MONTHLY SCREENWRITING TIPS - ISSUE #21
People complain: Why should a guy make millions upon millions of dollars for throwing a ball or swinging a bat? Read on for my take on this question and why I’m not upset in the least when movie stars or baseball players – or even screenwriters – earn millions upon millions of dollars.
THE NUTTY PROFESSOR – OR – FREE AGENCY – OR – WHY I DON’T MIND ATHLETES OR ACTORS OR SCREENWRITERS
MAKING MILLIONS UPON MILLIONS OF DOLLARS
More than forty years ago, when I was not a professor but a student, not at UCLA but at USC, I found myself working as Teaching Assistant to the nuttiest professor of them all.
Jerry Lewis taught a course in directing. As a kid I had laughed myself silly at his antics in the comedies he starred in with Dean Martin. As I grew into early manhood, however, I developed no small disrespect for him. His public persona was preposterously self-important. He spoke with a heavy-handed self consciousness that was thicker than borscht.
Is there anything more awkward than a comedian waxing serious, pontificating on life’s ironies? Enduring his guest-host appearances on The Tonight Show during the Johnny Carson era, he could make me ashamed and embarrassed even though I was all alone in a room with a television set and my dog. I would cover the pup's eyes to shield her from the screen. He trafficked in phrases like ‘as it were’ and ‘per se,’ cramming them into every other sentence. To Ed McMahon: “Could you pass me a glass of water, per se? I am thirsty, as it were.”
At USC film school I had garnered a kind of backhanded scholarship. They called it work-study. The film department was supposed to assign you a job; the federal government would pay ninety percent of the wages. The university used it as a government-supported grant for which it had to kick in only a dime for every dollar.
Happily, they did not compel us to do the ‘work’ part.
The situation changed radically as Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty morphed into his war in Vietnam. Butter out; guns in. Funds dried up. Scandalously, the Cinema Department declared that work/study students would now actually have to work. We were assigned jobs around the campus.
Mine was to man the film department’s mimeograph machine, a now-primitive pre-Xerox device for copying documents. After twenty minutes at the job I realized I would be cranking the handle around the clock, seven days a week. I had to invent a cushier position. I suggested to Cinema Department Chairman Bernie Kantor that Jerry Lewis ought to have a TA and that it should be me.
Bernie released me from mimeo and assigned me to Professor Lewis.
In an instant I came to love him. For all his brash, grating, excruciatingly awkward affect, I could see he was really just another nervous Jewish kid who required desperately that everyone love him. Due to his lack of formal education he wallowed in a profound and perpetual sense of inadequacy. Attempting to intimidate him, students would cite obscure surreal Bulgarian film artistes and reference pretentious, boring Luxembourgian movies that had been seen by perhaps eleven people all around the world. On such occasions I supported him by interjecting, “Who? I never heard of that director. What movie? Never heard of it.” I would turn to the class: “A show of hands, please. How many of you never heard of that director or movie?”
A forest of hands would rise, and Lewis could see that he was not alone in his unfamiliarity with these wretched purveyors of nouvelle-vague yawn-inducing weightily textured filmic tone poems.
One day toward the end of 1969, after I had finished film school and was trying to find my way into the movie business, my phone rang. It was Jerry Lewis. He was about to shoot what would become effectively his last film. He asked me to recommend someone for him to hire as dialogue director.
Dialogue director is something of a holdover from the earliest days of talkies. During the silent era the scant smattering of dialogue that crept into a film was printed on cards and projected sporadically amidst the moving images. Film talk was not spoken by the actors but read on-screen by the audience. Naturally, there was little of it.
Sound changed everything. From having almost no dialogue, films for a number of years had nothing but. Since silent film directors had little experience coaching actors regarding dialogue, assistants were brought in to work with the players’ delivery of their lines.
I asked Jerry Lewis, “What about me?”
“That’s what I hoped you would say.”
For the eight-week shoot I commuted daily to the Warner Brothers lot, running the actors through their lines.
Jerry Lewis liked to slum with athletes, which is why he cast a number of Dodgers and even one or two Anaheim Angel. I recall meeting among others a slender, cordial, engaging, literate, sophisticated pitcher aged twenty-two: Don Sutton. The sports pro with the biggest role, however, was Dodger team captain and center fielder Willie Davis.
Having recently turned twenty-nine, Davis was in his prime. Through much of the season he had threatened to bat 400, which baseball fans know is unheard of since Ty Cobb around the turn of the previous century. In 1969 Davis achieved the franchise’s all-time record hitting streak: thirty-six consecutive games. No Dodger’s ever come close. He was, in addition to it all, stunning on defense.
