The first scene from my wretched little screenplay: The Doctrine of Past Things.

26 Oct

1.

During my dog days in Atlanta, I got a job at a used bookstore. The store had devoted regulars and a cast of bizarre characters, including a coworker who had turrets and would curse at people when they asked him for help.

It was a great place, right at the corner of Virginia and North Highland, across from the Highland Tap and Catty Corner to and Joe’s. Two blocks one way you’re on Ponce. Four blocks the other and you’re in Decatur.

Most people into books eventually find their way into the literary underbelly, discovering people like Celine, Barry Hannah, Steve Erickson, Angela Carter and the like. The shimmery, unclassifiable weirdos; the misanthropes; the discursives; the synthesizers; the oddballs; the heretics; the non-conformists; the violent, vile, criminally minded artists who seem to write outside the entire tradition of western letters. Cormac McCarthy (before he was famous and halfway respectable) and Roberto Bolano and Paul Bowles and so on.

I also began reading the great crime writers. James Ellroy was a revelation; he’s one of the great prose stylists and a marvelous writer. Ditto for David Goodis, who was, at his best, a kind of Hemingway of crime. James M. Cain—who reportedly had a crush on one of my aunts—Jim Thomson, Kenneth Anderson, Horace McCoy, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. I loved it. It’s this literate and fascinating parallel literary culture, running side by side its more respectable mainstream literature. (For people interested in taking a taste, I would recommend The Long Goodbye and Red Harvest and My Dark Places.)

It was a great time for reading. I read Ian McEwan and Angela Carter and Charles Portis—who I think I love more than any other writer—and Shirley Jackson and Michel Houellebecq and George McDonald Fraser and Harry Crews, among others. The bookstore was a paradise. I had to resist spending too much of my money on books. As I said in my last post, money was tight.

I made $235 a week. My expenses were $200 a week. I got paid in cash on Friday evenings. My first order of business was buying a case of beer, usually at the gas station catty corner to the store, for 12 bucks. This left me with 21 dollars to eat and entertain myself with each week. (The freelance work came and went unpredictably. With this money I would go to movies, or out to bars with friends.) I lived off of rice and potatoes and whatever my Dad bought me at Sam’s when he came to visit. (One visit he was incredulous when he looked inside my refrigerator. “We’re going to the store. You have to have cheese!”)

I kept up my own writing, using a dead man’s typewriter[1]. I discarded the manual for an electric. I used my computer, too, and also a bevy of notebooks of various shapes and sizes. I took up the odd habit—I don’t understand it myself—of writing from the right page to the left, and sort of jumping around within the notebook. I still do this. I wrote down words I didn’t know, books I wanted to read, story ideas. Lots and lots of story ideas.

And I continued with the movie reviews. I was getting better. I had a concise style, often cutting. I was always looking for something, some moral viewpoint.

I grew up on movies. My dad is a huge fan. We used to go every weekend and watch movies on the television at home. I took this base of movie knowledge and built on it as I got older. In Atlanta, I got to attend private screenings, often just for me and one or two other movie critics. These were usually at 10:30 in the morning, perfect as my bookstore job kicked off in the late afternoons. I saw some great films, including Talk to Her, The Barbarian Invasions, Chicago, and The Quiet American. Then I would drive home, bang out a draft, cut it in half, and send it along.

At some point, during one of these mid-morning screenings, I decided to write a screenplay. I knew movies; I had some talent with dialogue; I was, I thought, a natural fit for screenwriting.

It was a mistake.

2.

Like the writers a generation before me—like Jonathan Lethem and Michael Chabon and Colson Whitehead, to name a few—I was raised on horror movies, comic books and pulp paperbacks. I came to literature as an adult.

I’m a low brow/high brow incubator. I thought I could write a screenplay that was literate, compelling, and artful, but also scary as hell. I stole my starting point from Mark Danielewski’s brilliant novel House of Leaves—a family moves into a house and discovers that the house is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.

I set the screenplay in Atlanta. I had a handful of characters. The main character is named, ahem, Ben. He holes up in his apartment and refuses to leave. He becomes convinced that the apartment is getting bigger on the inside. He’s besieged with visions. He wanders around his ever-growing house, bumping into nightmarish things. His two friends keep checking in on him to help him. They argue. They philosophize. They fight. There’s a flashback that explains why Ben is refusing to leave. The whole thing is shrouded in a sad melancholy, with little bursts of horror. It has some bright spots, but it’s a bleak, pretentious undertaking and terribly flawed.

