Whatever Happened to Empathy?

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I came to an awareness of God at an age when absolutes were as black and white as they come, because, at 12, you know everything and Lord A’mighty  are you self righteous about it?  It wasn’t my idea to start going to church; that distinction belongs to my parents who loaded us up in the car every Sunday morning for church they both still attend.  I  figured if I was going to have to do this against my will, then I was going to know everything about it.

I read the bible from cover to cover and took the words I read to heart.  I get that God can be a vindictive SOB but it seems to me that Jesus spent his entire life exhorting his flock  “Be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.”  Almost everything about the first half of the New Testament is about Jesus taking care of people, whether its turning water into wine at a wedding party,  living among “deplorables” like Mary Magdalene, throwing greedy Pharisees out of the temple, or sacrificing his life to give others a chance at eternal life,  empathy was his calling card and, as much as possible, I wanted it to be mine too.

Studies show that around 2000, empathy, as a human construct, has gone out of fashion.  In an article in Psychology Today written in 2018 where the collective sacrifices of a nation after World War Two were considered essential, “the mood in America today, where almost all discourse is uncivil, whether online, on cable television or on the debate stage, the utter lack of empathy becomes apparent. Nobody cares to calm down, to consider what it’s like to walk in the other person’s shoes, to entertain the notion that others may feel the way they do for reasons that are understandable and valid. Instead today’s America, from our presidential candidates to our blogosphere and major media, more often thrives on outrage, emotion, and personal attacks.”

Researchers are divided on the origins of empathy.  Some argue its learned, others believe its genetic, some point to the internet, to social media, to video games and to politics to explain why people feel justified in their judgements of others in a way I can’t begin to comprehend.

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I don’t want to imagine a world without empathy, and maybe that’s because putting myself in someone else’s shoes is such an integral part of who I am.  I feel driven to see things from someone else’s perspective, even when I am the target of misplaced emotions and even when I am not always gracious in my reaction to those emotions.

Protests, like the one in Denver, where people turned out en masse to block the entrance to a Denver hospital to demand the state “reopen” must be terrifying when you’ve based your entire identity on idea that America is the greatest country in the history of mankind, yet we are, knee deep in unemployment claims, without adequate testing, without the support of the federal government for anything from masks to ventilators, with stimulus checks delayed, small business loans going straight to the companies who often need them the least (and who admit they will not be used as intended), while average Americans go hungry, businesses fail, farmers dump milk and produce, and in the process, the enemy becomes Dr. Anthony Fauci, for advocating on behalf of science, medical professionals who have risked their lives to beat back the virus have to stand down protestors instead of doing their jobs, and no one thinks, if our economy is so great, and America is so great, then why are WE, among the advanced nations of the world, fighting for our lives while Jeff Bezos buys a $165 million dollar house in Beverly Hills and a $16 million dollar apartment in New York in the middle of a pandemic while asking people to donate to his humanitarian causes when he could alleviate the suffering of millions and still have more money than any human on the planet.  But since it doesn’t affect him, and because his bottom line is currently thriving, what does he care about the needs of others?

There was a study after World War Two regarding the emotional impact violence had on three groups of people;  those who witnessed violence  first hand, those who knew someone who witnessed violence first hand and those who heard about death and destruction from the radio or in the newspaper.  Those who witnessed violence first hand were passionate advocates against war, while people in the second and third groups were passionate advocates FOR war.   After all, if you didn’t actually SEE the destruction first hand, then it might not have been as bad as you heard, right?

Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes isn’t that hard to do, but it does require asking yourself what you would like someone to do for you if you were in an impossible position.  I do a lot of what I do for others because I ask myself that question all the time.  Would someone be there for me if I lost my home, if I was desperate for food, if there was no money to pay my bills, and quite frankly, I am driven to do for others because I honestly feel that, if it came right down to it, no one would be there for me.  I’m not sure why I feel that way.  God knows plenty of people have stepped up over the past few weeks to provide me with the resources I need to help make sure the kids in my county, seventy percent of whom under the age of 17, live below the poverty line.

I was on my way to the Cannes Film Festival a few years ago and when the young man seated on the plane beside me started chatting with me over dinner, he brought up the health care battle and how unfair he thought it was that his tax dollars went to poor people who didn’t take care of themselves.  I gently volunteered that I helped pay the school lunch bill in our county because school lunch is often the only hot meal the kids in my county get, and he immediately said that by offering to make sure the lunch bill was paid, I was contributing to the problem of hand-outs in my community.  This young man, a Kennedy, by the way, who bragged about his relationship with a Georgia debutante, said I was encouraging parents to negate their responsibilities to their children by helping out the less fortunate.

In my world helping others out when I can isn’t absolving them of their responsibilities.  I grew up poor, often eating war rations when our food stamps ran out.  My father worked as hard as he could to take care of us, and my mother got a job as a waitress, but it still wasn’t enough.  If I hadn’t received grants and loans for college, I would never have been able to afford to go.  Stopping to ask myself how I can help someone who is struggling when there’s no clear benefit to my life beyond feeling good about stepping up makes my life better.  When Michael had a set of drums we were having a hard time selling, we asked a friend’s husband, a music teacher at a middle school in Hendersonville, if he could use the drums in his classroom.  He said no, but he knew a promising student who desperately wanted a set of drums, so we immediately decided to give a boy we don’t know and have never met what he needed to pursue his dream.

So when I see comments like the ones I did yesterday on Jarrett Kemp’s facebook page (she is one of Governor Brian Kemp’s daughters) savaging a teenaged girl for coming to her father’s defense, it broke my heart. In defending her family from the perspective of a young girl who wants to believe her father is a good guy, I thought, what on earth do people get out of being mean to HER because her father is a dick?  Take it out on Brian Kemp, but for Gods sakes, ask yourself how you would feel if your child offered a passionate defense of YOU and people ripped her limb from limb because no one wants to take a moment to truly ask themselves the question, “For the Grace of God there go I.”

