In Which The Meatball Surgeon Meets The Patient
I have a love/hate relationship with LA, very identical to the one I have with New York except with better weather in general.
I love writing, I love creating, and I love the product that shows up on the stage, big or small screen.
I hate getting anywhere around LA-you drive, survive an Uber that is driven by someone that was a kamikaze pilot in a previous life, or take public transit that will require you to triple your time getting anywhere and often put you far outside of where you’re going.
I love the process of creation, being behind the scenes where all of these great productions are made. My home office wall-to-wall signed cast and crew photos, and in the slow times I’m writing up all of my interesting tales of what happened at a major Broadway production.
I despise the people involved. ”Some of the most artistically frustrated people since Nazi Germany,” as that one episode of Mad Men pointed it out. Desperate people that are willing to do anything to get ahead and stay ahead. People that would gladly bury a knife in your back if they needed the blood from your heart for lipstick and rogue. And walk away pretending that they hadn’t done anything, not even giving an insincere “we’re sorry for your loss.”
But I’m getting a $1000 a day-six days minimum-with travel, hotel, meals, and car per diem and I know the guy that hired me. So long as I keep my back to the walls and avoid some of the Hollywood players that would want to mount my head on the gates, I’m fine.
Fly into LAX, rent a nice Porsche, pull up to the studio offices in Burbank. Park in the garage, come in with my nice briefcase, settle my tie up, and wait at the reception desk for Tom to come in. He’s all smiles and joy as he shakes my hand, “Hey there! How was your flight?”
“Not bad,” I replied, and put on my temporary badge. “Three hours isn’t a bad trip, and I hadn’t been in town for a while.”
“Good, and Fiona?” Tom asks as she leads me to the elevators.
“Happy as you can be with a teething two-year-old,” I shrugged. “She sends her love by the way. So, what is this…”
“Let’s wait until we get to the office,” Tom interrupts me carefully as we get onto the elevator and ride up to the tenth floor. It’s a bit cloak-and-dagger as he gets out before me, leads me down the hall, and into a conference room with a huge flat-panel TV and a DVD player. “You have your NDA with you?” he asked, closing the door behind me.
“Yea,” and I pull a spare copy out of my briefcase. “What’s going on? You said you had a script you needed me to punch up, how far in production is this movie?”
“They’ll be starting the final VFX next month, everything here is placeholders if we don’t get the reshoots done,” Tom sighed. “I know, late in the process, but we did a test screening, and it didn’t go well. So, I called you in to see what you can do with it.”
I raised an eyebrow. “That doesn’t sound good,” I look at him. “What’s the movie?”
He found a sealed manila envelope and passed it across the desk. “There’s the script. We’ll look at it later, I just want you to see the movie fresh before you see the script.”
“Okay,” this was worrying me, but for 6K plus per diem, he could be as weird as he wanted to be. I pulled out my notepad-I preferred writing notes down because it was easier to shred a notepad than a hard drive-and got my pens organized. “I’m ready.”
“Thanks,” and he picked up the remotes, fiddled with them, and hit the Play button.
The familiar strains of John William’s classic fanfare erupted from the TV as the “Star Wars” crawl began. A new Star Wars movie, I thought. Cool!
Then, I remembered what he had said about a bad test screening, and I started to get worried.
But, how could anybody screw up a Star Wars movie? Especially with a title like The Force Awakens?
In Which We Learn Just How Deep The Rabbit Hole Goes
Two and a half hours later, we run through the final credits, and I have to take a moment.
The notepad is full of blocking notes, things that I noticed, things that I found bad (red ink), things that I found that were good (blue ink), and there was a lot of red on that ledger.
“Well!” Tom asks with what is clearly false cheer, “What do you think?”
I’m sitting there, looking at my notes, and rub my nose with my thumb and forefinger. “Tom, we’re looking at about a month’s worth of reshoots, minimum, to get this into some kind of shape.”
“Can’t do that,” he replies with that same false cheer.
