In a town where there’s rarely a man, woman, boy, or girl without a screenplay in the works – not just people who write professionally, or even those with no visible means of support filling countless coffee houses with their laptops– Lorber was no longer surprised when approached with a “surefire blockbuster” or the next “Citizen Kane.” Since receiving his first screen credit (on a rock & roll biopic), and even more thanks to acclaim for a basketball-based film for HBO, Lorber had been slipped scripts by film students, waiters and waitresses, barmen, personal injury attorneys, and even a dentist who handed him a so-called thriller before administering a shot of Novocaine.
Nothing handed to him proved to be even moderately interesting or, in the parlance of Hollywood, commercial.
So it was all Lorber could do to keep from cringing when a friend named Francesca, whose face had adorned billboards, which led to appearances in several forgettable teen flicks, asked if she could buy him lunch so as to bounce an idea off him.
Having nixed a vegan spot she suggested, Lorber arrived at a Thai place the following Monday with a vague sense of dread.
After a few minutes spent catching up, he tried to delay the inevitable by telling Francesca about foreign “must sees” on Netflix, Amazon Prime, plus a cable entity called MhZ Choice. From Scandinavia he mentioned “Borgen” and “The Bridge.” From France, “Spiral.” From Italy, a miniseries called “The Best Of Youth.” From England, a series called “The Hour.” From Spain a powerhouse called “Money Heist.” And from Israel a knockout called “Fauda.”
Francesca listened dutifully while nibbling on a vegetarian noodle dish, then tapped Lorber’s hand. “I know this is the day of superheroes on the big screen,” she said. “So maybe I’m crazy in thinking that my idea could be a movie. But how much do you know about my childhood?”
“What if I tell you I grew up in a prison?”
“How? And why?”
"My father was a warden,” Francesca explained. “Nutty as it sounds, we lived on the prison grounds.”
“Makes it tough for friends to pop by after school.”
Putting aside his misgivings, Lorber listened attentively as Francesca told a tale of years spent in two totally distinct worlds: one filled with freedom; the other defined by walls, barbed wire and watchtowers, plus strict rules and regulations.
Only when Francesca paused to take a sip of tea did Lorber again speak. “Once you were high school age, was there any flirting?”
“Beyond flirting,” Francesca acknowledged shyly, detailing a budding romance that was squelched when it drew her father’s attention.
“So?” Francesca asked once she was finished talking. “Think there’s a chance it could get made?”
“Who knows what can get made these days. But it’s fascinating.”
“Then will you help me?”
“By showing me the ropes.”
Two days later, the two of them reconvened at a funky coffee house in Santa Monica rumored to be owned by Bob Dylan.
“So how do I go about structuring the script?” Francesca asked.
“You don’t,” replied Lorber.
“B-but every screenwriting book I’ve read says first you start with a structure.”
“Think Billy Wilder read those books? Or Bob Towne? Or Jorge Semprun?”
“The guy who wrote “La Guerre Est Finie” for Alain Resnais, and “Z” for Costa-Gavras. Okay if I get a little hifalutin?”
“What do you mean?”
“Form should follow content. Film is storytelling, right? That means that if you start with a structure, it may not prove to be the right one for the story you’re telling. It’s a lot like architecture. Think Frank Lloyd Wright or Frank Gehry would design a house in the abstract, without seeing where it’ll be built?”
“I-I guess not.”
"If it’s overlooking an ocean or a lake, shouldn’t the views be factored in? Or up on a mountaintop? Or adjacent to a golf course? What I’m saying is that “Citizen Kane,”
“Breathless,” “Annie Hall,” and a little film “Better Off Dead,” if you’ve ever seen it, have structures that emerge from the stories being told.”
“But when I look at my computer screen I freeze.”
“Then try a trick. When I want to let a story flow on its own, I do one of two things. Either I daydream the tale I want to tell—”
“I write a letter.”
“What kind of letter?”
“In the voice of my main character, telling a friend or relative about events that took place, and how he or she felt about them. That way, the appropriate structure emerges on its own.”
Before Francesca could respond, a guy entering the coffee house spotted them, then approached.
“Whatcha doing?” Don Paulson asked, kissing Francesca on the cheek, then giving Lorber a fist bump.
“Conspiring,” answered Lorber.
“To rob a bank? Print counterfeit money? Hack into an FBI data bank?”
“All of the above,” said Francesca.
“Mind if I sit?” “Actually we do,” stated Lorber. “But don’t take it personally.”
Between hands at their weekly Thursday evening poker game, Steve Weiner, wearing his customary Clippers sweatshirt, nudged Lorber. “Paulson says you’re making a move on Francesca with the great you-know-whats.”
“Give me a break.”
“Why else would you make time to talk screenwriting with her?”
