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On Writing Your Ticket To Success

January 28, 1987|JACK MATHEWS

One panelist said he was inspired to write because he liked the idea of working only three hours a day and being able to travel a lot. Another said he writes because he likes to invent his own worlds and manipulate them and their inhabitants to suit himself. A third said her inspiration came from the desire to right the world.

The question, "What inspires writers to write?" was put to a panel of screenwriters and novelists at a seminar hosted by the American Film Institute Alumni Assn. Writers Workshop Saturday.

If they had asked me, the answer would have been "deadlines." But this was for an audience of aspiring screenwriters, people willing to pay up to $65 for a glimpse behind the burning bush. They were hoping for a word, a thought, a key to open the door to commercial success in Hollywood.

At that, the students might have done better to invest their money in trade paper ads proclaiming that if someone doesn't buy their work by March, God will bring them home.

The pertinent question is not what inspires writers to write, but what inspires production executives to buy? To many of the people with the authority to commission drafts of scripts, words are just letters without spaces between them. It doesn't matter what the words say, it's the odor they give off. A good script is one that "smells" commercial.

I know a pitchman who claims to have gotten a development deal from a studio for a treatment that contained only one aromatic word, just eight letters strung together without a space: "Monopoly." Smart writing. If he had turned in a whole sentence, it would have been sent to the story department.

None of this is to discount the opinions of the workshop panel. The group, which included authors Carolyn See and John Espey, screenwriter/director Colin Higgins and UCLA screenwriting professor Richard Walter, had intelligent, entertaining things to say. Writers, as we all know, are lonely, tortured souls. Ask them about their work and you get tales from the gulag.

The problem with Saturday's topic is that writing and screenwriting, while related, are different disciplines. Both use words to convey images and messages, but one is done in readable prose, the other in some clubby shorthand. Reading a script is the literary equivalent of going down a flight of stairs on the seat of your pants.

Few novelists succeed without some appreciation and facility for language, while screenplays that barely rise above prehistoric grunting often get made into movies. Cheech and Chong have belched out five of them.

There is also the matter of collaboration. Sydney Pollack's "Tootsie" is one of the most intricate and perfectly structured comedies ever made, but its script had more authors attached to it than last year's federal budget.

Even when a script is finished, it's not finished. Everyone becomes a writer when a movie goes into production. Directors, actors, cinematographers, costume designers . . . they all carve their initials on the script before the movie's made. And even then, after the film editors, sound mixers and the music people have done their rewrites, there may be an eager studio head with addenda of his own.

Writing may be lonely, but screenwriting is a company picnic.

One of the students Saturday asked the panel members to discuss their feelings about writing for writing's sake and writing for money. It proved to be a tougher question than it seemed. Carolyn See said she writes magazine articles for money and novels for her soul. Colin Higgins said he began writing screenplays (he wrote "Harold and Maude" as a master's thesis) only as a means to direct (it worked; he has directed "9 to 5" and "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas").

Richard Walter took an art-as-commerce position, offering a high-concept line for "Oedipus Rex"--about a guy who kills his father, ravishes his mother, then pokes his own eyes out--to show that even the classics were pop art in their day.

The students at the seminar may not have gotten the revelations they were after, but the day was not lost for their colleagues. That they have been lumped with Sophocles ought to be welcome news for the writers responsible for "Porky's" and "I Spit on Your Grave."

GET THE FLYPAPER: Don't look for Jeff Goldblum to reprise his role as a scientist with scrambled molecules in "The Fly," but 20th Century Fox is planning to reprise the theme in a sequel that could go into production this year for release in the summer of 1988.

Mick Garris, the story editor for the first season of Steven Spielberg's "Amazing Stories," will write the screenplay for the sequel to David Cronenberg's critical and box-office hit.

Cronenberg's film was a remake of a 1958 Fox film with the same title. The first "Fly" spawned two sequels, "The Return of the Fly" (1959) and "The Curse of the Fly" (1965). In "The Return of the Fly," the scientist's son manages to duplicate his father's disintegrator machine experiment, with the same result.

Garris said his script will be a sequel to the Cronenberg film and not a remake of either of the earlier sequels. He wouldn't say what the plot for "The Fly II" will be, but those who saw last year's film will recall that when the movie ended, the flyman's girlfriend (Geena Davis) had a bun--or something--in the oven.

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