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MAKING CITY ISLAND: MORE ATM"S THEN UNPRODUCED SCREENPLAYS

scripts

I had a wonderful screenwriter friend, the late Lester Pine ("Popi", "Claudine") who had a number of memorable and succinct phrases about writing that have stuck with me for years--usually delivered in a slightly gangsterly "de's and dem's" delivery. Once I was pouring through his stack of screenplays and I said something sensitive like: "Jesus, you've written a lot of stuff that hasn't been made" (I was a teenager...) He looked at me wistfully and said: "Kid, the pile keeps gettin' higher and higher."

Contained in that response is everything you need to know about the peculiarly counter-productive problem faced by the writer; you can't succeed as a writer if you stop writing. However, everything you write stands a much greater chance of not getting anywhere then it does of succeeding. Thus writing is both a show of optimism and a courting of failure; not to do it is to fail at the outset. To do it is to fail by design.

And so what is there to do with a finished screenplay, except join the ranks of the thousands--perhaps millions by now--of people who churn these things out in the not very realistic hope of somehow getting a movie made? (There's a terrible billboard in Los Angeles, advertising a bank branch that has "more ATM's than unproduced screenplays". Oy). On the other hand, I have certain advantages that many people don't--an agent, for one thing, and a manager. And a few other films under my belt. None of these things, however, prevent the pile from getting higher and higher. It's just the nature of the game.

"City Island" was originally titled "Make Someone Happy"--don't know why, exactly, except that the Comden/Green/Styne song was probably playing on the Tony Bennett/Bill Evans CD when I was trying to come up with a title. Titles are strange things--they tend, for me, to stick like glue and I'm always amused when well known movies reveal their original titles and you just can't imagine them ever having another identity. ("Rocky" was called "The Contender"--which makes me wonder what "The Contender" was called. For some mysterious reason, "Sunset Boulevard" went into production under the title "A Can Of Beans". Hm.) "Make Someone Happy" was never a perfect title to me, but it was years before the very obvious, simple and--I hope--elegant solution of naming the movie after the locale in which it takes place occurred to me. "City Island" is the name of "City Island". Of course. How could it ever have been anything else? Except, of course, it was.

I sent "Make Someone Happy" to a handful of friends for reactions. My "Two Family House" producer, Adam Brightman, was warmly enthusiastic about it which pleased me. A few others professed to like it but used certain buzzwords that made me nervous--like "sweet" and "little". ("It's really sweet--what a nice little story", is the kind of praise that I'd rather not have and have heard all too frequently, given that I don't write movies in which crap explodes). My agent and I thought it best to find a producer to partner with, but the first few we tried also gave it the "small" treatment--"nice script, lovely story, it's so hard to make these small movies, though..."

This is something I've heard pretty much since I began doing this back in the early 1990's. The indie film--aka the "small movie"--has always been dead, dying, on the verge of extinction, too hard to get made, not worth the effort and/or too expensive or too cheap to be a good risk. And yet every year, Sundance seems to have a hell of a time winnowing down the glut of independent movies that have been made during the past year and which seek exposure at that famous (infamous?) festival launching pad.

Finishing a screenplay that you're proud of is a wonderful feeling. Hence the letdown when you must face the fact that one thing the world doesn't need is yet another screenplay. Still, my own response to this problem is, I'm afraid, typical of most life-long, fully addicted writers: I usually start writing something else straight away, to keep my mind off how potentially fruitless my previous work may prove to be. I wrote three more screenplays in a row while "Make Someone Happy" was looking for a producer.

And then one day I got a call from my agent that a very good, rather new company loved the script and liked my previous films. They were called Echo Lake Productions and had produced and/or co-financed several prestigious art-house movies, including one that I'd liked called "Thirteen Conversations About One Thing." A meeting was set for the next time I was in LA with the principals of the company, Doug Mankoff and Andrew Spaulding.

The year was 2002 now, the spring. I decided to be realistic and figured on a half year of development and casting. We'd start shooting in early 2003 and premiere in the fall at the Toronto Film Festival--perhaps throwing in a Venice Film Fest. appearance at well. And if things got delayed for some reason, we could always premiere at Sundance 2004.

Right?




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2 comments:

  1. What a small community we are in
    I worked on 13 Conversations for around a week or so Directed by
    Jill Sprecher....I had a fun time
    I am even in one scene if you don't
    blink.....as far as scripts I to
    have around 4 or 5 turning brown in
    my closet.....one for TV.one screen
    play and around I think 4 for dinner theater did produce a few.

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  2. The name "City Island" has always seemed a perfect combination of metaphoric relevance - how one can feel so lonely even when surrounded by a family one loves - as well as place-setting practicality. Something for everybody, and evocative too. Plus "Be What You Are" is such better advice!

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