Collaborative Writing – 70 Hours to Glory

Posted by on Nov 27, 2013 in Creative Writing | 0 comments

Ok, so in a previous blog, I promised a hilarious real life story about getting cheesed by some slimy Hollywood shuckster. And I’m not one to break promises, so here it is. (Wait, I said it’d be coming next week nearly two weeks ago? Ok, so I am one to break promises. I’m sorry already. I’m sorry! Please, I beg you, put down the pitchfork and disband the angry mob.) This story highlights how little most writers have to go on for certain projects as well as the complete and total absurdity that is the current state of the motion picture industry.

Just a few weeks after I’d graduated with my MFA from UC-Riverside, I got what I thought would be at least a minor break in the industry. An acquaintance of one of my professors sent him an urgent email asking if he knew any young comedy writers who were good at quickly cranking out scripts. The email my professor forwarded me was titled, “Eh, might be worth checking out,” so I thought to myself, “Eh, might be worth checking out,” and looked up the company that sent it. Turned out they’d helped produce a bunch of straight to DVD classics starring actors like Tom Sizemore, Breckin Meyer, and Tara Reid. So they seemed like a pretty legit (albeit low budget) production & distribution house. I decided to call. In a couple minutes, the intern answering the phones put me through to a desperate producer, a guy I’ll call Lenny.

“Yeah, this is Lenny.”

“Hi, my name is Cramer,” I said. “My professor at UCR said to give you a call because you’re in need of a comedy writer?”

“Oh yeah, yeah,” he said. “Great. So yeah, my partner and I sold a concept to a bunch of investors a couple weeks ago. Project is fully funded and ready to shoot this summer. And we’re meeting with the investors in two weeks to go over the project.”

“Ok,” I said. “So what can I help with? You guys need the script polished up or…”

“Oh no,” he said matter-of-factly. “We don’t have a script. That’s what we’d need you for.”

I nodded silently to myself for a few seconds before answering. “Aaaah. So, you don’t have a script… at all?”

“Like I said, we sold the concept,” he answered. “Then things get busy. We’re wheeling and dealing, meeting and greeting, living the fast life, and now here we are. What we need, Cramer from UCR, is a movie that’s like the Will Ferrell classic Old School but set on the beach. Can you do that?”

I squinted at the wall. “Yeah, I don’t see why not.”

Cue the “Shape of the Juice.”

“Great,” he said. “What we’re looking for is a comedy with some guys trying to recapture their youth that’s heartfelt… but with like lots of gross-out humor and like, there’s a big party scene with lots of boobs and like cracking jokes and like hot chicks running around topless but it’s like heartfelt ya know?”

“Uh… yeah, I can… uh… yeah,” I replied.

“Great! We need it by this time next Friday. Can’t wait to see what you come up with.”

I hung up and stared at the wall for a minute. I was sort of excited and sort of terrified at what I’d just signed myself up for. I looked at the clock on my desk. It was 3:00 on Friday afternoon. I yelled into my roommate’s bedroom.

“Hey Rob!”

“Yeah?”

“Wanna help me write a terrible straight-to-DVD movie this weekend?”

“Sure,” he yelled. “Let me hit the bathroom first.”

And so we went out and bought a case of beer, came back home, and sat down to outline our movie. Rob graduated from the MFA program at UCR that same year so we knew each other’s work very well. We decided that with such a short time frame, we’d spend the first night figuring out the characters and the direction of the story and the rest of the time actually writing. It was going to be an interesting exercise.

After outlining the script, we sat down and wrote the first twenty pages or so together, then divided up the remaining scenes to work on at our own pace. When a new scene was done, we’d get it to the other guy for edits so that each of us knew what was happening in the other parts of the story. By Sunday morning we realized that with a good push we could conceivably have the full script on Lenny’s desk by Monday. We chugged a few more beers and typed our asses off.

Fifty-seven hours after I’d hung up the phone with Lenny, we typed “FADE OUT:” I stayed up that entire night doing edits, emailing it to him at 1:00PM on Monday afternoon. Seventy hours after our initial conversation, he had the script on his desk.

For a mediocre script, it was actually pretty damn good. We followed the campy 80’s teen comedy template and updated it for adults, adding boobs and a party and boobs and it was kind of heartfelt. And here’s the logline…

When a high school teacher finds out his wife is an international Dominatrix, his buddies try to cheer him up with a summer of breasts, beer, and bikinis. And it might be the best summer ever if they can just get past the lesbian biker dykes, football playing sorority girls, ruthless condo developers, old loves, and one pissed off koala.

Lenny loved it. He said he’d get back to me in a couple days with a financial offer. I couldn’t wait. Only three weeks after graduating, I was going to receive actual payment for a script I’d written. I knew it wouldn’t be much, but I was hoping for at least enough to live on for a month or two. The next Friday he called. Here came the windfall.

“The money guys love it. It’s a go,” he said. “And we’re prepared to offer you five hundred dollars for the script.”

Five hundred dollars. The best part was he’d said it like it was 1873 when that might’ve been a life-changing amount of money. Five hundred dollars. Why I could buy my very own steam engine and hobnob with Cornelius T. Vanderbilt! Splitting it with Rob, I was going to receive a whopping two hundred and fifty bucks for the effort.

Lenny sent over a contract that was like seventeen pages long. And it basically said that if it took off and miraculously grossed millions we’d receive the original five hundred dollars! I was kind of leery but after discussing it with Rob, we realized that while it was a disgustingly terrible offer, the damn thing was already done and we could both really use $250. I mean, that was almost two months worth of groceries. And at least it would be a credit – something we could point to that actually got made. That’s a big deal for a young writer. So we hopefully signed it and sent it back.

I’m still waiting on my $250, Lenny. Which trust me, I could use.

In the end, the experience was invaluable in a couple regards. First, it was a really fun exercise that helped me realize I could write a semi-quality script almost absurdly quickly. In a situation like that, you don’t have time to second guess your choices. You just go with your first instinct because you have no other option. Being forced to work that quickly eliminates a lot of the over examination that mentally paralyzes a lot of writers.

Second, it seriously helped my ability to write with a partner. I wasn’t going to be able to do it all on my own. I had to rely on Rob’s ideas for half of the script. Now while he’s a really funny guy, we don’t necessarily share the same sense of humor. He’s a big fan of campy. I trend toward full out bizarre. Both of us learned to give and take on jokes, plot, and character. As a result, we wrote a much better script. Because of that experience, other projects where I’ve had to partner up were a much more enjoyable experience. Once you realize that you don’t have to fight for every little morsel of your dialogue, it frees you up to do more collaborative exploration of all aspects of the story.

Third, I found out that if your gut initially says the project is shady and the person you’re working for is shady, you best believe there ain’t no sun getting through. It’s a lesson that’s served me well in the years since.

I have another great story about the same producer and another film I later got asked to write. It involves the sanctity of your name as a writer, Jennifer Lopez, and a completely needless helicopter. And this time I won’t give a time frame so as not to be a jagoff and break another promise.

Seriously, put down the pitchfork.

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