Hello, my name is Terence Loose and I’m a screenwriter.
It started years ago, innocently enough, when I’d go to bad movies and then critique them in social settings. Soon, though, I was rewriting them alone, late at night. Then I started writing in the morning and it affected my job and my social life. I joined a gang – UCLA’s MFA Screenwriting Students – and soon I was driving more than two hours round-trip to sit around a table in a windowless room with seven other struggling screenwriters trading scenes and dreaming of a million- dollar script sale, a three-picture deal, or even just a call back from the guy who produced Weekend at Bernie’s. Of course, all this was really a desperate cry for help… wait, let me rewrite that. A plaintive wail for salvation… No, too melodramatic…
Anyway, like most wannabe screenwriters, I had to hit rock bottom to see the light at the end of the third act. This is my story.
The news came on a Friday night as I packed surfing equipment for a weekend retreat with my wife and four-year-old daughter: I had been chosen to be one of four screenwriters for a six-episode, eight-minute show produced by MTV’s college-oriented division mtvU and starring Kevin Smith (he of Clerks and Chasing Amy fame). Called “Sucks Less with Kevin Smith,” it was aimed at college-age kids, showing them cool things to do on the weekend. Smith and mtvU thought it would be fun (okay, cheap) to use a crew of UCLA graduate film school students.
I, however, saw it as my big break; a chance to impress the likes of a real filmmaker (yes, Kevin Smith), mtvU executives and the UCLA film department head. Plus, I’d get my first screenwriting credit on a show with a guy who’s written seven movies, two of which were actually good. Lastly, if all went well, I’d establish my first Hollywood connection, which is no small matter. As Woody Allen once quipped, “Hollywood is worse than dog eat dog. It’s dog doesn’t call other dog back.”
But I had to work for it. As the congratulatory e-mail said, the show would be “very demanding in terms of time,” and was not a good class to take if you had “heavy commitments.”
My wife studied that line. “You commute from Orange County, have a job, have to complete a movie and sitcom script, are teaching this quarter, and most important,” she said, grabbing me by both cheeks, “you have a wife and child.”
“ Geez, you’re right,” I said. “I better get cracking on ideas. The first meeting is Monday.”
“ But what about the family surfing trip?” she shot back.
“ Sorry, hon, but I don’t think college kids are into that,” I said. “Keep brainstorming, though.”
So, for the next two days, while my wife explained to our daughter why scripting jokes based on bodily functions gone wrong was more important than dad teaching her to hang ten, I logged onto the Web and Googled the Hilton sisters, midget mud wrestling and pretty much anything that combined tequila and togas (77,300 results).
Monday I pitched my top three ideas: female roller derby in L.A., bullfighting lessons in Mexico, and bow hunting wild boar with rocker Ted Nugent. (Don’t believe me? Hit www.tednugent.com and check under “Hogslam.”) The derby girls and bullfighting lessons made the cut. This meant that I had to write and host these 90-second segments, in addition to writing the premiere’s wraparounds – skits that involved Kevin with students providing comically themed intros for each of the featured segments.
I set up the bullfighting for the following Saturday and hit the keyboard; the first script was due in six days. I stared at the blank page. Nothing came. The curser blinked, taunting me. I gave myself a pep talk: “With only six shows and four writers, once you write this one, most of the work will be behind you.”
That’s when I got the e-mail that two of the other writers had quit. “Okay,” I thought, “three eight-minute scripts. How hard can that be for an audience that thinks Mallrats is high art?”
The most important thing, I figured, was to impress Kevin by writing a good first script and getting the bullfighting segment in the can.
That’s when the producer called. The mtvU lawyers had major concerns about me getting into a ring with a bull 100 miles south of the border. I reminded him that in MTV’s latest box office smash, Jackass Number Two, Johnny Knoxville blindfolds himself and lets a 1,200-pound yak ram him in the little Johnny Knoxvilles.
“ I doubt the lawyers knew the details on that,” the producer said.
“ Great,” my wife said when I told her the news. “Now we can all go to the beach.”
