Film writing

September 20, 2016

September 20, 2016

I felt terrible about being tardy on the very first day of a nine-month class and the panicked rush to minimize the damage made me even more nervous than I would have been anyway (which is pretty darn anxious). A fight-or-flight surge of adrenalin takes over when I have to speak in front of a group of strangers and unless I’m very careful, I talk at supersonic speed. I felt like I was making a terrible impression on this new group of kids which flustered me even more. There’s an obvious solution – think less about how I’m coming across and more about the kids I’m here to teach. Gradually I leveled out. I took some admittedly poor photos of my class that first day.

They weren't being rude and texting. I asked them to take selfies and email them to me - to help me me learn their names.
They weren’t being rude and texting. I asked them to take selfies and email them to me – to help me me learn their names.

This was the first day of my second year teaching Screen Writing Symposium at Columbia and I couldn’t imagine ever liking a class as much as I liked my first class. I kept up with them (as much as you can with occasonal updates on Facebook) but I actively missed our Thursday afternoons in Room E.  I struggled to remember the names of my new students. I thought, it will never be the same.

Josh Andersen, Kevin Salcedo, Peter Zaragoza, Kaitlyn Hutchins, Justin Thompson, Alex Falcon, Charlotte Scrivener, Holden Weihs, Ryan Brennan. Not pictured: Tanner Novotny
Josh Andersen, Kevin Salcedo, Peter Zaragoza, Kaitlyn Hutchins, Justin Thompson, Alex Falcon, Charlotte Scrivener, Holden Weihs, Ryan Brennan. Not pictured: Tanner Novotny

I was right; it wasn’t, in the same way my second child isn’t the same as my first and my third is quite different from both siblings. Inevitably, every class – especially one that meets four hours a week for nine months – develops it’s own unique identity. Comparing them is futile, they’re both special – irreplaceable – in their own way. Just like I miss the kids in my first class on Thursdays, I miss the kids in my second class (except, I taught them on Tuesdays, Fridays, and finally Mondays, so I didn’t associate them with a day).

top, l-r: Jarred McClarty, Kendall Collins, Danae Fishman, Andrew Levin; bottom, l-r;David Alvarez Faith-Ann Bishop, Ryan O'Donnell, David Lugowski. Not pictured: Michael Akkerman, Natalie Frank
top, l-r: Jarred McClarty, Kendall Collins, Danae Fishman, Andrew Levin; bottom, l-r;David Alvarez Faith-Ann Bishop, Ryan O’Donnell, David Lugowski. Not pictured: Michael Akkerman, Natalie Frank

I hope to keep up with them as they traverse the real post-college world, probably via Facebook.  I’d like to see all of them again too.  I fantasize that if and when I retire, I’ll host a party at my house for all my former students and the ones that show up will regale me with the highs and lows of their careers. Hopefully, their wins will far outpace their losses.

top, l-r: Jarred McClarty, Kendall Collins, Danae Fishman, Andrew Levin; bottom, l-r;David Alvarez Faith-Ann Bishop, Ryan O'Donnell, David Lugowski. Not pictured: Michael Akkerman, Natalie Frank.
top, l-r: Jarred McClarty, Kendall Collins, Danae Fishman, Andrew Levin; bottom, l-r;David Alvarez Faith-Ann Bishop, Ryan O’Donnell, David Lugowski. Not pictured: Michael Akkerman, Natalie Frank.

September 17, 1979

September 17, 1979A

My career had yet to begin. I was closing in on a paying gig as a writer but it hadn’t happened yet. If you’re in my situation – no prior job, no WGA membership, no credits – you need to do what I did. Seek out fellow young, hungry producers or directors, work out stories with them as a team, pitch them to anyone who will listen.

Typing

I was fortunate to find a friend and champion in David Bombyk, a smart, ambitious, charming guy from Michigan. He was a year younger than me. We laughed a lot when we got together to gossip or break stories. I can’t remember who slipped my spec script to David – Martha Coolidge? Kip Ohman?  David and I partnered on several spec pitches and a couple of bona-fide (paying!) development deals but – alas – none of our joint efforts survived to see the light of day.

