“I don’t think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little or make a poem, which children will speak for you when you’re dead.”
-- Tom Stoppard, THE REAL THING--
Still I glance over at my office bookshelf and see copies of all my scripts and plays, and think maybe I’m being a little hard on myself. Some thirty-odd manuscripts perch there. My body of work. I haven’t, as some writers or directors do, bound them all in leather and had the titles gold-embossed on the spine, but it still makes a fairly impressive display and comprises a fairly hefty output.
Some of that work has met a kinder fate than other pieces on that shelf. I’m sure the individual experiences of composing each and shepherding them to their ultimate destinies, good or bad, have had a direct effect on how fast my creative juices now flow.
Inevitably after the birth of each piece, there always comes the post-partum depression or, to put it in a sexual context (and both analogies are valid…birth is often the ultimate by-product of sex), “le petite mort” where melancholy ennui and a sense of loss overwhelm one (or from the perspective of most women: where the man farts, rolls over, falls asleep, and won’t indulge in afters-cuddling). How long this drained, adrift feeling lasts and how long it takes to recuperate and get wooed back to work often has to do with how badly beaten up I may have gotten in the Hollywood gristmill.
I frequently say, “I love my work, I hate my job.” My work is filling the blank page. My job is defending that work from all the clamouring paws that want rake their grubby claws across it and claim it in some way.
Of course, some of the work on that shelf never got to the job stage. Of the thirty-odd pieces up there, roughly a third got produced in some form or another, for another third I was paid handsomely and obscenely though the scripts remain unproduced, another third were personal spec projects of mine that have as yet come to fruition (though I still have hopes for many).
Jeffrey Katzenberg once expounded his baseball batting average theory of film to me in my early and frequently frustrating sojourn at Disney in the 80's. It was basically if you got one out of every three projects you worked on made, you were batting .300, which makes you a star in the majors. So if we take the work I did that got made, I guess I’m batting .300. If we add to it the work that I got paid for which also earned me a good living and, through which, I’ve had a long career, I guess I’m batting over .600. Of course, that is a strange way to succeed…paid for work that never reaches its ultimate destination…but I’ve known writers who’ve had very lucrative careers without ever having gotten anything made. Go figure.
People often ask me of all my scripts which is my favourite. This takes one back to birth/sex analogies…because all scripts are like enduring labour or being swept up in a tumultuous love affair. Because of the tumult, a script’s embrace can be agony as much as ecstasy (and my wife could probably sue many a script for alienation of affection). So it's probably better to refer to my scripts as my children. (Of course, children can be both angony and ecstasy, but mixing all these sex/birth references is starting to sound a little incestuous.)
And like children you love each script for its own special qualities. Like a guilty parent, I confess to having favourites and loving some more than others. But like a conscientious parent, I have done the best I can within the perameters I am given and sent that child into the world, saying: “You’re as complete as I know how to make you. I think I’ve done right by you. You’re a good kid, ready to confront the world on your own. I hope you succeed with the values, morals, and merits I’ve nurtured in you.”
I’ve never turned in anything that I didn’t think couldn’t be taken out the next day and shot as is. I don’t believe in first drafts. The “first” draft the studio or a producer usually gets is my fifth or six. If I ever knowingly handed in what I thought an unfinished piece, then I would feel I’ve earned my money dishonestly.
Now I’m also reasonable enough to realize that even if I love it, others may not and they may actually have good ideas on how to make it even better that I never thought of.
But at the time I turn it in, I’ve delivered a piece that I feel certainly covers the requirements of good dramaturgy. It will also be something that I’m passionate about, what I wanted to write, and be something I love.
Sometimes when I’ve turned in a script, I’ve been asked by a producer or studio head, “Do you like it?” My response is always somewhat stupefied, “Why would I ever turn in something I didn’t like? If I don’t like it, you’ll never see it. It’s inconceivable to me that people would turn in work that they have doubts about or no confidence in or are not proud of. What’s the point of doing it, if you don’t think you do it well?
And it goes back to that work/job distinction I made earlier. If you don’t believe in the work you’ve produced, when it comes to the job part of defending it, you’re going to have a tough time trying to justify it. It’s hard enough to keep good work intact against the myriad opinions that will assail it; but if you don’t love what you’ve done, you ain’t going last long in the arena.
So? Which of my darlings does Daddy coddle the most. Here’s a confession: Despite that it will probably be my tombstone film, THE FLY ain’t the one dearest to my heart. Part of that is because I wrote THE FLY with Cronenberg (or rather he rewrote me), so it loses some of the personal connection for me, despite an excellent end result that all can be proud of.
