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.

Being a screenwriter is like being a fish; sometimes you make it upstream to spawn and sometimes you wind up in the bouillabaisse.

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I would imagine most people who chase after careers in the film business think of their success or failure in the same way most people hope to win the lottery. I think a career in film is more like being a fish. Fish travel in schools. Sometimes the green fish is ahead and sometimes the green fish is behind, but the pack moves together in unison toward the shared goal of making it big in the movies. Every once in awhile, someone from the school gets plucked out of the water, or eaten by a shark, but the school itself just keeps moving forward in the dogged pursuit of whatever comes next.

Six weeks ago, I attended the Cannes Film Festival for the red carpet premiere of my short film, THE DARK OF NIGHT. It was a once in a lifetime experience that it made me realize just how few people ever make it in the film business. For every actor who enjoys a hit right out of the starting gate and who remains an A list actor all their working lives, there are hundreds of thousands of people who never get past security. The ones who do find themselves part of a smaller group of fish, the ones who have had some degree of success, who are always one step ahead of, or behind, one another.

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Ten days ago, I was in California for the Palm Springs Short Film Festival, a seminar at Amazon Studios sponsored by the Athena Film Festival, and a pitch meeting with Mark Gordon Studios. I realized once I got there that over half the people I met were people who had competed against me in a screenwriting competition I had won, or people I had lost a competition to at some point in the past year or two.

Brandi Ford was an Athena List Finalist the year I was an Athena List Winner. This year Brandi was selected as an HBO Access Fellow, one of eleven fellows out of over 3500 submissions, one of which was mine. Pearse Lehane has won the Atlanta Film Festival Screenplay competition twice, and this year he was also the winner of the Emerging Screenwriters competition. I won the Atlanta Film Festival Screenwriting Competition as well, but came in ninth in the Emerging Screenwriters Contest. Dee Chilton was selected by the Black List for a weekend long workshop at the Athena Film Festival and has since landed an agent, her first short film is in the can, and the script that landed her as a semi-finalist for the Nicholl Fellowship has been optioned, whereas I have never made it past the top fifteen percent of writers who submit to the Nicholl Fellowship, the number one screenwriting competition in Hollywood.

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In less than a week, I take my place again at the front of the pack with an eight day mentorship as part of the New York Stage and Filmmakers Powerhouse Season at Vassar College. This was an invitation only opportunity and both the mentors and my fellow mentees have such impressive credentials that I half wonder how I had the incredible good fortune to be asked to apply in the first place, let alone be selected to participate in such an amazing program.

For point of reference, the NY Stage and Film organization workshops plays every summer at the Powerhouse Theater to get them ready for Broadway. A little play called “Hamilton” got its start at the Powerhouse Theater a few years back, about the time the film part of the organization decided to work their same magic with film and TV writers. Only a handful of writers are chosen. I think I may be one of the few with a measly bachelors degree; most have masters degrees in film from places like Harvard, Yale and Columbia University. Some have produced feature length films, others have won major screenwriting contests, and one secured a spot with the Writers Lab, the Meryl Streep funded workshop for female writers over 40 in 2016.

I am curious to see where all this goes. I used to think that winning a screenwriting contest meant instant success. But I know now that we are all swimming together in this small school of silver fish, and while our collective opportunities to avoid becoming bait are higher than most people’s, we are all just a school fish waiting to see what happens next.

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Women’s History Month and the Myth of the Female Writer

arrayI was inspired by a campaign launched this month by director Ava du Vernay regarding Women’s History Month and #ArrayToday, #ArrayNow and @ArrayToday and @ArrayNow to share my thoughts on how the history of the accomplishments of women have impacted my life and “career” as a female screenwriter.

I grew up in a family that felt marriage and motherhood were what every young woman should aspire to.   I didn’t know that women could be race car drivers, pilots, firefighters, doctors, or inventors.  I didn’t know that a woman in her fifties became one of the most respected criminologists of all time during the 1930’s, or that a black woman born and raised in the South moved to Paris to become a  pilot in the 1920’s.  I didn’t know about the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, or the only known female stagecoach robber in American history, or the all girl bands in World War Two.  I didn’t know about Elizabeth Blackwell,  Hedy Lamar, Bessie Stringfield,  Jackie Cochran or countless other women  who forged a path through a male dominated world because they wanted the chance to live the life they chose.  Not the one they were expected to live because they were girls.