It began with a real-life encounter. In the bookstore a customer asked me for a book about Hitler. We didn’t have it. He then pressed me on my political beliefs. We began to argue. He was an acolyte of Ayn Rand. I wasn’t. He pressed me on her books. I said I wasn’t going to read them. It was tense and testy and the man’s demeanor was one of a thin veneer of sanity; he seemed one splinter, drop of rain, or one sip of tepid coffee away from a mental breakdown.  Our conversation, verbatim, became the first scene.

I titled the screenplay The Doctrine of Last Things, lifted from a book on Gnosticism I was reading. (I’ve recycled the title a number of times, but it seems to be always doomed.)

3.

I worked on the screenplay for a month, and when I finished, I submitted it to Project Greenlight. I had, as my goal, to break the top thousand screenplays. I thought I was being realistic.

The process went like this. Each screenwriter had to review at least five other screenplays. The more you reviewed, the more you were reviewed. You gave a score on dialogue, story, and character development.

I read eight screenplays and they were all terrible. I tried to rate them generously, and in my comments speak of the good things, ways the weaker aspects could be improved. My screenplay—and I admit it’s not great—was vastly superior to the ones I was reading. I thought, you’ll make it to the top thousand easily, old boy.

Then I received my screenplays responses. Holy God. I was trashed. Not a single reviewer scored mine as high as I scored the worst screenplay I had read. And people were pissed. One reviewer said the dialogue was great but that the story was terrible. One reviewer said the story was great but that the dialogue was terrible. One reviewer said I didn’t use the three-act structure. One reviewer said the characters were horrible. One reviewer actually said he felt I had wasted two hours of his time.

And so on. I was crushed. My taste of the brutality of Hollywood, even refracted through this silly online process and near the opposite coast, was bitter indeed. I didn’t crack the top one thousand. I probably didn’t even make it into the top five thousand.

I felt so downhearted about the utter waste of time I didn’t write another screenplay for years.

4.

I’m less proud of this screenplay than my early novels and stories, but I’ve included it in this series on my writing life anyway. I wanted to change things, re-reading this, but I didn’t.

Here’s a little bit of the first scene:

MAN #1

Do you have any books on Hitler that aren’t in his section?

BEN

Just what you see in the World War II area. The books in some places are three deep, though, so maybe—

MAN #1

I know.

BEN

Is there a specific book you’re looking for? Maybe I know if we have it.

MAN #1

It’s called Hitler’s Pope. I need it for a project I’m working on and used to have it but I loaned it away.

BEN

Sorry, we sold our last copy last week. I don’t know when we’ll get it in again.

(Man #1 nods, then lingers. Starts to turn, then comes back, this time a little closer. He is still eight or nine feet from the counter.)

MAN #1

Tell me. I heard you say earlier that you were a bit of a writer. People of your persuasion tend to lean towards the left. Tend to be more liberal.

BEN

On some things, I guess, but—

MAN #1

Have you ever read Ayn Rand?

BEN

No, but what I know of her, I don’t necessarily agree with.

MAN #1

Well, I think you’d have to read her to say that.

(Man #1 gazes at Ben, perhaps with challenge, or a lack of social skills. But it is unsettling.)

BEN

Well, I’m pretty familiar with her philosophy. My roommate was a big follower of hers, and always talked about her.

MAN #1

What do you know about her philosophy then? What is it?

(Man #1 walks a little closer. Ben can see odd lines in his face, a ruggedness he wouldn’t have suspected. An anger.)

BEN

That every act is a selfish one. And that selfishness is a virtue, basically. And —

MAN #1

You’re wrong.

(Man #1 stares at Ben. Ben looks down, then back.)

BEN

How so?

MAN #1

Ayn Rand basically said that compassion, love for others, etcetera, isn’t likely to result in a new medicine. It can’t create a new invention. Kindness won’t change the world.

BEN

I’m not sure I agree with that.

MAN #1

That’s of no consequence. She saw things as they are. The weaker virtues result in nothing but sweetness and self-indulgence. There is no true benevolence.


[1] Obviously there’s a story here but it’s complex and not very interesting.

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3 Responses to “The first scene from my wretched little screenplay: The Doctrine of Past Things.”

  1. Sean November 17, 2012 at 12:53 am #

    First thing I thought when reading the first paragraph was “Was it Oxford Too or Book Nook?” Then I spent a few minutes trying to imagine the turrets your coworker had, and trying to figure out where he mounted them, and thinking I didn’t remember any from my visits to those used bookstores… only to burst out with an uncontrolled “ChickenRaper!”

    (you meant Tourette’s, right?)

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Interlude 2: A found fragment. | simoneandthesilversurfer - August 30, 2014

    […] part 8: first scene from my wretched screenplay […]

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    […] I wrote a play. My second. Or third. Or fourth, depending on how you count it. (I wrote a miserable screenplay, plus a play with another writer. I’ve also written some short plays, and I helped a friend write […]

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