Charlie Peters recounts how a night of drinks with George Hamilton and 10 years of hard work brought the Renée Zellweger road picture My One and Only to the big screen.
Written by Shira Gotshalk
It all started 10 years ago at a tiki bar. Charlie Peters and Merv Griffin at Trader Vic’s (naturally), listening to George Hamilton reminisce about his childhood. The memories became a story idea. The story became a spec script written by Peters, whose credits include Blame it on Rio and Three Men and a Little Lady. And only 10 brief years later, after languishing in development purgatory, My One and Only has made it to the big screen.
“George told me this story about his childhood, or what ostensibly passes as his childhood, and I knew I couldn’t set it up as a pitch, because no studio’s interested in that crap,” Peters recalls. “Not that it’s crap, but I’m just saying, it’s not a movie that studios buy.” So there were no explosions or epic space battles in a story about a single mother and her two teenage sons on a cross-country search for a wealthy benefactor in the 1950s? “No, there were no robots or anything like that.”
Instead, it was the richness of the characters, as well as some similarities to Peters’ own childhood, that drove the scripting. Calling from his home in the middle of the Connecticut woods, Peters recently talked with the Writers Guild of America West Web site about how a Hollywood scandal gave him his start and how the business of telling stories has changed since then.
How much of George Hamilton’s story actually exists in the final product?
I grew up in the ‘60s, a decade after George, and my father died when I was a very little boy. There was the personal experience of growing up with a single mother wasn’t very common. Lots of women are divorced or they have children on their own, but in the ‘50s when George’s story [happened], and certainly in the ‘60s when I grew up, it was pretty odd. It was pretty rare. So, that’s why I was really interested in the story to begin with. That’s not to say I wanted to usurp or hijack it from George, but there really wasn’t a lot in George’s story that I used, and what I did use actually got taken out of the movie.
George is a great raconteur and a really good guy, so this is no disparagement to him, but a lot of times professional storytellers, like myself, but particularly George, their stories are sometimes a little heightened. Some of the elements of his story were a little over the top. During 10 years of development, oddly enough, the studio and the various directors and actors who were attached – especially the actors – tended to go much more for the less ostentatious parts of the story and more for the simple part of the story; just a mother and two sons, what happens within the family rather than all the wild, famous people they meet.
Photo: © 2009 Herrick Entertainment
Chris Noth and Renée Zellweger in My One and Only.
It can take on almost a circus feel...
Yeah, I think it’s more accessible this way. I mean the audience today, anything that happens before 1990 might as well be a Restoration comedy to them.
You have quite a few films about family – unconventional families. Was that intentional, or are those simply the ones that got made?
All writers have the movies that they get typecast to write. You know, writers of romantic comedies or unconventional families, on the back end, they usually have all this dark stew of demented movies that everybody reads and goes, “Gee, that’s really good, Charlie, what else do you have that’s about an unconventional, funny family?”
What are the most interesting characters for you to create?
I’m always drawn to the contradictory characters. One of the first plays I wrote that was produced off-Broadway was a sort of adaptation of Jekyll and Hyde. I realized years later that virtually everything I write or I wrote was a sort of Jekyll and Hyde, that everybody has a compensatory nature to themselves. I think that most people spend their lives compensating for what they fear they are.
What was it like for you during those 10 years? Did it just chip away slowly at your soul?
I’d been writing for 20 years before that, so I have no soul. It’s like a drug. Someone says “I’m interested,” and suddenly you’re back to, you know, the first line of blow. I shouldn’t use that expression, but, I mean suddenly someone wants you. That’s what makes us so stupidly beholden to this town full of cretins. Every year someone else loved me and my script, and I did draft after draft, basically for nothing, – this is the part that really hurts – I knew I was going to get a big payoff when it went into production...
And of course I got nothing.
You really got nothing?
Ten years of work for zero. Of course, I’ll get money after it’s made 40 percent profit, but since no movie in the history of Hollywood has ever made a profit, it’s unlikely, and this movie is certainly not going to make a profit.
And over those 10 years, frankly, is when the industry changed drastically. I think before that 10 years, maybe five years before that, it would have gotten made. Over those 10 years, it was like a really interesting project to work on because you saw it just getting less and less likely to be made.
Were you involved with the filming production at all?