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For the past thirty years, I have researched and written about the lives of remarkable women because I persist in believing that if young women today knew about the accomplishments of the women before them, they would start their lives with the same building blocks men take for granted.  Instead of being asked “Who are you wearing”, they should be asked, “What mountain have you climbed lately, what new app are you developing,” or “When is your new movie going to be out?”

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When people say there aren’t enough female writers or enough good roles for women. I want to cry.  Actually, sometimes I do.  I’ve been told the reason I still don’t have an agent or manager, why I have never sold a script, or why I haven’t been a writer for hire, is because I write about women.    Yet, in the past three years, I have been selected as an Athena List winner AND Finalist (in the same year), I won the screenwriting competition for the Atlanta Film Festival (2017), I was a finalist in both the Nashville Film Festival (2016) and Diverse Voices (2016), I placed ninth in the Emerging Screenwriters Contest (2016), was a semi-finalist for the American Zoetrope contest (2015), have placed in the top fifteen percent of the Nicholl Fellowships twice, won the Grand Prize (Shorts) for Table Read My Screenplay Austin (2015), was a Second Rounder for the Austin Film Festival (2015) and am currently a finalist for the Female Initiative sponsored by Seriesfest and Rose McGowan.

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The last Table Read My Screenplay winner was nominated for an Academy Award and is now directing his first film.

I still work in the RV business to put food on the table.

I hate the fact that its 2017 and we are still trying to convince Hollywood that we are here and we are not going away.    I am not going to stop writing about amazing women.  And  continue to hope that someday, when someone says, there are so many great women writers out there with such fascinating stories to tell, one of those female writers they will be talking about, is me.

So here’s an idea, Hollywood. Stop talking about the problem and start hiring women.  You can start right here.

 

 

You’re No One in Hollywood…

Show business legend, Bernie Brillstein titled his autobiography, “Where Did I Go Right: You’re No One In Hollywood Unless Someone Wants You Dead”.  I am beginning to chart the level of progress in this business based on those sage words, since it seems I am doing a fine job of pissing people off lately.   brillstein

Don’t get me wrong, I am not doing it on purpose.  I am just not giving them what they want, which makes me the bad guy, and I am okay with that.   It means I am growing a backbone when it comes to standing up for myself, something I never would have done when I was younger.  It was something I DIDN’T do when I was younger.  If I had, my career might have had a different outcome all those years ago.  Of course, I might not have learned the lessons I needed to if I came equipped with a spine of steel, and the one great advantage of getting older is recognizing that if things don’t work out the way you want them to, the world will not come to an end.

Hollywood is a small community and operates more than you might imagine on cooperation and people who are easy to work with.  There are exceptions of course, but for the most part, this is an industry of people who work together to achieve their goals.  Having said that, it is also a place where opportunities to advance are limited, and there are only so many big breaks to go around.  People can be vindictive, petty, and vengeful, and in the past year I have had more than my fair share of run-ins with folks who wanted something I had and when they didn’t get it….well, let’s just say it wasn’t pretty.

So I must be doing something right.

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A few days ago I learned the screenplay I wrote about the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, called LUCKY 13, was chosen as one of three winners of the Atlanta Film Festival competition.  Lucky 13 is based on the amazing true story about the young women who were recruited by famed aviatrix, Jackie Cochran, to replace male ferry pilots in the United States so desperately needed combat pilots could battle the air wars in Europe and the Pacific.  She established the only all female airbase in American history in Sweetwater, Texas, and for two years trained women pilots the Army Air Force way.  Thirteen women were hand selected to attend B26 Marauder school in Dodge City, Kansas as sacrificial lambs.  The B26 Marauder was the only airplane during World War Two to go directly from blueprints to production.  With the modifications the Army made, the plane quickly became known as the Widowmaker.  Because the B26 was central to the push on Monte Cassino in advance of the Normandy invasion, the military needed to find out how to get the plane airborne without killing pilots, or scrap the D-Day advance entirely.  The girls learned to fly the planes, taught male pilots (who quit when they found out they were going to have to train with “girls”) and their reward?  Congress disbanded the WASP in favor of male civilian pilots hoping to avoid the draft, because “girls can’t fly”.

