WRITING FOR ACADEMY AWARD WINNERS

I’ve mentioned in other blogs how rare it is to find Producers that know how to improve a script nowadays.  This skill was mandatory a few decades ago.  I think that the digital age and expansion of film schools allowed more Producers to rush ahead to production.  In my mind — hey, it’s great that they get to produce a film so fast.  But steps along the way – steps learning the elements of better storytelling – are often skipped.  That is why you hear so many bizarre comments in studio meetings about rewrites on your scripts.  Here you are a writer that toiled away at writing s solid story, and suddenly a Producer asks if you can make “the death of the midget drowning in the toilet more glorious for midgets” (this is an actual note on a comedy assassin movie – his word choice not mine.)  

I have been lucky enough to work with several Academy Award winners.  I would be either a Screenwriter for Hire or I would have written a script they wanted to set up.  

Here is a list of the infamous Producers or Directors I worked with, learned from, or set up projects with:  

Freddie Fields:  Glory


Jerome Hellman:  Midnight Cowboy


John Badham:  Saturday Night Fever


Barry London:   Co-Head of Paramount/Titanic, Forrest Gump, Braveheart, Top Gun


Cort/Madden:  Mr. Holland’s Opus


Albert Magnoli:   Purple Rain (early guidance in film making/writing)


Sydney Pollack:  Tootsie, Out of Africa, countless others (seminar mentoring)


Tony Scott:  Top Gun, Man on Fire, Unstoppable, A-Team, countless others.

Joel Silver (Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, etc.) didn’t really do script improvement or mentor/advise me in any way-but his office staff did. 

My experiences with the big days of New Line Cinema were interesting, and I learned a lot about how to create a slate of films and build a smart working model (met with Mike DeLuca who was “on fire” at that time and is a major player now.)

But the three most influential and helpful mentors were Freddie Fields/Jerome Hellman, and Barry London. John Marsh at Tri-Star was fantastic at showing me how to improve a script, too.  They don’t make them like John or Freddie any more.

I’ll concentrate on Fields, Hellman, and London, since I credit them with advancing my talents as a writer. But each had a different angle on improving me.  Fields focused on how to improve writing for actors, actresses, and Directors.  Barry focused more on how to improve the screenplay appeal for Marketing, Funding, and Distribution savvy. 

Freddie Fields. Wow, what a legend and terrific guy. 

Freddie Fields was the Producer or Executive Producer on:  American Gigolo, Looking for Mr. Goodbar, Poltergeist, American Anthem, Glory, Fever Pitch, Crimes of the Heart,  and Victory. But before that, if I remember correctly, he was one of the heads of ICM (then called CMA) and was credited as instrumental in the careers of Judy Garland, Woody Allen, Henry Fonda, Marilyn Monroe, Robert Redford, Peter Sellers, Steve McQueen, and he married a Miss Universe.  He set up Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, American Graffiti, and Star Wars. 

And I was mentored by him for a year.  Unbelievable.  I learned more than I could ever put into a blog – about the energy and the deal making behind closed doors. (Only Barry London taught me more.)   Here is how it all happened. 

I started writing an action script called Hard Knox.  It is the story of the stealing of the gold out of Fort Knox during a tornado. The tornado ends up being the bad guy.   It had some unique plot twists in it.  I knew it was a hot idea.  I was on page 80 when I got a meeting at Fields/Hellman.   Since Hard Knox was not finished, I pitched that one last. They asked me for a sneak copy.   I went home and rushed through finishing it in a couple of days.

In the meantime, I had met a small time Producer that had a film deal at I think Millennium Pictures, plus an open door at Paramount studios.  He needed a screenwriter for hire.  I don’t even remember his name for sure but think it was Jacque. I only remember his attitude toward the film he was directing in a month. It was a $3 million film, shooting in Vancouver.  He called it a piece of crap story, a waste of his time – a film he wanted to do and flush in the toilet. He did it because he needed the money. I felt so sorry for the actors.  But I had to agree that the story and writing on that film was very watered-down and anemic.  He had read “Blood, Sweat, and Gold” after a lawyer told him I was the best undiscovered (cheap and willing to do ghost writing is how he saw it) writer in Hollywood.  He wanted me to do a ghostwriting fix on his dream project for  Paramount for a few thousand dollars. I took the assignment.  I was working on that at the same time as Hard Knox, but had not told him about that script.

Then I got a call from Fields/Hellman saying they loved Hard Knox and wanted a meeting.  At that time, I did not know who the legendary Freddie Fields was, or what would happen to me if he did a film for/with me.  

