In 2006, I began writing a movie script titled “The Fiction of Werther Oaks.” I would have never known that those words would induce so much pain and pleasure in my life. Below is an excerpt from an early chapter in my book I am working on. In my opinion, if the book’s aim is true, it will prove to be a memoir of sorts. But also, a deep and honest personal look into not only a first time filmmaker, but anyone aspiring to do something for the first time and the emotional and psychological battles that come with the territory. Thank you guys for taking the time to read and any feedback at all would be greatly, greatly, greatly appreciated. Thanks so much.
Chapter 3: The Offer, The Decision & The Non-Believers
Oddly enough, completion of the script was really the beginning of the work for me, I just didn’t know it at the time. The script just flowed out. Easy, like a hot knife through butter. Ideas surged and things became clearer and clearer as the story drew near an end, a very rare thing for me. When writing was over, I called my “agent.” I put that in quotations because she wasn’t really my agent. She was an agent of a client of mine. (I was a barber by day) By chance, she took a look at my earlier work and considered it deem-able to sell to low end studios. She did that twice for me. Selling my scripts, although she hardly ever picked the up the phone to talk with me, or for that matter never called me back. Anyhow, I sent her a copy of this new script. She called back immediately.
“Danny, You have a winner.” I’ll never forget those words. That’s the first time she got my name right. The winner part didn’t surprise me. I knew the script was special. I had my high school english teachers in amazement over the story. That was a clear sign, although many said I was capable of great things through my writing, as a whole they never were very positive towards me. So again, I knew this thing was good, the question was simple: was my agent going to see it? She called me Danny, thats all I needed to hear.
She talked at length about how original and fresh the story was. I realized quickly I was in a position that was foreign to me. A.) No one in the profession has ever been that impressed by my work. B.) I didn’t know what to believe and what not to believe. Until she uttered the phrase “shopping the script.” I knew that phrase. I knew it very well. I heard it on “Behind the Scenes” features on DVD’s that I loved and admired. It was all a crazy whirlwind of a phone call. Then she said in a stern voice “where are you?” I stammered: “at home.” She quickly replied with “Well get in your car and come here now.” She didn’t work far away, New York City was only an hour or so (no traffic) from my house . Not that it really mattered. She could have told me to get scuba gear and meet her in the arctic. I would have grabbed my snorkelers.
After days of seemingly driving back and forth from CT to Manhattan, it was clear she was seeing dollar signs. Now I want to be precisely clear on this. Not millions of dollars, after all who was I? Some barber who never sold anything of magnitude before. But still, in her mind it was an amount that she validated worthy by telling me, this will change your life. I was ready. Or at least I thought.
Since the script had a twist ending, it was her idea (and a great one) that we would send my script out to production companies not including the ending. I was a terrified, new kid at school, she was a confident, strong figure. She taught me selling a script had an art to it. “You are selling a story” She said, “you selling your story.” In the end, although very nervous regarding her tactics, I trusted her.
She sent the scripts (without the ending) on a late Friday afternoon. Her thought was to let people read on Saturday and have to wait a full day without talking to us. Letting them wonder about the ending a whole day. Man, looking back I was nervous. Monday came, and so did phone calls, many of them. We were getting people who wanted to meet us and people who just wanted to buy the script. It was absolutely insane. If you are not a writer, it’s hard to truly understand how completely gratifying it is for people to go from laughing at you and your work to literally throwing money at you in the blink of an eye. It was a surreal bunch of conference calls.
To my agent’s credit, she had the boldness to set a price. Another aspect I was extremely nervous about. She told me if we didn’t choose to take that route, people would see my inexperience in the industry and lowball the heck out of my script. When we discussed price I immediately thought about how much work and time I put in. I went and slept on the decision. The next day I came up with a number. I said $25,000 for the script, not a penny less. I was firm. She nodded and then agreed that was a good starting point for us to talk about. I asked curiously “for us to talk about?” She laughed. I gulped and wondered what was so entertaining. She said firmly that the price tag was going to be in the neighborhood of $120,000. I gulped more and my stomach started doing this washing machine thing, where it turns uncontrollably. I stuttered and barley got out the “ok.”
The high price tag scared some companies, but to my surprise and delight, the major players will still very much involved. We had 3 offers from 3 very major studios. She was able to get them all in the 6 figure range. That was it. She had done her job. They were all comfortable where they were at, so was she. But something started happening to me. I started to feel alone. I started to feel like I was giving my baby to parents wouldn’t be raising it in my preferred style. And when talks of “modifying” and “changing” elements of the script started to be thrown around, I got very uncomfortable.
