Ten years ago, I was diagnosed with testicular cancer. With the help of family, friends, and a brutal regimen of chemotherapy, my dance with the beast lasted four months. Sure, cancer won the battle to save lefty, but ultimately, I won the war.
The problem was that at the end of it all, the experience seemed like a very slow blur. I was punch drunk, unable to comprehend all that had happened: so many side effects, so many drugs, so much anger, and so much love. It was an experience I didn’t want to forget, because it made me a better person, but it was also a journey that would have been so much easier had I known a few things going in.
So doing what I do for a living, I decided to see if I could turn it into a screenplay. Now a standard screenplay is anywhere between 90 – 120 pages, with each page being about a minute of screen time. I sat down to write, hoping I could come up with that much material.
Version 1: 192 pages. Ugh. Long. And awful. But…it was just interesting enough for people to say, “Keep writing.”
Version 2: 131 pages. Getting there. This one was tighter, crisper, and just as bad. “Keep writing,” they said.
Version 3: 121 pages. Almost there, and with an added caveat, the main character has now become a narrator. “Interesting concept,” they said. “Keep writing,” they said.
Version 4: 118 pages. Yes, finally in the range of a Hollywood screenplay. The narrator concept is now gone, and the story really flows. “Hmmm…” they said.
I was really happy with it. There was not a single scene that was similar to Version 1. It was a fast read, and people were genuinely laughing. I thought we had it made, until I get a phone call from my producer, Joe Farmer.
Joe: “Can we have a meeting at your office?”
Me: “Sure, when?”
Joe: “Tonight. And bring some tissues.”
At 9:30pm that evening, Joe and I had a heart-to-heart, where he told me, “Dude, I know you’ve worked hard on this, but you have to blow up this script. It all has to change.”
At first, I wanted to strangle Joe, but then I realized that he wants us to make a really good film, and while it was hard to listen to, I took it to heart. So I re-wrote…and re-wrote…and re-wrote. It took me four months before it was ready to show him. His response: “It’s not bad.”
Joe saying “not bad” is equal to Roger Ebert giving something a thumb up. Now I know we really had something. I was euphoric, until August 15, 2011. The film “50/50” had just been screened at a local theater. Joe went to see it, and that’s when the call came in.
Me: “How was it?”
Joe: “Dude, it’s awesome. The acting is great, it’s a great story, and Anjelica Huston
may even get nominated for an Oscar.”
Joe: “Yeah. And now, you’re going to have to re-write about 75% of the script.”
I’m not sure how many 4 and 12 letter words came out of my mouth at that moment. It made “Clerks” look like a Disney matinee. I had given the best writing of my life, and it was all for naught. Joe tried to calm me down by saying, “Hey, at least you now know you have the talent to write a Hollywood script. “ Small compensation, Joe.
I was devastated, and to be honest, scared. What if I can’t do this? What if I’m not meant to tell this story?
After I had sufficiently calmed down, I started writing again. I had to dig deeper, make it much bigger, create much grander problems, and create funnier results…all while making the heart of the fight more personal. I had to write like I had never written in my life.
By the time I had finished, I realized that I hadn’t re-written 75%…I had re-written 95%, and it was better. How do I know it was better? Joe said, “This is actually pretty good.”
I had always wondered why it took people so long to write a screenplay. Even the best of the best writers have said, “This is the one that took me five years to write.” I now understand no one ever gets it right on the first, or fifth, or even tenth try. Writing is deep and emotional and sometimes quite painful, and yet there’s almost nothing more rewarding than to do it well, which I hope I’ve done.
So when you finally see “Half” in your local theater, maybe this will give you some idea of how long it took to get here, and how important it was to never give up, no matter how daunting the task.
It kind of reminds me of my dance with the beast.
– Dan Duffy
Co-founder of The Half Fund, Writer of “Half”