Pulling Out the Nail: Writing Lessons With Irvin Kershner

writing nail

I’ve been thinking about film director Irvin Kershner, as I work on a flat scene that desperately needs a jump start. Kershner died a few years ago, and even then I hadn’t seen him in decades — since an extraordinary pair of meetings in 1982. Still, he remains one of the most vivid figures I ever encountered in Hollywood.

I didn’t know much about him when the producer of my little family drama movie script set up the meeting, but I could tell he considered it a major coup. I did some research and found out that Kershner had directed some great television shows during what I would refer to as the first “Golden Age”of TV (we’re in the middle of the second one, now): episodes of Naked City, Kraft Suspense Theatre and Ben Casey, before going on to make such extraordinary films as The Luck of Ginger Coffey, A Fine Madness and The Flim-Flam Man. Of course he is best known today for directing what most aficionados agree was the best of the Star Wars movies: The Empire Strikes Back. Indeed he was just coming off that career high success, looking for a new project, when I had the chance to meet him.

It was quite an intimidating set up: the luxurious office on the Warner Brothers lot, the giant photograph of Yoda that dominated the wall behind his desk, and the man himself. He was craggy, bearded, sharp eyed, a true Jedi Knight in his own brand of creative warfare. The rumor about him was that he was difficult, contrary, obstructionist, and he could “turn a go project into a development deal” with one meeting. He was tough with me, but I found his criticisms stringent and illuminating, like a semester of film school in a single afternoon.

“This isn’t a movie!”

The main problem he had with my script was the long passage in the middle during which the father character and his oldest friend reminisce and re-litigate their lifetime of conflict over a series of excellent meals and walks on the winter beaches of Nantucket.

“This isn’t a movie!” he barked, dropping the script on his desk like something dead that had just twitched alarmingly.

“Right,” my hapless producer agreed. “It’s … it’s a play. All that dialogue …”

Kershner turned that beady stare on him. “It’s not even a play! It’s nothing! There’s no drama, here. It’s just two geezers chewing the fat. A movie is about what happens next. Don’t you get that? Look, I say to you, this script is shit. You can’t write. Get out of the business while you still can. What do you do? That’s insulting! That’s abusive! What are you going to do about it?”

“I, uh – ”

“Are you going to break into tears? Run out of the room? Stand up and slug me? I don’t know, but you’re going to do something. That’s a movie! Here’s how EVERY SCENE in a movie should play. Pay attention to me, kid. There’s a nail sticking up out of this desk. I wrap a red rubber band around it and start pulling. The rubber band starts stretching, it pulling thin, turning pink, it’s about to snap, you’re flinching in advance … and then, pow! The nail comes out of the table. That’s what I’m looking for; that kind of reversal, that kind of surprise.”

He didn’t like my ending, either.

“The father admits the son is talented, and they kiss and make up. It’s shit. It’s a TV movie. Do you watch TV?”

“Sure,” I said “I mean, sometimes, I guess but –”

“Well as long as you’re working with me, you don’t watch TV. Not one second of it. It’s all shit. It’s written like shit, it’s acted like shit, it’s directed like shit and if you keep watching that shit you won’t be able to do anything else.”

Producer, near tears …

A silence fell. My producer, he seemed near tears and – he had no idea how jazzed I was – said, “So… we’re done here?”

But Kershner wasn’t done. He didn’t think much of the father son relationship that made up the core of the story.

“It’s all in the past,” he said. “it’s all memory and back story and no one cares.”

“So … what do you think I should do instead?” I asked.

That was always the best thing to ask a movie director when he was on a roll.

“Give them some real conflict, something that’s happening right now. The kid has a girlfriend—let the dad be fucking her. That should heat things up a little. Write me that draft—and cut thirty pages out of it.”

We reeled out of there, into the dry heat of a Los Angeles September afternoon, and my producer apologized profusely for his old friend’s rudeness, over a sumptuous lunch at a nearby Taco Bell. He always was a big spender. I told him not to worry about it. I was already framing the re-write in my head and when I met Kershner, two weeks later, I had a new draft that ran 90 streamlined pages.

He hefted it with a grin “Fighting weight,” he said.

I wasn’t even in the running

I was dazzled and star struck. I had just seen Sean Connery coming out of his office, wearing a track suit, the meeting before mine. I figured out later what that meeting signified: Kershner was about to direct his own version of a James Bond movie with Connery, a re-make of Thunderball.

His decision had already been made, and I wasn’t even in the running.

I probably didn’t deserve to be.

So I didn’t get a movie made that year, and I didn’t get a screen credit and entrée to the Writer’s Guild or a big slab of screenplay money. But I got a lesson in writing I’ll never forget, and every time I ratchet up the conflict in a scene, I think of Irvin Kershner and smile.

Then I get back to work, wrapping that rubber band around the nail one more time, and starting to pull.

Steven Axelrod is a  father of two, and lives on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, where he paints houses and writes, often at the same time, much to the annoyance of his customers. He is the author of the Henry Kennis Mystery series.