Screenwriting Truly Ain’t for Sissies…

I wrote my first screenplay at 24.  It was based on a book I read when I was in the third grade.  THE SECRET OF CROSSBONE HILL, by Wilson Gage, followed the adventures of 12 year old David and his ten year old sister Kathy during the summer of 1959 when the two stumble on what they believe is pirate treasure in South Carolina.  My teacher, Mrs. Knight, gave me the book after the class finished reading it.  I still have the book in my library.  When I decided to become a writer, I just knew THE SECRET OF CROSSBONE HILL was the book I wanted to adapt into a screenplay.  I sent Wilson Gage (Mary Steele) a letter asking her for rights to the book and couldn’t have been more thrilled when, as an adult, the woman who wrote a book I must have read a hundred times when I was a kid, said yes.

crossbone I grew up passionate about movies. They were a great escape from a family life that was often tumultuous, so if I wasn’t reading, I was watching movies. Both seemed to keep my mother’s unpredictable temper at bay.  I knew every Nancy Drew book by heart, could quote every line of dialogue from THE WIZARD OF OZ or THE COWBOYS  verbatim, and dreamed, repeatedly, of the day the novel I would write when I got older was turned into an Academy Award winning film and I would take my place among the great screenwriters of our time.

Only,  I didn’t understand structure, or theme or character arcs, so  adapting a book where an author did the hard work of doing everything seemed like a great idea.  I did an okay job – even sent the script to Nicole David, who was Drew Barrymore’s agent when Drew did E.T.  But for years….and years….my scripts fell so far short of the mark I decided I wasn’t a writer after all and became an artist instead.

Art is immediate. People see it, and they either like it, or they don’t.  And for a long time, people either liked my art, or they didn’t.

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Writing was a different animal.  I studied writing, and movies, and movies about writing and when I won an eight week screenwriting scholarship at the New York Film Academy I was thrilled, but also discouraged.  By that point I’d been writing, off an on, for close to twenty five years.  Movies seemed to be getting worse and my writing was getting a LOT better, but I still didn’t have an agent, and I was no closer to selling a screenplay than I was to getting run over by a car.  Actually, getting run over by a car would have been easy by comparison.  I’ve been throwing myself at the film industry for over thirty years now and every time Hollywood manages to dodge out of the way.

A few weeks ago, I used some of the grant money from the Sloan Foundation award to hire a script consultant to tear LUCKY 13 apart and help me put it back together again.  Diane Drake is a successful screenwriter (WHAT WOMEN WANT, ONLY YOU), who teaches screenwriting at UCLA and wrote a book about screenwriting called GET YOUR STORY STRAIGHT.  She shoved me, kicking and screaming, out of the box I’d built around LUCKY 13.   It’s mortifying to think that after thirty years I STILL don’t know how to tell this story.

diane drakeOnly I do.

And that’s the problem.

I haven’t read THE SECRET OF CROSSBONE HILL in ages.  But fifty years later, I can still remember every detail of the summer David Vance and his sister Kathy spent searching for pirate treasure.

For the past few days I let the characters I met thirty years ago – even though they are characters I created – start to tell me their stories as though I’d never met them before.  And somewhere in there, with Diane’s help, I rediscovered the reason I fell in love with these girls to begin with.

 

When Giving Up Isn’t Giving In and Other Unexpected Tales of Success

When I was young I used to think the road to success followed a straight path.  Decide what you want to do, put your head down, and plow your way forward.  It’s an approach that served me well over the years.  I was going to make something of myself and do it on my own terms or die in the attempt, and if the people around me didn’t like it?  Too bad.    Single-minded determination and the steadfast belief that I was meant for greatness took me on a journey to the top in my art career.

winding roadBut Hollywood?  It’s a nut I just can’t seem to crack.  Not when I was 24.  Not now, at 60.

Seven months ago I decided to quit.  It wasn’t just the constant rejection, or discovering that the closer I got to my goals the farther away they seemed.  People much higher up the food chain than I feel like I will ever be wrestle with the exact same things I do.

I’ve met Academy Award winning producers who have eighty five projects in the pipeline in the hopes one of them will get financed, or producers who managed the Herculean task of attaching talent  see a project slip through their fingers when the talent got a better offer.

