A screenwriter may achieve everything – if there’s enough time. 2,041 words. Part One. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
I hate beginning this part with, There I was, but it seems the only way. There I was, sitting in a room with Steven Spielberg. At a conference table. Amid a very rich-looking corporate interior design. Steven Spielberg and some associates and my agent Luis Vendaz. Mostly, though, Steven Spielberg.
My handicap emerged; I was so nervous. I know most people probably are, but most people can get through it. Even if this meeting goes well, I’m going to have PTSD for the rest of my life which may be shortened significantly along with the lives of everyone else because of the micro black hole on its way to Earth.
Luis was next to me, but he didn’t even register; only Spielberg and my nervous-demon.
“I want you to write my last movie.” The mogul said this after I sat down and shook his dry hand with my absolutely not dry one. I think he did say something before that, a bit of small talk segue, but it didn’t surprise me that he was all-business and got to the point with immediacy at the forefront of his mind. “This script,” he said, placing his palm on The Last Trial, which was on top of the table, right next to him, “is genius. This is what I need as the final script I ever direct. Assuming it is the final thing. No one knows, of course.”
“Let me tell you what I’m thinking. I want something that encapsulates the collective depression we all feel about the impending apocalypse. But I want something hopeful as well. Like I say, no one can really predict what’s going to happen. Brian and Ron” – I’m assuming he meant Grazer/Howard – “are always in contact with an astronomer named Phil Plait, and Bill Maher” – guess he’s not cool enough to rate only one name – “has engaged Lawrence Krauss” – the theoretical physicist and cosmologist. “I want something that has focus, like your script on the trial.” He placed his hand on my script again. “I need your rewrite in the next two weeks. Please.”
He sounded commanding at the end; hey, he’s a Hollywood shark. “I will.” It was all I could say.
Spielberg sensed my trepidation. “Where do you see this black hole end-of-earth crisis ending up?” he asked me.
I wasn’t sure what to say. “Well, sometimes I tend to be a glass-half-empty kind of person.”
Spielberg laughed, although he clearly disagreed. “I’ve always seen the glass as half-full. People say we can’t reduce life to such aphorisms, but I think we can. People should be optimistic. Because our optimism can make opportunity. We have an opportunity here, you and I.”
Was this the Spielberg magic? If so, it was working.
“You have an ordinary job, right?” he continued. “You want out. You could have quit screenwriting years ago and just continued stocking shelves. Or you could have quit your work altogether and done who knows what. You didn’t. You kept writing. You kept coming up with ideas. It may sound trite and wistful, but at the end of the day that’s all we’ve got: our ambitions, our dreams. I love making films.”
“Honestly, I love to write.”
“Don’t want to step behind or in front of a camera, right?” This is how he got people to want to work for him.
“That’s it. I’m just the writer.”
“Not just the writer. The writer. Always remember that. You still need to always remember that. The glass is half full.”
He had a point. He wasn’t just Steven Spielberg. He was a smart guy, for real. There’s always been that debate about the writer versus everyone else in the production process. The cliché is true: it starts with the writer. Spielberg authors a film as he directs, but for just about everyone else is the screenplay that serves as the first line of synthesis.
The meeting was over. He stood up and politely shook my hand. I did the same with his associates. Luis and I were ushered out. My agent had driven me over, and as I got back into his Mercedes, he reiterated how important it was for me to deliver the script in less than two weeks. One day longer was not even an option.
I begged colleagues at the toy store to cover my shifts. I was so marginalized, though, that no one helped out. I couldn’t tell them what I was doing; I had made the mistake of confiding in co-workers about my writing hobby, and that had seemed pretentious in hindsight. In the end, I just worked on the script as fast and as hard as I could.
One thing, though: if there was one person in Hollywood who likes to buy things and then do nothing with them, it was Spielberg. He’d earned the right. And right or wrong, he was the one God amongst gods in Hollywood that everyone worshipped unconditionally and threw money at so that he could produce his pet projects. (But when it came to his more recent backers like Reliance, they got the riskier slates.) Like I said, he’s a shark, and it was probably good that I was swimming with him during the apocalypse.
Here’s what I came up with: Trying To Find God’s Email Address. I borrowed a title from a previous short script of mine about a person taken off life support who never dies. (So what? I could sue myself if I wanted to…) Picture a world that is about to be destroyed by an astronomical event. Or, maybe it won’t be. It’s a 50/50 chance. Everyone’s praying to the higher power in their cultural neck of the woods.
However, a Tom Hanks-type actor plays the protagonist, Stanley Joe (I know, I’m lousy with names), a famous director who does one last film. It’s called The Final Pitch and it, too, is about a world about to be destroyed. A movie within a movie that are both about the same thing and based on real-life events. Confusing, but keep up.
