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Thursday, March 25, 2004


Confessions of a Midlevel Screenwriter

by Alan Bunsen Smithee

Reader Advisory: By the end of this story, I will have broken the sacred bond that exists between producers and writers. I will have told you exactly what to expect should you pursue your lifelong dream of writing in Hollywood, a dream you have nurtured through pleasant afternoons at the multiplex, losing yourself in the cinematic dreamscapes of Kate & Leopold and Hard Target. Sure, it sounds like a life of luxury and privilege from your cubicle in Accounts Receivable or from the driver's side of your taxi-cab. But a life in The Industry is not the beaded seat cushion nestling your working-class buttocks like an angel of livery; it's the rusty spring burrowing through the upholstery and puncturing your ass, leaving you bent over a doctor's table in an understaffed Urgent Care facility as an intern on the tail-end of a 20-hour shift shakily administers a tetanus shot to your suppurating cheek. In short, if you've packed all of your worldly possession into the back of your 10-year-old Camry with a Mapquest printout from Anywhere, USA to Los Angeles, California: Don't. Steer your sensible Japanese import into the nearest body of water and save yourself some time.

Still with me? What the fuck is wrong with you? Do I need to make a vivid, disturbing analogy where the entertainment industry is a horny grizzly bear with a raging case of gonorrhea and you are a cute, virgin bunny rabbit in a plaid skirt, garter belt set, and stripper heels? Very well. Read on, read on...

Acknowledgement of Good Fortune

I know that many of you would give a semiessential part of your anatomy for any kind of writing career in Hollywood, and that my forthcoming "whining" about my midlevel success in a cuthroat industry is disgusting to you. If you are predisposed to have such thoughts, don't bother coming here. You are not allowed to have a career in Hollywood if you are not constantly dissatisfied with your income, prospects, and social status. For you, the horny grizzly bear also has a three-foot cock.

Script 1: On Spec, optioned in 2001 for mid six-figures against high six-figures
Genre: Genre-busting meta-romantic comedy actioner with thriller elements
Dream Cast: Russell Crowe, Tom Hanks, Nicole Kidman, and Catherine Zeta-Jones
Actual Cast: N/a

"On spec" and "optioned" are highly technical Hollywood terms which generally translate to "never getting made, but still getting paid." Script was sold when I removed all of the toilet paper in a Universal executive bathroom, then slid screenplay underneath the door. Exec loved it so much he cleaned himself with his hand rather than taint the three-hole-punched pages. Didn't show same respect for fourth rewrite, despite my capitulation on including a talking dog (with a Romanian accent) who solves protag's problems. Never made.

Used the option money for a down payment on house in Hollywood Hills with three bedrooms and two hot tubs, a Hummer, and a promising relationship with a B-list actress who got her start in soft-core Cinemax movies. Agent takes me to lunch twice a week to discuss the next step in my career, constantly reaching over to touch me with an outstretched index finger, making sizzling noises as he touches the lapel of my jacket.

Actress girlfriend is insatiable.

Script 2: Script rewrite assignment in late 2001, Major Studio,
Genre: Third sequel to summer blockbuster action-comedy franchise, mid six-figures.
Dream Cast: Previous sequel features Vin Diesel, Liv Tyler, and Denzel Washington
Actual Cast: Stars abandon franchise, replaced with Kid Rock, Jenna Jameson, and Tom Arnold

Studio execs praise the rewrite, lament the departure of their money stars. Writers Guild arbitration lists me first among fifteen credited screenwriters.

Movie premieres to disappointing $10.1 million opening, finishing third. Exec Who Formerly Loved Me blames me for anemic opening box office numbers. Refuses to pay entire fee, claiming that money is tied to adjusted net points. "Adjusted net points" is Industryspeak for "you're lucky we paid you the first hundred grand."

Sublet house in Hills and move into two-bedroom condo in Hollywood with communal hot tub on roof and gym with limited Nautilus equipment.

Agent is still upbeat, though has a tendency to take our bi-weekly brunch home in doggy bag. Still makes sizzling noises, but idly licks index finger and stabs it into the air, uttering half-hearted "ssssss" that trails off as he looks over my shoulder at people in next booth.

Woefully untalented, hacky screenwriter friend has just sold pitch for two mil to Tom Cruise's producing partner.

Actress girlfriend is slightly less insatiable. We're down to three times a day, and the once-constant lingerie shows have slowed to Friday nights after all-night coke binges.

The Hummer, however, is still hott.

Script 3: Uncredited rewrite in early 2002, Slightly Smaller Major Studio, mid six-figures for two weeks of work
Genre: David Arquette talking-ostrich movie
Dream Cast: n/a
Actual Cast: David Arquette, a girl who played Young Mrs. Garrett in a flashback episode of Facts of Life, three ostriches, Haley Joel Osment

Studio Exec Who Says He Loves Me assures me that he's doing me a big favor by hiring me to punch-up "convincing, Brooklyn-wiseass" dialogue for talking ostrich. I'm faced with the first art-vs-commerce dilemma of my midlist screenwriting career. Is this why I moved to Hollywood? I'd always made jokes that after a year of writing I'd probably be giving handjobs on the Boulevard and writing David Arquette talking-ostrich movies. Be careful what you wish for, my mother said. Handjobs are a sin.

Agent assures me over taco-stand snack that ostrich's beak will move in realistic vocal articulations through CGI; there will be none of this "hearing ostrich thoughts" bullshit. I agree, realizing my talking Romanian dog experience from my first script rewrites have served me well. Request that he touch me and make sizzling noise is met with a sigh and lame assurances that he should probably first "put on an oven mitt, etc etc."

Move across the hall to two-bedroom condo with somewhat smaller dining area off of kitchen. There's inadequate storage space for my crockpot collection, but I persevere. Someone keeps leaving dirty towels on pec-deck in gym despite my frequent Post-it notes asking that they be removed.

According to Variety, piece of shit, no-talent, idea-stealing friend sells pitch for high-concept romantic comedy based on lightbulb joke I'd told at Happy Hour for 5 mil, Nicole Kidman attached.

Actress girlfriend has virtually cut me off. We're down to ten times a week, not including weekends, and insists on bringing struggling actress-screenwriter friend over for role-playing. Everyone thinks they're a fucking writer.

Does this sound like any kind of life? Still think Hollywood is for you? I'm not going to pile on by telling you the story about how my Hummer got keyed in the Warner Brothers parking lot, how I can't get a table at the Ivy without a same-day reservation, or how Richard Roeper found David Arquette's performance "zany and engaging, but was constantly undermined by the tired wisecracks from his talking ostrich partner." Thumbs down."

Thumbs down, indeed.

About this site

This is the internet home of Mark Lisanti, a Los Angeles writer sometimes known as Bunsen. He is the founding editor of Defamer, a weblog about Hollywood, where he now serves in the nebulous capacity of "editor-at-large."
If You Like Bunsen, Then You'll Love Bunsen