I know people are frustrated and scared and I wish those lashing out at Dr. Fauci, and medical professionals, and scientists stopped to ask themselves, if this country IS so great, what does it say to you that your senators and representatives think helping you out after all your decades of hard work and sacrifice will make you lazy and dependent the instant you get a $1200 check five weeks into lockdown?  What does it tell you about your elected officials when they get free health care, but free (or even affordable health care) for you is “socialism?”  And why is it okay for the police department or the fire department to show up without asking you for a financial statement first to see if your house is worth saving or the crime committed against you is worth committing? How is that not socialism?  And how would YOU feel if your grandmother was struggling to breathe and you were trapped in traffic, able to see the hospital, but not able to get there?

When my grandfather came back from World War Two and my grandparents married and moved to California, every Friday night everyone in their apartment complex would gather so everyone could eat.  I see a LOT of people stepping up to do the right thing by other Americans, but I also see a complete lack of empathy among certain sectors of the United States that seem to feel,  if the coronavirus hasn’t affected me, then MY civil liberties are being trampled on and that is unconscionable.  Who cares if people die as long as I can get my hair cut or go bowling?  That’s easy to say when you think it can’t or won’t happen to you or to someone you love.

But having been in two of three hot spots (New York and California) the week before the country shut down, and without a single symptom, I thought about the man across the street who is 85, about the single mother who manages our local grocery store, about friends who have cancer and can’t get treatment, either because they are afraid of going to the hospital, or because hospitals can’t handle the additional patient load, or a girlfriend of mine who wasn’t able to be with her father when he died in an emergency room without his family around him.

And that’s where empathy comes in.  It doesn’t have to happen to me for me to do the right thing.  It just has to happen to someone who’s life could be irreparably harmed by my decision to do as I damned well please.  Putting myself in someone else’s shoes is never asking too much.  It just means I have to stop thinking about myself for a minute.

The Wrong Kind of Women and Why I Never Knew I was One Until Now

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I grew up in a traditional household; my father worked, my mother stayed home to raise the kids, and when I decided I wanted to go to college, my father told me I wouldn’t be able to use my education when I got married anyway, so why bother.

He didn’t say it to be mean.  He grew up in circumstances I can only begin to imagine and worked hard to overcome them.  There was comfort to be found in creating the family he wanted, not the one he somehow managed to survive and part of that was making sure his wife didn’t have to work and his daughters could marry and be taken care of for the rest of their lives.

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I also grew up watching old movies on TV where Rosalind Russell was a reporter holding her own with Cary Grant, Ida Lupino directed TV movies, Harriett Frank Jr co-wrote Academy Award winning screenplays with her husband Irving Ravetch and best of all, Betty Davis, Joan Crawford, Lana Turner, Barbara Stanwyck, Katherine Hepburn, Jennifer Jones, Irene Dunn, Rita Hayworth took center stage in comedies, dramas, potboilers and tearjerkers about rich society girls, harlots, ballbusters, sex goddesses and doormats but GOD was it wonderful seeing women doing things I could only dream of.  If I watched THE WOMEN once, I must have watched it a hundred times.  Sure it’s a dippy soap opera about women fighting one another over a man but we never saw the man and the dialogue was fantastic.

It never occurred to me when I packed up my battered yellow Volkswagen in 1982 and drove from Salem, Oregon to Los Angeles by myself to sleep on a friends couch that I would find myself  38 years later without a shelf full of Oscars and Emmy awards, a beautiful house in the Hollywood Hills, and more money than I could spend in a lifetime.  I was born ready to conquer the world and nothing was going to stop me.  I was young, hungry, ambitious, beautiful, determined and driven.  It was only a matter of time until I willed the world around me into submission.

It turns out, I was the Wrong Kind of Woman.

Because I was a woman at all.

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Naomi McDougall Jones, author of the new book THE WRONG KIND OF WOMEN; Inside Our Revolution to Dismantle the Gods of Hollywood, lays out in sobering detail just how rigged Hollywood game is and quite frankly, I don’t know what to do with this information.

I decided early on I wanted to be a screenwriter.  I wasn’t passionate about acting and, anyway, the one meeting I had with a woman who cast actors in commercials told me pretty girls are a dime a dozen in L.A.  The one audition I went on proved something else.  I’m not that invested in being a “pretty girl.”

So I started writing.  About women.  In period pieces.  Who Did Things.  Things like PEARL HART, THE BANDIT GIRL, who was the only known female stagecoach robber in American history.  Or LUCKY 13, about the Women’s Air Force Service Pilots and how they helped win the war.  There was a contemporary comedy too, called HOW TO; A LOVE STORY based on an article in The Nation written by Richard Lingeman, about finding love in a time of self-help books.

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I started making the rounds of all the freshly minted junior executives and “D” girls in Hollywood eagerly telling my stories.  People loved them, or so they said. But it always came down to the same thing; no one is going to make a movie with a female driven lead.  But aren’t you cute for trying…

Twelve years in, I’d had enough and it was heartbreaking. I sobbed on the phone to my father that my dreams were dead and I just didn’t know how I was going to make it without them.

I did.

But the dream of a career in Hollywood never died and in 2014, I sent a one page treatment to the New York Film Academy for an eight week screenwriting scholarship and won!  This was IT!  I could just feel it.  This time was going to be different.  I was one of the few women reaching for a career as a screenwriter in 1982, but it was 2014 and everything was different.

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Only, it wasn’t.

The statistics in THE WRONG KIND OF WOMEN are irrefutable.  Nothing about Hollywood is designed to benefit, support, champion or encourage women filmmakers in any way shape or form.  There is a passage in the book in particular that stands out:

“None of us women expected to be handed anything.  We understand about paying our dues.  We understand about work. In fact, we even understand all too well that any one of us may not have what it takes.  Indeed, almost every woman I interviewed for this book rushed to assure me that her own career hurdles might be her fault.  

But we all can’t suck.  You can explain a lack of career success of any one woman in a thousand different ways, but to look at what is happening across a gender and say that it is our fault, that it is down to weaknesses in each of us, is very simply to say that women, as a gender, are just less talented, hard working and psychologically intact.  And not a little bit, but so much so that we are collectively undeserving of having voices in an industry that creates the stories that shape our culture.”

