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.

 

 

 

 

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THE BEST LAID PLANS Or Why Being a Screenwriter Makes You Want to Rip Your Head Off and Throw It Across the Room

When I wrote my first post on this site, I had dreams of making regular entries about my experiences at the New York Film Academy during the eight week screenwriting intensive I was participating in at the time.  My plan was to walk people through the screenwriting process from an academic perspective, to provide aspiring writers who didn’t have the opportunity I did to benefit from the experience I had been offered, and answer questions about why there are so many bad movies out there.

Like the saying goes, if you want to hear the sound of God’s laughter, tell him your plans.  Before I knew it, the eight weeks was over, and the rarified experience of being able to talk about writing, attend seminars about writing,  critique movies as homework,  then, write, all day, every day, was gone.  I finished the screenplay I wrote at school, and somehow, miraculously, made the Second Round at the Austin Film Festival with the script and even found a producer.  This past winter, I had the chance to start writing again and used everything I learned at NYFA to rework  two of my favorite scripts; LUCKY 13 about the Women’s Air Service Pilots in World War Two, and PEARL HART, THE BANDIT GIRL, about the only known female stagecoach robber in American history.

After eagerly submitting both scripts to every major screenwriting competition; the Nicholls Fellowships, the Austin Film Festival, Slamdance, Scriptapolooza, the Nantucket Film Festival, and the Page Awards,  I realized those competitions, for the most part anyway, don’t announce the winners until October.

It’s the end of April, and I have to do something to get the scripts out there right?  So I signed up with a company that bridges the gap between new writers and production companies or studios,  sent the script to The Black List, and hunted down a list of actresses with their own production companies who could get these movies made.

That’s when things got really frustrating.

One of the people I sent the scripts to, an Academy Award winning actress who started her own production company after seeing six of her favorite actresses “fighting over a really crappy role in a movie,” threw the scripts, the release form and the query letter in the trash because “we don’t accept any unsolicited material”.  An agent I sent the script to said he wasn’t legally allowed to read it because he didn’t ask for it, so I told him to ask for it, and he said he wasn’t legally allowed to do that either.

I started submitting written pitches of LUCKY 13 to several major production companies through a paid service that costs $45 every time you send it out.   A written pitch is a short, two page synopsis of the story, characters, character arcs, and resolution as well as the actors or actresses you would like to see cast in the film.     It’s difficult to include every nuance of your script in two pages, so the value of your material is judged by how well you write the synopsis, not how well the script itself is written.  The pitches are selected about half the time, and right now LUCKY 13 is with some VERY good agencies and producers, but it can take up to three months to get a response, if they bother to respond at all.  Even so, some major players have passed on the script for what I think are some pretty hysterical reasons:

“This is a very interesting and mostly forgotten piece of US history to tackle and I think Denise did a good job of crafting a story based on the pioneering lives of these women.  With that said, the film does not feel like a big studio film to me and I wish there was some larger role the female pilots played in the war itself in terms of actually being in combat.  While their role was very dangerous as well, the finale lacks a certain build when they are just paving the way for the men to get to war.  Ultimately, cool part of history, but not quite something for me. Pass”

“The plot, as outlined, feels TOO derivative of A LEAGUE OF HER OWN.  What sets this narrative apart?  Specifically looking for more details about the character arcs of Gwen and bunny – what about their individual experiences make this journey unique and compelling?  Didn’t connect with the concept enough to want to pursue.  Pass”
 “Like the female lead cast, but historical pieces like this are a tough sell. Look into the making of Red Tails. Mirroring this model will give this project a better chance of getting made. Currently, I worry about the budget to recreate this time period. Pass”
So its back to the drawing board, right?   I mean, there is more than one way to crack this particular nut.
The Black List is the industry standard for undiscovered talent and well respected but unproduced screenplays.  You pay $25 a month to host your script on the site in the hopes someone will find you and read your script, and $50 each time you have one of their readers review your material.  Scripts are rated on a scale of one to ten, and only scripts with a rating of eight or higher are included in regular weekly emails to all the producers, studios and industry professionals looking for screenplays.
This is the first review of the script from The Black List.  This review got an overall rating of 7.
Strengths:

LUCKY 13 is so obviously a passionately researched and written script, the characters and history is alive and jumps off the page. The dialogue is snappy and feels both a part of its time and everlasting. The story it tells is one that rivals similar films like A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN and TOP GUN, basically taking bits and pieces of both of those films, but marrying it to a real historical event. The interplay between the two leads, Gwen and Bunny is heartfelt and achingly real, and Gwen’s desire to fly planes, her fiery character, and her spunky wit is so accurately drawn, its easy to imagine that she’s based on a real historical figure, even if she isn’t. The action scenes are well written and detailed, and the only thing that would make them more exciting is if they were combat scenes, which historically they cannot be.

