For The Love Of Movies:
Mark Rosenthal’s Summer Of Love
During the Summer of Love in 1967, Mark Rosenthal was quietly staging his own one-man rebellion at Central High School in Philadelphia. He grew his hair.
“I was the first student to break the hair code at my school,” he recalls. “In those days, ‘long’ meant over my ears, and it was enough to get me suspended from school almost every day.”
It’s seemingly a minor offense today, but back then it was huge. Boys were still expected to wear their hair in the buzz cuts popular during the 50’s. But Mark loved the Beatles and their look, which meant wearing one’s hair full in the back and touching the ears.
“That was enough to set off a storm at Central High School,” he says. “It’s amusing now, but for a kid it was tense. Good Jewish boys at Central didn’t get suspended. I had a couple of tormentors on the faculty who were particularly aggrieved by it, and they contacted my parents. It made me aware of how silly and superficial people’s concerns can be. I’d say a lot of who I am was determined by that incident.”
Mark has never really done things the conventional way. Born and raised in the blue-collar Germantown section of Philadelphia, his father had been a Flying Tiger in World War II. When his father came home, he worked with his brother in a furniture store under the elevated train tracks. “When I was young, I assumed that when you went into a business, there would always be a shadow over it,” Mark says. “Although the shadow the El cast over the business was physical as well as spiritual. My father and my uncle were like these two guys beaten down by life, so our family life was pretty modest.”
Mark lived in a neighborhood of row homes, so densely populated that he recalls collecting enough sacks of Halloween candy to last him until April. His father had “one of the great Kensington accents,” and Mark remembers how some people couldn’t understand him. “Some people still accuse me of having a Philadelphia accent,” he confesses. “My family didn’t have a car when I was growing up either, which was really amusing to people when I first moved to Los Angeles.”
Mark never intended to be a screenwriter, but he did grow up watching movies. Every Saturday, he and the other children from his neighborhood would go to the local movie theater to watch the one o’ clock matinee movie. “Hundreds of kids lined up outside the building. They opened the doors at 1:15, and you paid a nickel to get in.”
It was the heyday of science fiction, and Mark still remembers many of the films he saw: The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Mysterians, X The Avenger. He also remembers seeing Abbott and Costello movies and Warner Brothers cartoons. “We never checked the paper to see what was playing before we went to the theater. You just knew that if it was Saturday, you went to the movies. We expected to see a monster movie or cartoons, but if they played a drama, we didn’t walk out. We just absorbed everything.
“Back then there wasn’t the realization of niche marketing,” he continues. “I think that corporate recognition of niche marketing within popular culture has created a sort of crisis in American pop culture by weakening it. To me, popular culture can bubble up into high art sometimes. Niche marketing makes this harder.”
Mark’s love of movies started early, but his interest in writing would come later. “Growing up the way I did in Philly, unless you’d had really exceptional parents or were of a certain social class, the idea that you were allowed to make a life in the arts was not conceivable. Instead, we grew up loving the arts in their popular sensibility.”
Mark did go to college, but he didn’t study film. “If you studied film in college back then, it was the way you’d study art history. It was film appreciation rather than screenwriting. The idea that you would study film at the university level in order to do it for a living was absurd. I never took a film course in my life.” Instead he studied literature, and started his undergraduate studies at Temple University in Philadelphia.
As an eighteen-year-old college student, Mark heard about a weekend-long music festival in upstate New York and decided to go. “I’m one of the few people who actually bought tickets to Woodstock,” he laughs. “I was so thrilled to hear about it that I bought tickets. They were $18 for the weekend, which back then was an enormous sum of money. When I got up there, I quickly hid them, because I realized that if you were truly into the Woodstock spirit, you wouldn’t even have bought tickets.
“Not only was I at Woodstock, not only did I buy tickets, but I was actually at the exact spot when they decided it was going to be a free concert,” he adds. He and his two friends arrived a day early, and because they had come unprepared without tents or sleeping bags, they lived out of the car. On Friday morning, Mark was walking towards the concert field and spotted a group of men with giant rolls of chain link fence, frantically trying to put up the fence before the crowds grew.
