March 1, 2004
We’re rooting for love, in the end
by Tod Goldberg
y wife and I are writing a romantic comedy. I don’t mean that metaphorically: I mean my wife, Wendy, and I, Tod, are writing a screenplay together. It’s about a man who falls in love with a woman and about a woman who falls in love with a man, but in between things get in the way of their true love because that’s the way romantic comedies work. I mean, how funny would it be if two people met, decided they liked the way the other person smelled, tasted, felt and looked and they just started dating, eventually moved in with each other, began picking out attractive Pottery Barn furniture for their apartment, signed up for joint bank accounts, invested fifty grand in an evening of ceremony and then lived happily ever after? Ever seen someone else’s wedding video? There’s your answer.
The decision to write a screenplay with my wife didn’t come about suddenly. I’d already pledged to all who would listen that after I finished writing my latest noveland fifth book in five years if you count the two travel books I wrote about getting drunk in Las VegasI was going to take a year off to concentrate on my screenwriting, which was also a fancy way of saying I didn’t have any excellent book ideas on the old back burner and needed time to recharge the literary batteries.
So, when the time came for the year of living filmically to actually begin, I started by scratching out a few general ideas:
- There’s a bomb at the center of the Earth and only one man can diffuse it. Sadly, he’s a deaf mute who lives in an iron lung.
- In a small town in Washington, a man discovers he’s actually the only survivor of an alien space craft which crashed thirty years prior…and he seeks his revenge!
- Three friends meet up at their high school reunion and relive the time they killed that other kid.
“What are you writing?” Wendy asked.
“I’m trying to come up with some ideas for movies. Any of them appeal to you?”
“Let’s see,” she said. “Number one is absurd. Number two is basically Superman. Number three sounds like a short story you wrote in college.”
“It was,” I said.
The problem with all the ideas I’d come up with, and several I hadn’t committed to paper, was that I wouldn’t pay to see any of them. That night, Wendy and I went to see an abysmal romantic comedy called Alex & Emma, which starred one of the Wilson brothers, Kate Hudson and, if memory serves me correctly, a single set designed to look like a struggling writer’s apartment. To be charitable, it wasn’t romantic and it wasn’t comedic. To be accurate, it sucked so totally that I waited until the end of the movie to see who was responsible for writing the script so I might swear off his work forever.
As we walked out of the theatre, both of us cursing the sorry state of film, and the fact that we’d wasted our money on someone else’s bad idea, Wendy said, “Why don’t you write a romantic comedy?”
“I’m no good with the female mind,” I said. “I get muddled up in the whole estrogen factor.”
“I’d help,” she said.
“Yeah, why not?”
Now, if this were a romantic comedy, this would be the moment where we found out that Wendy was a terrible writer and all of her ideas veered toward recreating some of the finer moments of Logan’s Run and Universal Soldier but that through much inner strife and a black moment where it appeared our love would never last, we persevered and she jumped on the back of my motorcycle and we rode off through Manhattan espousing our great love to each other.
The truth of the matter is that my wife is a fine writer in her own right and that I love her already, so the only black moment could be that I happen to love Logan’s Run and she doesn’t, except that she does, which is why I love her.
“I’m a little concerned that we might not work well as a team,” I said. When I write a novel, Wendy reads everything and spends a good deal of time suggesting changes and making critiques, but when it comes down to digging in and actually writing, that all depends on the frivolous conversations I have with the voices in my head and, thus, the only words that appear on the page are mine. And when Publisher’s Weekly says that my work is below-grade, which is what they generally say, the onus is on me alone to write better. But when writing a screenplay with your spouse, there’s a real chance that an argument over a line of dialogue might well culminate in altered sleeping arrangements.
“Let’s give it a shot,” Wendy said. “If we’re terrible, we’ll stop.”
And so here we are, in the middle of act two, writing about a man who loves a woman, a woman who loves a man, and the obstacles between them…which is to say, we can’t figure out what could possibly stand between people in 21st century America who truly want to be together.
“Maybe they’re from different cultures,” Wendy says. “Like she’s a Jew and he’s a Palestinian.”
“And they live in LA? Big deal. Half of Encino is both.”
“Right,” Wendy says.
“And besides, if they loved each other it would transcend the fact that their people have been killing each other since the literal dawn of time. I mean, Romeo and Juliet, right?”
In Alex & Emma, the conceit is that there’s no way the Kate Hudson character, a stenographer hired to type the Wilson brother’s novel, could ever fall in love with the kind of guy who ends up owing Cuban gangsters his entire next book advance (I’m not making this up…rent the movie). Sure, he’s somewhat redeemed by his boyish good looks, crooked nose and mid-list novelist status, but he’s still a degenerate gambler without much prospect for long term success. And Kate Hudson? Well, she’s Kate Hudson, which means she could have her pick of socially acceptable men, never mind that she’s a stenographer and thus immediately eligible for inclusion in the Smithsonian. All of which makes their love story even less plausible.
Which begs the obvious: if all of these romantic comedy scenarios are so unbelievable, why do we flock to them? Why am I writing one, moreover, when I could just put a couple of hardened Marines into space to kill a monster threatening all of humanity? Maybe it’s because love, no matter the obstacles, no matter the inconsistencies, is one thing most everyone craves and by that virtue alone, we yearn for the happy ending, the stroll through Central Park, the moment when it becomes clear that not only does the guy get the girl and the girl gets the guy, but that they get each other and all that entails: a living room, three bedrooms, a big happy dog and vacations that don’t center around which bar in Mexico has the best happy hour. Love is the greatest and lowest common denominator, so even in a movie as notably bad as Alex & Emma, you still end up rooting for it to win out.
Wendy thinks about this. “What would have been the one thing that would have kept you from dating me?”
