Collaboration

Collaboration

by Tom Musca

An ambitious scripter rethinks his relationship with his writing partner when they can’t see eye to eye. 4,233 words. Illustrations by Mark Fearing.


They had been sitting in this airless room for six hours and the empty spaces in the conversation were becoming unbearable, at least for Alex. The morning session had passed with the usual peaks and valleys but by now time had slowed like the last half hour of algebra class. Alex was enough of a pro that he tried not to let his boredom seep into his partner’s creative process, but for the last three or so months he’d been fighting a losing battle to disguise his disgust with their lack of progress. For a second he found comfort in a fantasy where he sprinted out the door screaming, “I’ve spent my whole life with people who don’t exist!”

But instead Alex corkscrewed his 62-year-old spine, realizing the too-comfortable chair he was anchored to neutralized his caffeine rush from an hour ago. His interior rant about fictional characters was, in screenwriter parlance, First Thought Theatre, a bad idea that built a bridge to a more workable one. He had to leave, but a tantrum would be counterproductive. His frustration needed to be dramatized with nuance. So Alex strode along the wall of framed movie posters to the office’s lone window and cranked it open, letting in a slight, cool breeze that carried signs of life from the street three stories below, hoping to lure Santiago’s thoughts to the outside world.

Santiago was sprawled on a convertible sofa that had yet to be used as a bed. He started to speak and then stopped, discarding his idea mid-sentence, further irritating Alex. As the only one in the room with an IMDb film credit, Alex’s primary job was to pitch ideas. Santiago’s was to evaluate their worth. This was teamwork, although there was an unacknowledged competition that occasionally resulted in Santiago’s bruised ego. Alex was the pliable one — the matador, not the bull. Alex was also the manipulative one since it was relatively easy for a writer with his acumen and experience to come up with suggestions with a minimum of effort. Occasionally, he even sat on a good idea till he felt Santiago was ready to hear and understand it. Once, at a dinner party, Alex sat across from a cardiologist who asked him where he got his ideas. “It wasn’t coming up with ideas that was difficult, it was eliminating the ones that got in the way.”

Even though he wasn’t born into wealth like his Dominican benefactor, Alex had worked hard to give himself the bearing of a New England preppy, and every woman he had ever dated thought he was two inches taller than he measured. Santiago, with his hunched posture and endless involuntary burping due to a lack of rigorous exercise, looked like a character actor in a sci-fi B movie who advised the handsome lead on the chances of survival if they took the shortcut through the meteor storm. Santiago was 90% blind in one eye and completely blind in the other since his Caribbean boating accident at age eight, one that cost his twin brother his life. So even though he knew what most things looked like, he had to visualize them from distant memory. This enabled him to add distortion to visual concepts that on rare occasions produced a happy screenwriting accident, lifting them out of the realm of the mundane. But most of time Santiago was just rampaging in Alex’s china shop of ideas.

After writing with him for the better part of a decade, Alex knew Santiago better than any woman, with the possible exception of the poet who mysteriously plunged off a cliff one year to the day after their breakup. These two writing partners had ping-pong-ed so many thoughts back and forth, Alex could forecast Santiago’s answer to any question with 95% accuracy and could order his take-out without asking. Lay people had a hard time understanding how two people could write together as one — writing being, by definition, a solitary act — but Alex knew that a co-writer could contribute 50% of a screenplay just by giving thumbs up or down to an idea.

Like the first five screenplays they wrote together, this one was inspired by a vague premise that intrigued Santiago. Alex was in charge of the macro plot machinations, adding dummy goals, reveals and twists between the act breaks. He had no problem discarding subplots, realigning the character geography, changing males into females, allies into antagonists and, in general, raising the stakes. He tracked the characters’ emotional journeys, defining their objectives and unconscious needs. And, of course, it was Alex who did all the typing and thus the first pass on the description and dialogue.

Even so, Alex allowed Santiago to feel he participated in the actual writing more than he did by ceding the job of naming the characters to him, which unfortunately meant that an overwhelming majority had Spanish names, regardless of where they hailed from. Alex didn’t bother fighting back on that, knowing if the film ever went into production, the names could be changed by a single stroke on the keyboard.

