Moving Pictures
Aug 29, 2012, 01:39AM

My Cousin Who Wrote Screenplays

Whirrr, about the agent who discovers his star is a robot—that's one of his.

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My cousin worked for years to be the best waiter at his restaurant. He'd started there right after college, and he was competitive. Everybody else was working-class or on summer break, or both. He was the only college grad on staff and getting older. Evenings and weekends he wrote screenplays, but that came to be secondary in his mind, relaxation after work. He went back to the tables feeling charged up.

He went at it for seven years, the screenplays and waiting tables. During most of this time he felt very good. He started out as a decent waiter and became a superior one. If not for three old Italians on staff, he would’ve been clearly the best. But that was all right. The three gents were good company, and he liked the other guys too. When he and the guys were off-duty, it was softball, truckers’ caps, cans of beer, girlfriends—and that was fine. And he wrote his screenplays.

Why did the college grad want to stay a waiter? Take a writing job and you wouldn't have your brain free for its real work. That was his view, and he lived by it. He really did his writing. I remember leafing through some of his screenplays while he typed. I was a kid, and to me his manuscripts looked adult and solid. He had them ring-bound with plastic covers, the titles and bylines underlined twice.  Next to his desk he had a shelf half-filled with his output. I remember a script called Dark Chrysalis and another one, Bad Wednesday that became a magnum opus, an extra-large product that involved a clutch of missing objects chased by sets of bad guys.

Jerry's habit was to keep his hands going until he had so many pages. Then he'd stand up, brisk, and say, “I got to get a burger” or “Where's Ellen's number?” or anything else that got him back into the swim. He told me he didn't think about the script again until the next day, when he was on shift and ideas would occur to him. By the end of the day he had enough ideas to try out that he could bang through his 12 pages in a couple of hours. On weekends he did 15 pages a day, but that still left him time for plenty of other things. Sometimes he and a couple of friends, guys active in the local theater, would test scenes together to make sure the staging worked or the dialogue wasn't running too long. I regarded these as very important sessions and soberly looked on as the men did their job.

Half the people Jerry knew said they were going to do something else down the road. Bands played a part in this talk; so did fully owned nail parlors and mountain-goods stores. Jerry's ambitions were understood; people listened to him analyze a scene or say what Tarantino was doing with structure. But he didn't talk too much about it or about his own stuff; he didn't haul out the topic any chance he got. He treated it as a given that he was pounding out pages and might get someplace. I mean there was a decent self-respect to his ambitions.

One of the Italians retired. His last day of work he made a circuit of the house. Everyone on the staff shook his hand.

Jerry wrote Mad Pumpkin and 17 Ways to Date Your Teacher, a comedy. He thought of a buddy film for Julia Roberts and Whoopi Goldberg, Sisters Be Bad. He thought of Missiles Still Silent, an end-of-the-Cold-War spy thriller for Morgan Freeman and Val Kilmer. Mainly he wrote action movies, all with the same set-up and structure but trying out different gimmicks. Snap, Blink, Buckle, Catch, Leak. Always a group of people stuck in the same plane or the same elevator or the same floor of a building. A bomb had been planted or a virus was spreading. From the outside, the hero and his/her rescue team worked their way in through deadly perils. On the inside, the other hero exerted his/her will and good sense to keep panic from spreading. Sometimes the hero and heroine knew each other, sometimes not. But the movie hit its peak when the two met, when everybody was rescued and the villains put down. A solid dynamic, Jerry figured: Everything chugging in the same direction toward the same climax, and you wound up punching the buttons for date movies and fight movies. And actresses were always looking for good roles—here was a draw, strong female lead.

He worked through different variations. Usually it was the guy on the outside, of course. But he tried it with the women: A speleologist (cave scientist) leads a team to rescue her fellow scientists trapped by a cave-in, and with the scientists there's a wily, hard-bitten spelunking guide who matches wits with the sociopath (a renegade speleologist) who engineered the cave-in. Meryl Streep, Nick Nolte. Jessica Lange, Tim Robbins.