I walked into his office and there was this 70-years young man, Freddie.  We had a fairly formal meeting.   He talked about his accomplishments and was generally seeing me as who I was – a naïve, needy writer with some talent.  He had read Hard Knox and said simply, “I can make this a movie.”  He brought in Jerome Hellman, legendary Producer of “Midnight Cowboy,” and they were chummy with me. Then Jerome left. Freddie was for sure the hard ass, hard line deal maker of the two.   He said he wanted a free Option on it.  I said no. He chuckles and says that it’s okay that I don’t know what’s being offered, and I didn’t. Then he promised he would make me a better writer in return. I said it sounds good but  I was still too naïve to know what I almost passed up. 

After that meeting I had a meeting with Jacque.  When I told him about Freddie he asked me if I would give him a copy of the script, too.  I had one in the car from the meeting, so I gave it to him. I completed his first rewrites on his script and left.

The next day I had a meeting with Freddie. It was my first meeting to discuss how to improve my script to make it a slam dunk.  He was very nice and told me some cool stories about Hollywood. I liked the guy.  And I was surely learning.  By then I had almost finished the script.  It seemed like the script would sell no matter what — but, then again, I had good meetings before, and was not attached to Freddie yet. 

When I got home, Jacque called me back to his house. I thought it was to give me more notes on my rewrite.  I entered the house. He was intense!  He desperately wanted this “Hard Knox.”  He knew it was a super hit.  His connections at Millennium were enough to get traction, and he would attach himself to Direct.  Then he went into a long diatribe about how evil Freddie Fields was, “He will screw you over so bad that you won’t even know he screwed you are until your ass bleeds a year later.”   This guy was so crass and insulting on Freddie … it didn’t seem to fit with who I had gotten to know.  But Jacque went on and on about Freddie being a snake who is too old to make another movie. 

I went home and didn’t know what to think, I made no commitment, but Jacque thought he had me on his side.  I didn’t have a meeting set up for Freddie for 3 days, but he did expect me I guess to call the office. Instead, I did some touch ups on “Hard Knox. “ Jacque tried to coerce me over a lunch to sign an agreement to attach himself to it, but I said I wanted to finish the Polish on it first.

Freddie has great radar.  He called me out of the blue and said, “Scott, I can feel you’re pulling away from me.  Come in, and let’s talk.”  I did.  When I sat down, he said, “Scott, a lot of people will want this script.  But it’s not ready to go out.  It almost is, but it’s not.  They will tell you all sorts of things.  But you don’t know enough about the business to know if it’s worth anything.  I can tell you something that I think you will understand.  Anyone that tries to convince you to take out this script needs to have a game plan that is solid and based on success.  If they don’t have one, then they are wasting your talent.  I’m going to tell you my game plan for how to build heat on this script right now.” And he proceeded to tell me over about the next 15 minutes his strategy, the strengths of the script, the worries a studio has on it, the burden on the producer – stuff I never in my career learned!  I loved it.  Then, he said, “Okay. Now, I think you have some things to tell me, some questions or concerns. What’s on your mind?”   There was a moment of silence as I decided if I should be coy … or tackle this head on.  I figured the script was so good I could say what I truly felt.  So this is how the conversation went.

“I’ve been telling people that I’m doing my new script with Freddie Fields.”  He smiles proudly.  “They’re telling me a lot.”  He smiles broader.  “What this one person said is – Freddie Fields can’t be trusted. He’s a snake. He’ll screw you.”  There was this dramatic pause, then he said with a smile trembling behind anger, ‘Who said this to you?”  “I can’t tell you that. But I can tell you this.  My father retired last year, and the Wall Street Journal ran an article on him being one of the last incorruptible men on Wall Street.  And my dad told me, “When you hear bad things about a successful man and they do not agree with your gut feelings, just put the cards on the table, bring it out into the open, let him explain himself, but most of all, let him start fresh with you if your gut tells you that you feel good around him.”  So after that bit, I told Freddie basically, “Here’s what that means to me.  You know so much more about the Industry and have all the power in this situation that you can screw me and there’s nothing I can do about it. But I don’t think that is going to happen. I told you this story about my dad because I decided just now to go with you.  I’m going to shake hands on that.  And once I do, nothing will coerce me to break my word, you are my Producer.  Even if things go bad, I’m on your team.  Now you have a choice.  Regardless of your past, good or bad, you have a chance to start fresh with me as if you never in your life ever sold out or betrayed trust. This is like a rebirth.   So, let’s be partners, and you do what you decide to do with or to me.  But for right now, all I want my mind to focus on is writing the best words for you.” 

Wow, that was heavy. 

