Christmas came early this year in the form of an unexpected gift. Last Saturday I was lying around feeling physically and emotionally drained from a protracted dental procedure I had endured the day before. The phone rang and I decided to let the machine pick up since I lacked sufficient motivation to get up and cross the room to answer it. My message machine chirped on and I heard a voice I haven't heard for about two years, a friend named Peter Huchthausen with whom I have collaborated on two screenplays.
Our first collaboration took place several years ago when I read his book about his experiences in as a Navy Lieutenant in Vietnam and asked him if I could adapt it into a screenplay. He lived on the same small island in Maine as my parents, so I went up to meet with him. He cruised over in his little motorboat and we stood in the driveway and talked about our arrangement. We made a fifty-fifty deal on whatever came out of the screenplay and shook hands. That handshake deal still stands as one of my most valued commitments.
I jumped out of bed and grabbed the phone. Peter was in Paris working on a new book. He'd had a visit from a Canadian producer who wants to make a movie of another of Peter's books. The book, October Fury, reveals the untold story of the role of Russian submarines equipped with nuclear torpedoes menacing American ships during the blockade of Cuba in October of 1962. Peter told me that he had already made a deal for the rights and that he had recommended that I write the screenplay. He said the producer was prepared to offer me $100,000 up front.
I said, "What?"
Now, Peter is a former Naval Intelligence officer who was stationed in Moscow during the cold war. He doesn't usually get his facts wrong. He doesn't ever get his facts wrong. He told me the producer would be sending me an agreement by email.
I said, "Wow."
Then I said, "Thanks, Peter."
He couldn't stay on the phone too long, he just wanted to make sure that I was still at the same email address and was interested in the project.
I said, "Sure."
Then I said, "Thanks, Peter."
After we hung up I went over my notes. Yes, it said "$100,000" and "money up front." Holy shit.
I wasn't sure what to do. I wanted to call everyone I knew. But I didn't. I decided to wait. Instead, I did my laundry. Then I went over to Irv's Burgers to have lunch and work on a crossword puzzle.
On the way over to Irv's, I felt amazing. The post-dental work malaise I'd been suffering from had vanished, along with just about every other care, woe, ache, pain, doubt or fear that had been dragging me down for the past fifteen years. There's this woman I've been kind of hung up on lately who hasn't been too responsive to my attempted romantic incursions. It had been getting me down. No more. Who cares about her? I'm a screenwriter! And my job, which has been sapping my life-forces at an unrelenting pace, leaving me burned-out, disgruntled and humorless. Screw them! I quit! I have $100,000! Hah!
I devoured my grilled chicken sandwich and blazed through my crossword puzzle, basking in the glow of my recent ascension from the ranks of the hopeless loser to the vaunted realm of the working screenwriter. I had made it. My dream had come true.
Then I went home to check my email.
Sure enough, I had received something from the producer Peter told me about. And it had an attachment! That must be the agreement. My ticket to freedom. I read the first few lines of the email and suddenly my precious bubble burst. He wasn't quite prepared to pay any money up front for a screenplay. First, he needed to go convince some big Hollywood studio to pony up some cash. Then he and I would talk about a deal. And he had attached a copy of the treatment he planned to bring with him when he took Hollywood by storm. I took a look at it. There was no way any studio exec was going to fork over any cheddar for a 45 page treatment that began with a list of no fewer than a dozen Russian characters each with a name harder to pronounce than the one before.
This guy didn't know what he was doing. And he didn't have the cash. I was an idiot to think I was going to get $100,000 or even $1000 for writing anything for anyone.
I spent the rest of the day watching TV, trying to summon the energy to go see a movie, but it never came.
The next morning I got another call -- this one from my friend Glen. He works for a hugely successful producer at Sony and has been trying to come up with a project to break out on his own. He's been reading my scripts for a couple of years and a few weeks ago he pitched me an idea. At that point I was willing to say yes to anything. As it turned out his idea was pretty good, and we've been working on an outline for me to write the script. All on "spec" as we say, which means "for free." But it's a cool project and we work together well and this particular morning we were really cooking. We worked out the whole third act and even came up with an ending that we both liked. It was great.
I told Glen the story of the vanishing $100,000 and he just laughed. "I have a dozen stories like that," he said.
But as we talked about it I realized something. Even though I didn't have the money, I still had the feeling that it gave me. I had lost it for a while the night before, but now as I told Glen about how I had been walking on clouds for two hours, I realized that I didn't need the money to feel that way. Because if all of those things that had been bothering me could disappear so quickly and so completely, then they must not have been real in the first place. All I have to do is pretend that I have $100,000 in my pocket and voila -- no more troubles.
It sounds goofy, but it really works. I've been walking around all week with my imaginary $100,000 in my back pocket and it's been working like a charm to ward off negative energy. Besides, if I really want to quit my job, I can. And if this woman doesn't want me, there are thousands of others out there. And a man with an imaginary $100,000 in his pocket is a lot more intriguing than some ordinary schmuck.
I did follow-up with Peter on the actual $100,000 and we are now working out a deal with the producer for writing the screenplay. Assuming he gets financing he will pay me half for writing it and the rest if the screenplay is accepted. I also volunteered to rewrite the treatment to give us a much better shot at actually selling the damn thing. On "spec" of course.
It may never happen. They may choose another writer. It could be a complete waste of time. But I got those two hours of pure joy out of it. And I got my imaginary $100,000. And that, as they say, is priceless.