next time: french onion soup

8/8/06

The way Tessa and I work as writing partners is quite different from that couple in “Friends With Money” – generally, one of us will have an idea, we’ll break the story beats together, and then the progenitor will be sent off on sabbatical to write the first draft with little intrusion from the other party.

When that first draft gets done, the other person gets it, says what’s brilliant and what needs work, and writes the second draft. This will continue until the changes get smaller and more rapid until we’re actually together at the computer fixing periods and semicolons.

The whole idea of writing partners sitting across from each other in a room writing dialogue? I mean, maybe two or three exchanges of that sort will end up in a final draft, but frankly, I don’t know how anybody works that way. I’m interested to know how other collaborators (especially married ones, like Sean and Jordana) work, but for us, as long as the basic structure is agreed upon, we work best when we keep a little distance.

I can’t say 99% of the juicy stuff we know in Hollywood on this blog, and I don’t like representing much about our work life because our careers are collaborative and this blog is not, but I can say this last weekend was quite a doozy for a number of reasons.

A few weeks ago I woke up from a nightmare, walked straight into Tessa’s office and said “how do you like THIS for a beginning” and pitched my nightmare to her while wearing boxers with my hair standing straight up. She was captivated (by the pitch, that is) and we spent the next few weeks finding a logical, haunting and surprising end to the pilot – and thus mapping out a whole series.

Since she had first-drafted our last big script (and this was my nightmare), it was my turn to tackle the beastie. At the same time, some people on the local Writer’s Guild internet bulletin board posted about a 24-hour writing marathon: show up to the WGA lounge with coffee and snacks and pull an all-nighter to finish your project. First I thought “hell no” and then “that’s intriguing” and finally “I absolutely must.” I do well in those stunt-writing situations and wanted to get my ass back on track.

Sadly, that WGA event ended up being canceled, but I was still jonesing for the experience. So Tessa graciously and generously took the reins of Lucy for most of the weekend while I booked a hotel room at a nondescript joint in the middle of downtown Los Angeles. I brought my Powerbook, my drugz, and a dry-erase board. My lofty goal: to write an entire 54-page first draft of a one-hour pilot in one sitting. My fallback goal: get to the third of five acts. My worry: getting the teaser and the first act done and then collapsing.

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So I checked into this place, made sure they had some sort of room service, and closed the window, as there is something merciless about the Los Angeles sun that can cook away ideas. At 11am Saturday morning, I started. The teaser and first act of the pilot flew by because I was basically recounting the dream. It went so well that I told myself if I could finish the second act, then I could get a late lunch at 4pm.

By the time 6pm rolled around, it looked like my goal of getting the third act done wasn’t so insane. There was, of course, the constant pull to read email and obsessively visit all of my favorite sites on the internet, but I managed to control them: I only checked email three times the whole weekend. There were also a ton of movies I wanted to watch on the hotel’s cable service, and I was longing to go out and explore downtown, but two seconds of “shuddup about that” and I was back to work.

Tessa called twice, and every time she calls from home, a picture of four-month-old Lucy flashes on my phone. It’s so goofy and cute that… well, hell, I’ll find it and just show you:

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Anyway, when she called around 7pm for Lucy’s bedtime, tears welled in my eyes I missed those two girls so much. It made getting back to the task at hand much easier. And thus the third act was done by 8:30pm.

There comes that time during any large project where you start to wonder if you’re totally full of shit. In a musical, it happens about a three weeks in; during a novel, maybe two months. Here on a screenwriting stunt, it happened when the sun set. I began to wonder if any of these people were making sense. Tessa and I had mapped out a good beat sheet, but there’s always room for paralyzing self-doubt.

The fourth act was grueling and took until midnight. I wondered if I could go home without a final act, and decided that I could not. Since the endings of things are always the hardest, I ordered a shrimp quesadilla from the all-night room service and got to work. Sensing the climax, it got easier. In every pilot ending, there should be a big “reveal” and a huge mindfuck that gets everyone to do a spit-take and reassess their relationship to all the characters and leave you wanting more. We already knew what that was, so it was a nice downhill, fresh powder slide all the way there. It was 3:45am, and I had finished the first draft of the script.