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I have a Sloan Foundation Development grant, a short film directed by Robin Wright starring Sam Rockwell and Leslie Bibb, a major screenplay competition win, two “shopping agreements” (i.e. free options), a mentorship with the New York Stage and Filmmakers Workshop, an eight week scholarship to the New York Film Academy, placement in more script competitions than I can name and everyone who hears about these successes all say the same thing to me…if you were a man you would be working full time in the industry by now.

cannesBut I’m not a man, and no matter how hard I work my chances of “making it to the top” are next to impossible because now I have one other problem to contend with.

I am 60 years old.

To put this in perspective, I am taking a pitch class right now and two of the people in the class are in their mid to late twenties. Neither one of them had ever seen Renee Zellweger in anything before her star turn in JUDY.    They both thought A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN was too old to use as a comp.  In fact, the prevailing wisdom is to avoid using a movie over five years old because the executives who run the studios these days won’t know what you are talking about.  And forget using HIDDEN FIGURES as an example of a movie about women that made $252 million on a $25 million dollar budget.  Men in Hollywood are still scratching their heads over that one.

My point is this.  I’ve spent close to four decades chasing the dream of a career in Hollywood and blaming myself because I just can’t seem to get there no matter how hard I try.  I  had to stop reading THE WRONG KIND OF WOMEN after the introduction because I felt like someone punched me in the stomach.  All these years I’ve felt like an idiot because I figure anything out and I just cannot find a way Inside.  I even reached out to Bryan Lourd, who I started with in the film industry on the same day and while we all know where he wound up, I wound up nowhere.  So I asked his help in finding an agent and he set me up with two new motion picture literary agents who asked to talk to me on the phone.  I was elated.

They called to say they weren’t interested, not even when the one logline I sent prior to our conversation really grabbed them.  When they said it was the one logline I should pursue, I immediately said the script was finished and asked permission to send it.  There was a crashing silence, then some blah, blah, blah about how they would keep me in mind for future projects.

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THE WRONG KIND OF WOMEN makes me realize, at long last, that kind of response is not a reflection on me.  The problem isn’t my work, or my talent, or my ambition, or, at this point even my age.

I am a woman.  And in Hollywood, that just makes me wrong.

But at least now, I know I am not alone. And there are a whole lot of women who aren’t gonna let this stand.

Hollywood, you have been warned…

 

 

 

Why I think mentorship programs and diversity initiatives are a bunch of B.S.

UCLA-Hollywood-Diversity-Report-2019-Final-CoverMentorship programs, writing labs and diversity initiatives are a bunch of crap meant to ease women, people of color and LGBTQ who already know how to do their jobs into fields dominated by men so men won’t suddenly panic at the idea that we want a piece of that pie you’ve been hoarding for the past one hundred years.

I hate to break it to you Hollywood, but we already know how to write, direct, light a scene, dress actors, edit film, and market our work, but instead of being hired in any significant numbers to DO those jobs, as women, people of color or LGBTQ, we have to compete for limited space in workshops and labs and mentorship programs to deliver us as quietly as possible into positions any recent college grad gets as long as he’s a white male who went to the “right school” and knows someone in the industry.

“Fellowships” and “shadowing” and writers labs are, by their very nature, nothing more than an excuse to drag the process of hiring us to do our jobs out as long as humanly possible.  Spend a weekend, or a week, or a year being mentored by people in the industry with the distant (and typically vague) promise of employment and you too can become a “Hollywood success story.”  But entry into Hollywood, which once used to take on average five to seven years, can take twenty years or longer now despite an explosion in streaming platforms and the desperate need for content.

And if I sound “bitter” you’re goddamned right I am.  If one more person tells me its all about a good script when you can’t get a script in front of anyone without representation and you can’t get representation if you aren’t already represented, and the top spot on the Black List this year went to a script no one could finish, then you can just move along. Because when Apple TV announced the launch of their new streaming platform, every writer I know was overcome with the idea that at long last, the logjam to a career in Hollywood would miraculously be broken.

Only every single deal Apple TV made went to someone who already had more access in Hollywood than they knew what to do with.  I get that Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon are bigger names than I will likely ever be, but everyone who got a deal with Apple went to the same small gene pool for content that everyone goes to, and any writer with a new idea who wasn’t already part of the inner circle wound up with their noses pressed against the glass while Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey and Tom Hanks partied inside and did their best to ignore us.

I’m not naive enough to think that anyone should hire me to do anything just because I want them to.  I’ve done the hard work;  I went to film school, I’ve studied screenwriting for decades, I’ve won screenwriting awards, I had a short movie made, I won a Sloan Foundation grant, I had an agent (who dropped me because he “knew better “than I did about what is arguably the most commercial script I’ve ever written), I’ve been mentored and coached and picked to pieces by writers and script consultants and producers and executives until “death by a thousand cuts” would almost be a welcome relief and yet one script I wrote was described by a Black List reader as  “box office gold that would attract an A list cast and clean up at awards time.”  For awhile it was on the red list on Coverfly, but without an agent, it sits parked on my computer which isn’t why I spent months writing it.

Another script I wrote based on a true story about rhino poaching in the Eastern Cape couldn’t be more timely if I tried and yet the CAA agents who read it called and asked,  “why this story, why now?”  I  don’t know?  Because rhino poaching?  The script has been called powerful and the main character, incredibly compelling, but more than one person has commented that a secondary character talks about playing a poker game but since we never actually SEE him play poker the scene isn’t effective because, you know, if you don’t SEE the poker game then how do we know he actually plays poker?

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Which brings me to the point of this particular blog.

There are a shit ton of people out there ready to take advantage of writers, either by charging $40 to $100 per script to enter script writing competitions (add-ons like notes not included), by charging $30 to “host” a script and $75 for a read (The Black List, which is a whole other blog post in itself, and not a good one, in case you were wondering), with coaching programs and mentorship opportunities…and yet an agent at APA I talked to said 90 percent of agents don’t give a damn about writers who win screenplay competitions.  They want something they can sell NOW and a lot of script competitions reward writers for being “deep” when “deep” isn’t always commercial.  No agent wants to spend their time sending out scripts that are hard to sell (like period pieces, for which I am clearly guilty), they want a sure thing and since a sure thing in Hollywood depends on more factors than you can possibly begin to imagine, finding the unicorn offspring of the Loch Ness Monster would be a whole lot easier.