Speed came out. Jerry felt preempted. I went with him and his friends the night he saw it, and he came home with arms folded and chin to chest. “Yeah, Hopper was good,” he said briefly, when asked his opinion.

He wrote Whirrr, about a hustling Hollywood agent who starts to guess that his newly signed miracle client is a robot. Ideally a Devito-Schwarzenegger reteaming, but it could work with Hoffman and Cruise, DeNiro and Pitt, mix and match. His next script, I think, was about teenagers who have to hunt a mummy that nobody else knows is a mummy (Wrapper). Around then he told me he had gotten over Speed.  “It really bothered me,” he said. “But now, basically, I think it means I'm on the right track.” He'd come up with the same structure as a hit movie; what the hit had in addition was a great gimmick, the bus that couldn't slow down. Even so, Jerry felt like he was in the game. Around here, I think, he got serious about mailing his work to agents and film programs. He was gathering his forces.

One night I was watching Apocalypse Now with Jerry and his girlfriend, who had fallen asleep. It was during the long, dreary stretch in Kurtz's compound, and I asked Jerry how he'd gotten interested in movies and writing scripts. “Everybody's interested in movies,” he said. “Everybody's got to do some living when the day's over.” I pressed him, so he added this: “Everybody's got ideas, everybody's got to have fun, and a movie script is basically a list of fun things that could happen. You know, 'Wouldn't it be great if …?' That's my job, if I get it. I'd like to be paid a shit-ton of money to think of fun things for people to see.”

I said what about dialogue, what about structure. “Yeah,” he said. “But a lot of dialogue is stuff that's fun to hear. A lot of structure is, it's sequences that are fun to experience. The order of scenes, the rhythm. But, you know, aside from the snappy stuff”—he said that with a pro's superiority to flash—“dialogue and structure set up everything else. You can't just drop in a burning truck.”

I asked what about character. He said that was important too. It occurred to me that Jerry had just said everybody wanted fun, everybody had ideas. Why wasn't everyone else writing screenplays so they could go to Hollywood and make movies? “How do I know?” he said. “Come on.” Then he considered. He shook his head. “You know,” he said, “maybe people don't want to watch a little less television and live a little more.” There he stopped; a word more and he would have been pluming himself on his sense of direction, as steady young men sometimes do. Jerry looked down on such nonsense.

The owners made him deputy manager at the restaurant. He hit a winning double against the Buy-Time Mall people during the tournament. He dated his ex-roommate's sister who was getting a law degree at a big Jesuit school.

His next script, a chase thriller, was about an Olympic athlete and Rhodes scholar who's cloned, but the clone is a golden little girl he has to look out for while the government chases her, which teaches him about caring (Little Sister Don't).

The two Italians retired. They were brothers and wanted to sell wine together in a store near the seaside. “You the best,” the short one told Jerry, squeezing his arm. The tall one, who always looked sad about something, said, “Good waiter, very good. He learn very nice.”

Jerry's hours were murder, and some days he had to skip writing. But on the whole things were okay. “Great job,” one of the owners said one night, and he tucked a check in Jerry's pocket—a bonus. “Best we've ever had,” the owner said. “You and Renzo and them. Really nice having you here all this time.”

NYU had no interest in Jerry's application. Not only did he not get scholarship money, he didn't get in. Columbia said he could get in, but he'd have to pay for everything except materials; he didn't have the money for that.

He got Bad Wednesday down from the shelf and began revising it to see if he could pull the ending together. I remember him from around then. He chewed his lip a lot and didn't have much to say. He'd stopped acting out scenes with his friends. When he was done with a shift, he'd crash. When he woke up, he spread pages over the floor and read them. I saw him once, stooping here, stooping there. He was trying to get an overview, I guess.