I know a writer who sold two screenplays for a million dollars each, both scripts were made into films AND both of those films were remade, and yet she just doesn’t have the heart to battle the system anymore.   Line producers and executive producers and unit production managers with access to more A-list talent than you can even begin to imagine won’t work their connections out of fear their careers might end because they can no longer be “relied on” by the people they work for to stay in their lane.

breaking in

I get emails all the time from people saying, “Send your scripts to Hillary and Chelsea Clinton because they have a new production company now,” or “What about Reese Witherspoon for your new script,” but no one accepts unsolicited material for legal reasons, including agents.  Script competitions aren’t much help.  An agent at APA told me there is only one script competition people in Hollywood really care about, and even then, I heard a story not long ago about a writer who DID win a Nicholl Fellowship, got an agent, and never sold anything.

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Streaming services are exploding at an exponential rate, so the demand for content is higher than ever.  The same people who have been cranking out films and TV shows as fast as they can for the last twenty years are the ones who receive the lion’s share of multi-million dollar deals being offered by Apple TV, Netflix and Amazon, and while I get that a “sure thing” makes more sense than investing in someone nobody’s ever heard of before, it now takes two to three times longer than it used to to “break into the film business.”   I know one TV producer who has been at it for over twenty years, proving time and again she has what it takes to move a project forward,  yet despite her best efforts she has yet to land her own series.

I quit for all the above reasons and more.

But I am, at heart, a storyteller.

Giving up made it possible for me to let the universe step in to change the story I was telling myself; that I might not be the writer I thought I was, that if it was meant to happen it would have by now, that life is too short to chase a dream that doesn’t want me, that I am doomed to failure because I write period pieces, that by writing about women I am intentionally making my life harder and why can’t I write about…anything else?

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Giving up helped me find one of the most important stories I may ever tell, about rhino poaching in the Eastern Cape and one of the most remarkable women I have ever known who is fighting to help stop it.

roxane with rhinos

Giving up made it possible for me to concentrate on my writing and on improving my craft.

Most of all giving up lead me to the greatest affirmation of my work I could ever hope to get short of a green light.

A few months ago, the Athena Film Festival asked me to send the most recent draft of LUCKY 13.  They keep a library of scripts from the Athena List, so I didn’t think anything of it. I sent the draft off and went about my business.  Then I found out LUCKY 13 was one of four finalists for a Sloan Foundation grant, which is one of the most prestigious grants a writer could ever hope to receive.  They only partner with the best of the best, from the Athena Film Festival, to the Black List, to Sundance.  I immediately combed through the list of screenplays on the Athena Film Festival site and thought, well, there’s just no way I am going to win this. I’ve been a finalist in so many top competitions this year its not even funny.  Every time I reach the finish line, they move it.

finish line

And besides, I quit.

Remember?

I won the inaugural award for  a Sloan Foundation development grant and their new partnership with the Athena Film Festival to promote stories of women in science, technology, engineering and math.

The grant will allow me to invest in the story in a way I have never really been able to before.  Now I will be able to hire a script consultant to make sure the story is as perfect as possible.  I can mount a table read of the complete script, or shoot a sizzle reel with archival footage I can now afford to buy, or fly to Los Angeles for meetings once I also get an agent or manager.

barnard read

Quitting opened up my world in a way I never expected.  Quitting gave me an opportunity to sit in the front row at the Glickner-Milstein Theater at Barnard College and listen to my words being performed by an amazing cast of wickedly talented actors.  Quitting means I am going back to New York for the Athena Film Festival next year for an encore performance of the table read.  Quitting gave the universe a chance to do some of the heavy lifting for me so I could concentrate on what I do best.

Telling stories.

Melissa Silverstein, a force of nature in her own right who advocates fiercely for women in Hollywood through the Athena Film Festival (which she co-created) and her Women and Hollywood blog site, sent me an email when I was certain it was all over for me a few months back that just said…

Keep. On. Going.

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Thanks to the Sloan Foundation and the Athena Film Festival, that’s just what I intend to do.

Because giving up isn’t the same as giving in. And this fight isn’t over yet…

athena sloan