“Okay, first of all, they destroyed the whole character progression of Han and Leia in the original trilogy and then killed off Han like a chump. You never kill off a character like Han like a chump in this kind of genre series,” I said, trying to keep my breathing calm and even.
“They wanted to make a clear break between the Original Trilogy and this new trilogy,” Tom kept up that smile, and I knew that this was going to get worse.
“You short-changed a great character in the form of Finn, hell you have too many primary characters wandering around too many places, doing too many things,” I flipped through my notes. “If there was any way to condense the Finn and Rey arc into one character, hell make Finn the protagonist…”
“We can’t have a black male lead in an international film, never sell in China and most of Southeast Asia,” Tom’s smile grew a lot more forced. “And, we need to have a strong female protagonist in the movie, it’s very important that we have a strong female protagonist. And we can’t cut Finn, either-he’s important that we have diversity and inclusion.”
“Emo Ren’s arc is stupid as hell; he’s acting like a budget-rate Vader-worse than that! He’s acting like a budget-rate Darth Vader with horrible pseudo-Freudian daddy issues and this guy…,” I checked my noted, “Adam Driver, he’s wasted here in far too many ways.”
“It’s not that bad,” and I could tell just how much it was hurting Tom’s face to keep smiling like that.
“And, worse yet, Rey is a Mary Sue. She did in a single movie what Luke Skywalker took three movies to do. She doesn’t have a previous record of being a pilot, or a serious training montage, or anything that makes her more than a bad Anakin reskin…,” and I stopped for a moment. “Okay, you haven’t told me how bad it is. Let’s get it over with-how bad is it?”
“Kay-Kay is in charge of Lucasfilm now,” Tom replied, and he finally let his face down. “There’s a huge push to add more diversity and inclusion in movies, more strong female protagonists, get rid of traditionally toxic male character tropes, rub out legacy characters, that kind of thing.”
“Joy,” I replied after a moment. Kay-Kay, Kathleen Kennedy, was just the secretary of George Lucas and Steven Speilberg in the same way that Martin Bormann was just the secretary of Adolf Hiter or how Joseph Stalin was just the secretary of Vladimir Lenin. She was the secretary, as in she knew all the secrets. She knew the people and knew the people that knew the people. And, she had long-standing and (so she thought) well-concealed ambitions to be a power player in Hollywood as well. “So, this is her baby?”
“Yep,” Tom grunted, then shook his head. “Bob Iger wants to have some cleanup done, but there’s no way in hell we can do any major cuts or edits.”
“What’s my budget in terms of time?” I asked carefully.
“Fifteen minutes and can’t exceed a run time of 180 minutes,” Tom told me after a moment’s thought. “And, you have to keep the plot relatively coherent. You can get away with one big new scene, maybe one and a half.”
“Christ,” I sighed. “I’m good, but you want miracles on the cheap, you get bad miracles. I can only do so much with that kind of budget. How soon do you need the new material?”
“End of the week?” Tom looked at me hopefully.
I took the manila envelope and put it in my briefcase. “Fire the movie back up again, I’ll do another outline and see what I can do.”
In Which We Figure Out How To Plug One And A Half Holes
Two watch-throughs of the movie didn’t help any. The notes and the filming script did help, but when I left the studio to get to my hotel room…I wasn’t feeling too optimistic.
Dinner was sushi at a place I liked, then sneaking around LA surface streets to avoid the perpetual traffic jams to get to my hotel. I finally got booked into my hotel room and started sorting out my bags and setting up a workspace for myself. I could probably do better than a Holiday Inn Express, and if I expected to have guests over I would. But the room does everything I need, and I got my laptop, my notes, and the script put on the table.
First things first, I pulled out the set of small Post-It notes I used to keep track of things and added the green (necessary), blue (optional), and pink (shouldn’t be there) tags to the yellow (major section) tags on the script. There was a lot of blue and pink and I made sure to note on the tags on the script where I had tags in my notes.