The ex-roommate's sister left him. He dropped out of the softball league: too much work. “I didn't even care about NYU,” he told me one night. “Columbia. I just wanted to get the wheels going. I knew that the agents were going to say no, and the schools...” He didn't say it, but I guessed. All the films schools had been his safety schools. He'd go to one of them if the jump to Hollywood looked like it couldn't happen. I asked if he had heard from any agents. He made a face. “Who says I ever will?” he said.

In fact, for about a month his mood collapsed. He made it through work, but had nothing to say and wanted no one around. He stayed home when he wasn't on shift. But the next time I saw him, he'd perked up. This was outside the Buy-Time, where Jerry had just bought some CDs. He offered to wait in his car while I bought the comic I wanted, and driving me home he whistled a Replacements song. He told me he was taking his vacation days, three weeks that had been due him. His plan was to finish Bad Wednesday.

He did it. Twenty days after I saw him, a draft was in place. Everything he wanted in the film was present and accounted for, and pretty much where he thought it should go. The phone rang. Somebody asked if he would hold, and then a voice said, “Jerry? I was wondering if we could talk about representation.” Hollywood had called.

He flew out soon after, and within months he was earning a living as a Hollywood scriptwriter. Whirrr was his first film (naturally the premise caught the agent's eye). It turned out to be Joe Pesci and Richard Gere, which didn't work so well, but Jerry was already getting assignments. He's been doing that ever since. He told me UCLA and USC sent him rejections a few weeks after he signed with the agent, a fact that Jerry quite enjoyed, of course.

Producers like Jerry and his clear-headedness. I read that in Premiere when they did an article on Hollywood's hardest-working scriptwriters. A lot of scripts are jigsaw puzzles with different writers fashioning the different pieces—lines, bits of business, plot twists. Jerry loves generating items like that and sticking them where they should go. Later they can get moved around, changed, even discarded. His work is still going to get through, enough of it. He hears his lines coming back to him sometimes, when he's out in public. I'm told that's a Hollywood writer's measure of success. Jerry's standing in the elevator at his accountant's, and somebody, a stranger talking to another, says, “I decided to expedite and I expe-did” or “This ship is 90 million pounds of heart attack waiting to happen” or Jerry's most famous line: “You in some shit, Mandrake,” when the drug boss finds out Jack Black's magic powers don't work anymore.

Jerry can do stories but doesn't specialize in them. I don't think he ever expects to see a story of his get made on the scene. It's not an option he favors, really. Basically, story scripts get kicked around until they turn into jigsaw puzzles, and he'd rather come in at that stage. The very biggest money lies with the story scripts that get through, but Jerry figures he doesn't need the very biggest money.

His wife is Laotian; they have a view of the San Fernando Valley and another of San Francisco Bay (from an apartment they use for getaways). He's active in the Screenwriters Guild. He and his daughter spend a lot of time at the Beverly Hill animal center, since the girl cares about that.

I visited him a while back, and from his patio we watched the shadows creeping over Sherman Oaks and the freeways and the scrub green and soft tan of the trees and hills. Houses, all shapes and sizes, were tucked into the hills' nooks and crannies, marching down to the lowlands. Light glinted off their windows.

Jerry had been talking about Adaptation, the Nicolas Cage movie about a screenwriter. I asked Jerry why he liked it so much, given that it made fun of Hollywood screenplays. “Hey, if you can't have a sense of humor,” Jerry said. “I think Kaufman is great.” He meant Charlie Kaufman, the man who wrote Adaptation and Being John Malkovich. Those were story scripts, of course.

“It seems like a strange line of work,” I said. Because earlier I'd been asking about his jobs and so forth. “Sticking little bits together, and you have no idea how they'll end up.” He agreed. “But you get paid so much money,” I said. “Yeah!”

I thought over his whole story, from being a waiter on. “It's just… it seems kind of a small thing. I mean, things seem great. Your life is great. But what you're doing, what your life is built around, what you'll spend decades doing… it doesn't seem like much. And that's a life.”

“Yeah, what did you expect?” Jerry said.


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