David made it big without me when he found, developed and co-produced “Witness” in 1985. The same year he produced “Explorers” and in 1986 he produced “The Hitcher” with his friend Kip Ohman.

David Bombyk, Producer

Kip succumbed to AIDS in 1987 at age 41. I met David for lunch a few months later. He looked haunted and thin; he talked about how hard it was sorting through and dispersing Kip’s belongings after he was gone.

David Bombyk 1952 - 1989

It was the last time I saw or spoke to David. He died on January 20, 1989, age 36.  His mother got in touch with me shortly after the funeral and sent me a beautiful ceramic vase David wanted me to have. He collected them.

Green Vase_edited-1

She was charged with the excruciating task of sorting through and dispersing her son’s possessions. I can’t imagine how painful that must have been.

LA Times - David Bombyk

AIDS took a lot of good people, especially in the 80s. For me, David Bombyk was one of the great ones. Unfailingly kind, loyal to his friends and brilliant when it came to developing scripts. Witness has long been a staple in screenwriting classes to illustrate a near-perfect script. I see David’s fingerprints on it. I don’t know if I’d have a writing career at all if David hadn’t believed in me before anyone else did. I’ll always be grateful; I’ll miss him and his laughter forever.

Of Mere Being

 

April 8, 1973

April 8, 1973

Image from "The Top 25 Film Schools in the United States 2014."
Image from “The Top 25 Film Schools in the United States 2014.”

The extreme competition for a toehold in the entertainment industry makes it a major challenge. That, plus the fact a lot of people assume there’s nothing to it. Most people would never attempt to perform brain surgery or extract wisdom teeth because they’re not trained professionals – but when it comes to acting, writing, directing, everybody’s an expert. Some people are right, they’ve got what it takes. Most are wrong; they fail to realize the craft and hard work involved in making it look easy.

Me around 1973
Me around 1973

For years, industry experts have claimed that if you write a great script, it will be discovered but I disagree. I can’t prove it but I suspect a lot of great scripts die in the drawers of discouraged writers unable to get a read from somebody with enough power to help.

Link to a YouTube series by Michael Akkerman, one of my current students at Columbia. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ClffzUrRDXk
Link to a YouTube series by Michael Akkerman, one of my current students at Columbia. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ClffzUrRDXk

I got my big breaks from professors in college – notably Bill Froug and Shelly Lowenkopf – who liked my work and recommended me to agents. That’s my first advice to anyone who wants to break in. Take a class, impress the professor, make friends with him, her or anyone else with connections. The seminar’s bottom line advice was correct for its time –  networking (“hanging around”) and exuding confidence are your best bet.

Link to "Life as a Mermaid" a web series my current student Faith-Ann Bishop and former student Ryan Brennan have both contributed to. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KhhRQ8-sIZc&t=41s
Link to “Life as a Mermaid” a web series my current student Faith-Ann Bishop and former student Ryan Brennan have both contributed to. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KhhRQ8-sIZc&t=41s

To a certain extent, YouTube and other on-line venues level the playing field. If your short film goes viral, it doesn’t matter if you live in Kansas and don’t know a  soul in Hollywood. They’ll find you.

Marketing
Marketing & Branding are essential to success.

I hate the word platform but it can’t be ignored in today’s market. An ability to market and brand yourself is invaluable. These subjects weren’t taught when I was in film school and I’m not sure they’re taught today – but they should be.

March 26, 1982

March 26, 1982

I assume “HW” refers to the title of a screenplay project. In my diaries, I almost always refer to projects by the initials in their titles which means – after all these years – I’ve forgotten far too many, especially those that failed to come to fruition. “HW” was one of those.