“I had my ticket in my hand. As I stepped up, I saw one guy with a beard turn to the other and say, ‘Fuck it, it’s a free concert. Don’t put up the fence.’ So I quickly took the ticket and hid it in my pocket, because everybody was cheering.”
Mark also recalls how there were beautiful full-color programs printed for Woodstock that nobody knew about. “You were supposed to get one as you entered the gates and handed them your ticket. But when they decided not to put up the fences, they left boxes of them lying around. I stuck one in my car. I had about twenty of them. A year later, I cut them up and made a collage for my dorm room wall, thinking, ‘Oh well, it’s just silly hippie stuff.’ I think today if I had my twenty copiesÉ” he pauses. “I always kill myself about it.”
A year later, Mark transferred to St. Andrew’s University in Scotland, his walls covered in cut-up Woodstock programs. The documentary film Woodstock had just been released in theaters, and Mark told his friends he had attended the concert, so they went to see the film.
“That movie made me realize I have an amazing Woodstock story,” says Mark. “On the last night, after the rainstorm, it was freezing. You would huddle around people who had made fires, and since they’d burned trash, there was a horrible stench over the whole place. We were standing with these guys from New Jersey, and one of them had a watermelon. Food was scarce, so we urged him to cut it up. This one kid was passing around a hash pipe and said, ‘No, I’m giving this watermelon to Alvin Lee.’ Alvin Lee was the lead singer of this British blues band called Ten Years After. We said, ‘What are you talking about? Are you crazy? The stage is a million miles away!’ He hoisted the watermelon onto his shoulder and walked off into the night.”
Mark remembered this story as he watched the Woodstock documentary, for when they showed the clip of Ten Years After playing, a watermelon rolled across the stage and hit Alvin Lee’s feet. Alvin Lee picked it up, held it up for the crowd to see, and left the stage. “I was sitting there in the theater audience watching this going, ‘Wait a minute, is this a dream I had?’ That’s what happened to that watermelon!”
After studying at St. Andrew’s University, Mark began to bounce around academia, accepting teaching assistantships and teaching freshman English. “I never would have paid for graduate school,” he says. “The idea was absurd. So I took these assistantships, because I didn’t want to get a real job.” He began working on a degree in Middle English. He completed his master’s at the University of Vermont, then chose University of the Pacific in the California Bay area to complete his doctorate. “I didn’t even know what courses they offered. I just knew that I wanted to be around the Bay area. I loved San Francisco, and saw the Grateful Dead play dozens of times.”
Mark’s dissertation essay defense was approaching, and his graduate school career was coming to a close when he started re-evaluating his career decisions. He wasn’t thrilled about the idea of continuing to teach English at various colleges and chasing a tenured position. “As I finished my dissertation, I said, ‘What am I going to do with my life?’ I was just bouncing around from school to school and having a good time.”
Mark decided to move to Los Angeles to be around one of his early life loves: movies. After receiving his doctorate, his friends threw him a party. “I won’t describe this party, but at midnight I loaded up my car and left for Los Angeles. I drove on Route 5 for about six hours and got to L.A. at about dawn, thinking I would beat the traffic. I was wrong. I had never seen a freeway like this. It was bumper to bumper, with traffic spinning off in all directions. You had to go through the mountains to get to L.A. And the mountains were on fire.
“When I say on fire, I mean they were ablaze, and nobody else cared — they were just sitting in their cars,” he continues, laughing. “There was a rainy winter, then a hot season, and all the dry brush on top of the Santa Monica mountains caught on fire. I was sitting in my car, schlepping all my records and my stereo system around, and everything was on fire, but it was bumper to bumper. I looked at the fire and thought, what is this place?”
Mark moved in with some cousins and lived in a room above their garage. For a while, he fumbled around, trying to figure out what to do. A number of people told him that directors and producers hired people to read movie scripts and select the best ones. “I didn’t have any idea of how the movie business worked at the time — nobody who wasn’t in it did. One day I called the Orion film studios, which are no longer in business. I called around lunchtime, and by sheer luck, I got the story editor, instead of being blocked by a secretary. She answered very gruffly. She was so startled that a guy who had just finished his doctorate in Chaucer would want to read scripts at twenty-five bucks a pop that she was amused and asked me to come in.”