Prospects:

This is an excellently told story, and it is a true story that many people might not know. The characters are great and the action is as well. The only things that might hinder its prospects are the fact that, while it contains great action scenes, there is no threat of combat, which might turn some viewers off, although there was no stated threat of combat in TOP GUN either. Additionally, films with strong, well-written female leads are staggeringly hard to come by, and this should attract a strong cast (whether that leads to box office results is, however, hard to say). It has the potential to be a film people watch again and again because its fun, its informative, and its an enjoyable story to follow.

The second review got an overall rating of 6.

Strengths:

Full of action, suspense, and female empowerment, this script does an excellent job dramatizing the story of the Lucky 13 without sensationalizing it with salacious details or overdramatic events. Gwen is the perfect protagonist to lead the story: she has all the traits–glamour, strength, and confidence–that will resonate with a young female audience, as well as just enough flaws to make her seem real and relatable. Her neverending zeal for life and her lust for adventure contrasts against the rigid and sexist society she comes from in provocative ways, and the group’s ability to break away from the mold is empowering and cheer-worthy. The script perfectly addresses the world in which the story is set: the blatant, unapologetic sexism the women face is dramatically startling, and also creates the level of authenticity the story needs to set the stage. Gwen and Bunny’s relationship allows the script to show a softer side to Gwen, and Bunny’s death is poignantly heartbreaking and a great catalyst to launch the events of the third act. Gwen and Bryant’s relationship also develops nicely as well–it’s somewhat predictable; however, they remain a couple to root for, and their relationship is a great place to explore each character individually and strip away the layers to reveal the strong souls underneath tough exteriors.

Prospects:

US audiences love heroic war stories such as this one, and the unique twist that comes from having a female-centric, home-grown cast makes this script stand out immediately. Given the high-octane action, the compelling protagonists, the brewing forbidden romance, and the patriotic spirit, this story could easily attract a good director and make its way into production. This is a huge opportunity for any actress looking for a strong role to take on, and audiences across the board will definitely appreciate the story being told here. The story is similar to FLYBOYS, but much more modernized and relevant. With all the strong female-driven leads in today’s culture–Katniss leading the pack–this story definitely could find a home on screen. It’s refreshing to see the women challenge conventions in a male-dominant world, and these heroines have the cleverness and vibrancy to compel a widespread audience. The fact that it’s based on true events makes it even more compelling, and given the current climate and social issues taking over today’s headlines in the feminist movement, the feeling persists that this film would be hugely embraced.

Now, I’ll be honest with you.  A few close friends of mine in the film business tell me I have no right to me frustrated by these rejections because I am wasting my talents writing period pieces with female driven leads.   I do have that right though.    I wrote screenplays about characters I want to see on the silver screen, and they are really good scripts.   LOTS of good writers with material better than mine get turned down all the time, or there wouldn’t be a VERY lucrative cottage industry in offering  screenwriting contests for writers, or pitch meetings for writers, or writing workshops, or coverage for writers.  It gets frustrating, and discouraging and demoralizing and EXPENSIVE to put yourself out there over and over again, only to be told, “this script is GREAT, its a PASS.”

So yes, I do have the right to be unhappy about that.  But I also know that it only takes ONE person to see what I see in these scripts.  And while its considered REALLY bad form in Hollywood to share your rejections with “the outside world” I also think its a bit precious to think writers are supposed to take their licks and keep their mouths shut about it.

I have a voice, and like the characters I write about, I want it to be heard.  I worked hard for a seat at the table.  I’m not owed one because I wrote something I am crazy about. No one is.   I love this journey, even when I don’t always like it.   And having been on both sides of the film-making experience, as some one who once loved going to the movies, and as someone who has practiced her Academy Awards speech at least a million times, I think screenwriting really ain’t for sissies.

But isn’t it fascinating to see behind the curtain???