Reports | Screenwriting

The Ups, Downs and Up Again of the Book Deal

1 Oct , 1998  

Written by M.M. Goldstein | Posted by:

Securing the rights is only half the battle. There's still the tricky business of actually getting the film made...

An old friend of mine, the novelist Howard Norman, came to town the other day and we had a delightful dinner at the Loews Hotel in Santa Monica, only blocks away from CLOUT Central, where Ruben and I live, work, and cogitate, not necessarily in that order. He was in L.A. on a book tour for his latest novel, "The Museum Guard," which by all accounts is doing very well, following directly on the heels of his breakthrough novel, "The Bird Artist."

Howard lives back east, dividing his year between Washington, D.C., where he teaches at University of Maryland, and a beautiful old farmhouse in East Calais, Vermont, where he and his wife, the poet Jane Shore, and their 10-year-old daughter Emma much prefer to stay when time and teaching commitments permit.

I hadn’t seen Howard in several years, not since the "Bird Artist" book tour in 1994, and as we talked, going over the ground of our relationship over the last dozen years, a panoply of deals, real and abortive, dreams born, fulfilled and shattered, friendships blooming, stretched, and renewed, high finance and low commerce, vast amounts of waiting and disappointment mixed with splendid flashes of true creative fulfillment, I realized that while I’m from the east and he’s from the mid-west, the intersection of our lives has been a quintessential L.A. story – which is why I’m going to tell it to you now.


In this series of letters, former Cambridge/ Brookline resident M.M. Goldstein reports from another world… LA.

Seven Sequences of the Hero’s Journey (9/98)
Life as a screenwriter and the secrets of screenwriting.

Negotiations (8/98)
An office on the Paramount lot — ah, who needs it.

Pitching a Script at Paramount  (7/98)
Ever dream of being able to pitch your script to the bigwigs at a major Hollywood studio?  Well…

Varsity Cowboy   (6/98)
Behind-the-scenes of Jon Voight’s upcoming film "Varsity Blues"

A Night in Hollywood   (5/98)
What do you do when you’re invited to an elite tinseltown event and don’t have enough cash to cover the $18 valet parking fee? FInd out in this Artists Rights Foundation Tribute

A Day in the Life of an LA Screenwriter   (4/98)
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.

Waiting  (3/98)
Everybody in L.A. is waiting… and what they’re waiting for is The Call, the one that will change their life. It’s The Call about The Deal or The Job or The Part…

All You Need is a Little Clout  (2/98)
With enough clout, you can do anything, have anything, be anything. The problem is, without it, you can’t do squat, so how do you get there from here?

I first became aware of Howard through a 1987 "Los Angeles Times" book review written by the erudite Richard Eder (whom I understand actually lives in Boston), which elegantly praised Howard’s first novel, "The Bird Artist." The book is a coming-of-age story set in a small village in northern Canada, a world of isolation and wonders, both real and imagined. In my younger days, I had spent almost a year traveling from the west coast of Vancouver Island to the east coast of Newfoundland. There, I stayed the winter in a small fishing village that had only become accessible by land a decade earlier. I knew intimately whereof he wrote, and after reading the book I knew I had to get in touch with the author, which I managed to do through the publisher, and his book agent, Melanie Jackson in New York.

We talked on the phone, and I sent him one of my scripts, "The Lost Mariner," based on an Oliver Sacks short story from his recently published collection of clinical tales, "The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat." We’d optioned the story, and I’d just written the script with a friend, Neal Baer, who was fresh out of AFI by way of Harvard grad school in sociology, which is how, tangentially, we’d met. Since I was dealing with a "real writer," that is, a writer of literature, I wanted to put my best foot forward and show him something classy, and that was the best I had.

And it worked. Howard liked the script, appreciated both the skill and the humanity that had gone into it, and we made plans to meet during an upcoming trip I’d be making back to Boston for an Emerson College seminar on docudrama. There we talked books and movies as we watched the Swan Boats in the Public Garden, and in general seemed to hit it off.

But, having anted up most of my slender resources to option the Oliver Sacks story, I was unable to match a competing offer on "Northern Lights," and the option went to another party. The book went on to be nominated for the National Book Award, an astonishing accomplishment for a first novel. But the writer/director who optioned it was unable, or unwilling it sometimes seemed, to create a viable movie story from it, and while it remained under option to him for the next decade, it was never produced as a movie.

But despite, or perhaps because of the fact that we were not in active business together, Howard’s and my friendship flourished, and we vowed to find a different movie project to work on together. He was eager to learn the tricks of the screenwriting trade, and I was happy to teach what I could in exchange for access to his extraordinary eye and ear. I knew his writing wasn’t conventionally "commercial," but I loved it, and I went with the passion rather than the practicality. So we stayed in touch.

Cut to a few years, and one day a typewritten manuscript shows up in the mail, a long first draft of a story that was going to be published in his next book, a collection of short stories called "Kiss in the Hotel Joseph Conrad."

