Thursday, December 8, 2011

Random Acts Of Coolness

Hollywood can be a bitter place.  It chews people up and spits them out with terrifying alacrity.  You see people attending an open casting call -- men and women in their fifties and sixties, wearing old suits and Sunday dresses, still hoping, wishing; and you realize that for every Lana Turner story, in which she, a mere girl of sixteen, discovered at the soda fountain of a Hollywood pharmacy and propelled to cinema stardom, there are countless others who will never get that break, that chance, that moment where everything they hope for comes true.

It can also be a world that indulges and condones the worst of human flaws.  I would like to tell you that every celebrity who graces the screen both big and small, are considerate, generous souls who are eternally grateful for the opportunity that came their way.  But I'd be lying.  I've been lucky for the most part, but I've seen my share, and heard firsthand from others, the most deplorable behavior of people who get paid exorbitant amounts of money to play fucking make believe.  Am I wrong about that?  Sure, one can argue the joy that they can bring into people's lives, but just how sad are these people that need utter strangers to brighten their day.  And not one of them is curing cancer.  Not a one, even though they may seem to think they are.

But there are good people.  There actually are those who appreciate where they are, and who have not yet forgotten (and I hope they never do) where they come from.

A word of fair warning: I'm going to do a little name-dropping here.

I'm not doing it to impress anyone, or to say 'how cool am I?'.  I assure you, no one is less cool than I.

I'm going to drop some names here because they deserve to be said, not because of who they are, but for what they did.

When I was working on 'Alias', I was given the chance to write a script.  It's a big deal to write a script on a television show.  It's a chance to bat in the majors, and I was, and continue to be, well aware of how crazy lucky it was to have that opportunity.

My episode came towards the end of the season, and for anyone who has not worked on a television show, the end of a season can be insane.  John Eisendrath, who was one of the show-runners on 'Alias', said it best:  "When you start a season of television, the production train is waaaaaaaay down the track -- you can't even see it.  But by the end of the season, you are running just a couple of inches ahead of the cowcatcher as the train bears down on you."

After my episode was broken (which means that I and the writers broke the story down in the Writers' Room), I was asked how many acts I would like to tackle.  On a show like 'Alias' there were five acts, and ordinarily the writer would write it all -- but at the end of the season, there was no time, and it would have to be divided up between a couple of the other writers in order to meet the script delivery date.

Audaciously, I said that I would write three of the acts.

Now, at the time of the year I wrote my script, there was a three-day holiday.  I don't remember which one it was, but what I do remember was basically locking myself in the office for those three days so I could get my work done.

There was an interesting evolution that occurred over those three days.

Day One was: OhmygodwhatthefuckhaveIdonethissucksIcan'tdothisfuckfuckfuckshiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit.

Day Two was: Hey, this is pretty good -- this might work.

And Day Three was: This shit is gold.  Every keystroke is magic.  They will bow before my brilliance.

Uh-huh.  Wait for it...

So the following Tuesday I turned in my pages to the writers that were handling the remaining two acts.  Those writers were Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci.  They have gone on to be incredibly successful, writing and producing some of the biggest movies in recent years.

So I handed in my pages, they read them, and told me that they were great, and they were just going to clean them up a bit.  Convinced that this "cleaning" would probably take all of ten minutes (remember, it was gold I tell you.  GOLD!), I awaited the final script.

A couple of days later the script landed on my desk.  It was hot off the printer.  I mean, literally, warm to the touch -- like fresh bread.

I picked it up, savored the moment of seeing my name right there on the cover page and, smiling like a crazed baboon, turned to the first page.  And then the next.  And then the next.  All the while, my smile was fading, because everything I had written -- was gone.  Every word, every sentence, every paragraph -- every fucking name that I had given characters, was nowhere to be seen.

I was crushed -- just fucking obliterated.  By way of the chance to bat in the majors analogy, I had struck out, my pants dropping around my ankles while I simultaneously shit myself.

