Aristotle, Aristotle's Politics
Teri Duerr
2010-04-02 21:45:23
"The greatest crimes are caused by excess and not by necessity.”
—Politics, Book II, Chapter 7 by Aristotle circa 300 B.C.; English translation, Aristotle’s Politics, 1885, by Benjamin Jowett
Mary Dwight, Marked Woman
Teri Duerr
2010-04-02 21:46:59
“I’ll get even if I have to crawl back from the grave.”
—Mary Dwight (Bette Davis), Marked Woman, 1957, screenplay by Abem Finkel, Seton I. Miller and Robert Rossen
Meyer, the Turquoise Lament
Teri Duerr
2010-04-02 21:49:26
“A bore is a person who deprives you of solitude without providing you company.”
—Meyer, The Turquoise Lament, 1973, by John D. MacDonald
Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart), in a Lonely Place
Teri Duerr
2010-04-02 21:50:35

“I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.”

—Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart), In a Lonely Place, 1950, screenplay by Edmund H. North and Andrew Solt based on novel by Dorothy B. Hughes

V.I. Warshawski, Deadlock
Teri Duerr
2010-04-02 21:54:41
“Never tell anybody anything unless you're going to get something better in return.”
—V.I. Warshawski, Deadlock, 1984, by Sara Paretsky
Mr. Hutton, "the Giaconda Smile“
Teri Duerr
2010-04-02 21:55:36
“In married life three is often better company than two.”
—Mr. Hutton, "The Giaconda Smile,“ Mortal Coils, 1922, by Aldous Huxley
Obituary of Agatha Christie’s Famous Sleuth
Teri Duerr
2010-04-02 21:57:20
“Hercule Poirot, a Belgian detective who became internationally famous, has died in England. His age is unknown.”
—obituary of Agatha Christie’s famous sleuth which appeared on page 1, The New York Times, August 6, 1975
Albert Campion, Death of a Ghost
Teri Duerr
2010-04-02 21:58:19
“If one cannot command attention by one's admirable qualities, at least one can be a nuisance.”

—Albert Campion, Death of a Ghost, 1934, by Margery Allingham
Lorraine (Jan Sterling), Ace in the Hole
Teri Duerr
2010-04-02 21:59:16
“I don’t pray. Kneeling bags my nylons.”

—Lorraine (Jan Sterling), Ace in the Hole, 1951, screenplay by Billy Wilder, Lesser Samuels, and Walter Newman
Nero Wolfe, Too Many Cooks
Teri Duerr
2010-04-02 22:00:02

“Nothing is simpler than to kill a man; the difficulties arise in attempting to avoid the consequences.”

—Nero Wolfe, Too Many Cooks, Rex Stout, 1938, by Rex Stout
Carruthers, the Riddle of the Sands
Teri Duerr
2010-04-02 22:00:47
“When at a loss, tell the truth.”

—Carruthers, The Riddle of the Sands, 1903, by Erskine Childers
Mario Balzic, the Rocksburg Railroad Murders
Teri Duerr
2010-04-02 22:01:26
“Nobody loves like one coward loves another.”
—Mario Balzic, The Rocksburg Railroad Murders, 1972, by K.C. Constantine
Sherlock Holmes to Watson, “the Red-Headed League“
Teri Duerr
2010-04-02 22:02:02
“It is quite a three-pipe problem.”

—Sherlock Holmes to Watson, “The Red-Headed League,“ The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, 1892, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Don Corleone, the Godfather
Teri Duerr
2010-04-02 22:02:46
“He’s a businessman. I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.”

—Don Corleone, The Godfather, 1969, by Mario Puza
Giles Mont, a Judgement in Stone
Teri Duerr
2010-04-02 22:03:25
“Some say life is the thing, but I prefer reading.”

—Giles Mont, A Judgement in Stone, 1977, by Ruth Rendell
Philip Marlowe, the High Window
Teri Duerr
2010-04-02 22:04:04
“Nobody called, nobody came in, nothing happened. Nobody cared if I died or went to El Paso.”