The story was called "3-D," and it was a piquant coming-of-age tale set in the midwestern town of Mishawaka, Indiana, in 1954. In involved a slightly off-kilter mother (Dahlia), her moody and precocious 12 year old son (Kedrick), an absent father (Dalton), a failing movie theater (The Savoy) shuddering under the onslaught of television run by a an odd-duck loner (Audubon), ominous tornado warnings – and the imminent opening of the town’s first 3-D movie, a cheesy sci-fi epic called "No Warning." Audubon and Kedrick, each for their own reasons, look forward to the movie’s opening – Audubon to save his theater, Kedrick for it’s fantastical wonderfulness. But certain elements in the town, for real and devious reasons, proclaim it to be a Communist plot to take over the minds of their children, and urge the good folks of Mishawaka to picket the theater in protest.

Well, this was my kind of story, a parable of the McCarthy era wrapped up in a father-son story, with the potential healing power of art (cheesy kitchy art, a 3-D sci-fi movie, at that, which I found irresistible) entering in to resolve the situation.

I proceeded to pull all the strings I had or could invent to get the story (which as published in a condensed form was called "Laughing and Crying") optioned, and a script commissioned for us to write from it. Ultimately I succeeded at both, with a company that is, alas, no longer in business, but whose execs, Phil Fehrle and Lani Daniels, deserve full recognition for their adventurous imagination in taking this on.

For my proposal was not simply adapting the slim story into a movie, but rather "growing it" into a full movie story and script, using both the original story creator’s imagination (Howard’s) and my own, shaping it with my previously demonstrated sense of movie story structure.

And, incredibly, they bought it. They flew me back to meet with Howard up in East Calais (pronounced, by the way, "Kal-Iss" since they don’t much like the French in that part of Vermont), where I met Jane, and Emma, then two-years old, whose habit of sticking the tip of her tongue out of the corner of her mouth as she pondered those two-year-old imponderables charmed me to no end. I even got to schmooze with one of their old friends, Jane’s Godard College classmate, David Mamet, who also owns a house in the neighborhood. Very cool.

And we got our work done, too. We spent days and nights talking the story through, truly "re-inventing" it, developing not only a meaningful and satisfying ending, but several new and vivid characters. One of my favorites is the road-weary cynical-but-with-a-reasonably-good-heart salesman of the 3-D movie, Chester, who is well aware that this counter-attack against the inroads of TV was dead in the water already, but nevertheless becomes a good pal to Audubon and Kedrick, as the town’s wrath comes down on him, too. We also went to the local 4th of July fair, where the "floats" set on ratty old cars inspired a major sequence of the script. I even won Emma a prize in the baseball throw.

I returned to L.A. juiced, and over the next few months hammered out first a ten page treatment, then, at the reasonable insistence of the company, a longer scene-by-scene 25 page single space treatment, which got us the go ahead to script the initial draft. Apropos of last month’s article, I do practice what I preach – story is everything, and treatments are key. Within weeks we had a full-length draft, and after one minor re-write, a completed First Draft.

But then… The project had been commissioned as a cable movie, but the economics of the business at the time suggested a run at a lo-budget independent feature film. We got a director attached, Carl Schultz, whose Australian film, "Careful, He Might Hear You" had made a great impression on me, especially the performances he got out of the children in the movie. We had a few actresses express serious interest – Mary Kay Place and Sissy Spacek among them.

We got really close in a deal that made even me, by then pretty well jaded with the biz, sit up and take notice: Fine Line Pictures, through the auspices of producer Peter Newman, stepped up with a two-picture proposal. It tied our company into making their movie, Nancy Savoca’s "Household Saints," based on Francine Prose’s novel of the same name, and them into making "3-D." But I’ll bet you can guess which movie happened and which didn’t. Beware the two-picture deal.

All of these ups and down made it a difficult time in our relationship. Promises were made that were not kept, and it didn’t matter who was making them; as a producer on the project I had to and did accept responsibility. It’s one thing to get used to that as part of the business; it’s quite another to have it enter into a friendship. It was not anyone’s fault, since the situation did not seem to be in anyone’s control enough to assign blame. If it’s a movie, it’s a miracle, they say, and while miracles can and do happen, by definition they are not common. But one, therefore, should thus not promise them. Nor have I since.

But we kept in touch, and kept busy. He was working on his next novel by then, and I plied my trade out here as a freelance writer as well as screenwriting teacher. I took my first shot at episodic television, doing a "China Beach" with my friend Neal, he of "The Lost Mariner," which ultimately got us a Writer’s Guild Award nomination, the only freelance episode to be so honored.

But the show was cancelled the end of that season, and Neal, having had enough, left the business to go back east to medical school at Harvard to become a doctor and have a real job like his father and brothers. But, in one of those incredible turnarounds that will be detailed in a later story, he returned three years later as medical consultant on a new show being prepped by John Wells, our Exec Producer on "China Beach," which involved a 4th year medical student working in a large urban hospital. Yes, "ER." It’s what keeps us film-biz junkies addicted. It "can" happen. You just don’t know why or when.

