Or, Something from My Past Most Don’t Know About.
I was still working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1990, and True wasn’t to be created for four years. I was the founding Vice President of the JPL Writers Club, and led the Screenwriting Group. While a published writer, I had never written a screenplay, but I had a few ideas to pursue: I was writing a script for Star Trek: The Next Generation (aka “ST:TNG”).
Star Trek was on my mind in part because in early May, 1990, I met and hosted writer David Gerrold, best known for writing the beloved original series episode, The Trouble With Tribbles, when he came to JPL to give a talk at (cough) the Writers Club’s invitation.
Shortly after, I learned another member of the Writers Club had written a story and sold it to ST:TNG (second season’s A Matter of Honor, Story by Wanda M. Haight & Gregory Amos and Burton Armus; Teleplay by Burton Armus, first aired February 4, 1989).
Of course, several of us Club members had many, many questions, especially the leader of the Screenwriting Group. Greg, who happens to be the son of Wally “Famous” Amos Jr., best known for his Famous Amos chocolate chip cookies, was very forthcoming with answers. One bottom line bit: the Star Trek franchise is well known for reading “spec” (non-commissioned) scripts, but we needed to submit them using an agent.
Getting an Agent the Real Hollywood Way (Cheating!)
Tidbit I didn’t learn until this week: before he was famous for his cookies, Wally Amos was the first Black talent agent at the William Morris Agency, specializing in musical acts. He signed Simon and Garfunkel as clients, and represented The Temptations, Sam Cooke, and Marvin Gaye, among others.
Calling on a family friend who was an independent film producer, I asked if he could set me up with an agent. He was well connected, and could: one of his buddies was Lew Weitzman, a long-time Hollywood agent who founded the Preferred Artists Agency. (Weitzman died at 75 in 2013 from a brain tumor.)
Lew wanted me to write screenplays — films — but I wanted to start smaller, and he said OK, sure, he’d submit a teleplay or two. I sent him the script, titled “Crystal Dreams” (which script I haven’t found yet 🙁 ); it was rejected without comment, but then I had a script with my name on it with a rubber-stamped Received date by Star Trek. That provokes a smile for me even today.
“Write a movie,” Lew again advised when he told me it was rejected. “Well, I’m already finished with another idea for ‘TNG’ that’s even better,” I replied. He sighed. “OK, send it to me.” I did: it was called “Honors Pending”, and when I read the script again after finding it in a box last week, I still think it’s a very good story. And yes, it has the Received stamp on it too.
The better news is, Star Trek also liked the script — so much so they invited me to come pitch other story ideas to Michael Piller, the TNG showrunner, and who later wrote the pilot for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine — which episode got the highest-ever ratings for a syndicated series premiere. (Piller died in 2005 at just 56 — from “head and neck cancer.” Damned cancer anyway!)
The bad news was, Piller still rejected it because it didn’t center on one of the show’s main characters — because it couldn’t, since one character I introduced had to die, and the other had to do something impulsive, against regulations, and essentially stupid that ultimately led to that death, and you can’t do any of that with a main character. Conundrum!
But being asked in to pitch “3-5” story ideas in person was a huge deal. Lew was very pleased, and the family friend was vindicated in vouching for me. The TNG staff at Paramount meanwhile sent me a sample script to study (weeks before it aired, so I got a preview!), The Bonding, as well as the Writers’ Technical Manual and the Writers’/Directors’ Guide for a crash course in all things to do with the production of the show from the writer’s angle.
I was in geek heaven. It was surreal to pull up to the guard shack at the famous Paramount Studios entrance and have my name on “the list” to get in.
The Other Shoe Drops
But once I got there, the excitement rapidly dissolved. As I waited in the outer office I felt an oppressive (and this is the only way I could describe it at the time) “creative black hole.” I remember being amazed that for the most part, the episodes coming out of that environment were as good as they were.
Then I was called in to see Piller, with two or three others from the writing staff that I was almost certainly introduced to, but was too overwhelmed to remember who they were. I pitched four story ideas.
The procedure was, I was welcome to have all the written notes I wanted to refer to, but I was absolutely not to hand anything in writing to any of them, so the pitches, which I had printed one to a page, stayed in my possession. I wrote notes on each one as to Piller’s reaction. My favorite of the bunch is reproduced here (click to make it readable).
The responses all did come from Piller (the others in the meeting didn’t get a say either way), and were everything from “Great title!” to “eh.” Mostly “eh.”
I foolishly set my reputation on “I work at JPL!” rather than “I’m a published writer with X and Y experience as a writer.” He couldn’t care less about my real-world employment; what he wanted to know (I realized later) was, could I write? Could I tell a story and finish it?
Yes I can write and finish, but it was too late. I wrote in my planner, “Can you say, ‘Bombed’?”
And frankly, I was glad I bombed the interview: I definitely didn’t want to work in that environment, and as I left I was absolutely determined to not only drop any screenwriting aspirations I had, but to forge my own path. It was lucky that I didn’t have the agonizing choice of being offered a lot of money to work on a fun and prestigious show …where I was convinced I’d be miserable if I took such an offer.
And that’s what a few years later enabled This is True: forging my own path where I answered only to my audience. Not a showrunner, not an executive producer, not a big studio, and not even an agent.
Own a Piece of This Story
The fun thing is, I still have all those documents. If you’re a Star Trek geek like me and want to own any of them, they are were up for auction in my shopping cart:
- The sample script for “The Bonding” Star Trek sent me before that episode even aired.
- My ST:TNG “Honors Pending” script — yes, the original one with the original Star Trek stamp on the cover.
- The Writers’ Technical Manual Star Trek sent me.
- The Writers’/Directors’ Guide Star Trek sent me.
- The original pitching sheets I took to my appointment at Star Trek, with my handwritten notes as to Michael Piller’s reactions to them.
- And unrelated to this story, but still Star Trek: an actual shooting script from the Original Series episode, “The Apple” …probably the second-worst TOS episode behind “Spock’s Brain”. [Irony Note: this is the item that brought in the biggest bid!]
September 30 Update
It’s too late to bid, but you still get a chance to read “Honors Pending”: download it here for your personal use:
The only thing I ask in return: that you comment below to say what you think of the story.
The Buyer’s Reaction
I asked Bob in Arizona, who had purchased the original script, for his reaction.
“I wish I had written it!” he replied. “Did I tell you I wrote scripts and was the Program Director of The Scriptwriters Network when I lived in L.A. in 2002-3? None were ever produced, so I didn’t get much money.”
I’ve met Bob, so I know he’s a pretty smart dude who tells good stories. He hadn’t previously mentioned he has written scripts. For one writer to tell another “I wish I had written it!” is quite the compliment.
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