—Philip Marlowe, The High Window, 1942, by Raymond Chandler

Valentin, “the Blue Cross“
Teri Duerr
2010-04-02 22:04:44

“The criminal is the creative artist; the detective only the critic.”

—Valentin, “The Blue Cross,“ The Innocence of Father Brown, 1911, by G.K. Chesterton

Uncharted Waters: Dennis Lehane Sets a Course for Literary Adventure
Art Taylor

Dennis Lehane hasn't always taken the easy road or followed the choicest bend of the river, yet each new turn in his writing career seems to be the right one.

lehane_dennis3

Like the protagonists of his epic bestseller Mystic River, Lehane grew up in one of Boston's less-affluent neighborhoods, the son of working-class Irish immigrants. But despite his own set of blue-collar jobs—including chauffeur, parking attendant, rental car agent and waiter—Lehane bypassed offers of paperback publication for his first novel, holding out for hardcover. More than one article has quoted him as saying that he had gotten used to being poor, so why compromise? When that debut, 1994's A Drink Before the War, was finally published, it won admiring reviews as well as the Shamus Award for Best First Novel.

After building a solid career with several books spawned by that first success—a five-novel series featuring Boston-based private investigators Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro—Lehane took another risk, stretching the boundaries of neo-noir fiction with 2001's dark and ambitious Mystic River. This novel begins with a childhood incident of sexual abuse and explores the longterm consequences of this violence in the lives of three boyhood friends. The men and women in the novel "hide from the hard, ugly truths your soul recognized long before your mind caught up," and, to borrow the feelings of another main player, the book is suffused with "an awareness that tragedy loomed somewhere in [the] future, tragedy as heavy as limestone bricks." Mystic River ascended quickly to the top of the bestseller charts, ultimately selling 100,000 copies in hardcover.

lehane_shutterislandThis year, Lehane's career continues both to defy the odds and to fulfill the great promise of this gifted writer. His latest novel, the tense, psychological mind-game Shutter Island, marks an abrupt and perhaps risky shift in structure and style from his previous success—but it has nonetheless earned strikingly positive reviews.

Clint Eastwood's film version of Mystic River—adapted for the screen by Brian Helgeland (of L.A. Confidential fame) and featuring a powerhouse cast including Sean Penn, Kevin Bacon and Tim Robbins—ultimately became one of the few standouts of April's Cannes Film Festival. In October, the movie opened the 41st annual New York Film Festival, and when the movie opened nationwide a week later, filmgoers discovered what readers everywhere already love about Lehane's work. With the dark and daring Mystic River and the turbulent sea journey to Shutter Island, Lehane has found smooth sailing ahead.

Mystery Scene: The movie version of Mystic River is out now in theaters. Are you pleased with the translation of your novel from page to screen? What role did you have in the film's creation?

Dennis Lehane: Clint [Eastwood] read a review of the book and it intrigued him, so he picked up a copy, read it and decided he had to make it into a movie. The book was not for sale to Hollywood, so he had to jump through some hoops just to find me, and then we had a few conversations, and I realized: "Wow. He gets it." I thought back to several of his films like Unforgiven and, particularly, A Perfect World (my personal favorite), and I knew that he was the only director who could handle the material. Our worldviews seemed quite similar. If you look at Unforgiven, for example, there's no true villain in that film; even Gene Hackman's character is just a guy trying to do a very tough job to the best of his abilities in a very tough place. Everyone in the film is certain their actions are right and yet they're all wrong. The same could be said of the people in Mystic River. Once we agreed on Brian Helgeland as the screenwriter and Clint hired him, I stepped out of the way and let them work. They were wonderful, though, in terms of keeping me involved, making sure that my vision of the novel was protected. I couldn't have asked for a better experience. In fact, I'm pretty sure it spoiled me.

mysticriver

Mystic River marked a departure of sorts from the Kenzie-Gennaro series—not only in terms of character but also scale and scope—and Shutter Island is, in turn, dramatically different from Mystic River. What direction do you see yourself moving in as a writer? Outside of genre?

