Friday, December 1, 2006

"What You Know" Leading To "Who You Know"

So... there is a single meeting where I was able to meet the "Who" because of the "What."

In the Spring of '06, all those long months ago, I became a Marion Knott Scholar at Chapman University. I'm not sure what the daughter of Walter Knott, of Knott's Berry Farm fame, has to do with filmmaking, but I am not one to look a gift-horse and a couple free dinners in the mouth.

Through this program, I got to meet and work with writer/director Tom Mankiewicz, probably best known for his work with Richard Donner on the original Superman. The guy is incredible, but in all honesty, I liked him because I didn't have to talk about film. Tom liked to tell stories. Y'know, shoot the shit.

And that's what I did on my first meeting with him.

I came in completely unprepared, not wanting to talk about my project, at all. My only agenda was finding out what kind of guy Tom was. A wiry man with a lot of life and energy masked by his calm, patient, and methodical manner.

But this was a semester class, taken for course credit and we eventually had to get down to brass tacks. Do some work.

I was still at 65 pages, or so in my screenplay, and didn't want to bring it in. You know, fear of someone stealing my idea or some such nonsense that only proves how amateur a writer I actually am. So I pitched the idea to Tom. You see, it's about this guy... and his wife.. but there's, like, this motel... and... he goes away... and comes back... and then he stalks her, but it's, like... she loves him, really...

God, I suck at pitching. (reminder: practice my pitch)

Of course, Tom had no F-ing clue what I was going on about. So I caved and brought in the sixty five or so odd pages the following week. We shot the shit, and Tom took my script home. I was just excited someone was actually going to take the time to read the damn thing.

It's been a week and I walk in. Tom greets me, and fills me in on a little tidbit. "I lost your script."

Great! Seriously... Here I was afraid of people stealing my ideas, and now my script is missing. Go me.

Weeks went by and I was running out of shit to talk about. And it was starting to show. Tom started telling stories that were part of his teaching routine. Stories that I had heard before, in class. And again, the week prior.

Things were stagnant for a while and this being my second script and all, not even completed at that, I had decided I was done with screenwriting. There's got to be something else, I can do.

On a day, which I planned to be my final meeting day, I dragged myself, lifeless, into the conference room to have another discussion with this poor man who had run out of things to tell me. Here I was, a student that really didn't have much to offer. And very little in terms of conversational skill.

Kill me, now.

And there it was. Slapped on the desk. Tom nudged it, square to the edge of the table and smoothed out the pages. My 65 pages of pure garbage, crap script.

Tom says, "I like it. You're a very good writer"


Anytime, but now! I suck. I am quitting screenwriting.

"No really. You write good dialogue," Tom says, as he begins to read my dialogue back to me.

It wasn't this that changed my mind about screenwriting. I am very cynical and pessimistic of any compliment, especially when it seems unwarranted, which c'mon... it was a completely unfinished script with half an idea in it. It was something else...

When Tom leaned forward to read my dialogue, I could see, he had written notes on my script. Black little scribbles on my pages. I took the script home that night and re-read the whole thing with his notes.

Oh my god.

There is a world of difference getting feedback from a professional than a teacher or a friend. It was insightful, to the point, and addressed many of the same concerns I had about the story.

The STORY!!!

Not bad formatting. Not improper grammar. Or bad sentence structure. The notes were specifically on the content of the script. On sticky plot points, poorly designed characters, with suggestions on what to do as possible fixes.

Never before, nor since, in my screenwriting life have I hit my lowest low and highest high within the same hour. To that I thank Tom.

Tom is the first "celebrity" I've ever met, though I doubt he'd call himself that. He'll claim that nobody even knows who he is. And he's probably right. But to me, Tom is a star.

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