Why I Write January 9th, 2008

I once wrote a screen adaptation – true story – of a novel written by Bill Maher.  Ben Stiller was the would-be director of the film.  The subject matter was Bill’s recollection of his first year as a stand-up comic.  Every part of this project was fantastic and, as I always do before embarking on a writing-for-hire cruise, I vowed not to fuck it up.   I would listen well, be aware, and be worthy.  I would bring this ship to port.  It was the voice of Dan Hedaya running through my head, asserting repeatedly (as he did in Joe versus the Volcano): “I know he can GET the job, but can he DO the job?”

My experience after Groundhog Day was that everybody kept hiring me to write another Groundhog Day.  That’s what they asked for.  And somehow these movies never materialized: the ship wasn’t getting to port.  I seemed to be getting something wrong.  Clearly nobody was asking me to write another trapped-in-time in Pennsylvania story, so what they were asking for, I assumed, was another innovative humanistic comedy with a surprising and unconventional structure.  Bad guess.  They in fact really did want another trapped-in-time comedy, or something similar.  It didn’t have to be in Pennsylvania, of course.  We could set this one in, say, Ohio.  Think outside the box, they told me.  

Be all that as it may have been, I was determined that my writing on this Bill Maher project would be as normal by Hollywood standards as it could possibly be, no matter how crazy they asked me to make it. The out-of-the-box strategy was not working well for me, even though that is exactly why I was being hired.  

Anyway, I took the novel’s jumble of characters, locations and time frames and I straightened it all out.  I gave the script a clear central character and a clear central story that led to a clear climax, and I included as much dialogue and comedy material from Maher’s book as I could.

To skip to the ending: Bill thought my script was too normal.  “Why do you hire the Groundhog Guy to write a script that anybody could have written?”

So, here’s a question: if the summary of my career so far is a repetition of some variation on that sad scenario, then what the heck is the allure?  

By the way, True Story is the name of the funny and interesting novel I was adapting.  The title refers to the line frequently spoken by stand-up comics, usually to sucker the audience into the funny lie they are about to be told.  

If you think about it, the very phrase “True story” helps in the dramatic process known as “Suspension of disbelief.”  No matter how outrageous the story being told, the audience will go along with it – at least for a while – simply because the narrator has told us it is true.

In a film such as “Groundhog Day,” suspension of disbelief is absolutely crucial.  If the audience is spending the whole movie thinking, “That’s stupid – days don’t repeat like that,” then they will never be able to enjoy the entertainment, to connect to the emotions, and for some, to even conclude that days really DO repeat like that.   None of the clear-ringing truths revealed to many by the movie would be audible were it not for the audience’s original commitment to believing in something impossible.  

In order to write the thing, I, too, had to commit to the reality of this unreal world.  How would Phil react to this situation?  How would his life proceed?   I couldn’t look to any research to tell me what would happen.  Facts couldn’t tell me the answer.  Like Luke Skywalker, I had to search my feelings.  To this science-trained east-coast guy, that phrase even now sounds stupid, but that’s what happens when you write a fantasy, or any drama, really.   To search for truth in a world that can’t exist, a person needs to rely on intuition.  What FEELS true?  Writing seems to be a constant search for an inner resonance, a true-ringing singularity.    

In Hollywood neither logic nor intuition have served me particularly well.  Luck seems to be the most reliable guiding force, with maybe a modicum of talent and goodwill thrown in.  Figuring out the Byzantine logic involved in pleasing Hollywood is not, believe it or not, the best part about doing this for a living.  Spending my days believing in impossible things and chasing them towards an inner truth, now that’s a pretty good gig.  


Comment by Al Long
2008-01-11 07:01:36

If Hollywood was a particularly logical or intuitive place the writers wouldn’t have needed to go on strike.

Doesn’t timing enter into the happenstance of success? I knew a musician who once described someone as being “…too hip for the room.” Couldn’t some stories or ideas be sound, but be needing the right person to appreciate them? Or, maybe, the right moment in time?

Your final sentence is perfect. Please keep at it.

Comment by Danny
2008-01-11 09:17:14

Getting a script to production is indeed a series of right-place-right-time encounters. I accepted this a long time ago. Still, all of the scripts I’ve written over the years are still out there, and perhaps one day their time will come. In the meantime, the only things I can truly control in this process are the quality of the work, the volume of work produced, and my own patience. I think I’m doing okay on all three, but, once again, I really appreciate the encouragement.

Comment by Alastair Dallas
2008-01-18 17:06:24

I’ve long been a fan of Groundhog Day on many levels, one of which is the way the concept neatly meshes with the process of filming a story–multiple takes, different camera angles, same action. We just bought the DVD and saw it again last night, and I was surprised to learn that this wonderfully inventive film had been made more conventional before it was made. The idea of just jumping into the middle with Phil’s days already repeating sounds really innovative. Hollywood took that part away and the result was a successful movie–it’s not surprising, then, that your response is to think crazy but act normal for subsequent projects. It’s like investing–if everybody is zigging, you can anticipate a rising market for zagging in the near future. Thanks for Groundhog Day and for being accessible by blog.

Comment by danny
2008-01-19 11:28:13

You are very welcome, Alastair. Good observation about Ghog Day and the process of making a movie. Also in the eating your young category, I find that Ghog Day describes the process of screenwriting itself. Writing is a seemingly endless cycle of rewriting, with refinements at every turn. Anyhow, thanks for joining the community.

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