Writer’s Blogck 3; Say La Vee

September 20, 2007

I’m back. Sorry about the delay. A week ago Delirious left all theatres in NYC. The reality of its departure shall we say, affected me. 

I’ve lived with this film for 6 years. Now that it is gone I’m experiencing an acute sense of loss. I know the reason why. I put everything I had into this movie. If I hadn’t it would never have gotten made. There were hundreds of times throughout the journey where anyone would have given up; I almost did myself. But something kept me going. And now it has become clear to me the more you invest in something the greater the extremes that accompany it; the joys are almost overwhelming—the disappointments cut like a knife to the heart.

Delirious played a month in NYC and a week in LA.  Say la vee, baby. Say la vee.

Going back in time to examine the origin of the screenplay has been both therapeutic and traumatic. Here’s an entry from my notebook as I started the 2nd Draft:

 Nov. 12, 2002
What does Les WANT? The film should set it up immediately and drive him forward toward it. Meeting Toby advances him significantly. How? 

The questions are good; it is the date that staggers me. So, let’s stick with the questions. Looking back I realize that the core of the film was formed in the 1st Draft and never changed. I’m not talking about the details of the plot but the most basic arc of events. I had two main characters, Les and Toby, and an important third one; K’harma—the pop star Toby falls in love with. The 1st Draft made it clear the structure of the film was built upon Les and Toby’s relationship and how it is forever altered by Toby’s growing love for K’harma. 

The notes I received from my first readers prompted this realization: I needed to specify what each of these three characters wanted. I needed to look more clearly at all their interactions and make them at the least believable; at the most inevitable. This is the essential purpose of the 2nd Draft. You emerge from the thicket and you see a little more clearly what you’ve stumbled upon. You see what you’ve accomplished that works and now you gather everything together and shape it to best serve this new image of The Script. 

A final note on the 1st Draft: It is not a loose collection of half-baked thoughts and ideas. It is not a sketch; a Treatment is a sketch. The 1st Draft should be written and presented as the clearest, most precise form of the script up to that particular point and time. You can’t be expected to solve all the problems in the 1st Draft but you should not print it out and have people read it until you have at least attempted to address all the problems you are able to identify.

RULE # 11: Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime.
This is such a simple rule but it is one I keep remembering to forget. When I reread the script before starting the 2nd Draft I was astonished to see how relentlessly unlikable Les Galantine was. Even though in my heart I’d already formed a great affection for him, in the SCRIPT there wasn’t a single scene that justified it. I’d made him a stray dog alright; but one with rabies.

Once I saw that, the solution became excitingly clear: find the moments where Les opens up as a character. Find the places where he lets his guard down, even if only for a moment. Find the moments where we see behind the bitterness, the anger, the disappointment and glimpse the real human being hidden there. In one instance it was as simple as writing a character into an existing scene that actually liked Les.

created Muffy Morris, an aging publicist who although her star has long faded she feels a great fondness for Les because he still treats her as if she’s important. In this scene Les takes some photos at the D-List benefit Muffy is hosting (Soap Stars Against Sexually Transmitted Disease) and gives them to her for free.


Just then, MUFFY MORRIS (53) the Event Publicist, rushes up.  She's a small, fragile woman with clothes and manner from an earlier decade.  She is genuinely delighted to see Les.

LES: Hey, Muffy!  How's the sexiest Publicist in New York?

MUFFY: Now, you behave, Les. You're lucky; you've got the place to yourself. That's the Benefit Chairman and those two are Genital Epidemiologists from Atlanta.  Very VIP.  OK?  Go to town.

LES: Tell you what, Muffy; I'll just walk around, get a few shots and you can have 'em.

MUFFY: Non, non, impossible!

LES: Wee, wee.  I'm breakin' in my assistant, we're chowin' down; you take the shots and place 'em wherever you want.

MUFFY: You're the best, baby.  First class, all the way.

As she hugs him Les rolls his eyes to Toby in mock exasperation.

The importance of this lesson was monumental. I realized even my most difficult character needed to provide some path of connection to the audience. This didn’t mean sugar-coating Les or pulling out his fangs. It actually meant making him more human; giving him the truthful complexities of real human behavior. In fact, I knew this already. Here’s another entry from my notebook that was written long before I even started the 1st Draft. It comes after a night I spent with Chester, the paparazzo I was following.

