MARCH 2000 | VOL. 4, NO. 3
Hollywoodaholic: Confessions of a Screenwriter
After reading Hollywoodaholic: Confessions of a Screenwriter, Alfred Wayne Carter's candid book on his screenwriting experiences, I understood James Cameron's acceptance speech at the 70th Academy Awards a little better. You remember that one, right? Cameron yelled "I'm King of the World!" when he took the directing award on March 23, 1998. A line from Titanic and his life at that moment. Some people thought he was disingenuous and made comments on Cameron's ego that had burned bright as magnesium.
On the other hand, Cameron had weathered a lot of criticism regarding the film's budget and the reality was that he committed one of the most unforgivable sins. The rare combination of an ultimately successful yet apparently beleaguered film in production that received wide critical acclaim and a clutch of Oscars. He not only survived months of bad publicity and trash talk but thrived. King of the World. The Hollywood World at least.
I mention this because in Carter's account of his experiences as a Hollywood screenwriter for 12 years he makes a reference to meeting Cameron in pre-Terminator days. At the time both were struggling to gain recognition, at the same level, as it were, looking for the big break.
Makes you wonder. What makes the difference? Consider these numbers. 50,000. 10. 150. What do these numbers mean? Carter explains that each Hollywood studio reads 50,000 scripts a year and around 10 get produced. Total output of produced films for all studios in a year is between 100 and 150. Reminiscent of the Hans Solo line in one of the Star Wars films: "Never tell me the odds." He was consistently in the group where his scripts were bought, yet not produced. Certainly something must tip and change the balance: talent, synchronicity, serendipity, something that you can control and exert your will upon. Chants, I-Ching, the power of positive thinking, something. As the book reveals, there are no simple answers.
This is both sobering and maddening reading as Carter experiences a number of near misses at achieving major breaks in the business. Carter's Hollywoodaholic is a compilation of letters he wrote during that 12 year period in Hollywood that gives a different perspective to the film business: that of a screenwriter who is doing all the right things: writing productively, dealing with agents and producers, making connections, making a good living, and yet ultimately leaves because, well, let him tell you about it at one of the lowest points:
"Gone was my career. The fish weren't biting. The studios aren't developing or buying until January. Agencies are failing left and right. Executives are shuffling around. The owner of my agency had a heart attack and died. No one seems to want or do anything right now in the business. Gone. Gone was my escape to another line of work."
Sounds pretty dark, doesn't it? On the other hand, such difficulty leads to a reexamination of life:
"Now it's important to realize that an unusual thing was happening as I let go of the ESSENTIALISM of everything I thought my life was about: I started feeling better. I knew I was a survivor."
It makes you believe that the alignment of the planets is more likely to occur than a script being made into a film. Furthermore, after reading this book you'll marvel at how it's possible that any coherent entertainment makes it out of Hollywood. No wonder the director's cut of a film is so coveted and stars are prima donnas and "difficult." Christ, everyone's trying to get an edge so they aren't group thinked (is that a phrase?) and second guessed to death.
There's another subtext here, reading between the lines a little, that I think is very instructive. If you struggle with confidence or competence in your craft you're basically dead meat. DOA, buddy. Better go to graduate school, learn a trade, something. If you're thinking of being a screenwriter, jamming all your possessions into a subcompact and driving cross country, then it behooves you to read Carter's experiences.
What made this book work for me is Carter's candor about his successes and setbacks. And most importantly, he leaves Hollywood on his own terms and moves on with a productive and enriching life. All good lessons from which we should learn.
The next time I see a film that is exciting, revelatory, riveting or hilarious, I'll just look in awe at the screen. Makes you believe that it really is magic.
TIM CLIFTON is Renaissance Online Magazine's staff movie reviewer.