I am notorious for hating sports. At the time of this writing I am serving my thirty-fifth year on the faculty at UCLA. In all these years I have been to precisely one Bruin basketball game and a single football game.
The truth is, however, that I hate not all sports but merely most sports.
I love baseball.
Growing up in New York City in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, a young boy had to love baseball. There were only sixteen teams in the entire nation; three of them in New York City. Dodger blue stood for the color of its fans' collars; Yankee pin stripes signified the suits of the corporate executive types who supported that franchise. ‘Dodgers’ stands for ‘trolley Dodgers,’ the working class souls who rooted for the Brooklyn team at ramshackle, rickety Ebbets field, and dodged the street cars that plied the Flatbush streets.
Rooting for the Dodgers, therefore, involved considerations of class, ideology, and politics. Everyone knows, for example, that Brooklyn was the first team to hire a black player; the Yanks, on the other hand, were next to last.
Einstein says there are two constants in the universe: the speed of light and Vin Scully.
The play-by-play voice of the Dodgers, Vin Scully, is an authentic American treasure. He is Mark Twain, Will Rogers, Garrison Keillor, and Woody Allen rolled up in one. I’m listening to him now for sixty years. At age eighty-five is Vinnie as fresh and funny and articulate and insightful as ever? No. He is even more so.
The Dodgers’ departure from Brooklyn – full disclosure: I grew up not in Brooklyn but in metaphorical Brooklyn: Queens—was the single greatest emotional trauma of my life. It represents a devastating crisis of faith from which I have yet wholly to recover.
For a number of years, in retaliation, I quit Dodgers fandom and rooted for the Mets. Eventually, however, having moved not merely to Los Angeles but to a neighborhood adjacent to Chavez Ravine, I forgave the team and became something of a fair weather fan. If they’re winning, I’m happy. When they’re losing, I steer clear of Dodger Stadium.
That I was hanging out set-side with the Dodger captain and centerfielder, who at the time happened to be the most productive player on the team, excited me beyond description. I would toss a ball around with Willie and give him ‘pointers.’ He was always good natured about it. While his public persona was somewhat on the dark side--he gave fans the cold shoulder, refused to sign autographs--in my experience he was a consummate mensch.
Arguably the greatest moment in my entire life occurred early one Thursday morning as I pulled into the studio parking lot. Upon getting out of my car, a production assistant on the picture approached me. He removed from his vest pocket a neatly rolled joint. “Panama red,” he told me. “Want a taste?”
“It’s a little early for me,” I said, “but what the hell.” As he lit the joint, Willie Davis pulled into the lot and got out of his car. He walked over to us. “What about me?”
Then and there, a few minutes before eight o’clock of a Thursday morning in 1969, along with the center fielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers I committed what was then a felony.
I was ready to meet my maker.
These were the days prior to free agency. Players were owned by their teams. If they did not accept their contract, they could not offer their services to another team. Their only recourse was to hold out, that is, they could decline their salary altogether and refuse to play.
At that time between seasons Willie Davis was just that: a holdout. Every day as I drove to the studio, listening to the news on the radio I would hear of the lack of progress in the negotiations with Davis. Then, one day, I heard the newscaster report, “And in sports, the Dodgers have announced they’ve come to terms with center fielder Willie Davis.”
When I got to the lot I asked him, “How much?”
At the top of his game at age twenty-nine, a most-valuable-player year behind him, he settled for fifty thousand dollars. The property master on the movie earned that much.
Around the same time Oakland A’s pitching sensation Vida Blue was also a holdout. In the previous season the A’s would have four or five thousand fans show up at the ballpark on, say, a Tuesday night. Wednesday night: ditto. Thursday night: thirty-six thousand fans would attend. The difference? Blue was pitching.
Vida Blue was working for scale, that is, the minimum the league would allow. The amount? Thirteen-thousand dollars and change. He held out through the beginning of the season, refusing to attend not only spring training but also the start of the season. Prior to agreeing, a week or so into the season, to accept approximately thirty-thousand dollars, he worked as a salesman for a company that manufactured bathroom fixtures.
Today, thanks to free agency, star athletes are no longer working as employees of the team owners. Instead, they are partners in the enterprise, as they richly and righteously deserve to be. Owners predicted this would destroy the game, but in fact business is better than ever.
Sometimes people complain: Why should a guy make millions upon millions of dollars for throwing a ball or swinging a bat? They have no problem, however, with a team owner like George Steinbrenner or Ray Kroc or Walter O’Malley making that kind of money, even though not one among them has a slider or can hit to the opposite field.
