Friday, July 19, 2013

Cameron Crowe, an Elephant, & 20 Women Ready to Burst

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the
placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, 
the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.



A wild Cleveland crowd in the building. The cities 
on this tour are getting bigger, and so are the 
audiences. And there is a whiff of business now 
too. Men in satin tour jackets and some Disc-
jockey types cruise the backstage. A Hysterical 
Fan is led screaming to the nearby medic room. Few 
even react - it’s Cleveland - as the shot finds 
William, tired and yawning, on the backstage pay 
phone. He is absolutely ready for the worst.

       Hi Mom. I’m in Cleveland.

He listens stoically. Larry and Ed watch nearby.



Mom sits in silence.

                   WILLIAM (cont’d)
       I’m fine! I’m fine! I’m flying back
       on Monday Morning. I’ll only miss
       one test. I’ll make it up.

Russell listens in, holding his guitar, laughing.

       Tell her you’re a slave to the groove
       - you can’t help it!

             (covers phone)

Russell grabs the phone, talks to the silent mother
on the other end.

       Hi Mom! It’s Russell Hammond, I play
       guitar in Stillwater! It’s my fault.
       How does it feel to be the mother of
       the future of rock journalism?

Silence. Penny passes and stands near William, 
smoothing her pass. They watch a new pack of grou-
pies prowl the road-crew. They are more glam, more 
trashy and less selective. They glare insolently 
at Penny Lane. This is the future.

                   RUSSELL (cont’d)
       You’ve got a great kid--nothing to
       worry about! We’re taking care of
       him! And you should come to a show
       sometime! Join the Circus!

       Listen to me. Your charm does not
       work on me. I’m onto you. Of course
       you like him.


       He worships you people and that’s fine
       with you, as long as he helps make you

             (a nerve is struck)
       Rich? I don’t think so -

       Listen to me. He’s a smart, good-
       hearted, 15 year-old kid, with infinite

Russell looks over at the kid, eyes narrowing as
he processes the truth. He’s 15?

                   ELAINE (cont’d)
       This is not some apron-wearing mother
       you’re talking to. I know about your
       Valhalla of Decadence, and I shouldn’t
       have let him go. He is not ready for
       your world of compromised values, and
       diminished brain cells that you throw
       away like confetti. Am I speaking
       clearly to you?

       Yes, ma’am.

       If you break his spirit, harm him in
       anyway, keep him from his chosen
       profession--which is law, something
       you may not value but I do--you will
       meet the voice on the other end of
       this telephone. And it will not be
       pretty. Do we understand each other?

       Yes... yes...

             (always the teacher)
       I didn’t ask for this role, but I’ll
       play it. Now go do your best. "Be
       bold and mighty forces will come to
       your aid!"  Goethe said that. It’s
       not too late for you to be a person of
       substance. Get my son home safely,
       I’m glad we spoke.

She hangs up. Russell hangs up, oddly affected and 
shook up.

       Some people get her. Some don’t.

Russell is still recovering. William feels embar-
rassed by his mother, once again.

--ALMOST FAMOUS, written and directed by Cameron Crowe.

I recently spent some time re-formatting my file copy of Cameron Crowe’s great screenplay for his film, ALMOST FAMOUS. I had acquired the copy from the web as a text file (meaning that it was not in accurate screenplay format, and possibly originally a scanned version with OCR errors where the software mistook characters here and there along the way). I was going through the script fixing what I knew to be scan errors, and re-formatting the text on the page, eventually saving it as a new, correctly formatted PDF file.

I hadn’t seen the picture in quite a long time, and so was reading along, remembering the film on the screen, and realizing, once again, how great it is. It paralleled in time, my own late adolescence and early adulthood. I lived those times. And, later, for a few short years, I worked in the concert business. I knew how mind-blowingly crazy the business was, and so, how accurate Cameron Crowe’s autobiographical script was. I remember...