I just want to get better. With every book, the question is: Where haven't I gone before? I don't necessarily see moving outside the genre because I have an obsession with the roots of violence that lends itself quite ably to the crime fiction or noir genre. I know I ask a lot of my fans because I'm incapable of writing several versions of the same book; I remove the comfort level from the fan-author relationship. So I deeply appreciate that my fans, thus far, have been willing to go on the journey with me.

Focusing on the question of genre: Over the last decade (maybe a little more), we've seen a resurgence of authors exploring noir fiction—creating the "neo-noir," a phrase increasingly in vogue—and a renewed interest from readers in this genre. To what do you attribute this interest?

I'm not sure I'm the guy to ask on that. I'm just writing 'em the way I know how. But if there is a theory I think makes some sense it's the one that argues that the social novel morphed and found a second home in noir. If you want to know what's going on in this country, particularly in terms of the people we drive and fly over, you read noir. That probably has a lot to do with the resurgence. But, ultimately, what the hell do I know?

A related question: You've been called the "hippest heir to Hammett and Chandler" by Publishers Weekly. When I think of Hammett's and Chandler's works, I think of worlds that seem distant, separate from the everyday existence of most American readers. But a novel like Mystic River touches directly on the fears and anxieties that are fed daily by the local news: child abduction and abuse, for example. How do you see your works as different from the classic hard-boiled novel? Or is it just the world out there—society across America—that has changed?

I'm not entirely comfortable with labels or the whole genre concept. I get that if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it's a duck. So, in that regard, I'm cool with being called a mystery novelist. But so much of what's been happening with this "crime fiction renaissance" we keep hearing about is that the whole issue of "genre" has been called into question. I guess, at day's end, I think of myself as an urban novelist who needs a skeletal structure to hang my ideas on. So Mystic River was a novel about the futility of running from your nature, and it was a novel about gentrification and a query into what shades we can find in simple words like "family" or "loyalty" or "faith." Somewhere, at the bottom of the list, it was also a whodunit, but I'm not sure that's what most people take away from it.

mysticriver2

One thing that I took from Mystic River was its exploration of the burdens of the past, on a truly epic scale: the way we live with the choices we've made, are haunted by and defined by the consequences of our decisions. But the book also recognizes the randomness and inexplicability of human's violence to each other. Do you see your works undergirded by a worldview? Is there a pessimism (or a determinism? a fatalism?) that drives your attitude toward the world you write about?

Mystic River grew out of a dawning realization that violence is never a solitary event. Even the smallest act of violence reverberates in ways the people involved in the original act can never foresee. Violence is a greedy little animal; you give it air and it keeps sucking more and more oxygen out of the atmosphere. You see this principle at play now in Iraq. So my operating theory while I was writing Mystic River was that everyone in the book would be affected by those two acts of violence—Dave's sexual violation and Katie's murder—in very profound and painful ways none of them could have foreseen. I don't think it's a pessimistic novel, but it's undeniably—if only in a structural sense—a tragedy. I think tragedy is inherently optimistic, though. Jimmy loses his soul at the end of Mystic, yes. But Dave finds his. So does Sean. That, I think, makes it optimistic. Of course, my definition of optimism is probably a bit skewed.


doctorow_ragtimeWhat authors do you admire or feel a kinship with? In interviews elsewhere, you've mentioned the influence of James Ellroy as easily as your admiration for Gabriel Garcia Marquez—authors who might appear more dissimilar than they are, at first glance. What do you respond most to in the books that you read? And which writers have you been reading recently?

I want depth of language and depth of character in a book. A good plot helps, but it's not what gets me out of bed. My favorite writers are urban novelists: Richard Price, William Kennedy, Hubert Selby, Pete Dexter, those great Detroit novels of Elmore Leonard. Recently I've been reading a steady diet of books set at the turn of the previous century—E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime, Dos Passos' U.S.A. Trilogy—because my next book begins in 1919. Otherwise, I recently read an astonishing novel called Hell at the Breech by Tom Franklin, which is set in Alabama in the 1890s.