Santiago was staring in the direction of the window. He couldn’t see out, but if he could he would have noticed a healthy tree with long scratching branches that smeared sap on the glass, a visual suited for inspiration and reflection that this afternoon was in short supply. Although being blind usually heightened hearing, there were times that Santiago was so caught up in keeping track of minor details, he didn’t register what Alex was proposing until Alex stated it three times in three different ways. But almost always as politely as possible, not wanting to relinquish the power in the room because of poor etiquette.

When Santiago argued a point, he did it with urgency and passion, bestowing the end of every sentence with a rising rhythmic emphasis that made Alex, who was naturally soft-spoken, have to match him in volume just to be heard, especially during their infrequent arguments that always ended abruptly and were immediately forgotten. To his credit, Alex never succumbed to the art of speaking by interrupting rather than waiting for a natural pause in the conversation.

Still, sentences without periods proved to be one of the least objectionable things about Santiago. Alex tried, but failed, to ignore the dirt that was always lodged under his blind partner’s fingernails, the specks of food that remained in his asymmetrical beard, his mismatched unfashionable clothes spotted with stains, and the occasional feces that floated to the surface after a weak flush in the tiny office bathroom that was not soundproof.

Although Alex did find a way to forgive Santiago for beginning most of his sentences with the meaningless handle “No” before he actually said what he meant, and for ending nearly every half-baked thought with the less than helpful “and whatnot” and for saying “less” when he meant “fewer”, and “CD” when he meant “DVD”, “Gwyneth Paltrow” when he meant “Nicole Kidman”, and “mis-chee-vi-ous” when he meant “mischievous”, an adjective even native English speakers commonly mispronounce by adding a nonexistent extra syllable. At least Santiago didn’t introduce a thought with “Can I ask you a question?” and just asked the damn question unlike a lot of well-educated but annoying people Alex had encountered in the film business.

Now that it was the late afternoon, minutiae and random sexual imagery typically bounced around Alex’s fatigued mind, providing islands of refuge when the writing sessions bogged down. But today’s brief escapist musings offered little relief.

Alex decided to assert control. “It’s really about Beatrice versus her backstory.” Alex liked to add inner conflict to his protagonist’s problems. It was his default solution to almost all screenplay conundrums. Santiago rubbed his chin in a way that annoyed Alex, which usually meant he was resisting his co-writer’s latest suggestion before he would concede its worth and embellish it with some insignificant detail, one writer providing the assist while the other slapped a shot at an open net. Alex won almost every argument because he excelled at everything screenwriters typically do except getting films made, having written over two dozen screenplays that earned him income but few movie posters.

The posters for hit movies that lined the walls of Santiago’s writing office that had once motivated Alex had now become instruments of torture, a constant reminder that he hadn’t had a film green-lighted in almost a decade.

Santiago owed Alex $14,026 upon completion of the First Draft of this proposed WGA low budget film. He always paid, though not on time unless it affected Alex’s health insurance from the Guild and then, after Alex made a plea or two, the money got wired, putting his earnings over the minimum so his clan qualified for health insurance for another year. Money problems had made Alex so uncharacteristically anxious that he briefly tried the mindfulness courses offered free at the library that attracted the unhappy and homeless. Then one day and forevermore he transferred his wallet from his right rear pocket to his front left, as if anyone would want to pickpocket a man with far more debts than assets. During the last three years of counting change, Alex had become prolific at saving a buck. For instance, by ordering a double wet macchiato vs. a cappuccino grande he received the same drink in a smaller cup at a lower price.

Show, don’t tell doesn’t work on the blind so Alex took out his wallet, zippered open the change purse and zippered it closed repeatedly, hoping the sound might shift Santiago’s unconscious thoughts to the business side of the partnership. Alex had to wire a semester’s tuition to his daughter’s Ivy League school so he desperately needed to get paid that afternoon. But it was rude to mention money until Santiago declared the session over.

“Be-a-trice…” Santiago said, as if intoning her name slowly in three syllables rather than two would make her less, well… less fictional. But instead of thinking about what their alluring female lead — the woman described on page one as someone who stops conversation in any room she enters — would do given the unworkable plot twist Santiago proffered and Alex didn’t object to about an hour ago, Alex’s mind slid backward, delving into his sense memory. He was obsessing over his college girlfriend, giving scant thought to the upcoming Act II break. Xeba – did he fall in love with her or her name? — had never failed to eat less than what she ordered, affording the then perpetually famished Alex half her entrée, which allowed him to experiment with the menu and choose risky dishes, knowing he had hers to fall back on. Risk taking with insurance. This described most of Alex’s showbiz career.