My daughter let out a cheer: “Surfing!”
“ Whoa, whoa,” I said. “I have way too many jokes to write to have fun.”
I spent the next three days working on Silent Bob and Jersey Girl jokes and came up with a script I thought was pretty funny.
Unfortunately, I was the only one laughing. Kevin called for a page-one rewrite by Monday morning, which was when we were going to shoot the first two episodes at Kevin’s Westwood comic book store, Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Stash. That weekend also finally became a family affair… sort of.
While I pumped out more Jersey Girl jokes – an easy thing to do, as it turns out – and wrote important and witty dialog like: “Did you just say nerdcore and Pee Pants?” my wife and daughter hit Office Depot for set props and the cue cards that the director had asked for. As usual, my wife was completely supportive, but I thought I detected a note of tension in the way she said, “You may want to make up the couch with sheets and a pillow.” In fact, the tone had grown louder since mid-week, but in my “Sucks Less” frenzy, I had become virtually tone-deaf.
The alarm sounded, however, Sunday night. I had to be on set the next morning at 5:30 a.m., so I decided to rent a set-close hotel room for the night, rationalizing the $169 ($34 less than my bank balance) as an investment in my future. I worked all day on completing four versions of the first show’s script due to confusion on exactly what was to be included, gave my wife a kiss and hit the freeway around 9:30 p.m.
At 10:12 I glanced at the clock… 10… 12… hmm, why does that remind me of something… Holy Script Note! Wednesday, October 12, the day I spent obsessing on whether jokes that maligned Clerks or Clerks II were funnier, was my wife’s birthday. I hadn’t gotten her a present, flowers or even a cheesy Hallmark moment. I did compliment the meal she cooked me… I think.
“ But,” I thought as I drove past the 110 Freeway, “that was probably all forgotten now anyway, since I had also forgotten our 10th wedding anniversary which was going down, well, now.”
I called home.
No answer. No answering machine.
Now, a smarter man would’ve turned around right then.
I checked into the Westwood on Wilshire, stapled scripts until midnight and paid $9.99 for Meet the Fockers.
Like I said, a smarter man would’ve turned around.
Five a.m. found me walking Wilshire Boulevard in the dark with 20 pounds of scripts and two dozen giant cue cards. When I walked on set the Assistant Director rushed up to me. “Jesus, thank God you’re here,” he said.
“ Wow,” I thought, “all those jokes about the writer being less important than the lowest grip and a notch above typist must be false. Writers really do get respect…”
“ We need to get the script on those cue cards pronto,” he demanded.
“ Oh, right. Which script?” I started to open the box with the four versions of my script.
“ This one, of course,” he said, and handed me a draft of something I’d never seen. Then he handed me a Sharpie. “Write big and neat,” he said. “Oh, and try to stay out of the grip’s way.”
Cut to: Me, hungry and broke, kneeling in the back corner of the Secret Stash transcribing Kevin Smith’s script onto large white cue cards. But that wasn’t the worst part; the worst part was that Kevin’s version was better than all four of mine combined.
My only solace was that the other writer, Paul, had suffered the same fate with his script for Episode 2. (And in all modesty, I did have far superior handwriting.)
The rest of the day wasn’t much easier on the ego. Basically, a writer is about as welcome on a film set as a Democrat in Orange County. But to be fair, my student peers did try to include me. “Here, carry this,” they’d say and hand me a 35-pound light stand. But even their patience faded and soon enough I found myself back out on the street with Paul. We walked to Starbucks for a coffee and when we got back, the door was locked.
I went home that night with flowers and an hour’s worth of apologies for my wife and somehow avoided a divorce. I considered quitting the show, but quitting has never sat well with me. Not out of pride; it’s more of a stupidity thing, like the donkey in Animal Farm. And so far, that had served me well – I had never failed to file a story, no matter how bad it was; my wife and I had crossed the Pacific in a small, leaky boat; I had finished seven screenplays without one word of encouragement… wait…
I reminded my wife of our boat trip. “Remember the storms and the seasickness and the 25 days with almost no sleep?” I asked
“ That seemed easier,” she said.
