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Original Essays

What I Learned from Gorgeous George and Ron Popeil

by Tim Sandlin
  1. Honey Don
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What I tell people who ask where I went for the seven years between my last novel and the new one is that I wrote five books about myself and ran out of material. Which isn't exactly true. None of the early books could have passed for autobiography or memoir (there's a difference but I don't know or much care what it is) but all five concerned whatever emotional trauma I was going through at the time. Let's call them autobiographical fantasy. If I lived without filters, here's what I would do.

There's no better way to get over a neurosis than to sit down and write 100,000 words on the subject. By the time you send in the book the problem has composted into fodder. The writer is much more worried about character and plot and sentences that won't cooperate than the original trauma, and, in fact, after several drafts you may not recall what the inciting issue was.

However, I do not believe that a long, fruitful career as a writer of fiction can be maintained by writing about yourself. Unless you are Philip Roth, the self-strip mining author sooner or later — generally sooner — runs out of anything new to say and there's not much more tedious than a writer who keeps talking when he has nothing to say. That's why first memoirs tend to be more interesting than second or third. You use up the good stuff. The fact that I got five novels out of radical surgery on my psyche only shows how royally screwed up I was to begin with.

That's when we reach our conundrum. The novelist who has been working on his craft for many years generally finds himself unfit for any other job, and, even though writing fiction is one of those rare pursuits that gets harder the more you do it, most writers eventually reach technical proficiency at almost the same moment their content goes down the tubes.

This leaves two choices: teach or write screenplays. There are no colleges within commuting distance of my home in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, so I chose to write screenplays.

Kids aspiring to move straight from their dorms to Laurel Canyon write spec scripts, which means they write without payment. They study the market, take classes and workshops, read countless scripts, and as a gross generalization, drink a lot — same as the typical writer of fiction. For most novelists moving into the movie business, it doesn't work that way. If we're going to write without being paid, we'll stick to fiction, thank you. The first movie job a novelist will be offered is that of adapting his own book. Studio executives are wary as hell of self-adaptation because there is a tendency for the writer to defend his book, to be unwilling to turn the 60-year-old white man into a 27-year-old black woman and the angry father into a goat. Writers say, "You optioned the book because you loved it, why not make the movie like the book, only on the screen." Two problems here: First, the studio executive who says he loves your book probably hasn't read it. Second, sometimes the script is close to the book and sometime it's almost unrecognizable, but the screenwriter must be willing to listen to notes and incorporate them, or the studio executive's job is superfluous in the development stage, and no executive wants to feel superfluous. It's art by committee and since most novelists don't work well with others or they wouldn't be novelists in the first place, most novelists have trouble with the transition. I tend to believe my first career as a dishwasher helped me learn the art of cooperating with bosses who aren't necessarily as adept at the job as I think I am.

Be all that B.S. as it may, screen work can be a lot of fun if it is approached with the proper attitude and the writer is lucky enough to deal with people he likes. And, since my outhouse is paid for, my first rule of life in Hollywood is, Don't work with anyone you don't like.

After adapting a few of your own books, the aspiring fiction writer turned screenwriter will be offered the chance to adapt somebody else's book. Or you won't be offered the job, exactly, but you'll think you are being offered the job. Producers and studio executives go to eight or nine possible writers and say, "If we give you this assignment, what angle will you take with the story?" The beginner doesn't know about the other seven or eight writers on the line. He spends a week or two on what is called a "take," which is basically the writer guessing what the producer wants to hear. You, the cow in what in Hollywood is known as the cattle call, will put a week or two into the project and knock out an outline, you'll send it in, and that's the last you'll hear of it. People in Hollywood hate to say "No," so, as a rule, they don't say anything. If they do say anything, they say, "We pass." Compare the movie word pass to the publishing word rejection, and you have the difference between California and New York.