...Ted Nugent’s security guy, Lurch, all 6’9” of him, tossing fans off the stage one hot night in Green Bay, WI, when, by the end, the place was so humid it was raining indoors.

...holding an elephant’s leash outside a theater in Milwaukee, waiting to go onstage for the Blackstone Magic Show, one foggy Saturday night when Kareem Abdul Jabbar walked up on one of his famous after-game strolls, looked at me and the elephant, and said, “Now I’ve seen everything!” “Me, too,” I replied.

...securing a stairwell for Ray Davies and the Kinks so that they could get their picture taken with Star Trek’s Mr. Spock before he went onstage and introduced them and then went across the street to do his own one-man show about Vincent Van Gogh’s brother, THEO.

...body-guarding Meatloaf all alone after a show at the theater’s loading dock while he came down from the night, waiting for his limo, a pick-up truck.

...chasing down the same fence-jumping fan three times off a hill teeming with 22,000 rockers at an outdoor Blue Oyster Cult show, eventually showing him where to sneak in without me catching him so I could get my wind back, and then patrolling the fence-line in the dark, past the men’s and women’s bathrooms. Hearing some laughter, I turned around to find before me 20 or more ladies, squatted down, peeing outside because the line was too long.

...holding the hotel door for Liberace and Scott Thorson, each dressed in complementary synthetic pastel hounds-tooth leisure suits, before Liberace died and it all went south for Mr. Thorson.

...body-guarding Michael Jackson one night in Chicago while my security brothers kept returning backstage to wipe the wads of fan-spittle out of their hair.

...using a golf cart, one hot summer night, to chase down gate-crashers on the 9-hole course behind Alpine Valley during an Aerosmith show.

...standing at concert gates, both indoors and out, as legions of groupies tried every trick from offering money to room keys to underwear, to be allowed in and party with everyone from Eddie Money to Tom Jones.

...watching after Black Sabbath’s opening acts (and no, it wasn’t Cameron Crowe’s Stillwater, it was both Foghat and Long John Baldry) as, for over an hour, roadies stacked speaker after speaker in columns on each side of the stage before Ozzy and Sabbath came out and blew the roof off the place.

...waiting outside an elevator door with my boss, a 5’4” lady with more guts than me, as a knife-wielding nut was about to emerge, sent that way by others working the show. The doors opened, the lady leaped on him like a pit bull, and two of us went for the knife.

After every show, I took my fabric stick-on backstage pass off my jeans--Cameron got that right, too--and stuck it on an old bookcase I had. By the end, I had more than 60 of them, entirely covering the thing.

It was quite a ride. And my hearing has never been the same.

But editing my file of ALMOST FAMOUS reminded me how great a writer Cameron Crowe is. And that excerpt above is an example. The characters jump off the page, fully-formed. The dialogue can only be spoken by those people, in that moment. And reading the script, rather than just watching the film, is a lesson in how powerful and precise the material can (and should) be before the camera and the actors deliver it to its audience.   

As a writer who believes that reading scripts is the single best way to learn screenwriting, I found myself acquiring them here and there, now and again, over the years, until I realized I had so many that I had better get them organized so that I could find one if and when I wanted or needed it.

Since most of them were acquired on the web, I decided to create a database from which I could store the necessary facts, and from which I could access the files themselves. I built a spreadsheet with the rows representing each file, and the columns providing the key data points: title, page count, version date (if any), release date (if any - otherwise “none” or “in development”), author(s), and source of the story (if any), among others. The release dates became hyperlinks to the IMDb web pages for the titles so that I could get more information on a title if needed. The titles themselves became hyperlinks to the actual digital files, so that I could open one instantly, if desired, in one click of the mouse. In a few cases, I had as many as 6 version drafts of a given title. At this writing, the file count is almost 1,800 (update - 3-11-2016, almost 12,000).

