In retrospect, it’s ironic my youngest son “vanished” the day after Vanished aired on NBC. (I wrote the teleplay, based on the Danielle Steele novel.) It’s about “a man and woman faced with an almost unthinkable tragedy – the mysterious abduction of their son.”
My fascination with kidnapped children began with a Reader’s Digest condensed book, Kidnap: The Story of the Lindbergh Case by George Waller. Half a century later, I’ve read almost every book on the subject (and there are a lot). IMHO, Bruno Richard Hauptmann was innocent, but we’ll never know for sure. That enduring mystery is one of the reasons the case still captivates. Kidnappers Leopold and Loeb also inspired their share of films and books but in their case, the mystery wasn’t who did it, but why. More recently, the 2007 disappearance of Madeleine McCann is a hot case and the subject of a new Netflix documentary.
Missing children – in fiction as well as true crime – capture public imagination because the stories speak to a primal parental fear. I suspect most parents survive at least one heart-stopping moment where their child appears to vanish and the previously unimaginable is agonizingly imminent. In a moment of clarity, you understand that one mistake – an instant of distraction – can shatter everything. Since all of us are human, all of us make mistakes. I made several. All my children terrified me with at least one disappearing act. Luckily, none of them were gone very long.
“Braveheart” won Best Picture in 1996 and Mel Gibson was named Best Director. Nicolas Cage (Leaving Las Vegas) and Susan Sarandon (Dead Man Walking) took top acting honors, Kevin Spacey (Usual Suspects) and Mira Sorvino (Mighty Aphrodite) won Supporting Honors. I was pleased Christopher McQuarrie (Usual Suspects) won for Best Original Screenplay and Emma Thompson (Sense and Sensibility won Best Adapted screenplay).
Due to subsequent events and political correctness, at least two of the 1996 winners probably wouldn’t take home Oscars if the vote was cast today. For me, this raises the complicated issue of how to separate art from the artist. Does a performance become unworthy, is a painting flawed, if the performer or painter is somebody I deem immoral? On the other hand, should we – as a society – elevate and reward criminals?
Do we need to reevaluate and possibly demote great artists of the past? Wasn’t Edgar Allen Poe a drug addict and possible pederast? I doubt he’s the only legend with skeletons in his closet.
This was an exciting time. I loved the fast and furious pace of television versus the plodding development process in features. Most of my television credits are stand-alone MOWs (Movie of the Week), a 90s network staple. TV movies unfolded in seven acts, to accommodate six commercials. Ideally, all six act breaks were cliff-hangers, to ensure viewers didn’t channel hop when the ads started.
“Malibu Shores” was my only series experience. As co-producer, I worked long office hours with producers John Eisendrath and Joel Feigenbaum. After decades of writing at home on my own timetable, this was a shock to my system.
As staff writer-producers, we wielded more power than the directors we hired on a per-episode basis and the actors consulted us when they wanted to change a line. John and Joel insisted I veto the first request, to experience the thrill of saying “no” to a script change. That said, we could not say no to Aaron Spelling, broadcast Standards and Practices or the NBC executive in charge of the show.
In his novel Artistic Differences, Charlie Hauck compared producing a television series to chapter 37 of Moby Dick. I quote him below, slightly abridged. I highly recommend his book to anyone interested in staff writing.
“It’s exactly like chapter 37 of Moby Dick. Captain Ahab finally spots Moby Dick. He has a shot at him. And he gets a boat down in the water, a skiff or whatever. And he’s got these Asian guys rowing the boat. They’re not his regular guys – these are some kind of hotshot whaling experts. Anyhow, all these guys are rowing the boat. They really know what they’re doing…they’re Joe Whaler. And Ahab is standing in the back with this harpoon that he’s been sharpening for three years. And Moby Dick is flopping around, like, two hundred yards away. And all of a sudden, these sharks surround the skiff. They’re everywhere. And the sharks start taking bites out of the paddles of the oars. And the paddles are getting smaller and smaller, and it’s getting harder for the guys in the boat to row, and the whale’s not going to stay there forever, right?
But the thing is, the sharks don’t want the oars. They want the whale, just like Ahab and the Asian guys. But the sharks, who want the whale as much as anybody else, they’re the ones who make getting the whale impossible. You see?
And here’s the analogy. The whale is the television show. The hit series. Like, if it goes into syndication, everybody connected with it makes fifty million dollars. And the people in the boat, they’re the writers and producers. They’re the ones trying to get the whale, who know how to do it. And the sharks, the guys biting the oars, they’re the network guys, and the production company executives and the agents and everybody else who, when they don’t know how to get to the whale, decide, somewhere back in the swamp ova of the human brain, well, Jesus, I should do something, why don’t I try to sink the boat? And that’s exactly what it’s like trying to produce a television show.”
