"A Successful Screenwriter Polishes the Art of Seduction"
November 14, 1993
By ALJEAN HARMETZ
Aljean Harmetz is the author of "Round Up the Usual Suspects: The Making of Casablanca," just issued in paperback.
The high point for Ian Abrams was the delirious moment last summer when he drove along Sunset Boulevard and saw the first billboard for "Undercover Blues." As the screenwriter gazed at the billboard, the word "Ian" was clearly visible, but "Abrams" was lost in Kathleen Turner's hair. Mr. Abrams circled the billboard twice.
Then he deflated his own joy. "If the movie dies immediately," he thought, "we'll have a month and a half of going past the billboard and wincing."
Ian Abrams was a member of a select club. In 1992, the year "Undercover Blues" got underway, 7,500 writers belonged to the Writers Guild of America. Only 266 of them received some piece of the screen credit for a movie story or screenplay. Of those 266, only 103 earned sole credit. One of them was Mr. Abrams, a 38-year-old former press agent from New Jersey.
"Undercover Blues," his first movie, received mixed reviews and has been something of a disappointment at the box office since its release in September. But the fact that the film starred Kathleen Turner and Dennis Quaid, was directed by Herbert Ross (whose credits include "The Turning Point" and "Steel Magnolias") and cost $31 million meant that movie executives would have to take its screenwriter seriously.
"While your movie is visible, you have a window," says David Freeman, an older and more bruised screenwriter ("Street Smart") and author ("A Hollywood Education"). "You make more deals than you can handle for pictures that will probably never get made. That's a prudent, perfectly understandable business plan. Every screenwriter needs to be, in some measure, a shoe salesman."
In the euphoric months surrounding the opening of "Undercover Blues," Mr. Abrams was seizing the day. He had gone, as he put it "from total obscurity to the bottom of the A list without audiences ever paying to see a single minute of anything I've ever written." His experiences illustrate how a screenwriter uses visibility and the aura of success to promote his career.
"Undercover Blues" had already earned him deals to write or rewrite scripts for Fox, Paramount, Universal, M-G-M and De Laurentiis. But now his hopes were focused on "Pirate Bill," an original comedy he was trying to sell to Brad Kessel, a vice president at Paramount Pictures. In "Pirate Bill," a computer genius loses his company in a nasty takeover and decides to follow his boyhood dream of becoming a pirate.
Mr. Abrams, 6 feet 4 inches tall, with a weight between 300 pounds and infinity and a black beard so dense it could be mowed, could pass for a friendly grizzly bear. As he lugged a boom box from his secondhand Nissan Sentra into Paramount's executive office building to add rollicking adventure music to make his pitch for "Pirate Bill" memorable, Mr. Abrams tried philosophy. "I'm a huge, hulking, fat slob," he said. "If people are going to work with me despite the way I look, they're not going to care what I drive."
He also experimented with precautionary cynicism: "A basic tenet of my faith is that nothing I write will ever get made. The object of the game is not to get your name on the screen. It's to get your name on a check. If they pay you, you win." It's hard to be sure whether he believes this or is simply playing defense. No matter how much a screenwriter weighs, the system is considerably bigger.
This would not be the only such meeting. Over several months, Mr. Abrams would try to sell "Pirate Bill" six times. Dozens of other writers were holding hundreds of similar meetings with executives down the hall or at studios across town. Out of a thousand meetings, perhaps one finished movie would emerge.
Mr. Abrams's meeting at Paramount was a disaster. The music on the tape deck briefly intrigued Mr. Kessel, but Mr. Abrams soon lost him. Although Mr. Kessel feigned interest, making encouraging sounds, his eyes were dead.
"Tell me about the villain," Mr. Kessel asked.
Mr. Abrams answered, "Imagine Saddam Hussein without the charm and with a really bad mustache."
No executive ever says he doesn't like an idea, but there are phrases as chilling as ice cubes. "Help me with the notion of the guy," Mr. Kessel said. "I'm having difficulty with the notion that he would go out to plunder."