Feb. 12, 2001
Luca Luca Fashion Show at Bryant Park. As I waited to get in Donald Trump oozed by with someone’s pre-teen daughter on his arm. Suddenly I was grabbed roughly from behind by Chester pretending to be a bouncer about to throw me out. He’s utterly on at these things and he takes delight in having me there with him. We do have a good time together. I enjoy seeing him. He is extremely protective and supportive of me and in these moments genuinely likeable and endearing.

Now, this question: what does Les want? I confess I used to yawn at these kinds of questions, feeling, “What the hell, I’m a writer—I’m just going to write.” I still yawn at these questions but now I know why; they are very, very difficult to answer. Now I answer them. You should too. Contrary to local superstition this doesn’t make your writing more boring or analytical. In fact, your main characters may not even be able to verbalize themselves what they want. But, you as the writer should know it as clearly as you know your own name.

After thinking for some time I determined this: Les wants Acceptance. Of course the level and intensity of this want are what made writing his character exciting. I decided Les wants Acceptance so much he’s willing to kill for it. Now that kept me going.

The 2nd Draft showed me a similar need for dimension in Toby, the young homeless kid Les becomes close to. My original idea was that Toby stumbles into Stardom through luck and his instinctive good nature. But the trap here was that this made him too passive. He essentially just stood around waiting for things to happen to him. To keep his character alive I had to make him more active. In other words, what did Toby really want and what did he do to get it? I decided that Toby really wanted to be a Star.

Now, I still valued my original idea that he was not some self-centered jerk aggressively schmoozing his way into Fame. But this decision enabled me to make him more active. By adding a element of complexity to his character he began to emerge as a quiet manipulator who could turn things to his own advantage simply with a smile. He wasn’t just a good-looking innocent. Now he was working it; just doing it in his own way.

RULE # 12: It Ain’t What You Say, It’s What You Do.
A simple action can say more about a character than a 15 page confession. Audiences are watching as well as listening. Visual information is actually a form of dialogue between the filmmaker and the audience.

This discovery with Toby’s character prompted two changes in the 2nd Draft. One was giving Toby the natural ability to fix things. He takes great pleasure in it. It also ingratiates him to the people he thinks can help him. Here is a scene the morning after Les first allows Toby to crash in his apartment.


Les staggers out of his bedroom and stares in surprise at Toby, cheerfully exercising on a wobbly stationary bike.

TOBY: Hey, man.  I fixed your bike.  The chain fell off.

Les notices only then his whole place has been cleaned up.

LES: Why's it so hot in here!?

TOBY: Oh, I fixed your radiator.  The valve was painted shut.  And I grabbed a shower; I hope you don't mind.  I unclogged your tub.  It's drainin' good now.

LES: What the fuck are you talkin' about?!

TOBY: What?!

LES: You think I'm gonna pay you for this shit?!

The other change was more specific to Toby’s rising stardom; he steals some of Les’ lines. Like many “small” people who feel utterly insignificant Les goes around spouting his own personal Philosophies about the world. Most of them are meaningless retreads he tries to take credit for. But, I wanted to give him one or two that had at least a crumb of truth to them. One night when he and Toby are drinking beer together Les comes out with this pearl:

LES: You know what I’ve learned? A friend is just somebody sittin’ around waitin’ for a chance to start talking about themselves.

First of all Les doesn’t have a single friend in the world. Second, Toby has just been trying to tell Les about his own troubled past when Les interrupts him with this; effectively proving his own theory. And lastly, yeah—doesn’t it feel that way with some people? You’re trying to open up to them, tell them how you really feel and all they do is jump in the moment you stop and say, “Yeah, yeah, but what happened to me was...”

But, no matter how mundane Les’ observation, I felt it showed some originality. I’ve never heard anyone say it before. I like the fact that Les came up with this on his own. Toby likes it too. He likes it so much in fact that he steals the line and uses it to “improvise” when he lands a starring role on a reality TV show. The director of the show loves it too and applauds Toby’s brilliance in front of everyone. Here’s another interesting note I discovered in my notebook: 

 FEB. 2, 2003
Arranged a meeting with Buscemi and Michael Pitt at a coffee shop in Brooklyn. I was a few minutes late. I walked in and there were Steve and Michael already seated, talking intensely. Pitt wore a brown corduroy jacket, which was ripped through to the lining around the waist as if he’d been attacked by a wild dog. It was thrilling to see my actors together right in front of me. I do want to talk to Michael though about the character more. I want to make sure he recognizes the necessity of showing both sides of Toby; the homeless kid as well as the young man working to become a star.

