Story Is As Story Does

But How Do You Really Know?


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In 1997, I had a decent career as a freelance magazine writer when at the beach one day I told a friend, a production executive at a major studio, about a book I’d recently reviewed. She said she thought it would make an interesting movie. A year later, I moved to LA with the option to the book and forty-three pages of a screenplay.

The Mysterious Death of Mary Rogers, based on a true story, features Edgar Allen Poe as its central character who tries to resurrect his career by solving the sudden disappearance case of the eponymous young woman, and then writing about it (which Poe did in real life with the fictionalized The Mystery of Marie Roget). The book I based my script on was a history of New York’s first true-crime media sensation, and what struck me about it was that its themes, though occurring in the 1840s, neatly paralleled ones that I had believed unique to contemporary times: police malfeasance, press sensationalism, women in the workplace, and overt expressions of female sexuality as threatening and frightening to the dominant culture.

The story is set in New York during the city’s first explosive population growth in the early nineteenth century, a rich backdrop previously underexplored by cinema at the time I was writing. Although I went through a spec rewrite for a production company that wanted to sex the story up with some action sequences and set pieces, my rewrite did not meet their expectations, and eventually their interest faded.

Unfortunately for my bank account, even though the notes I received on the piece were quite positive, it was clear that the script was entirely too dreary for commercial viability, even by the standards of independent film (because let’s face it, independent producers are trying to make money, too). It’s a depressing story—Poe spirals into insanity as his search for the victim turns into an obsession. In addition, any period script is expensive to produce, and perceived by producers and executives as not appealing to the broad market. This particular story’s ending, moreover, involved something rather controversial. Today, The Mysterious Death of Mary Rogers is pretty much dead in the water.

In the time since I moved to LA, I have been to a bunch of meetings with execs and producers who’d read the Mary Rogers script and found that, to the limited extent they wished to employ me, their interest was focused on strengths apparent in the screenplay: the mystery component and the setting. Not wanting to be pigeon-holed as a writer of mysteries/rewriter for setting details—around this time two friends of mine were becoming the sports-movie-rewrite-guy and the military-movie-rewrite-guy (not that they were complaining, nor should they have been)—I decided to make my next script a comedy. A friend and I concocted the idea watching TV one night in his West Hollywood apartment: an actor on a network drama is written out of the show, then goes about killing everyone responsible. (OK, it’s a black comedy.) Long story short, nothing happened with that script either.

I didn’t throw away a perfectly good career and move to what I consider the armpit of North America (armpit-adjacent, at least) to wallow in obscurity, admired by an isolated clique of intellectuals unlikely to have their worldview altered by exposure to my ideas, if only because they probably share my worldview. Of course, I’d be ecstatic to have my work produced at all, but the victim status in segments of the indie world, which seems to value its own irrelevance in the larger culture, has never appealed to me. Dickens wrote for mass-produced serials; Miles Davis worked for Sony. Horizontal corporate integration and so-called “fake indies” like Fox Searchlight and Paramount Classics have so fuzzed the lines between independents and studios anyway, who can keep track?

So, my most recent script, based again on a true story, is a fairly conventional investigative drama. This story has setting elements, primarily 1970s flashbacks, that would enrich the film’s score and production design. I’ve managed to weave in some issues of sex, gender, race, and class that figure crucially in the plot, and to center the story on a moral dilemma that interests me. The story follows a familiar structural arc that is easily received by casual filmgoers, and by sneaking in some subversive elements, it becomes a more mainstream movie while still featuring themes and ideas that I think matter. My producer and I are now trying to get a star attached, and to work through her agents to “put it together,” in the proper film industry parlance.

The main reason that I decided to try expressing myself through film as opposed to magazine articles is because movies are the way people receive stories these days. If you want to get through to a wide range of individuals over the long term, you don’t write a novel (excellent print run: 20,000 copies) or an article (circulation of The New Yorker: 900,000). It’s precisely the people who go to the multiplexes of America that need to be rattled out of the doldrums that enabled a lifelong, well-connected zero to be elected president, and who recently elected for state office a man most famous for portraying a movie cyborg.

I’m comfortable with trying to write in a more commercial way because I’ve seen firsthand that financial success opens the doors to creative freedom. I’ve also seen it go the other way, whereby critically-acclaimed independent film writers and directors get big budgets to work with, but they, too, are nevertheless forced to make artistic compromises.

In the meantime I’ve gone back to journalism. And if nothing happens with this most recent script, I’ll stick with magazine writing until I come up with a new story to tell through film. Still, I maintain that more people would encounter my creative expression on a single wide-opening weekend than would read a lifetime of my magazine articles, and the opportunity to get my stories and ideas across to people is too important to pass up.


Well Put

Paul, you have really hit the nail on the head here. Your article must be made a required reading for every final semester student at every film school program. God knows how many students come out of what is a major industry in itself (and bigger still if you count in the numerous HOW-TO film making books), yet too few end up finally working in the film business, and among the ones who do, even further few manage to make a mark. Orson Welles said Cinema is 2% film making and 98% hustling. He also said that absence of constraints is the enemy of art.