Well, at the risk of breaking a Brooksian law, I did have one or two dreams come true last year. My second thriller, Derailed, snuck onto The New York Times Bestseller List, was snatched up by Miramax and, wonder of wonders, was actually filmed, with a stellar cast including Clive Owen and Jennifer Aniston (she broke up with you-know-who during production).
Though I've been on numerous commercial sets as a creative director at BBDO, I've never, with one exception (Batman III, where I shook hands just long enough with George Clooney and Joel Schumacher to be told that Batman could not, repeat not, be in a Visa spot), been on a movie set. I wangled an invitation to London where they were shooting interiors, and took along my buddy Tom Mooney, whose persona I'd loosely portrayed in the book, and to whom I'd promised a chance to see himself being played. (No such luck-we discovered they'd cut his character the day we arrived).
Of course, I wondered what kind of reception I'd receive. I'd heard all the jokes about writers in Hollywood. You hear about the Polish actress? She f*cked the writer. And I wasn't even the screenwriter, just the writer of the source material. As it turned out, they couldn't have been nicer. They walked us around the set, asked me to sign a few books, and gave us two prime-time seats by the monitor.
Everything was perfect. Except.
I've always been a hands-on creative, which is to say I don't spend my time at the craft service table, but within close proximity of the director. I've always considered storyboards-even shooting boards-to be a kind of first sketch. The actual picture should look different, fuller, better-and I've always had a say in how to get there.
Not every director I've worked with has been entirely happy about this. I've had some flat-out refuse to work with me anymore.
Now I was sitting in front of another monitor watching another actor utter my lines. Only this monitor was wide-screen and the actor was Clive Owen. The first scene was a tense confrontation between my protagonist, Charles Schine (Owen), and the villain of the story (Vincent Cassel). I thought Cassel added an effectively squeamish touch of French charm to the role of Charles' nemesis, and that Owen beautifully maintained a quiet and simmering desperation. And yet, there was something about the scene where Cassel pinned him up against the wall . . .
What if they did it like this, I thought, instead of like that . . .
Uh-oh. There it was, that familiar urge to get up, stroll over to the director and whisper a few words of, well, direction.
They played the scene again. Then again. And each time, there was this little nagging voice in my head wondering what would happen if they blocked out the scene a little differently, if a few words were changed here and there. The Swedish director, Mikael Hafstrom, wandered over to the monitor to take a look.
"What do you think?" he asked me.
"Great," I said. "Really powerful. Now, here are a few ideas I've been mulling over. I'd start in a two-shot, panning down to reveal that Cassel has Owen's testicles in his hand, then punch in to a choker of Owen as he gasps for breath, then . . ."
"Glad you're happy," Mikael said, then trooped back to the camera.
The next scene was where Charles more or less comes clean to his wife, Deanna, informing her of his infidelity and other transgressions. Melissa George, who plays Deanna, has to react off Owen's hesitancy and muted explanations to reach a fever pitch of very raw emotion.
When they called lunch, Clive graciously hung around with us. He'd just finished Closer, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award, and he entertained us by reciting some of his dialogue to Natalie Portman in the film's strip club scene, which involved an allusion to a sexual practice frowned upon in most red states.
"What's it like seeing your words up there?" Clive asked me.
"Very gratifying," I said. Then, to myself: But since you brought it up, I think the scene might play a little better if you just told her straight out what you've been up to. What I'd like you to do is take a deep breath, look right into her eyes, and . . .
"Well, I'm happy you're happy. It's a great part."
Throughout the next three days, I managed to keep my inner director mostly in check.
The truth was, this Hafstrom guy was really good. Clive was really good. Victor Cassel was really good. They were all really good.
On my last day there, Hafstrom told me about the favorite scene he'd shot so far. It's the scene where Charles' diabetic daughter has just suffered a seizure, and makes Charles tell her the bedtime story he used to tell her as a little girl. It's the story of a bee who doesn't know why he's been put on this earth, until he stings a peacock whose sudden, startling and gorgeous plumage finally provides his answer, just as he expires. It's a story about life and death and purpose-the very story I'd told my diabetic daughter when she was a little girl. Mikael told me they'd wanted him to cut that scene to save time, but he'd insisted it stay in, since he was moved by its poignancy.
"Thank you," I said.
"So, you watched three days. I'm doing OK with your book?"
"I wouldn't change a thing."
Jimmy Siegel is senior executive creative director at BBDO/New York. His latest novel, Detour, will be published this month by Warner Books.