“Bad breath,” I say.
“Yes,” I say, “bad breath would have been a deal breaker.”
“If you were a conservative Republican,” I say.
Wendy and I both pause and ponder this one. It’s a cultural divide, but one not normally bridged on film. It’s topical, insofar as Republicans are currently in power. It’s filled with the kind of palace intrigue one generally needs to make people decide that love, finally, conquers all. It’s got “inciting action” written all over it.
“So wait a minute,” Wendy says. “If I told you on our first date that I believed in prayer in school, was pro-life, and thought that pornography led to snuff films, but was otherwise exactly the same as I am now, you wouldn’t have called me?”
“That’s impossible. If you believed all of those things, you wouldn’t be exactly the same. You’d be a very pretty Jesse Helms.”
“That’s a good line,” Wendy says.
I agree with her and type it, and the rest of our dialogue, onto the screen. I try to imagine a scene in which our main characters might have this conversation, and it occurs to me that they’d have it when they’re faced with that unknowable distance lovers must always travel: that point where decisions have to be made about what really matters. Is it all as simple as bad breath and politics?
No, we realize, there must be more.
We decide, then, that the thing keeping them apart has to be as much physical as it is emotional, because the false obstacles of, say, one person having money and the other being poor (Can’t Buy Me Love, it’s new urban retelling Love Don’t Cost a Thing, and any take on Pygmalion) or that one person is a gambling idiot (our friends Alex & Emma, or even Honeymoon in Vegas) just don’t hold salt anymore. A physical divide, however, constitutes a real issue of geographical desirability. If our hero has to leave to fulfill the dream of his lifetime, because true love is only really tested when ego and drive and ambition come into play, then we have something: Yes, I love her, but I’ve always wanted to play minor league hockey, just like her dead father.
“Like her dead father?” Wendy says. “That doesn’t make sense. He’s going to play minor league hockey because her father did? Freud would have a field day with that one.”
“Or, you know, whatever.”
We go back and forth for the rest of the night trying to figure out what “whatever” actually is. We look into the Meg Ryan oeuvre: In When Harry Met Sally, it’s that men and women can never be friends and that Harry is everything Sally doesn’t want. In Sleepless in Seattle, Meg is engaged to marry another man and lives across the country from widower Tom Hanks, a man she loves but has never actually met. In You’ve Got Mail, Tom has just ruined Meg’s life by driving her bookstore out of business, plus, they’re both with other people. In City of Angels, Meg falls in love with an angel, and then she dies, which sucks because he’s now human. In Kate & Leopold, Meg falls in love with a man who, technically, has been dead for over a hundred years and has been brought back to New York via a time-warp her ex-boyfriend discovers.
“Basically,” Wendy says, “if we want Meg Ryan to star in this, we have to figure out a way for her co-star to be either dead, suffering from the loss of his spouse or, at least initially, totally reprehensible.”
It seems, then, that the “whatever” in most movies is untenable sadness…which does resemble real life and thus makes some empirical sense.
“I’ve got it!” I say. “What if he is dead, but, here’s the big switch, he plays minor league hockey to fulfill some goal in life that he couldn’t attain while alive.”
“Heaven Can Wait. The version with Warren Beatty,” Wendy says.
“I’m going to bed,” Wendy says.
“I’m going to write for a little longer,” I say. “See what I can come up with.”
Wendy leans down and kisses me once on the top of my head and then she and both of our dogs saunter off to the bedroom. I sit in the office for another hour trying to figure out how people fall in love, how they fall out of love, and how time and consequence conspire against lovers in moviesabout how very little that happens on the screen in a love story is how it happens in real life.
I met my wife when we were both employed by a fifties-style diner as servers. I wore a bow tie, a white sailor hat and a short sleeved white shirt each day. She wore a tiny candy-striped dress and white stockings and little saddle shoes. We fell in love despite the fact that I was a terrible server (dropping milkshakes was an art form I perfected), teased her unmercifully and was dating someone else when I met her and she was dating someone, too. It would be fair to say that for the first few weeks my wife knew me, she thought I was a total jerk and I thought she had poor taste in men.
One night we went out for a drink after work, as people at work are apt to dothen smash cut to nine years later and here I am not bothering to close the door when I pee.
Love is a lot like Alex & Emma: fairly boring if you’re not involved in it directly. What amounts to passion and intrigue and human drama in the space of a love affair between two people in real life amounts to one paragraph in an essay, which does not a movie make… unless you can relate to it, unless you can see yourself and your desires in the faces of Kate Hudson and Mr. Wilson up on a giant screen. Perhaps the denominator I’m looking for, that we all look for in these movies, is hope. We go to these movies because we hope they’ll reflect back on us in some positive, empathetic light; that our own lives, our own romantic hurdles will seem smaller by comparison. Or, even better, larger. If common idiots thrust into absurd situations in films can come out of it madly in love, their lives not too ruined by the psychological duress of the situations, isn’t it possible that us normal people living nine-to-five lives with unusual tax burdens should be able to as well?
I flip through all the notes we’ve compiled about the kind of movie we want to write. We’ve circled words like “smart” and “witty” and “real” and in other places we’ve noted that our heroes should talk like real people talk, that their problems should be easily relatable to people our age and that, when the script is done, it should be the kind of love affair we’d envy: filled with moments where the world seems to be tilting off one axis and all the people who aren’t our lovers end up tipping over one side, so the sun and the stars and the moon only focus on the two people we’ve created.
And it occurs to me, right here and now, that I’ve got a beautiful woman resting alone in a huge bed and that tomorrow, definitely tomorrow, I’ll dream up a way to pull other lovers apart, patch them back up and send them riding off into the night, fingers intertwined, Harry Connick Jr. crooning in the background, the sky a brilliant shade of blue.
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