Interviews | Screenwriting

A Day in the Life of a L.A. Screenwriter

1 Apr , 1998  

Written by M.M. Goldstein | Posted by:

Everyone in LA is here to make a lot of money, and most don’t. But perhaps there's some small bit of hope for this LA screenwriter.

"It’s no trick to make a lot of money," said Mr. Bernstein in Citizen Kane, speaking of Thatcher, not Kane, of course, "if all you ever wanted to do was to make a lot of money." Well, in L.A., there are a number of exceptions to this rule, given that everybody here is here to make a lot of money, and most don’t. But perhaps these exceptions only prove, in the Old English sense of "test," the rule, since overall, those who do in fact make a lot of money here really want to, as my erstwhile employer, Momser Gonifian, so happily exemplifies.

Momser is a producer, only, unlike my good friend Ruben, one with money. In due time, no doubt, Ruben will join the ranks of those of larcenous largesse, but for the moment he’s still on the come, while Momser’s been there so long they named a building after him, and no, I won’t say which one since, after all, he occasionally pays my bills. No fool am I.

Momser, not coincidentally, also comes from the Middle East, from Iran, or "Persia" as he is fond of saying when in a Stoli glow. He is rich beyond reason, cheap beyond comprehension, tough enough to pluck your liver out and make you eat it – and enjoy it – in front of him if he’s in a mood – but, he does pay his bills, sooner or later, usually just before he needs to squeeze another job out of you, since stupid, he’s not. He knows how to use people to make money, and if you’re around him and he uses you, you’ll get some. He’ll get more, of course, but then, those are the rules of the game.

Formidable, in a word, is Momser, and while I can hardly call him my friend (since I’m only a phosphor) I can say I know him well, and while I like him less than I respect him, I respect him quite a bit. The heavens didn’t open up and offer him a free ride; he wanted to make a lot of money in the film business and he did what was necessary to accomplish that and now he has, and the game, as they say, ain’t over yet.

I first came across Momser some years ago when I was climbing out of a career hole, a momentary setback I termed it until months turned into years which started to look like decades and I got that sick feeling that that might have been it. A decent run, a few things produced, a few awards, a few nominations, promising but not spectacular, and then, doom, despair, tragedy. My personal life had already been declared an Inter-Galactic Disaster Area, and my professional life – whether as cause or effect (a matter of some debate in certain quarters) – was looking no better. I’d had my shot, and getting somewhere after you’ve had your shot is even more difficult than before it, I was discovering. If you’re new, especially if you’re young and new, unknown, unseen and untested, if you show talent, read: intelligence and discipline, you might add up to something. Maybe you can be trained, groomed, used, owned. It’s worth an investment of time to find out. But if you’ve been seen before, even if you’ve done well, if you’re not hot, the flavor of the moment, then you’re cold, or at least, cooling, and no one is jumping up and down to work with you. Because even if they do, you’ll never belong to them, since you’ve already been around. They’ll use enough of you to get what they want or need, of course, but then they’ll move on because they have no long term investment in your success. They can’t make you, so they can’t own you, so unless you’re bringing them something they have to have, they can afford to be cool. Nothing personal, strictly business, good business at that.

Things changed, as they have a way of doing, but over the years I kept my relationship with Momser, doing promo writing, synopses, press kits, etc., materials he would use at the Film Markets such as Cannes, MIP, MIFED, and AFM., and occasionally doing an off-the-record polish of a screenplay. It’s what writers do when they’re between engagements on real Guild jobs, and while things finally began to turn around for me, for the right job at the right time, I’d still take his money and he’d still give it to me, eventually.

These, then, were the terms of engagement that brought me to Momser’s office recently. He asked me to come to pick up a check for the last job done for the AFM, with the enticement of a future job that needed to be ready for MIP. At least I’d get the check from the last job and be back to even, for the moment, hopefully, I thought.

But, of course, somehow you never do get back to even with Momser; he’s turned screwing people into a kind of performance art. Maybe that’s really why I went; I couldn’t resist the show. Anyway, I walk into a meeting of Momser and a group of foreign producer/distributors, players from India and Lebanon and Hungarian Jews from Brentwood. You check your wallet at the door when you walk into a room like that, if you’re smart, assuming you have anything in it, which I didn’t, so that was one advantage I had. There was only so much they could take from me that I didn’t, in the end, want to give. So, I’m thinking, go ahead, (as Al Pacino said to the cops surrounding him in Dog Day Afternoon) "Kiss me. I love getting kissed while I’m getting fucked." If I get through the meeting, I figured, at least I can get my check for the last job, which Momser had sitting there on his desk as I walked in, signed, so near and yet so far from my hot little hands. No fool is he, either.

The job involved a television series they were developing about a certain fairy tale character which discretion and the laws of libel prevent me from describing truthfully, and to do otherwise would cause my nose to start to grow and grow and grow… There I go again; clearly the gods knew what they were doing when they put me in that room.

