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Clint and Meryl vs Matt and Cameron

By D.B. Gilles

You wake up one morning with a great idea for a movie about a guy in his late sixties-to-early-seventies.

The concept pours out of you like a dream. You go to your computer. Before lunch you've done a rough outline of the first act. By dinner you've mapped out Act Two. By the time you go to bed you've got a decent third act, even though you're not exactly sure how it's going to end.

All day long you're thinking that it would be a great vehicle for Clint Eastwood. Or Dustin Hoffman. Or Robert Redford.

Maybe your idea is about two guys in their sixties or seventies and you have two cool roles and you're thinking that Gene Hackman and Paul Newman would be the co-stars.

How great would that be? To put these two giants in the same movie!

Or maybe your idea is about three--or four--guys pushing seventy and you've got three--or four--fabulous roles that would be ideal for Clint, Dustin, Robert and Warren Beatty (or Jack Nicholson, Paul Newman, Gene Hackman, Nick Nolte, Donald Sutherland).

The dilemma you'll find yourself in is whether or not writing it will be worth the effort.

I'm all for writing things that we're passionate about or are labors of love, but before any of us dig in and pitch tents on a project, we need to acknowledge the risk and decide if it'll be a waste of time and energy. If you're going to write a romantic comedy about two twenty-somethings go for it. A goofy teen sex comedy? Do it. A supernatural thriller or action adventure or edgy comedy? Definitely.

But if the lead in your story is an "old" guy or "old" woman, you might want to weigh the odds of it ever getting read, let alone made in the current moviemaking environment. --

We all know that Hollywood has historically turned its back on aging actors. When I was a kid, major stars of my parents' generation--Henry Fonda, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas et al) were "old" and being replaced by younger actors like the aforementioned stars who are "old" now.

Each generation chooses its own movie stars. I'm fine with that. My parents had their favorites. The Baby Boomers, of which I'm one, had theirs. Fans in their twenties and thirties have theirs. But now, the actors I revered back in the day are, for the most part, over 65.

People age out. Not counting On Golden Pond, what was the last movie Katharine Hepburn starred in? Same with Henry Fonda? Burt Lancaster's last prestige role was inAtlantic City (1980). He was in Field of Dreams too, but that was Costner's movie. He was also in Local Hero (1983) and Tough Guys (1986) with Kirk Douglas and a bunch of TV movies. But as a star in a major film it was Atlantic City

The days of the 60ish Baby-Boomer icons starring in a feature film as the lead are pretty much over, Sure, there are exceptions. Nicholson did About Schmidt. He also did Anger Management, but did you notice that Adam Sandler got first billing? And he's currently filming a Nancy Myers comedy about "an older guy" having an affair with a younger woman who then falls for her mother. Kind of a fun idea. Why Jack as the star? Why not Nolte or Hoffman or Beatty or Pacino? Not that Nicholson isn't perfect and will be great. Is it possible that he's the only star of his age group that Hollywood still considers bankable?

I don't know. Sometimes it's good to think like a studio executive and not a screenwriter. Gives you a different perspective on what makes the business run.
I'm not holding my breath for any of these guys to be the lead in a feature film. They'll get work in supporting roles in features. And maybe they'll get a lead in an independent film, i.e., Peter Fonda, Ulee's Gold and The Limey, which actually starred Terrence Stamp.

Not that this is about feeling sorry for these actors. I feel sorry for their fans.

But I feel sorrier for any screenwriter who's thinking about writing (or has written) a script about an "old' guy or two. Odds are that Hollywood won't bankroll the project.

It's even tougher for female stars of a certain age. Think hard. Who are the female counterparts of these sixty-something male stars? Jane Fonda? Shirley Maclaine? Anne Bancroft? Vanessa Redgrave? Judy Dench? (Nobody knew who she was in the 1960s) If you were about to say Meryl Streep, Susan Sarandon, Sally Field, Jessica Lange, Glenn Close, Diane Keaton, Goldie Hawn or Susan Sarandon, don't. They're all in their fifties, but sixty looms ahead.

