Diary of A Post-9/11 Script Doctor

I am writing this diary at 2:30 in the morning, on a film set somewhere north of Jacksonville, Fla. It’s a calm, clear, beautiful December night. And I’m standing with 200 members of the cast and crew, in the darkest corner of an abandoned U.S. military training camp that has been magically transformed into a triple-canopy jungle in southern Panama….Which, in a matter of minutes, is about to get hit by a Category 5–level hurricane. Ah, yes. Despite everything I’ve ever moaned about on these pages, it is at moments like this that I love the movie business.

In one sense, I suppose I’ve become accustomed to the other-worldliness of film sets, the real hurricane that hits when a film production arrives in town: the caravan of 18-wheeled equipment trucks. The caterer. The wind machines. The armorer, with his cache of prop weapons. The sight of 10 electricians, standing in the back of a golf cart, careening off to dinner like some kind of localized version of the Taliban. The grizzled, hard-case military adviser, who struts around like a popinjay wearing Army camo gear and chain-smoking unfiltered Camels, and who is invariably referred to-no matter what his real name may be-as “G.I. Joe.”

(Forgive the digression here, but I just love this guy: Ask him a question-any question, even one as simple as “Is this the trigger?”-and he will inevitably frown, start field-stripping the Camel and launch into a 45-minute soliloquy that begins, “Well … back when I was in Nam…. “)

As I said, I’m used to this. But on the other hand, taken from a slightly different viewpoint, I can also see how all this might look somewhat surreal. Particularly tonight: The entire location has been lit by eight giant helium-filled nylon balloons-bobbing just above the tree line-with a single, brilliant white arc light glowing inside each one.

Since the balloons went up at 5:30 this afternoon, we’ve been buzzed by a near-continuous procession of private planes and helicopters-all of whom, I’m told, can probably spot the lights from 25 miles away.

Maybe it’s the screenwriter in me, but I can’t help imagining the conversations in those cockpits:

“Damn, Vern! Would you look at that!! Glowing orbs! It’s aliens! We got aliens down there!”

“Shit, Henry. What did you expect? It’s a goddamned abandoned military base! Where else would they land?”

So what, you ask, am I doing down here-other than trying to amuse myself? Basically, this is what you’ve been reading about in The New York Times with regard to the film business: I’m down here as a friend of the production-specifically, a friend of the director and his producer-giving the script a quick once-over to see that it reflects what is now euphemistically called “the new sensibility.”

Translation: The story we’re shooting was written several years ago, and concerns some sort of intrigue at the U.S. military base in Panama. Thus, today, out go the corrupt D.E.A. agents and evil Colombian drug lords; in come military men with a higher sense of purpose, and covert C.I.A. operatives who will go off to fight a different kind of evil when this particular nastiness is cleared up.

In terms of screenwriting, we’re talking nips and tucks here, not major rewrites. Course corrections rather than 180-degree turns. About 10 days’ work.

On the set itself, there is little talk of Sept. 11. The focus is on the job at hand-namely, making the movie. And no one cares about the recent New York magazine profile of Harvey Weinstein. This isn’t a Miramax film. But the odds are that everyone here will probably end up working with Harvey-if they haven’t already. He makes great films. Moguls are supposed to be larger than life. His behavior is beside the point.

At the same time, however, there is a great deal of snickering down here about the recent Sunday-afternoon summit meeting between Karl Rove and the studio chiefs-and the notion that Hollywood is suddenly going to start pumping out PG-13 propaganda.

Sure, there’ll be small changes, like the ones I’m making here.

But the general consensus is that overall, not a damn thing is going to change. Why? It’s a long, long way from the ballroom at the Peninsula hotel (where the Rove meeting took place) to the office of a 28-year-old development executive looking for “edge.” These are people who probably haven’t seen The Best Years of Our Lives or Yankee Doodle Dandy , let alone have a clue how to modernize their sentiments. Hollywood will still make as many good movies as bad. But the difference will probably be that the really dreadful films-the despicable movies-will now be slathered with a patina of patriotism.

Meanwhile, almost no one I know inside the film business is buying any of the hype surrounding military-oriented films that are coming out in the next few months. They’re being touted as the dawn of a new era of filmmaking. In a word, this is foolishness.

Year in, year out, Hollywood has always made military movies with heroic characters. The list in the last few years alone includes Three Kings , Men of Honor , Rules of Engagement , The General’s Daughter , U-571 , Courage Under Fire and (drum roll, please) Pearl Harbor .

In truth, all of these films-including the ones coming out in the near-distant future-owe a lot more to Steven Spielberg and the success of Saving Private Ryan than they do to Osama bin Laden.

The movie business has always been a matter of luck, and timing. Or, as someone summed it up here on the set a few minutes ago: “Poor Michael Eisner. If he’d waited only six months to release Pearl Harbor , we’d be calling him a goddamned genius again.”

As I finish this diary tonight, forgive me, if you will, for a moment of sentimentality.

As strange as my present surroundings may be-standing on a film set, at an abandoned military camp in Florida, watching a fake hurricane rage-this trip has been far stranger to me for an entirely different reason: It’s the first time I’ve spent any length of time apart from my children, Thomas and Elizabeth, since they were born 15 months ago.

Just before dinner, I called to tell my wife that I plan to go directly from the set to the airport when we’re finished shooting tonight. And after discussing the details (along with some gossip from the set), she put the phone to Thomas’ ear.

“Tom-o,” I called out. “It’s Daddy. I’ll be home in the morning.”

For a moment, there was silence at the other end of the line. Then a simple exclamation: “Dah-dah!” After which, he proceeded to pull the phone entirely out of the wall. (To my wife’s great credit, she sweetly surmised that he was trying to pull me home. My own assessment was that I’d made a drastic mistake switching his bedtime reading material from Goodnight Moon to articles about Harvey Weinstein.)

In any case, of all the roles I’ve played in life so far-husband, son, writer, friend-it occurs to me now, tonight, on this set, that nothing has come to mean so much as the word “father.”

And the tug at my heart-the desire to look into Elizabeth’s eyes and see Thomas’ smile-is like nothing I’ve ever known.

I can’t wait to get home.