“Being a friend’s not enough?”
“Yeah, right,” interjected Paulson.
“Besides,” said Lorber, “her story is interesting.”
“Then maybe,” said Weiner, “I ought to direct it.”
“Thanks to your legendary sensitivity.”
“Look who’s talking.”
“For Chrissake, guys,” objected Pete Guthrie. “We’re here to play poker.”
“Yeah,” added Tim Leahy. “Shut up and deal.”
The next time Lorber hooked up with Francesca for coffee, tips on writing quickly gave way to a pep talk. “A novelist named Bill Eastlake, who taught a creative writing class at USC, was being pestered week after week by a sorority girl asking how she could get a novel published, until he finally exploded. ‘Sweetheart,’ he snarled, ‘before you can get something published, you’ve got to sit down and write the fucking thing!’”
“But what if my script’s not good?”
“As opposed to the recent remake of ‘Death Wish’? Or Eastwood’s ‘Hereafter’ or ‘Midnight In the Garden Of Evil’? Or Scorsese’s awful pilot for ‘Vinyl’? And that’s not even mentioning Brett Ratner’s unwatchable dreck.”
“So what should I do?”
“Either block out a chunk of time six days a week, every week, with no Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or calls until you’ve finished your day’s work—”
“Take up golf, tennis, or group sex.”
Francesca grimaced. “Will you read pages once in a while?”
“And promise to tell me the truth?”
“No,” teased Lorber. “I’ll post the pages—and my feelings—on social media.”
Close to two Francesca-free weeks ensued, during which Lorber struggled with a new script of his own. After threeand-a-half years of nearly back-to-back writing assignments, trying to focus on something original that he hoped eventually to direct—an autobiographical piece about growing up in a New Jersey industrial town where the arts were viewed as left-wing and sissified—seemed forced and awkward.
Frustrated, Lorber finally used his own tricks of the trade. First he spent an afternoon lying on his living room sofa, allowing his memory to drift back to anecdotes, sights, and sounds from his teenage years. Then, after taking a break to shoot baskets at a nearby playground, he forced himself to compose the kind of letter he described to Francesca, having his central character—whom he dubbed Artie—write to a childhood friend while reflecting on events from their past.
Having substituted inspiration for perspiration, Lorber finished a day in which he had resisted the urge to check social media by at last peeking at emails. To his surprise, he found a thank-you note from Francesca, together with the first twenty-five pages of her script.
Despite his curiosity, Lorber turned on the NBA Network while peddling his stationary bike for a half-hour, then hopped into the shower.
Nervously, he then finally began to read what Francesca had sent.
“I’m proud of you,” Lorber told Francesca by phone.
“You mean I don’t have to go to a gun shop or jump off a bridge?”
“What you’ve got to do is keep writing.”
“Not fiddling? Or fixing?”
“That comes later. A feature-length script is more marathon than sprint. If you pick and poke before you have a draft, the draft will never get done.”
“Really think it’s worth it?”
“Unless you’ve got the means to erase poverty, eliminate racism, and make the world a better place, I can’t think of anything more important to do.”
While Lorber’s new opus grew in fits and spurts, so too did Francesca’s. New pages arrived via email every so often, followed by a text if Lorber failed to respond immediately. “Am I on the right track?” Francesca would sometimes ask when they spoke. Or “Are they okay?” Or “Are you sure I’m not nuts?”
Worse were her midnight calls fraught with panic. “What if it’s the world’s first 65-page script?” Francesca asked Lorber on a Wednesday night. “What if it winds up 300 pages long?” she worried on a Sunday.
“Forward progress,” Lorber urged each and every time, until that phrase became a running joke between them. “Forward progress,” Francesca would say. “Forward progress,” Lorber would repeat.
As luck would have it, both scripts—Francesca’s and Lorber’s—were finished the very same week.
In the hope that time away from his own work would afford him a measure of objectivity when he went back to it, Lorber stifled his inclination to start rewriting by focusing instead on Francesca’s screenplay.
Rather than preparing what are known as “line notes,” he ignored the typos, awkward passages of dialogue, and repetitions so as to key on more important issues.
“I’m proud of you,” he told Francesca over the phone.
“Forget, but. It’s a terrific first effort.”
“Should we meet at that same coffee house?”
“Let’s do it where we’re less likely to run into Paulson or Weiner.”
“But aren’t they your friends?”
“Are there real friends in Hollywood?”
“Is somebody being cynical?”
“No,” said Lorber. “Truthful.”
It was at a Vietnamese restaurant on Pico where they met. Small talk prevailed while Lorber downed a dish called Turmeric Fish Noodles and Francesca chomped on tofu with vegetables. Then the work began.
