Archive for November 2011

Eddie Murphy Connection, Part 3

November 24, 2011

The day after I posted my EM Connection, Part 2, I was watching TV with my wife around 8 PM here in Hawaii when the phone rang. On the television screen, I saw the Caller ID: WME with a 310 area code. It took a couple of more rings for it to register. William Morris Endeavor, L.A., one of the biggest agencies in the entertainment business. Yep, this was a result of my Eddie Murphy contact that I’ve been blogging about. And it was in regards to a mini-treatment I had sent to my contact a week earlier.

The next hour I spent on the phone pretty much sums up my experiences over the last 15 years of screenwriting — which you may find discouraging or give you reason for hope, depending where you’re at in your personal timeline of trying to break into the TV or movie biz (or any other kind of artistic pursuit, for that matter). So let me quickly recap what happened prior to that call.

Long ago, I did freelance copywriting for a guy I met in Hawaii named James Arceneaux, who got into the music business, moved to L.A. and then wrote TV series pitches for him that sparked some interest among the Pointer Sisters (he was living with Anita Pointer) but didn’t get any traction with his other entertainment contacts. One concept was called REHAB, based on my personal experiences with recovery — this was before reality TV shows like A&E’s Intervention or Dr. Drew’s Celebrity Rehab on VH1. Another was set in a Vegas pawn shop, where the Pointer Sisters characters worked during the day while pursuing their dreams of musical success by singing in lounges and casinos at night — this was before CSI and other series came along that used Sin City as their backdrop, and long before the reality show Pawn Stars became a huge hit on the History Channel.

James and I also developed another TV series drama concept that was really good… and I won’t tell you what it is, because that one is back in play now through the WME agent I talked to on the phone. It just goes to show that perseverance is everything, especially in an industry with such a short term memory and faddish mentality. You have to be prepared to keep your head in the game for the long haul. It might be five, ten, fifteen years before you get the call or email that changes your life. So if waiting that long is going to deter you, might as well pack it in now.

Anyway, about three or four years ago, I got a call from James, telling me he was now Eddie Murphy’s personal assistant. I’m not exactly sure how that came about, but I recall that James used to golf with Arsenio Hall (a good friend of Eddie’s) and other celebs when James was one of singer Bobby Brown’s managers. Of course, I tried to get James to pitch some of my movie ideas to his new boss, but he seemed reluctant to broach the subject since he hadn’t been working for Eddie that long. However, he did tell me Eddie was looking for a heist script and he wanted to play a character who was “smart” in some ways, but also a fish out of water… you know, like in TRADING PLACES and BEVERLY HILLS COP.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have any clever ideas for heist plots/characters at that time. So I forgot all about it, until this past year when I read that Eddie and Ben Stiller had teamed up to make the TOWER HEIST movie. I kicked myself for not listening to James and really working harder to come up with something he could show Eddie. Jump cut to a month ago, when I get another unexpected call from James with another concept for a movie… which I can’t divulge since we’re getting a little heat on it.

Basically, James laid out his idea in broad strokes, adding that he had been talking to producer Brian Grazer — Ron Howard’s partner at Imagine — and director Brett Ratner about movies, and even got some screenwriting tips from them on what they look for in a script. Interestingly, the first thing James said was NOT to write actor-specific parts for Eddie or anyone else if we were going to try and get Grazer to read it. I thought those heavy hitters were all about packaging, but Grazer told James they would prefer to read scripts that weren’t tailored to individual stars because it gave them more flexibility and options. That makes sense. It also freed me up to create characters without having to worry whether so-and-so would want to play that part or not.

There were problems with the concept James came up with though. Namely, it was kind of derivative — in a good way. His instincts were on the money, but the trick was spinning the premise and adding enough twists to make it feel fresh and different. So I contacted another writer I’ve collaborated with in the past to see if he was game for this spec project. No guarantees, no money upfront. Just a chance for us to get our writing in front of my buddy’s contacts — like Grazer, Ratner, possibly Eddie, or maybe Eddie’s people, such as his team at powerhouse WME.

Using Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat beat sheet approach, we came up with a story outline. Then we wrote a six-page mini-treatment to send James to see if he felt we were on the right track before we attempted to write any script pages. Didn’t hear back anything for a week, so I hit him up with an email. James called and said we had nailed it — his ideas were in there, plus we had come up with some cool stuff that would differentiate our project from other similar movies that were being pitched around town. So he sent it to his agent friend at WME and was going to meet with an A-list actor, who is building a new house down the street from Eddie’s place.

Sheesh… I’m at a thousand words into this post, and still haven’t gotten to the phone call details! Well, looks like there will be a Part 4 coming up. Have a Happy Thanksgiving. Today I’m feeling extremely grateful… although I still haven’t made that big script sale or gotten any of my stuff produced yet, I have reason to believe all my effort and work hasn’t been in vain. If just one person believes in your talent and has faith in you — whether it’s someone like James, a rep or your significant other — then you’ve accomplished something that’s worth being proud of. Thanks for reading my long, rambling missives. Now get back to writing!

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Eddie Murphy Connection, Part 2

November 14, 2011

This weekend, my wife and I watched the documentary LIFE IN A DAY, then the Terrence Malick film, TREE OF LIFE. I liked them both, but have to say there were puzzling choices made by the directors of both movies… puzzling in a good way though, because I’m still thinking about what those choice of shots or vignettes really meant.