 Apparently I didn’t take my own advice. FLASH FORWARD: Two years later, I was shooting a scene with Michael and Gina Gershon who plays his manager Dana; an ambitious woman genuinely in love with Toby. Michael was reluctant to commit to really kissing Gina, justifying his resistance by saying, “I’m still in love with K’harma.” Actually, it was because his actual girlfriend was on set sitting right in front of the monitor. But, his refusal was throwing Gina off because she understandably felt without Toby’s reciprocal interest her advances on him made her look like she just had a thing for young boys.

I explained to Michael that even if Toby was still in love with K’harma, he could not let Dana know it. This was a woman who was not only steering him to Stardom but also giving him a place to stay since he’d run away from Les. Toby could not put all that in jeopardy by making Dana think he wasn’t attracted to her. “In fact,” I pointed out, “It’s very similar to the way Toby steals Les’ lines in order to get ahead.” 

Michael stared at me in confusion. “When does he do that?”

As alarmed as I was by his question, in hindsight I realized it was actually good Michael didn’t know he was stealing Les’ lines. It enabled him to play those moments completely innocent—just like all the best plagiarists. Still, I was a little astonished. Which leads to this rule:

RULE #13: Actors
Enough said. No, not enough said. If I ever get through this examination of the screenplay I’ll write about my fascination with these strange and mysterious creatures.

The 2nd Draft also brought about the crystallization of K’harma’s character. I had many choices with her as the young, self-obsessed pop diva. The easiest path was satire and ridicule, which I guess was why I took this path in the 1st Draft. Which of course lead to a character that was essentially a caricature and un-engaging on any emotional level.

K’harma too suffered from not being active enough. I said, “If she’s a pop star what would make her the most believable?” Actually singing a song; performing it in front of an audience. So, I made a decision about the level of actual talent she had and wrote not only a scene where she sings but also the lyrics and music for the song. It is called “Take Your Love And Shove It,” and it is one of my proudest accomplishments. It needed to be believable as a pop song but also just stupid enough to work with the film’s comedy. I’ve been told I succeeded on both levels. You can decide for yourself here.

The 1st Draft took six months to write. The 2nd Draft took about two. Again, I printed the script out, checked it for typos and sent it out to another group of readers. I got some more good notes but based on the strong reaction started sending it out to financiers. In the meantime I began a 3rd Draft, cutting scenes, sharpening scenes, distilling the script even more. About halfway through I had to stop because I got the news that Scarlett Johansson had read the script (through my producer Bob Salerno) and was interested in playing K’harma. In February of 2004 I flew out to LA to meet her.

To my amazement Scarlett was completely normal. She also had some very astute ideas for K’harma. She said her favorite scene was when Toby tells Les about his troubles with his mother and reveals the truth about how he got the scar on his face. Scarlett said she wished there was a scene like that for K’harma. I agreed. It was a great note.

I instantly began thinking about the scene. It should enable her to reveal something to Toby she’s never revealed to anyone. It should be hard for her. The scene should struggle forward, not simply lay itself out. It should have the same conflict the scene with Toby and Les had. I was thinking so hard about writing the scene I barely heard Scarlett say she wanted to do the part. This entry from my notebook the day after should provide a glimpse into my state of mind.

FEB. 6, 2004.
Meeting with my agents Brett and Kandace at William Morris. Scarlett’s involvement seems to have motivated them. Much talk about how to proceed.


“Good,” Brett said, “Let’s talk about how to proceed. We need to keep the profile of the film high now because Scarlett is a client.”


“I’m a client,” I said, feigning offense, which was real so it prompted friendly laughter all around. The good news is that Scarlett has already called WM and told them she wanted to do the film.  


Salerno took me to a party at the Chateau Marmont that Michael Stipe was throwing for Naomi Watts in celebration of her Oscar nomination. The party was in a suite with a huge terrace overlooking Sunset Blvd. In the inky haze millions of lights flickered all the way to the horizon, each one someone’s silent, relentless dream of fame and stardom.


Met Naomi briefly. She was gracious but distracted, like a moth that had recently flown into a light of blinding intensity and was seeking it again. Went on a search for the bathroom. Opened a door to discover Cameron Diaz and Justin Timberlake standing in the semi-darkness of a bedroom. They jumped, rushed past me and fled out the front door like terrified birds.  Scarlett showed up. We greeted each other like old friends although we’d only met yesterday. She again stated her excitement about being in the film. She leaves tomorrow for Mexico. John Travolta is flying her, her mother, Barbra Streisand, Nick Cage, Julia Roberts, Pres. Clinton, Muhammad Ali, Elvis and Vanilla Ice to his private resort for his 50th birthday.