But that is talking about it as a film, not a script. I can only deal with scripts, my work, not what happens to it after it leaves my control (A HINT: Never judge a writer by the final film, judge him by his script.). I fear my reputation in town is as a writer who writes terrific scripts that get turned into rather mediocre movies.
DRAGONHEART, despite the disappointment of the film (for me, at least) was a transcendant script, closest to me in all aspects (and subsequently one of the fastest and easiest things I ever wrote), and was a joy to write. I also think I took giant steps as a writer and went to another plane in my style and the way I approach the work. I loved it so much that I ended up writing the novel of it, because I wanted to record that joy that could not get destroyed in the film-making process. The novel was the most fulfilling writing experience I ever had.
I enjoyed PSYCHO III for different reasons. To successfully navigate the challenge of the onus of a sequel, a classic, and come up with something fresh and different, to adapt to a specific actor (Tony Perkins) and stylistic choice were all exciting things to do. Believe it or not, this script probably helped my career much more than THE FLY did. It was praised by many PSYCHO aficionados and got me that fateful overall deal at Disney. And in it, I see growth as a writer. I think it’s a better constructed script than my FLY was. Tony so loved the script, he asked to direct it.
My HERCULES mini-series was again a disappointment. Designed as a four-hour mini, it got cut to three and had at the helm a director I felt didn’t really understand the mythological antecedents of the material. But I adored writing it and the finished script, as did everyone at NBC and Hallmark. I poured myself into research, exploring the myths behind the myths (thanks Robert Graves) to produce an original take on the hero that dealt with larger issues of family, duty, atonement, and the tyranny of religion. How much of that translated from the original two-hundred page script to the screen, I don’t know.
Things like my HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES and SIGN OF FOUR, KULL THE CONQUEROR, and PRINCESS OF MARS, despite their individual fates, I love because I got to adapt literary works I love and I think should be exposed to others. And I think in all three, I found my personal passion and was able to blend the voice of the original author and my voice in such a way that they were indiscernible from one another. To create work that was intrinsically Pogueian (?) and yet Doyleian, Burroughsian, or Howardian at the same time is a neat trick. Though I often took liberties with the work, I feel I remained faithful to the spirit of these authors. My Sherlock Holmes films, particularly HOUND, I quite enjoy…HOUND maybe being the most faithful film of any of my scripts. Alas, the dark, moody, visceral prose style of Howard that I tried so hard to imbue KULL THE CONQUEROR with was desecrated in a film that became a rolling juggernaut of illogic and a cartoon. PRINCESS OF MARS will probably never see the light of day, though has a cult status in Burroughs fandom.
PRINCESS remains, along with many other scripts that never became films, among my most beloved…the children you had such hopes for but were untimely struck down by cruel fate before they reached their full promise. Those were:
THE LAST VIKING…a blood and thunder epic that was so much more. Again, diligently researched, historically accurate, and rich, resonant human themes of loss and the passing of age. Those who can adapt, survive; those who cannot, die. But with them goes a vibrancy and a certain life-force to be mourned. And I may mourn this script more than any other.
THE HOUSE OF WAX…sums up my whole philosophy of artistic endeavour and Hollywood horseshit. The age-old battle of art versus commerce. Black comedy or tragedy?
THE MAGIC COTTAGE…this is another one that really hurts the heart. It is an adaptation of a James Herbert novel which might simply be one of the most beautifully crafted pieces of work I’ve ever done and is incredibly moving, smart, and scary. I still treasure a message I got on my phone machine from Herbert: “I think it’s absolutely superb. It’s so close to the book for me, and I was surprised by that because I didn’t know how you could do it. But it’s wonderful and it’s added so much more to it. But the overall reaction is it’s extraordinary. I love it.” But the truth is…it’s radically different than the novel. But that’s part of the gift of that script; it’s very different but remains very true. Don’t ask me how I did it, I don’t know. I think it had to do with a passionate connection to the ideals and themes that spoke to me in the work or at least gave me a platform to find my themes and voice in it.
THIEF OF BAGHDAD…an exhilarating romp of great wit and adventure with an undercurrent of darker themes.
ARISE, DISSEMBLER (AKA DECEIVED)…maybe not the best script I’ve ever written, but probably the most dangerous…people either love it or hate it…and I love that extreme reaction to it, it means I went somewhere real interesting. An executive at TRI-STAR offered this script back to me (which I had been paid for), free and clear, if I would write another script for them. I didn’t take the deal, but in retrospect, I should have.
