One of the best things about living here in L.A. and having been in the game this long is that some days I get to hang out with the coolest people – who are doing work that I love, admire and learn from – and the other day I got to spend time with two of my favorites.
It started at Le Pain Quotidian in Brentwood, where I got to enjoy lunch with the remarkable Nicholas Meyer. Nick burst on the scene with his bestselling novel THE SEVEN PERCENT SOLUTION, a Sherlock Holmes adventure where Sigmund Freud helps Holmes beat his cocaine addiction. Meyer then adapted this into a swell film starring Nicol Williamson as Holmes and Alan Arkin as Freud. Following this, Nick directed one of the best time travel films of all time, TIME AFTER TIME, starring Malcolm McDowell as H.G. Wells and David Warner as Jack the Ripper. This led to Nick’s various writing and directing chores on STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, STAR TREK IV and STAR TREK VI.
The way Nick and I initially met was on the WGA picket line. I gave him a copy of “World Enough and Time,” which he was good enough to watch. Later, he told me how impressed he was by it, saying, “It was terrific.” This was an enormous thrill, as I’d studied WRATH OF KHAN in detail as a way of prepping to direct it and had learned a lot from watching Nick’s work on it.
Our conversation over lunch ranged far and wide, from Nick’s recently-published memoir THE VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE to THE AFRICAN QUEEN, which he’d been working to restore for a coming DVD release. Interestingly, I’d watched the film not long ago (a Japanese-subtitled DVD I bought when I was at Worldcon in Yokohama) and we’d both had the same realization about the film – that it’s mostly just two people in a very-small boat, yet it manages to be intensely dramatic and engaging, thanks to the supreme artistry of all involved.
(Interestingly sidenote: in the original novel, the two main characters fail to blow up the German warship and instead are simply shipped by the much-nicer Germans back to English territory, a far weaker ending.)
Nick’s been working as a screenwriter for many years and, as fine a writer as he is, I still think it’s a loss for us all that he hasn’t also been directing. I told him that I’m committed to doing all I can to get him back working as a director (and those of you who know me know I never say anything I don’t mean). So I think before too long the odds are good he’ll be yelling, “Action!” again…
(This reminds me of a story Richard Matheson told me some years back. One of his favorite directors was Jacques Tourneur, who’d done spectacular work on the original CAT PEOPLE and CURSE OF THE DEMON. Matheson lobbied for Tourneur to be hired to direct TWILIGHT ZONE, but the producers were worried that Tourneur was too old and wouldn’t be able to keep up the pace. Nevertheless, they hired Tourneur to direct Matheson’s episode “Night Call.” Normally TWILIGHT ZONE episodes were shot in three days. Tourneur shot “Night Call” in just two – a record for TWILIGHT ZONE, unmatched by any of the other 155 episodes.)
After finishing my lunch with Nick Meyer, I headed down to Palms, where that night the spectacular acting and directing teacher Judith Weston hosted a talk by famed screenwriter Mark Fergus, co-writer of CHILDREN OF MEN, IRON MAN and the forthcoming COWBOYS AND ALIENS and AKIRA. I’d put out the word to the Industry Round Table I run so the place was packed.
Mark and I have been friends for several years now. I loved CHILDREN OF MEN and when we met at the Screenwriters Expo I found out he was a devotee of THE TWILIGHT ZONE COMPANION; in fact, it’s one of the reasons he became a writer.
Mark is an amazingly humble, centered, even zen-like guy, and I always find it sheer joy to hear him speak, and this evening was no exception. He talked about working with his writing partner Hawk Ostby, who lives in Vermont (and whom many people think is a figment of Mark’s imagination). Hawk is quite real, in fact, and the two of them make a great team, with Mark writing the initial outlines, Hawk the first-draft screenplays and then the two of them trading off the later drafts. It’s an exhilarating way to work.
Mark showed clips from FIRST SNOW, the feature he wrote and directed starring Guy Pearce, and fielded questions from the audience. The most important thing he said, I think, was when he related how he first broke into the business. At first, he and his partner wrote screenplays that they thought would sell and get them an agent, big blockbusters that were essentially just retreads of some of their favorite movies. They wrote ten of these, and none of them sold or got them an agent.
Finally, one agent said, “Come back to me when you’ve written something you actually care about, something that’s really yours.” With that advice, they wrote FIRST SNOW, which got them an agent virtually immediately, sold and got made. And with that, their careers were off and running.
I find this a great piece of wisdom, and one that has proven true in my career too. Whenever I write something I deeply care about – whether it’s THE TWILIGHT ZONE COMPANION or “World Enough and Time” or the commentaries I did for MORNING EDITION – it invariably does well and resonates with others.
I’ve often heard the saying, “It’s better to tell the truth – that way you don’t have to remember what you said.” But it’s also better to tell the truth in your writing – your truth – because people will recognize it as the truth and know they’re not being conned.
Mark and I are going to get together soon so I can meet his baby son for the first time, and we can introduce our wives to each other. Both of our spouses are politically liberal and highly principled, working on projects they’re deeply committed to. I feel sure they’ll get along great.
It always helps inspire me to be around such passionate and talented people…