If invention is memory in disguise, Alex was remembering a lot of things that didn’t help him finish this screenplay. In fact, Alex endowed Beatrice with a composite of his numerous ex-girlfriends’ personality traits, even though they added up to be less than the sum of their parts. Yes, Alex was getting sloppy but at least he could entertain himself, if not millions of others. Notwithstanding today’s writing doldrums, they had made headway through the vomit draft, having ignored the scene outline ever since the beginning of Act II. Alex often told students — back when he was still getting asked to guest lecture at universities — that a good screenplay was not only what was written but what was omitted as well.

In an all-out effort to tame this monster and accelerate the process, Alex tried to overlay the plot with a story “borrowed” from a South Korean movie that Santiago had never seen. Plot was appropriated and lifted all the time. Shakespeare, anyone? Wasn’t Aliens pitched as Moby Dick in space? A week ago Alex even stole from himself when he gave Beatrice the impassioned word-for-word rant that had been brutally cut from his female lead on the final day in the editing room twelve years before on his only produced screenplay, revenge only a frustrated writer could exact.

Santiago, oblivious to all of Alex’s aggravations, ventured in a shocking new direction, introducing a character from Beatrice’s past: an ex-lover who appears out of the blue with an accusation that would turn the narrative in a completely new direction. He was certain he was onto something substantial. The more Santiago was certain, the more Alex fidgeted.

“He has to be a Ryan Gosling type, y’know, complex, sure of himself, but unable to settle down. Good boyfriend, bad husband.”

Alex’s eyes shot to the Ryan Gosling poster behind Santiago that only one man in this room knew was hung higher on one side than the other. He wasn’t going to accept anything Santiago put on the table that meant more digression.

Santiago, sensing that his writing partner was lukewarm to his latest suggestion, backtracked and proposed that they go back and re-read Act I. Alex shook his head no, and then, remembering he was communicating with a blind man, emphatically said, “Not necessary,” unwilling to relinquish his superior position in the writing hierarchy. There was only one question now that needed answering: after he got paid would he have the guts to end this collaboration?

How did a partnership so promising end up so incapacitating? Alex remembered the time he quietly unzipped his pants and sat there half-naked to amuse his inner clown. That produced little result as he failed to inject much-needed humor into what was their second collaboration, a thriller about a wealthy black American entrepreneur purchasing the plantation where his ancestors had slaved away. A few weeks later, Alex wondered if he had indeed exposed himself to Santiago or just imagined it. That marked the first time he began to disconnect with his lifelong passion.

When he was younger the anticipation of joining the pantheon of legendary screenwriters fueled him through mountains of revised drafts. He remembered that back when he was waiting tables before he ever sold a script, he was sure he was smarter than the showbiz types who came into the restaurant and opined about movies. Alex rarely lost confidence in his abilities to see what others couldn’t. But now he was starting to doubt his skills, evidenced by the fact that when he talked, he simultaneously listened to and edited himself, rather than just letting his words flow. And it got worse when he started to visualize his own conversations written in script format on the page even while he was in the middle of them. Maybe he was finally finished with a lifetime of believing that creating a blueprint for filmed entertainment was the thing he was born to do. Or maybe he had been a fraud from the very beginning.

From their initial contract, Alex negotiated a WGA minimum-plus-ten fee because Santiago had admired The Boondoggle, his cult movie that played at a dozen film festivals before landing with a thud during a brief theatrical release in the Northwest. Apparently, Alex’s first screenplay proved neither hip nor dark enough. It did, however, feature a lead character who had lost his eyesight due to a family member’s carelessness, so there was that coincidental connection. Santiago, of course, never saw the movie, but Alex spotted the DVD in his partner’s vast movie collection and the cracked plastic case told him that Santiago had listened to it more than once.

At their first meet and greet, Santiago acted like he was urgently interested in producing a movie from their joint collaboration. It took six months to come up with a good draft and sometimes twice as long to revise and polish it into a final blueprint for a shooting script so Alex cleared his schedule. But after that inaugural screenplay was shelved for reasons Alex could no longer recall, a second screenplay — the aforementioned historical thriller — was rushed and then back-burnered before they advanced to a third which evolved into an updated adaptation of an old Hollywood film now set in Santiago’s Dominican village, a place with a name Alex had trouble pronouncing. It soon became apparent to Alex that the only movie these screenplays would ever produce was the one Santiago pictured inside his head.

