[From Chapter 12 of CYGAWA]
Context is all. And a relatively pure heart. Relatively pure –
for if you had a pure heart you wouldn’t be in the book-writing
business in the first place. –Robert Penn Warren
Last week just before The Horror took place here on this little Caribbean island I got an email from the movie studio that wound up backing the In Search of Captain Zero movie deal. As things go in Hollywood, and as I more or less predicted back in 2001, the producer who optioned the book was able to find a studio to put up the money to make a movie out of my book, even though there is no movie in my book. One reason for this, I think, was that the studio head who decided to shell out the cash hadn’t read the book. If this sounds somehow both odd and familiar – and it would be odd (or flat nuts) in a similar situation in any other business – the familiar part is likely due to Sean Penn having co-optioned the book without reading it either.
And the deal was up there in six figures. I’m rolling in loot. Mostly
because I insisted on writing the screenplay. Screenplays are where the
money is. You think I cared that there is no movie in my book when I
insisted on writing the screenplay to my book, given that screenplays are
where the money is?
But to sum up: Two of the main people who wanted to make a movie out
of my book hadn’t read it, and, meanwhile, another important person, the
one writing the screenplay, me, knew there was no movie in my book.
To knock off an old song title: Hooray for Hollywood!
A digression to a related matter, a Meanwhile: Nonfiction writers, of
which I am one at this moment, routinely lie like slugs in their narratives.
Often they’ll lie like slugs about facts, which, as you already know, I
sometimes do. Sometimes lying about facts is okay, sometimes not. But
what’s never okay is to lie in subtext, purposely cause the reader to have a
rush of insight about the workings of the world which the writer knows to
be false. Lying in subtext is a sin. Writers who do this, of which there are a
bunch, will rot in Writer Hell. My theory is that this worse case lying-in-
writing scenario is invariably caused by the same condition that causes
bad behavior of any sort: a failure in self-reflection.*
If you’re going to write a book (but not someday): The key to writing,
good writing, is self-reflection. In a sense, it’s a writer’s job, his only job.
Take that to the bank and put it in an interest-bearing account.**
I know a writer, mostly a Hollywood writer, who, when he looks in the
mirror, does not realize that there is little more than a lying, treacherous
shitball motherfucker staring back at him. So even when he’s looking in
the mirror there is no self-reflection. The guy is a pretty good writer, but
only in that he knows how to string words together. Other than that, he’s a
shitball writer. No self-reflection.
But what does all this have to do with movie deals and making a movie
from a book wherein there is no movie?
My going on about demented editors and people I’ve fired and am
pissed off at and shitball motherfuckers in general raises a question about
my character. I’ll phrase the question like this: What sort of potentially
cynical and greedy shitball motherfucker would let his book be optioned
and accept a ton of money, like 200 grand, to adapt it to the screen if he
knows there is no movie in the book? I use the qualifier potentially (which
is an adverb, possibly on the road to hell) here because the status of
this hypothetical person (based on me) as a cynical and greedy shitball
motherfucker is pending.
So this is the question, and it’s a good one, no? I mean possibly humorous
No one who wants to make a movie out of my book is smart enough to get it
By way of answering the question, in essence defending myself against
a serious charge – and plus maybe against the most serious charge there is
regarding self-reflection, or lack thereof, which is hypocrisy – here’s how
the deal went down…
But first for perspective I want you to imagine something. Imagine that
a bunch of lawyers and MBAs get together and buy a hospital. One day
they’re sitting around and an MBA or lawyer says, “You know, I’ve always
wanted to try my hand at brain surgery.” Another MBA or lawyer nods,
saying that when he was a freshman at college he was thinking of going to
medical school. “Hey…” he says, “we own the hospital. We can do what we
want. Let’s go down to the operating room and give it a shot!”
This is Hollywood in a nutshell, when producers and studio executives,
MBAs and lawyers, insert themselves into the creative process, the
storytelling process. They just can’t help themselves. It makes them feel
like they’re actually doing something — aside from making phone calls and
getting coverage instead of reading anything. They also do it because they
can. Hey, they own the hospital.
Enough perspective. Defending myself against these serious charges.
The deal. How it went down.
