Discover more from Hugo Schwyzer
I Won't Fight for my Vision: Confessions of a Failed Screenwriter
“Do you think William Randolph Hearst and Julia Morgan were in love?”
I stare at my friend Mike. It’s an odd question to ask in a Starbucks on a Monday morning. I think of the great publisher, and California’s greatest native-born architect, and their collaboration on that famous castle at San Simeon.
“I haven’t given it any thought,” I say.
Mike smiles. “I figured you hadn’t,” he says, as he reaches into his briefcase and pulls out several books about Hearst. “But I am going to hire you to write me a screenplay about their possible unrequited love affair.”
It is January 2014. I am staying at a sober living in Culver City. I have been out of the hospital for barely a month. I have lost my teaching career. I am looking desperately for a job, any job. I had not considered screenwriting.
Mike is a producer. He’s had a little success here and there, and he has ideas, but he is no writer. What he does have is a concept – and a project. The concept is this Hearst-Morgan love affair, and the project is getting his broken, bewildered, lost friend to start writing again. Mike offers me $1,000 to start writing a movie. He buys me the newest edition of Final Draft, the screenwriting software. He tells me he wants to see the first pages in a week.
I have nothing else to do. I do have ideas – lots of them. I imagine an opening scene of an aging Morgan sitting with Marion Davies, Hearst’s actress lover. The two women reminisce about how they were each so jealous of each other… the scene writes itself, with me typing away frantically at the dining room table in New Start Sober Living.
I show the first few pages to Mike the next week. “I like it, Hugo! Give me more.”
I don’t know if it’s any good. I don’t care. I am writing again – not for Jezebel or the Atlantic, but for this one friend who believes in me. I am writing for William and Julia, whom I become increasingly convinced, despite the absence of evidence, were in love with each other. The pages keep flowing. Every time I show them to Mike, he smiles and tells me to keep going.
I land another job, as a file clerk for a tax accountant. I work on the screenplay in the evenings. I finish a first draft by Passover. Mike promises to show it to a few friends. With his permission, I also send the script – which we’ve called Substantial Completion – to a few folks I know in the industry. I get the same reply: Hugo! We’re so glad you’re writing. Keep at it!
I can read between the lines. It’s not very good. Folks are just happy I’m not killing myself.
I thank Mike profusely. I pick up more hours at the tax accountant. I go to 12-Step meetings. I spend time with my children. This was a fun one-off, a confidence boost. It won’t happen again.
Then comes Rosh Hashanah. I am, at the time, a student of the Kabbalah Centre. It is a little bit culty, to put it mildly, but it is a place that welcomed me back when I was at my lowest. I go to morning prayers every day, study Torah and Zohar, and attend all the holiday events. At this particular High Holiday, I look at the worshipful way that other Kabbalah students gather around the Centre’s director, Karen Berg. They see her as semi-divine; it is commonly said that Karen is guided by the ruach ha’kodesh – the Holy Spirit. I get a sudden idea – a TV series about a cult in Los Angeles, and the family that runs it as a business.
In two weeks, I bang out a sixty-five-page script for the pilot. I call it The Kindling, and I create a whole universe of characters. The Jessup family run the cult, assisted by several formidable and competing aides-de-camp. The youngest Jessup daughter is estranged, and being pursued by Netflix documentarians who want to do an expose on her family. The only Jessup son, Bodhi, is having a series of affairs with young women - students in the cult. There’s a Russian mobster who believes that Jim Jessup – the family patriarch – can contact the mobster’s dead daughter in the world beyond. And so on.
I surprise Mike at coffee one day with a printed copy of the pilot. “I wrote you something,” I say. Mike calls me that night. He is delighted. I have grown so much as a writer. “We’re going to get this made,” he tells me; “I’m going to show this around.”
He does show it around. That’s nice to contemplate, but then Mike calls again. “I’m going to introduce you to Annie,” he says. “Annie is in the WGA; she’s done a couple of great shows. I gave her The Kindling and she’s got some great ideas.”
I meet with Annie, who is very encouraging – and filled with suggestions and critique. She wants to work with me to rewrite the pilot and develop a pitch. I am flattered, and of course, completely out of my league. I am grateful for the interest. Next thing I know, Mike options The Kindling, and brings on Annie as my co-writer. I like many of Annie’s suggestions. We rewrite the pilot and create a ten-episode season arc. (There will be more affairs and several murders and mobsters and real miracles.).