Shifting direction: You graduated from an MFA program at Florida International University, a formal education which sets you apart from many of your contemporaries and the paths they took to publication. What did you gain by completing a formal writing program? And would you recommend such a path for others wishing to write mystery, suspense, noir? Or for writers in general?

When I teach, the first thing I say to a class is, "If you came here to learn how to write a bestseller, you need to go to another class." I don't teach how to write a "thriller" or a "commercial novel" because that's an exercise I find both crass and futile. I teach what I was taught—that all literature worthy of being judged is worthy only in terms of whether it has depth of language, character, insight and thematic undercurrent. Can you tell a story that engages and sinks in? Can you tell a story in which something is at stake? Those are the questions that matter. If someone gets into an undergraduate or MFA program where those issues are the primary ones of concern, then that program can only help you as a writer. Plus, an MFA gives you two more years to hide from the world and not have to think about a real job. That's a hell of a bonus.

You've mentioned in other interviews how you declined paperback publication for your early novels, preferring not to have them published instead of compromising on certain aspects of your career path. In retrospect, what combination of events do you credit with delivering you where you are today?

I have a great agent, a great editor, a great publisher. They knew early that I wasn't going to follow the straight-and-narrow career path. If it meant I made less money, then fine, I made less money. Because what I wanted was creative freedom. I can't tell you how grateful I am that I was allowed to grow as a writer at my own pace and that during the entire length of my career I have never, not once, had a discussion with any of the people mentioned above about ways I could be more commercial, more palatable to the general public. All of my career instincts ultimately stem from the same concept: It's about the work, dummy. As long as I stay true to that idea, I'm happy. The other thing that contributed to my success, without a doubt, was luck. You can't downplay the importance of that in my career. Yes, I work hard. Yes, I'd like to think I have some measure of talent. But I know plenty of writers as talented as I am, if not more so, and they haven't had the kind of ridiculous financial success I've enjoyed. And that's a humbling thing to realize. I wake up every day feeling blessed.

gonebabygoneFinally, are there other Lehane-based films in the works? And are you planning to pen your own screenplays anytime soon? In short, what's next for Dennis Lehane?

Wolfgang Peterson is set to direct Shutter Island. There's a script in the works, but I'm not writing it. Asking a writer to adapt his own work for film seems to me like asking a doctor to operate on his child. Some people can pull it off—Price, again, comes to mind—but not me. And apparently Ben Affleck has written a script for Gone, Baby, Gone, but I haven't seen it, so I can't speak to it. As for me and the film world, I like it, but I love writing novels. And I'm too selfish to put what I love on the shelf even for a moment to do something I like. So I'm just trying to keep my head down and get into the new book. Hopefully it won't suck.

Teri Duerr
2010-04-02 22:05:49

lehane_dennis3Holiday Issue #117 features the return of Dennis Lehane, but read this out-of-print 2003 MS interview.

Charlie Chan: the Case of the Reviled Detective
Jon L. Breen

Negative reaction to Earl Derr Biggers' Asian protaganist Charlie Chan is nothing new, but is it deserved?

charliechan_stillWhen the Fox Movie Channel announced plans to present a series called Charlie Chan's Mystery Tour, drawing on one of the most beloved motion picture detective series of the 1930s and '40s, reaction was swift. The National Asian American Telecommunications Association and National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium pressured Fox to cancel the series on the grounds that the Chinese-American sleuth was "an offensive stereotype who revives sentiments and social dynamics that should be relegated to the past." Fox, to its discredit, initially knuckled under. Following counter-protests from the many fans of Chan, however, they decided they would screen some of the films after all but would bookend them with "a panel of prominent Asian Americans representing film history, sociology, authors and actors" to "address racial stereotypes, the casting of non-Asians in Asiatic roles and race relations in America."

