“Early on, Sean [Penn] and I had an amusing conversation about the book [that Penn's production company optioned]. The fact that Sean had not read the book was not outright dealt with in our talk but in reply to one of my ideas Sean said, ‘I’m missing a little information here.'”
FD: There’s been a rash of graphic novels getting optioned recently [Ed. Note: Not to mention a fucking painting] – FilmDrunk’s theory is it has something to do with movie execs not being able to read books without pictures in them. Having written for TV and movies and had your own books optioned, what do you think?
AW: Your picture book theory is an understatement in that no one in H-wood actually reads anything to begin with. Screenplays come in, what they do is look at them. “Drop your script off and I’ll look at it” kind of thing. In 25 years out there I don’t believe I’ve ever heard the word “read” uttered by anyone. And of course even then they don’t actually look at your screenplay. They look at “coverage” of it – some sap’s summation, a sort of Cliff Notes for studio execs.
You want an example of why a good movie getting made is a miracle, the whole coverage system is it. The coverage writer is the bottom of the H-wood hierarchy, an entry-level position, like mailroom clerk. I mean, where they get these people, what their bona fides are supposed to be, is beyond me, but they are the filter through which everything must pass. I don’t care who you are as a writer or how your screenplay arrived at the studio: the last Paddy Chayefski screenplay, say, still warm from the printer, hand delivered by Ovitz in a Brinks truck… that screenplay will drop through a trap door under the studio exec’s desk and slide down a chute to the Coverage Department in the bowels of the place. What resurfaces for the execs to look at is a one-page summation.
In Can’t You Get Along With Anyone? I talk about Writer Hell being a publisher’s office; manuscripts stacked up like the corpses in those old concentration camp newsreels. I was talking about Book Writer Hell. Screenwriter Hell is the coverage department of a Hollywood Studio.
And what’ll happen – I know this for a fact because I witnessed it once – is the studio exec will order coverage on a screenplay and when it arrives on his assistant’s desk, the exec is too busy to read… sorry, to look at the coverage… and will tell the assistant to sum it up. Right: Coverage of the coverage.
AW: I think it was at Disney when I was up for an assignment on the origins of the Iditarod dogsled race. I’m not quite sure because I had so many meetings with studio executives that their dumb ass shit sort of runs together.
FD: Did you get the Iditarod assignment?
AW: Yeah… which reminds me. I got it based on a spec script I’d done about commercial fishermen that everyone in town loved. To Hollywood shorthand it: It was Field of Dreams goes fishing. I kept getting assignment offers based on it. Everyone would go on and on about how great it was, then would come up with some dumb ass idea they had that they wanted me to write a movie from.
One assignment I turned down was based on a studio executive’s idea that a great white shark befriends a young boy. The great white is severely misunderstood; in the end the boy saves his buddy from the evil shark hunters. Sort of a cold-blooded Free Willy. The exec’s solution to the problem of how to make this believable was the following: “We just have to make the shark… you know… fuzzy…”
Anyway, when this Disney exec started in about how great my fisherman script was – about the hundredth exec who’d done this — I couldn’t take it any more. I said, “If First Light (the title of my spec script) is so brilliant, why don’t you just make that?”
This exec says, “Well, it’s a small story and it’s…” Here she wrinkles her nose. “And it’s… fishy.”
A story about commercial fishermen and she has a problem because it’s fishy.
Speaking of small stories, imagine how the coverage, or the coverage of the coverage, of, say, Tender Mercies probably went: “Small story, nothing happens.” Boom, and a great screenplay is gone to the screenplay crematorium, which is just down the hall from the Coverage Department in the bowels of every studio.
By the way, do you think I could make up this Hollywood shit? Christ, I wish I had the imagination.
FD: Regarding no one reading anything, Sean Penn apparently optioned In Search of Captain Zero without reading it.
AW: Early on, Sean and I had an amusing conversation about the book. The fact that Sean had not read the book was not outright dealt with in our talk but in reply to one of my ideas Sean said, “I’m missing a little information here.”
Another beaut of an understatement.
FD: In Search of Captain Zero was your second book. How did Cosmic Banditos, your first book, the rights to which were bought by John Cusack, come about?
AW: I wanted to write about my smuggling antics and one day in 1983 I started doodling in one of my notebooks (I wrote in longhand for the first ten years). Suddenly I was writing a scene in prose – as opposed to a screenplay preliminary outline, which I thought I was doing – about a guy holed up in the jungle in South America, on the run from the law. Then there was a dog hiding out with him (dogs have surfaced as a motif in my writing) and a full-blown bandito named Jose – based on the “We don’t need no stinking badges!” guy from Treasure of Sierra Madre. Then out of the blue José was mugging a physicist and his family…
The title Cosmic Banditos popped into my head and I was off and running. A goofball comedy about a search for The Meaning of Life. Wrote the book in about five weeks, with no outline or plan whatsoever. I was writing these bizarre story turns that somehow paid off later, but with no plan, no outline, no nothing. Writing like that is not supposed to work. I should have taken the hint that I should have been writing from the inside, as it were, writing what I wanted to write, what I needed to write. But I kept taking screenwriting assignments that I had no interest in. I was whoring, writing for the money and for the “hat” of being a Hollywood screenwriter.
Anyway, it took me a long time, but I finally figured out I was wasting whatever talent and creative energy I had, so I bolted the biz, sold or chucked all my useless shit, loaded my surfboards and dog into a pick up truck/camper and hit the road for Central America, my loose goal being to track down an old cohort from my smuggling days who’d disappeared down there in the early 1990s. I had no plans to return, and almost didn’t.
FD: Which became In Search of Captain Zero.
AW: Right. The book comes out and next thing I know I’m talking to Sean Penn about making a movie from a book he had not read. In other words, H-wood was back on my case, with a surreal vengeance as it turned out.
What was that line in Godfather III? Michael Corleone talking about the mafia… “I thought I was out, but they keep sucking me back in.”