Sunday, June 27, 2010

Day 80: The Pitch

Here’s a favourite David Mamet quote: “The guy does not say to the woman ‘do you want to come home with me tonight’, the guy says ‘that’s a nice dress you’re wearing’”.

That’s the playwright and screenwriter talking about subtext. David Mamet has written (and directed) many a good screenplay: About Last Night, The Untouchables, Wag The Dog and a favourite of mine, The Verdict, arguably his finest hour (or two) in the cinema. He’s authored many books on the subject of writing and penned some great plays: Sexual Perversity In Chicago (on which About Last Night is based), American Buffalo, the wonderful, wonderful (film and play) Glenngarry Glen Ross and Oleanna, amongst others.

In 2002, Art Linson (who produced The Untouchables) wrote a memoir - 'What Just Happened? Bitter Hollywood Tales From The Frontline' - an extract of which appeared in that year’s April edition of 'Vanity Fair'. The piece detailed the ill-fated excursion that was the film called The Edge, a movie that starred Sir Anthony Hopkins, Alec Baldwin and Elle Macpherson, written by Mamet and produced by Linson.

Art Linson talks about how his stocks were high’ish but not great when he went over to Twentieth Century Fox, from warner Bros, in 1995, following his last hit, the collaboration with Kevin Costner, Brian De Palma and David Mamet on The Untouchables. There had been other films in between but Art Linson was in need of something new and big. This is what he says: “The first rule of producing is to find a writer with an idea or get an idea and find a writer. Linson and Mamet had a “good relationship” based on “You (Linson) get me (Mamet) a lot of money, I get you a good script”. Sounds equitable to me.

Here’s how the next telephone conversation between Art Linson and David Mamet played out:

“Hi, Dave”
“What’s the shot?” he asked.
“I got a new deal. I’m looking for you to write a new script.”
“There’ll be lots of money.”
“Good. Let’s do it.”
“It’s not that easy.”
“Because if you don’t tell me what it’s about I can’t get you the money.”
“Fine. What do you want it to be about?”
“I don’t know, that’s why I’m calling you.”
“I understand.”
“Dave, how about an adventure movie?”
“Something castable. Two guys maybe.”
“C’mon, Dave, I need more to go on.”
“O.K....How ‘bout two guys and a bear?”
“It’s a start.”

I’ve had one or two conversations not dissimilar to this one, I’ve just never really got to the “lotsa money” stage. But the call between producer and writer, both robust characters, is a cracker and so is the rest of the article. If you ever come across the book, I entreat you to flick straight to the passage where Art Linson tries to get Robert De Niro to come on board this project.

The anecdote is worthy of Ari Gold (Entourage), so nuts, so funny, yet so plausible. It makes for a good story to tell and knock over in less that a couple of minutes; I love yarns from the film industry like this one.

I love stories full stop. I love reading stories, writing stories, telling stories and being told stories. My earliest memory of being told a good tale were those my mother’s mother would entertain me with, when I was no bigger than Jiminy Cricket; my Nan, made up countless pocket-sized tales of a character called Teddy Tar. I'm guessing that he was a bear, maybe in the navy, I really can’t remember, but the storytelling won me every time. Good stories do that.

Storytelling is, arguably, our primary artistic/entertainment medium. How I know this is because I heard someone once say (and I’d credit them if I could remember who) that “...the day after the bomb eventually drops, we’ll come crawling out from under whatever rock we’ve been hiding under and the first thing we’ll say is ‘guess what happened to me when the bomb dropped?!’” ...we’ll start telling stories.

Day #80 Tip: Index Cards to Story
For the first three months of creating a screenplay, I’ve been writing down story moments on 3x5 cards. What I do now, is take my pile of 200+ cards and spread them out on the floor or on a table that’s large enough and put them in order (more of that in the coming days) because the next thing that I’m going to do, is to go and tell my story outline to ten people, maybe friends, maybe colleagues, probably a mix.

The 40-60 moments that I assemble into a narrative that flows like story, I will first type, line by line onto this computer, then print it off and then memorise. Once I’ve got the story down pat, I’ll take a coffee round to a friend and tell them my ten minute story. If at the end of that telling, my audience says something like “that’s really good, you should write that” then I know I’m onto something.

Again, I MUST, stress that this is not part of a method I’ve dreamed up, it’s one part of the section entitled ‘Writing From The Inside Out (A Writer’s Method)’’ that can be found on pg’s 412-417 of Robert McKee’s book 'Story'.

It’s a version of “pitching” the story, which as a writer, is a skill that I’m going to need to get very good at, just like David Mamet; when he and Art Linson turned up to pitch The Edge at Fox Studios, so bad were introductions and initial chit-chat going that...well, I’ll let Art explain: “The room was dying. Even Mamet looked at me peculiarly, as if to say, What exactly do you do for a living?” How did the producer, Linson, 'rescue' the situation. By introducing the WRITER, saying “...Dave here has this good idea for a movie.”

And, David Mamet, told them a story.

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