Mark began reading scripts for Orion and for different directors. “After about a year, I began to realize that I could write as poorly as these people could. Over the years, I have proven that as a fact.”
In the early 80’s, Mark didn’t have an office, so he camped out in the food court of the newly built Beverly Hills mall and began writing. He found an idea in the international news section of the New York Times. A teenage girl in India had been raped by men from a neighboring village. She was of a lower caste, and rather than just accept this treatment, she gathered a group of her friends and they beat or killed the men. She went on the run, and people in neighboring villages realized what a brave political act she had done, so they hid her. For months the police searched for her, and when she finally surrendered, all the villagers and the surviving men who had attacked her came out to watch. The police officer, whom everyone assumed would just shoot her, bowed down and kissed her feet. Mark loved the story and thought it would make a great movie. He began adapting the idea into a movie that would later be called The Legend of Billie Jean. In it, an American girl named Billie Jean fought back against a group of boys who had harassed her, and ended up on the lam from them with her brother and friends. It was Christian Slater’s first movie.
Mark sat in the mall food court and wrote his script. “It had bathrooms, it had food, they didn’t chase you out, plus it had the most beautiful women I’d ever seen in my entire life. As a writer, I love excuses not to write, so I could sit there and daydream as these women went by shopping.”
Mark bumped into an old friend of his from the East Coast named Lawrence Konner who was in L.A. writing for a TV show. Lawrence helped him write the script, infusing it with fun and humor as well as a more serious overtone, and they completed it in three weeks. They gave the script to Lawrence’s agent, and soon studios and producers were bidding for it.
“The script sold for a lot of money to the hottest producers in town, John Peters and Peter Gruber. They put a director on it who told us he couldn’t shoot a screenplay he hadn’t written, so he fired us and rewrote it, badly. That was my first lesson on how Hollywood treats writers.”
Six months later, Lawrence’s nine-year-old daughter came home with two complimentary passes to a showing of a rough cut of The Legend of Billie Jean. “The studios like to show a rough cut of the movie to a target audience, so someone had been handing out these passes to young girls. Lawrence and I snatched the passes up and went to the movie. There we were, standing in line with all these nine-year-old girls. The whole time we watched the movie we were saying to each other, ‘I can’t believe what they did.’ Anything that was subtle, they changed. It wasn’t a hit in theaters, but it did go on to be a cult favorite.”
Mark and Lawrence’s script had been circulated before it was rewritten, so people in the industry knew their writing, and liked it. Michael Douglas hired them to write Jewel of the Nile, “and from there the misery flowed.” Over the course of nearly 25 years, Mark and Lawrence have had a movie in production almost every 18 months. “I can’t say they’ve all been pleasant experiences, but at least we’ve stayed busy.”
Mark and Lawrence were fortunate enough never to be pigeon-holed into writing only one genre. Their projects have included the comedy The Beverly Hillbillies, a film noir movie called Desperate Hours, sci-fi films like Star Trek IV and the remake of Planet of the Apes, and the romantic drama Mona Lisa Smile. Mark enjoys the freedom of spanning genres. “I grew up liking all kinds of movies so I’m interested in all different genres. It keeps things from getting stale.”
It wasn’t easy convincing his family that he was making a living writing movies. Mark says it took him about fifteen years in the business before his parents began to understand what he was doing. Mark recalls a particular day when he had gotten to meet Sean Connery to discuss a possible project. “Sean is just as charming and fun and wonderful as you’d imagine. I came home feeling like this is one of those great little gifts the movie business gives you after beating you up for a year — it lets you hang out with Sean Connery for a day. I got a call from my mom. She goes, ‘Listen, I met a woman’ — it’s always some lady. ‘Yeah?’ I asked. ‘Well, her son, you know, he works with Steven Spielberg’s accountant. Would you like me to make a call for you?’ Part of me wanted to say, ‘What? Someone who works with Steven Speilberg’s accountant? You think he’s going to do me a favor?’ I said, ‘No, that’s alright.’” He laughs. “My mom is now 90, and I think to this day she isn’t quite convinced that I have a career or what it is or how I’m doing. She’s seen my name enough to know that it’s there, but I can’t say she sees it as this accomplishment. She’s so suspicious of all that stuff.”