The negative reaction to the Chan films is nothing new. In the early 1970s, a Sacramento TV station offered a Chan series, hosted by a Chinese-American announcer. When the protests came, the host defended himself and the program. But rather than deny that Chan was a demeaning stereotype, he asserted that his own hip presence would somehow counteract the stereotype.

Admirers of the Honolulu policeman and of Earl Derr Biggers, whose six novels about the character were published between 1925 and 1931, find it baffling that Charlie Chan should be branded as perniciously racist when, in print and on the screen, he was a consistently admirable figure. Some of his detractors' objections suggest they have never read a Chan novel or even seen a Chan film.

First, the charge that Chan had a heavy accent and spoke in broken (or even pidgin) English is erroneous. In the novels and the films, Chan takes great pride in speaking his second language beautifully. Despite such very minor ESL quirks as omitting initial articles and early (soon corrected) problems with subject-verb agreement, he displays greater eloquence and a more extensive vocabulary than most native speakers of English. He is always clearly understood.

biggers_charliechanSecond, to call him a stereotype falsifies history. The popular stereotypes of the Chinese in America when Biggers created Chan in 1925 were either sinister villains like Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu or comic servants and laundrymen. Hard-working, intelligent cops did not fit in either category. In fact, Chan was conceived as an anti-stereotype, but even that label is unfortunate, since it diminishes his stature as a complex, individual, and fully-developed character.

Third, he is neither obsequious nor subservient. He is in fact quite assertive and ambitious. He is, however, unfailingly polite and often modest and self-effacing in his speech, traits many could profitably imitate.

Admittedly, members of a majority group—I am a straight white male—do not always find it easy to understand the sensitivities of ethnic minorities or other groups who feel repressed or devalued, but I have done my best to comprehend the animus toward Charlie Chan and have never found a reasoned explanation. Even William F. Wu, in his well-written and scholarly The Yellow Peril: Chinese Americans in American Fiction, 1850-1940 (1982), is unpersuasive.

The six novels from which the Chan character sprang are much more notable for charm, background, and good slick-magazine storytelling than the kind of clued detection Biggers's Golden Age contemporaries were producing. Only in the last book in the series did he even try to match the tight puzzle-spinning of S.S. Van Dine or Ellery Queen. And he certainly paid no attention to Van Dine's dictum against having a love interest in the stories. In the first few books, the romantic leads are at least as prominent in the tale as Charlie Chan.

biggers_housewithoutakeyIn The House Without a Key (1925), a charming period piece contrasting the mores of the Hawaiian Islands with staid Boston and filled with nostalgia for days gone by, Charlie Chan is a secondary character. Even the final wrap-up is presided over by the local prosecutor, though Chan does provide the means of smoking out the killer. Charlie's English is at its least fluent in this first appearance (his first line of dialogue: "No knife are present in neighborhood of crime"), and his speech is more given to picturesque elegance ("Stone walls are crumbling now like dust. Through many loopholes light stream in like rosy streaks of dawn") than the coining of aphorisms. Most potentially troubling to contemporary readers are Chan's own frequently asserted prejudice against the Japanese and Biggers's use in narrative of the term "Chinaman," which he apparently did not know was deemed pejorative.
In The Chinese Parrot (1926), Chan makes his first visit to the mainland, where events lead him to work undercover as a servant on a ranch in the California desert. Forced to his discomfort to speak real pidgin English, he draws the line at saying "velly." An encounter with a relative in San Francisco's Chinatown explores the conflict between Chinese and American cultures and deepens the reader's understanding of Chan's ambivalent character.