The idea was this: check out of the hotel the next morning and return home victoriously, grab my daughter and hand the pages to my adoring wife. Things did not work out that way.

Since I am a total weenie, I need some white noise in order to sleep; having forgot my little gadget, I downloaded an album of Ambient White Noise from iTunes. I played it over the computer speakers and it was fantastic – got to sleep in minutes. However, I’d fucked up the “repeat” button, and after exactly one hour into deep sleep, my iTunes Library automatically started playing the next alphabetical song at full blast. Which was, of course, Ambrosia’s “How Much I Feel.”

It took me five minutes to figure out how my dreams had been infiltrated by eardrum-splitting AM Soft Rock, and by then, something bad was happening to my body. Indescribable, yet chronic. The rest of the night was fitful, and when I woke up on Sunday for real, I knew I was sick.

It took five years of dime-store Buddhism for me to drive back to Venice from downtown LA without barfing in the Prius. When I got home, instead of being victorious, I ran into the bathroom, collapsed, and spent three days there and in bed. Only today, as I write these words, do I feel like I’ve begun to mend. The culprit? You never know with these things, but a glaring choice would be the shrimp quesadilla, two words I can barely string together without horffing.

But you know what? At some point on Sunday, I hobbled into Tessa’s office, printed out a copy of the script, and handed it to her. It may be full of mistakes, have a couple of plot holes and some confusing twists, but by god, I got it in her hands.

And she is worthy of my undying affection for so much, but the way she took care of Lucy all weekend and then took care of me for days afterward… she is my heroin and heroine. On a special day like tomorrow, she needs to know that most of all.

0 thoughts on “next time: french onion soup

  1. CP

    jesus, ian. way to hammer out that draft though.
    happy anniversary. downtown’s amazing. am there a lot. would be happy to recommend places to visit.
    glad to hear you’re feeling better.

    Reply
  2. CL

    Happy anniversary!!!!!!
    That is a really inspiring writing story. Thanks so much for sharing it — it was interesting to wake up and read about it.*
    And….way to suffer for your art.
    *(except, no thanks for getting that Ambrosia song in my head.)

    Reply
  3. Chris M

    Happy Anniversary. Partners in life…partners in TV land. You deserve props equally for the Xtreme writing and the courage to admit you have Ambrosia in your iPod. I don’t think I’d be able to hurl all the cheese I have in my collezione. I’ll simply drop the name Gino Vanelli.

    Reply
  4. LFMD

    Hi! I am glad that you are back among the living. Thanks for inviting me to ramble yesterday. . . I enjoyed myself thoroughly. Like a Calgon commercial, in which I was transported from my dimly-lit cubicle into a comfortable coffee shop, chatting with friendly folks. I love the little community you have created! In my ideal alternative universe, you guys would be the BEST co-workers and neighbors. My real world co-workers and neighbors are mind-numbingly dull. To be fair,they probably think the same of me. After all, I am grumpy during work meetings and I sideswip neighbors’ cars. Anyway. . .
    That is one of the best photos of Lucy yet. Cutie Cutiekins!
    I am amazed by your creative partnership with Tessa. If you can work together like that, your marriage will last forever! I love my husband dearly, but we can hardly compose a Christmas holiday letter together.
    Happy, Happy Anniversary.

    Reply
  5. Josie

    That sounds grueling. It’s amazing you ever write to us any more.
    Bad cheese? More likely, bad shrimp? ewwwww….you have my deepest sympathies.

    Reply
  6. emma

    Did you know that the third wedding anniversary is the leather anniversary? Happy anniversary and glad you are feeling better. Thanks for sharing the writing process – fascinating.

    Reply
  7. hilary

    ian, you are SUCH a writer. i can very much relate to your tale of self-sequestering; it sounds so much like something i would force myself to do…except i would end up watching the cable movies to “take a break”…and then I’d fall asleep, waking up in a panic the next day. i remember thinking that the writing scenes in “friends with money” were totally unbelievable. glad you’re ok, and hope to see you guys this month in nyc.

    Reply
  8. Bud

    Ambrosia? ewwwwwwwww
    It wasn’t the shrimp quesadilla, it was the AM soft rock.
    Hilarious entry, and a great portrait of what it’s really like to do what you do. Gracias!

