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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How My Short Film Made it to the Cannes Film Festival

The Dark of NightI found out four days ago that the short film I wrote, THE DARK OF NIGHT (directed by Robin Wright and starring Leslie Bibb, Sam Rockwell, Callie Thorne, Michael Godere and Nini Le Huynh) will be opening the Cannes Classics film block on the seventieth anniversary of the Cannes Film Festival. We premiere on May 18, just prior to the digitally restored version of “All That Jazz”, which won the Palme d’Or in 1980, and the director of the festival, Thierry Fremaux will introduce us.

How in the hell do you wrap your head around that? How do you buy a dress, and some shoes, iron clothes you haven’t worn in years, pack a bag (you just bought by the way, because the last time you went to Europe, you wore a backpack and stayed in youth hostels), then fly off to Cannes to spend two days with the woman who directed your film, a woman who is still one of the hottest actresses in Hollywood, a woman you have admired since the first time you saw her on screen, and act like its all no big deal?

I’ll tell you how.

You launch yourself at this adventure like you have nothing to lose, because at the end of the day, you don’t. And how many times in my life am I ever going to get to say I had this kind of experience? I am 57 years old and I work hard. Harder than most people I have ever meet in my life. I don’t give up and I don’t take no for an answer. I didn’t get here by myself, but I sure as hell didn’t wait around for someone to hand it to me either.

And now here I am, on the precipice of an adventure most people can only dream of. 80 people from the TV series, House of Cards, volunteered their time, their resources and their shared love of film to breath life into THE DARK OF NIGHT. I can’t believe that a goal I set for myself when I was fresh out of college turned into a ten minute film with this kind of pedigree. The director of photography, Dave Dunlap,the costume designer, Jessica Wenger McPhail, the editor, Alphonso Carrion, the set decorators, the sound guys, the stand ins, the production assistants, the first AD (Todd Halvern), the UPM (Sharif Salama), and the caterers – everything about this production was beyond anything I could have ever comprehended.

And what’s crazy is that every single person who worked on this film took the time to thank me, and the man who really made it happen, Michael Witt (an executive producer on the film as well), for the chance to work on this movie. I feel like I didn’t do anything, that I wrote as few words on a page, and a bunch of really talented people swooped in and made MY dream a reality.

I owe every one of them a debt of gratitude. Movies are a collaborative medium and too often you hear horror stories about prima donas on a film set, but the crew from House of Cards, the amazing cast and most of all, Nini Le Huynh and Robin Wright, turned the dream I’d waited so long for, into the most remarkable experience of my life.

And now I get to take in the spectacle that is Cannes. The funny thing is? I feel like I was born for this moment. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

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…..

 

 

 

 

 

The Art of Waiting

clockPatience was never my forte.   Don’t get me wrong, I’ll spend months working on a project to make sure every aspect of it is right, whether it’s a piece of art, or the first act of a new screenplay.  The last screenplay I wrote was part of a thirty-day challenge.  The goal was to write three pages  a day.  I did, without ever going back once to look at what I’d written.  I spent the next few months writing and rewriting and writing and rewriting the first thirty pages until I wanted to scream.   This true story culminates in one of the worst mass murders in American history, but it starts as a love story, and every note had to be just right.    Once I was finished, I sent it to the producers, who came back two weeks later with notes.  I spent the entire weekend in front of my computer to get the new draft out immediately.  I am nothing if not a true Type A personality.

Then, I waited.

The entire film business is about waiting.

You wait for someone to return your emails, phone calls or texts, you wait for someone to read your script, you wait for the “no” that never comes (because no one in Hollywood wants to be the one that told you no if your project becomes the next Star Wars), you wait for the results of a screenwriting contest, if you win a screenwriting contest, you wait for agents to contact you, and if you have a produced film, even a short one, and you reach out to agents armed with evidence that other people believe in you enough to make your script a reality, you wait for them to decide if your project has merit over the thousands of other emails, and phone calls and contest winners who are also waiting.

Not long ago, I saw a photograph taken in an agent’s office of scripts stacked on top of one another from the floor to the ceiling in row, after row, after row that filled an entire wall.  They were deemed scripts worth reading, if the agent in question lived to be at least two million years old I suppose.  Agencies and production companies used to hire readers to shift through stacks of screenplays in search of a gem or two, but now overworked assistants, unpaid interns and mail room staff read scripts when they aren’t writing their own in the hopes of advancing their own careers.

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So I wait.

I hate waiting.

You want to know what I hate worse than that?  The fact that waiting means working a nine to five job that would take the stuffing out of people half my age.  My husband and I have an RV repair business.  I am 57 and he is 63.  In Hollywood years that makes me a fossil.  Which doesn’t exactly help with the waiting part.  My expiration date, at least as far as Hollywood is concerned, was over twenty years ago.  I do my best to keep that tidbit from folks, because if waiting is hard, being discounted as a writer based purely on my age would be devastating.  So I lift air conditioners that weigh almost as much as I do over my head onto a scaffold (then climb onto the scaffold to lift the air conditioners over my head onto the top of a coach), I help take refrigerators that DO weigh more than I do out of their cabinets to work with my husband on replacing  failed cooling units, I submit warranty claims, schedule appointments, help replace toilets, and go in and out of and up and down the stairs of RV’s bringing my husband tools in sometimes brutal temperatures while people tell you how to do the repairs they have hired us to complete because they read about them on the internet.

Whoever said “if you want to hear the sounds of God’s laughter, tell him your plans” got that one right.

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I came back from the high of working on a film in Baltimore with Robin Wright, Leslie Bibb and Sam Rockwell, and you know what happened? I found myself laying on my back under a fifth wheel trailer on the concrete in a pool of cold soapy water, holding a sewer pipe and my nose so my husband, who has no business spending what should have been his retirement years crawling around an RV on his hands and knees, worked to replace a black water valve.  A black water valve, for those of you who don’t know, is the valve you pull to empty the contents of your toilet into the sewer.  In order to replace the black water valve, you have to disconnect it, and put a bucket under the two parts of the pipe to catch whatever might be left in the tank that collects the contents of the toilet.

The man who owned the RV, and who is probably my husband’s age, stood over me in a pair of khaki shorts, and said, “your husband tells me you are a screenwriter”.  “Yes I am” I told him, and hoped a fissure in the concrete would open up just enough so I could disappear into it.

People keep telling me to slow down, that my time is coming, that “these things take time”.  They are right, of course.

But I have been waiting since I was 23.

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Maybe my time will come, and maybe it won’t.  For the first time ever I feel like I am in the right place in order for the right time to become a reality.  A Timeline video on African-American motorcycle legend, Bessie Stringfield, appeared on Facebook a few weeks ago and has over 15,000,000 views, 300,000 shares and 3000 comments about why a film hasn’t been made on her life.  I wrote a script about Bessie Stringfield two years ago when no one had ever heard of her, and everyone told me no one would EVER be interested in this woman, and now Hidden Figures has just outpaced a Star Wars movie for first place at the box office several weeks running.   Another script I just finished could be on its way to Brad Pitt or Leonardo diCaprio before long.

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But in the meantime, I wait.

And I really hate waiting.

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.