Louis Bayard
Louis Bayard
Louis Bayard Louis Bayard

"Writing Movies for Fun and Profit"
by Robert Garant and Thomas Lennon

The Washington Post, August 4, 2011

Who exactly are the intended readers for "Writing Movies for Fun and Profit"? Nominally, it's an instruction manual that covers everything from the best screenwriting software (Final Draft) to the correct length of a script (100 to 110 pages for a comedy, a little more for a drama) to the arcana of pitch meetings and credits and arbitration. It offers pointers on proper deportment should you ever be summoned to a movie star's trailer. It comes with a glossary and sample outlines.

But who are we kidding? That book isn't this book. The book whose authors are pictured in bikinis, waving sheaves of cash. The book with the gallery of mock-testimonials. (Paul Rudd: "These guys are proof that with no training and little education, anyone can make it as a screenwriter.") The book that superstrikes the word "fun" each time it crops up and litters every page with block letters.

"Oscar Wilde we ain't," declare Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon, and one might say they prove their point with the following quip: "Writing and drinking go together like Oscar Wilde and little boys." It's hardly worth noting that Wilde liked grown men. This is just the kind of blunderbuss joke we might expect from the scenarists behind "Herbie: Fully Loaded" ("a total piece of [expletive]," they acknowledge), "Balls of Fury" (guys playing ping pong) and, most profitably, "Night at the Museum," which became, while my head was turned, the highest-grossing live-action comedy of all time.

Truth be told, it's part of the authors' charm that they freely recognize, and revel in, their lowbrow status. "Writing Movies" hails not from the Cahiers du Cinema but from the belly of the beast, and it glitters with bottom-feeder wisdom. "If all else fails: ADD THE WORDS 'IN 3-D' UNDERNEATH YOUR TITLE ON THE TITLE PAGE."

A treatise on taking notes from movie stars is capped by perhaps the most chilling chapter title ever penned: "Martin Lawrence Has a Few Thoughts." And here's the perfect picker-upper for these recessionary times: "If you're working for the studios, there's a 99 percent chance that you will be fired off of EVERY SINGLE SCRIPT YOU EVER WORK ON."

A modern-day auteurist might cling to the notion that art, or something like it, emerges from this morass of contracts and severance, perks and parking spots, memos and conference calls and draft piled upon draft. Garant and Lennon beg to differ: "Making a truly great studio film, given the parameters and the number of people involved, is ... almost impossible."

And, like SoCal Machiavellis, they would have us give up on the very idea of a great film. "No one asks movies to be complicated or challenging or enlightening—They just want movies to be entertaining. That's why they paid their 11 bucks." In one breath, the authors are crowing about how much money they've earned; in the next, they're taking potshots at indie filmmakers such as Andy Warhol and Todd Solondz and David Lynch. "Ninety-five percent of Americans, if you forced them to watch 'Eraserhead,' would want to punch that movie in the face and would punch YOU in the face for making them watch it."

I now hazard a prediction that "Eraserhead" and Solondz's "Welcome to the Doll House" and Warhol's "Heat" will enjoy a much longer afterlife than "Night at the Museum." Samuel Johnson may have been right when he said that no man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money. But what of the blockheads who write for nothing but money?

A slim distinction, maybe, and in this case, maybe pointless. Garant and Lennon are card-carrying cards, with backgrounds in sketch comedy, and co-creators of Comedy Central's blowzily funny "Reno 911!" mockumentary. More than creators, participants: Lennon's hot-panted Lt. Dangle has joined Steve Carrell's Michael Scott in the annals of ineffectual TV bosses. The suspicion arises that the "authors" of "Writing Movies" are just a couple more characters in the Garant-Lennon canon and that somewhere behind this smoke screen of capitalist gloating, two clever Bolsheviks are having a good laugh at the Hollywood tsars.

Or else they're just making another pile of dough.


Louis Bayard