“Before we get to the content itself,” Lorber stated, “a few ground rules. First and foremost, eliminate all the camera angles. No director worth his or her salt wants to be told when to use a close up, a tilt, or a pan.”
“But I thought—”
“Forget what you thought. And by the way, since the script runs long, doing that alone will save you maybe ten pages. With me?”
“Next, start slashing the exposition. You want to use it to create a sense of place and mood. But when you start telling us what a character is thinking or feeling, it gets long, purple, and redundant. It’s the characters’ words and actions that define them, not your descriptions.”
Francesca bit her lower lip.
“Am I killing you?” Lorber asked.
“I’ll live. And?”
“Things happen to your central character, Julie.”
“As opposed to?”
“It’ll come more to life if we see her making choices and decisions. Sure, she’s a kid. But what are her hopes? Her dreams? The key is emphasizing the pro in protagonist. But tell me, is this too much?”
“No,” murmured Francesca.
“What you’ve got is good. But it’s got the promise of being even better. If, that is, you’re willing to push, push, and push some more.”
“A friend and mentor who gives pep talks,” said Francesca with a smile. “I like it.”
Three drafts later, Francesca’s script was a lean and significantly improved 100 pages.
“What now?” Francesca asked Lorber over glasses of wine.
“I guess it’s time for it to face the world.”
“What’s the best way to make it happen?”
“The right way?” asked Lorber, drawing a nod from Francesca. “Find someone who’ll give you a million or three in a brown paper bag.”
“And other than that, an agent or manager?”
Lorber shrugged. “I take it you’re not big on them,” said Francesca.
“My definition of an agent or manager?”
“A heat-seeking missile. Want me to make some calls?”
“That’d be great.”
While reaching out to several people on behalf of Francesca, Lorber finally re-read his own script. Despite his inclination to be overly hard on himself, he was surprisingly pleased. Nevertheless, a week of fiddling and tweaking ensued.Then, instead of sending it to a couple of friends as he often did, he emailed it to his agent.
Then came the waiting game on both for both him and his acolyte.
As it turned out, the first reactions came from Francesca’s screenplay, which Lorber attributed to the fact that she was, in show biz terms, the new kid on the block, not to mention extremely cute.
One agent’s email was terse: “Thanks, but no thanks.” Another said, “Well written, but not commercial.” But then came three requests to meet her.
Meanwhile the silence from Lorber’s own agent, Jon Schechter, continued.
Ten days later, a happy but confused Francesca called. “So who do I sign with?” she asked Lorber.
“What does your gut say?”
“Honestly? That Sue Clark either read coverage or thumbed through the script, and Schechter only seems to want to get into my pants. You’re with him, right?”
“Yup,” mumbled Lorber.
“Not crazy about him?” Francesca asked.
“He’s not the worst.”
“Talk about damning with faint praise.”
“And Jack Kornblau?”
“He seems to get it and like it.”
“So what’s the hesitation?”
“Does it matter he’s not with a big agency?”
“Where you’d be constantly vying for attention against big names who make fortunes? You want somebody in whose eyes you—and above all, your script—are special.”
The sound of the phone not ringing was beginning to get to Lorber when three days later a call finally came in from Schechter. “Let’s put our heads together and get you a big assignment,” the agent said after a quick bit of banter.
“And my new script?”
“Some choice of words.”
“And well written.”
“But?” “Really think anyone’s interested in a kid growing up in blue collar New Jersey?”
“As opposed to Northern California in ‘American Graffiti’?” Or Little Italy in ‘Mean Streets’?”
“That might as well be a hundred years ago.”
“Right, in black & white and silent.”
“Tell you what,” said Schechter after a moment of silence. “How about I slip it to three guys and see how they respond?”
“Submitting it with a shrug that says ‘I don’t think much of this, but tell me if I’m wrong’ guarantees only one thing.”
“Then what do you want me to do with it?”
Without another word, Lorber hung up. After flinging a Nerf ball across the room, he found himself facing the supreme irony that, in large part because of his efforts, his protegee had an agent who was excited about her new script, whereas he was suddenly tasked with finding a new representative for himself.
For Lorber, interviewing prospective agents and managers ranked somewhere between talking to used car salesmen and having elective root canal work.
Nevertheless, while ducking calls from Schechter, he dutifully scheduled get-togethers with a handful of people who had made overtures over the previous year or two.
All the while, he did everything possible to resist twinges of jealousy each time Francesca called with updates about the excitement her script was generating. First it was a series of meetings. Next, talk of options. Then a deal with a production company, which wanted to attach a director to the project.
Lorber made a yeoman’s effort to express only positivity, as well to pitch in, when asked, with suggestions about possible directors.
Still, seconds seemed like hours, and hours like days, as he waited for reactions to his recently finished script.
