Copyright 2010 Neill Fleeman

Elizabeth Grayson as Katie Gordon in The Third Act

The Third Act

            “There are no second acts in American lives,” said F. Scott Fitzgerald.

            For those of you of tender years, Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald was the first and most literate of the American novelists of the immediate post-WWI era.  His books, `This Side of Paradise', `The Beautiful and the Damned', `The Great Gatsby', and `Tender is the Night', evoked the never-never period of the Teens and Twenties now known as the “Jazz Age.” His final novel, `The Last Tycoon', was unfinished at his death in 1940 at the age of 44, his promise as a writer long gone, dissolved in a twenty-five year spree of bathtub gin and hedonism. Nobody talks about Scotty much anymore; `Gatsby' is his only creation that still elicits much discussion. The scenes of the drinking life of the Long Island party set that dance across his pages just don't seem relevant; the phrases still glitter but the light is like that of a coldly distant star in a galaxy far, far away. Presumably that's what he meant by his quote; by the time Fitzgerald shuffled off this mortal coil he had been washed up long enough to know he wasn't going to make a comeback, not in the America of planned obsolescence, Madison Avenue, and coffee in a cardboard cup.
     In 2003 I banged out an eight thousand word short story entitled `The Third Act', partially with Fitzgerald's quote in mind. I'd gotten the idea a couple of years earlier while visiting friends in Connecticut, where I had lived for a time. Driving into New Fairfield one day I saw the remains of The Candlewood Playhouse, for thirty-five years one of New England's premier regional theaters. It was being torn down to make way for that great American cultural innovation, a strip mall. Candlewood, it seemed, definitely would have no second act. I drove into the parking lot and sat there for a few minutes looking at the shell of the building. I thought about all the people that had worked there over the years, the productions that had played there, the kids who had gotten their first exposure to the theater there. And of course the backstage romances. It seemed like there might be a story in all that somewhere.
The idea percolated for a couple of years before quite unexpectedly jumping fully formed to the word processor one day. The story concerned two people who had met playing summer stock at a theater like Candlewood, fell in love in the nicest possible way, and how their lives played out over the next two dozen years. Having never expressed their feelings for each other that first summer, their First Act, years later they had an incandescent and disastrous affair, their Second Act. Then after many years of silence they were thrown together again as mature, well-known artists, in a friend's effort to try to resurrect the theater in which the three of them had worked that fateful season all those years before. At last they would play their Third Act.
It was a pretty good story with pretty good characters and a pretty good plot. I liked it and so did the few people who read it. But I put it in the trunk and forgot about it for four years.
On April 25, 2007, as readers will remember, I spent the day working with Renee Zellweger during the filming for the press conference scene in `Leatherheads'. We had a good time and at one point I thought to myself that this was one of those situations where, if life were a movie, I would put on a smarmy grin and pull a screen play out of my pocket saying “Golly, Miss Zellweger, I've got this story here that I think would be great for you.”
I didn't do that, of course, but just for fun, weeks later, I began looking through my trunk stories for something that might be turned into a screenplay.  There's a lot of dusty, cobwebby old stuff in the trunk:  bits and pieces of detective novels, cloak and dagger thrillers, political whodunnits, biographical sketches. But when I got to `The Third Act' I began to see possibilities for plot and character development as a film that I hadn't considered in the original short story. Over the next few months, in fits and starts, between real work, acting in other films, writing Hercule Hippot short stories, and finishing my detective novel `Photograph', I rewrote `The Third Act' as a feature-length film, not with any idea of it ever seeing production but just to see where it went.
Hey, it kept me out of the pool halls.
Writing a film is much different than writing a short story or a novel. That's something else Scott Fitzgerald learned the hard way; he kicked around Hollywood for several of his last years scribbling for rent money but without achieving any appreciable success as a screen writer. The reason, chiefly, is that in a novel you can spend ten or ten thousand words painting a picture in lavish prose describing an ethereal expression that flashes across your heroine's face when she meets your hero standing next to the sundial in the formal garden but in the movies one close-up camera angle can do all that in twenty-four frames - one second - of film. As they proved in the silent film era, writing for films is less about words and more about arranging a sequence of pictures.
By the time the feature-length `Third Act' screenplay was done, inevitably the situations and characters had gotten under my skin to the point that I began looking for a way to bring the essential part of story to life in a shoestring production. The success of `Junebug', a 2005 feature film shot on a miniscule budget in Winston-Salem, NC, and several of the small films I had worked on (`The Dogs of Chinatown', `Goodbye Solo', `Our Neck of the Woods') made me think the idea wasn't totally irrational. We had the local talent; I had the technical know-how based in part on the 16mm industrial films I had written and directed in the late Seventies. Of course a two-hour version was out; something that size would require a commitment, effort and budget far in excess of what was available. But a thirty minute version of the story would be do-able. The first job was to whack away three-fourths of the script without losing anything. And that's when things really began to get interesting.
One problem I had never satisfactorily solved with the feature script was the difficulty of the actors aging over twenty-odd years.  In a novel this is no problem but when you start thinking about shooting a script with that structure and getting actual people in front of a camera you are faced with a host of technical problems: do you use young actors and age them with makeup? Use older actors and try to hide the lines and creases for the early scenes? Or find actors in the middle of the age range and cheat on both ends?  Brad Pitt went from eighty to zero in `Benjamin Button' (a Fitzgerald story, coincidentally), but it took thirty million dollars of computer graphics to do it.
And which story do you tell, the actor's or the actress's? In `Sleepless in Seattle' Nora Ephron managed to divide it pretty evenly between Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan but `The Third Act' had a darker viewpoint and a happy ending wasn't indicated by either the short story or the feature script.
And what about that - the ending? Did I really want to leave our faded ingenue sitting in a coffee shop desperately trying to attract the attention of a much younger and obviously disinterested man while our actor, despite his long-time affection for the actress, made his escape in a private jet, headed as far away from her as possible?
Those three decisions were only the first of about ten thousand that were going to have to be made to get `The Third Act' to the screen. But they were made, as we will see in the next chapter of the story.