Years of writing scripts and mailing them out was about to pay off. This is the event that got me into the Writers Guild. This is the time I actually was a professional writer. And then wasn’t. Let’s take it back 19 years or so…
I had completed a script called (at the time) “The Kringle Project” I was one of those ideas that came to me in a flash. The thing practically wrote itself; I just had to type it. Fortunately, I took typing in high school. It was a Christmas comedy that dropped a film noir-type private eye detective in the middle of a Santa-centric mystery. It was honestly the best thing I had done up until then. I did the usual thing: mailed query letters to dozens of agents. And they did the usual thing: mailed rejection letters back to me. In a matter of months I had pretty much burned through the list with nary a nibble. My status reminded quo.
Months passed and passed. And a few more for good measure; you know, enough time so you forget you write. Then the odd thing happened: I got a phone call. I mean, I’ve gotten phone calls before, that wasn’t odd. What was odd was who was calling. It was some dude asking about my script “The Kringle Project.” Turns out this guy was a script reader for one of the agents I had submitted to. He had given the agent a very positive feedback on it. Obviously this was a smart guy with absolutely no pull in the business. However, as it happens, he was one of those ambitious, confident guys who usually annoy people and always kept it in his mind that he was going to be a Hollywood mover and/or shaker, always taking note of scripts he liked. And he liked mine. After making sure the script was still available (duh), he wanted to know if he could option it.
“Hell, yes!” I replied.
A Hollywood option.
“Hell, ye—wait, what? What’s a Hollywood option?”
Turns out, it’s one of those agreements that you make for a buck for six months. If anything happens, you get the various Writers Guild minimums. If nothing happens, you get the buck. But turns out you really don’t get the buck. It’s just a metaphoric dollar.
This guy, let’s call him “Kevin,” had been developing contacts within the Hollywood community and was ready to start pouncing, my script in hand. I gave him my okay, we signed some papers, and it was off to the races.
In time, he got it before a producing team that was looking to segue from TV game shows to film and had a deal with Warner Bros. They saw my script. They loved my script. They wanted to bring it to Warners! Warner Brothers, the home of Bogey and Bugs (which was perfect because I saw the lead character as very much in the Humphrey Bogart-“Sam Spade” mold). Warners nibbled. They liked the script. Then — get this — they wanted to meet the writer! They wanted to fly the writer out to Hollywood, first class, put the writer up in a swanky hotel and take some meetings with the writer! And I’m all excited because I’M THE WRITER!
Before you know it, I’m in LA. I’m in a rental car driving around Hollywood. I’ve got a pass to get onto the Warner Lot. I’m seeing Sly Stallone in restaurants and Brent Musburger in elevators (which is weird, because I don’t follow sports at all). I’m meeting and greeting producers and studio personal. I’m being offered bottled water. I’m with a V.P. in charge of Hollywood stuff and she tells me she loved the script and they need just one little change.
“What’s that?” I ask.
They see the lead as…Pee-Wee Herman. Yeah, I wrote Bogey and they see Pee-Wee. Turns out they had another picture contracted with him after his “Big Adventure” and “Big Top” movies. His film career had been sidetracked by his TV “Playhouse” work. He had now just wrapped the series and the studio wanted to pitch him the script. They just needed me to re-write the whole thing to make it a Pee-Wee Herman movie. No, prob, Barb (That was not the V.P.’s name, by the way).
Basically, it took a year to make the conversion, mailing pages back and forth, taking phone calls from all concerned and fielding notes from everyone and their in-laws. But once completed to my satisfaction, it was sent off to thunderous apathy. I failed to wow the board of creative beings at Warners. They “liked” it but didn’t “love” it. They didn’t even “like-like” it. But, and it was a big but*, they were willing to present it to Paul Reubens, who was now taking a sabbatical and incommunicado, but could be reached via his agent. So off the script went.
Within a few weeks my check arrived! I was a professional writer! Once the check cleared, it was decided that we would spurge and take the kids to Wildwood, New Jersey for a long summer weekend. The night before we were leaving, we’re in the bedroom packing our bags, getting ready. The news is on and Chuck Scarborough, our local anchor, is guiding us through the events of the day. Then, for some reason, Paul Ruebens’ face is suddenly displayed next to Chuck’s head. This doesn’t look promising. I grab the remote and turn up the volume. Paul Ruebens, creator of the beloved children’s character Pee-Wee Herman, had just been arrested in Florida for, er, “dating” himself in a porn theater. The backlash came fast and furious. “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” was pulled off the air. Some video he made that was playing in Disney World was replaced. Oh, and his picture deal with Warners? Dead. The phrase that leapt to mind was “Crapiddy-crap-crap.”
Turns out he was staying with his parents in Florida. Was it my script that drove him to his self-abuse? Why would somebody with his bucks have to go to a porn theater for his jollies? He didn’t have a VCR? Afraid his parents would walk in? Maybe Warners would want to re-write the script for Arnold Schwarzenegger? Who knows the answer to these questions (except for the last one, which was “no”). I was left with a Pee-Wee Herman script and that really limits the casting for the lead.
So when people talked about the situation and described it as a “victimless” crime, I begged to differ. I was the victim.
After the heartache and cursing had subsided, I de-Pee-Wee-ized the script to get it back to my original story. I didn’t just revert to the old version, I incorporated some parts and notes that had worked during the massive rewriting process. For instance, I had an A-List of elves and a second team of one-joke Pun-ny Named elves. The whole B-Team got promoted while the nondescript elves of the first draft got lost. The original elves were all bland and interchangeable. The One-Joke Punny Elves developed distinct personalities and patterns of speech that grew out of the joke that created them. It’s funny how that happens. Anyway, the parts and set-pieces of the Pee-Wee script that worked but didn’t fit “Claus” got grafted unto another idea I had and I turned that into “Peking Duck,” a comedy/mystery featuring a female lead instead of a Pee-Wee lead. But “The Kringle Project” or “Jingle Bell Blues” (as “Kevin” the producer-in-waiting had re-dubbed it) was back in the query and submission rotation.
That rotation failed to rotate mostly. Conversing amongst friends and online folks, I made the decision to “novelize” the script. I had played around with the format in the past to little avail, but what was there to lose? Not a thing, as it turned out. No one wanted to see it in book form either. I got a nibble once from a small publisher in Baltimore that a friend of mine had some success with. It was during my waning years writing for “The Prairie Home Companion” when Garrison Keillor had stopped using my material and had stopped responding to my emails. That seems an odd point of reference, but it came into play.
You see, the small publisher saw that PHC credit on my resume and assumed that I could just go on the radio show and plug my book and make it a best seller for him. Unfortunately, I told him the truth about my standing with GK and his Minnesota Mafia. Oddly, I never heard from the publisher again.
But thanks to modern technology, I’ve been able to self-publish is book on Amazon’s Kindle publishing site. That’s right, the adventures of Nick Flebber, PI, live on in a book, now titled “Lost Claus.” Wait, did this just turn into a commercial? Sorry about that but I thought a peek into the creative process and sausage-making might be fun.
*note nod to “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.”