My Day of the Locust

How a book I wrote got turned into a movie, and why I ain't rich

That's what I found in the Florida story. There was no excuse for these kids. It wasn't the parents' fault. It wasn't society. They used their inherent gift of free will to choose to do and to be evil. Because they could.

Hollywood hated it. Studios would buy the option to my book, because it was about young, good-looking white surfer kids on the beach with hardly any clothes on most of the time who did a scary thing, in between having sex a lot. Then, in a dismal process they call "development," the studios would try to think how to make my story into a movie.

Development is really the process of pitching the story to a star. Stars sell tickets. Stars bring money into the deal. Back then, everyone wanted to pitch this one to Drew Barrymore. But Hollywood stars always play the same basic character in every movie. The way you "develop" a story, then, is to change the main character into Drew Barrymore, so that you can say to her agent: "Lisa, in Bully, is totally Drew."

The cast of Bully lounges on the beach in Fort Lauderdale. I ponder changing my name and moving to Ohio at midnight.
Tobin Yelland
The cast of Bully lounges on the beach in Fort Lauderdale. I ponder changing my name and moving to Ohio at midnight.

Six weeks into every option, some twentysomething would call me from a Quonset hut in Culver City. I had the timing down. Six weeks? They've reached page 160 of my book: the murder, in which the kids try to shoot their teen-age beach buddy, then stab, gut, slit his throat, crush his skull with a baseball bat, drag him still gurgling and alive into the Everglades to feed to the alligators, then leave him to be eaten alive by crabs.

The development people were always irate: "Drew would never do this!" "That bat thing is so totally un-Drew!" "What were you thinking?"

To be fair, they live in a place they honestly believe to be reality. And I bite my tongue. I wanted them to make the movie so I could write the postcards.

In the instances in which studios actually commissioned full screenplays to be written, they all insisted--until Don Murphy got the project--that the screenwriters invent excuses for the kids. But you don't call it an excuse in Hollywood. You call it "motivation."

Believe me. It's an excuse. The goal is that you, dear viewer, shall say to yourself after the movie, "Gosh, Drew shouldn't have allowed that poor young man to fall headfirst on that oddly up-ended baseball bat and then stumble into the Everglades and accidentally plunge into the gaping jaws of an alligator like that, but she's so darned cute, I forgive her, and I will definitely go see her next movie."

The excuse-making doesn't express a philosophy. That gives it way too much credit. It's part of a market-driven business logic that happens to rest easily on the audience's mind.

One poor young screenwriter kept calling me, begging me to come up with a "motivation" that did not have the words moral or evil in it, which, in spite of trying, I never could do. He lived on a houseboat somewhere and was very serious about organic food. Finally, he decided the kids in the story probably had done what they did for chemical reasons linked to food additives. He wound up with a formula that always reminded me of the poisoned apple scene in Snow White, but in this case it was Mom, cackling and whispering to Drew, "How about a little microwave pizza, Dearie?"

Munch-munch. Up with the scary music, out with the bats and knives.

The theater owners, who make all their profit at the concession stand, would have nixed it. Never got made anyway.

Don Murphy, who finally did get this movie made, had produced a wonderful movie in 1998 called Permanent Midnight, starring Ben Stiller as a heroin-addicted screenwriter. That movie manages to tell a very tough story without any preaching, with great humanity and even humor, and with no excuses.

In order to get Bully made, Murphy had to go to Sulichin in Paris and get French money. This is really a French movie. The Hollywood money just would not do it.

Beyond writing the book, I wound up with no creative influence on the movie at all, which I offer as fact not "motivation." I think the movie Murphy et al. have made is ferociously honest. Larry Clark has given the film a raw literal focus from which he allows absolutely no escape. My book was tough. This is tougher.

I firmly believe that the truth this movie tells operates in fundamental opposition to what we insist on telling ourselves about crime in our society and about ourselves.

This movie is a moral horror story. It tells us that the real horror of our dilemma cannot be posited safely on the other side of some social railroad track. The horror is in us all.

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