Hollywood Calling

Vineyard Writers and the Movies

A few years ago, near midnight, I was awakened by a phone call from a Hollywood director. “I got great coverage on your book,” he told me, “and I’m going to make the movie.”

Since the book was my third novel, and I’d previously played footsie with Hollywood, I knew enough to be cautious. “Coverage” also meant an underling had given the director an assessment of the novel.

I asked, “Do you know what time it is?” He was three hours earlier on the West Coast.

“That doesn’t matter,” he said. “I’m going to make this movie.”

He then proceeded to tell me about scenes in the novel, indicating he’d read some of the book, or at least paid attention to the coverage.

“You know that scene down in Mexico,” he asked, “where those two guys are facing off in a bungalow?”

I admitted I was familiar with the scene, since I’d written it.

With dramatic emphasis, the director nearly shouted into the phone, “That’s a scene, man!”

I never heard from him again.

When other Vineyard writers heard my story, they found it delightfully recognizable. In fact, it was surprisingly commonplace. So many had similar experiences with Hollywood, to the point of being almost identical.

Kate Feiffer, who writes fiction for children (and is an editor of this magazine), was called to a meeting with movie producers, along with her father, Jules Feiffer, the cartoonist, playwright, and screenwriter, who’d illustrated her story of Henry the Dog with No Tail.

“My father and I went to this meeting,” Feiffer told me, “and the producers loved the book. They were so enthusiastic. They knew all the details. They wanted us to write a few pages and move forward.”

When Feiffer and her father left the meeting and got into the elevator, she said, “That couldn’t have gone better. My God, I know it’s improbable, but I think they really want to do this.”

Her father, who’d been around the block with movie producers, said to her, “We’re never going to hear from them again.” And they didn’t.

When Hollywood called novelists and playwrights in the past, it was sometimes to hire them to write screenplays based on other people’s work, not their own. That’s how William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Lillian Hellman, P.G. Wodehouse, and Anita Loos ended up working at MGM.

Thirty years ago, Vineyard novelist Ward Just received such a call at a crucial time in his writing life. He’d recently left the newspaper business and moved to Vermont to further his career as a novelist. He faced a problem, though. “I was broke,” he said. That’s when he received a call to write a political movie for the Academy Award–winning producer and director Joseph Mankiewicz, based on Irving Wallace’s latest novel, and starring Paul Newman. “I saw my problem solved,” Just said. “I could move to Paris. That would be great — a way of survival.”

He was flown to Los Angeles. He had a contract, with payment in installments. He met with producers. He met with Paul Newman at his L.A. home. They had a two-hour meeting by the swimming pool, but Newman hadn’t read the novel. He was interested in a role for his wife, Joanne. “Let’s take a ride in the Porsche,” Newman suggested.

“He’s a racecar driver,” Just told me, “going 90 miles an hour. I don’t like automobiles. I don’t like speed.” Newman returned home, parked the car, slammed the door, and walked into his house.

Just was put up in the Century Plaza Hotel to write the screenplay, beginning with an outline and some dialogue.

“I typed really fast,” Just said, “seven or eight pages the first day. And a producer said, ‘This looks very good.’ I did the same every day.”

He worked at his manual typewriter, as he still does, and turned out pages the producers either didn’t read or didn’t comment on. One producer told him to slow down, take a break, go to Vegas. In about two weeks he’d finished the script. In another five days he did a polish of his work, as the contract required, and heard nothing back. He returned to Vermont. During this entire time he’d heard nothing from the big boss, Joseph Mankiewicz himself. “I was pissed,” Just said.

He called Mankiewicz. “Joe, you’ve abandoned me,” Just told him. “This thing is going nowhere.”

“Of course it’s going nowhere,” the producer responded.

“There’s all this stuff I’ve written.”

Then Joe Mankiewicz offered this admonition from atop his Hollywood throne: “You don’t understand. For a day’s work you give them a few lines on the back of an envelope. That will let them want more the next day.” He explained Just’s big problem in this way (I’m substituting euphemisms for the expletives the producer actually used): “You have been screwing for love for so long, you don’t know how to screw for money.”

The movie was never made. Just went on to publish 18 novels. “They option them all the time,” he said. “I pay no attention.”

Optioning a novel isn’t the same as buying the rights. In exchange for a few bucks, the novelist gives a potential buyer — for example, a producer, a director, a screenwriter, or an actor — an exclusive contract to buy movie rights later on. Options are cheap by Hollywood standards, and have become popular in recent years. Many books are optioned these days, some enter a dark hole called “in development,” and a rare one gets filmed.

Vineyard author Geraldine Brooks’s novel The Year of Wonders is again in development. It was previously optioned by a young, passionate filmmaker, a woman whose movies Brooks liked. “That was my first novel,” she said, “so I was very naive. She talked about Natalie Portman and other actors I thought excellent for the roles. She really believed in it so intently, and I did, too. She called and said, ‘We’ve got money from the Isle of Man.’ It went on for 10 years, and it never happened. You spend all this time negotiating all the fine points, the net or the gross, the front end or the back end, and it will never happen.”

After Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize for her later novel March, the producer who’d optioned it called from Los Angeles to say she’d cried when she got the news. “The next thing that happens is that everyone gets all completely puffed up,” Brooks said, “and as much as I’d like to tell my friends on the Vineyard, I felt that if she wants to do this, I wish her well, but it has nothing to do with me. Let’s move on. It’s not going to happen. This big screenwriter also called me while I was cooking my son’s pancakes. Hello, goodbye. It never happened. It all comes down to the fact that they brutalize you. They flatter you to death.”

Her husband, the nonfiction writer Tony Horwitz, who recently optioned his Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War, agrees. “It’s all about this grotesque flattery,” he said. “Maybe the first time you hear it you fall for it, then you realize this is what they say to everyone and it’s all bullshit.”

In Hollywood, success means money. Since most scripts and books don’t become movies, writers who simply get paid are considered successful. Horwitz is one of the lucky writers who received substantial options for his work, including Confederates in the Attic. “In the 1990s, people were throwing around real money,” he said. “It’s all good fun as long as you don’t take it seriously, and have no expectations. You have to take the view that in all likelihood the film will never happen.” In Hollywood, there’s a term, “turnaround,” Horwitz said, “and when you hear the script’s not working and it’s in ‘turnaround,’ you know it’s not going to happen. It’s over.”

Some novels do get produced, but more often these days they’re TV movies or miniseries. One thing that’s changed in the past 15 years is that TV is as big if not bigger than feature films. After Susan Wilson had optioned and sold her novel Beauty, she heard nothing until she received a call from her agent that in two weeks her book would be a Sunday Night CBS Movie. “I’d heard absolutely nothing until then,” she said. She decided to have a movie night with friends, and rented a large-screen TV. “But it was Sunday night, football went long, the champagne flowed, and when the movie came on, we were all smashed.” Her viewing didn’t include her full comprehension.

“When I later saw it alone on my TV,” she said, “it was so beautiful, so real to actually see Hal Holbrook and Janine Turner saying my thing. It was well acted. It’s schmaltzy, but that’s what the book was.”

One surprise for Wilson was that the movie followed her original intention for the ending. Her book editor had felt that the story needed something added, and Wilson wrote a completely different ending for the novel. “I never loved it,” she said, “and I got a lot of crap about it from friends, but the movie ended exactly where I originally did. Precisely.”

In contrast, when Wilson saw the script for a later novel she’d optioned, One Good Dog, she said, “It completely missed the point.”

TV has also surpassed Hollywood in making films from traditional crime novels. Linda Fairstein, whose 17th crime novel, Devil’s Bridge, comes out this summer, had a TV movie made of her first novel, Final Jeopardy, which, she thought, turned out well in terms of the main plot and the central character, but not the ending. For tax reasons the movie was filmed in Canada. It was too cold to film out of doors, and the novel’s last scene in Central Park was switched to the interior of train cars. “It doesn’t matter if you didn’t read the novel,” Fairstein said, “but it mattered to me.”

The years of our seeing cinematic adaptations on the big screen of crime novels like The Maltese Falcon are over. In Hollywood, as Fairstein explains, “The great film noir crime-dramas of the 1940s have been replaced by sensationalistic thrillers.”

Television is also more open to courtroom dramas focusing on defense attorneys, as in the TV films adapted from two of Richard North Patterson’s novels. “I enjoyed the process of watching the movies being made,” Patterson told me, “but I was frustrated with the changes NBC made with Degree of Guilt. They were worried about aspects of it that weren’t suitable for family viewing. On the other hand, given the format, TNT did very well with Silent Witness. I enjoyed the actors in both cases.”

Patterson has no desire to write screenplays or engage in the process of turning his novels into films, because too many other people are involved. “I’m probably not adequately socialized,” he said. “I think screenwriting and novels are two different things.” A screen adaptation is a collaborative project involving producers and directors. “I love writing novels because you’re in total charge of your world. The great thing about characters in a novel is if you don’t like them you can just delete them.”

Of Patterson’s 22 novels, the ones Vineyarders might like to see filmed are his final trilogy, Fall from Grace, Loss of Innocence, and Winter in Eden, all set in Eden, a.k.a. the Vineyard. Patterson said a Hollywood writing and directing team have optioned the first, but he added this caveat, “You definitely don’t know whether it’s going to happen or not.”

If movie crews do appear on-Island, it may be to film scenes from Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter’s best seller, The Emperor of Ocean Park, that takes place, as he says, in a “larger slice of financially comfortable African America than most white Americans probably think exists outside the sports and entertainment world.” Vineyarders who know that world might easily and happily visualize the narrator’s return with his 4-year-old son to the family home overlooking Ocean Park. “Back to Oak Bluffs again for three glorious weeks,” the narrator informs his readers. “We spend hours riding the Flying Horses in the mornings, and hours playing on the beach in the afternoons. We eat every kind of fudge. We go to the playground every day. We walk the cliffs of Gay Head and the marshes of Chappaquiddick. We go to story time at the public library. We build a huge sand castle at the Inkwell. We wait in line at Linda Jean’s. We rent bikes, and I begin teaching my son to ride a two-wheeler … We consume enough ice cream to fatten an army.”