Readers of this blog may be wondering why I write about the stories I choose to share, and what those anecdotes have to do with screenwriting — or anything else for that matter. It’s like I’m directing/editing my own personal movie, I guess. If I don’t tell these stories, who will? Further, I do think they illustrate how anyone can make connections in the entertainment biz if they really try. You just have to be creative and take advantage of opportunities that might not seem like door openers at first glance.

Eg., freelance writing gigs. Long before I harbored any ambition to be a screenwriter, I was a newspaper reporter. The pay sucked, so I went into marketing and learned how to write ad copy. When I moved to Hawaii, I used my sales job in direct marketing services (more commonly referred to as junk mail) to pick up side copywriting jobs. That’s how I met my Eddie Murphy contact, James Arceneaux.

Back then, James had started a local publication called The Budget Gourmet, which featured food-related news and tips. I did restaurant reviews and came up with the idea for an advice column called “The Hapless Homemaker,” which centered around real life household problems encountered by a newlywed couple — me and my wife, Isabel. It was actually kind of comical, and readers would send in suggestions to me on how to remove wine stains from clothes, hide cigarette burns on furniture, or salvage badly-cooked meals. James liked my writing.

Which brings me to another life lesson: no matter how little the job pays, treat it like it could be the most important thing you’ll ever do. Because you never know who is appraising your work, or where that person may wind up. As it happened, James had bigger plans. He had already started a successful bodyguard business before dipping his toes into publishing. His next goal was to break into the music industry — specifically, song publishing. He did his homework, tapped into personal contacts (he was related to Dionne Warwick, who I think was related to Cissy and Whitney Houston) and began repping local talent in Hawaii.

However, James knew he had to go to L.A. to make the next step. So he needed a promotional package with write-ups about himself and the songwriters/musicians and singers he was representing. I’ll always remember his generosity for paying me more than I asked when I finished the job. It was just before Christmas, and after paying off our monthly mortgage and other bills (not to mention my drinking tabs) I didn’t have much money to buy gifts for my wife. But James peeled off a couple of extra Ben Franklins, and became my Santa Clause that year — a big, black tough-talking Santa.

Well, James moved to L.A., and I didn’t hear from him for three or four years. When he called me out of the blue, it was to invite me to be his backstage guest at a Pointer Sisters concert on New Year’s Eve in Waikiki. He was living with Anita Pointer in her Beverly Hills mansion, and was one of Bobby Brown’s managers at that time. In fact, he told me about Whitney’s cocaine problems long before it became public knowledge… and also told me about June Pointer’s drug addiction. Since I had told him about me going to rehab, he thought I might be able to help her. I never did get a chance to talk to June, but did meet Anita — who liked a pitch I sent to James about a TV series idea I had been working on, called REHAB…

You see, James didn’t just call to invite me to the concert. He decided he was going to use his music connections to get into the TV business. He figured that my promo package was good enough to help him get meetings when he moved to L.A., so he wanted me to write up his ideas for TV, which were primarily meant to be starring vehicles for the Pointer Sisters. James is a savvy dude. He was a former pro football player, and he recognized that Hollywood celebs and music people like being around athletes. So he took up golf, and started playing with agents at Willie Morris (who repped the Pointers) and folks like Arsenio Hall… who was good friends with Eddie Murphy.

Before I tell you what happened with those TV pitches, which led to James telling me about Eddie looking for a heist script, I have to comment on the events of the past week — another example of my bad luck with celeb connections. As you probably know, Eddie was supposed to be hosting this year’s Oscars. Then Brett Ratner, the director of TOWER HEIST, made a dumb remark using the word “fag.” The resulting flak forced Ratner out of producing the Academy Awards show.  A couple of days later, Eddie announced he was dropping out. On top of that, his movie got mixed reviews and did only so-so at the box office.

I imagine things around the Murphy mansion were kind of… interesting. (Speaking of “imagine,” Brian Grazer is now taking over the Oscars show — he produced TOWER HEIST, and has been hanging out at Eddie’s place. He even gave James some screenwriting tips and advice, which James then shared with me… and I’ll share with you in my next post.)

Oh, back to my bad timing: when I was repped by Cathryn Jaymes, the manager who launched Tarantino’s career, one of her higher profile clients was Isaiah Washington. You remember him, right? He was the rising young black star of Grey’s Anatomy. Then he made a comment about a fellow cast member being a “faggot” and the ensuing uproar pretty much derailed Isaiah’s acting career. I remember it vividly because I was pitching ideas to Cathryn for projects that could star Isaiah in lead roles. We were talking on the phone, and she suddenly had to cut the “convo” short because he was having a meltdown. At the time though, I didn’t know it was because the news was about to break about the faggot incident.

That’s the other lesson or takeaway. Words matter. Feelings matter. Being careless or saying something stupid, even if it’s just one small word, can do irreparable damage to your reputation and career. The irony in this case is that when I lived in NYC, I worked at a legal publishing company that was predominately gay… and I heard them jokingly refer to other gays using the “f” word quite often. But it’s like the “n” word: if you’re not gay or black, or Quentin Tarantino, don’t take a chance and use words that could come back to haunt you.