Everyone within that movie, though, tries to make one last prayer to God. “Please don’t kill the Earth. Spare humanity.” Then, the people within the parent movie, looking at Joe’s film which becomes the highest grossing global box office hit of all time even considering inflation, all assemble together in huge Hands Across America-type gatherings and vigils and marches and prayer sessions, all connected via social media platforms, and make one final pitch to God. They hope he gets the message.
Spielberg loved it. He signed on. So did Tom Hanks. I got paid a lot of money. Luis was pleased. Looked like I was good for more than just Hatchimals.
About a week before the movie was set to premiere, I had a meeting with Spielberg at his office. Just some quick minutiae to go over – the premiere, a junket with reporters, that sort of thing. All could have been delivered by an underling so this was essentially just a congratulatory little meet-and-greet for me, a courtesy to the writer.
“What are your thoughts now?” he asked. That question took me by surprise.
“I’ll tell you,” I said, “it’s everything you can imagine, except for that black hole heading toward us.”
He laughed. “Can you believe we’re sitting here almost dismissing it?”
“I think no one really thinks it’s going to hit us.”
“You’re probably right on that.”
“I think the first film that made me fall in love with your body of work was Close Encounters. Then, of course, there was Raiders.”
Spielberg laughed again. “You’re already talking like an Industry person! Can’t even say the full title!”
“I know. But believe it or not, one of my favorite pieces of yours was an episode of Night Gallery called ‘Make Me Laugh.’ Was the shoot on that as bad as I’d read?”
He visibly cringed but there may have been some nostalgia lurking behind his eyes. “If we’re still here in a week, I’ll tell you all about it. An interesting story.”
“And also please let me know if you actually directed Poltergeist.”
It was almost midnight. The movie was about to start. I was at Mann’s for the premiere. Spielberg said a few words.
“Well, here we are. Not an auspicious way to start an end-of-the-world speech, but perhaps I can be forgiven. I don’t think I have to go out of my way to be overly profound. Life has gone on since the announcement of the singularity and the danger it poses to Earth. There have been problems, of course, with a significant amount of the population not knowing how to process the information and instead acting out in very anti-productive ways. But although those events were significant, they were only incremental in nature. They didn’t take us down. For that, I’m glad. It filled my heart with pride for the human race. That might be corny to say, but it’s likewise accurate.”
Spielberg paused at this point. People filled the theater with very respectful applause. He continued.
“The debate about the existence of God has taken on new meaning. I’m not going to try to convince anyone of anything because I’m not even sure I know what to believe. I do mean this film to be my own personal pitch to God, if there is one. I don’t have an Ark of the Covenant – remember, Belloq called it a transmitter to the Almighty – but I do have the one thing that has always given me the most joy in my life – aside from my family, of course – and that is my set of abilities as a filmmaker. This might be my last film. If it is, I’ve gone out on a wonderful note. This film is intended to be a note of optimism and hope. It was as fun to make as any of the Indiana Jones movies – yes, even Crystal Skull – and as personal and as pleasing as E.T.”
Another pause. Another round of applause. Then:
“I said this was my last film. And I will be thanking everyone I can after I finish speaking. But even though this may be my last film, this is also someone else’s first film.”
That’s when Spielberg said my name.
“Like many before him, it was his dream to write movies and become a working screenwriter. If this pitch to God works, if we truly did find his email address and sent him a convincing missive about the value of the human race, then I personally guarantee it won’t be this gentleman’s last film.”
Then he invited me to join him. To say I was frightened – there are no words. But as I walked up to more than gracious applause, I was seized by a set of emotions that served to protect me from my pathological shyness in front of crowds. I enjoyed the moment. It was exciting.
It’s midnight, and in a few hours we’ll know if we’re going to survive or not. Writing this has been therapeutic, the literary equivalent of a powerful sedative. All you writers know what I’m talking about.
There haven’t been as many natural disasters as the scientists predicted, but more than enough people already have perished because of the physics of the black hole headed our way. I know Hanks is at another premiere, as are some of the other cast and crew and producers, because this film is playing to sell-out crowds on all continents. (Even the Antarctic is screening it.)
It’s funny when you think about it: I could never sell anything when it was a foregone conclusion that the sun would still be around for billions of years, but now the world is paying attention to am anxiety-prone retail hack. I’m laughing as I write this. It’s so existential. I feel like George Costanza worrying that God didn’t want him to succeed in Hollywood. Remember that episode?
I really do wish I had God’s private email address right about now. I do have Spielberg’s, though. Whether or not we make it, I find comfort in the following: either way, I won’t have to work for an even-toed ungulate ever again.