.   The fees he got if someone wanted to hire a screenwriter were starting at $300,000 per script.  Rewrites at $150,000.  Dozens of films got produced off his writers.

I spent the next year and a half trying to get a good agent.  I don’t know if they heard I dumped a beloved agent or not.  It was tough.  What I learned finally was that S.B. got pissed at Justin and used me in his secret campaign to hurt this really decent guy (Justin.). The take-away from this saga is:  “Don’t trust agents. Trust your gut.  My gut told me Justin was terrific, I let S.B. tell me he was the devil.”  

Oh, as a footnote, a decade later, a powerful new partner I had called me, very excited about a major agent at C.A.A. that was going to champion our film project. My partner talked for 5 minutes, about how he met him in a C.A.A. meeting in the music division.  My new partner was involved with “American Idol,” and had backstage passes to any concert.  S.B. now has teenage children.  S.B. sucked up to my partner for two tickets backstage to (I think) the Justin Timberlake concert.  As my new partner kept talking, I thought how strange it would be that my new partner would be promised something from the same scumbag?  Well, not rare enough, because in return for the tickets, S.B. had promised he would get us the meeting we needed with a major company that would secure our film financing.  But I told my new partner, “Forget it, S.B. will sell you out, he never honors his word. He’s scum.”   My partner swore S.B. was a great guy … until he got burned.  On the Monday after the concert, my new partner called  S.B. – who never accepted his call after he got what he wanted. S.B. never changed, once a lying betrayer, always a betrayer.

Moral of the story: if you ever get in with an agent that loves you and your work, don’t sell him out for a pipe dream blown by an asshole.  

BONUS POINTS!  About the only good thing that came out of the South American script was this.  I had met a gorgeous girl – sort of out of my league at a social event.  She was an actress starting out in Hollywood.  I didn’t have much money at the time.  I went to pick her up at her apartment in my old Lincoln.  We went to dinner and the vibe as only so-so.  We then went to a movie in Westwood.  I felt I had no chance with this girl.  Then, just before the movie started, I got a tap on the shoulder. A total stranger asked me, “Excuse me, but aren’t you the writer that wrote Blood, Sweat, and Gold?”  I said, “Yes.”  He said, “I worked at Fox.  Our office read over 200 scripts this year, and that was by far the best script. What happened to it?  Our production company didn’t have the history to produce a $70 million film, and we were sure it would go to bidding war, but we never read anything about it.”  I told him the short version of Badham, Vanja, and Kassar .  And he told the date I was with, “Hang out with this guy, he is the ultimate screenwriter!  He’s gonna be one of the biggest in Hollywood, he’s amazing.”  From that moment on, the girl liked me more and I got to enjoy all my hard work for it a short time.   We dated about 2 months.  Ahh, but for the frills of good writing …

There is more to hear about that script “Blood, Sweat, and Gold” in the Jean-Claude Van Damme Blog called “The Muscles From Brussels.”

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