Why I’m Proud to Write Movie Pressbooks

Sunday, June 27, 2010

MLAAB-Production-Notes Recently, I ran into a Village Voice film critic Jim Hoberman at a screening. He hadn’t seen me in years, and he asked what I’d been up to. The truth is I’ve been doing all kinds of stuff: consulting, Oscar campaigns, unit publicity (where you handle press on films while they’re shooting), blogging –for-pay (not with this one, alas), teaching, interviews for electronic presskits or EPKs (those little docs that show up on Bravo or on DVDs), creating a website, even writing and directing a number of short films.

But my main bread-and-butter has come from writing movie press materials. For those of you that aren’t in the business, critics, editors, feature writers are all given little booklets when a film comes out, with short descriptions of the plot, essays on the making of the film, bios of the cast and crew, and other related tidbits. They are usually formulaic, but there is a lot of room for creativity.

You have real freedom to write whatever you want in these things because it isn’t journalism--you always know the talent will get to approve what you write after you turn it in. So it’s acceptable if you combine two words here with three words there and five words there. In fact, it’s fine if you make it all up. Some people are inarticulate, but if you listen to them ramble for a while, you can kind of get what they are trying to say, and then you come up with something short and snappy and quotable. Or they really don’t have a clue, so then you figure out an idea of what they might say if they did have an idea. The funny thing is that most of them actually believe they said it. Of course there are some people who are so well-spoken that they just say three sentences and stop—then you copy it and put it in. Still, knowing that they can change it, I have no concerns at all about polishing the prose from people who actually were extremely effective communicators. I remember showing Robert Redford his “quotes” for “The Milagro Beanfield War” and watching him roar with laughter.

Once I got a call from a distributor sent me a tape of a director’s Cannes press conference as he thought there was great material there. It was true that the things this director said were quoted a lot in the festival press. But I discovered that he didn’t say any of the things that were quoted so often during the press conference. I said them. In the notes.

When I did the notes for “The Naked Gun,” I pulled the whole thing out of my ass. I wrote everybody’s quotes without interviewing them and invented a completely fictional story of making the film. For example, Leslie Nielson was hired because he was the cheapest actor they could get. Then I brought the draft around and asked the filmmakers and actors to approve it. Most people chuckled and said sure, but it was ticklish with Priscilla Presley (a very nice person, by the way). I had to meet around a conference table with numerous reps and advisors and pitch Priscilla quotes. The rule was I couldn’t mention Elvis, which was a challenge. Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker loved it and my favorite moment came when a studio exec came to the set and congratulated them for writing it. (Afterwards it was rewritten by the studio, so I have no involvement with the version journalists actually read.)

For one movie, I had a series of meetings with the director and the screenwriter, a famous, award-winning novelist. The two of them would describe the movie they made and I’d do my best to convey that. Then they’d edit the film some more, decide it wasn’t really about what they’d told me before, and call me back in for another meeting. At one point, the novelist told me that the heart of the film was encapsulated by what a particular character said at the end. Later on, they cut that line out. I loved these meetings and was really sad when they ended. At the final meeting, the author handed me some stunning prose to use for the opening paragraphs, approved everything else, and that was that. It was a great movie. All of them were.

Sometimes books would be published that included Q&A’s I conducted. In one instance, I wrote the questions and a good portion of the answers too. Of course I wasn’t credited, and didn’t expect to be. Just for fun I called up the publisher and she said it never occurred to her that anybody actually wrote any of the materials she got from the studios. And it was at that moment that I realized the magic and glory of writing lowly production notes. You interview lots of people, transcribe it, write something up and turn it in. It can take weeks and there are often extensive revisions. It’s very much like real writing, except that once the job is completed, from that point on, nobody wrote it. And that’s what Hoberman said when I told him that I wrote notes: he had no idea anybody actually wrote them. (He was joking.  I hope.) I feel there’s something grand about the egolessness of the work, as I put as much effort and seriousness into it as I do with all my other writing, including the words you’re now reading. So when there is no credit, it puts me in the company of the artisans who built Chartres, even if it is an Adam Sandler movie. And that is wonderful.

But I understand why people think nobody writes production notes. Most of them total crap and my cat could do a better job, and thank God for that, as otherwise I wouldn’t get work. I have been able to make a living because the large majority of publicists have zero writing skills. 99% of them are sent out anyway as nobody wants to spend the money to make it better. I was in the running for one of the biggest movies of last year, and had half a dozen of the biggest stars in the business. Tens of millions of dollars were spent advertising and promoting it. They budgeted $1500 for the pressbook rewrite. This is for the sales angle—the so-called “positioning”--for the film to the entire media.

I’m not complaining. This is one of the greatest jobs you can get if you are a movie fan. I sit here at my desk in Brooklyn and phone up legends. I have written the notes for the last four movies by one of my favorite filmmakers, someone who has enriched my entire life. I doubt I will ever meet him and that is fine with me, as I Crispin-Glover-iin-River's-Edgeconsider it an honor to have any involvement with him, no matter how modest. And it is proper that he will never meet me because after his revisions are complete, I no longer exist, nor should I.

I do have a single regret from my years of writing pressbooks. When I wrote the notes for “River’s Edge,” Crispin Glover didn’t want to do the interview over the phone; he wanted me to come to his apartment. I just wanted to get the job done with the least fuss and refused his entreaties. It’s not productive to have regrets in life, but I think about that a lot, what I missed out on by not seeing Crispin Glover’s apartment.