I often get e-mails from aspiring writers asking for advice. I feel a little inauthentic because whatever I’ve learned has come from trial and error, mostly error. But happily, I have helped some readers/writers get published in the Daily Press in the “Your Column Here” section. Have a strong opinion organize it in 800 words so it’s easy to follow and you’re likely to make the cut.
As for marketing one’s writing to make it big, I’m reminded of Aristotle Onassis’ quote, “If you want to be rich, have lunch with rich people.” (My reply is just be careful you don’t get stuck with the bill.)
More on point was Collin Higgins, a UCLA student who wrote the screenplay “Harold and Maude” for his masters’ thesis. He was also the pool boy for producer Edward Lewis. Fortuitously, Higgins showed his script to Lewis’ wife, Mildred who gave it to Stanley Jaffe at Paramount. “Harold and Maude” thus became the hit movie of 1971 and is still considered a cult classic.
Never as a pool boy, but I have tried various offbeat approaches to get my screenplays read by movie executives. (Once from a waiter who claimed one day he was going to be a movie executive.) But my most “eccentric” attempt was trying to get my play to Jon Voight.
I wrote “The Last Dance” last year in advance of the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination. The lead character was an aging former CIA agent hiding in a remote fishing village in Mexico. He was virile, haunted by demons and yet charming enough to interest Harper, a 25-year-old environmentalist in Mexico to protest the brutal turtle poaching. Voight was perfect but how to get to him?
I contacted Voight’s representative but in agent-speak, “play” translates into “no money.” A mutual friend noted that Voight, though a Catholic, was involved in the Hassidic Jewish movement in Los Angeles and appeared on the Chabad Telethon. I was given the phone number of temples he frequented and though it seemed farfetched, I made the calls.
The first two centers seemed to think I was a little nuts and frankly I couldn’t argue. But the third, Rabbi Wolfowitz, (not his real name but close) responded cryptically, “You want me to do you a favor, how about you do me one in return?” He suggested we meet in my apartment lobby that afternoon to discuss it. (You’re sure this is how Neil Simon got started?)
Skeptically, I waited in front of my building with a copy of my play awaiting the rabbi. When he arrived and got out of his car he was wearing heavy traditional Hassidic clothing, even in the heat. And he wasn’t in his 80s as I had imagined on the phone but was actually 26. (26 going on 80.)
We sat down in the chairs in the lobby as some neighbors were getting their mail, etc. As I was about to show the rabbi my play he said he had a “contract” for me to sign. Was he a rabbi or did he work for William Morris? I’m paraphrasing from memory but the contract basically asked that, as a journalist, I would be fair-minded when writing about “Jewish issues.” Confused, I said, “Rabbi, I’m Jewish, I would do that anyway.” He smiled, “Then you won’t have any trouble signing it, will you?”
Thinking perhaps this whole thing might not have been such a great idea, I quickly signed the contract and handed him my play. But there was more. He wanted to say a prayer to celebrate our meeting. Before I could politely decline he quickly put a yarmulke on my head and pulled tefillin out of a small leather box. These were hand-tefillin, leather straps, which he quickly wrapped around my arm, hand and fingers. Suddenly, my experience with the waiter, soon-to-be studio executive didn’t seem so strange.
As I looked to see if any of my neighbors were wondering what was going on, the rabbi said a prayer which I had to repeat. As I recall he sang a song and we danced, albeit briefly. Amazingly, no one in the lobby seemed to notice the unusual goings on.
Finally, the rabbi unwrapped the tefillin, removed the yarmulke and left. And no, ultimately he didn’t get my play to Jon Voight. (There were “complications.”) Then again, perhaps in writing this, I didn’t keep my end of the bargain, either.
I still encourage aspiring writers who e-mail me but with one caveat. If you want to market your writing, from time to time, you might have to do a little unexpected dancing.
This Sunday, May 18, at 10 a.m. at Pico and Weatherly in West Los Angeles, is the Lag Ba’Omer Community Parade, a project of Chabad Youth Programs. For more info go to lagbomerla.blogspot.com/?m=1 or call (310) 208 7511. Jack is at facebook.com/jackneworth, twitter.com/jackneworth or firstname.lastname@example.org.