My husband Bo is not one to read fiction. He prefers reading nonfiction about the fiction-makers: biographies on actors, the making of films, the rise and fall of movie studios, and the like. Sometimes, Bo shares something with me that I MUST pass on.
We all scratch our heads over certain stories’ successes. How one novel reaches best-seller status despite its writing or cliche character/plot/etc. How one screenplay reaches the screen and another does not. Peter Bart’s Fade Out chronicles how this happened in MGM and, as a result, knocked the studio off the pedestal to the ground.
This excerpt is just one of the many bizarre instances Bart shares in his book. After reading it, I hope you’ll ask yourself: Do I really know my story’s setting? Do I really know my characters? Because if you can’t answer that with confidence, someone is going to call you out on it. Hard.
First, here is the premise of Road Show (spoiler alert: this movie never made it to production) as told by Peter Blart:
The central character was a rock-solid American cattle rancher named Spangler (Jack Nicholson) who finds himself besieged by voracious creditors. When thieving truckers try to charge an outrageous price to transport his 250 head of cattle to Kansas City, Spangler opts for the ultimate act of defiance. He will drive his herd to market the old-fashioned way–a classic cattle drive past the turnpikes and the billboards and the Holiday Inns and the Big Macs. Assisting him will be his wife, Opal, and his friend Leo (Tim Hutton), a schoolteacher who is desperate to learn what the “real world” is like. Along the way, there is danger and adversity, but Spangler prevails–he gets his cattle to Kansas City. (Bart, 1990, 72-72)
Now that you know the story involved with the incident, let’s learn about the incident, shall we? The other players involved are Richard Brooks, slated to direct, and Denne Petitclerc, writer and “battle-hardened veteran of the movie wars” (Bart, 1990, 80).
Having read the Getchell draft of Road Show, Petitclerc said he was troubled by the curious absence of conflict. Once Spangler decides to defy the venal truckers and launch his cattle drive, the story seems to dissipate rather than build, Petitclerc reported. A tentative romantic triangle between Spangler, Leo, and Opal never develops into anything.
Indeed, nothing seems to develop!
When Petitclerc posed his analysis of the script to Brooks, he listened carefully and said he agreed. After tossing ideas back and forth for several hours, a working plan was agreed to. Petitclerc would start his rewrite, consistent with their discussions. Brooks, meanwhile, would go to Kansas to scout the actual locations and hopefully come up with some fresh solutions to the story problems.
“I’m not good at dealing with things in the abstract,” Brooks said. “I have to get a sense of real people and places.” And, having said that, he got an even better idea: He would also invite his two leads, [Jack] Nicholson and [Tim] Hutton, to join him on his jaunt through Kansas. Having waited so long for the picture to start, they might be energized by the trip and get into their characters.
The actors readily agreed, and they all took off. Once during this trek, Brooks phoned to say it was going well. The only setback thus far, he said, was that Jack Nicholson almost got arrested for mooning other motorists on the turnpike.
Upon returning from the trip, however, Brooks quickly fell into a dark mood. “He’s worried,” Donna Dubrow reported. “He won’t tell me what’s wrong, but he looks miserable, and he’s popping glycerine or some kind of a pill for angina pains. He’s worried, and therefore I’m worried.”
A week later, Petitclerc turned in a stack of revised pages, but Brooks would not return his phone calls to disclose his reaction to them. An aide reported seeing clumps of pages atop Brook’s desk with epithets like “garbage” and “trash” scrawled in the margins.
Brooks himself burst into my office one day to explain, in his usual disconnected way, what was bothering him. “It’s the goddamn story,” he said, pacing the room, “the whole premise. It starts from there.”
“What starts from there?”
“If a rancher like Spangler felt he was being fleeced by truckers, he’d go out and rent his own goddam trucks, that’s what he’d do. I realized that driving around Kansas, talking to people. And he sure as hell wouldn’t start a goddam cattle drive, because he couldn’t get the goddam cattle across the goddam turnpikes, and even if he could, the goddam bridges wouldn’t hold up under a thundering herd.”
Brooks stopped in his tracks. “You know what I think?”
“No one involved in this movie ever went to Kansas, that’s what I think. There are a hundred things in this script that wouldn’t be there if anyone had visited Kansas. Well, let me tell you something. I’ve visited Kansas!”
Having said that, Brooks exited my office. (Bart, 1990, 80-81)
Believe it or not, it took MORE hi-jinks to ensue before they finally shut this project down.
Anyway, I hope this bit of history gives you pause. It’s so easy to set our stories anywhere, real or imagined, but unless we can fully explain how our world works, or how our characters work, we are setting our stories up to fail. Know your place. Know your people. Or you will find yourself knocked off the pedestal and face-down in the dirt.