By Behind That Curtain (1928), set in San Francisco, Chan's grammar has improved, and he fills the air with wise sayings ("Falling hurts least those who fly low"). Faced with red-faced Captain Flannery, a dumb cop of the sort Donald McBride and William Demerest would play in the movies, Charlie remarks, "How loud is the thunder, how little it rains." His roaring male chauvinism, true to his period and culture however distasteful it may seem now, is revealed in his delight at news from Honolulu of the birth of a son: "Of eleven opportunities, I am disappointed but three times." Later he says, "Women were not invented for heavy thinking. They should decorate scene, like blossom of the plum." The novel's female lead is a deputy district attorney, one of many liberated women in Biggers's work who give in to conventionality in the end.

charliechan_blackcamelIn The Black Camel (1929), the scene has returned to Hawaii, where Kashimo, a Japanese detective, serves a similar function to the sons in the Chan movies: essentially comic relief, an eager aspiring detective, anxious to help but usually doing just the opposite, occasionally coming up with something worthwhile, seemingly by accident. Charlie is less indulgent of Kashimo than of his screen sons, however, directing some ill-humored barbs his way. He is also on the receiving end of racial slurs, and his responses belie allegations of obsequiousness. When a butler refers to a Chinese cook as a member of a heathen race, Charlie says, "A heathen race that was busy inventing the art of printing at moment when gentlemen in Great Britain were still beating one another over the head with spiked clubs." Later when asked, "Why don't they send a white man out here?," Charlie replies, "The man who is about to cross a stream should not revile the crocodile's mother."

The Black Camel gives the most detail to date about Chan's home life, including his relations with his highly Americanized children. When his 15-year-old daughter Evelyn uses the word swell two sentences in succession, he cries, "Enough! Vast English language is spread out before you, and you select for your use the lowliest words. I am discouraged."

Charlie Chan Carries On (1930) is unique among the novels in giving the sleuth title billing, a pattern followed in most of the early films. When his visiting Scotland Yard friend Inspector Duff is shot in Honolulu, Charlie takes his place seeking a murderer on a world cruise. Very much in the style of the sons in the films, Kashimo stows away and when he is put to work by Chan seeking the cabins for an elusive key, he isn't entirely ineffective.

biggers_keeperofthekeysThe final Chan novel, The Keeper of the Keys (1932), published the year before his creator's death, is the series' best viewed strictly as a detective story. Set in Lake Tahoe and concerning an opera singer's murder, the novel showcases its clues as carefully as an Ellery Queen, albeit without the same virtuosity. By this time, Warner Oland had already appeared as the character twice in the 1931 films of Charlie Chan Carries On and The Black Camel, and the novel character seems closer than ever to the screen version. Certainly he fills the air with proverbs: "Only a thief oils his wheelbarrow." "The fool in a hurry drinks his tea with a fork." "Eggs should not dance with stones." Showing the increasing sensitivity of Biggers, Charlie is insulted at another character's use of the word Chinaman—but only because the speaker knows the term is an offensive one, as Biggers clearly did not know earlier in the series when he used it in third person narration as if it were perfectly acceptable.

Though two silents and one early talkie were adapted from Chan novels, the film series proper began with those first two Warner Oland vehicles. Though the screen Chan could not be as complex and multifaceted as the book Chan, he was at least as admirable a figure. Oland's Chan was gentle and soft-spoken but confident, competent, and in his own way, tough. The seventh of Oland's 16 outings, Charlie Chan in Paris (1935) introduced studio artist-turned-actor Keye Luke in the role of number-one-son Lee Chan. Their warm on-screen relationship accurately reflected their off-screen friendship. After Oland's death in 1937, Sidney Toler took over, depicting a much more acerbic Chan in 22 films, half at 20th Century Fox and half at poverty row's Monogram. Six Monogram entries with Roland Winters between 1947 and 1949 finished the series. Later Chan would be played on television by J. Carroll Naish and Ross Martin and, in a one-shot parodic feature film, by Peter Ustinov.

When all is said and done, the Asian-American pressure groups have only one legitimate gripe about the movie Charlie Chan: that the main character was played by a succession of Caucasian actors. Regrettable as that may be, the series gave an opportunity they would not otherwise have had to a number of Chinese-American actors, most notably those who played Chan's offspring.