And Momser knew it, too. No gun to my head, you’re here, let’s do business. What they wanted was no less that 22 story ideas for the proposed series on the above unnamed character, a job which under a legitimate Writers Guild contract would cost real money, even more if you had a real show-runner to write them. But what he wanted to pay, I knew going in, though no number was even mentioned in the meeting, since Momser had indicated with a slight nod that we would discuss that privately later, was going to be, prior history strongly suggested, a minuscule percentage of that amount. A piece-work fee for promotional material copy writing, quick money for quick work was what they had in mind, and since I was there in the room, clearly so did I. I got kids and a job’s a job, and I knew Momser would sooner sign a pact with the devil than one with the Writer’s Guild, so I kind of go with the flow, taking mental notes on each of the characters there for future reference, threw out a few terms "mythic structure" and "hero’s journey" all that, and got the job. L.A.I.O.U., indeed.

But the next morning over breakfast I conferred with my consigliere, Ruben (as I am his in all of his recent dealings) and even though he was in the full glow of just having made his Paramount deal, as discussed in the last Letter, he managed to focus, albeit briefly, on a reality outside of his own, and between the bagels and the cream cheese we developed a strategy. This was a negotiation, after all, and that had only been the first salvo. And one of the many things I learned from Momser about negotiation was that the sale begins after they say no.

So I said no. I waited until late that afternoon, so as to not appear too eager or concerned, before I called him, which was cool. I was starting to enjoy it enough, even, to listen to Ruben for the entire afternoon after making my decision, giving me the splendid opportunity to debate the issue to myself whether an unhappy Ruben was worse than a happy Ruben, or the other way around. This was an increasingly happy Ruben I was dealing with, you see, the final phone call telling him to take the deal had just come, and he had just shown the good sense to do so.

It wasn’t the deal he wanted and fought for, of course, but it didn’t matter. What mattered is that he had put up a good fight for two months, used the resources of his lawyer, Ed Blau, and his agent, Marty Baum of CAA who had patiently mentored him for 16 years preparing for this moment, and the friendship of Eliot Silverstein, head of the Artist’s Rights Foundation and former head of the DGA. He had waited and listened and learned, and had not made another mistake, and so he was about to be let through into the portals of power on what looks to be a seriously go picture. It was even in the trades, today, as I write: "Creek Star to Join Varsity," an article about Dawson’s Creek heart throb James Van Der Beek, who will play a key role in his movie, Varsity Blues, along with Paul Walker, with Oscar winner Jon Voight (who happens to be one of Marty’s clients) playing the football coach. It’s amazing how much sense the world can make when you’re on the right side of the door, eh?

Regardless, hearing about all this allowed me to kill enough time until I made the call I had to make, to Momser, leaving a message to the effect that I was not convinced that this job really made sense at the price. Basically, I turned it down, knowing in my heart there was no way I was going to do what had been "agreed to" in the room, and without dollars attached, it wasn’t a deal anyway, just a discussion, and if I didn’t get the job, so be it. I needed the money badly, but not that badly. I have standards, after all. Or at least, that was my position, and turning this job down was a whole lot more fun than actually doing it would be.

But Momser was under the gun, time-wise, so he called me back that night, suggesting most pleasantly that my head had migrated not just to – but way up river up far and deep into – a nether part of my body, from which it might never return if not for his kind assistance in my moment of profound confusion. I listened carefully, calmly expressed my disagreement with his assessment of the situation, and soon we moved on into a discussion of the job itself, which suddenly turned into simple promo work, not real writing, "placeholder ideas," which doubtless I could dash off in a few hours, and only twelve in total required. Given that there were four done already, this was sounding more like it. But what about the money?

I’d already established my rate for that kind of work, and I knew he’d never go up on the amount, especially now that he had already conceded my position as "real writer doing him a favor" – somehow I’d have to pay for that. But I also knew I had a momentary advantage, having won one in this game, not a common occurrence with Momser who routinely expects to win them all, it being his nature to do so. I’ve learned a lot from him, and I knew if I didn’t use my temporary advantage now, I would in his eyes forever be a schmuck writer and lose not just the advantage here, but the possibility of future advantages forever. If I’m not smart enough and tough enough to stick up for myself now, then I’m not worth dealing with.

So I took a deep breath and demanded all of the agreed-upon sum in advance, before I even started the job. This, of course, I knew he’d never do, but it gave him the opportunity to be offended, which equaled out the face he lost in my earlier victory, allowing him in his umbrage to offer one-third in front, thus letting me settle for half in advance and half when done, which is the deal I wanted in the first place since it was the best I was going to get anyway. And I actually got the first half before starting the job, which I then proceeded to do over the course of a few hours stretched as dramatically as possible over a week-and-a-half. But now of course I’ll never hear from him ever again – until he needs me. However the check for the other half of the fee is, I am assured, already in the mail. Trust me.