Me with husband and son at Ren Faire - not single and free to hang out with cool girls
Me with husband and son at Ren Faire – not single and free to hang out with cool girls

I have no idea what Colleen Camp or Joyce Hyser was like in high school – I never got to know either one of them that well (Hyser not at all, really). I do know that in 1982 Colleen and Joyce were indisputable royalty in Hollywood’s cool crowd.  Confident gorgeous girls like them awed me – still do,

Joyce Hyser with Springsteen - can it get any cooler than this? - Joyce Hyser
Joyce Hyser with Springsteen – can it get any cooler than this? – Joyce Hyser

I’ve crossed paths with Colleen many times since then. She’s always delightful, bubbly and friendly, even though – at best – I’m on the outer periphery of people she knows. Colleen was and is a social whirlwind. She knows everyone in the industry and is renowned for her major parties. (I’m not on the guest list but that’s what I hear.)

Coleen Camp
Coleen Camp

Based on her intel about the Outsiders, it was shooting in Tulsa (I was out of the loop – see November 15, 1980).  I admired Coppola’s savvy solution – the unequal per diems – to incite tension between actors which successfully translated to the screen.

The French movie poster for the Outsiders clearly depicts tensions between the socs and the greasers.
The French movie poster for the Outsiders clearly depicts tensions between the socs and the greasers.

February 27, 1974

February 27, 1974_edited-1

Me around 1974
Me around 1974

My tenure as Roger Corman’s “Assistant” at New World Pictures was one of my better jobs. I also served as his receptionist which consumed the bulk of my time. Aside from answering the phone, everything else I did was interesting. I might be deployed to Max Factor’s to pick up gallons of fake blood for an afternoon shoot. Frequently Roger sent me home with a script for overnight coverage. I didn’t consider it working overtime because it was thrilling. Whether or not Roger agreed with my notes, I felt validated because he paid attention. He was an extraordinarily good listener.

Roger Corman

It was Roger’s wife, Julie Corman, who liked my resume and hired me to work for Roger. Since New World was known for its violent exploitation films, I expected Roger to be a bombastic vulgar bully like other studio heads I heard rumors about. I couldn’t have been more wrong. He wielded his considerable power quietly, with dignity. Corman had class and brains (he graduated from Stanford, for starters.)  While I was there New World made “Candy Stripe Nurses” and “Caged Heat” but they also released Ingmar Bergman’s Oscar-nominated “Cries and Whispers.”

Caged Heat

Cries and Whispers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I don’t claim I knew Roger well. In my opinion, he wasn’t an easy guy to know but he was worth the effort. It wouldn’t surprise me if people who worked for him in different capacities saw sides of him I didn’t.  To me, he seemed like a classic introvert, an enigmatic sensitive artist as opposed to a tyrannical boss from hell. He built a reputation as a hard-nosed businessman but I remember unexpected generosity and kindness. When I quit – that’s another story for later – I wasn’t entitled to health insurance but I was sick and he extended my coverage. Not forever – he wasn’t stupid – just long enough to make a difference.

Roger's autobiography
Roger’s autobiography

When I left, we promised to stay in touch and we did for a while. New World’s offices were on Sunset, not far from the Tower Records, so it was easy to drop in and say hi.  Inevitably, contact tapered off, then ceased. Still, although my time at New World was brief, Roger’s quiet integrity and decency remain vivid after all these years. I’m hoping he’ll read this and know I said hello – and thank you.

February 21, 1993

February 21, 1993
 Matthew Patrick was the young director of a movie I wrote for the USA network called “Tainted Blood”. As the title suggests, it wasn’t nominated for any Emmys but it was an entertaining psychological thriller (which adopted girl is the psycho-killer?)

Tainted Blood
The ad that ran in TV Guide when the movie aired in ’93.

Cast against type, Raquel Welch did a good job as an investigative journalist. Given her fame and beauty, I expected a cold bitch and was pleasantly surprised she was warm and friendly – not to mention every bit as stunning in person as she was on-screen.

Paralyzed by self-consciousness, wishing i could think of something fascinating to say.
Paralyzed by self-consciousness, wishing I could think of something fascinating to say.

I never felt like I “belonged” at Hollywood parties so they were stressful. In this case, most of the guests knew each other from weeks on the same set. I never went to the set and didn’t know anyone but the host.

