In 1984 I was in college, studying to become either an illustrator, sculptor, or animator -- I couldn't decide which. My political cartooning aspirations had been dashed due to poor study habits (I won an award for the best newspaper cartoon at the college level that year, while still getting a "D" in the class).
Anyway, while sitting around in my dorm room doing nothing but avoiding the dreaded decision of my ultimate career choice, I wrote a screenplay for $2000 (that's TWO thousand -- not twenty thousand, not two hundred thousand) with my old friend Dave Hines for a producer who will remain nameless (not by me -- but by his reputation and track record).
It was called Nightlife, and was about a teenager who gets bitten by a female vampire in Hollywood.
From this tiny seed, even tinier seeds would eventually grow.
Meanwhile, I was nearly killing myself in an attempt to avoid a career choice. I took twelve units of illustration classes, then another ten of sculpture -- two full class loads -- just to avoid a decision. Between 16 hours of school work a day and writing the script, I was wandering around in a fog wearing ink-and-clay-stained pink clothes (I hadn't yet grasped the washing complexities of bright red shirts and tan pants). Before long I developed pneumonia. I grew dark rings under my eyes, lost 15 pounds, and ground my teeth into the jagged nubs they are today. In the midst of all this, I experienced a mild nervous breakdown as the result of a failed love affair (I couldn't figure out why 20-year-old girls didn't find me attractive -- a problem that still vexes me to this day -- as does the clothes washing problem). Needless to say I was in no shape to make any major life decisions.
But to my surprise (and relief), somebody finally made the decision for me. Samuel Goldwyn Jr. bought the rights to Nightlife, but demanded a rewrite to make it more commercial. He also demanded full-time writers, saying that if I stayed in school he would simply hire someone else to take over.
What can I say -- the loss to the sculpture, illustration and animation worlds is the screenwriting world's loss, too. I jumped at the chance.
Now most people in show business, out of show business -- hell, out of kindergarten -- will tell you that when you sell a screenplay in Hollywood you need an agent to handle the deal. Fools! Imbeciles! Giving ten percent to some leach who is just glomming on to your pay after you've done all the work? Never! Dave and I handled the negotiations ourselves. (We'll get to the actual numbers later...)
We were given an office two doors down from Sam Goldwyn Jr. himself, and a free hotel room at the fabulous (now decimated, plowed under and built over) Tropicana Hotel just outside Beverly Hills (i.e. half the price) for the course of the rewrite. Other than having to listen to Joan Jett and Billy Idol trash their rooms next door, it was a dream come true.
Two months later Dave and I, the young geniuses, turned in their first Hollywood rewrite. Eschewing commercial concerns, we turned a light teen comedy about sex and vampires into an allegory for herpes, the dreaded scourge of humanity (ah, the good old days -- now people are relieved when they find out they only have herpes). We decided that the look of the film was to be inspired by the dark, brooding artwork of Edvard Munch. I wish I was joking about this, but I'm not. (Sidenote: There is still a Munch-inspired painting of Lauren Hutton in the finished film, based on a painting that is actually titled "Vampire.")
Sam Goldwyn wanted to fire us the next day, but the unnamed producer wanted to protect his "boys" (and his bank account -- he was only paying us a small portion of the allocated $50,000 writing budget), and he lobbied to keep us on board. Thanks to his intervention our jobs were saved...
... Whereupon in a complete lapse of logic, Dave decided this was the perfect time to get married and go off on a Disneyland honeymoon (apparently he preferred Fantasyland to reality). Meanwhile I sat through a story conference with the execs. Actually I just got yelled at for two hours. One didn't even yell -- he just shook his head and dropped the screenplay on the floor like so much trash.
Our tiny checks were canceled before they could clear at the bank, and we lived on nothing for the next three months until a suitable rewrite was turned in.
Over the next two years we went through four or five more rewrites -- amassing a grand total of (I think) about ten grand. (Mom and Pop must have been so proud of their non-college graduate son.)
There are plenty of great stories I could relate that happened during this period: For instance, there's the time I went to a story conference while having an appendicitis attack. I couldn't stand up straight for the meeting -- I guess the producers just assumed I was grovelling. My appendix exploded that night and I had nearly died on the operating table -- and the next morning the unnamed producer called my hospital room and asked when the rewrite was going to be ready.
Or there was the time we tried to drive into the Beverly Hills Comstock Hotel in Dave's beat-up '62 pick-up, and the valets wouldn't let his twenty year old piece of junk into their parking area -- they waved us off and yelled "the service entrance is in the back." (A recreation of this event also appears in the film, with Jim Carrey driving an ice cream truck). If the valets weren't mad enough about the size of our tip, the fact that the truck then stalled and blocked the entrance from the other customers for half an hour sent them over the edge into a fit of cursing never before heard at the stylish, dignified entrance of a four-star hotel.
Anyway, after a year of similar episodes the script was finally approved. We were broke, we were still agent-less and unheard of in Hollywood, but we were going to get a real MOVIE made! Unfortunately, there was no monetary reward waiting for us at the finish -- all of our allotted pay had been used up in financing the rewrites. There was only the satisfaction of having written a sex comedy about a 17-year-old virgin getting bitten in the thigh during oral sex from a female vampire, for an intended audience of 13-year-olds without parental supervision. I was quite proud. Generously, the unnamed producer gave us each a $6000 bonus on the first day of shooting from the remaining 30 grand he'd swiped.
A year later: The film, now titled Once Bitten -- and now heavily rewritten by the director and his own writer -- opened in theaters to embarrassingly negative reviews. "Anemic" was the favored critical insight (I will say unhesitatingly that the three or four genuine laughs in the film are from Dave and I).
It starred Lauren Hutton, and, in his first major (?) screen role, a young Jim Carrey. It debuted in the number one slot on the charts in Variety. Relatives called and congratulated me, telling me how proud they were. I was proud, too: I was at least partially responsible for a multi-million dollar endeavor, and millions of people were seeing my work. And I pondered that amazing fact every day of that opening week -- as I drove past the theater marquee that was advertising my movie.....
..... on my way to work at Sam Goody, earning minimum wage as a clerk in the video section -- feeling like the biggest friggin' loser on the face of the planet. (The drawing at right is from my sketchbook at that time.)
If that wasn't humiliating enough, the film came out on video six months later and my co-workers had to point me out every time it was rented by a customer ("See that guy vacuuming the carpet over there? He wrote it!!!"). Worse yet, if I concealed my identity then I had to listen to the customers' rotten reviews of the film when they brought it back (one unknowingly offered, "Whoever wrote this shouldn't be working in Hollwood").
On the bright side, I've made more money in residual checks from that film than I ever earned writing it (the unnamed producer did give us a point and a half of his royalties), and I have an agent now who got me twenty times the amount I was paid on Once Bitten for a film script that was never even filmed (you tell me that Hollywood isn't screwed up).
And to really be honest, I've actually begun to enjoy telling this pathetic story -- I can always trot it out for sympathy if the girls aren't impressed with the writer/artist bit.
I also later learned that Jim Carrey had a much worse time on the film than I did: Terrible family trouble, career trouble, romantic trouble -- I just hope the poor bastard came out of it all right.