Within the meetings, the final 3 studios all talked at length of how “small details would need to be modified.” I was sort of blinded by all this newness going on that I didn’t quite calculate what was being said. Until the contracts started coming in. I read them, handed them off to trusted people and the conclusion was in. Things would most certainly be changed. Dialogue, scenes and even one full character would be deleted! My feet were beginning to feel the ground again and my thoughts were running crazy. I was scared of losing control.
My agent assured me this was normal. She assured me this was “how things worked.” But to me it just didn’t feel right. Slowly but surely I started to doubt. I am very, very good at second guessing and looking back with a clear head, this did not work in my favor. I became so obsessive of the script staying true, that at one point my agent told me I was paranoid. Again, looking back I would tend to agree with her, but back then, all that did was turn her into one of them. I would ultimately tag them: “Non-believers.”
I told her that I needed a week to think about things. She said that wouldn’t look good to the studios. In reality, I was nervous about losing them, but I was more uncomfortable being rushed into something I wasn’t sure about (a trait I still live with). She and they granted me the week of reflection, but it was clear on her face (and voicemails she left) she knew the deal was slipping. She warned me not to make hasty decisions and think about my future. I told her thank you for the advice.
I remember that week really well. I made sure nothing distracted me. I went to visit the locations that were most personal to me and just thought about everything. When you grow up with divorced parents you feel a need to find calm and enjoyable activities by yourself. Or at least I did. No one can ruin those, there yours and there controllably safe. One of my favorites was hiking. I did lots of that during the week of reflection. I really thought to myself; what was most important to me? As the week went on, it was becoming clearer and clearer. I was about to make many enemies, very fast. Believers were going to become non believers in a blink of an eye. And my life was going to change, just not the way I originally thought. I knew in my head the right move for me. But I got infiltrated with people around me and their opinions. Towards the end of the week though, I started to get nervous again and scared of losing this opportunity. So I bargained in my head and the night before the meeting, I produced a deal that I thought was one of these “everyone wins” deals. I was wrong.
I was most certainly going to sell the script. I was even going to reduce the cost, with the only attachment that the story had to stay true. To me that was more than bargaining with them and in my head, they were getting a great product for an even better price (you could see I was a little warped) Even I could see it at this point looking back. But I figured if they really wanted the script, they would jump. After all, it was so refreshing and original.
My agent was livid. She told me this was an amateur move and unheard of on this level. She said she had spent weeks bringing this to a deal for me and I sabotaged her in the fourth quarter. I mean she was mad, real mad. I was messing with her money. Rightfully so, I guess. Her assistant came in and handed her a glass of water. She took a sip, then a deep sigh, then sat down staring at her desk. She then calmly said, “OK Danny, I’ll work with this.” I could see on her face she knew she was out of options and her last resort to get some money out of this was to play ball with the person who held the ball, or seemingly so.
She made the calls and left them all on speaker phone purposely. She knew what was going to happen and she wanted me to hear it first hand. She wanted me to hear rational people in the industry (besides herself) and make a rational decision. Needless to say, none of the studios played ball with my offer. They wouldn’t change their minds that the script needed revisions to make it successful for the masses.
The truth is, I already made up my mind before those calls. I wasn’t going to adjust my stance. So when she reluctantly told them we would need time to talk things over after the phone call. I knew I was about to take a huge chance she wouldn’t agree with.
She hung up the phone and just looked me at almost sympathetically. She already knew what I was going to say. For the first time she sat down in the chair next to me, not behind her desk. What she was about to say was the beginning for me. In so many words, it went something like this: “This isn’t a decision about a movie script Danny.” She said. “This is a decision about life, about the person you are. Sure they are going to change things in the story, its what they do. But nothing changes the fact that you made a great story. Take this money and build from it, write a couple more, call me and we’ll figure it out. Don’t lose this opportunity.” She was almost pleading with me. My mind was absent. As a 30 year old now, I look back at that and everything she said was right. But I wasn’t trying to be “right.” At such a young age, Without even knowing it, I was trying to define myself, what pressure for a 21 year old. I wanted to be a guy who didn’t settle. Who stood for something and would go to war for it. I left the office with an emotion I still can’t translate into words. I didn’t even tell her bye. She was a non-believer that this point.
In my mind, I just couldn’t do it. At the end of the day, I put my heart and soul into this script. Sure the money would have been great. Life changing really and if I had a family at the time, all my humming and hawing goes out the window. I take the money and progress. But I didn’t have a family to support. I was 21. And at the time, I realized something very special. I had in my hands, a product that professionals wanted. I had something of importance. Something I created. See, no one can take that from you. Unless of course you let them, which is something I just couldn’t do.
I didn’t know much, only that I wanted this story to be told and told to many people. I didn’t know how to film a movie. But the thought of this film never being made overcome the fear of making it myself. I had to. It was a calling so clear and I was ready to embark on this unknown world of filmmaking.
Truly Independent filmmaking.