I was humiliated.  I had moved to Los Angeles from Chicago, leaving friends, family, and actual weather behind for the sole purpose of becoming a writer, and I had failed miserably.

Now, I'm Irish and Italian.  Stoic we may be, but we also wearing our fucking emotions on our sleeves -- and if my all-Irish friends are claiming that that is not the Irish way, then I guess the Italian half of me punted the mick down the stairs and beat his chest quite operatically.

So I was bummed, and obviously so, because toward the end of the day, I received a phone call from Alex Kurtzman, asking me if I was doing okay.

I then told him that my immediate plans involved quitting my job, moving back to Chicago, and finding employment with whatever McDonald's would have me, since I obviously did not have the skills required to be a writer.

He told me to stop.

In the nicest way possible he told me to calm the fuck down, take a breath, and step back in from off the ledge.

He reminded me that I had broken the story, that many of the characters and set-pieces were my ideas -- so my involvement had been incredibly important.

Alex told me that everyone gets rewritten.  He and Bob had been rewritten -- every writer that they knew had been rewritten.  It's part of the process, he told me.  And the important thing, he continued, is to learn from it; to take the experience, and use it to become a better writer.

It was the greatest phone call I have ever gotten -- because he didn't need to make that call.  But he did, and I am forever grateful for it.

I worked, peripherally at best, on 'Lost'.  By peripherally, I mean that I worked in an office adjacent to theirs; specifically in the 'Alias' office, and that there was considerable wandering back and forth by many of the creative staff on both shows.

Now, at this stage, I had seen the pilot, but it had yet to air.  I thought it was pretty fucking cool, and in my travels from office to office, I was lucky enough to be introduced to Damon Lindelof, who was the co-creator of the show.

Now, I'm a Stephen King fan.  And in all my years of working with cool creative people, not one of them was a Stephen King fan.  That is, until I  met Damon Lindelof.

Damon was a huge SK fan.  And what was important in my world, was that he was a SK fan who had grown up to be a successful writer -- which was a path I dared hope to emulate.

Unless you've been living in a cave, you know that 'Lost' aired, and fucking BLEW UP.  It was a hugely successful show.

I remember in the first season, Stephen King, who was (and, as far as I know, still is) writing a monthly column in Entertainment Weekly, wrote a glowing fanboy review of the show.

Now, that was the shit to Damon, like golden idol in the beginning of 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' cool.  Imagine your hero saying that something you did was awesome.  If it was me, I would smile appreciably, and then roll myself under the nearest bus because I know it would never, ever get any better than that.

If I'm not wrong, Damon had the article framed and hung on his office wall.

Now, a year later, the same Entertainment Weekly magazine invited Damon, J.J. Abrams, and Carlton Cuse to come down to Maine and chat with Stephen King in a kind of roundtable conversation about writing.

So they all head off to Maine, and the conversation, which I would have killed to be a fly on the wall for, occurs.

Then they come back.

Damon Lindelof calls me over to his office.  When I get there, he hands me a small package.  It is wrapped in light blue paper, with dark blue ribbon (I remember it vividly).  I open it.  It is a copy of Stephen King's 'On Writing'.  On the inside cover is written "To Sean.  Best, Stephen King".

Oh, yeah.

Damon goes to Maine to meet his hero, and brings me back an autographed Stephen King book.  A personalized Stephen King book.

In both of the above instances, neither Mr. Kurtzman or Mr. Lindelof had to do what they did.  No one asked them to do it.  Their was no plausible reason for them to do what they did.

And yet, they did.

This is why, when I see the talk backers on or spotting shit about them being no-talent hacks, it gets my blood up.  Because besides being incredibly talented (and have no fucking illusion whatsoever, they worked their asses off to get there they did.  No one just gave them their success.  They worked the shitty jobs for years.  In other words, they fucking earned it, and worked tirelessly at their craft), they were, and undoubtedly still are, generous to a fault.

Who am I?  I'm fucking nobody.  But they each still did me a kindness for which I could never hope to repay.

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