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Let’s start with the cottage industry in what currently constitutes “a good script” in Hollywood.  Standards have changed over the years and maybe that’s as it should be.  It used to be narrative was unlimited and if someone like Preston Sturges wanted to go on forever in one of his scripts, then so be it.

But let me give you two examples of scripts that never would have been made into films today based on the current climate where you have to show everything, you can’t “tell a director their job based on such unforgivable caveats as adding “CUT TO” between scenes, you can’t tell an actor their job based on parenthetical comments, but you DO have to be sure to tell them how a character is feeling , so you have to SHOW what they are feeling even though showing what a character is feeling is actually what ACTING is all about, and even then, you have to be both brief and detailed with respect to narrative clues so no one will get offended that you, as the writer, who has spent decades learning your craft  and your characters and perfecting your story, have any vision, input or emotional connection regarding the material YOU created by reaching deep into YOUR soul to create something meaningful that, with any luck, will give hundreds of people jobs and move an audience to spend their hard earned money.

The notes I’ve gotten on my work have been so insanely picky that I actually had a single word in a line of dialogue debated to death.  Should she say, “yes” at the end of this sentence, and if she does, then show us how saying this line, or not saying this line, works for this character, and does it change the overall tenor of the script?

From an industry, I might add, that made CATS, which, in this case, is enough said.

So here are my two examples:

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BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID.

I watched this movie a few days ago, for the first time in years, and yet, as I watched this time I found myself offering the types of criticisms I hear about screenplays, and no, not just mine.

1) The whole sepia tone beginning.  What’s that about?  Who are these people and why do we care about them?  I mean, yes, we know its Redford and Newman, but in the original script, we wouldn’t have known either thing, so what’s the deal?”

2) Why invest so much time with the Hole in the Wall gang when we never see any of these characters again and they don’t factor into the story long term?  The sepia tone montage at the beginning doesn’t tell us who any of these characters are, so why go to all the trouble of introducing them if there’s no pay off?

3) The “relationship” between Butch and Woodcock is great, but Woodcock is clearly a character meant to move the story along and has no lasting impact on the story so he should be cut.

4) We never meet E.H Harriman.  Who is he?  What is his story?  The characters talk a lot about him, but we should have a few scenes where we meet Harriman and learn his story.

5) After the botched train robbery, the men pursuing Butch and Sundance are never introduced.  We don’t “see” the Indian at the hotel talking about how he can track anyone, and we don’t “see” LaFarge but are told in dialogue that he’s a lawman from Wyoming. If these guys are pursuing Butch and Sundance we need to know more about them.

6) The Sheriff that Butch and Sundance try turning themselves in to midway through the script?  He comes in too late.  He’s in just one scene.  He’s clearly there to advance the plot and nothing else, so his character needs to be cut.

I could go on, but you get the point. And anyway, Michael told me to shut up and watch the movie.

In another example (this one a lot shorter, but also involving Robert Redford), OUT OF AFRICA is, in my opinion, one of the most perfect screenplays ever written. I mean, the china has its own storyline…

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Here are just a few of the comments I made while watching this movie again recently, based on what I see happening in the wonderful world of Hollywood filmmaking as it stands today.

Meryl Streep’s character persuades her lover’s brother to marry her after the lover marries someone else.  (If this script were written today, she should WANT to marry him.  Or as a feminist NOT marry him and go to Africa on her own.) He agrees because she has money.  She wants his title but she also wants to make the brother suffer.  But she doesn’t WANT to go to Africa, so why does she go?  And what DOES she want when she gets there?  Her husband leaves to chase other women.  She stays, but why?  She doesn’t she WANT to be there, so what does she hope to accomplish by staying?  Does she WANT a coffee farm?  Or servants?  And if not, why not?

She meets Finch Hatten fairly early on, but they don’t become lovers until halfway through the movie.  Big no no.  BIG.  HUGE actually.  Partly because he’s barely in the movie during the first half of the film, but mostly because he’s the male lead and if this is a romance then as a main character their relationship HAS to be central to every page of the script at least the way Hollywood thinks about these things now.

Anyway, Meryl Streep goes back to Denmark for treatment for syphilis which she contracts from her husband, but we don’t see her in Denmark, we don’t see the treatment, and she returns cured.  Why is that? Finch Hatten goes off with Felicity, which we also don’t see.  And in the end, Meryl Streep/Isak Dinessen doesn’t make the choice to go back to Denmark.  The choice is made for her when the coffee plantation burns down, Finch Hatten dies, her husband divorces her, and she runs out of money.  Its not a happy ending at all and even though everything is “resolved” in the end, she’s not better off at the end of the script than she was at the beginning.

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The film defies every single solitary caveat for what constitutes a “good script” and yet it is absolutely brilliant in every possible respect.

And not a single soul in Hollywood would make this movie today.  I’ve been told that more than once.

The latest draft of LUCKY 13 is amazing.  Partly because of the advice I got from Diane Drake, but mostly because I decided to tell the story I wanted to tell.  Because I included things that mean everything to the characters (and not a little to me) even though those things “break all the rules.” One of those things involves a scene from another movie that is essential to who these characters are.  Especially as women.  Every single writer who’s read the script has protested loudly that “you can’t do that” and the scene, all of one page long (or one minute of screen time), just CANNOT be part of this movie.  It MUST be cut. Because those are the rules.

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But without it, everything else that follows doesn’t work.

So mentorships, and writing labs and fellowships and all that stuff?

I think micromanaging the holy fuck out of scripts and writers doing amazing work while recycling the same old worn out remakes and hiring the same writers over and over and over again is shortsighted in the extreme.  I get that another Marvel movie or another Star Wars has a built in audience and the film business has always been about the bottom line.  But I also know that people are hungry for good content.  And whether a character says yes at the end of a sentence, or doesn’t, isn’t what makes makes an audience go to the movies.  Hidden Figures made $252 million off a $25 million budget.  I don’t remember much of the dialogue and whether anyone said, yes, or no, or go wash the car, but I loved how it made me feel.