By July of 2001, two months after Mom died, the producer, along with
Sean Penn as co-producer, had found a studio that was interested in the
Zero project — an executive at the studio plus his yes-man had actually read
the book. A meeting was set up to discuss a possible development deal.
Development deals are deals wherein the first money the studio coughs
up goes to the screenwriter, plus expenses and an up front fee for the
producers. Then, if the screenplay passes muster, the movie gets made –
assuming a few miracles transpire. If the miracles transpire and the movie
gets made, everyone gets a lot more money.
The meeting was to be at breakfast at the Four Seasons Hotel in L.A.
In attendance were the producer, the director (‘attached’ to the deal), the
studio head, the executive who had read the book, his yes-man, plus Sean
Penn, plus me. I say the meeting was to be at breakfast because it pretty
much ended up being at lunch due to Sean Penn being a couple hours late.
This notwithstanding that he was staying at the Four Seasons, meaning he
didn’t have far to go to get to the meeting. Traffic was not a problem.
“You know Sean,” the producer said to me as we waited and waited in
the lobby, along with the director. Although I had talked with Sean on the
phone about making a movie out of my book – the conversation wherein
he said he was “missing a little information here” – I didn’t actually know
him. But okay. The producer reiterated that I was going to enjoy working
with him, meaning in the writing of the screenplay, in the process of which
I had been assured that Sean gets involved early.
I’m looking forward to it, I said, as we waited.
Eventually Sean steps out of the elevator and says Hi to the producer
and the director, whom he knows, then he and I shake and say Hi, then,
by way of apology for his tardiness, Sean says he had “a pharmaceutical
night.” We all laugh.
We join the studio people in the dining room.
Everyone says Hi to everyone else. Sean and the studio head are old
pals. Sean repeats his de facto apology about his pharmaceutical night and
we all laugh. Sean sits down and lights up a cigarette. By this time I could
use one myself, but I can’t bring myself to do it, what with the No Smoking
signs and people eating nearby.
Allan smokes too, the producer says to Sean. You two are going to get
along great. We all laugh, although I’m wishing she hadn’t said that. I’m
embarrassed about smoking.
There’s chit-chat about some party Sean went to the previous night,
who was there and so forth, then the meeting gets underway. You must
remember that no deal has yet been struck with the studio. The only money
I’d got was a couple grand for a year-and-a-half option on my book. So big
bucks were hanging in the air for yours truly that morning (maybe it was
afternoon by now) at the Four Seasons Hotel in West L.A. – in Hollywood,
actually, the state of mind Hollywood.
Cutting through the politics and the personal relationships and the
compliments about how great my book is and other bullshit, what this
meeting is, is an audition, my audition, as screenwriter.
So I’ve got the floor. I’m hoping I’ll be “good in a room” as the Hollywood
expression goes, and which I used to be back in my old Hollywood days. So
I start in on how to make a movie out of my book but my rhythm is broken
by a waiter who comes over and asks Sean not to smoke. An ashtray is
secured and Sean eventually puts out his cigarette. I try to inhale the last
wisp of the fucking thing.
All right. Here we go.
In a sense my pitch of how to make a movie out of my book is of the I
have good news and I have bad news sort. The bad news, I say, is that there is
no movie in my book.
Hold on. I don’t exactly phrase it this way, as I will much later when the
deal turns into a full-blown fiasco. Here’s how I do phrase it: My book does
not provide an actual story, I say, due to a lack of real conflict between the
two main characters. I then point out that conflict is what a story is built
upon. In essence, conflict (plus the turning points it creates) is what a story
is. But we all know this, I say. I’m being disingenuous since – possibly apart
from Sean Penn (pharmaceutical night or no) – I know that no one here
knows this, although they all nod.
The book works, I go on (trying to avoid sounding too didactic), because
of the narrative voice, which defines the book’s principal conflicts as internal
– internal conflicts are not directly translatable to the screen. Further, I say,
the book ending hinges on an internal turning point and is likewise not
translatable to the screen. In other words, we have no ending.
I then point out something else I claim we all know, which is that in
storytelling, especially screen storytelling, endings are very important.
In fact (and here I quote screenwriter William Goldman), endings are
everything. No ending, no story.
What the book provides, I say, is a premise, a good one, and I’m not
being disingenuous here. I really feel that way. The premise: A middle-aged
surfer gives up his straight life to search for an old friend and ex-partner in crime
from their younger days, who is missing in Central America.