What’s not to love about travelling to research a writing project? For starters, producers must fly writers First Class – something my Midwestern roots won’t allow me to do for myself. It’s superficial, but it made me feel important. Another benefit, for some – free alcohol. All I know is, the diet Coke they serve in first class tastes the same as it does in economy.
In the early days, I fantasized jetting to Paris for a true-life story but apparently very few Parisian lives are MOW material, (link to Movie of the Week). The stories I got hired to write unspooled in tiny Texas or Louisiana towns where the top hotel stood side by side with the local slaughterhouse. This is not to knock small towns or southern states; I’m from rural Iowa myself (Graettinger and Estherville, anyone?) However, as quaint and charming as Kickapoo, Kansas, might be, no one will ever mistake it for Paris.
I liked everyone I interviewed except the cold-blooded killer in the high-security Texas prison. Getting to know the people made the job fun. What made it hard was their desire for their stories to be told truthfully, like they happened in reality. I couldn’t bring myself to tell them that regardless of how dramatic and compelling their tale might be, inevitably “a true story” dilutes to “inspired by a true story” or, worst case scenario, “inspired by a concept based on an idea related to a possibly true story.”
This particular tale of young love in the bayou was not produced, which was disappointing but not surprising. In those days, maybe half the scripts a network developed got produced (which is still a significantly higher ratio than feature projects in development). What did surprise me was my sympathies shifted from the love-struck kids to the Mom. A tad troubling, since I built my career on angsty teens, not their uptight parents living lives of quiet desperation. Was it possible my struggle with my rebellious teen son was turning me into one of “them”?
This was the first and only time I traveled to the set of one of the MOW’s I wrote (other than shows that shot in LA, in which case I might drive ten miles – to Occidental, for instance, where they shot “She Cried No”). I’m not complaining – it’s boring on set unless you’ve got a job (and maybe even then, just saying). I was excited about a trip to Minnesota, especially with Joe Maurer, Brad Wigor and Felice Gordon, three producers who became friends. The fact they issued the invitation to me at all speaks volumes about how well they treated their writers.
In Minnesota, I sat through a table reading of the script – an extremely high-tension exercise for me. It’s mortifying when a line I wrote – especially a line intended to be funny – dies in front of the full cast and crew. There’s no ambivalence; it’s not a judgment call. Lines work or not and the thud is deafening when they don’t. I say nothing, draw a skull beside the clunker in the script, and slink down further in my folding chair. If I don’t die of humiliation, I’m expected to fix what I failed to get right the first time – fast. This close to production, every wasteful delay bleeds money.
After the reading, I accompanied Joe, Brad and the director – Bill Corcoran – on a location scout. By sheer coincidence (or cosmic design, you decide), we drove past Bethesda Lutheran, the hospital where I was born. In honor of this karmic connection, Corcoran insisted I leap out of the van and pose for a historic photograph (see below).
I sat by Felice on the return trip to LA and – along with other fascinating facts – discovered Felice was Jean Shrimpton’s manager when Jean was the ultimate supermodel girls like me longed to look like.
As if this wasn’t enough excitement, my youngest hit double-digits and turned ten. Too much was happening, too fast. And I loved every minute of it.
This was an exciting, productive time in my writing career. Maybe a few lucky screen and television writers enjoy steady careers uninterrupted by unemployment; I suspect the majority, like myself, are either overbooked or out of work and terrified their career is over. My specialty, which kept me employed – mostly by NBC – during this period was my speed. I could deliver a Movie of the Week (MOW) ready for production in two weeks. It might not win any Emmys or Humanitas awards, but no one needed to use a pseudonym or hang their heads in shame.
I felt the pressure but didn’t mind it; I thrived on the crazy deadlines. I enjoyed and respected the creative people I worked with. I loved how MOWs (especially green-lit ones!) went into production minutes after I handed in a script. None of the months and years of development that went into film assignments only to wind up abandoned when the studio regime changed.
Another perk – television writers exert considerably more control over their work than feature writers; this is far truer for staff series writers than MOW writers. Either way, you are far less likely to be rewritten in television than features. That said, I did my fair share of MOW rewrites as well as originals; my name doesn’t appear on some of them because, unless it’s a page-one rewrite, it’s difficult for second or third writers to get credit and it always involves a WGA arbitration.
Kanan Road – which became Malibu Shores – has a special place in my heart because it was a backdoor pilot for a series which was ordered into production early in ’97. It turned out to be short-lived (being scheduled at 8 PM on Saturday nights – what some people called “the Tower of London” because that’s where NBC shows awaited execution – didn’t help. Especially since the target demographic was teens). That said, I learned a lot and appreciated every minute of it. I’m grateful to everyone who made it possible.
The introvert in me resists going out, particularly when it necessitates small talk with people I don’t feel comfortable with (the other NBC secretaries). However, when I commit and follow through, I tend to use my remaining time more wisely, like the example above. Since I understand this dynamic intellectually, you’d think it would be easy to make commitments to leave my house but it’s not.