The energetic, respectful, yet fully Americanized Chan children presented a contrast to the roles usually available to the few Asian actors in Hollywood of the 1930s and '40s: laundrymen, servants, sinister villains, and (especially after Pearl Harbor) wartime enemies. Sons numbers one through three were used as comic relief, it's true, but they were also full of admirable qualities—courage, intelligence, loyalty—that helped to belie perceived racial differences. Not surprisingly these actors—Victor Sen Yung, Benson Fong, and especially Keye Luke—were among the strongest defenders of the Chan films.

biggers_charliechancarriesonI'll confess to a bias against the suppression of past times' art, whether film or literature or painting or sculpture, on the grounds that it doesn't fit with contemporary sensibilities. It must be the librarian in me. But I can usually understand the positions of those who disagree. For example, I would argue that a TV station programmer who thought Amos 'n' Andy could get an audience should be able to show it—it was a funny and well-made series; its characters were no more offensively stupid or venial than those in other comedies; it represented minority characters in roles of responsibility as well as buffoonery; and perhaps most important, it represents the immortality of some extremely talented African-American actors. However, I can certainly understand why some African Americans feel differently, and I respect their opinion.

But Asian Americans who protest Charlie Chan are making themselves look foolish, mainly because they show no evidence of having seen the products they want to suppress. Their one valid complaint, the decision to cast non-Asian actors as Charlie Chan, is history, and nothing can be done to change history. We should not deny ourselves the art of the past, even admittedly minor art, because it doesn't live up to some present day ideal.

Teri Duerr
2010-04-02 23:26:17

charliechan_stillNegative reaction to Earl Derr Biggers' Charlie Chan is nothing new, but is it deserved?

Notes From the Front Line
Lee Goldberg

angryboss

Screenwriter Lee Goldberg recounts hilarious true tales from the Hollywood trenches

The pitching stories you are about to read are true; the names have been changed to protect the guilty.

I was in middle of pitching three TV series ideas when the newly minted network exec—formerly a lawyer, rock musician, accountant and personal trainer—interrupted me.

"You have no clue what makes a good TV series concept," the exec said. "And your pitches suck."

I smiled. "But does the rest work for you?"

"You want to hear a pitch? This is the perfect pitch, I just bought it," the exec continued. "There's a cop. He's a rebel. He's a rogue. He doesn't play by the rules. He's also an incredible slob. He's teamed up with a new partner who's a stickler for the rules, a team player, and a neat freak. His new partner is…a dog."

I stared at him. "A dog?" "A dog," he said proudly.

"Does the dog talk?" I asked.

The exec's eyes lighted up. "Now you're getting the hang of it."

I was in the offices of a major movie producer who had just read a manuscript version of my new novel The Walk (Five Star, January 2004) and wanted to talk about a possible screen version. The story is about a TV producer who is stuck in downtown Los Angeles when a major earthquake decimates the city, forcing him to walk back home to the suburbs.

The executive loved the book, the human drama, and the action-adventure elements. He only had a few thoughts and concerns.

"Does the guy have to be a TV producer?" he asked.

I was prepared for that question. I knew the character might be "too inside," meaning too much a part of the entertainment industry, to connect with a wider audience.

"No," I said, "Of course not. We can give him a different profession."

"How about if the TV producer was a team of cheerleaders instead?" the executive asked.

I laughed, thinking he was joking. He wasn't. But he wasn't done with me yet.

"And what if the earthquake was a tidal wave?"

The book remains unfilmed.

Before starting a pitch, I like to ask the execs what they are looking for. At a recent meeting at a network, the exec said: "We're wide open. The only things we don't want to hear are cop shows, science fiction shows, anything set in the past, military shows, buddy detectives or stuff with monsters."

I could think of only one genre she left out. "What about a medical show?"

"Oh yes," she said. "We don't want those, either."

I was pitching a mystery series to an exec at a basic cable network. He interrupted me in middle of the pitch.

"Wait a minute," he said.