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RIDE THE WIND; The Bessie Stringfield Story, is based on the life of African American motorcycle legend, Bessie Stringfield, who was the first woman to ride a motorcycle cross country, the only woman to serve as a motorcycle dispatch rider in World War Two, and who was celebrated in a “Heroes of Harley” exhibit shortly before her death.  A Timeline video on Bessie’s life was published in December 2016, and has received 16,000,000 hits, 300,000 shares and 5,000 comments regarding why a movie about Bessie’s life hasn’t been made yet.  The script is currently in submission to an A list actress, and with the outstanding (and not at all surprising) success of HIDDEN FIGURES, this is clearly  a story whose time has come.

I was also interviewed recently for a podcast with the amazing Laura Powers that says even more about why I am inspired to write about women, and I found out yesterday that a TV pilot I wrote about the all girl bands in World War Two was selected for inclusion in the Scriptapalooza TV writing competition, with 12 winners to be announced tomorrow in four categories.  I am currently re-writing the script for submission to the HBO Access program, which is open for four days at the beginning of March.

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I am often told I am tenacious in the pursuit of what I want.  The actress who is reading the script about Bessie Stringfield is the actress I wrote the part for, and three years ago, when this project first launched, everyone told me I would never get anywhere near her.  She may not agree to do the film, but I kept at it until I got it in front of her (with a LOT of help, I might add).  Another project I just finished is on its way to another major league actor (again with a lot of help), and no one seems to understand how I am doing this from an RV park in Florida, and a house in Mars Hill, North Carolina, with no agent or manager, and I think its because I finally know myself and how to protect the only real asset I have; myself.

So I’d like to think Bernie Brillstein would be proud of me.   It turns out, pissing people off isn’t the worst thing in the world.  And I am a natural…..

 

 

 

 

 

Don’t Tell Me No. Seriously. Just Don’t Do It.

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I started my film career in 1983, a few months after graduating from college.  I knew exactly two people: a woman I had met through the mail who worked for Michael Douglas, and, coincidentally enough, his brother Joel, who was the unit production manager on “One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest”.  I met Joel when I was 15.   We were reading “One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest” in my psychology class in high school, so I decided to call the production office one day and ask if anyone would mind speaking to us about the film.  Joel Douglas showed up a few days later, and after class, invited me to visit the set any time.

They were filming at the Oregon Mental Hospital where the severely deranged were housed on the third floor.  The first two floors were no longer in use.  I showed up day after day to watch filming, until one afternoon, Joel tried to have sex with me in his office on a pile of coats in one corner of the room.  It makes for a funny story now, that my first real kiss was in an insane asylum, but the truth is, I was fifteen, and I thought there was something wrong with me because I didn’t want to “show my appreciation” on floor of his office.  I even sent HIM a card to apologize for refusing him, and never went back to the set again.

I was 23 when I got a job with Judy Scott-Fox, a literary agent, at the William Morris Agency. I honestly thought I could get to the top through hard work and determination, but Hollywood isn’t built that way. I was not and never have been the “fuck my way to the top” kind of girl , and besides, I was living with another assistant at the agency so I was “off the market” anyhow.  Even if I had entertained the idea of becoming an agent trainee at the time, the men who ran the agency thought it was “cute” that girls wanted to do jobs that were clearly meant for the sons of their friends.  Some women did become agents of course, but most became “D” girls (development girls) and that was the end of that.