My usual excuse – which I fully believe when I use it – is that I can’t go out and socialize because I have too much writing or organizing to do. At any given time, this is true. A truly overwhelming amount of desperately-needed organization has been hanging over my head for at least thirty years. It doesn’t get done even when I prioritize it. I live for the day it’s complete – it would be fantastic to be unencumbered by clutter – but I don’t make progress. There must be massive subconscious resistance at work.
I’m better about writing than organizing, but not a lot. External deadlines usually do the trick, although I’m a master procrastinator and don’t get serious until the last minute, Still, give me an external deadline – something due for someone else, not myself – and whatever I need to do gets done. Self-imposed deadlines don’t work because there’s nothing to stop me from extending them to accommodate my inherent laziness.
I’d love to change these self-destructive tendencies and for a long time I harbored the illusion it was possible – I’d learn from my mistakes and make better choices. Unfortunately, it hasn’t happened yet and I’m losing faith that it ever will.
I had good reasons to leave my job at NBC to work at USC. I’d been at NBC for three months, thereby exceeding my quota. J and I were renting a one-bedroom apartment within easy walking distance of campus. NBC was a half hour commute through downtown on a good traffic day.
In theory, the USC job description sounded interesting. Any psychology experiment involving human subjects had to be approved by USC’s Human Subjects Committee headed by Dr. Biel, my boss. I figured at the very least, I’d get the skinny on fascinating experiments with human subjects. Most important of all, as a full-time employee of USC, my tuition was free and my lawfully wedded spouse’s tuition got cut in half.
It looked like a great opportunity and a smart move. I hoped to learn more about exciting psych experiments like Zimbardo’s famous Stanford Prison experiment. Strange, twisted experiments, the type that begged to become a movie. I conveniently forgot the function of our committee was to prevent what I wanted from happening.
For all I knew, Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison debacle (Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison) was why USC formed a Human Subjects Committee. The humanistic intent was admirable, but it killed any sliver of drama, tension and suspense in proposed experiments. If they weren’t safe and dull, they weren’t getting out of committee. Not that our candidates had much to worry about. The submitted proposals were so scrupulously safe and dull the biggest risk to human life was lapsing into a coma upon contact.
John and I had been married exactly one month when I wrote this entry. We’d met for the first time 7 months ago, so even though we were legally man and wife I was still in the analyzing the “dynamics of our relationship” stage. We lived in a one bedroom apartment on Hoover, within easy walking distance of USC where he was in his second year of law school and I was working on my MFA in Professional Writing. I was working full-time as a secretary for Len Hill and Richard Marx, two program managers at NBC.
The state of my moods depended on my reactions to people around me. On this particular day, I bounced from John making me feel lazy and uncreative to Shelly buoying me up with some positive feedback. I wish I could claim that in the intervening years I stopped letting the opinions of others determine my sense of self-worth.
That would be a lie. At best, I’ve become incrementally better at self-validation. I’m still inclined to dismiss positive feedback as false flattery and accept criticism as the absolute truth. On the bright side, being thin-skinned means I’m not blind to flaws – in myself or my writing – when other people point them out. More often than not, what I initially perceive as criticism can be re-construed as good advice.
In retrospect, John was right that pushing me harder wouldn’t have solved my writer’s block. Creative energy does have to come from within. At the same time, I’m immensely grateful for Shelly’s encouragement. Without it, I might have quit. I’m not one of those writers who have to write even if no one ever reads it. I write to be read and hopefully understood – to communicate.
That goes for this diary blog, too. This is as good a time as any to thank anyone who’s liked one of these or commented. Your feedback and validation keep me going.
This was a transitional time in our lives. John had finished his last year of law school but wouldn’t know when or if he’d be licensed to practice until after the bar results. When we married, I was working for Len Hill at NBC. I quit to take a job at USC that gave both John and me a break on tuition. I quit that job for more time to write and immediately got pregnant.
Christopher was seven months old at the time of this entry. John and I shared a car, which he drove to USC and work, so I was marooned in the Hillside Strangler’s killing fields (bodies were piling up in circumference around us).
I had no idea whether or not I’d succeed as a writer. My identity was in flux. When I look back at photos taken then, I hardly recognize myself. I’m dressed like I thought a new mother or future Jr. Leaguer should dress. (On the other hand, 70s fashion didn’t do me any favors.)
The part of my psyche that never changed – my constant – remains in my worry about the impression I made on Gailya. From the time I started writing in diaries (age 12), whenever I spent any time with a friend, I second-guessed my performance in my diary – “I’m sure I bored her” was my most common review. Maybe everybody critiques their social interactions and inventories their mistakes. Even if true, I suspect most people grow out of it.
Am I any better now, 40 years later? Maybe a little. Not enough.