“They switch directors because something is very wrong. They switch writers because it’s Tuesday.” – Joss Whedon (Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Dollhouse) on Hollywood’s treatment of writers
Hollywood is the only place I know where getting fired is not necessarily a bad thing. Especially if you’re a writer. It’s almost as if the more successful you get, the more opportunities you’ll have to be “fired” from various gigs. And as the Joss Whedon quote above hints at, it’s oftentimes for reasons that have nothing to do with your inability to do the job. Many times, you get fired because, well, you’re a writer and that’s just the way things go.
I’m nowhere near successful enough to have been fired from a lot of jobs, but it’s happened. And no matter how much you read and hear about how common it is for a writer to get canned, that first time still stings.
This was years ago shortly after my first foray into television. Through a series of referrals and circumstances too dull to mention here, I found myself at Hugo’s (a hip West Hollywood eatery) sitting across from a woman I shall call “Mary.” Mary was a regular on a popular new TV show and was considered one of Hollywood’s hot, young rising stars (the equivalent of someone like Gossip Girl’s Blake Lively today). But she wanted people to take her seriously as a “real” actress and was ready to do what it took to change her reputation.
Over a meal of a plain egg white omelet and green tea, she talked about everything from Meryl Streep (the actress that she most wanted to emulate) to her love for dogs to how smoking marijuana helped her keep her weight down. We talked about everything except the one thing we were supposed to be meeting to talk about.
Mary was producing and starring in a TV movie about a famous historical figure that she had wanted to play since she was a little girl. She had met two other producers who had the rights to this historical figure’s life and was able to attach herself to star and also produce. She knew that if she did a great job in this role, it would bring her the “Meryl Streep” type legitimacy she was craving. The problem was every draft of the script sucked and Mary knew her window of opportunity to get this project off the ground was closing. She had to move quickly. She was desperate. The top-level writers she wanted didn’t want to work for a lightweight like her. And besides, she wanted to have artistic control—something she’d have to give up if she hired someone who wouldn’t take her seriously as a peer.
So enter little ole me. Through a mutual friend, she had read a play I had written and claimed to “love it.” I was also very familiar with the life of this famous historical figure she wanted to play. But I think the real reason she was considering using me was because I was cheap. Dirt fucking cheap. I was young and just starting out and would’ve worked on the script for a box of ramen if I knew it had a real shot at getting made. And because Mary was the star of a hit show, it looked like this project had a real shot. Over the years I would discover how wrong this assumption was but that is a topic for a future blog.
Our meeting must have gone well because Mary called later that afternoon and offered me the job. I immediately accepted. Big mistake.
In hindsight, I recognize all the red flags now but, at the time, I was just ecstatic that someone famous wanted me to write something for them. When I asked Mary about the other producers on this project, she said not to worry about them and that I would be dealing with her and only her. She’d be paying me herself for my script work. There would be no agents or managers or lawyers to sully the process. It would be just me and her—two artists who were passionate about this historical figure and committed to telling her story right. I have to admit the idea of working—one on one—with this famous and beautiful woman most likely played into my decision to go along with all of this. But I was also naïve and stupid.
So I started working on the script. It was supposed to be a simple re-writing job but in actually we were starting from scratch (another mistake: I was getting paid to just polish the script, but got suckered into writing a whole new draft). I didn’t care. After all, it was Mary and me—two artists with a shared vision who were going to create this great script together, right? Someone should have just shot me and put me out of misery at that moment.
We’d meet two or three times at week at her Hollywood Hills home and work on the story. The first few weeks were really pleasant. In actuality, we rarely worked on the script. We’d meet, gossip, she’d make us lunch (and she was an awesome cook) and then we’d usually watch an old movie. In her desire to be a serious actress, she wanted to learn as much about film history as possible so I’d bring over a different video each time that I thought she’d like—everything from Kurosawa’s samurai films to Preston Sturges screwball comedies. If we had a few minutes before calling it a day, we’d spend some time brainstorming our project. Then, she started calling me late at night to just talk. Having this hot, famous chick calling at 1 AM seemed like a cool thing at the time. And again, big mistake.
I thought the problem with the previous drafts were that the writers had tried to tell this famous historical figure’s entire life story. Movies do a lot of things well but covering 70 years of a person’s life isn’t one of them. The scripts had no focus. They were episodic and all over the place. I decided the best way to approach this problem was to focus on just one part of her life. Honestly, the ten-year period I wanted to cover was the most interesting part of this person’s life anyway so I was surprised none of the other writers thought of doing this before. Mary liked my idea and so I started work on my polish completely new draft.
There were signs that things weren’t right but I chose to ignore them. Then, one morning just days after I had turned in my first draft (which Mary said was “awesome”), I opened up the latest issue of Daily Variety and, lo and behold, there was an announcement about our project. It seems a new writer had been hired to work on the script and it wasn’t me. Let me repeat that—It. Wasn’t. Me.
When I called Mary, she explained that yes, there was another writer on our project but the other producers had hired that writer and she didn’t approve. So then what was I doing here? Well, Mary’s plan was to turn in her own draft of the script (the one that I had been laboring on) and because she was the star and I was such a brilliant young artist, the network would have to go with our version over the other one. So in essence, she was writing a rival draft of the same script that her producers had already hired someone to write. But she told me not to worry. She had this all under control and would protect me. And I bought all of this shit.
But over the next weeks, I could not ignore the obvious changes. She started complaining more and more that the other producers weren’t taking her seriously and even the network seemed to be against her. And whereas she used to call me at 1 AM to remind me how “awesome” I was and ask me questions about classic Hitchcock films, now she would call to bitch about how the world sucked and no one cared about her and then would proceed to cry for the next half an hour. OK, I might be willing to put up with this sort of behavior if these emotional outbursts were followed by a romp between the sheets, but not in this context. In short, Mary was clearly not a stable girl and she was sinking deeper into the abyss and taking me down with her. One morning, I came by her house to find that she had somehow dumped all her furniture into her swimming pool the previous night. I asked her why she did this and she muttered something about “Meryl Streep” and “the Method” and I had no idea what the fuck she was talking about.
The final straw came when I turned in my second draft (yes, the polish had somehow turned into draft #2) and she proclaimed it “brilliant” and would submit it to the network that afternoon, but could I come by to pick it up and drop it off at the studio myself? OK, whatever. Oh, and she had made a few revisions to it. Nothing major. Just minor, cosmetic stuff. Oh-kay? When she handed me the script, I noticed that my name was no longer listed as the writer on the title page. And whose name was there instead? Mary’s.
She explained it was for the best. The network would take it more seriously if she was solely credited as the writer. Besides, a lot of scripts are ghostwritten and I got paid, didn’t I? And if this works out and she becomes the next Meryl Streep, we could continue to work together. Wouldn’t that be great?
And it was at that moment, I decided to grow a pair. I finally said—no. Either my name goes back on the script or I…walk. And that’s when she said it—“Ok, if that’s how you feel…you’re fired.”
And that was that. The sad part is I sort of blamed myself and wondered what I did wrong when clearly I had put myself in a situation that I shouldn’t have been in the first place. Well, you live and learn. Onto the next adventure.