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Women, people of color, LGBTQ are ready to go to work.

So just fucking hire us already.

Or don’t.

We’re gonna take some of that pie anyway.

Whether you like it or not.

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Blue Skies Ahead

michael proposingWith the “new year” just hours away, everyone is writing about the year they just had and pondering what the coming year will hold.  I am not normally someone who looks back on what was.  Over the years I have also learned not to look ahead to what might be.  I am usually always wrong about all of it. But last night I couldn’t sleep because I kept thinking about the past decade and all the ways my dreams went sideways, came true, missed the mark, turned out better than I would have ever expected, changed my life drastically, changed me drastically (not always in ways I would have liked) were horrible, wonderful, no good, very bad, and everything in between.

Ten years ago I was fighting to hold on to my house.  I went from making $82,000 one year as an artist to $15,000 the next.  I sold everything from my art display to my stockpile of unfinished gourds, took on four jobs and still had to go on food stamps to survive.

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Today, my house is the house I share with my husband, saved by the business we started that led to the opportunity of a lifetime.  For six difficult, stressful years we worked eighty or more hours a week repairing RV’s and fighting with each other non- stop over delayed  shipments, damaged parts and other people’s schedules; people who thought they knew more than we did because they watched a YouTube video, men who asked to  “talk to the technician” because how could a woman possibly know what she was talking about, and clients who treated Michael like a servant because he was “just the service guy.”

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Ten years ago I had given up on writing.  I was too busy surviving to write.  Ten years ago we nursed along appliances that were as old as this house because we couldn’t afford new ones.  The last time we’d been on vacation was in 2007 and that was a trip to Ireland where we stayed in youth hostels and ate sandwiches in the car.

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Over the years some wonderful and unexpected opportunities came along; the short film, the Cannes Film Festival, sending Michael to Seattle to represent The Dark of Night  at the Seattle Film Festival where he got to walk the red carpet with his son, Jarred, winters spent in Florida (working, but still better than freezing in Asheville) where we got to spend time with his family, trips to New York and Los Angeles, concerts in Asheville, motorcycle rides on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

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In 2019 I won a Sloan Foundation grant for Lucky 13 in partnership with the Athena Film Festival.  I did two art shows and remembered why I don’t do art shows anymore.  We have a new dishwasher, a new fridge, a new washer and dryer and a new stove.  This year we spent two weeks in France with the most amazing group of people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing,  I got to see old friends, and I married the man who makes all of this possible.  I still want to kill him sometimes, but now I know why I don’t.  Because underneath all that fantastic grey hair and a mercurial personality there is someone who would – and has – done anything and everything for me. 

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The years in between were hard, for a lot of reasons.  But for me, the New Year isn’t about what happened in 2019 or even 2010.  It’s a reminder that I get to spend my life surrounded by some truly amazing people and have for the past ten years.  I got to see Paris with old friends, new friends and people I have loved forever but never actually met.  I got to surprise the man I love with a proposal he turned around on me by surprising me with one of his own.  I have a family of cats assembled from foster fails and feline refugees and adopted opposums, I have a pit bull mix and a one eyed Shih Tzu I adore.

The past ten years were a lot about being beaten up, surviving, building a business, advancing on some fronts and being pushed back to the beginning on others. We went from trying to figure out how to make $300 in food stamps stretch for month to sitting down at a private dinner cooked at the chateau we rented with friends a few months ago.  I went from writing screenplays in the front seat of our RV service van to  winning a spot with the New York Stage and Filmmakers workshop, from working six backbreaking days a week to watching Michael Cooke make his first film and Bat Sheva Guez screen her  dance film at the Lincoln Center.

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And best of all I married a complicated, lovely, hardworking, difficult , generous, soft-hearted man who gives everything he has to helping make my dreams come true.  He isn’t an easy person to know but the last ten years with him have been worth every single second.  And even though he hates open sentiment the fact is, I love this man with my heart and soul.  No part of my life would have been possible without him.

michael and denise at macy's

We gotta good life.

So for the next ten years, this is my new theme song…

Blue skies
Smiling at me
Nothing but blue skies
Do I see
Bluebirds
Singing a song
Nothing but bluebirds
All day long
Never saw the sun shining so bright
Never saw things going so right
Noticing the days hurrying by
When you’re in love, my how they fly

 