Then into Lorber’s life came a much-needed distraction: a request to look at a script in search of a rewrite. Told by the producer that it was a psychological thriller, Lorber had just finished reading the last page when the phone rang.
“So what do you think?” asked Tom Avakian.
“That you’ve either got a high-powered telescope or a new form of Google Earth. For openers, it’s neither psychological nor a thriller.”
“So what do we do?”
Off the top of his head, Lorber suggested changing the focus so that instead of the central character being the serial killer, the protagonist should be a father whose daughter was murdered several years before, and who suspects that the same madman is at it again. When that notion pleased Avakian, Lorber proposed making the FBI agent who’s brought in a woman rather than a man, adding the potential for a romantic element.
Thrilled, Avakian cut Lorber off. “When can you start?” he asked.
“Whoa!” said Lorber. “What’s your budget?”
“Roughly a million.”
“Thanks, but no thanks.”
“Why in hell not?”
“First, though things may change in a few weeks or months, I don’t need the bucks. More importantly, I’ve got a project of my own.”
“But your ideas are great.”
“Take ‘em. They’re yours.”
“Hold it! What’ll it take to get you to say yes?”
“I’ll be the first one ever to say this,” responded Lorber. “Let me direct.”
Avakian emitted a sigh loud enough to be heard from Burbank to Malibu. “I’ll get back to you,” he muttered.
The next morning, Avakian called again. “Why you?” he asked.
“At your budget, if you hire someone who does that kind of thing, he’ll spend half his time hustling his next gig.”
“Will kill to make the best film possible.”
Several seconds passed, then Avakian sighed again. “Okay,” he said with a minimum of joy.
Instead of using the new gig as a dowry in his quest for a new agent, Lorber instead had his lawyer negotiate the deal. Then, operating under the assumption that a successful directorial debut would add firepower to his own project, Lorber plunged into the rewrite, while also making time for certain areas of pre-production.
Once the script had advanced to the point where it could be budgeted, the fledgling director moved on to crewing, casting, scouting locations, and the other areas requiring his attention.
Only in rare off moments did he take the time to peek at emails from Francesca detailing the runaround both she and her script were getting from director after director.
Lorber was surprised therefore, just two days before the start of principal photography, when a desperate call came at midnight.
“Sorry to bug you when you’re so busy,” Francesca whimpered, “but I’m at wit’s end. Can I ask one question?”
“What are your feelings about Steve Weiner?”
“As a guy? Friend? Poker player?”
“As a director?”
“For my movie.”
“You’re putting me on the spot.”
“Does he strike you as the most sensitive person on the planet?” Lorber asked. “Or the one most suited to deal with the life and troubles of a teenage girl?”
There was a moment of silence before Francesca again spoke. “Will you be upset with me if I say yes to him?”
“Who am I to be upset?” answered Lorber, hiding his true feelings.
Three weeks later, after a long day filming, Lorber found himself craving tacos. Instead of heading home, he made a detour to Culver City, where he was about to join the ever-present line at Tito’s when he heard someone call his name.
“Heard what Weiner did?” Don Paulson said, waving for Lorber to join him.
“Tell me,” replied Lorber.
“You honestly don’t know?”
“I barely know what day it is.”
“He got Francesca fired.”
“You’re kidding me.”
“And he’s rewriting her script.”
For days Lorber thought of calling Francesca to commiserate. But ultimately he felt that doing so could be construed as a form of I told you so. So he bit his tongue, which wasn’t hard to do as filming segued into countless hours of post-production. Then, after an extensive stretch without communication, breaking the silence seemed all the more awkward.
Ultimately, though Lorber’s thriller made a fair amount of money for its investors, it did not catapult him to the top of any list of bankable directors. Nor did it make the original script he wrote a hot commodity. But happily it did lead to other directing opportunities. Thanks to a friend whose songs he used as what’s known as needle-drop, i.e. providing background music, in two different scenes, Lorber got to make a music video, then several more. Through a circuitous route, those led to his making a documentary about the Latinization of baseball, which paved the way for documentaries about Eastern spirituality in the Western world, the criminal justice system, and breakthroughs in the treatment of diabetes.
Francesca’s script, drastically rewritten and directed by Steve Weiner, barely saw the light of day, appearing briefly, with no fanfare whatsoever on Hulu. It was only a couple of years later that Lorber happened to bump into Francesca at a Vietnamese restaurant. There he learned that, disgusted with the movie business, she had reinvented herself as an interior designer.
Alan Swyer is an award-winning filmmaker whose recent documentaries have dealt with Eastern spirituality in the Western world, the criminal justice system, diabetes, boxing, and singer Billy Vera. In the realm of music, among his productions is an album of Ray Charles love songs. His novel The Beard was recently published by Harvard Square Editions.