MONTHLY SCREENWRITING TIPS - ISSUE #9
In July of 1974 my wife and I fled Rome–where over a period of three weeks, plus one additional morning--I had penned the biggest-budgeted film produced in Europe that summer. In a rented Fiat we drove through Tuscany, visited also Sienna, Verona, Venice, Lake Como, and ultimately Milan where we caught a plane back to the States. From what were we running? The fear that the Carabinieri, the Italian heat, upon discovering fifteen million lire in our hotel room in cold, hard cash would wrongfully accuse us of drug trafficking. Read on for the full adventure.
MY FAVORITE ASSIGNMENT
In the early summer of 1974 I got a call from a former film school pal Steven Bach who at the time happened to be the head of United Artists.
“Richie,” he said, “can you go to Rome right away?”
I asked him, “Can I first go take a leak?”
Upon graduating from the U.S.C. film school I had for a number of years enjoyed writing assignments for most of the major studios. After writing the first two un-credited drafts of American Graffiti, however, for a while things got cold.
There’s no controversy regarding my role in Graffiti. George Lucas, another film school classmate, does not tell it any differently. There’s nothing unusual in Hollywood about several writers working on drafts and not all of them receiving credit. I was well enough paid for the work I did on Graffiti, and ultimately I felt like the go-to guy for loss-of-innocence, rite-of-passage, adolescent coming-of-age feature screenplay assignments, penning projects at Columbia, Universal, Warners, Paramount, Fox, and elsewhere. I also sold my first novel, another adolescent rite-of-passage tale, to a leading New York publisher and sold the film rights to a major Hollywood studio, which also hired me to write the screenplay.
Authority for determining on-screen credit belongs exclusively to the Writers Guild of America, and thank goodness for that, as prior to writers winning that power producers could and did assign credit to whomever they pleased: their wives, their girlfriends (sometimes both) and it is said on occasion even their dogs.
Steve Bach continued, “There’s an Italian, Spanish, and French co-production about to shoot in Italy and Spain. It’s the most expensive film being produced in Europe this year. It’s a Zorro story with an international cast, and it’s to be dubbed into eleven languages but shot in English. For this reason they feel they need a high-priced Hollywood writer.”
In Italy the title was Rittorno di Zorro, which translates, of course, The Return of Zorro. Throughout Europe it would enjoy a sizable theatrical release and resurrect the career of its star, the French actor Alain Delon. In the United States it would be shown as a three-hour prime time CBS television movie of the week, and its title would be Zorro’s Back.
I wasn’t crazy about the American title. It seemed to suggest a story involving Zorro’s chiropractor.
“I’m a Hollywood writer,” I told Steve, “but I’m hardly high-priced.”
“They’ll pay you a high price,” he said, “and in this way they’ll get what they want.”
The negotiation reminded me of an ancient MGM classic, Young Edison, starring my all-time favorite actor Spencer Tracy. There is a scene in which the youthful Thomas Edison is about to meet with the Board of Directors of the New York Stock Exchange in order to sell them the patent for his latest invention, the stock ticker.
In the scene preceding that in the boardroom, Edison’s wife adjusts his tie as he prepares for the meeting. “How much money are you going to ask?”
“I’m not sure,” Edison says. “I was thinking of, say, five hundred dollars.”
“Five hundred dollars? That’s crazy. They’ll never pay so much. They’ll laugh in your face.”
“How much should I ask for?”
“I don’t know. Maybe, say, three hundred.”
“I thought if I ask for five,” Tracy’s character says, “they might offer me three.”
In this manner the inventor and his bride go up and back trying to decide what price to seek.
In the next scene, the humble Edison is surrounded by watch-fob wearing, mutton-chop sporting Hollywood character actors including Edward Arnold, portraying captains of industry. “We don’t have all day, Edison,” one of them grunts. “Frankly, we have little faith in your little gadget. How much do you want for it?”
As Tracy alone could perform, on his face he plays out the entire previous scene with the wife. Without a word of dialogue, you can see him trying to decide how much money to seek.
Finally, before he manages to utter a word, a board member says, “Don’t play games with us. We’ll give you ten thousand dollars. That’s our final offer. Take it or leave it.”
Edison is so stunned that he can’t get his mouth in gear. In the face of his silence, another board member says, “Okay, twenty thousand, but that’s it. Well? What do you say?”