That’s why I don’t get upset when movie stars or even screenwriters make millions, even scores of millions of dollars on a picture. Are they worth it? I say yes. Others say no.
Who cares what I or others say? What really counts is that the corporation thinks so.
Behind the Screen: Getting to Know Mike Werb
A Los Angeles native, Mike Werb attended Stanford, where he majored in one thing after another. He put his costly education to use by joining a New Wave garage band that never left the garage. Turning to writing, he began a burlesque climb up the well-greased Hollywood ladder by entering the UCLA Master’s program in screenwriting. He has since worked for every major studio.
Mike’s big break was writing the screenplay for the Jim Carrey comedy The Mask but he also embraces his other produced credits, including Darkman 3: Die, Darkman, Die! and the giant-rats-attack-a-college-campus epic Gnaw: The Food of the Gods, Part 2.
Mike co-wrote and co-produced (with Michael Colleary) the action-thriller Face/Off, directed by John Woo and starring John Travolta and Nicolas Cage. The New York Times lauded the Oscar-nominated film as “one the 1,000 greatest movies of all time,” and Face/Off won the 1997 Best Screenplay statuette at the 24th annual Saturn Awards.
More recent accomplishments include being one of six credited screenwriters on Lara Croft: Tomb Raider starring Angelina Jolie, and the WB’s flashy flop TV series Tarzan starring Travis Fimmel’s abs. Werb and Colleary also worked intimately with Arnold Schwarzenegger on Collateral Damage, his last major motion picture before becoming Governor of California.
2006-7 film credits include the well-reviewed animated hit Curious George (Universal/Imagine) and the vastly underrated Firehouse Dog (New Regency/Fox).
Mike created and executive produced Cartoon Network’s first live action series Unnatural History which aired in the summer of 2010 for Warner Horizons Television.
Currently, Werb & Colleary are developing the action comedy Sunset Rising with producer Larry Mark (Dream Girls, Julie and Julia).
Mike is a nominating-committee member of the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror, an active member of the Writer’s Guild of America as well as the writers’ branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Q1: What led you to Hollywood to pursue a career in entertainment?
After draining my parents’ patience along with their bank accounts as an undergrad at Stanford, I left America with $300 in my pocket and a one-way ticket to Europe. Over the next 18 months I did a lot of soul searching working my way around the world. I returned to LA deeply in debt, slept on a friend’s couch and did what many highly educated slackers do: I joined a punk band. That band “Girl on Top” did produce a record but failed to make it out of the garage. An excess of drugs and in fighting with my band mates led to the realization that I needed to pursue a solo career.
Around that time I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark and instantly realized I wanted to write movies. I applied to UCLA film school – and was admitted (courtesy of Richard Walter, to whom I remain eternally grateful).
Q2: How did you start your writing career?
My parents cut off their financial aid – which turned out to be a good thing. I sold my car and was taking 2 buses to get to UCLA. Soon, I’d gotten a paid internship and won a Jack Nicholson Award – so with those funds, plus student loans, a part time job filing at a law office - and a rent controlled apartment in Santa Monica - I was able to focus on the creative end of things.
I met a lot of talented film geeks in the masters program – and wrote a spec screenplay with Catherine Hardwicke (Twilight). We didn’t sell it but it got us a screenwriting gig at New World Pictures. After that I started writing solo – and sold an action pitch to Cannon Pictures, which became a film called The Human Shield. My executive then took a job at Carolco – and she hired me for a production rewrite on a film shooting in Toronto (Gnaw – Food of the Gods 2 – H.G. Wells must have been turning in his grave - a notion far scarier than anything in the movie). Doing a production rewrite on that horror film was a fantastic experience, even if the film sucked.
Then came my first major studio sale – a biopic based on the life of Machine Gun Kelly that was set up at Columbia/Sony. After that, I was hired to adapt Curious George at Imagine/Universal, which led to The Mask at New Line.
In between, I began collaborating with a close friend from UCLA - Michael Colleary. We wrote the spec Face/Off. After 2 studios, 3 directors, 35 drafts – and six crazy years - it was made in glorious fashion at Paramount. It remains the film I am most proud of.
Q3: What is your favorite movie of all time and why?
That’s always a tough question to answer. But certainly All About Eve is up there because it’s the wittiest script in film history. And of course Raiders of the Lost Ark because it’s not only brilliant but it changed my life.
Q4: What advice would you give to new writers who have the dream of making it big in Hollywood?
Don’t fall in love with your first draft. Don’t ignore feedback from smart people. Form a writers group with people whose work you respect. Write every day – even if you only have 15 minutes – because skipping one day can turn into a week, then a month, and then at some point you just stop caring. Never stop caring.