Mike is very pleased. He brings in another producer friend, Sam, who meets with Annie and me and offers another round of suggestions. One of my favorite characters needs to be dropped, he says; the pilot is too crowded. Annie quarrels with Sam. I sit and listen. We do as Sam says.
More people read The Kindling. More people offer ideas. Mike and Annie arrange a table reading at Mike’s offices. Ten actors come in, sit around a conference table, and read our pilot. Mike and Annie have cast them well, and it is exciting to hear words I’ve written read aloud by professionals. Annie and I sit in a corner and take notes. Afterwards, the actors offer still more suggestions. One of them, Charlie, is also a writer – and Mike brings him on to join us on The Kindling team. There are now four of us listed as writers.
A few weeks later, we have a pitch meeting at BBC America in Santa Monica. I have never been to a pitch meeting. I show up in Brooks Brothers – a little too formal, it turns out. I am told to stay quiet and let Mike, Sam, Annie and Charlie talk. The BBC America people are excited by the pitch, or so it seems – but L.A. is the town where you starve to death on encouragement. A few weeks later, they call Mike: they love the pilot ever so much, but they need to pass.
Mike, Charlie, Sam and Annie are familiar with this. They aren’t upset. I try not to be either. We regroup. At the meeting, Annie and Charlie start debating a major rethink of Bodhi, the character I’ve based on me. They go back and forth, and then Annie looks at me. “How does this sound, Hugo?”
“It sounds great,” I say.
Annie shakes her head. “That’s not how this works. If we’re gonna make this better, you need to fight for what you think is best. This is Bodhi, man. It’s you. What do you really think?”
Sam explains that in Hollywood writers’ rooms, creative folks spend a great deal of time arguing. “You have to defend your vision, but also be willing to listen to others,” he says. “It’s a give and take.”
I look at them and tell them, softly and firmly, that I can’t do that. It either needs to be my way, or their way, but what I’m not going to do is argue.
Charlie and Sam get annoyed. Annie, who by now has gotten to know me well, suggests I am enchanted by my own fragility. I tell them that they are free to think this is all a passive-aggressive act, but it is in fact who I am at the core, and I can no more change it than I can fly.
I tell them I’d like to relinquish my interest in The Kindling. Oh for fuck’s sake, they say. “Hugo, this was your idea! You created this universe! We’re just trying to make it better!”
I know, I say, and I start to weep. I am, at this point, forty-nine years old. It is pathetic. Annie hugs me and suggests we take a break for a few days and circle back.
I write Mike that night, saying that I’m ever so grateful to have been part of this project, and I am thankful to him for believing I could write – but I cannot fight for an idea, or a character, or a line. If creativity requires collaboration, and collaboration requires conflict, then creativity is not for me. Mike is disappointed, but he understands.
“I have a five year-option,” he tells me. “When it lapses, if it’s not picked up, it will go back to you. And you can do with it whatever you like.”
I thank him again.
I write one more script, a comedy pilot based on an Oklahoma girl who dumped me. I show it to a few friends but won’t accept any feedback. “I wrote it to heal myself,” I tell them; “not to be developed.”
I think about The Kindling often. I think about the way other writers clearly made my work better. I think about the way they sometimes took characters I had created and made them say things I didn’t think those characters would say. I think about how that made me feel – and how I knew, in my heart, I would rather let those characters go forever than fight for them.
I am a professional writer who lives in Los Angeles, but I have no desire to write a movie or for a show. Not because I don’t dream of it! I cannot do that writing because I accept that kind of writing is fundamentally collaborative – “iron sharpening iron” and all that – and as my five divorces indicate, I do not do well in intimate collaboration. It is not that I fight too hard to do it my way – it is that I acquiesce too easily to another’s vision and lack the passion to fight for my own.
I like ghostwriting. I don’t mind critique from my clients. I am not creating characters or telling my stories. I am telling their stories, and they are paying me, so their vision is all that matters. I have nothing to defend, no world to fight for. I write to please the person paying. That’s so much easier. In ghostwriting, my malleability is an asset. In screenwriting, it is a liability.
Sometimes, though, I dream about the characters I created for The Kindling. They come to me reproachfully in these dreams. You should have fought for us, they say. We were your children too, they tell me. I wake up ashamed – but resolute that I cannot, will not fight. The arguing makes my brain burn too hot, and it makes the shame come.
Another confession that will surprise a few: I’ve written two pieces recently for the conservative website The Federalist. I was asked to write them. I’ve felt weird about not mentioning it, as they were under my own name. You can read them here, and I warn you, you may not approve.
I just am not in the mood to hide things right now.