Then, I fired off some emails, talked with Fiona and the kids for a few minutes, took a long hot shower, and got comfortable and looked at my notes again. “Christ,” I whispered, “I’ve got to stop convincing people that I’m a great miracle worker on a budget.”
The problem was…fifteen minutes and no more than one and a half scenes. I couldn’t trim out any stalling plot points that weren’t quite working. I couldn’t revise the Han and Leia scenes so that Han was…doing espionage for the New Republic, with a smuggler cover and his “estrangement” being part of it? I couldn’t revise the whole Starkiller base scene-absolutely silly in that idea, it was just a badly done version of the Death Star Version 2.0-and I couldn’t do a major revision of the character arcs. I couldn’t move Finn up in the characterization.
But what could I do?
I started to write down ideas and scratch out what wouldn’t work. Eventually I had only one idea left-Make Rey less of a Mary Sue character.
I slept on it, showered, shaved, got breakfast, and put all my notes and laptop back in the briefcase. A quick drive to a coffee shop that I liked, and I reviewed my notes again. What makes Rey a Mary Sue? I had written down on the notepad, and I thought about that.
The next notes began to flow under that-no training montage, no previous record of any kind of skills such as piloting or such that Luke had. No personality or desire that seems to have any need to rise, such as Anakin. She’s just…drawn along by the story.
I hated to use that word, but Rey needed some agency, and I couldn’t figure out how to do that in a scene and a half and fifteen minutes. But, without that agency…nobody would care about wanting to see her story.
See her grow.
See her rise.
As I was walking back to my car, I walked past-of all things-one of those tiny little karate dojos run by an optimist. There was a young Hispanic man-late ‘20s at best-and he was just practicing like a storm. He wasn’t just doing one thing or one move over and over again, he would rotate through four or five different techniques, and it didn’t look like he was repeating himself, he was doing a variety of things in that practice routine. And his instructor was there, offering suggestions from how his lips were moving-they were too far into the storefront for me to make out the words.
At that moment? I realized what Rey needed and I had to get back to the hotel to do the research.
In Which There’s A Solution To One And A Half Problems
I managed to write up the scene, do the blocking, and do a personal test reading by Wednesday night. Thursday morning at 10 AM on the clock, Tom’s waiting for me at the reception desk and we’re up in his office. “Nice office,” I remarked as he closed the door behind me.
“Not a corner office,” Tom agreed, “But I have twice the space, there’s no glass walls, and I can do the entire ‘Old Time Rock and Roll’ thing without hitting anything.” He smiled and offered me a seat. “So! What’s the miracle you pulled off?”
“One and a half scenes, about twenty minutes, but,” here I held my hand up before Tom could object, “we’ll get five minutes from redoing parts of other scenes. Ready?”
“Sure,” Tom sat down in his chair, as I sat down and pulled out my notes, “hit me.”
“Act One, the scene where Rey gets the puff ball meal and eats it in her quarters on the Star Destroyer. We’ll recut and lengthen that scene, and get about three minutes there. The scene starts with her getting paid, getting her meal, and a ‘special package.’ She goes to her quarters, disarms a trap, and when she comes in, she picks up a length of tape-wrapped pipe that is near the door, the same length as a lightsaber.”
Tom is considering me as I’m going through this, and I press on. “Suddenly, she’s attacked by a kitbashed droid that has a similar length of pipe. Quick fight scene, just quick enough to show that she knows something, and she defeats the droid. We learn that there are two droids there, one of them has a Jedi holocron…”
“A what?” Tom asks.
“Think…a phylactery,” I reply quickly. “It holds the memories and the soul of a Jedi or Sith. Rey has hooked up a Jedi holcron and a Sith holcron to two droids she salvaged to serve as tutors. Maybe we can get a scene where a younger Rey finds them or something. Anyways, the Sith holocron tells Rey that if she wants another piloting lesson, she needs to have everything for her next training session.”
