Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Close Encounters of the Seedy Kind: Why I Left Hollywood to Become a Novelist

When I first started to take my fiction writing career seriously, I decided to try my hand at screenwriting.  I’ve always loved movies just as much as books.  Plus, I figured writing screenplays might be easier than writing novels, as you don’t have to put in a lot of fancy description in film scripts (In hindsight I don’t think it’s any easier, but that’s what I thought then)

I was lucky with my first screenplay.  The working title was Art & Soul. It was a tight psychological thriller about a romance novelist who eavesdropped on private cellphone conversations to get his story ideas, and who falls in love with one of the women he’s been spying on.  I pitched it over the phone directly to producers.  I soon had one interested, an indie film producer who had won the prestigious Palm d'Or prize at the Cannes Film Festival a few years before.

“Mike, you’re a fantastic writer,” he told me with great sincerity.  “You should move to California, where the action is—you’ll do very well out here.”

I packed up and headed West, giddy about my seemingly fast-track Hollywood career.    

The man was a seasoned producer, in his 60's, and planned to finance the movie himself.  He bought a one year option on my screenplay, meaning that he had a year to pay me the full price for it.  He planned on doing that as soon as I'd made all the “minor” changes he wanted.  

A soon as I arrived in LA, he took me under his wing.  “Mike,” he said, putting his tanned hand on my shoulder, “before we start working together, there's one thing you should know about Hollywood.  Out here, we all practice The Golden Rule.”

“The Golden Rule?”

He grinned.  “He who has the gold, rules.”

We began “polishing” the script. I worked long, long hours, with me doing revision after revision, making small changes that he wanted.  He'd started out as a screenwriter himself, and he taught me a lot of subtle tricks  that greatly improved the screenplay, made it more gripping and engaging.  Some of the changes he wanted me didn't feel quite right.  But I remembered The Golden Rule, and I ended up making all the changes he wanted anyway.

Then, when I thought we were almost finished with it,  he said, “I think Melina (the young woman my hero falls for) should be a long-legged, fiery redhead.”

I wasn’t sure about this.  “But Melina isn’t a ‘fiery’ character.  She’s just the opposite—she’s cool and collected.”

“Trust me, Mike.”  There was deadpan look in his eye.  Don't forget The Golden Rule, it seemed to say.

I made the change.  But when I reread the script, I felt the story no longer worked.  With Melina’s new personality, her actions were no longer believable.  I mustered up my courage and decided that at the next script meeting I would tell the producer this in no uncertain terms, Golden Rule or not.

Well, he brought his new girlfriend along to the meeting.  She was about 1/3 of his age.  It happened that she was a long-legged redhead with a fiery personality.  Coincidentally, she had recently had started taking acting lessons.

The producer began asking for even more changes, telling me to crank up the “voyeurism.”  He wanted new, more titillating scenes added, scenes that were beginning to turn the film into—in Hollywood parlance—a schlocky B movie, the type that would bypass theaters altogether and be released straight to cable TV.

“It may be a little schlocky,” he admitted, “but schlock sells, Mike.  This film will be profitable right out of the gate.”  He gave me a winning Hollywood smile, his bleached teeth nearly blinding me.  “You can write your dream script later.”

I soon lost all my enthusiasm for the project.  I vividly remember staring at the computer screen one day, reading one of the seedy scenes I’d just written, and thinking I can’t do this anymore.  I felt like I was turning my own well-raised, cultured daughter into a cheap tart.

I called the producer and told him I was quitting.  

I left the Great State of California.  I began working my first novel. 

Believe it or not, I don't have any hard feelings about this experience—I pretty much knew how things would be in Hollywood.  Today—20 years later—readers often tell me that my novels have a tight, cinematic feel.  I have no doubt that this is a key element of my “unputdownable” style, and results from the intense training I underwent working with on that first screenplay.

Still, I was disappointed that Art & Soul was never made into a movie.

Maybe one day I will go back out to Hollywood and give screenwriting another try.

But not until I have accumulated enough gold to make the rules.


  1. I wish you the best of luck with getting the golden rule to work in your favor...and my deepest sympathies for what happened with 'Art & Soul'. After the Hollywood/Sundance debut went by the wayside, were you able to reclaim the script/rights to turn it into a novel (aka: the story you wanted to write?).

    I only ask because I found the summary intriguing, & I'd be interested to see how the idea was fleshed out.

  2. Thanks, Eryn. Yes, the rights reverted back to me after the one year option expired and the producer didn't buy the script, which is the normal agreement. I haven't ever done anything with it, it's sitting in a drawer (literally, all I have left is one hard copy) I'm not sure the story would work as well as a novel. Probably I'll sit on it until such a time comes when I can make it myself as a low budget indie film (which it would be)

  3. Also, I don't think it would work as well as a novel, hard to explain, just the nature of the story.

  4. Interesting story, Mike. I'm sure you have learned a lot and had the opportunity to experience the Hollywood life first hand.

  5. Since you are in the UK have you tried to sell it there?

  6. Hi Mike...Don't like the ideas of the seedy producer and what he wanted to do with the characters in your book. I think you were right to get out at the time.

    I agree with Terri Jenks. Why not try to sell your book to be made as a film here in the UK. There must be someone here in the UK who will take it up...Best Wishes and Good Luck!

  7. Hi Mike. You know, the more I get to learn of you, the more I like you. Not only as an author, but as a person. I wish you the best of luck in achieving your Hollywood dream someday, but in my opinion.....Being the wonderfully talented author that you already are, is a MAJOR life accomplishment in and of itself. Be proud of yoursel, and all you've brought to your life, and your family's. And the lives of your readers. Sincerely, Dorian (doby_99)

  8. As a screenwriter myself (and editor of, I can totally relate to this experience! To me, I see it as an intervention that pushed you on a path to being a great novelist... fate. Cup half full. :)

    I also agree some stories only work in one form or the other. Should you decide you want to dust that baby off, ping me. I'm happy to share my network. I have a good bullshititude meter to sniff out the seedy. @jeannevb

  9. Before publishing my first novel in 2006, I got my MFA in Dramatic Writing from a "prestigious" university here in the US. One of the "top" schools, my classmates and I had been assured the entire time we were sequestered behind its walls. Upon publication of said debut novel -- which began as stage play, so the "dramatic potential" was already built-in -- I began adapting the story for the screen -- both large and small. I soon began working with a manager out of LA (I'm based in NYC), who was eager to help me "develop" the story further. At which point, he began giving me "advice" along the lines of "You need to change that character's name... Can't have two names that start with the same letter." Yes, I know this is a "rule" but... Nobody had questioned this in the novel version of the story. Sadly, this wasn't the only piece of advice he gave me over the course of 2 years -- in which time he didn't make me a single PENNY. Suffice to say, I let him go once our contract expired. I have since learned that, while my first love is TV, I don't think I've got what it takes to "make it" in Hollywood. I'd rather sit a room all by myself and write the stories I want to write :-)

  10. At a lecture in university asked a question regarding the integrity of 'the artist'. The visiting art critic answered by laughing loudly 'What integrity?' I'm glad you've hung onto yours.

  11. I feel ya...

    Optioned my first screenplay (to a much cooler producer than it sounds like you did) and have been in developmental purgatory ever since. I turned to trying my hand at novels after realizing that movies just take too damn long even in the best of circumstances.

    I'm sure I'll write another screenplay someday but until then I'm going to focus on something where there is a higher chance of seeing a finished product at some point!