Over the years, Alex rationalized his disappointment, realizing that if these writing sessions were nothing more than an expensive therapy for his disabled companion, that may be reason enough to keep the arrangement going. After all, Alex was making a living and could call himself a working screenwriter – and let’s face it, only one in a thousand scripts ever made it to the big screen. And wouldn’t having a modicum of financial stability enable him to write his own more personal screenplays on his spare time that he would potentially monetize, perhaps even direct?

But he had stopped writing his own stuff, and soon realized that each subsequent collaboration with Santiago started to kill a little more of his artistic soul, causing him to resent this comfy arrangement. His agent dumped him and no one besides his current employer had contacted him for writing assignments during the last four years. Peculiar as it might seem, whenever Alex entertained the thought that Santiago had deliberately put him on some strange and meaningless treadmill only a diabolical mind could conjure, he would dismiss it as, “If he’s doing this to me, isn’t he doing it to himself as well?”

Yet it’s not that one of the screenplays couldn’t get produced. Santiago’s gay sister’s girlfriend owned a talent management company and, according to Santiago, the finished screenplays went to her first. But years on the Hollywood treadmill told Alex that without talent attached, or money coming from foreign pre-sales, the projects were sucked down into the dark hole of Tinseltown. Wasn’t it his ex-agent’s brother who had written enough unproduced scripts that he’d had the clever idea to enlarge them into movie posters, shoot them with a .45, and frame them to make decorative art that he then peddled to prominent talent agencies?

Alex tried again to figure out a plausible excuse to abruptly bring the day’s session to an end. He ruled out the upset stomach thing since he ate vegan for lunch, and he had recently used the I have to get to a FedEx before 6 p.m. excuse. Finally, Santiago proposed an idea that Alex made him repeat to be sure he had actually said what he meant to say. “No, we need a dramatic event that makes Beatrice question her own sanity. Her actions failed to fix things — there needs to be consequences to her ill-advised actions. Maybe a boating accident.”

Alex ground his teeth. First of all, he hated the phrase “ill-advised,” the pet phrase of TV sports announcers when describing a quarterback’s pass that was intercepted. No one advised them to throw while they scanned the defense, so junk that phrase, por favor. But a boating accident? The very event that cost Santiago his eyesight! For a second, Alex thought his collaborator enjoyed proving that he wasn’t averse to magnifying his handicap by having a fictional character endure an identical tragedy, the one that was also the centerpiece of Alex’s only produced movie.

But no, this idea was clearly designed to irritate Alex, nothing more. He was determined to put a stop to this torment, to rescue his brain cells from yet another unshootable script, one that had already been made. By him.

“Why do you think I do this?”

Surprised by Santiago’s question, Alex lost the impulse to formulate a politically correct answer and surrendered to the truth.

“What, write screenplays that will never get made?”

Alex expected some pushback from that, but it didn’t come. He decided to cut to the chase, even if it might prove to be one of the last things he would ever say to Santiago. At the very least it would get him out of the room. But what came out of his mouth next could be taken as arrogant if it wasn’t so ordinary, and it flattened any aggressive nature his previous comment may have unearthed.

“It’s obvious that writing all these screenplays through my eyes is a privileged substitute for seeing the world.”

“You’re an arrogant ass,” mumbled Santiago as he jerked his neck in a spastic way normally associated with Stevie Wonder, a physical behavior limited to people who couldn’t observe the reaction of others.

“Excuse me,” Alex declared indignantly.

“I don’t hate my handicap.” Santiago reached left and right for his walking stick which he then located with the toe of his shoe. “The blind man sees more than others will ever know.”

Santiago was given to aphorisms that usually sounded better in Spanish than English.

Maybe he wasn’t really blind and it was all a hoax. Alex spontaneously raised his hand and karate-chopped at Santiago’s neck. Santiago didn’t flinch. Instead, Alex’s benefactor rose from his chair, finally grabbed his walking stick, and dismissively ambled to the door. Alex never mentioned the $14,026.

“What time tomorrow?” Alex meekly offered as Santiago closed the door behind him.

Now it was crystal clear: Santiago had hired him again and again to take him off the market and sabotage his career, revenge for Alex having given life to a character whose circumstances were unwittingly copied from that of the real life blind man who had just left the room. Alex realized that whether Santiago held him responsible for creating a karmic blueprint of the tragedy that befell him, or for appropriating his personal story without permission, he was sure he had never heard of Santiago or his boating mishap before they met. But when exactly had the accident occurred?