Edison is paralyzed by so grand an offer and, yet again he is unable to speak. In this manner the offer rises to ninety-five thousand dollars before he managers to rasp and gasp and wheeze, “Okay. Agreed. I accept.”
They whip out the contract and hand him a fat fountain pen. He promptly signs.
“You’re a foolish young man,” they tell him, once he has signed. “In fact we believe this device is going to transform the entire securities and exchange industry. We would have gone as high as a hundred thousand dollars.”
This is set in the 1800s. Adjusted for inflation, ninety-five thousand dollars is the equivalent of millions upon millions of dollars.
Edison responds, “I was going to let you have it for three hundred dollars.”
That is the way the negotiation for the Zorro picture proceeded between me and Steve Bach. “I know it’s short notice,” he said. “We’ll pay you (adjusted for inflation) fifteen thousand dollars a week. Is that fair?” Before I could mutter a word he said, “We’ll also give you five million lire a week per diem for expenses.”
A lira wasn’t worth a whole lot, but five million of them added up to a substantial sum, and this was above the dollar amount they were offering as salary, to be paid in US dollars.
Like Edison, I was speechless.
“We’ll fly you there first class,” Steve continued. “How about we throw in another first class ticket for your wife? That way you can make something of a vacation of it.” Two first class roundtrip tickets between Los Angeles and Rome at the time of this writing run forty or fifty thousand dollars.
The day after my arrival in Rome I headed for the studio. I was warmly welcomed by a contingent of executives and ushered into an elegantly furnished office about the size of Madison Square Garden. You could fly a plane in this space, and you could land it on the oversized and magnificent Sixteenth Century mother-of-pearl inlay cherry wood and mahogany desk. There were Picassos on the wall, a Miro, and so help me God, an oil by Degas.
“Will this do?” the assembled honchos asked me.
“Let me see,” I said, hopping onto the desk and stretching lengthwise upon it, as if to see if it fit me. “Yes, yes,” I said, nodding, “this will do.”
As is my fashion, I was clowning around just a bit, but my employers seemed to regard my action with the utmost seriousness. To this day I worry that I may have marred the finish on that priceless piece of furniture.
Their comptroller handed me my first week’s per diem in cash, the first five million lire. I tried to stuff the wad in my pocket. “Please to counting it,” she said, in a thick-as-Bolognese-sauce accent.
“Oh, no worry,” I told her. “I’m sure it’s right.”
“No, no,” she said politely. “Please to counting it. You must to counting it. I do needing for you to counting it.”
Counting the money took about a half hour.
I was now introduced to a young woman, Michaela, who was to serve as my interpreter and assistant.
The following morning I showed up at 10AM and the executives seemed enormously pleased. I got the impression that there had been a previous writer on the script who had disappointed them. Each morning I would order four breakfasts to be sent up from the espresso bar down the street, three for me, one for Michaela. I like a big breakfast, and those bite-sized Italian jobs just don’t do it for me. We consumed the breakfasts at the desk while I worked. I pray to God that I didn’t stain the lacquer/varnish finish with coffee cup rings.
Each day, a little before noon, an exquisitely dressed elderly Italian gentleman would knock gently, hesitantly on the door at the other end of the office, and then slowly enter. In the cavernous space I almost needed binoculars to see him. “Scusi, prego, scusi, prego,” he would say most apologetically, apparently mortified to be disturbing the high-priced Hollywood writer. He would examine some file drawers away at the other end of the room, and jabber politely in Italian with Michaela. I hadn’t a clue as to what they were discussing.
After this happened for the third or fourth day in a row I asked her, “Who is this guy?”
“You don’t I know who that is?”
“That is Dottore Goffredo Lombardo.”
I shrugged again.
“You don’t know who that is?” she said again. “He is your boss, he is my boss. He is everybody’s boss. He is the head of the studio.”
I slowly nodded.
“You still don’t understand,” she said, maybe just a little exasperated. Making a sweeping gesture, taking in the palatial chamber we occupied, she said, “This is his office.”
Can you imagine being hired to write a picture at, say, Universal, and studio head Ron Meyer abandons his digs in order to assure that the writer will be comfortable?
The assignment was supposed to take three weeks, but it became necessary for me to work one final morning of the fourth week. Dottore Lombardo explained to me, “Of course we pay you for the whole day.”
