Tuesday, March 11, 2003

Boy Meets Shit Weasels

Submitted by by Melinda Murphy

I gave up on script writing last summer. While setting a personal record on unemployment insurance, I went nuts and decided to become a novelist. This was probably a good career move. I’ve got something new to put down on the welfare form under “occupation.”

I remember living with my brother in central Washington state in the late seventies when he went through the first of many novelist periods. He said, “Kid, you can write your tome, smoke pot, buy a big house, pass out drunk in your own pool, and everyone will think you’re a genius. And then you can just fuck off for five years between books because you’re blocked.”

It seemed like an agreeable lifestyle and not too different from what my brother was doing right then, minus the big house and the pool. He had a medium-sized shack in a crappy suburb and the only large body of water was the mosquito-infested Yakima River three blocks away.

So in the relentless heat of August 2002, I ploughed through what turned into a 230-page (single-spaced) contemporary romantic drama. Mind you, there’s a whole lot of classical literary references, a la Bridget Jones’ Diary and Jane Austen, I have yet to work into the novel - about thirty pages worth of Shakespeare. Every time I crack a copy of Shakespeare, I have a sophomore English class flashback where my teacher is yelling because none of us read Brutus’ speech the night before. I set another personal record - I cranked out the first rough draft in about twenty-three days. That’s right, not months or years, but days. Psychologically, the whole thing quickly turned into the same creative experience I had when I wrote the spec script, My Island, in the summer of 1998. I’ll try and explain.

First, it helps greatly in fiction writing if you’re deranged, depressed, or preferably, have split personality disorder. A good dose of abuse during childhood always helps. I became the characters. I felt what they felt, struggled with their obstacles, fell in love, perished, and got second chances just like them. It’s sort of like a psych student empathy lab without the other people. It was exhausting. I’d stop writing between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m. and go to bed with unwritten dialogue ringing in my head. I forgot to videotape re-runs of Buffy. I forgot to comb my hair.

When it was done, I gave the mess to a half dozen friends. I got mixed reviews that I’m still dealing with in therapy. Overall, everybody thought it was good but rough. There was this weird separation anxiety afterward, like I’d had a relationship with the novel and it had come to an abrupt end. The novel had skipped town, darted out the door when I’d gone to sleep, gotten on a bus, Gus. I couldn’t even have a successful relationship with imaginary people.
So it’s interesting that this last movie season seemed to pick up the cumbersome idea of writers and their inner demons and run with it...for about three feet.

One of my favorites was Neil LaBute’s Possession, which was based on the Booker-winning novel by A.S. Byatt about a fictitious Victorian novelist with fluttering lamb chop sideburns who has an affair with a lesbian (okay, people person) poet. LaBute (who used to be an indie film darling before he actually started making a living as a filmmaker) once again waded deep into unfamiliar water and, despite what those sniping prigs at The Guardian newspaper said, did a bang-up job. I like his work. I hated, hated, hated In the Company of Men simply because no deaf woman alive is that stupid, but I liked his other flicks. Your Friends and Neighbors was flawless in an ferocious sort of Harmony Korine way and Nurse Betty pushed and pulled at stereotypes.
In Possession, smoldering Jeremy Northam and elfish Jennifer Ehle struggle with writing but mostly just sex and the fairytale idea that two writers can live and love together without heaving typewriters or pitching ink bottles at each other. Oh, and they totally skip the whole Victorians-didn’t-bathe-much issue. I heard rumors that guys dragged to this film on dates actually stayed awake through two-thirds of it, but those were only rumors.

A few weeks back, The Hours premiered, trumpeting the arrival of a movie that looks at women writers and how they deal with sex, the heaving of typewriters, and that whole split personality thing I was talking about earlier. This was sort of an update on Julia, the film where Jane Fonda wandered around with a bottle of gutrot under one arm and complained to Jason Robards, “I need to write!” Nicole Kidman put on an impressive prosthesis, Julianne Moore became even more manic-depressive than she was in either of those P.T. Anderson’s films, and Meryl Streep was a freaked out New Yorker who shopped a lot. Half the characters smoked like chimneys (apparently that’s what writers do when they’re not pinning those inner demons to the mat, they’re becoming emphysemic) and Virginia Woolfe became just another apprehensive suburbanite who missed the smog of London. The Hours will probably roll off with a wheelbarrow of Oscars.

Of course, not just writers, but the novels they create have been the fodder for films good, bad, and mediocre for ages.

After watching these films I read two books by contemporary, pulp fiction writers; both extremely successful. One is one of the most successful fiction writers of all time. The first was Clive Barker’s twisted horror-erotica Coldheart Canyon and the second was Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher. Barker is so determined to see his made into a film, he dropped enough names in the book to fill the Shrine Auditorium. In Coldheart Canyon, all the A-list stars from the thirties are sexual deviants and both Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt are “present” when the lead character has a meltdown at a Malibu party. There’s the obligatory asshole studio exec, the morally lost talent agent, ad naseaum. There’s also some good character description, although the book is cumbersome and the lead, Todd, steps out of character halfway through without so much as a backward glance at his motivations. I’m certain Barker, another ex-pat Brit now ensconced in balmy Hollyweird, has already had his first sit-down with someone at Fox or Universal about Coldheart Canyon. So I’m thinking now the whole novelist thing is probably a good idea. Not really the back door into filmmaking, but not quite so thoroughly beaten a path as spec scripts and the whole script contest merry-go-round.

King’s Dreamcatcher surprised me. He was back to his “aw shucks” Maine roots again and the tried-but-true buddy story. He eternally takes us all down memory lane, ever since River Phoenix and company brought the short story The Body to life in Stand By Me. In King’s literary memory, the music was better, the soda was sweeter, and the friendships were always true, a la the maudlin Hearts in Atlantis. This must really hit a nerve with baby boomers; he’s worth something like thirty-five million and, as my college writing professor said years ago, “King never misses a house payment, ever.”

The nice thing about Dreamcatcher was I got caught up in it in a chilly winter night, fat pulpy novel kind of way. You root for the flawed heroes from the get go and the bad guys are nicely over the top, though a few are just average Joes who’ve gone astray.

Of course, the movie rights to Dreamcatcher were optioned before the ink on the front cover was dry. Lawrence Kasdan filmed it in British Columbia last winter and it’s slated to hit American theatres at the end of March 2003. (British Columbia in January? Kinda like sending the cast and crew of The Mummy to Tunis in July.) And - this was a thrill to those who read the book - there will be special effects bad guys. That’s right, America’s favorite author has envisioned the ultimate movie baddy - shit weasels from outer space. No vamps, no demons, no E.T., just full-on shit weasels.

King has inspired me. I’m no longer snubbing mainstream movies or novels. Now if I can just incorporate a few shit weasels into my romantic drama...maybe boy meets girl, boy meets...shit weasel?