For the past year now, I have been in touch with a producer whose name I am not going to mention right now because I am one of those timid screenwriters who doesn't want to get anybody pissed off lest it burn bridges for me and hurt my career. To make a long story short, I have been sending this guy (let's call him Stephen Spielberg…but it isn't him, unless you want to pretend it is) various projects and he's shown interest in some pitches I've made and he's read my scripts, but nothing has really taken off as of yet.
This past Tuesday, the opportunity arose to meet this guy in person and pitch an entirely new project to him. This was the first time I have met with someone so powerful and influential and also the first time that I've pitched to anyone of his stature face-to-face. I mean, this dude's won Oscars. He's worked with some of the biggest names in Hollywood – Billy Bob Thornton, Matthew Broderick, Clive Owen, Al Pacino, Mark Ruffalo…even the rapper Nas! Needless to say, I was as nervous as bananas.
And, to make things even more intense, my appointment was to take place in NYC, at the fancy Four Seasons Hotel, in a Restaurant called Ty, where one meal costs more money than I fantasize about rolling around naked in when I go to sleep every night. In other words, it was going to be very intimidating turf. I was going to be a lamb in a lion's den. A Bambi during hunting season. A child molester in a maximum-security prison.
Anyway, On Tuesday morning I took the Peter Pan bus from Providence into NY and arrived at the Port Authority Bus terminal on 42nd street around 1pm. It had been a few years since I was in NY and I forgot how intense it was. I took a step out of the bus terminal and was in complete shock:
"You in the Jungle, Baby!" echoed a voice in my head.
So much stuff packed into such a small area. So many people. So many tall buildings. So many flashy signs. So many cars. So many taxis. So many schizophrenics assuring me that "You think you know me motha fucka, but you don't! Who you think you are?!" All right…maybe there weren't too many of those, but there was at least one, and he made me piss my fuckin' pants. Oh, and there was some other guy who demanded I give him money after asking him for simple directions: "You don't look like no Donald Trump, but I know you got somethin' in yo pocket, white boy!"
(Note to self: next time, try not to go to NY alone because people won't fuck with you as much. But if you do have to go alone, know where you're going. One split second of indecision or hesitation makes you as vulnerable as a guy with a bubble-butt walking around a prison shower.)
(Another note to self: you're so fucking money, baby! Just want you to know that.)
Anyway, walking down 42nd Street, heading towards 5th Avenue, I found myself weaving my way through currents of people and periodically looking up to all the buildings towering over me. I couldn't believe I was there in that crazy environment about to meet with a guy who, among other things, was really tight with Nas.
"This is so intense!"
I made my way up Fifth Avenue, passed Rockefeller center, shuffled over to Madison Avenue and eventually found the Four Seasons Hotel on 57 East 57th Street – a ritzy and luxurious place, to say the least. Of course, I still had a few hours or so before my five o'clock appointment. I just wanted to make sure I knew where the place was before I did anything else. So I had to kill time.
First stop: delicatessen.
This is one thing I really like about NY: it's not as franchised as, say, Boston. Yeah, you got your occasional Starbucks and McDonalds, but the majority of places to eat in Manhattan are independently-owned Mom n' Pop type-deals. This means there is a wide variety of places to go for food. (And, since we're on the topic, I also like how you can go into virtually any food store or sub shop or deli and be able to get a beer.)
I ended up at some deli (forget the name) that had a cool buffet set-up, with roasted chicken, baked ham, Lomaine, baked Ziti, Pork, garden salads, fruit salads, tofu – all sorts of goodies. Mmmmmmmmm…delicious.
I loaded a container-full of stuff, paid an outrageous amount of money for it, made my way to Bryant Park on 42nd Street and sat in a chair that looked like it had probably been sat in by about five generations of homeless bums. I ate there for a while, but then the sky opened up and I had to run and take cover under some building overhang. I remained there for a while, waiting for the rain cloud to pass and checking out the ass of a girl who was also trying to keep dry.
"Oh, yeah….awe yeah. Yeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeah."
The rain eventually passed, the sun came back out, the girl with the nice ass caught me looking at her, and I started heading my way back towards the Four Seasons.
At this point, I had another hour or so before my meeting. I was walking along Fifth Avenue again and noticed the famous Saint Patrick's Cathedral on my left. I'm no super-religious person, but I figured it wouldn't hurt to go in here for a bit and say a prayer.
Saint Patrick's Cathedral is supposed to be one of the nicest churches in existence, but I didn't feel too comfortable in there – maybe because there were too many tourists snapping photos in every which direction, and dogs sniffing up and down the aisles for bombs, and ministers checking your bag for WMDs. (As an aside…it seemed like I had to get my bag checked every two seconds – not just at Saint Patrick's, but wherever I went. For example, at the NY Public Library, I literally had my bag checked in every room I went into. This really frustrated me because I normally like to carry bombs around in my bag wherever I go. You can't carry any bombs if people are checking your bag every two seconds, ya know? That's a no-brainer.)
