Saturday, March 1, 2014

WHY A MEETING WITH THE DIRECTOR OF “GRAVITY” STILL HAUNTS ME



I had blown it. I had completely choked on a great opportunity to change my screenwriting career.


When Gravity was released in theaters I went to see it in IMAX 3D. 
Like most people who have seen the film, I was blown away. Gravity is wonderfully scripted, acted, and directed. The production also featured significant technological breakthroughs that compel audiences to see Gravity in a movie theater if they are to get the most from the experience.  
Watching Gravity prompted other thoughts, more personal in nature.
 I actually met with the director of Gravity over ten years ago and had the chance to change the course of my screenwriting career.
And I choked.
At the outset I should say that for legal reasons I can’t reveal the project we discussed, but trust me, the specific project and any of the related details aren’t really important to the point of the story.

The meeting came about when Sandy Weinberg, my agent at the time, called with news that the director, Alfonso Cuarón, had read a screenplay I had written and really liked it. Cuarón had a production deal at Warner Brothers’ studio where the meeting would take place. Sandy didn’t have any more details beyond Cuarón wanting to meet and discuss the script, but I was excited because I had really enjoyed his previous movies and thought he was wonderfully talented director.   


So I arrived on the Warner Brothers lot for the meeting and was shown into his office immediately. From the moment we met, Alfonso was personable and smart, and he displayed both qualities without a hint of pretention or artifice. His English at that time wasn’t the greatest (I’m sure it’s gotten much better over the years), but it was certainly good enough to convey his views about what I’d written. He told me he really liked my script and went into some detail about the parts he had responded to and why he was excited about the project. His thoughts clearly demonstrated that he understood what I was going for creatively with the script and there was no doubt he’d be the perfect director for the project.
But after delivering his final compliment, he gathered his breath and then revealed that despite responding to the script, he also had a big problem with it. And for him, the problem was a deal breaker. It turns out Alfonso had brought me into his office so that we could brainstorm a solution to this story problem. If we were successful, his new contract at Warner Brothers would allow him to put the project into development with his company’s discretionary fund. So we immediately launched into an intensive discussion that covered every aspect of the script… story… characters… themes… plot… everything. And we eventually arrived back to what was bothering him about the screenplay. 
For the record, Alfonso’s creative problem was real and profound, which is my testimonial to how smart and insightful he is as a storyteller as well as a filmmaker. He had no way of knowing that his sticking point had been a long running creative issue with the project, one that I had worked hard to smooth over with every draft of the screenplay. And I’d been at it for the last five years.
Any screenwriter with experience at the studio level usually ends up realizing that you are often times in a room with some of the smartest and most creative people in the world. And any flaw or problem in your work is not likely to escape notice, rather, it will surely be highlighted. The goal of highlighting the flaw is almost always about trying to come up with a solution. Smart and creative people revel in the opportunity to solve a creative problem, while at the same time, I believe the goal of a screenwriter should be to solve your own story problems so that you’re never stuck with a solution dictated by someone else. But in this case, I would have relished a solution to the problem coming from any source, especially if it came from a talented filmmaker.  
As time ticked away, so did my confidence in coming up with an idea that would make Alfonso feel good that the problem he had with the script could be resolved. 
I should have anticipated the situation because I had already spent a ton of time trying to work out the same problem. Yet somehow, during the entire process of developing the story, that creative Eureka moment had never materialized. And the pressure of an impromptu creative meeting on a major studio lot with a brilliant director made the challenge to produce a breakthrough even more daunting.
Despite my best efforts, every solution I devised in that meeting completely bombed with Alfonso.
I knew we had reached the end when Alfonso’s assistant interrupted for a fourth time (to his credit, Alfonso had already cancelled three previously scheduled meetings so we could continue discussing “the problem”) to remind his boss that he needed to leave for his next meeting, one that he could not cancel or reschedule. 
Our meeting ended up lasting over two hours.
I will never forget the disappointment on Alfonso’s face as his eyes looked toward the carpet in his office as he said, “My friend, I don’t think we’ve solved the problem.” 
I had blown it.
I had missed the shot at the buzzer.
Dropped the Hail Mary pass in the end zone.
Watched helplessly as the puck squirted through my legs for the winning goal.
I had completely choked on a great opportunity to change my screenwriting career.
As it turns out, when the movie was eventually produced, the exact creative story problem that Alfonso Cuarón had with the project ended up hurting the finished film, and was reflected in the reaction by both audiences and critics. 
Failure is a part of the industry.  Even success is often laced with failure. I believe one only perseveres as a screenwriter if you are disciplined in handling the fallout that comes from failure. My advice to other screenwriters has always been to thoroughly examine any failure like an autopsy -- embrace and document the details, sort through all the issues, and try to decode what led to the breakdown. 
Then let go. 
Move on.
Learn from the autopsy so you can evolve as a writer, but don’t allow your failure to hinder your progress as a working professional. I believe that those who don’t adhere to this, will eventually no longer be working professionals.
And yet… walking out of the movie theatre after being dazzled by the beauty of Gravity, I couldn’t help but think about how my career would be different… if I had just been able to solve that story problem many years ago on the Warner Brothers studio lot.
At this very moment I feel as if I’m on the top of my creative game, and given the same opportunity today, I really believe I would nail that meeting with Alfonso.
But I couldn’t do it then.

And I have never stopped wondering why.