"Never, never, never, never give up!"
That is the famous quotation by Sir Winston Churchill during the dark days of WWII which is printed on the pouch I carry my laptop charger in when I travel. The phrase jumped out to me today as I packed for a trip to a writer's retreat in New Mexico. It struck me how important never giving up has been to my career. And how many times in life and career giving up seems to be the right thing to do.
The easiest thing to do in life is give up. Many do. They call it quits, or throw in the towel, or call it a day, or pull the plug, packing it in, cut your losses,' etc. I have considered this course of action many times in my career when faced with rejection, being replaced, being canceled, being dismissed, suffering a string of passes, someone else making your film or series you worked on for years, bad coverage, losing representation, not having representation, ahh and being discriminated against for many reasons. I have experienced everything on this list. I am even facing all of it again. At my age in this industry, I am the poster child for "No industry for old white men."
But there is my little black bag with "Never Give Up" screaming at me in bold white letters. And I connect two very important dots. When my laptop runs out of juice, I open the Never Give Up bag, take out my charger, plug it in and recharge my batteries until I have enough juice --- so I can write more stories!
One solution to not giving up is more juice and where you get it. Your reservoir. Your reserve tank. Sometimes that juice comes from the inspiration and persistence and commitment of others.
I remember a night in NY and going to Elaine's to have dinner. The Upper Eastside eatery was a famous haunt of NY writers, authors, actors, directors, journalists, heads of state – pasta/spaghetti was standard fare. Elaine established the restaurant to offer cheap food to starving artists and turned it into an almost historic landmark. Elaine herself gracing your table to say hello was the dream of every hopeful wannabe who tried to book a table. Woody Allen was a regular at Elaine's table where everyone had to walk by and try not to stare – which is what Woody did with his deadpan face. No conversation between them. Just there to be viewed and envied.
One of those nights after dinner with a regular who had cred, I got into a cab outside Elaine's, where there were always cabs, and the driver was a young man in his 20s. A sign was visible to passengers taped on the back of his seat. It jumps out at me now just like "Never Give Up" on my "juice" bag.
The sign read: " I am a screenwriter. I have no agent. I have written several screenplays. If you are in the film business and would like to discover a new fresh writer, I have copies of my screenplays in the front seat. Thank you for your consideration." – then his name and a phone number [this was before email]
I remember being so humbled by this young man's commitment and determination to get his work read that he would cruise Elaine's and other celeb haunts in his cab promoting himself and his works in hopes of being discovered.
I was too embarrassed at the time to tell him his fare had an agent who was also an un-produced writer. He was convinced that someday the right producer or director or famous actor would get in his cab, take him up on his offer, be blown away by one of his scripts, and make his dream come true.
I wish I could remember his name. He probably won an academy award or a string of Emmy's. Maybe it was Aaron Sorkin, or JJ Abrams, or Scott Frank, or David E. Kelley for all I know.
The lesson for me here was one of perseverance. What it means to never give up.
When I was 44, I was at low ebb in my career. Having navigated several years of development hell with solid producers, a couple of stars and a director or two, nothing had been produced except a bad version of my one and only comedy. I received that phone call we all dread, this one from my lead agent of several years that I would no longer be represented by the most powerful agency in the business. I was too old, un-produced and the two scripts I was writing for very little money would never get produced. I was a lost cause.
My lawyers assured me they would have representation for me in a few hours. To their shock and surprise, and certainly mine, every agent big and small turned me down. I was agentless officially, had a mortgage, son, daughter, steadfast wife, plenty of debt, and a pariah all over showbiz.
To his credit, an agent I had never met face to face at my agency agreed to keep me on until the two scripts I was writing were completed and I had something to show potential reps and maybe resurrect my flagging career. He believed in the potential of the two scripts I was writing.
One was about a grownup Peter Pan that everyone had passed on and the other was another Dracula "remake" that again nobody felt was viable given the 100-plus versions of Dracula that had been made over the decades.
Now, back to those phone calls. There are those that change your life for the good and those you wish you'd never answered.
Unless of course, you are determined to NEVER GIVE UP!
I was on the verge of doing just that when I got one of those phone calls. Not a text message, or facetime, or zoom or Twitter or even the dinosaur skype call [emails don't count], but a real genuine voice-to-voice phone call. Good news, bad news, life, death, birth, killer review, review that kills, greenlight, pass, your card has been declined, your flight has been delayed, your daughter was just elected President, and, of course, the biggie -- you've been nominated for an academy award. Whatever the life-changing call is and whenever it comes, you should write about it, in detail. And don't get cocky….
And Never Give Up!
Act 1, your personal condition and situation before the phone call – Act II, the phone call and the delivery of the news – Act III – the impact and the price of the life changer. A satisfying ending [or a 7-act structure if you prefer].
I have had several life-changing phone calls during my orbits around the sun during my visit to planet Earth, but this one, in particular, was a game changer – and just in the nick of time, [whoever nick is, I thank you] as "giving up" was clearly on the table.
Spring break, 1990, at that low ebb in my career, I escaped with my family to Wyoming to visit friends who had loaned us money while I was writing Hook and Dracula, which, as I said, every studio had passed on at least once. My agents had informed me I was a free agent as Hook and Dracula would never get made and, having finished both scripts for very little money and no prospects, I did what every starving writer does, take your family on vacation and hope the lights are on when you get home and your phone is not disconnected. [in those days we had phones which actually plugged into walls]
Jackson Hole was our hideout. Lots of wealth and power sporting strategically worn jeans and thousand-dollar cowboy boots. A perfect sanctuary for us to hang with our wealthy hosts in the shallow end of the success pool.