Neal, I might add, is now in his fourth year as a writer/producer on "ER," with five writing or producing Emmy nominations under his belt, and recently we’ve revived a new story based on that original "Lost Mariner" premise which has been optioned by "ER’s" Anthony Edward’s production company, with John Lithgow joining in – but again, that’s another story. In any case, soon after, the Fine Line deal fizzled, our production company dropped out of the business, and Howard finished his new novel. It was called "The Bird Artist" and he sent it to me in manuscript form. I read it through in one sitting. It was a truly brilliant piece of writing, an astonishing act of imagination and writing skill. He’d hit his stride with it, and ultimately it, too, was honored by being nominated for the National Book Award.

But long before that, while still in galley form, it was attracting film biz interest. CAA, through Sally Wilcox, got it to Arne Glimscher, who optioned it before publication. And so Howard once again stepped onto roller coaster of film development. (Glimscher, you might recall, is the owner of the Pace Gallery, and is one of the largest, if not the largest, private art dealer in the world, representing, for example, the Picasso estate).

Glimscher became the art maven to Mike Ovitz, then head of CAA, ultimately helping him to get on the board of the MOMA in New York, as well as, one supposes, brokering the fabulous Lichtenstein that graces the CAA atrium. Ovitz, in turn, helped Glimsher fulfill his wish to become a director, setting up "Mambo Kings" and "Just Cause," which is not exactly the career path they teach you in film school, but that’s life in the big city.

And soon Howard was part of that whirl, going off to Newfoundland with Arne to look at lighthouses, being escorted around the Pace, getting phone calls from movie stars, being courted by the glitterati, being graced by success. To his great credit he never lost his perspective, knowing full well this ride would eventually stop, remaining cautious the whole time about investing too much emotion in the eventual success of this venture.

We kept in touch through it all, and as a gesture of friendship, I even planted an article in "Variety" about the Glimscher deal. And while it’s always a double-edged sword seeing a close friend’s career suddenly take off, Howard is a guy with both feet on the ground, and I knew that win or lose on this deal, we’d eventually be walking the same earth again, as our lives and art progressed, our children got older, and so did we. And not entirely unexpectedly, this deal, too, did not result in a miracle. The script never quite got there, in some part because Glimsher was too busy being rich and famous to actually sit down and work on it with Howard. Then Ovitz left CAA, and the playing field leveled a bit, which was good for a lot of us, though not necessarily Glimscher. Or maybe he just lost interest, as he had on numerous other novels he’s optioned then eventually forgotten.

But it’s a great book, regardless, not dependent on a movie to validate its inherent quality. Howard knew this, as did I, and all the while he was in the whirl, we kept wryly commenting on what for both of us seemed like somebody else’s life.

And when the option expired, Howard and CAA moved on, and now it’s with a British company which has, according to Howard at our dinner, created a very good script, and looks to make the film on a moderate budget next year. But when we toasted at dinner, we toasted to not to its success, or even to the new book, but to life, "L’Chaim." Perspective.


So there we were, friends who had met, gotten close, drifted apart and ultimately hung together again as our lives progressed, reminding me that there’s more to it than just business. As Aziz says to Fielding in E.M. Forster’s, "A Passage to India," if it all comes down to give and take, then we might as well jump off this parapet.

And while I won’t say the thought hadn’t occurred to me from time to time, life getting pretty bumpy the last few years, I’m afraid of heights to begin with, and besides, Southern California is a tough place to resist staying alive in. I mean, if you can’t appreciate how beautiful this place is and how lucky you are to live here, you’re dead already, so why take the leap and make a mess, too. So the dinner wound down; he’d been at readings all day for more than a week and I could see the fatigue creeping up. But a good meal, a nice bottle of wine, a beautiful view of the sunset over the Santa Monica pier – life is good in those moments, especially when neither one of us was paying for it.

The next night he had a reading at Dutton’s in Brentwood, a local independent bookstore, and I invited Ruben to go with me so he could meet him, thinking, well, that something might come out of it. And, in fact, it did.

Howard read from an early chapter of "The Museum Guard," the section where the nephew first meets and becomes enamored of Imogen Linny, the caretaker of the Jewish Cemetery in Halifax. His reading filled the room with his laconic wit and moral stringency; it got to Ruben in a way that simply reading the words would not have.

After, in the company of Grey Rembert of Dreamworks, we all chatted briefly. Ruben gave Howard a CLOUT baseball hat, and the Vermont intellectual and the Israeli producer took the full measure of each other on a Wednesday night in an L.A. bookstore as the Santa Monica soccer coach (among other identities) looked on bemusedly. And as Ruben and I left, he asked about the script Howard and I had written together all those years ago. What was it about again?

I gave him the log line about the father/son story set against the coming to town of the first 3-D movie, which the people of the town picket as a Communist plot to take over the minds of the children.

Let me read it, he said. I gave it to him and he read it the next day, and liked it very much, and suddenly I saw the past merge with the present into a future that may well intertwine all of it in a way I could not have imagined only days ago. Suddenly a new project has emerged from the dustbin of my personal history, an old friendship has merged with new one, and a good piece of work is alive and kicking again. I called to secure turnaround rights, the script is headed into Marty Baum at CAA even as I write, and one thing I do know from all of this is that, indeed, you just never know, do you, how it’s all going to work out.

And if you did, what fun would that be?