In the parking lot afterward, Mr. Abrams shook his head. Quick to take the blame for everything from the California drought to the latest earthquake, he flagellated himself. "I botched it. It was my job to raise the energy level. I torpedoed myself by losing track of the fact that I was giving a performance and not trying to explain something conversationally. I've never heard the words 'I like it, and I'll get back to you' spoken with less conviction. I knew I was in trouble when I didn't get a big laugh when I said that Bill finds himself on the street with nothing but the clothes on his back and $1.75 billion." Executive Suite What Words Really Mean
A few days later, Liz Glotzer, vice president of production at Castle Rock Entertainment, laughs loudly at that line. Mr. Abrams gives her a bravura performance lasting one hour and five minutes. Kneeling on the floor, dressed in a dark blue shirt adorned with huge flowers, he insists he will not leave until she buys his story or throws him out of her office. "I use my size as a weapon," he had said earlier. "I look like a whale in a Hawaiian shirt. Looking at someone my size is like looking at a movie."
The latent content of such meetings is almost always an attempt at seduction by the writer, no matter what the sex or sexual proclivities of the participants. When Mr. Abrams has finished, Ms. Glotzer says admiringly: "I think you should act. It's a great pitch."
"Great pitch" should be interpreted as "I don't like this, but I like you. Come back again." If Ms. Glotzer were interested in "Pirate Bill," she would have responded, "Directors will go for this" or "It's do-able." If she had intended to dismiss Mr. Abrams as well as his story, she might have asked her secretary whether lunch had arrived yet. Mr. Abrams knew going in that Rob Reiner, the creative head of Castle Rock, hates buying a pitch. Now Ms. Glotzer adds, "And Rob hates the high seas. But let me put the bait out."
Mr. Kessel has been courteous. Ms. Glotzer has been courteous and reasonably candid. Over lunch, Mr. Abrams and Robert King, the screenwriter he considers his rival in the field of action comedy, describe other such meetings. There was the Disney executive who took off her shoes and started grooming herself with toenail clippers. There was the female agent who purred that Mr. Abrams's work excited her sexually. (The effect was to make Mr. Abrams, who suffers from bronchial asthma, reach for his inhaler.)
In a contest on dopiest work offers, Mr. Abrams describes being asked to write a script based on the cartoon character "Politeness Man" and another that would recreate "The Breakfast Club" in a cave. He says: "You sit there, thinking this is a hoax. They're doing this to see how long it takes me to catch on. But it isn't." Mr. King, who is a veteran of Roger Corman horror films, wins the dopiest plot contest with, "We want this to be a killer cockroach movie, but like Tennessee Williams."
Mr. King, who has just finished "Clean Slate" for Dana Carvey, leads Mr. Abrams in another contest. For the last 18 months, the two writers have been leapfrogging each other in terms of the amount of money studios are willing to pay for their services. Mr. Abrams's first sale, in 1988, was for $2,000. He has earned roughly a quarter of a million dollars for "Undercover Blues." He has a two-picture deal at Universal that guarantees him $450,000 (an extra $300,000 will be thrown in if the second movie is made). Mr. King is currently about $50,000 ahead.
"Screenwriting is the single most profitable writing field outside of ransom notes," says Mr. Abrams, "but anyone who goes into screenwriting for artistic satisfaction should be a shirt salesman. We get to invent people and create universes. Then we sell our universes and remodel them to fit the whims of the new owner. And everybody lies to you, even when there's no reason to lie. I turned in a screenplay to De Laurentiis a few months ago, and they told me they were so pleased they would immediately shop it to directors. The next morning I discovered it was already being shopped around to other writers." Child's Play The Artist Takes Shape
In screenwriting jargon, a back story is what happens to the characters before the movie begins. Mr. Abrams was a tall, precariously thin child who spent entire winters in New Jersey hospitals because of his asthma. His first memory, at the age of 18 months, was his tonsillectomy. His defining memory, at the age of 7, was being unable to convince nurses that a malfunctioning oxygen tent had heated up to 110 degress and he was burning to death. At 9 he was sent to the National Jewish Hospital in Denver, where short, aggressive boys with respiratory problems sought to improve their self-esteem by knocking him down.
The easiest way to become a screenwriter is to be born into the proper Hollywood family, but there are dozens of other ways. Mr. Abrams, whose father was a printer, learned by spending his nights at a silent-movie theater, watching Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd.
He earned a degree in English from Duke University in 1977 and did a year of graduate work at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro that "dried me up like a sponge, and I couldn't write a word for five years."