Mark and Lawrence recently finished writing two films, an updated adaptation of the children’s book My Friend Flicka and revision of a script adaptation of the novel Eragon. They are also writing the script for a film about the true story of the USS Forrestal, John McCain’s aircraft carrier in Vietnam, which was the largest naval disaster in American history.
My Friend Flicka is a modern adaptation of the book. The original movie version of it was made years ago, and strayed from the original themes of a farming family struggling in the face of economic troubles. Mark and Lawrence worked hard to capture the book’s theme. Tim McGraw stars in the film, and the lead was changed from a boy to a girl. As of June, the film was in production.
Eragon is a rewritten script based on a novel of the same name. The book was written by a precocious 15-year-old home-schooled boy named Christopher Paolini, and is part Harry Potter, part Lord of the Rings. It tells the tale of a young boy and his relationship with a dragon. The movie was casting as of June.
Mark is still working on the script about the true story of the USS Forrestal disaster, which was the most powerful weapon on earth during Vietnam. “Every sailor on it thought it was the safest place to be, since it was offshore,” says Mark. “It had been there for just four days when a series of explosions took place on it and it almost sank. For two days, a lot of sailors gave their lives to try and keep it from sinking. It became the worst naval disaster in American history. It’s an appropriately themed story about hubris and pride and the superiority of technology versus what war is really like — something we’re learning right now.”
When asked about how he and Lawrence work together, he replies, “Usually he takes a nap, then he wakes up and I show him what I did.” Mark works on a rough draft, then Lawrence comes up from the city and the two start to work it into shape. “It’s all ineffable to me. I still start each script thinking, oh my God, I didn’t do anything today, how is this going to get done? And somehow I turn in something. I don’t like to think too much about the process because it scares me. We just somehow do it.”
When asked if he has advice for writers trying to break into the movie business, Mark says, “The thing I would say for people trying to write screenplays is that I still don’t think that most people understand what the process of making a movie is. I think most people understand from TV shows what a doctor does during his day, or a lawyer, but most people, even people trying to get into the business, don’t understand what this weird thing of getting a movie through a studio is like.” He’s quick to point out though that first-time screenwriters with a great script will get noticed. “I always tell people, if your script just gets to the point where you show them a movie, they will buy it. In other words, there are a lot of scripts that come in that are really well written, but they’re not movies. That’s all your screenplay needs to do. If by some chance you accomplish both showing them it’s a movie and writing it well, then they will probably buy or option the script from you. Whether they make it or not, they’ll want you to write something else for them, and then your career is going, because they’ll say, ‘Wow, the writing is really good.’”
But what makes a great script? Mark believes that it boils down to what makes any piece of art a great experience. “Great movies have been called ribbons of dreams,” he says. “I know I’m watching a great movie when I’ve stopped watching the movie the way I watch a movie and just watch the movie. I’m listening to dialogue, I’m looking at the sets and the lighting. When I suddenly forget that I’m watching the movie, I’m having a great Hollywood experience. I’ve been sitting here making fun of Hollywood, so that it sounds like Hollywood sets out to make bad movies. That’s not the case. In defense of writers, most screenplays that get put into production are pretty damn good.”
After 20 years in Los Angeles, Mark moved back to the East Coast, and he is now raising his family — a son and daughter — in New Hope. He likes its proximity to New York City and Philadelphia, where many of his family members still live. “I love California, I just don’t want to live there. The California I’m protecting my kids from is Los Angeles. I don’t like L.A., which is a genteel way of saying what I really think. It sounds weird to say I despise Los Angeles, but I do. The way I survived my 20 years in Los Angeles was to get out of it.
“I do believe strongly that everyone has to live in California once, or else they’re missing a point of view,” he continues. “It is also something you need to get out of your system, I feel strongly. Everyone has a screw loose in California. It has this sense that you can remake yourself. I think that’s the most interesting and scary thing about California. Many people go there to remake themselves.”
Last summer, Mark took his children to California for a visit. He showed them the Bay area and the California countryside. He also walked the three-mile trek across the Golden Gate Bridge with them. “You walk up to this great arch. As you get to the apex of the bridge, you’re way out over the water looking back at the city, with the sun shining and the wind blowing and the boats passing beneath you. The railing there is very porous, so it’s very scary. One little shove and you go over. It’s great.”