A few years back I started to notice that the web sources of screenplays were starting to dry up. The studios decided to go after the websites that offered scripts for free. A few collectors also had huge databases with titles from which others in-the-know could download. They are my unsung heroes. They put themselves on the line for the rest of us, and they are paying for it. One notorious case had lawyers from a pair of studios confronting a single mother with a lawsuit that would have put her away for years had it gone the way they were threatening. Eventually she survived it.

But this had the predictable effect. The era of freely available film and television scripts is slowly ending. Today there are fewer and fewer sources of film and television scripts available on the web. And many of them are posted as text on web pages, rather than downloadable PDFs, causing them to be out-of-format when one tries to move the material from the web page to a file on one’s PC. The only real answer was to go through each script acquired this way and put it into correct format before converting it to PDF, something I have been doing with the out-of-format copies I have, for quite a while.

I am glad that I got them when I did, as I now have copies of scripts that can be found nowhere else. I have both film and television scripts, the oldest from 1903, and the newest a few months old, most produced and released, but also scores of titles still in development or even on the market. I do not sell script files from my collection. I can’t risk having a lawyer threaten me with a lawsuit and prison time for merely giving someone a digital copy of a script produced as many as 80 or even 100+ years ago.

I am astonished, though, that the studios feel it necessary to prevent an interested fan or collector from owning a copy of, for example, CASABLANCA, because they--the studios--haven’t been paid for it, or because they might want to charge for it at some point in the indefinite future. Why is my early draft of CITIZEN KANE (written exclusively by Herman Mankiewicz when it was still titled, AMERICAN, and before Orson Welles made changes) deemed a threat to some studio somewhere? Who would want to produce that 73 year old document as a film today? What about newer ones? Is AVATAR threatened by international script pirates who might make a killing selling copies in China? Or will a rogue producer in Kazakhstan make a Kazakh version of AVATAR with the “bootleg” copy of the screenplay? Can no one see how absurd this is? If someone printed up my entire collection and left them in a bin at Wal-Mart, selling for $5 apiece, how many do you think would sell? How many would be taken if they were free? Do the masses even know movies are written?

The next time a studio takes some single mother from Long Island to court for offering collectors, students, and friends 4,000 scripts for download, why doesn’t the judge ask the studio why it doesn’t digitize its library, and, following the music business’s example, sell its E-scripts, itself or through online retailers, for download for a modest fee, perhaps $3.99, or even less? With--dare I say it--royalties to the writers and their assigns. Nahhhh, they're just the writers. Studios should put up or shut up: market them themselves or let it go. Show me how they are materially injured by 2,000 film-buffs across the world possessing a digital copy of the script for THE MALTESE FALCON. Or even last season's blockbuster.

These scripts, once produced as films, are in many cases, while of little-to-no intrinsic market value, no less important than those songs sold for download; probably more so. Once the films are released, they are our heritage, part of world culture’s literature, its intellectual property, not just a studio’s. Indeed, by film and television scripts being made accessible, they are the basis for how such literature can and must evolve. The writers of these same studios’ movies, in years to come, need access to these works in order to become better screenwriters and so produce more and better product for those same studios! So who is really being harmed by easy access to produced film and television scripts? How many millions of dollars might be lost by allowing produced films’ scripts to be owned by the public? A better question might be: how many billions of dollars might be gained? #


Lee A. Matthias 

Quotes of the Post:

"Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid!"

"The next time a studio takes some single mother from Long Island to court for offering collectors, students, and friends 4,000 scripts for download, why doesn’t the judge ask the studio why it doesn’t digitize its library, and, following the music business’s example, sell its E-scripts, itself or through online retailers, for download for a modest fee, perhaps $3.99, or even less?"

"These scripts, once produced as films, are in many cases, while of little-to-no intrinsic market value, no less important than those songs sold for download; probably more so. Once the films are released, they are our heritage, part of world culture’s literature, its intellectual property, not just a studio’s."