That’s pretty much all the book provides, I reiterate. So: They’re
contemplating coughing up a couple hundred grand plus a producer’s fee
(plus overhead and interest) for one sentence. To distract them all from this
implication I quickly ramble on, saying that the narrative will have to be
reinvented. That’s the word I use. Reinvented. I also work in the fact that my
book is nonfiction, meaning some sort of portrayal of real life, and real life,
almost by definition, is not dramatic. Real life is a pain in the ass that way,
making a movie out of it.
Everyone agrees to all this, including Sean Penn, via a nod, although,
aside from his pharmaceutical night, he’s missing a little information here.
But okay. That everyone agrees is a relief. It’s a relief because not only do
I want the money, I want to write this screenplay. I want to reinvent my
See if you concur: With everyone’s agreement that the book lacks an
actual story and that the narrative will have to be reinvented and that
they’re coughing up a couple hundred grand for one sentence, they are
in effect also agreeing with my catch-22, notwithstanding that they don’t
More defensiveness on my part: Was it my responsibility to outright
define my catch-22? I didn’t – and still don’t – think so. I’m trying to let
myself off the cynical and greedy shitball motherfucker hook here. I admit
Back to the meeting. I then go on to outline the conflicts I concocted that
will provide the turning points necessary to build an actual story around
my premise. Now, I say, regarding the ending, which the book does not
provide, what I want to do is create a mythical kind of The Endless Summer
meets Apocalypse Now finish. I know better than to use Heart of Darkness,
the novel upon which Apocalypse Now is based, in my Hollywood short-
handing, figuring that no one else in the room has read, or even knows
about, Joseph Conrad’s book.
Not only does everyone like my concocted turning points that will
provide the necessary conflicts, plus the idea of The Endless Summer meeting
Apocalypse Now, but the studio head, (who, again, hasn’t read the book) says
this, and I remember his words exactly because I will repeat them minutes
later when the producer and I are alone, and then again on the phone to
my then-agent, whose response to my later firing her is the title to this
book. He says, “I want to stop you right here, Allan.” He pauses. He has
everyone’s undivided attention. “I just want to say that you have this deal
right now, if you want it.”
Not only has the studio head not noticed my implied catch-22, but he
apparently is sufficiently impressed by not noticing it, if you get my drift,
to offer me the deal then and there, no further ado or blabbing or being
good in a room on my part necessary. So it’s agreed: Everyone’s people will
be in touch with everyone else’s people to work out the legal details.
Sean adjourns to the patio and lights up. The producer, the director and
I join him. I light up. We chit-chat for a bit and the producer reiterates how
Sean and I are going to enjoy working together.
I’m looking forward to it, I say.
So this was in July of 2001 and now it’s March of 2003. I’m on a little
Caribbean island with Lisa, the woman with whom I’ve fallen in love at
age 55. The Horror will soon take place and, meanwhile, I’ve received an
email from the studio from the above meeting, the outfit that’s paying me
to adapt my book for the screen. The email includes the studio’s “notes” on
how I should rewrite my last submitted draft of the screenplay.
As a result of this email I’ve decided to go into the tank.
Go into the tank is a boxing expression. It means a boxer is going to throw
a fight. Lose on purpose. In this case, go into the tank means I’m planning
on writing a piece of shit screenplay. Write a bunch of utter crapola and do
it on purpose.
Why would I do this?
Hang in and I’ll get around to that, but first some other stuff, including
stuff with Lisa that makes The Horror look like a day at the beach.***
*My view is that lying about facts is sometimes “okay” when the writer’s sole motive is to keep
the story moving, or to foster unity (symmetry), or to ease the narrative onto another subject (a
segue), with no deceitful implications about how the world works.
**Aside from self-reflecting in his work, a writer has to keep the reader wanting to know What
Happens Next. So, regarding only jobs, writers actually have two.
***Since I’m hinting at future narrative events, this chapter ending is an example of looping,
which I’m doing all over the place. I love looping! Hey, I’m becoming an “I loop, therefore I am”
sort of writer. To put it another way: To my demented editor, assuming she is reading this right
now: Take your looping and shove it up your ass.