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.
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:
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.