Sunday Nibble #86: Teachable moments

Thinking back on one of my favorite screenwriting teachers, and how he had so much to teach us.

An offhand comment that an older friend made on my Facebook timeline today reminded me of one of my old college professors who, sadly, is no longer with us. I had commented on my timeline that we were finally getting serious rain, and his reply was “Burt Lancaster.”

I totally didn’t get the reference, so I googled it and saw that Burt Lancaster was in the film The Rainmaker. Now I knew of that film but had never seen it, but the reason that I did know of it was because of this professor.

He was one of my many screenwriting teachers in college — that was my Major — and one thing he loved to do was give us the set-up for what we later found out were old movies that came out long enough before any of us were born that we probably didn’t know them, and then have us write the first ten to twelve pages of a screenplay telling that story, or write a treatment of the whole film, etc.

It was actually a great exercise, and The Rainmaker entered into it when he told us to write a synopsis based on a con artist who travels the old west trying to sell people on his thundersticks, which will cause rain.

Or something like that. I don’t remember the exact set-up he gave us, but these were always such great exercises because each of us in the class would come up with something so wildly different that it was hard to believe we’d all been given the same prompt.

Okay, actually, no, it wasn’t. That’s how creativity works. Everyone sees a different story in their head.

I was going to say that this would be like doing the same with college kids now, except pitching them films from the 80s and 90s, but there’s one problem with that. Culture has now become permanent and everything exists in a perpetual “now,” so that if you toss them the plot of, say, the Steve Martin film Pennies from Heaven — a man during the Great Depression escapes from the realities of life by imagining everything as elaborate movie musical numbers — they could probably figure out what the source was with a couple of searches.

Either that, or it was in their parents’ video or DVD collection while they were growing up.

Yes, we had VHS and video rentals when I was in college, thank you, as well as laser discs and CDs. We just hadn’t gotten to DVD yet. Or streaming video everywhere online. But unless a film was a classic that got rerun on TV all the time or one that we were shown in various film classes or saw at one of the many revival theatres around town, once it ended its run it ended.

Even though we had VHS, we didn’t have everything on it. A lot of the time it involved conflicting rights issues, which prevented transfer to that format. There were two other biggies. One: Music rights — as in the original song rights were only licensed for a theatrical film release or TV showings, but since home video hadn’t even been conceived at the time, there were no provisions for it.

This is exactly why you will now usually see a clause that says something like, “grants all rights for re-use in whatever media now existing or to be devised throughout the known universe.” It seems extreme, but it covers all the bases.

The other were residuals for above-the-line people, who got them for theatrical release and TV broadcasts. Again, that hadn’t been conceived of when home video showed up, so the various unions for directors, writers, producers, composers, and so on, had to negotiate to get the right to be paid for whatever future form home video took.

But, trust me, at least for the Writers Guild, and I’m sure for the Directors and Actors, it was like pulling teeth to get that extended to cable, then to DVD, and finally to streaming, mainly because the producers and studios would claim, “Oh, we don’t make any money off of that.”

Yeah, my quarterly residual checks say otherwise.

And how appropriate that I digressed into a mini film-history lesson in a story about a screenwriting professor.

His name: Bob Merrill. You may not recognize it, but you’ve probably heard of his work. He was one of the top pop music composers of the 1950s, with hits like Mambo Italiano, which popped up in restaurant commercials in the early 2000s, and just made an appearance in a teaser trailer for the upcoming Lady Gaga/Adam Driver Film House of Gucci.

The song was originally performed by Rosemary Clooney. You may have heard of her nephew George.

Even though he didn’t play an instrument, Bob wrote the lyrics for several Broadway shows, including Funny Girl, and the music and lyrics for others, like Carnival! He also wrote the song How Much Is that Doggie in the Window, and I vividly remember him telling the story of how that happened.

It was the early 50s (the internet tells me the song was first recorded in 1953) and Bob and his writing partner were working for Perry Como’s musical variety show, which had just made the transition from radio to simulcasting on television. It was only a 15 minute program (imagine!) but it did air three times a week, sponsored by a cigarette company (imagine!)

Because of this, Bob and his partner had to pump out about six songs a week for Perry and his guests to perform, so they had to come up with ideas quickly, and it often involved taking a walk around Hollywood to see what they could see.

One day, they were walking around and saw a woman walking her dog, then an elaborate store window display, and Bob found himself looking between the two. Dog. Window. Dog. Window. Seeing the price tags on the clothing in the window, that gave him, “How much?” and then the rest just happened.

Having gotten ideas myself in just this way, it was was utterly credible.

The great thing about Bob, though, was that he had had this long and illustrious career and, while he did love to share his stories, he was very down-to-earth, and never gave the impression that we had to bow down to him because of what he’d created or whom he’d worked with.

Rather, and I think particularly because he was getting way up in years by this point, he just loved sharing his history and knowledge with us in order to help us all become better writers. His delivery was very laid-back and droll, and he always encouraged even when he had to give criticism.

This was unlike some of the other professors in the department, who had no qualms about shitting all over a student’s work if they didn’t like it, even if them not liking it was clearly a generational issue. But I won’t mention any of their names.

But it was a wonderful example of what age and experience can share with youth — even if they don’t speak the same slang or share the same in-jokes and memes. As long as there was mutual respect — which Bob gave us and we gave him — the important thing he taught us was how story worked, how to create memorable characters, and how to write brilliant dialogue.

Sadly, he passed away not too long after college ended for me, although after I’d had my first big successes. Suffering from various physical ailments and not wanting to become a burden to his family in his late 70s, he committed suicide in his car parked in Culver City. (Note that the news article linked there is wildly off on his true age. He was 78, not 74.)

Sadder still, according to his wife, none of his ailments would have proven life-threatening. The desperation was just magnified by his depression.

If you feel that you’re suffering from depression (and its too common companion substance abuse), please contact the various helplines available. In the US, the number is (800) 662-4347. You can also find various helplines in Canada, India, Nigeria, China, the UK, and Germany. Sorry, Ecuador — apparently, that’s not quite a thing there yet.

And yes, I am paying attention to where my readers are coming from, thank you all!

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