“ The point is we ended up in paradise,” I said.
“ You’re comparing the fat guy in Clerks to Tahiti?” she said.
“ Yes… no… Just let me finish…,” I said. “I only have to write two more episodes.”
The next day, Paul left the show because of a family medical emergency. Everything turned out fine, but meanwhile, I was the sole writer left scribbling and two episodes became four.
Soon after this, I got an e-mail from Kevin himself. It was very nice, respectful and complimented my first script: It “wasn’t horrible,” he wrote. I became determined to build on that and write scripts for Episodes 3 and 4 that would garner, dare I say it, a “not bad.” Maybe I’d even get a joke or two on the air. Or at least avoid Sharpie duty.
So naturally I wrote a script with the premise that Kevin was an obese film school drop out and fraud who lacked the proper credentials to teach us anything. Oh, yeah, and I included a scene in which we students hang and burn a Kevin Smith Inaction Figure in effigy. I e-mailed him the script at 3:30 on a Thursday afternoon.
At 3:31, I frantically searched for a way to un-e-mail someone.
There isn’t one.
I didn’t get too much sleep that night.
But I should have, because the next day I got a very complimentary e-mail from Kevin. He “really dug it,” he wrote, and went on to say that it “was funny, had a through-line and exhibited some clever writing.” So, either Kevin was the idiot I had painted in my script (doubtful, despite five out of his seven movies) or he was one of the most self-deprecating, honestly generous people in Hollywood. Whatever the reason, I was in starving screenwriter heaven.
That’s when the mtvU lawyers shot me back down to earth. For some reason, they saw celebratory hanging and burning as inappropriate for an impressionable audience that was consistently intoxicated. So it was back to the blank page to write an entirely new script.
However, they did greenlight my bullfighting segment, with one caveat: I could not get in the ring myself – apparently, one Johnny Knoxville was enough of a legal problem. The bullfighting school segment was a go for the following Saturday.
“But you promised to spend all day Saturday with your daughter,” my wife reminded me. “You know, the one you don’t recognize anymore?”
“Please, I’ll handle the jokes,” I said. But she had a point. I looked at my daughter, who stared back with big pleading eyes. “Hey, when did she get blue eyes?” I said.
My wife shot me a hard look. “I’m kidding,” I said. I knelt down and looked at my daughter. “How would you like to visit a real ranch and see dad fight a real bull…”
I turned back to my wife. “What? You’re the one that’s always saying she needs more culture.”
“ Museums, not animal slayings,” my wife said.
“ I’m sure we don’t kill the bulls,” I reasoned. “Pretty sure. Okay, 10% sure… Honey?”
That’s when she suddenly had an urge to go shopping.
Saturday came and I left for Mexico at 6:30 a.m. My wife and daughter went to her grandmother’s for the weekend “to give me a chance to work.” I was sure they were coming back. Pretty sure. Okay, 10%.
I tried not to think about it as I drove to the border town of Tecate with two other Sucks Lessers, then traveled another hour on a kidney-punching dirt road into the Valle del las Palmas. There, in the middle of a barren desert landscape, bordered by majestic hills was, well, not much. There was a bull ring, but no electricity, no facilities and, most importantly, no rancher.
“ We can’t let the cows out without the rancher present,” said our instructor.
“ Did you say cows?” I said.
“ Fighting cows,” he corrected. But it didn’t help – it’s hard to make the word “cow” sound menacing.
To be fair, one of the cows had foot-long horns and was ramming the bajeesus out of a steel holding pen. The other, well, she’d make a good veal cutlet.
After five hours of waiting, the rancher finally showed near dusk. We released the hornless heifer for a few quick passes by various students, then it was back to the dirt road. I got home a little after 11 p.m. – a 16-hour day for 45 minutes of shooting. Welcome to Hollywood, baby!
Sunday was spent gulping caffeine and writing more Jersey Girl jokes – there is truly no end to them. I sent two new scripts for Episodes 3 and 4 off to Kevin, exhaled with relief, then immediately began psyching myself up for the next rewrite. But it didn’t come, mostly because Kevin rewrote the two scripts himself. But he did keep my storylines and a good number of jokes, so I called it a victory.