Or the miracle happens. You get the job. They throw money at you. You join the Writers Guild and for the first time in your life, you have insurance. You write a draft, they send notes — "Make the father a goat" — you write another draft, and another, which is nothing like a fiction draft; in a movie draft you write a totally new movie. Amazingly, you discover that you get paid for every draft, or, to be realistic, every second draft. But I've never heard of a novelist receiving more money for rewriting something his editor doesn't like. Then, after a year, you send in the last draft (124 pages; only a warm-up for a novelist) and they say "Thank you," which, according to Richard Price, is Hollywoodese for "You're fired." Actually, you're working with class people, comparatively, when you get a "Thank you." Most of the time, I've had silence. Two months later my agent's assistant says, "Too bad that project didn't work out," to which I say, "Huh?" From adapting other people's books, you go into rewrites, bio-pics, script doctoring and the whole dark underbelly of being a hired gun in Hollywood.

According to popular legend, roughly one of every twenty developed projects are actually made into movies. By developed, I mean, projects studios sink cash in. Hundreds are developed before they are developed. I've never had this figure confirmed. Studio accounting departments are more secretive than Homeland Security.

Back to my transition from novelist to screenwriter to novelist, or, as Jim Harrison calls it, rags to riches to rags. I wrote roughly fifty takes, treatments and outlines, and was hired to write ten scripts. Two were made into movies, two more have fairly good shots, and the other six reside in cabinets somewhere, unless they've been shredded. Spending a year on a project which is only read by four people and shelved ultimately proves to be a dissatisfying process. Money does not make it okay, no matter what you think when you are outside looking in. There are very few — I've never heard of one — happy, elderly screenwriters.

But — the but that makes it worthwhile — I learned something along the way. The last three projects I worked on, before breaking back for fiction, were bio-pics of Gorgeous George, Ron Popeil, and Brian Zembic. Gorgeous George was a professional wrestler in the early '50s, the first true television star as opposed to radio star who crossed over. In the ring, George strutted and primped and cheated in such a way that the crowd saw it but the referee didn't. He did everything possible to make his audience hate him, and, by doing this, he became a super-star. Many have followed in the jerk-as-hero business, but George started it.

Ron Popeil bills himself as the "World's Greatest Salesman" and I believe him. He has created hundreds of products, from Veg-O-matic to the Pocket Fisherman to that black stuff you spray on your head to fool people into thinking you have hair. He invented the infomercial. Local TV wouldn't exist between two and six a.m. if it weren't for Ron.

Brian Zembic is a Las Vegas gambler who got breast implants to win a bet. Thirty-six Cs. He not only won $100,000 for taking on boobs, but he hustled the doctor out of the operation by beating him at Backgammon and he now has a $50,000 side bet he can get a movie made about himself. He will probably win that one, too. Brian is a masterful magician and everywhere he goes he puts on a show. Eating in a restaurant with Brian is like joining the circus. By the time you leave, he will have astounded and/or irritated everyone in the place.

The point here that these three men are as alien to me as Tralfamadorians. The thought of purposefully trying to make people hate me is bizarre. And I could no more sell a product customers didn't come begging for than I could knock over a liquor store. And, God knows, I don't want big boobs.

But, for my projects, I had to pretend I was each of these men. I had to figure out what they think they want and what they actually want, what they love, what they fear, and what they would eat, drink and say in any given situation. I had to learn to like them.

Being assigned stories that weren't my own is part of the reason I returned to the novel form, but, being assigned stories that weren't my own is part of the reason I was able to return to the novel form. I have now had seven years practice at creating people who are not fantasized versions of me. I liken myself to Bob Dylan picking up the electric guitar. Will the new books about imaginary people be as good as the old stuff? I don't know. It can be argued that Dylan's acoustic songs were the best of his career. But it can also be argued that he'd taken acoustic as far as he could and he would have stagnated if he hadn't evolved. So, that's what I did, metaphorically speaking. I set down my acoustic guitar and turned on the amplifier.

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