    Reply
  9. jje

    I’m with Josie – we’re lucky you still have the time and talent left over to entertain us on a regular basis!
    Glad you’re feeling human again. Of course, now I’m craving quesadillas. But, uh, maybe not the shrimp kind.
    Happy anniversary!!!

    Reply
  10. Beth

    What a fabulous story. As always, I loved the striking little details, such as the boxer shorts and dime-store Buddhism. Hope you’re feeling 100 percent human again today (and that Tessa liked the draft). Happy anniversary!
    P.S. My husband and I are taking a little CA trip in the first week of Sept.–half in L.A., half in S.F., with a drive up the coast in the middle. I’ve gotten a pretty good rundown on things to do in S.F. but would love to hear about the unmissables of L.A. Anyone? Especially CP, since you mentioned downtown?

    Reply
  11. Sidrat

    Oh how does searching for the meaning of the phrase “Dieu et mon droit”, have anything to do with this site?
    I don’t know, but that’s Google for you. I clicked on a link and apparently according to a Canadian revd, priest, someone like that it means “God, and my duty”. Being a cynical type of guy, I needed a second opinion and clicked this link. This story had me in fits for about four minutes straight which can’t be healthy, but far less damaging than sea food from a hotel. NEVER EVER order sea food from a hotel, unless you’ve seen the chef or waiter catch it from a wild source!
    Thank you for the great laugh, the great story and I hope your celebrations (I believe an anniversary of some description, but I haven’t read that far yet) and your total dedication to the love of torment that is writing pays off on this occasion. It would make a great end credit segment I know that.

    Reply
  12. CP

    hey beth.
    so, I say first and foremost you should eat:
    — farmer’s market on fairfax for everything. I’m in pig heaven when I’m there. cheap and plentiful and muy delicioso.
    — in n’ out burger.
    — cactus taqueria on vine street between melrose and santa monica. you can go pork (al pastor, carnitas, and buche — stomach) or beef (carne asada, lengua — tongue, and cabeza — head) or chicken, which is just as good and far safer on the gross meter.
    — casa diaz on hollywood and vermont for the mole.
    — el cholo in santa monica for a mexican restaurant experience (as opposed to a taco stand.)
    — somewhere that serves california style pizza. california pizza kitchen on beverly between olympic and wilshire is the original and doesn’t feel like tgi friday’s.
    — palms thai on hollywood and bronson (anytime between wednesday and sunday for their thai elvis impersonator and good thai food)
    — la poubelle on franklin and bronson (you might like it — nice little DL spot)
    — somewhere on PCH (pacific coast highway) in malibu for seafood, cocktails, drunk celebs, and beach views.
    off the top of my head, other things/places to hit (remember, people don’t really DO things here, just sorta hang out and see where the day takes you, a mindset both annoying and cool…)
    — LACMA/MOCA/museum of tolerance (walk through the tunnel of racist insults and you’ve walked a mile in another person’s shoes)
    — abbot kinney boulevard/venice beach boardwalk
    — the standard downtown rooftop bar (cheesy but necessary)
    — el pueblo/olivera street downtown (historic mexican section)
    — broadway downtown (for bukowski/chandler/broken dreams old school LA — sketchy but really cool)
    — the sunset strip (very cheesy but necessary)
    — vermont avenue in los feliz (near casa diaz)
    — griffith park observatory (might still be closed but good city views)
    — laurel canyon/mullholland drive
    — melrose between fairfax and la brea
    — rodeo drive in beverly hills between wilshire and little santa monica
    — ameoba records on sunset and cahuenga
    — largo on fairfax (check out their website — funky spot for music/comedy)
    have fun! it’s a good town with good people. you just have to know where to go and then go with it.

    Reply
  13. CL

    So as it turns out, if you think of the Ambrosia song all day, eventually it morphs into “I Can’t Tell You Why” by the Eagles. And I’m not saying anything else on the subject.

    Reply
  14. wottop

    Dude,
    Based on your past experience with food, YOU ORDERED SOMETHING FROM ROOM SERVICE WITH SHRIMP IN IT?
    Just the thought of how old that shrimp must have been makes me queasy.

    Reply

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