The shoot went well, too. I was not only allowed on set, but actually trusted to carry sandbags.
So it was off to the home stretch of Episodes 5 and 6 with an optimistic pen.
That’s when the Bobbleheads took over. Yes, those freaky little springy-necked gizmos that usually have baseball caps and ride the dashboards of face-painting Dodgers fans. Only these were characters from Kevin’s movies. There was Buddy Christ Bobblehead, Silent Bob Bobblehead, Jay Bobblehead, and a host of Bobbleheaded minor characters.
I teamed up with Ben, a wild-eyed talented director with a penchant for daily facial hair modification, and worked out a story in which the Bobbleheads took over the store for vaguely religious reasons. Ben and I were excited. (Of course, Ben was born excited, so that should have been a warning.) There were a few minor concerns, such as how we were going to shoot the Bobblehead crusade scene on the show’s modest budget – basically, zero plus sandwiches – but we felt the script was inventive, fun and only slightly less important than The Last Temptation of Christ.
Kevin wasn’t as enthusiastic. The problem with the script, he wrote, was “nobody understood what the f@*# was going on in it. There were no laughs…”
“ Is that better or worse than ‘not horrible,’” I asked Ben.
For the show’s finale, I went back to the drawing board and wrote an homage to A Charlie Brown Christmas. But it was returned.
Then I wrote a Fairy Godmother parody featuring Samuel L. Jackson as an evil Fairy Godmother(bleep)er. It failed to convey the magic.
Finally, I wrote a script based on the premise that we got a real filmmaker as a teacher instead of Kevin. (Hey, he liked the one in which I burned his likeness.) I had cameos from Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorcese. I never actually got an official reaction to that script, but I’m pretty sure no calls were made to Coppola’s people concerning availability.
Eventually, Kevin wrote a very topical, funny script for the final show, which included a segment featuring me acting opposite him. The premise: I’m disgruntled about his rewriting all my work and attack him with a Taser.
I didn’t mind the prospect of hurting Kevin, but the prospect of acting terrified me. I spent all Sunday trying to memorize my lines, of which there were seven, and of which I usually forgot six.
Monday came and I nervously watched as my fellow students ran through their scenes with Kevin – mine was slated for the last shot of the day. Finally, after 12 hours on set, I stood next to Kevin, staring into bright lights and a dozen pairs of eyes, all waiting for me to “be brilliant.” The director yelled “Action!” and after a few takes, she decided we had it.
“ We do?” I said.
“ Oh, yeah,” she said. “Your hatred of Kevin really came through, especially when you Tasered him.”
“ Totally,” said Kevin weakly.
“ What?” I asked. “No. There was no hatred. Hatred, none.”
“ Are you kidding? You had me scared,” the director said.
I turned to Kevin, desperate. “Kevin, really, there was no hate. I actually liked Mallrats…”
“ It’s okay, I’m used to it,” he said and walked out the back door, taking with him any hope I had at my first real Hollywood connection.
The sound of the crew singing “Happy Birthday” replaced the silence. I reluctantly joined in, wondering what unfortunate fool got to spend their birthday moving camera equipment. Ben came out with a cake and walked toward… me.
In all the crazy Bobbleheaded confusion of the past few months, I had forgotten my wife’s birthday, my 10th wedding anniversary and finally, my own birthday.
“ But, how did you know?” I asked, swallowing a bite of my favorite cake.
“ Your wife e-mailed me,” Ben said. “She knew it was gonna be a rough day for you, so she wanted to make sure it had a good ending.”
I put down my plate and put on my jacket.
“ Hey,” said Ben. “Don’t you wanna help break the set? We’ll even let you carry the light stuff.”
“ Thanks,” I said, heading out the door. “But I’ve got some surfboards to pack.”
Despite the author’s involvement, “Sucks Less with Kevin Smith” went on to become mtvU’s most successful original content show. To check it out, visit www.mtvU.com.