Three original screenplays I couldn’t sell. In order of chronological disappointment.
Note: It occurs to me I have covered this area before. But rest assured, like the stories I repeated tell my family (under the assumption that I’m telling them for the first time), the telling is certain to be different. New readers will be freshly informed; the veterans can evaluate which version is their favorite. So there’s fun for everybody.
Failed Screenplay Number One:
One sentence summary: A first-time screenwriter, having sold a small-budget comedy, which he is contracted to direct, has his world turned upside-down when a superstar action-movie hero, looking to alter his image, signs on to play the leading role.
Sounds like fun. A little “inside”, maybe, but, you know, you can see the comic possibilities. How a little romantic comedy becomes progressively bloated with spectacular stunts and pyrotechnics to accommodate the comforts of the too-big-to-turn-down action hero and the expectations of his audience, how the first-timer inevitably loses control of his own project, and how, surprisingly and satisfyingly, one would hope, the whole thing turns out.
The screenplay is replete of rookie mistakes, not the least of which is how little I considered whether anyone other than myself – a first-time screenwriter – would be interested in such a movie. Despite that miscalculation, the memory of Movie Magic even now retains an internal “I still think that would be funny” tickle.
My favorite part of the screenplay are the moments where the lead character speaks directly to the camera. And my favorite part of that favorite part occurs when, while he’s speaking to the camera while he’s driving, he runs into the car in front of him.
That is so me. Mocking the conventions of the medium that I’m trying to break into. Call it unearned chutzpah. I just love it.
In the movie, Quiz Show, about the TV quiz show scandal of the 50’s, a defeated prosecutor says, more or less, “I went out to get television, but in the end, television got me.” I went out to tweak the hypocrisy of movie business, but in the end, the movie business prevailed.
They ignored me completely.
Moving on to “Unsold Movie Number Two”:
The Big Lie
One sentence summary: A romantic comedy where a man who has difficulty with women enters into a relationship, which began under her mistaken belief that he has a short time to live.
As you can tell, I’m not that great at one-sentence summaries, a deficiency that is no small drawback in the movie business. Conciseness is everything – the crystallization of the concept. Producers have pitched me movie ideas based on the poster they imagine will promote it. A poster that has not yet been designed. Because the movie has not yet been written. It doesn’t matter. The belief is, if you can visualize the poster, you’ve captured the heart of the movie. And if the poster’s compelling, then the movie can’t miss.
The good thing about The Big Lie is the story made sense from beginning to end. I’m good at making stories make sense. My experience in half-hour comedy has trained me to do two things: Create likable characters, and lay out a story sensibly and interestingly and surprisingly and comedically. No bumps in the storytelling. No logical inconsistencies.
The bad thing about The Big Lie is one, I am no fan of romantic comedy, and two, I have disliked this particular genre of story – a person harbors a secret until, what screenwriters call, the end of the Second Act (of a three-act structure), the deceived person then slaps them and says they never wants to see them again, and in the end, they wind up together. I have never enjoyed movies like that. The tension of watching them maintain the secret is excruciating for me. And you know how it will inevitably turn out, so…blah. No surprise.
I mean, it’s a crowd-pleasing movie. What are the alternatives for a payoff? The Deceiver gets slapped and they never see each other again? What kind of ending is that? The secret is never exposed? She thought he was dying. What happens when he doesn’t? I mean, it’s not like the guy has six toes and he keeps his socks on for the rest of his life. The secret eventually has to be dealt with. What else? The ironic ending. The guy coincidentally gets sick and actually dies. I want my money back.
It now seems to me that, as a reaction to my first failed screenplay – that appealed to me but not the general public – I went too far in the other direction – writing a script that would appeal to the general public but not to me. That was a mistake.
Which brings us to
My final failed screenplay.
One sentence summary: A small-town housewife accidentally becomes a superhero.
How did that happen, you may ask? She was volunteering at a hospital and, in the course of performing her duties, she was scratched by a dying superhero, and as a result of that, turned into one.
Ding! Ding! Ding!
“Who is it?”
“The Implausibility Police! You’re under arrest!”
A dying superhero scratches a Candy Striper and turns her into a superhero. And wait, there’s more. Two villains modeled after the buffoonish bad guys from Pinocchio. And some super-powerful, nitro-type liquid, the detonation of a few drops of which could destroy an entire city.
What the heck was I thinking? Yes, the characters were likable and the storyline made sense – that’s what I do – but with all the other stuff I’m asking the audience to accept, I would now have to admit,
It’s not enough.
Why did I write SuperMom? Two reasons, but I’ll only tell you one. I bought a book called something like, “Writing A Screenplay Writing In Three Weeks.” I read the book, the idea came to me, and, you may not believe this but it’s true, I finished the first draft of the screenplay in exactly
Okay, I’ll tell you the other reason. My wife had recently become a psychologist. In her way, she was now out there, rescuing strangers. I was feeling left out.
One can imagine that situation sending writers in other directions. But for me, it came out SuperMom. What are you gonna do?
The common denominator with these failures, I now realize, is a tone of wavering probability. I take ordinary characters – that’s the real part, and what I like to do – and I place them in positions of questionable likelihood. A first-time director kept on when a superstar comes aboard? Unlikely. (More likely is they pay him off, or if he refuses, kill him, which sounds like a better movie.) A guy lies to get a girl? I’m sure it happens. But allowing her to continue to believe he’s dying? Unlikely again. A regular woman accidentally becoming a superhero? Somebody. Stop me.
I bought into to these ideas when I was writing the scripts. If I were more skillful, more persuasive in my execution, maybe I could have pulled these implausabilities off. But I wasn’t. So I didn’t.
What do I always say? You are what you are, and you do what you do. I believe that. That’s the mentally healthy way to be.
Have I ever been accused of being mentally healthy?
Not that I remember.
So if you sense an edginess of regret in these chicken scratchings,
You may not be wrong.