“Dr. Lombardo,” I said, utilizing the honorific that applies to accomplished, upscale Italian scions, whether or not they’re an MD or a PhD, “I have never been treated so graciously, generously, and fairly. I am going to tell you something about my compensation, and if you disagree I will wholly and fully respect your judgment and accept your decision. My rate is a weekly rate, and if I have to work even for a single hour beyond the third week I should be paid pro rata, that is, I should be paid for the entire week, plus the entire weekly per diem.”
He nodded and said to me, “Please to let me upon this to be thinking, yes?” An hour later he returned and told me he agreed. For the two hour morning session I received another fifteen thousand dollars to be paid back home in the States plus, right there on the spot, five more million lire cash.
Each week, when I was paid the per diem, I would peel off two or three hundred thousand for walking-around money and stuff the rest in the hotel safe. When the job was completed and my wife and I were ready to rent a car and leave Rome, making our way leisurely through Tuscany, Sienna, Verona, Venice, Lake Como, and ultimately Milan, we got all the money out of the safe and brought it to the room. It covered the entire bed in a pile to the ceiling. We worried that the Carabinieri, the Italian police, would kick down the door and arrest us. What could explain the presence of so much cash other than some manner of nefarious activity on the order of drug trafficking?
We had convinced ourselves that in the economic climate of the time, with an international currency crisis underway, we would take a terrific loss if we brought any lira back to the States and had to convert it into dollars. For this reason, or perhaps for convenience, we decided we had to spend all of it in Italy. We had the unique experience of checking into luxury hotels and being disappointed to discover how little they cost. Indeed, even as we climbed the steps for the return flight we were buying Italian jewelry and leather goods.
We settled into the first class cabin. Upon reaching cruising altitude, the flight crew fired up the movie.
It was American Graffiti.
Behind the Screen: Getting to Know Hal Ackerman
Hal Ackerman has been on the faculty of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television for the past twenty-four years and is currently co-chair of the screenwriting program. Among his close mentees are Sacha Gervasi, Pamela Gray, Scott Kosar, Nicholas Griffin and many others. His book Write Screenplays That Sell…The Ackerman Way is now in its third printing and is becoming the text of choice in a growing number of screenwriting programs around the country. Ackerman’s latest novel, Stein, Stoned (Tyrus Books, 2010) tells the story of a soft-boiled detective story where The Big Lebowski meets Fletch. The second book in the Stein series, Stein Stung, about honey been rustling and colony collapse, will be out this fall.
Get to know the inspiration behind this leading storyteller and educator:
Q: Hal, how did you first come to Los Angeles?
Hal: I was an off-off Broadway playwright. When my anti-war satire, Hurry Mommy The War Is On, failed to generate the outrage to end the Vietnam war, I exiled myself to Los Angeles as an act of contrition.
Q: How did you start your writing career?
Hal: I found a crumpled dollar bill in an envelope in my mailbox one summer day that came from a small poetry journal. Yes! I was a professional writer. That was the most I was paid for my writing for some time. I came to Los Angeles knowing nothing and nobody, least of all how to write a screenplay. Gradually, by making every wrong move and writing error I eliminated enough of them to reach a certain level of professionalism. I got a few non-guild jobs that taught me a lot more, until I made my first spec sale of an original screenplay.
Q: What is your favorite movie of all time and why?
Hal: I have several. All for different reasons. Antonia's Line, Two For The Road, The Barbarian Invasion. They open different worlds. The characters are emotionally deep, going to unexpected places. Sadly, most American studio films exist to escape the human condition. I like films that still try to explore it.
Q: What was your most memorable quarter at UCLA? Why?
Hal: There was one quarter where three of the eight screenplays that were written were purchased, (Kris Young, Brian Price, John Sweet) one of which was actually made. I liked that. And one where Pamela Gray wrote The Blouse Man, which became A Walk On The Moon. But really, they are all different and amazing in different ways.
Q: What is the one piece of advice you’d give to new writers who have the dream of making it big in Hollywood?
Hal: Fugetaboudit. But really? Love what you do. You might be the only one. That may have to sustain you for longer than you anticipate. And of course...be brilliant.
Catch Richard If You Can!
Up and coming workshops and seminars:
May 27, 2011 – UCI Screenwriting Festival, Irvine, CA
June 4, 2011 – Great American Pitchfest, Los Angeles, CA
June 21, 2011 – Santa Barbara Writers Conference, Santa Barbara, CA
August 13, 2011 – Screenwriting Master Class, Albuquerque, NM
For Richard’s full calendar of appearances please visit http://richardwalter.com/attend-a-seminar/.