Yeah, I was. The director, Richard Loncraine, because of his interest in the script starting 10 years ago, has become something of a friend of mine. There was no other writer on the project from beginning to end, which is sort of extraordinary, in its own way. It got put together last summer with a single player producer, which again is pretty rare these days, one guy coughing up 20 million dollars. He clearly had no idea what he was doing. Usually the FCC has 40-page books telling you you’re an idiot if you do that. He’s finding that out now.
What else were you working on during those 10 years?
Oh God, dozens of things. I’ve developed a lot of stuff. I’ve had about 12 movies made, but none since 1999. I more or less gave it up and came back here to write other things. Occasionally, I’ll do an assignment, but after 30 years in the business, you know an assignment’s never going to get made. You do your best and you just take the money, but you know and the producers know and everyone knows that this movie is never going to get made. Hollywood’s full of those, at least it used to be. It’s not so full anymore because they really don’t develop as many things...
Back in the ‘80s and early ‘90s when I was really just working my tail off, you could just about get anything developed. There was a lot of money. Not that that much got made, but there was a lot that was developed.
And it was a lot easier just to squeak things through?
Oh, yeah, I mean, you could just go in with a five-minute pitch and if you were an established writer, they’d give you your start money and tell you to bring in a first draft. And now, as my friends all say, the studios want to see the video first.
If money and the studio system were no object, what would your fantasy project be?
I don’t know, that’s a good question, I mean, I’d like to write something that’s good, and I’m not sure that I’ve really done that. Some things I’ve written that I’ve liked, but they haven’t turned into very good movies. I’ve directed two of my own movies, and I think I may be the only person in Hollywood to say I’m a really crappy director. Someone’s knocking on my door, I think it’s the Hollywood FBI trying to kill me, but I really suck as a director. I get along really well because I directed a lot of plays, so I get along with the cast and the crew, but the notion of spending four hours filming a car arriving at a front door – I just want to shoot myself. I think there’s just a boredom to it, but that makes me really admire directors.
What was your background? Did you go to film school?
I started in theater. I was at school in England as a kid, and got into theater there, and then came to college and graduate school, got a Schubert fellowship to Carnegie Mellon in playwriting, and actually got brought out to L.A. in 1978 because of the famous David Begelman debacle at Columbia. He was the head of Columbia Pictures, convicted of a felony...
...for stealing money from the actors. Yeah. Columbia Pictures, after that episode, decided to do a kind of purely public relations gimmick and had a sort of competition for playwrights around America. I was kind of like an up-and-coming, off- off-Broadway playwright and I was chosen to go out with nine other writers to Hollywood and study under an established screenwriter by the name of David Goodman – nice guy, knew a lot about screenwriting – and that’s how I got out there.
I wrote one spec script, which was a pretty goofy script, called Paternity and the box-office star of the world at that point – which happened to be Burt Reynolds, if you can believe that – decided to do it, and that put me on the map. It wasn’t a terribly good movie, but...
It was good for you...
It got made.
Yeah. Is writing a pleasure for you, or is it a chore?
It’s a real… it’s sort of past that now. It just kind of is; it’s sort of like breathing. I’ve been here in the woods for two-and-a-half years working on this book, and I really did lock myself away. I’ve realized that I go into my studio and just sit there, and the minute I turn on my computer, I get into that world; it’s sort of a relief. Of course, when I’m not doing it, there’s still a certain homework quality to writing. I’m not quite sure I believe anyone who says that they can’t wait to get up in the morning and run to write. I do like it, but if someone could sell me a pill that would remove this from my back, this monkey, at this point in my life I might take it.
Are you a disciplined writer?
Yeah, I pretty much write every day, at least every day during the week. I’m not one of those people who says you have to write 10 hours. I find that two or three really good hours is pretty frigging exhausting to me.
You’ve been in the business for about 30 years. What’s the secret to longevity in such a fickle town?
Total lack of ego. You know, I was just really lucky. If I were coming out now, I don’t know what I’d do. I’d actually probably write for cable television, because that’s probably the most interesting stuff that’s getting done. I came in just at the end of a certain kind of Hollywood peak and I lucked out. I got a lot of stuff done and made, and worked with really good directors – my stuff never really turned out very well, my list of movies is hardly glorious, but I worked. I’m sort of a yeoman, I guess, rather than a prince, but it was interesting; it is interesting.