Cadillac Jack's, a legendary eatery in downtown Jackson, was the choice of Jake and Julia [our son and daughter] for lunch. Big burgers, big fries, and other healthy foods. I had held it together for two days with our hosts who had generously loaned me money and housed us during our visit at their sprawling ranch formerly owned by the Disney family.
For some anxious reason, I excused myself from the feast, which I hoped my credit card would be approved to pay for, and went downstairs to the payphone [that's right a phone booth as cell phones were then the size of bricks and I could not afford one]. I called my answering machine in NY [no such thing as voicemail in the pre-i phone age] to see if the phone still worked and there was a single message from my devoted agent of now 35+ years, Jon Levin. There was an unusual sense of urgency in his normally professorial tone.
"Call me as soon as possible."
Jon was then at Creative Artists Agency [CAA], which, at the time, was at the premature peak of its powers in showbiz. Jon is a strange brew of wizard and alchemist and book nerd and agent. He was also no longer my agent if you read the press releases. CAA had let me go several months earlier for being too old and writing projects no one wanted to do, as in Hook and Dracula. Except for Jon, who believed in both projects and me. He continued to represent me after every agency in town turned me down for representation. He still reps me today.
The phone booth suddenly felt like a coffin, and I was entombed alive praying for Houdini's secret to escape. I remember dialing with shaky hands and having to redial. In those days you had a telephone company credit card so you could charge pay calls to your number. I waited while the operator checked my phone credit getting nervous at how long she was taking.
Finally, the call went through. Relief. Then immediately to anxiety and flop sweat. The chances of Jon being available to take my call were remote as agents are traditionally busy when you call. "I am sorry but he's not available right now" is the usual brush-off. That would mercifully postpone what could only be bad news, which then was no news.
He was on the phone in a nanosecond after his assistant answered. No cordials. No how is the trip going? No can you make your mortgage payment? Cut to the chase literally.
"A very important director wants to do Hook…"
Silence. This took a few moments to register.
"But we have a director.", was my tentative reply.
I was confused and piqued as for the past year I had been working with writer/director Nick Castle [The Shape in Halloween] who had some success directing films like The Last Starfighter and The Boy Who Could Fly. We spent a year under the radar writing Hook and smoking cigars and sipping single malt thanks to a modest development deal that the then head at Tristar, Jeff Sagansky, had given to us because of his relationship with Nick.
I had all but given up on Hook in 1989 when every buyer in town had passed on my pitch. Who wanted to see a grownup Peter Pan? That was blasphemy. Two producers who had worked with Nick and for whom I had written another script, asked me what project did I have on my shelf that nobody wanted to do.
Hook – nobody wanted it. My wife and son and daughter had tormented me on my birthday and at Christmas with Peter Pan/Hook-themed gifts for several years. Other bigger names had Peter Pan projects in the works, and I was told to forget mine. But my family had never given up and they refused to let me.
And, well, here I was on the "phone call of my life" [a Robin line in Hook] in a phone booth in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and what do I do? I get snarky –
"Well if it's not Steven Spielberg there's nothing to talk about."
Jon was silent….
"That's who it is…"
I don't really remember what happened or what was said next. I was gobsmacked – a wonderful word the Brits coined which I can never find the right place to overuse in a script, but it was certainly appropriate for this moment.
The most successful, world-class legendary director of all times, who had been trying to do his own version of Peter Pan for years was going to drop everything and direct Hook!!
The story nobody wanted. By a near un-produced 40-plus-year-old screenwriter who had been let go by his agency for being too old and not productive. Based on an idea by his son and daughter, who were sitting upstairs at the booth wondering where the hell I was.
I tried to keep a stone cool face as I approached the booth. Something ginormous had just happened. Tectonic career plates had just shifted. The angels watching over us sneezed pixie dust all over my beautiful family. This was a Cinderella moment for the record books.
They wanted to know why I was gone so long. Was everything okay? Did I speak to Jon?
No use in trying to play it cool as if this happened every other day to this writer. I just blurted it out. And now my entire family was gobsmacked.
I remember the looks on their collective faces and thinking that maybe I could pay for Jake and Julia's college someday. I was about to be an overnight success story after 20 years of writing scripts and stuck in the LaBrea tarpits of development hell – that's me. The overnight success with gray in his beard.
Steven Spielberg was going to direct the project my kids created and had grown up with.
Now there was a happy thought that was worth the wait.
And to think, I had almost given up.
Hook opened in the U.S. December 11, 1991 to much anticipation given the talent involved.
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Robin Williams, Dustin Hoffman, Julia Roberts, Bob Hoskins, and Maggie Smith.
Screenplay by Jim V. Hart and Malia Scotch Marmo
Disappointing box office.
Critics nixed it.
Director disowned it.
Audience loved it.
And still do today.
Oh, and then next was Dracula – after 13 years of trying, and failing, Francis Ford Coppola was going to direct script #2 that nobody wanted to do.
Never, never, never, never give up.
To be continued
Writer – Job Creator