It has now been over 30 years ago that I got paid for the very first time to write a feature film screenplay. Hard to believe it has all flown by that quick. And that someone was actually willing back then to unload some serious cash on me just to write said script.
At the time I was finishing up a third spec script. Which basically means writing a script for myself that no one else was interested in at the time, being based on what I was interested in. I felt that I was still learning how to write scripts, because that type of writing is so unlike any other, and my feet were barely wet yet. And my imagination was still flying around trying to get grounded with all the ideas I had floating around. I think I mistakenly had the idea that because I had seen lots of movies by that time, that I was now an expert and could traverse down that writing path without getting lost. Ha right. Nothing like creating a nightmare for yourself by getting lost in, and then trapped by, one’s own half-baked imagination.
Anyway, I was still living in Texas then, and was contacted by a producer out of Dallas. I was a bit surprised at first, since I had never been paid to write a feature screenplay. Of course, I had been paid to write other pieces, but nothing so heady, or for as much money. It has only been five years since I had attempted to write my first feature script and that had taken me over a year and a half, mostly figuring out what the hell I was doing.
Luckily, I had taken someone’s advice and listed myself in the annual Texas Production Manual as a scriptwriter and that was how this producer had found me. My first thought was … not to blow this opportunity, and my second thought was … yikes. He came down to Austin and we met at a local restaurant. It was a pretty normal first meeting, until we finally got around to what the subject matter was. An abortion drama. Oh my, talk about starting with a loaded gun.
Being a guy (obviously), this was not a subject matter that was at the top of my list to write about. I listened very intently and carefully as he described what he was expecting out of me. I was not as happy a camper as I was before the meeting. The more he dove into it all, the more I felt a serious knot in my solar plexus indicate to me that I should get up on my feet, do a 180, and haul the hell out of there. But the money was good, and I would get more experience writing screenplays, and who knows where this could possibly lead for such future assignments. And there was always the distinct possibility that this film would never actually get made. As I found out many years later, that was usually the scenario in this situation, but being the neophyte that I was I really had no idea about the real inner workings of the industry.
Now we all know that abortion is a true hot button issue in this country. Has been for a while, was then, still is now, and probably will be for a long time. I certainly won’t go into all the sides, nuances, issues, etc., encompassing the abortion debate, since we’ve all been pounded with them for decades now. I can say that no matter what angle we took on this project we were going to anger about 50% of the viewing audience, since that is pretty much the split on this issue. And it wasn’t so much just about that that I was concerned with, it was that I felt forced to write a point of view on this subject that I just didn’t feel right about. So, here I was faced with writing my first professional screenplay about a very controversial subject, from a point of view quite different than my own. At that point, from a professional writing level, did I think I could deliver a true realistic script with that producer’s point of view? Wow, what a serious challenge for my first time out, huh?
I decided I would go for it. Since I wanted to work in the industry, it seemed I would have to pay my dues to get where I eventually wanted to go. So, the producer and I hacked out a step deal and a timeline, and I went to work. FYI, a step deal is where you deliver pieces in segments. First, you flesh out a true story line, then a treatment, then a rough first draft, and then subsequent drafts. I would be paid a certain amount at each step. My deal went a third draft, and then the producer could decide that if he needed subsequent drafts he could keep me on as the writer or bring on another or others for those subsequent drafts. That was totally out of my control, unless I delivered such kick ass drafts that he would look no farther than my magical fingers and imagination. I was determined to make that the case, even if this was not exactly my cup of tea. Once I signed on the dotted line and received my first payment, it was proper then to act like the professional I aspired to be.
I went right to work, working my tail off at all times of day and night. During the process the producer temporarily moved down to Austin. He also introduced me to the money guy, an older oil man from Houston. Turns out they were both in the oil business and this was their first foray into the movie business. We had several meetings over the next three months as I began delivering those pieces to them. The producer was a promoter type, and somewhat of a b.s.er at times, and I began to wonder if he was on the up and up. He took several trips out to L.A. to arrange production and distribution possibilities, and was always complaining how crazy they were out there.
When I delivered the first draft, I gave them pretty much what they wanted, although I was still not happy with the story’s point of view. After they requested some changes for the second draft, I decided on trying a new tactic. I subtly added in more balance to the other side of the issue, to make it seem what I felt was a more real-life situation, instead of the extreme axe-grinding piece it seemed it was turning into. I also reflected that it seemed somewhat off that the three of us (three men) were essentially trying to present a realistic portrayal of a serious woman’s issue. I remember carefully trying to bring up this to them, and all I got were blank stares and puzzled reactions. They apparently were clueless.
However, according to them, things were going just great. After I delivered the second draft, they began sending the script around to actors and directors. Which I was astonished by, since I didn’t think we quite had it yet. But they were trying to garner interest, and I guess that’s how you do it. Really? At one point the producer said he had Francis Ford Coppola interested in the project. Huh, are you kidding me? Or bullshitting me? I didn’t know what to think about that. And then the following month he said he had the script out to Robert Redford for the male lead. And then he claimed that he was seriously interested. My head was starting to explode! Is this serious?
Anyway, I got that third draft delivered and then things started to unravel. I had gradually gotten the script around to a more balanced, more nuanced, and more ambiguous position. One I strongly felt reflected the real sentiment out in the world. Mister Producer was not happy. Even though I felt it was the best version and best written so far, he couldn’t see the forest because of the biased trees blocking his view. He did concede that it was well written, but he wanted to once again change it to his point of view. After some hand ringing about it, I decided to give it a try. At that point, he owed me a substantial payment for the third draft. He said he’d get it to me by the end of the week. I thought nothing of it at that point, since he had always delivered payment when due. But the end of the week came and went, and then another, and then I couldn’t get a hold of him. Hhhmm…
Finally, the money guy oil man contacted me and said he couldn’t find the producer. Uh, oh. So, he came to Austin to see what was going on. We physically went together to his Austin rental and he had flown the coop, left town. We couldn’t find him anywhere. Mister Oil Man was furious. Apparently, the producer had a lot of his money, and hadn’t followed through on a number of things. And then I told him that he owed me too. He wound up hiring a private detective to track him down, and as far as I know he never found him. The oil man would call me once a month for about a year to see if I knew anything. But no, nada from me.
I chalked it up to a learning experience in the film business. And a year later, 30 years ago almost exactly, in the summer of 1987, with my family in tow, we moved to the City of Angels so I could make it in the great dream factory of Hollywood. At least that first writing experience got me thinking that maybe I could actually do this. Several more assignments over the years confirmed this for me. But then I reached a certain age, and Hollywood ageism crept in, and the phones quit ringing. Oh well, there are no perfect stories or perfect endings, but that’s what makes this life so exciting and unpredictable. However, it was because of this that I took on my own projects and became truly independent. A silver lining in every cloud? ‘Soitenly’ in the immortal words of Curly Howard …
Author: Jerry Alden Deal
Writer – Director – Producer of Way To Go Media, LLC.
Over the past thirty years Jerry has been hired numerous times to develop and write screenplays for other production companies. During that same period several of his spec scripts were also optioned. ‘Dreams Awake’ was Jerry’s feature directorial debut. He has several other projects in various stages of development. One of which, the feature documentary ‘The Inner Sonic Key’ is currently in post-production.