So if you've been waiting to write that script about those two eccentric aunts of yours or that college mentor who changed your life or the sweet love story of two sixty-somethings who dated in high school and found each other fifty years later...give it some serious thought.

I'm not saying don't do it. A great idea is a great idea. (And let's go with the presumption that it is a great idea.) But Hollywood probably won't put a nickel into it. And even if you go the independent route (as if that's going to be so much easier and more receptive), you might get it made, but then there's the whole distribution issue. (Distributors and Indie theater owners like to make money too).

Not to be entirely negative (and believe me, part of the reason I'm upset about this is because I have a great idea--really--for a vehicle starring Clint and Dustin. I even wrote a treatment), but I know the only shot it has is to be done on television.

Maybe TNT. Maybe Hallmark. Maybe HBO or Showtime.

But I'm still reluctant to commit to the writing of the script. Even with a solid treatment, it'll still be at least three months before a first draft materializes.

And then there's this little problem of whether Clint and Dustin would work on TV. We know that Glenn and Jessica and Susan do. But I haven't seen any of the big male guns in TV movies.

Who knows? Maybe if the part is great. An old cowboy? An old baseball coach. An old butcher. An old fill-in-the-blank.

Al Pacino is playing Roy Cohn in Angels In America on HBO. But it's an ensemble piece based on the hit Broadway play.

Harrison Ford is sixty-one. Hollywood Homicide didn't make a lot of money. How much longer before he stops being offered the big parts?

And Robert DeNiro is sixty. He's my favorite actor in the world. How many more great parts will be going his way?

As a screenwriting professor and script consultant, whenever someone pitches an idea with an "older" person as the lead, I'm honest and cautionary. I say that the odds are against them, then I go into a truncated version of what I've said here, then I tell them that if they're passionate about the story they might as well write it so they can get it out of their system and move on to the next, more practical, project.

Then I say, "Go for it!"

Actually, before I say, "Go for it!" I suggest that they find a way to tell the story they want to tell, but by lowering the ages. Not that a 53-year-old lead is much better than a 63-year-old. But with Mel Gibson or Bruce Willis, it might be doable.

Well, not really. The problems (and realistic storylines) of men and women in their sixties are different from those of people ten to fifteen years younger. About Schmidt would have been a different movie if it was about Schmidt at fifty.

Ernest Hemingway could have written The Young Man and the Sea, but it would've been substantially different from The Old Man and the Sea.

Thirty years ago, screenwriters used to writing for the aging stars of that era suddenly had to start thinking about "youth-oriented" storylines. It's pretty much the same thing now. The hot young actors of the 1960s and 1970s have been replaced by the hot younger actors of today: Farrell, Norton, Affleck, Damon, Depp, whomever. As a screenwriter in 2003, write what your heart tells you, but hope for an idea that has a chance of actually getting made. With a lead in his/her twenties or thirties and even his/her forties you have a shot. (Well, maybe not her forties)

Look at it this way: sometimes we get ideas that we feel compelled to write, but we know in our hearts the odds are against us. That doesn't mean we shouldn't do it. Just don't go into it with rose-colored glasses.

However, if you have an idea for the next installment in the Grumpy Old Men series find out if Clint and Dustin are available.

Meet the Author: D.B. Gilles

D.B. Gilles teaches screenwriting and comedy writing at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. He is the author of The Screenwriter Within and The Portable Film School. He is co-author of the George Bush parody W. The First Hundred Days. A White House Journal. He also wrote the play, Sparkling Object

D.B. is a script consultant and writing coach. Many of his students have gotten deals, sold scripts, had their work published and their TV scripts, sketches and screenplays produced. 

He writes the popular blog, Screenwriters Rehab: For Screenwriters Who Can’t Get Their Acts Toget...