Anyway, I sat in Saint Patrick's Cathedral for a little while - trying to remember the Our Father in its entirety and trying to say it all the way through without getting distracted by the thoughts of boobs and blouses and boobs within blouses (as such thoughts usually pass through my mind every five to seven seconds, on average). After twenty minutes or so, I eventually managed to reach "Amen" without a single dirty thought and realized:
"Crap! My meeting is in, like, thirty minutes! This is friggin' crazy!"
But I took a deep breath and kept my cool. I wasn't going to let myself freak out.
I was back at the Four Seasons on 57th Street with still a few more minutes to kill before the meeting. I made sure I knew where the "Ty" restaurant was and then made my way to the bathroom to freshen up a bit.
Holy crap, it was the nicest bathroom I have ever been in. It was of the type where each stall is a separate room in and of itself – big and secluded enough to set up office in for a while. There was a bowl of potpourri on the vanity. The soap wasn't pink and didn't smell like the stuff they use in McDonald's. The towels were made of cloth (not paper), but still disposable. The mirror and lighting was flattering and didn't show every little crater in your face. In short, it was just heaven!
Finally, it was time for my meeting. I checked myself out in the bathroom mirror, made sure my shirt was neatly tucked and that my fly was neatly zipped. Then, I gave myself a quick pep-talk:
"He's just a man, Burns. A human being with flaws. He gets upset stomachs sometimes and boogars in his nose. He also uses toilet paper just like everybody else does. You're a good writer, Matt. You've got great ideas. So go show this motherfucker who his daddy is!"
The Ty was more of a lounge than a restaurant – a place where you could sit inside a square of couches and be served "casual cuisine", whatever that is. It was the kind of place where a waiter would pop out of nowhere and refill your water glass after every sip you took. The dress code was supposed to be "business casual" (from what I saw on a 'before-you-dine' website), so I was surprised to find myself the only schmuck in the place wearing a sports coat.
I walked into the lounge and immediately looked for a Host or Hostess, but there wasn't one around. So I just kept walking, not knowing where the hell I was going, but I eventually caught a glimpse of a man in a mirror who looked familiar. Yes, it was the man I was looking for.
"Steven Spielberg?" I asked as I approached his sofa. (And again, it wasn't Spielberg - I'm just using his name to hide the name of the real guy.)
"Hi, I'm Matt Burns." I said as I reached out my hand for a shake.
"Hey, Matt," he said shaking my hand.
Spielberg was the most underdressed of anyone in the restaurant. He was in faded Jeans, sandals and a gray T-shirt. He sat on the far side of the couch, sucking down a plate of pasta and grilled chicken. A Blackberry with an earpiece was out on the table, lying just above his plate of food. It made him look important.
Sitting on the couch adjacent to Spielberg was a man (let's call him Goldstein).
"How are ya, Matt? I'm Richard Goldstein."
I shook Goldstein's hand and all I could think of was "typical Studio Executive".
Spielberg eyeballed my get-up. His looks made me uneasy.
"You dress up for us?"
"Ah…no. I thought it was supposed to be business-casual here."
"I saw it on a website somewhere. Just wanted to play it safe."
"Maybe it's business-casual for them, but not for us," said Goldstein.
"Ha-ha, ha. Ha. Ha-ha. Ha."
Thus ensued some preliminary ice-breaking chit-chat. We talked about some documentary Spielberg had recently seen, how Harvard's graduation rate for grad students is surprisingly low, where I was from, and other stuff in that vein.
"Jesus Christ," I thought to myself. "I just want to get this pitch done!"
Finally, the chit-chat waned and there was an awkward silence. Both Spielberg and Goldstein kind of just stared at me. I figured it was time for me to start the pitch:
"Ok, so what I've got…is this (content deleted). It's a horror movie called (content also deleted because there's a lot of scumbags out there ready to steal my shit and, who knows, that scumbag might be you)!"
I went into further detail about the character and the story. And my performance was amazing. All those seemingly useless oral reports in High School and college apparently weren't useless after all. They totally helped me nail this motherfucker.
It took about ten minutes for me to finish the pitch. And they seemed to be really interested by the time I was wrapping things up.
"How does it end???" asked Goldstein.
I told him how it ended (but I won't tell you).
"Hmmmmm…what I would want to make sure happens is that there's an opportunity for a sequel…and then if that goes well…a franchise."
"Holy shit," I thought to myself. "They're totally taking the bait!"