Alex toggled from the Final Draft program to Google… Sure enough, Santiago’s boat accident happened two years before Alex had written his script. Had he heard about it and then conveniently forgotten it before stealing it hook, line and sinker? Not even Alex knew the answer.

Alex burst out the door, grabbing his coat and scarf, unknowingly knocking the Ryan Gosling poster from its perch as he chased after Santiago. It took only one turn and two blocks to catch his blind partner, who was patiently waiting to hear the bird-like squawk that would tell him he could now safely cross the street. Santiago heard Alex panting and turned to face him, as if he was expecting his arrival.

collaboration 2

“Look, when I wrote that movie I had no idea what had happened to you. I didn’t even know who you were and if I did hear about it but forgot, I apologize.”

Santiago shushed him. “I think rain is coming. Too bad the streets aren’t wet yet. They’d photograph better.”

Alex persisted, “Santiago, we need to discuss this–”

“No, take out your phone. We’re going to make a movie.”

Alex knew from the tone of Santiago’s voice that he shouldn’t resist. He took out his cellphone.

“Video, not photo.”

Alex nodded, switched as instructed, and then remembered whom he was talking to. “We’re making a movie,” he repeated.

“Let’s raise the stakes. I will cross the street, regardless of what the signal says. Then you’ll do exactly the same if you want to get paid for your efforts.”

Alex had no reply. It was two-way traffic and the lights were half a mile away so the cars would be going full speed. He thought of Xeba and the first time they had sex in his car. Vroom.

“Listo?”

When Santiago switched to Spanish, he was serious.

“Action,” Alex replied, imagining that this must have been what Pickett’s doomed Confederate soldiers felt as they advanced toward the fixed Union position on Cemetery Ridge.

Santiago strode into the street. Soon cars whizzed in front of him and behind him, well over the speed limit of 35 mph. But the Dominican never broke stride. Alex knew if anyone got killed today it would be him, the one who followed someone else’s bad idea. It took the blind man less than a minute to traverse the traffic. Swerving cars and braking trucks had their horns honking insanely, creating a Doppler-like effect to score the scene, but Alex heard nothing. Santiago pivoted and stared in the direction of his writing partner, albeit a bit to the left. Nothing needed to be said. It was Alex’s turn. Would he make the correct choice?

Twenty seconds later Alex’s scarf was wrapped so tight over his eyes he was blind to the world except for headlights he could more sense than see, and assaulted with sounds he had always heard, but never quite… like… this. He stepped into traffic, raising one arm to capture it all on a video selfie.

A year later the two-minute unscripted video had 17,892,000 hits on YouTube. Santiago had sent it to his sister, who then posted it under the title Blind By Choice. A fledgling L.A. film outfit picked up the rights and had Santiago and Alex produce a series of similar vignettes which featured Alex following Santiago performing sight-impaired water skiing and gutter cleaning. A Chinese company was already in post-production on the movie about the slave plantation and that unbelievably well-funded company had a blind option on any script Santiago and Alex would write in the future. Alex was back in the game. Maybe he had never left.

 

About The Author:
Tom Musca
Tom Musca was the producer and co-writer of Stand And Deliver which won Oscar nominations and 6 Independent Spirit Awards. His produced credits include Tortilla Soup, Gotta Kick It Up!, Money For Nothing, Race, Little Nikita and Flight Of Fancy. He recently wrote One Mile North, co-produced Bad Hurt and associate produced Pray For Rain. In 2016 he produced Bruno & Naomi’s Blind Date and I Hate Sundays. He will direct I Love Lupe in South Florida where he coordinates the Screenwriting MFA at the University of Miami.

About Tom Musca

Tom Musca was the producer and co-writer of Stand And Deliver which won Oscar nominations and 6 Independent Spirit Awards. His produced credits include Tortilla Soup, Gotta Kick It Up!, Money For Nothing, Race, Little Nikita and Flight Of Fancy. He recently wrote One Mile North, co-produced Bad Hurt and associate produced Pray For Rain. In 2016 he produced Bruno & Naomi’s Blind Date and I Hate Sundays. He will direct I Love Lupe in South Florida where he coordinates the Screenwriting MFA at the University of Miami.

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