"You want to do a mystery every week?"

"Uh, yes," I said.

"It can't be done," he said.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"I mean, you can't tell a new mystery every week," he said. "It's just not possible." "Of course it is," I replied.

"I've done it. Diagnosis Murder was a mystery."

"No, it wasn't."

"Yes, it was," I argued.

"Nobody can do a mystery every week," he said. "It's ludicrous."

"Murder She Wrote, Law & Order, CSI, those are all mysteries," I said.

"No, they aren't."

"Okay," I said. "What is your idea of a mystery?"

"Scooby-Doo," he replied.

"That's an animated Saturday morning cartoon," I said.

"Exactly," he said.

My writing partner William Rabkin and I had just turned in the 17th draft of a screenplay based on a novel I'd written. We were a few weeks away from pre-production on the movie. The producer called us in, saying he only had a few minor notes I could do in a few minutes on my computer.

"I just need a tiny polish," he said. "Just a few little nips and tucks."

"I'm ready," I said, having already figured out where I was going to put the framed movie poster on my wall, and how I was going to spend my production bonus.

"I'd like you to flip Act Two and Act Three," he said.

I laughed. He didn't. "You are joking, right?"

"No," he said.

"It will be easy with your computer. Just flip the two acts, make Act Three Act Two, and make Act Two Act Three."

"But you can't do that," I said.

"Why not?" he asked, genuinely perplexed.

I walked out and never came back. Other writers came in (including Michael Blake, who would later win an Oscar for Dances With Wolves). Not surprisingly, the movie didn't get made.

Bill and I were in middle of writing an episode of Spenser: For Hire, which was airing at 10 p.m. on Saturday nights. In our episode, Spenser sees a woman jump off the roof of a building, so he begins to investigate why she wanted to commit suicide. He discovers she's fleeing her brother, with whom she shared an incestous relationship.

The network loved the story.

We get a call on a Friday from the network. They had just decided to move Spenser For Hire to 8 p.m. on Sunday, sandwiched between The Wonderful World of Disney and The Dolly Parton Show.

Somehow our episode didn't seem quite right for the Family Hour, unless your idea of family is rather twisted. But the network didn't think it was quite as big a problem as we did.

"We love everything about the script, so all you need to do is take out the incest," the network exec said, "but maintain the integrity of the story."

Teri Duerr
2010-04-03 16:47:08

angryboss

Screenwriter Lee Goldberg recounts hilarious true tales from the Hollywood trenches.

Olivia and the Missing Toy
Roberta Rogow

The police aren't summoned in Ian Falconer's Olivia and the Missing Toy (Simon & Schuster, $17.99). Olivia, that feisty little pig, is anxiously waiting for her mother to transform an ugly green soccer shirt into a much more attractive red one when her favorite doll disappears. Not one to stand by idly, Olivia takes matters into her own hands, questioning the most likely suspects and searching until she nails the culprit. The toy is found, the perpetrator is punished, and Olivia repairs the damage in her own inimitable way. Falconer's trademark charcoal and pencil drawings are splashed with patches of red and green, for a sophisticated, clean look. Young sleuths may be able to spot the toy-napper lurking in the corners of the pictures before Olivia does, but that's part of the fun of this picture book.

Teri Duerr
2010-04-04 22:33:42

The police aren't summoned in Ian Falconer's Olivia and the Missing Toy (Simon & Schuster, $17.99). Olivia, that feisty little pig, is anxiously waiting for her mother to transform an ugly green soccer shirt into a much more attractive red one when her favorite doll disappears. Not one to stand by idly, Olivia takes matters into her own hands, questioning the most likely suspects and searching until she nails the culprit. The toy is found, the perpetrator is punished, and Olivia repairs the damage in her own inimitable way. Falconer's trademark charcoal and pencil drawings are splashed with patches of red and green, for a sophisticated, clean look. Young sleuths may be able to spot the toy-napper lurking in the corners of the pictures before Olivia does, but that's part of the fun of this picture book.