I started writing screenplays as a way to get ahead, but I wrote about women, and no one wanted to take me on as a client.  Actresses, back then, were easier to get to, and I had enough contacts in the industry at the time to get my work in front of Demi Moore,  Molly Ringwald and Meg Ryan, but I also wrote a lot of ensemble pieces, and actresses (back then, anyway for the most part) didn’t want to share the screen with another woman.

After 12 years in “the film business” I shifted gears and became an artist.  My medium of choice were gourds, and I was told right off the bat that I clearly had talent as an artist, “but why on EARTH gourds?”  I’m sure the feeling was that I went out of my way to pick the hardest thing in the world to do, but I didn’t want to do what everyone else was doing. I had myself to answer to at the end of the day, and that was what mattered to me. It made for some rough years and more than my share of self doubt AND self abuse along the way, but telling me no is a surefire way to get me to do what people feel can’t be done.

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I became the top selling gourd artist in the nation within the first five years, and eventually sold a single piece of gourd art for $22,500.  My work was in books and magazines, on TV and in museums, and when the economy started to turn, I switched gears to become a wildlife artist and then a handbag designer.  I auditioned for “Project Accessory”, and even though I didn’t make it through the first interview, let alone the first round, I went on to sell my one of a kind handbags for up to $2500.

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Then the economy bottomed out, and I took every job I could get my hands on just to survive.  The dream of a career in film was further away than ever, and my passion for art all but died along the way.

I went back to writing screenplays without much hope it would ever amount to much.  By then I was “too old”, I lived in a fly over state, my “connections” in the film industry ran things now, but I couldn’t get a single person on the phone.  And then, I won an eight week screenwriting scholarship at the New York Film Academy, and even though I was the oldest person in class by a long shot, I finally felt as though I had matured enough as a writer and a person to be able to write the way I always wanted to.

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I still wrote scripts about women, but I did it with conviction.  I also “grew a set” and backed away from a shopping agreement with a huge producer because he wasn’t that interested in the script I’d sent him, and his director of development didn’t have any real power to make it happen.  I recently told the head of a motion picture literary department who has been stringing me along for months and who made it clear he would never promote my passion project even if he did sign me as a client because he has a “competing project” of his own, that I was going to look elsewhere for representation.  And then, I got a movie made thanks to Nini Le Huynh and Robin Wright.

I am not where I want to be yet professionally. Not by a long shot.   I work a 60 hour week at another business and write when I can, sometimes on the way to and from my job, or late at night when the house is quiet.  I don’t have an agent, or a manager, but I’ll be goddamned if anyone is going to tell me I can’t do something.

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This is my life.  And I am going to lead it the way that I please.  So go ahead and tell me no. Because proving people wrong is what I do.

 

 

 

 

The Dark of Night

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I’ve never been very good at taking no for an answer.

As a screenwriter, I wrote about women way before  it was a thing, back when Jodie Foster and Michelle Pfeiffer and Demi Moore were box office draws and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences struggled to find enough actresses to nominate for Best Actress year after year. I wrote period pieces about women in the mistaken belief that if women knew what women had done, as a gender we wouldn’t waste so goddamned much time reinventing history with each successive generation.  Instead of young women fighting their way up the corporate ladder, we would start with the same building blocks men take for granted.  We have been  inventors, scientists, astronauts, pilots, doctors, mathematicians, welders, loggers, musicians, and firefighters, but most girls grow up thinking Kim Kardashian is the most they can hope to aspire to.

I am too old to be a screenwriter, I don’t live in Los Angeles, I don’t have an agent, a manager, or a publicist, and I was recently told that a script I wrote about the Women’s Air Force Service Pilots had two strikes against it; 1) “No one cares about the WASP.  It’s old news” and b) Exactly ONE film will be made about women pilots.  Unlike the hundreds of movies about the male experience in World War Two there is room for just one film about women, and its isn’t mine.  I still encounter people, some close friends, who tell me to give up writing period pieces because no one makes them anymore (fifty percent of all Academy Award nominated films are period pieces and close to forty percent of TV series are period pieces, but what do I know?).  And while I am at it, it might be a good idea to quit writing about women all together.