But Spielberg played it cautiously. He started asking me very textbook questions – questions straight out of a Syd Field writer's workshop - about who the Hero is and who the key antagonist is and whether we sympathize with the killer and whether the script possesses the key horror elements and – to make a long story short - both he and Goldstein eventually came to realize that my screenplay was a little…
Yep, my script was a little different from your run-of-the-mill stuff. And this scared the fuck out of these guys.
"Look, Matt," said Speilberg. "Let me be blunt with you here. I do this movie thing for a living, so when I approach any project I'm immediately going to ask myself, 'How am I going to sell it?' How am I going to get on the phone with Japan, for example, and convince them that this product will easily fit into their market."
"Yeah, you gotta give the audience what they expect," said Goldstein. "You gotta have the female heroin who rises against the opposition. You gotta have somebody after this guy and he's gotta be good! You gotta have a love interest! You gotta take away the psychological and philosophical parts and make it into a straight-forward Slasher film."
"Wait a minute," said Speilberg. "SAW had psychological stuff."
"Yeah, you can't have a character who we sympathize with and who also kills people," added Spielberg. "You made the comparison to Quasimoto in your pitch, but Quasimoto never kills anybody."
"What about SWEENEY TODD?" asked Goldstein.
"True, but that's a pre-approved brand (i.e. Sweeney Todd has already proven to be a successful musical). Plus, you have a beautiful person playing the part of Todd (Depp)."
"Ah, good point."
I just kind of sat and listened to these two guys talk about precedents and brands and what has/hasn't proven to be successful. They were so afraid…of anything different, of anything unfamiliar, of anything unprecedented, of anything that didn't fit the mould, and of anything that didn't fit into a pre-conceived formula.
"What movie would you compare yours to, Matt?" asked Spielberg.
"Well, I would say maybe it's a marriage between a Tim Burton kind of film and an old 80s exploitation Slasher movie."
"You mean it's a fairy tale and a Slasher film?" asked Goldstein.
"Well, not quite."
"Yeah…I'd be careful about mixing genres like that. They're tough to market," said Spielberg.
"Oh…ok. I was just thinking it would be cool to do something different."
"Yeah…well…you kinda gotta give the audience what they expect."
I'm not exaggerating here. These guys were not at all shy about the fact that their concern lied in money and marketing and nothing else. Now, I wouldn't expect anything different if I were meeting with Warner Brothers executives or Universal Studios executives, but this was a guy starting a new studio on the East Coast, supposedly looking for writers with "fresh" and "new" ideas. Hell, their company motto is, "To bring indie film to the masses!" I guess their conception of "Indie" movie-making is producing a film that is easy to market, not at all different, formulaic, clichéd and franchise-worthy. It just goes to show how loosely the term "Independent" is used in the film world these days.
Anyway, I kind of just nodded my head and swallowed Spielberg and Goldstein's suggestions with the intention of rushing to the bathroom afterwards, sticking my finger down my throat and barfing them up like a bulimic would. I didn't feel like debating them. I kind of just said, "Hmmmm…I see what you mean. Wow, I have a lot to learn. Thank you, kind Sirs, for guiding me in the right direction."
Needless to say, by the end of the meeting I was a little turned off from these guys. They said that I had a "great set-up" for a project, but urged me to take everything they said into consideration before I gave them a script.
I shook hands with Spielberg, said "thank you for your time" and all that stuff, and left feeling a little discouraged. Not that the meeting was a disaster. Not at all. It ended up being more than a half an hour long (which meant they were interested) and I learned a lot. Plus, I did really well pitching that fucker. The problem wasn't with me or my script, but with these guys who were too afraid to, basically, make anything unique. After all, nothing good is going to be made if they never take risks – do something that breaks the mold. I understand that they have to "make their living", as Spielberg put it, but what's the point of living if you're producing crap? Where's their leaps of faith? Where are their gut-feelings? Where's the passion???
There's all this talk out there from people about being independent and wanting different ideas and new ideas and all that stuff – but when it comes down to brass tacks, all they really want is the same old bullshit. And maybe this is true across the board. Maybe it's human nature: we think we want freedom and difference and diversity, but do we really???
So, anyway, I left NY on Tuesday with a choice to make. Do I try to change the script so that it fits the mould? Or do I wait and see if there's a better producer out there who is a better fit for me and my material? To be truthful with you, if nothing pops up soon, I'm probably going to try and rewrite the script, and see what happens. If it's between rewriting the script (which I guess you could consider selling out) and nothing, I choose rewriting the script.
But, alas, there may be something better out there. I think I smell it in the air. It's coming, but it hasn't arrived quite yet. Nope, not quite yet.
Oh, wait a minute…my dog just farted. That's what I'm smelling. Damn.