Robert Gregory Browne is a former screenwriter who ran screaming from Hollywood and found a home in writing novels, the fourth of which, DOWN AMONG THE DEAD MEN, is being released this month by St. Martin's Press.
His book, WHISPER IN THE DARK, received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, who called it "a taut psychological thriller with hints of the supernatural and an ending that will leave readers speechless."
Rob lives in Ojai, California, and is currently writing the thriller, PARADISE CITY, for Dutton.
LIVING THE DREAM
by Rob Gregory Browne
They stuck the girl in a wooden box and put her in the ground. I know because I was there. I saw the whole thing.
But don't worry, I wasn't witness to some horrible crime, although it was a little disconcerting to many of the people there. The woman sitting next to me started to squirm in her seat a bit, and looked genuinely concerned about the girl's safety.
"I don't like this," she said solemnly.
I didn't really blame her.
The girl in the box was a mere teenager. Beautiful by all accounts. Young. Vulnerable. And looking very alone as they put a pair of goggles on her face and lowered the lid over her, closing her inside. A moment later, they were throwing dirt on the lid, then three men climbed down into the hole grabbed their shovels, and waited for the assistant director to shout, "Action!"
When the call came, they began scraping their shovels across the wood, then one of them -- Dylan Walsh, the one playing Jack Donovan -- dropped to his knees and began pulling desperately at the lid, breaking away parts of it to expose the pale hands of the teenage girl inside, which were bound together with rope.
As soon as those hands were revealed, the director shouted "Cut!" And everyone let out a breath.
I wrote the novel KISS HER GOODBYE about six years ago. The story of an ATF agent frantically trying to find his daughter after she's been buried alive by a psychopath, it came at the end of a decade and a half of trying to get my screenplays produced in Hollywood.
I'd spent fifteen years struggling in the motion picture rat race, getting nibbles and bites, a solid sale, sitting through dozens of lunches and pitch meetings, and a few years working as a story editor and script writer for cartoon shows.
It was a difficult existence, with few emotional payoffs. I made money, to be sure, and a few good friends in the process -- but I was never creatively satisfied, especially after winding up in the animation ghetto, putting words into the mouths of Spider-Man and Diabolik and the kids from Cyber 9.
It was a living, but not particularly fun.
When the animation gigs finally dried up, I decided to call it quits. The problem was that I wasn't writing what was true to my heart. I had been putting words to someone else's vision. Someone else's ideas. And while I certainly did the best job I could -- and took pride in that -- the emotional investment in the work was, needless to say, lacking.
So I quit and decided it was time to write something for myself. Thanks to the urging of a novelist friend of mine, what had originally begun as an idea for a feature screenplay soon started taking shape in my mind as a book. A crime thriller with a twist that nobody had ever before seen.
I had never written a novel -- or, at least, completed one -- but sitting down at the computer every day was pure bliss. I was writing my OWN vision. My OWN idea. And I was no longer restricted by the rules of screenwriting. I could get inside the heads of my characters and tell the readers what the people I'd created were thinking and feeling and experiencing.
The task was liberating.
About three months after I wrote "the end," KISS HER GOODBYE (then called A Measure of Darkness) sold to St. Martin's Press. It was the first of the four novels I now have in print. Then, several months ago, my literary agent got an email. A young television producer had read the book and loved it, and wanted to know if the rights were available.
They were, and we optioned them to him. But even though I knew this young producer had a great track record and had just gotten a new show on the air -- based on an Elmore Leonard story -- I didn't really expect anything from this. Properties are optioned all the time in Hollywood, and most of those options lapse.
But a few months later, I was surprised by a call from my agent. The book had been sold to CBS as the basis of a TV series and the producers had gotten the go ahead to write a pilot script. This was fantastic news, of course. But scripts are written all the time in Hollywood, and as I knew from my own experience, very few ever actually make it to production.
So again, I wasn't expecting much -- even though the guy who would be writing the script had an amazing track record. I just figured this was the last I'd hear of the project.
Oh, boy, was I wrong.
Over the last several years, I've noticed a change in both television and movies.
In the old days, television always played second banana to the feature world. If you were in television you weren't part of "the big show" and the work you did was often considered substandard. And there was certainly some truth to that. With a few exceptions, much of what was on TV in those days paled in comparison to the movies. Television shows were badly lit (shadows barely existed), often poorly acted, and looked as flat as can be.
Think Brady Bunch. Or Gilligan's Island. Or any of the cookie cutter cop shows. All of which have warm places in many of our hearts, but let's face it, the writing quality and production values were not equal to what you'd see in the movies.
Yes, there were wonderful, well-written shows at the time (Rockford Files comes to mind), and we could all sit around arguing about which ones were the best, but even the greatest TV series at the time were no match for "the big show."