THE WITCHING HOUR…It’s a good script and a GREAT adaptation of the long, complex novel by Anne Rice. My pal Roger Leasor once met Ms. Rice at a book-signing and mentioned my adaptation. Her reply: “Oh! The one I liked!” She seemed as frustrated by its abandonment as much as I.
BLOOD OF THE GODS…a twenties adventure/mystery in the Talbot Mundy/Sax Rohmer mold. Artist Greg Manchess and I are exploring turning it into a graphic novel.
WHODUNNIT, DARLING?,.. a frivolous Thin Man pastiche, a play and a film script (unpoduced), both with separate plots, written with Larry Drake.
THE EBONY APE…my original Sherlock Holmes play. I loved directing this piece and seeing all the words and action play out exactly as written…a unique experience after several years of film work and a confirmation that I knew what I was doing.
(Above: Eric Johnson as Sherlock Holmes)
TARTUFFE…A whole new facet of writing for me. Reading four or five translations of a classic foreign language play, assimilating it all, then finding my own way into the play with my own style and own language that reflects and embraces the original. This was an exciting challenge and I want to do more of this.
There are other children…all of whom I love, for different reasons, some perhaps beyond their merits…But they’ve all brought me joy…in their creation, in their nurturing; when I go back and read snatches of them, it’s like watching old family movies…they make me laugh, cry, occasionally wince…I see not only their growth, but my own. And though I’ve grown in different ways and acquired deeper and more refined skills, I think perhaps I’ve lost others…a freshness, an indestructible sense of fervour, a naivete. I’m a more mature and wiser writer, but I don’t know that I’m quite as unihibited a writer. It takes me longer to get where I used to get instinctually. That could just be the business beating me up and me having to push past that “Why kill yourself, they’ll only fuck it up” mentality in order to get to that rarified enchantment of just me and the words and screw the rest of the world.
But I can look back at “the body of work” and feel I’m right to love them all in their own special way. And I can be proud because I always put everything I had to give at the time into the work. I never cheated anyone or gave less; they got all the ability I had.
During a panel about the future of media, Sony Chief Executive Michael Lynton said that the internet has “created this notion that anyone can have whatever they want at any given time…They feel entitled. They say, ‘Give it to me now.’ And if you don’t give to them for free, they steal it.”
Nora Ephron was even more discouraging: “We’re in the last days of copyright, if you want to be grim about it…Stop it. I dare you.”
POGUE’S WEEKLY MEDIA CHECK
DREAMS WITH SHARP TEETH…a documentary about my pal Harlan Ellison. And it is quintessential Ellison. Witty, warm, abrasive, outspoken, uncompromisingly honest, and moving. I think it is officially released next week.
WESTERNS…this week, in idle moments, I caught two of my favourite westerns that I simply cannot turn away from whenever they’re on:
THE BIG COUNTRY, an epic directed by William Wyler and featuring fine performances by everyone…including Greg Peck, Charlton Heston, Burl Ives, Jean Simmons, Chuck Connors, and Alfonso Bedoya. On a smaller scale…
RAMROD, my favourite western noir…Alex DeToth directs Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake, the always wonderful Donald Crisp, and Don DeFore in maybe the best role he ever had. And every night, I watch on the Westerns Channel, the old TV show…
CHEYENNE…This was probably the first night-time TV show I watched religiously. Clint Walker was the favourite television star of my youth. Julieanne insists I have a man-crush on the big lug. I don’t know…it might explain why I notice subtle influences from the show and character that I must’ve personally adopted years ago…like my sartorial preference for two-pocket shirts, worn unbuttoned two buttons down from the collar and the cuffs turned once, not rolled, so that they flare.
POGUE’S LISTENING TO:
THE PRINCE OF FOXES…by Alfred Newman.
MOONFLEET…by Miklos Rozsa.
STEVE ROSS, Live at the Algonquin
HELEN MERRILL, Dream of You
LA REQUIEM, THE FORGOTTEN MAN, & CHASING DARKNESS…all by Robert Crais, featuring his LA private detective Elvis Cole. I slightly know Robert through Ellison and WGA. Nice guy. Terrific writer.
PRINCE FRIEDRICH OF HOMBURG…a play from 1811 by Heinrich Von Kliest, a tormented playwright who eventually committed suicide now often equated with the likes of Schiller. I did not find HOMBERG, quite in the same league as DON CARLOS or some of Schiller’s other work.
THE ROSE OF DEATH…supernatural short stories by Julian Hawthorne, so far rather unimpressive.