What to Do When Your Dad Becomes an Action Star

It's a tricky thing, writing about people you love. And I don't only mean from a legal standpoint, which is a whole other can of worms when most of them are lawyers, but also on a more emotional level. The one where you're afraid they might get together and shun you if they ever so much as read your blasphemous diatribe, officially disown you if anybody else reads it, and execute you as a heritic in the unlikely event it actually gets made.

I like to write about my family. I suppose I'm inspired by people who once lived in my house over those living in other people's houses because I know this particular bunch much better. Also because I love them. Oh, and because we are a loud and aggressive clan, particularly when confronting one another as a group, and I'm not sure any of them fully understood my point of view the first time around.

My mother is a retired English teacher with an advanced degree in British Literature. Naturally I expect a degree of objective professionalism from her when offering up my work for a proofread. However, when recognizing characters she may have married or given birth to confronting situations she remembers quite differently, her reaction is as mixed as the rest of the family. On the one hand, they are all flattered to be memorialized, even in something as flimsy and irrelevant as an unproduced screenplay. On the other hand, they are highly insulted. An indignant re-working of a "scene or two" is requested at once, and since I asked, one particular character's over-arching motivations could use some re-tooling throughout!

What loved ones have trouble undersanding is that regardless of who inspires them, characters exist only to serve the story. If I were looking for historical accuracy, I would be a failed documentarian, not a failed screenwriter of heartbreaking and poignant adult family dramedies. Back in film school, My Legendary Story Structure Professor handed out a sheet of loglines of various classics, which in and of themselves were open to extreme interpretation. "Traumatized Kansas runaway suffering a severe head injury falls under the spell of three homeless men in the grip of their own psychiatric issues," for example, would become a very different film than The Wizard of Oz in the hands of, say, David Lynch. My professor's point was not only that there is no such thing as an original idea, but also that there is no such sin as thievery. Writers who don't borrow from their own lives in an effort to imbue their stories with an air of authenticity are otherwise known as hacks.

I'm writing a spec script loosely based on a family vacation whose protagonist is a man vaguely resembling my father. Him and Steve Martin, actually, since I'm no fool and I'd like to actually sell the damn thing this time. My goal is to make my dad not only my real life hero but also the hero of a big screen Hollywood adventure. Then again, I hope he knows that fictional heroes are flawed. In movies that do any box office at all, they are often animated, lacking in personal insight and the butts of their own jokes.

Though he's now retired, my father was once a big, blustery Miami lawyer, whose unlikely connection to Hollywood was a cameo in The Birdcage. In the scene where Robin Williams convinces Christine Baranski to meet Calista Flockhart's parents, she is held up by an open causeway leading to the mainland. At the request of a city official he knew from the Rotary Club, my father agreed to sail his boat at full mast again and again beneath the draw-bridge. Though amused at the idea of his becoming an action star, I'd have been even more impressed had his direction been provided by Mike Nichols himself rather than some no-name second unit A.D. with a bullhorn.

Dad also once negotiated a Hollywood deal for a client whose bayfront mansion served as the primary location for Two Much, memorable only as the film on which Melanie Griffith first met the then married to someone else Antonio Banderas. The sexy European superstar was attempting to cross over on the heels of his early work with Pedro Almodovar. Never having heard of any of these people, Dad walked right past "the little Spanish guy," likely mistaking him for a cater waiter. I'm not sure if Dad asked the leading man for a Myers on the rocks, but that was Dad's drink, so it's a safe bet if his big star sighting happened to occur around cocktail hour.

Dark rum and expensive steak and cigars. That's how I remember my Dad smelling growing up. I remember him stepping into his big white Mercedes at the valet of a fancy restaurant after treating me to a special birthday lunch. "Have a martini," he would say. "You're old enough now, aren't you? Go on and order the Caesar salad, they make it right at the table." But that's not the dad I'm writing about, mostly because that one doesn't work with the story. I need to focus on the hapless dad bellowing orders on his sailboat while the rest of us did our best to ignore him. The dad who wants something, in this case a loyal and receptive crew, and can't get it until the bittersweet end when he learns the price was too high. That's the movie version. For the Hallmark version, I'll have to spring for the oversized card come Father's Day. And pray that this is the one that gets made, because while he may not know a thing about Spanish independent cinema, I sense my father will recognize a loving homage when he sees one coming his way.

Note: Republished for Father's Day 2014, from an original post on May 20, 2007.