This Week in Screenwriting

rollercoasterLook, I get it.  All things considered, “it doesn’t take much to see my problems don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”   I don’t watch the news anymore because I want to fix everything; I want to find the woman crouched in a refugee camp beside a torn cardboard box that is home to her child and their meager possessions and bring her home to live with me.
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I want to adopt a heartbroken chihuahua in a pink sweater left at an animal shelter by her owners because she’s “too much trouble.” I’d like nothing more than being able to pay the school lunch bill in Madison County out of my own pocket, and make sure every family requesting Christmas gifts for their kids through our local Toys for Tots drive gets to wake up Christmas morning knowing there are presents and food and a community that cares about them.
I’ve been a bleeding heart since the day I was born and the older I get the more I realize that if I could have just one job for the rest of my life, I would chose Fairy Godmother complete with magic wand and gossamer wings.
In the meantime, I write, hoping the stories I tell will uplift and inspire, that somehow, some day, I will be in a position financially to do some of the things I long to do, that bringing attention to rhino poaching in the Eastern Cape, celebrating the lives of the women who helped win World War Two, or just making people laugh for a few hours is enough for now.
Instead, I often find myself holding on for dear life to the subjective rollercoaster of a career in the film business for all I’m worth. So for anyone following this journey who thinks I’m either out of my mind or out of my depth,  you are right on both accounts.
A few weeks ago I reached out to the largest agency in the film business to ask about representation.  Much to my surprise, the person I approached agreed to put me in touch with two junior agents who read my scripts that same weekend and wrote to ask if we could have a “meeting” over the phone about my work.  I was elated.  The “non answer” is the typical Hollywood go-to when it comes to saying no to just about anything.  No one in the film business wants to be the person who came right out and rejected someone in case the person they said no to becomes a huge star one day, so if they don’t like your work, they just don’t respond.
phoneAsking for a meeting with me, even one over the phone, was HUGE.
It was also one of the most disappointing phone calls of my life. These agents were calling to tell me they just didn’t see why anything about my work screamed “this film needs to be made right this instant.”  As a carrot, they offered that one of the loglines I’d sent sounded the most promising in terms of commercial appeal and was the one they felt I should definitely write.  When I said I had a completed draft and asked to send it, there was an awkward silence on the other end of the phone.  I jumped in to tell them more about it, and suddenly, they had a project “just like it” but would keep me in mind.
That script is currently a quarterfinalist for the Screencraft Action/Adventure screenplay competition.
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Last week, I got reader notes on the TV pilot I sent to the Austin Film Festival.  This particular festival reads submissions in “rounds”.  If you make it to the “second round” but not the quarterfinals, your work is still better than thousands of other submissions.
Here are the comments on the script I sent.  It didn’t make it to the second round.
Script Title: The Dark Of Night
Category: AMC Drama Pilot
Comments:  A fun period piece read that showcases the writer’s ability to craft compelling, multi-dimensional characters, intriguing plot lines, and a vivid world that leaps off the page.What works? So much. The pacing is on point. The dialogue is reminiscent of the time-period without falling into difficult to read colloquialisms. The plotting is intricate yet easy to follow. The relationship between Sylvia and Madeline is a strong point. A very strong effort by a clearly talented writer.As far as what needs work, it’s difficult to put a finger on. There are moments of dialogue with supporting characters that seem stiff, but it never becomes a major issue. There are also a few moments where the story relies on violence when other choices may feel more original and less repetitive. An example of an area where this happens is p 23-25.Overall, this is a fine sample that showcases a writer capable of working at the highest level. Though the flaws are minor, the story may benefit from more risk taking with plotting and polishing the supporting characters’ dialogue. Very worthy of consideration to advance.
Leslie Bibb and Michael Godere
I have a brand new script about rhino poaching in the Eastern Cape based on a true story called EVERYTHING AND NOTHING.  I haven’t sent the script out much because I thought I would try a new approach this time.  Instead of approaching “the usual suspects” who read my work and often love it but rarely take me seriously as a writer because I still haven’t “made it” I would wait until LUCKY 13 gained more momentum.  A few days ago, when the submission period for the Black List Feature Lab, the Black List Writers Lab for Women and the Sloan Foundation Grant Lab opened, I decided to send EVERYTHING AND NOTHING in and bought two reviews to increase my chances of advancing.
This is the first review:
EVERYTHING AND NOTHING presents a fairly engaging and decently characterized exercise in adventure drama that definitely warrants a degree of recognition for the cultural and social relevance of its subject matter. Too few scripts nowadays tend to focus on the illegal wildlife trade, particularly with regard to the poaching of rhinos for their horns, so that fact this script demonstrates a willingness to tackle such a critical issue head-on definitely testifies to the vitality of its premise. Its South African setting feels lovingly realized and brimming with environmental and cultural detail, especially in terms of the vibrant wildlife that ROXANE encounters along her journey, or the local
traditions of Amakhala Village and its surrounding reserve. Into that framework, this script largely succeeds in illustrating how Roxane’s experiences in South Africa effectively catalyze her character’s personal evolution over the course of the story… particularly with regard to her charged and turbulent relationship with the red mare. The script also excels at developing a mature and nuanced cast of personalities, especially with regard to the strong women it builds in Roxane, LINDA, JULIE, and
ANNIE.
This is the second review:
“Everything and Nothing” is a harrowing and powerful adventure drama with a topical subject matter and an incredible heroine. With an effective blend of facts and drama, the script shows us the urgency and importance of this issue. The stakes are high and the odds don’t always look good, but Roxane is a woman willing and capable to rise to the demands of the cause. She has an interesting backstory, going from jockey to zookeeper before this new position. At times she seems strong as steel, but the script does show her vulnerability as well. In a crucial, telling scene, she opens up to Michael about all
her frustrations, and we can see a woman still wounded in more ways than one. Showcasing the humanity, in such a raw, unfiltered way, of the people trying to save these animals makes for a powerful and engaging experience.
The Black List sends an email blast every Monday morning to executives and producers who pay to see what’s new and how those scripts ranked.  Any script that receives an eight or higher is automatically put on that list.
The first reviewer gave me a six.
The second reviewer gave me a seven.
roxane with rhinos
I love telling stories and I hope my stories will change the world one day.  But after watching a four part series called THE MOVIES THAT MADE US on Netflix I’m less certain than ever that will happen.
In just one example, the writers and producers of DIE HARD  talked about how that film came together.  Jeb Stuart was a tennis pro who wrote the script on a lark.  He had a client who was a producer, and even though the script wasn’t finished, it still got a greenlight despite the fact that nearly every actor in Hollywood turned it down.  Steven de Souza was brought in to punch the story up as they were shooting and now emerging screenwriters are expected to write the perfect script AND answer the question of “why this movie, and why now?” and even though the demand for content is greater than its ever been, fewer and fewer opportunities for new writers exist.  The prevailing wisdom has always been that “good scripts will always rise to the top” but I know more writers with excellent scripts and awards a mile high still working their day jobs because they just cannot seem to get their foot in the door.
A friend of mine recently did a presentation on this very subject and if you haven’t seen it yet I encourage you very strongly to have a look. This is a BRILLIANT insight into what it means to work in this business.
denise hewitt
I’ve come to the conclusion that Hollywood doesn’t lead, it follows.  As someone who loves to tell stories, I’m not sure what to do about that.
That’s not true. I know what I want to do about it. I’m just not sure how to go about making that happen.
In the meantime, I’m taking a break from the rollercoaster to work some new magic on the latest draft of LUCKY 13 and hope that maybe this time, my own story will change.

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.

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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

 

 

 

Another Auld Lang Syne

drownA lot of people have said 2018 was a hard year for them and I know for myself that despite some huge and generally positive changes I am still light years from where I want to be.