But will the movie happen? The novel reportedly had a multimillion-dollar advance and a presold movie deal with Warner Brothers, and an Emmy-nominated director. Last heard, the script was “under rewrite,” maybe in “turnaround.” Same old story.

Hollywood success did come in a big way to William Styron with the filming of his novel Sophie’s Choice. The movie launched Styron from his platform as an award-winning novelist into an extra-literary sphere of fame. Meryl Streep won an Oscar, and Styron became a celebrity. “I can’t tell you,” his wife Rose Styron said, “after Sophie’s Choice came out, how many people came up to Bill and said, ‘I love that movie.’ They’d seen the movie but hadn’t read the book.”

Rose said Bill was very happy with how the film turned out, even parts that hadn’t been in the novel, with one exception.  The director, Alan Pakula, showed Styron an early cut with Kevin Kline in a horseback-riding scene in Prospect Park. When Kline rode the white horse up to the Brooklyn Bridge, Styron said, “No, no, no, that would not have happened.”

“So Alan cut it,” Rose said. “A great friendship developed.”

During the making of the film, that friendship kept the writer and the director close, but not too close. Rose told me that Pakula had initially asked Bill to write the screenplay, but Bill said, “I don’t know how to write a screenplay, I just know how to write fiction, you write it.”

The director’s original script was 200 pages, and the first cut of the film ran five hours, later reduced by almost half, but Styron wasn’t shown any deleted scenes, as he would have liked. During filming, Rose and Bill were invited to visit the set in Brooklyn. “We hoped we were going to go to Yugoslavia and up the coast with them when they filmed there, but we weren’t invited because Alan was afraid Bill wouldn’t like it.”

William Styron may be the only Vineyard novelist to have had a feature film adapted from his fiction, and he’s certainly the only one to have two big-screen films. His daughter Susanna Styron, already an established filmmaker at the time, directed and co-wrote Shadrach, based on her father’s short story and starring Harvey Keitel and Andie McDowell, with Martin Sheen narrating.

A standard screenplay consists of three acts. The original short story of “Shadrach” filled only the second act of Susanna’s film, and she had to expand the script with a first-act backstory and a third-act resolution. When she showed her father the finished script, he loved it, and had only a couple of technical comments, such as no shrimp boats would be in Chesapeake Bay. They would be crab boats.

“He was great,” Susanna said, “because he was very respectful of the fact that it was his story but it was my film.”

The current Vineyard novelist who toiled for a long stretch in the actual fields of Lotus Land is Nicole Galland, who grew up in West Tisbury. In her mid-30s, she wrote a screenplay set on the Vineyard that won a competition. As an award-winning screenwriter, she was flown to Los Angeles, and rapidly had a manager, an agent, a top director, a big production company, and Susan Sarandon involved with the soon-to-be-made film. In a phone conversation, Sarandon gave her notes on the script. The director’s assistant gave her notes. She did rewrites. She was told, “Nicki, this is so hot.”

Twenty million dollars in offshore financing would become available if a matching amount could be found. “This is how it was explained to me,” Galland said. “But now I think everyone in Los Angeles just lies about everything.”

In a few weeks, the entire project collapsed into a turnaround deal with different financing and a different Academy Award–nominated director, who loved her script and hired her to do several rewrites, until his financial source ran out. The deal again fell apart, and Galland wasn’t paid for her final work.

Five years after writing her screenplay, Galland had lost her agent and manager, acquired new ones, juggled several jobs, wrote coverage on other people’s scripts, pitched ideas, took meetings, and wrote spec scripts left and right. “It was a horrible experience,” she said, “because I was writing what people told me I was supposed to write as opposed to what I really wanted to write.”

The happy ending to this story is that after suffering a debilitating writer’s block, she began a different kind of writing at two o’clock one morning, and didn’t stop until she’d finished The Fool’s Tale, her first published novel. Her fifth novel, I, Iago, has been optioned and a screenplay written.

Despite the disappointments and downright heartbreaking misery of dealing with adaptations of their work, Vineyard novelists recognize that movies and TV are the great mass art forms of our time. “If your novel’s a movie,” Galland said, “so many more people will get to know your story in one weekend than are likely to get to know it over a decade if they’re reading the book.” Most novelists admit they love movies, and often engage in the heady experience of visualizing their characters and scenes on the screen. When a movie actually happens, it can be great fun, and no matter the result with the film, the book remains the book, unchanged. Writers primarily want to be read, and a movie adaptation will bring readers to the book.

Option money isn’t much these days, but it’s free money, and even the pay writers get for sales is OK but not life-changing. At the same time, for some Island part-timers, as Linda Fairstein said, “Residuals are nice. They allow me to live more of my life on the Vineyard.”

That’s why when most writers hear “Hollywood’s calling,” they respond, “I’ll take the call.”

Frank Bergon is the author of four novels, most recently Jesse’s Ghost. He lives in Oak Bluffs.  www.frankbergon.com

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