Mark fondly recalls how California is a great place “to be young.” However, he’s comfortable living in Bucks County, and says he’s glad to be “a blue state guy.” Mark enjoys spending time in the outdoors with his family, especially bike riding. He also travels with his family, and they often go to the theater to see plays, operas, and ballets. And the area’s cultural vibe satiates his appetite for art. The area gives him a good balance of the open countryside and a thriving arts community, and has a sense of reality he never felt in Los Angeles. “It was all one mass hysterical delusion there,” he says. “I don’t care if I never see it again.”
Mark protests when asked to name his favorite books. “You’re talking to a Chaucerian here. I would start in the 12th century and move up, and I’d have to give you almost country by country. If you had to tie me down, I’m the biggest fan of Dante — that’s a great achievement in Western literature. And to me, the history of painting is as vital as the history of literature.”
It’s hard for him to narrow down a favorite movie, too. “To select a moviemaker, I could tell you I love Preston Sturgis for one type of movie, and I love Fellini for another, but I also love the Three Stooges and Harold Lloyd, so I couldn’t possibly zero in on anything. I try to show my kids that there’s this line where pop culture and high culture merge, and I think the great examples of pop culture tend to achieve that sort of high art criteria. That’s true in movies and rock and roll and dance, so I think it’s important for everybody to listen to everything, and to watch everything. With a few exceptions, like Adam Sandler movies. Nobody should watch those.”
So whatever became of the long-haired teenager who got suspended from school and went to Woodstock? Elements of him are still there, from Mark’s still-long haircut to all his movies — even the unlikeliest ones. He thinks more along the lines of Love with a capital L. “There are obviously movies where you end up writing characters that are romantically involved, but Lawrence and I go deeper than that with our portrayal of love. In every movie, even overtly commercial movies like Superman IV and Planet of the Apes, we try to have a progressive political message in it, which is a sort of love for mankind kind of thing.
“For instance, in Planet of the Apes, we snuck in a scene that reckons back to an old Barry Goldwater line from his political campaign against Johnson. The original version of the movie had very strong social commentary, but the director Tim Burton just wasn’t interested in that aspect, so we had to sneak it in. We gave the Charlton Heston character a gun speech, which he didn’t realize he was making. He was making a cameo and we had him say something like, ‘Don’t let humans get a hold of guns, because when humans get guns, it’ll be the end of the world.’ No one realized what we were doing there, except for Maureen Dowd at The New York Times who picked up on it and wrote about it.
“We’re very careful,” he continues. “We will not work on movies that are either reactionary or negative in their sensibility. It’s just sort of who we are. It’s not a matter of love in its simple sexual sense, it’s more like the last echoes of my hippie days. My kids tease me about it, that make love not war image. That idea… we sneak it in wherever we can.”
Raquel B. Pidal is Managing Editor for Wild River Publishing, providing copyediting, content editing, and manuscript analysis services. She enjoys using her extensive knowledge of the writing and publishing process to provide guidance and coaching to writers every step of the way from idea to polished draft to printed book.
Raquel has over a decade of professional writing and editing experience in both fiction and nonfiction. Her projects have included ghostwriting two memoirs; content editing numerous manuscripts in the fields of memoir, fiction, and business; copyediting and proofreading manuscripts; and providing in-depth analyses and critiques of fiction and nonfiction manuscripts.
Raquel is currently the Editorial Director for Winans Kuenstler Publishing, a high-end trade nonfiction publisher that offers ghostwriting and publishing services to business and thought leaders who use their books as a platform for their professional and personal brands. She is experienced in project and content management and book distribution.
Previously, Raquel worked in the publicity department at Harvard University Press for two years. She has also worked as an editor for corporations such as ETS (Educational Testing Services) and Aramark. For three years, she served as Program and Youth Services Director at the Writers Room of Bucks County, where she and Joy Stocke worked together on the literary magazine The Bucks County Writer.
Raquel has a BA in English with a minor in Creative Writing from Ursinus College, where she won several awards and honors for her writing, and an MA in Publishing and Writing from Emerson College.
Articles by Raquel Pidal
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