The big question isn’t “what to do about that?” because the one thing I’ve learned this past year is that I set my goals so far out of reach that when I fail to come within striking distance of my dreams I beat myself up for being inadequate; “I make the wrong choices, I want the wrong things, I tell the wrong stories, I lack the talent…”

This was the year I decided not to enter anymore screenwriting competitions but to put my previous accomplishments to the test.  After all, the goal isn’t to win a competition, its getting an agent, selling a script, seeing a movie get made. I spent the entire month of January rewriting scripts that were good, but not quite “there.”

These scripts have been quarter-finalists, semi-finalists and finalists in a number of competitions including Sundance Episodic, American Zoetrope, The Athena List, the Atlanta Film Festival, the Page Awards, Launch Pad, and the Screencraft Screenwriting Fellowship, so clearly, I am doing something right, and yet not quite “right” enough to break lose from the pack.

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It worked. For awhile, anyway.

I got an agent, and a spot with the Athena/IRIS TV lab in L.A.  I met with some executives who loved my writing, came up with an idea for a new script that practically wrote itself, started a novel, my  new agent dropped me, the option on three projects expired,  we quit the mobile RV repair business and paid down some credit card debt, planned a trip to Paris next year, and for months now I have struggled with the worst depression of my life.

I came into this world boiling over with ambition and the drive to make my dreams a reality and I am terrified that I will die before I find my true purpose.  It isn’t art, and it doesn’t seem to be writing, and if I lived to be a million years old and had all the money in the world I am not sure I would ever be able to cram everything in that I want to do and experience before its all over.

mountains

And in the end, I am my own worst enemy and I know it.  I always have been.   I could want different things, pursue different goals, practice peace, foster contentment, let the future come to me instead of comparing myself to other people and wanting things I don’t have and may never get and working so hard to the exclusion of all else to force my dreams into reality that I’ve managed to lose myself somewhere along the way.

dreamI have a friend on safari right now with the man of her dreams.  She is in her mid thirties, stunningly beautiful , with a kind and generous heart, and while I have only known her for a few years, I know enough about her history to know she has been waiting all of her life for this man.  I also know that she almost missed him.  Her previous boyfriend moved out of their apartment while she was in Mexico for her birthday and, heartbroken, she decided on the spur of the moment to go to Burning Man by herself for a few days.

They met on the Playa and they’ve been together ever since.  He’s perfect for her and I can feel how happy she is with him no matter where they are in the world.

I’ve been so focused for so long on what I want and what I thought I had to do to get there that even if the perfect thing was right under my nose I don’t think I would be open enough to see what the universe was trying to give me.

So as I say goodbye to 2018, I chose to say goodbye as well to dreams and goals.  I still want what I want, but if I have learned anything this year, its that I am a brilliant writer, an exceptional artist, a good cook, a kind friend, an interior decorator, a caretaker for seven animals, that I live with a wonderful man who loves me deeply, in a place of great beauty, and if I ever really expect to find my true purpose in life, its time to get out of my own way and let the future find me.

future

 

 

Hollywood, Schmollywood

cannes

A year ago I was frantically shopping for clothes to make my first appearance on the red carpet in Cannes with Robin Wright, Nini Le Huynh and Alfonso Carrion for THE DARK OF NIGHT. Anyone who knows me well knows I am anything but a fashion plate.  I needed…everything…Spanx, bras, shoes, an evening gown, underpants.  I hadn’t had a manicure or pedicure in years, Diana Ferguson sent me a gorgeous pair of earrings she’d made because I didn’t have any jewelry worth mentioning,  plus I spent a fortune getting what good clothes I had dry cleaned,  crammed everything in a suitcase you could have transported a body in and headed to the airport.

The Cannes Film Festival put us up at the Hotel Martinez, which was the host hotel for the event, so I had a front row seat to everything that happened, from celebrity departures opening night, to the scores of paparazzi surrounding the hotel every day waiting to photograph every move anyone made, to breakfast with Robin and Nini each morning of our stay, to the anniversary dinner honoring the 70th edition of the film festival with everyone from Monica Belluci to Julianne Moore in attendance.

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Before I left I had nightmares I would return to the job I had at the time, fixing toilets in RV’s with my husband, Michael, instead of a career in film we had both worked so hard for. Despite having gotten into a number of other films festivals, having our film selected by the LA Femme International Film Festival as Best Short, and recently winning a Gold Award from the L.A. Neo Noir Film Festival, it was back to the RV business with a vengeance.

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I told myself when I got back there were five screenwriting competitions or fellowships I would submit to last year and if I got into any one of them, I would know I was on the right track. I won a coveted fellowship with the New York Stage and Filmmakers Workshop at Vassar, but I didn’t make the cut for any of the five competitions I’d set for myself as a yardstick, and it was through the New York Stage and Filmmakers Workshop that I did begin meeting people who HAD succeeded where I had failed, including Academy Award winning producers, actors, TV executives and directors.

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Despite having had major success at the box office, and sometimes an Oscar to show for it, they are no better off, or farther along than I am.

And that’s when the reality of the business I am hit me like a ton of bricks.

Hollywood is worst business model on the planet. And a huge part of why the business model is so successful, is the way in which it encourages massive insecurity and complete lack of access all while lamenting the inability to find and foster qualified talent.  No other business would a market a product that made investors millions and then refuse to make any other product like it because the last one was an  “anomaly,” and yet that is the way Hollywood works and does business on a daily basis.

I wrote a script called RIDE THE WIND, about motorcycle legend, Bessie Stringfield four years ago. The script is under option with Jay Ellis, who stars in INSECURE and he told me not long ago that while every executive who’s read it, loves it, they just can’t imagine a market for a period piece about a black woman. HIDDEN FIGURES made $252 million domestically on a $25 million dollar budget, but NO ONE CAN FIGURE OUT HOW A MOVIE WITH A BLACK FEMALE LEAD COULD POSSIBLY MAKE A DIME, so there the script sits, with no one attached to direct or star even though an article in the New York Times came out a few weeks ago about Bessie Stringfield that everyone read and everyone forwarded to me, and I swear to God, I can hear at least a dozen people frantically writing scripts about her as I type this, because the story is that good and 20 MILLION people on Facebook watched a Timeline video about her, and if that’s not enough to convince you there is a market for this then I don’t know what is. But no one in Hollywood can even begin to imagine how a script about a black woman with a remarkable, unsung life, could POSSIBLY make any money at the box office.