Years of humiliation in hospitals left him unable to write anything but comedy. "I write a lot of redemption stories," he says. "Many of my protagonists are meek little Clark Kents who discover in the course of the story that they are Superman. That has more to do with autobiography than I care to admit."
Several of Mr. Abrams's scripts, including "Pirate Bill," are about nerdy computer geniuses who take revenge on their enemies. His deal with Universal was triggered by an outline for a screenplay, "The Class of Monte Cristo," which began as a revenge fantasy when he was fired from his publicity job at Skouras Pictures in 1987. "But it wasn't very interesting to have a person take vengeance on the corporation that ruined his life," says Mr. Abrams. "Over the next three years it became the story of a guy who spends 25 years planning diabolical vengeance on his entire high school graduating class."
When Mr. Abrams started writing scripts in 1984, he fortified himself with the famous words of the veteran screenwriter William Goldman. "Nobody knows anything," Mr. Goldman wrote in his 1983 book "Adventures in the Screen Trade."
"It's truer than ever today," Mr Goldman says. "Executives still don't know how to read a screenplay. Since nobody knows anything, every picture is a crapshoot."
Mr. Abrams will make $500,000 this year from his studio deals, and he is now represented by the powerful Creative Artists Agency. But one humiliation money has not yet erased -- his five years of servitude at the Hollywood public relations firm Rogers & Cowan, where he was once required to look for the best breasts and buttocks from the orgy scenes in "Conan the Barbarian" to give to Penthouse magazine. Those were the years when he met Pia Zadora, one of his favorite Rogers & Cowan clients. "That poor kid," he says. "She was a terrifically talented singer, but she became a national joke."
In an instant, he turns Ms. Zadora's humiliation into a movie plot: "What about someone who through no fault of his own becomes a symbol of something terrible? A nice, working-class couple from the Midwest receive as a present a video camera, and one night they shoot themselves making love; and somehow the tape gets entered into an erotic video contest, and a senator makes them the symbol of moral decay . . . "
That idea may marinate for a year or more, after which Mr. Abrams will probably write the script in nine days. Back to the Future Life After The 'Blues'
This year Mr. Abrams bought a house in North Carolina for the day when Hollywood no longer finds him or his plots of interest. For the moment, his office is a converted garage behind the duplex in Los Angeles where he lives with his wife, Alice, and 6-year-old daughter, Rachel.
Right now, he says he is reasonably happy, despite any screenwriter's subservient place in the power structure. Fox likes his rewrite of "Theater of Life," about an introverted scientist who stumbles into an international conspiracy, but has turned down his idea for a comedy about identical twins, written with Macaulay Culkin in mind.
Paramount is happy with his rewrite of "House-o-Matic," about a house that terrorizes its occupants. His favorite script, his Christmas comedy "Joy," has been optioned by a small production company but is far from becoming a movie.
Recently, however, there was one unadulterated triumph. Abrams's former boss at Rogers & Cowan, Ronni Chasen, has become senior vice president of publicity at M-G-M.
"I was meeting with her boss about 'Undercover Blues,' " he says, "and she walked in and, with disdain on her face, said, 'Ian Abrams, what are you doing here?' And I realized she thought I was looking for a job. And I said, 'You don't know what I'm doing here, do you, Ronni? I wrote what is supposed to be your big summer movie.' "
For a screenwriter, such a moment of revenge is rare.
More common is the need to peddle one's wares. By the beginning of November, Mr. Abrams had still not sold "Pirate Bill." But he has told the story so often that every scene is clear in his mind, and he has decided he will write the screenplay before finding a buyer. He is gambling that someone will pay twice as much for the finished script as for the idea alone. More important, he can once again create a perfect universe, filling his head with a flawless stock company of Tom Hanks as Pirate Bill, Bob Hoskins as his chief thug and Valeria Golino as the princess -- while he remains resolutely, deliberately unaware of the compromises that will inevitably follow the sale of the script.
GRAPHIC: Photos: Dennis Quaid and Kathleen Turner in "Undercover Blues" -- Movie executives would have to take its screenwriter seriously. (M-G-M)(pg. 20); Ian Abrams -- "The object of the game is not to get your name on the screen. It's to get your name on a check. If they pay you, you win." (Steve Goldstein for The New York Times)(pg. 13)