This is no longer true, I think. In fact, over the past decade, television has become one of the most consistent producers of quality episodic entertainment. I believe that the best writers, producers and directors are currently working for the small screen and I could point to shows like Law & Order, Nip/Tuck, 24, Battlestar Galactica, Justified, Dexter, The Big Bang and The Good Wife, just to name a very small handful.
Week after week we're treated to not only amazing writing, but to top notch production values and some of the best acting in any medium. Movie actors are no longer ashamed to appear on TV shows, or even headline them, and TV actors can now find a home in movies.
Movies themselves, however, have begun a long, downward spiral punctuated only by flashes of brilliance. Most of the mainstream features being promoted today are unfunny comedies, overwrought dramas or juvenile action pictures that are all bang and no substance. The target audience is decidedly not adult, unless you venture into the independent world.
Again there are exceptions. There always will be. But I take the position that movies and television are completely the opposite of what they were a decade or so ago. Movies now pale in comparison to many television shows.
So you can imagine that I was pretty thrilled when I got a phone call recently telling me that CBS had loved the script based on KISS HER GOODBYE and had given the green light to produce a pilot.
For those of you who don't know what a pilot is, it's a "test" episode that the network watches to help them decide whether or not to go to series. It's usually the first episode you see if a show is picked up for the Fall.
The producers sent me a copy of the script and I sat down to read it with a feeling of giddy anticipation and outright dread. What if I didn't like it? What if they had completely destroyed my story? Even though I knew that the person behind the script -- Michael Dinner -- consistently produced quality work, this was my baby we were talking about here. And I was hoping like hell he'd done it right.
He had. It's hard for me to describe what it felt like to read that script. All of my set pieces were there. My characters. Much of my dialogue. Even some of my narrative had been used in the narrative of the script -- the part that no one but the actors or production crew ever read. This to me, was the ultimate compliment to my work. It was as though Dinner had kept all of the things he felt were great about the book and saw no reason to change them.
What he did change, in order to get the story to make sense as a continuing series -- and to cut it down to episode size -- actually improved the story, and I have to admit that, about halfway through, I started getting tears in my eyes.
In short, the script was absolutely amazing, and I couldn't have asked for a better adaptation. It was as if Dinner had somehow channeled my thoughts and knew exactly what to put on the page.
Once the pilot was approved for production, everything kicked into high gear. I was not involved in any of this, however. I was simply on the sidelines, getting occasional emails from the producer, Carl Beverly (along with partner Sarah Timberman), telling me about who had been cast for the show.
First Nip/Tuck's Dylan Walsh came on board. I had been a fan for many years and I knew that Walsh was an excellent actor, especially when he's allowed to show his darker side. The character of Jack Donovan certainly has a darker side as well, and Walsh is, in my estimation, perfect casting. He's also damn good in the role.
After Walsh came Terry Kinney, playing the bad guy, Alex Gunderson, along with Donovan's ATF team, consisting of Michael Rapaport, Sandrine Holt, Sean Patrick Thomas, Lorraine Toussaint, Felix Solis -- and Emmy Clarke as Jack's daughter, Jessie Donovan.
She's the girl who was put in the box in the ground. A brave young woman, indeed, and an amazing actress.
The producers were kind enough to invite me out to the set, and my wife and I recently went to Chicago to watch the pilot being filmed. Because of my hefty writing schedule, we were only able to make it out for a few days, but I'm sure you can imagine how rewarding it is to see so many people working so hard -- and so brilliantly -- to bring your creation to life.
Cast and crew greeted us on the set warmly, I got the chance to kid around with the actors, talk shop with the producers and the director and see my book -- the book that had originally been an idea for a screenplay -- come full circle and be transformed into something alive and vibrant.
The first day we visited, they were filming several scenes at and around a lighthouse, in Evanston, IL. A special shed had been built and attached to one of the buildings and had I not been told it was a set, I would have believed it was the real thing.
For next several hours we watched a large crew of people run around like crazy, setting up shots, tending to the extras and the actors, jockeying lights, and doing what, to me, seemed like an almost impossible task. Yet they did it quickly and professionally and I was pretty much blown away by the whole thing.
I won't kid you. I again got tears in my eyes -- but quickly put on my sunglasses to hide them. It was hard for me to get my head around the fact that this all stemmed from my imagination. I had sat down a few years previously and begun letting this story unfold at my fingertips, not ever dreaming that I'd one day be sitting on a set, watching it all in real-time.
I think most writers dream that their book will sell to Hollywood, but there are so many obstacles in the way, that it usually remains a dream. I'm one of the lucky ones. And even if this never gets past the pilot stage, I'll always have those days, and the hour of television that come from them, to remember.
And should the luck continue, I'll look at that credit every week -- "Based on the book 'Kiss Her Goodbye' by Robert Gregory Browne" -- with intense pride.