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Someone will make this movie someday, and I fear it won’t be me, and that, in some kind of nutshell, is what this business is all about. I belong to a group of women writers who are so close to that goddamned brass ring it has all but smacked them in the face, and many are at the point where they have started to wonder what THEY are doing wrong and what THEY can do to change a system that has its own ever-changing set of rules.  Other businesses make sense. Why the hell doesn’t this one?

I think it’s because there are people who get handed the Golden Ticket to the Show early in life, and never look back. That doesn’t mean everything else in their lives comes as easily, but it leaves the rest of us thinking, what did they do that I didn’t, and how I can do that same thing, and for me, after nearly three months of the worst depression I have ever encountered in my entire life, I finally decided that the idea that you have to give 150% just to get passed over, doesn’t work for me anymore.

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I will be 59 years old this year. I don’t have the time or the patience to spend countless years of my life chasing after something I don’t understand, that seems as random as getting cancer, or winning the lottery, or being chosen as a Nicholls Fellow. I set out to become the best writer I could be, and after winning several script competitions and advancing, twice now, to the second round of Sundance writing labs, walking the red carpet at Cannes, and working to hone my craft, I have come to the conclusion that if Hollywood wants me, they are going to have to come to me. I want to work on my house, and take the trips I’ve been holding off on thinking someday the career I’d always dreamed of would be a reality and I would have the resources I needed to do the things I want to. I have started painting again, and when I start to write again, I will write what fills my soul, and if I ever make it to Cannes again, it will be with Michael, either on the red carpet, or not.

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And here’s the thing…

For the first time in my life, a literary agency reached out to me, just last week, asking to represent me. They are a boutique agency based out of Montreal with connections to the European market where the kinds of independent films and TV series I write are coveted. This could finally be my time, and, it could not.

But either way I have made peace with the idea that this is either meant to happen, or it’s not. My job is to be an amazing writer. The rest is out of my hands.

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The Ugly Truth…

For the past twenty five years I have been obsessed with the Women’s Air Force Service Pilots. A lot of people have tried getting a story about these pioneering women made into a film or TV series; Kathleen Kennedy, Stacey Sherr, Bo Derek, Michael Sugar. A script I wrote about the WASP, LUCKY 13, has been through at least a hundred drafts and at least as many screenwriting competitions as more information about the story and the remarkable girls who trained at the only all female airbase in American history became available.

Along the way, I began to collect WASP memorabilia. It’s harder than hell to find anything original because less than 1100 WASP made it through the program. I have two pairs of wings, an original Fifinella pin, original badges, some paper dolls and a zoot suit.

Three years ago, I found a treasure trove of handwritten letters on ebay written by a WASP, some on WASP stationary, and spent a small fortune buying the letters with the help of an incredibly generous friend. And then, I spent months putting them together in chronological order.

The story that unfolded was amazing. What was even more amazing, is that I took a novel writing class through the Great Smokies Writing Program at UNCA to figure out what to do with them, and on the first night of class, one of the other participants said her great aunt was a WASP.

At the break, I asked what her great aunt’s name was.

I know this sounds crazy, but her great aunt wrote the letters I’d bought on ebay.

It sent a chill through the room, and did, for weeks afterward. The coincidence was just too great for anyone to wrap their heads around.

I started researching the story in earnest, and posting what I’d learned on a blog about the letters and the people in them. I became obsessed with learning everything I could about the woman and her fiancee until my husband said to me at one point “I know you are excited about this, but can you talk about ANYTHING else? At least for a while?”

Six months later, I flew across country to meet the daughter of this WASP. We had plans to sort through her mother’s things, to match my letters with photographs,keepsakes and scrapbooks to tell the story of her mother’s life she’d never heard before and had no knowledge of.

It felt strange, telling this woman about her mother’s life as a WASP. The likelihood of buying those letters, walking into a class where a relative of the woman who wrote them just so happened to be, then meeting her daughter and finding everything this WASP ever wrote about in neat stacks on a dining room table was mind blowing.

And then it all went to hell.

The daughter’s new fiancee told her I had to go, or he was ending their engagement. He didn’t like me, and he sure as hell didn’t like the fact that I might be opening her world up when he’d managed to contain it so neatly, even to the point of cutting her off from her own daughter.

So she threw me out in the middle of the night.

I cried for weeks afterward, and I didn’t look at the letters again for years.

I got a text from the daughter out of nowhere a few months ago, demanding copies of the letters. When I told her no, she wrote back and forbade me from using anything in the letters to write about her mother. She has no right to do that. Her mother is a public figure, so in accordance with copyright laws, I can write anything about her mother that I want to.

According to those same copyright laws, she actually holds the copyright on the letters I own. I can write about her mother, but I can’t use the contents of the letters to tell her mother’s story.

And then I found out that a woman who has been trying to get a story made about the WASP almost as long as I have, found the blogs I wrote about this WASP and contacted the daughter for an interview. Now she owns the rights to a story no one would have never known anything about if it hadn’t been for me.

I am currently investigating my options with respect to protecting my research and copyright on the blogs. But in the end, my take away from this is that serendipity continues to be my guide with with respect to learning why the daughter reached out, what a backstabbing snake the woman is who is pursuing her own story about the WASP at my expense, and that everything having to do with what should have been epic and inspiring true story has destroyed something in me that I can’t quite put my finger on.

I still write about the WASP. In fact, I am halfway through yet another rewrite on the script that has been my passion for close to half my life. I am writing the script I always wanted to write, before everyone said it couldn’t be done, that no one would ever make a movie about pilots in war time who never flew in combat. This one is for me. And for all the WASPS I have grown to know and love over the past few years.

Maybe I will be the one to see my story made, and maybe I won’t. All I care about in the end is that someone celebrates the lives of these women, whether its me or not.

I only hope they do it without ripping my heart to shreds again.