I didn’t know it for sure then, but he actually did have his eyes water up, he told me later.  He picked up the phone, and said to his assistant, “Cancel my next meeting and order lunch in here for us.  We’re booked until 2.”  Then he walked out from behind his desk, had me take a seat on the easy chairs, while saying, “I have never in my life heard such a meaningful start of a writer partnership.  I’m going to show you who I really am. And I’m going to teach you more than you ever imagined about this industry.  I’m taking you under my wing and making you happen in Hollywood.  Now, write down on this paper what you hope to get from Paramount.”  I wrote in $150,000.  I read it, chuckled, and said, “I’ll get you double that even if I write the check.” 

This started a wonderful father/son sort of mentoring on “Hard Knox.”  He took hours a to go over every single sentence I wrote to tell me its value, to keep it as is, or to change it. He brought out many scripts, comparing key set piece moments or character dialog from award winners.  He evolved my writing 3-fold.  He told me the full story of how “Glory” got to be made into a movie even though all of Hollywood said a $50 million Civil War film staring Broderick and blacks would be the bomb of the year.  He told me all about agency deal structure and motivations.  It was fantastic. He also told me of his two key regrets then.  One was his son, who was estranged from him.  And he actually said he saw talking to me as a way for him to do right and hopefully start fresh with his son (nobody has every heard this part of our story.)  And the other regret was he drove into his driveway and somehow the maid let the dogs out and when he backed up he ran over his dog. 

In the meantime, his money literally saved my mom’s life on medical payments and kept our family together.  My mom sent him a Christmas card that was so honest that he cried when he read it.

Then came the day the script was presented to Paramount and Fox. He knew it was a Paramount film.  We began deal making and I was in on the talks in his office via phone.  It was a push for him to go from “Glory” to “Hard Knox.” But we closed the deal. He knew I needed money and that Paramount would take a long time to close his deal even though my script deal was set easily for $375,000 plus $125,000 in rewrite fees, and $75,000 in bonuses.   So he wrote me a personal check for A LOT!  Then told me to pay him back when I get paid.  Four months later I was paid by Paramount, and on that day, I walked in and handed him a check. He was flabbergasted. He said, “No one in Hollywood every pays back, and surely not on the first day they get paid. You’re just like your father.”   That was the greatest compliment.

The deal went well.  We were on the fast track to filming. We got the writer from RoboCop wanting to Direct it as his second Directing. He did a polish on the script, and we were going for actors. 

Then something happened that was out of our control.  Spielberg announced he was doing “Twister.”  And he was going to lock up all the latest CGI for it.  Paramount didn’t want to risk coming out with a movie that was good but Spielberg would overpower it.  “Twister” were on a superfast track for production and would beat us to theaters by 3 months.  Our movie went into turnaround. I had earned about $125,000  already on it, but was sad it was not made. 

I can pull it out of turnaround if needed. It still works as an action film and is no longer that expensive to do. It could be done probably for $15 million now due to advances in CGI. 

Working with Freddie also got me a open door at ICM.  I should have really pushed to stay there. That was a big mistake of mine. The agent Freddie set up that met with me had read “Hard Knox” and liked it. But, there was this odd sort of vibe in the agency. They were chasing the hits. Which means they focused on what was a hit “right now” and trying to ride the wave to script sales. I’ll tell you what I mean.  I meet, and one of the first things the agent says is, ‘Do you have any scripts about big babies? I mean, giant ones?  Because they is this script about big babies and it got dumped and now a few studios think it’s a good idea.”  I told him no, somehow I had left Big Baby themes out of my ideas. “Can you write one fast about big babies?  Because an A-List Director we rep wants to Direct a film about a giant baby, like, a human Stay Puff Marshmallow baby in New York City.”  No.  We didn’t ever recover from my lack of big baby scripts level, so I went from there to Gersch Agency and Jim, who later went on to claim fame for selling a script for the most money ever. I think it was over $5 million.  Not sure. 

After the “Hard Knox” deal went into turnaround, Freddie and I tried keeping in touch, but he was getting older.  “Hard Knox” might have been his last film if we made it together.   Years ago, I heard Freddie had died.  There goes a true legend. 

Albert Magnoli penned and Directed Purple Rain right out of USC film school (if I remember correctly.)  He gave me a lot of pointers. He told me things about Tarantino’s talents long before Quentin was famous. And, he also told me to never let anyone else Direct “Catapult. “ And that it would turn out to be my first major film. He convinced me that it’s an action film so good that the funders will take a chance to make it my first huge release movie. 

I didn’t work in production with Tony Scott, but I did spend time with him for 28 days in Utah.   Learned by observation and listening. 

I learned so much from Barry London that there is a special blog about him. 

The real point of this blog that is largely about Freddie Fields is that they don’t have Producers with his skill any more in Hollywood. 

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