Two years ago, after my 10,00th draft of LUCKY 13, I signed up for a short film competition just for something to do.  I was given a genre, a character and a setting, and eight days to write a twelve page script.  I wrote the first draft of THE DARK OF NIGHT in an hour and a half.   Two days ago, that script became a short film directed by a woman whose work I have admired as much, if not more, than Meryl Streep.  She is easily as good an actress (in my opinion at least) and now, I know she is not only an amazing director, she is a remarkable woman and one I am grateful to know.

Robin Wright agreed to direct my short film after an angel named Nini Le Huynh brought it to her attention after Beau Gordon brought it to Nini’s, and Denise Hewitt brought it to Beau’s.  Nini is an outstanding actress and one of the most generous people I have ever met.  Together these wildly talented women brought my script to life with the crew of House of Cards (who volunteered their time) and a cast I could have only ever dreamed of. Leslie Bibb, Sam Rockwell, Callie Thorne, Michael Godere and Nini Le Huynh star in THE DARK OF NIGHT.  And that is how THE DARK OF NIGHT came to be.

Stick around for more.  Because this is not the last you will hear about THE DARK OF NIGHT.

How to become an overnight success in thirty years or less

I graduated from college in 1982 with a degree in liberal arts.  My father didn’t want me to go to college because he didn’t think I would be able to use my degree when I got married.  I never walked down the aisle, and I never used my  degree because, as it turns out a liberal arts degree is completely useless (no matter what anyone tells you).  Instead,  I packed up my 1972 Volkswagon bug and  headed to California to make it big in moving pictures.

graduation

If the decision to get a liberal arts degree was misguided, pursuing a career in Hollywood, writing screenplays about amazing women doing remarkable things, on my own terms was downright pathological.   I actually thought that if I wrote scripts about women, with strong female leads, every actress in Hollywood would beat a path to my door.  Between the fact that its next to impossible to get a script to anyone in Hollywood unless you are already part of the Hollywood elite, and the fact that I wasn’t a very good writer (at the time,  anyway) my tenure in Hollywood came to an inglorious end when I set my belongings on the curb, packed a moving van, and headed north to Utah to pursue a much more successful career as an artist.

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Twenty years later, I am back in the Hollywood game.  Things are worse now than they were thirty years ago.  Women make up over half the film going audience, yet are represented both in front of and behind the scenes at less than 15% of their male counterparts.  A movement is underway to change all of that, but it seems the constant lament the lack of good roles for women is a bit precious considering the fact that the Meryl Streep funded Writers Lab for female screenwriters over 40 brought in 3500 submissions.

3500 screenplays.  By women, about women.

But there aren’t enough women writing screenplays and not enough women to direct them, right?

Well, Melissa Silverstein and Kathryn Kolbert are working to change all of that.  They are the co-founders of The Athena Festival, a four day celebration of women in film, a highlight of which is the Athena List.  The Athena List is to women screenwriters what the Black List is to the rest of male dominated Hollywood; the best unproduced screenplays about women, by women that should be movies yet, but aren’t.

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I recently won a coveted spot on The Athena List with RIDE THE WIND; The Bessie Stringfield Story, about the first African American woman to be inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame.  RIDE THE WIND has an award winning producer (Cheryl L. Bedford), and a director  (Craig Ross Jr) and is currently making its way through the Hollywood labyrinth.  With any luck, we will get Lupita Nyong’o to star.

LUCKY 13, about the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots and the crucial role they played in training male combat pilots how to fly the B26 Marauder before the D-Day Invasion of Normandy is a finalist in the Nashville Film Festival, and PEARL HART, THE BANDIT GIRL, about the only known female stagecoach robber in American history, placed in the top 15 percent of nearly 8900 screenplays submitted to the Nicholl Fellowships last year.20150121_142128

Hollywood is a tough business and I am not picking out my Oscar dress just yet.  But amazing scripts about remarkable women DO exist.  And thankfully, I am a MUCH better writer now than I was then.  Maybe this time I will make it big in moving pictures.  And so will a lot of other women.

 

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