“Remember the package I said she got? It’s a full, formal dining set and Rey has to set it up and endure having her hand slapped when she eats with the wrong fork,” I wait a moment and I can see that Tom is liking this. “We can establish that Rey has some things she didn’t have in the earlier draft-ambition, technical skill, willingness to learn, odd tutors that cover the categories of both sides of the Force, and we can even do some snark between the holocrons. I can do a bit of trimming and make this scene about fifteen, sixteen minutes if you want. We also establish that Rey takes the holocrons with her on a regular basis, so she has them for Act Two.”
“And the second?” Tom’s got that little smile on his face, showing that he likes this idea.
“Act Two, before they arrive at Takodana, Finn finds Rey’s bag and the Jedi holocron falls out. It triggers, and the holocron points out that the only way a holcron can activate is because the person handling it has a great deal of Force potential,” I flip to the next set of my notes. “Rey finds Finn and gets angry that he has her bag and storms off, with Finn trying to apologize. We see Han and Chewy around a corner, and Han says something about young love, and Chewy replies and Han denies that he ever felt like that for Leia, no matter what Chewy brings up.”
“And this serves what purpose?” Tom asked, taking a sip of coffee.
“Slight revision to the Takodana scene where Finn leaves to hop on a different ship. Finn makes it clear that he and Rey aren’t getting along, and he won’t lie to her about who he is, so he’ll just go away. Which is kind of the same thing he did with the New Order, if you think about it. Classic ‘slap, slap, kiss’ dynamic-and we’re at the second slap in that dynamic,” I put my notepad across my lap and take a deep breath. “Got the scenes blocked out and the script revisions here.”
“Let me have them,” and I pulled out a new manila envelope from my briefcase and handed it to Tom. “What was your goal here?”
“Rey didn’t have any directions, not really. The story just kind of took her along for a ride,” I pointed out carefully. “We establish that she has some skills, some history, and that she has a connection to the Force. We do that, she becomes an actual protagonist character, not a stand-in until we write her scenes.”
“And you gave her some directions by having a training scene, explanations, and more interactions with characters.” He thought for a moment, and asked, “Think you’ll be in town until Friday afternoon?”
“Got my room until Saturday,” I replied, “and I can add more time if I need it. Why?”
He taps the envelope with his fingertips. “Got to take this upstairs and see if we can get approval. Whatever else happens, I’ll give you a call and if this works out…writing credit and writing pay at least. That’s some money and something that can help get you back here on a regular basis.”
“Fingers crossed,” I replied softly after a moment.
In Which You Get Out Of Town Before The Mob Whacks You
I hit the usual spots for me when I’m in LA-bookstores, music stores, anime shopping, all the fun things. There’s a reason why I have a checked-luggage bag and I also have a shopping list for Fiona of things she’d be looking for if she was there.
Fiona trusts my judgment in everything except chocolate, and I found two outfits that she would like at a boutique her friend owns. Packed up nicely so I can surprise her when I get home, I’m driving back to the hotel room and deciding what I want for dinner when my phone rings. The screen lights up with Tom’s name on it and I hit the button to receive it. “Hello!” I say, dodging a car that is doing 15 in a 35 zone.
“Hey there,” Tom says, and his voice is…strained. “I think…I think you need to pack up and leave early.”
“Tom?” I ask, worried.
“Meeting went bad, very bad,” he continued, talking over me. “Kay-Kay was there, and she blew a gasket when I presented those suggestions. Pretty much a ‘you’re not going to ruin my perfect character’ moment going on. Not your fault, but she’s looking to collect heads and if you’re in town and she knows you’re here, I can’t cover for you.”
“Damn it,” I grunt. “Sorry I got you into trouble.”
“I know,” he replied. “Not your fault, just…don’t get caught, please.”
“Thanks,” and I hung up.
I’ve gotten far too good about packing in a hurry. I check out quickly, get a flight home from the car, and turn in the car early. As I’m heading through the security checkpoint, I sigh and consider what’s happened.
It just reminds me of how much I hate LA.