Right now you may be asking, “Tom’s got Scarlett Johansson, he’s got the 3rd Draft of his script almost done—what the hell happened?”  Ah. Indeed--what happened. 


Hello Harald,
You are doing extremely well as my personal envoy in Western Europe! Viele danke!
I’m glad you and your wife enjoyed Living In Oblivion. I happen to love that film very much but I will say that I think Delirious is more expansive, more detailed and considerably deeper. I wrote a book about the making of Living In Oblivion called “Eating Crow, Notes from a Filmmaker’s Diary.” It is out of print but you might find a few copies on eBay.
I will now expect you not to rest until Delirious is playing on every screen in Europe.
My best to you and your wife.
harald betke
she believes me. so i just told her about a good review and an very interesting subject. and the film delivered. by the way i just went 2 days ago in a local video rental in vienna, austria, and took “living in oblivion”. the guy at the desk congratulated me with the words “a very good movie”. and i have to agree. but by the way my wife liked much more delirious. i loved delirious also more but not to that degree as my wife. and of course i told the guy at the desk, if delirous is coming to a movie theatre in vienna: go go go.
Thanks for the info Harry. It sure is nice to know that no advertising appears to be the best way to distribute this film. If you see any of the people that actually went to the movie thank them for me.
Trailers are hard. This one had some good things so we went with it. Now, the question of convincing your wife is intriquing. How exactly did you do it?
Harald Betke
Dear Tom,
film is still out here in zurich, so it makes 3 weeks so far. total there are so far 921 visitors, 1 screen. ads i saw literally 0.
i went into the movie without seeing the official trailer. to be honest, if i did, i wouldn’t go to the movie and for sure it would not have been possible to convince my wife. in my view most part of the story was told in the trailer, so i personally wouldn’t have a strong motivation to see the rest, if i already know so much of a film. but maybe that is just a personal problem.
Hello Harry,
Again, I appreciate the fact you responded so strongly to the film. There are plans for the DVD release, here in the US and abroad but you know for a filmmaker the best experience for people to see the film is in theaters.
Speaking of that, how is the film doing in Zurich? Is it still playing? Has there been ANY advertising?
Hi tom,
thinking of the film and the possible crossroads, i would not find a better narration and dialogues. the casting was perfect. i honestly think this film has legs and i hope tv rights and dvd sales will proof it.
Hello Victor M,
Great to hear from you again. I like your English. Sometimes it goes across the street and back but that is what makes your thoughts very interesting. No need to translate on this one.
You are right, 6 years is a long time. I speak of this a little bit in blog 20: HAPPY BIRFDAY when I talk of how the success or lack of success on each film affects the next one.
I should do a whole series on how to support yourself when you have no money coming in. I was fortunate to land a few jobs directing TV episodes. The money is only OK, but it pays the health insurance for me and my wife. Plus, the time commitment is short, about 18 days, and then I’m done.
However doing TV is complicated. First of all everyone then starts saying, “Oh, DiCillo is doing TV now.” I’m not sure what these people think I’m supposed to do for money. But rest assured they would be the first ones to demand my execution if I every sold out and made a “Hollywood” film.
Second, it does take my focus off trying to make the current film. I have found this is only way I can get a film made–focus on it as hard as I can until it happens.
So, yes. It is a struggle. But, it is better than being an alcoholic.
Hey Tom, I really like this site. Thanks a lot by the correction the other day. It’s a good method for learn English. You can do it whenever you want although that occupies time and I suppose that your time is gold although one time one guy (I don’t remember who) said me: “The time is never lost”. Well, I think that I’m digressing. My question is the next: ¿what can you do for a living during six years only with a script project? I think that for any scriptwriter six years without anything it means the death. Oh, no, look at me, I’m like a journalist always asking and I hate the journalists because people like you or people like me lived on the fiction and the journalists of the reality (less and less). Although It’s truth that we take our ideas of the reality (I think), well, I’m being delirious again, sorry! And thank you again for share your memories with us. All this is very interesting.
Hey Sam, yeah it looks like the DVD will come out in March 2008. I’ve got some things I want to include on it. Let’s see if Gestation includes me out.
Sorry to Sarah and Mona about the lost comments. I’ve spent the entire day trying to post this blog. Please re-send and I’ll post them again.
hope you can get this out on dvd sometime soon. im looking forward to watching this.

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