The easiest Hollywood party ever -- my sister Janet's 30th birthday party, less than two weeks after Matthew Patrick's party.
The easiest Hollywood party ever — my sister Janet’s 30th birthday party, less than two weeks after Matthew Patrick’s party. With my sisters and Dolly Parton.

I’m not sure what Sam and Alex were doing at a cast party. To the best of my recollection, Matthew met them when we tweaked the final draft of the script at my house. I wouldn’t have brought them if he hadn’t invited them. His affinity for children impressed me. I thought Laurie Frank was great too (so did Sam) but our paths never crossed again.

Matthew Patrick
Matthew Patrick

Actually, everyone I encountered at the party was likable. I’m the one who erected barriers. No one laughed at my faux pas or dissed my ugly shoes; the only one paying  any attention  to my insecurities was me. When I stopped thinking about myself and turned my gaze on the other guests, I discovered open unpretentious smart and talented people. Too bad I didn’t figure this out till my thirties; high school would’ve been a lot easier.

Other people aren't so scary after all.
Other people aren’t so scary after all.

 

February 20, 1978

February 20, 1978

 The script I refer to here turned out to be my breakthrough spec script “At 17”, inspired by and loosely based on the brilliant Janis Ian song of the same title. I didn’t have the rights – I don’t know if anyone actually did – but ABC was developing it as a Movie of the Week (MOW).

Jani and I when we were both close to At 17 in real life
Jani and I when we were both close to At 17 in real life.

My former boss at NBC, the late and much lamented Len Hill, was one of the ABC executives in charge of MOWs; my sister Janet was his assistant/secretary. He told me if I could write a brilliant script in the next ten days he’d consider it equally with the scripts the network paid for. Ten days isn’t enough to write a great script from scratch under any circumstances and it wasn’t the best of times for me. My son CD was 14 months old but well on his way to the terrible twos.

Most of my time and energy went into containing CD
Most of my time and energy went into containing CD

Nonetheless, I gave it my best shot. The tension was so high I threw up on some of those late nights (gross, I know) but – with Jani’s assistance – I finished it.  I don’t think Len or anybody else expected me to do it.

Janet and I
Janet and I

The problem was – it wasn’t good enough. The network preferred the writer who cashed their big checks. The rejection was so devastating I gave up until my pride and desire for revenge resurrected me. “I’ll show you,” I thought. “I’ll do a great rewrite and prove you were wrong to dismiss me.”

"I'll show you. I'll do a great re-write and prove you were wrong to dismiss me."
“I’ll show you. I’ll do a great re-write and prove you were wrong to dismiss me.”

 Did I succeed? I think so. Although the film never got made, it was optioned three times and garnered interest from directors like Martha Coolidge and Amy Heckerling. Years after Molly Ringwald aged out of playing a teen-ager, she told me she would’ve loved to play one of the parts. To say the least, I would’ve loved for her to play it but my script didn’t reach her at the right time.     

No one was better than Molly Ringwald when it came to playing complicated teenagers.
No one was better than Molly Ringwald when it came to playing complicated teenagers.

That’s the way things go. Big ups, big downs. Victories won, battles lost, it’s hard to quantify wins and losses when script quality is so subjective and the industry’s in constant flux.  The bottom line is, were those ten sleepless days and nights worth it when I failed to get what I wanted?   Would I do it again? Hell, yes. If I had my life to live over, I’d try harder, reach higher and risk bigger losses.  The only way to fail for good is giving up.

January 24, 1980


january-24-1980

It was totally in character for the late Bill Bowers to treat fledging writers to lunch – he was legendary for his warmth and generosity. In his drinking days, he churned out three or four scripts a year. Sober, he slowed but not much. He wrote a whopping 39 movies including “The Gunfighter,” for which he received an Oscar nomination. On the Zoetrope lot in 1980, Bowers occupied one of two offices upstairs from where I wrote a Cindy Williams MOW project.

Bill Bowers, playing the part of a senator interrogating Michael Corleone in "Godfather 2"
Bill Bowers, playing the part of a senator interrogating Michael Corleone in “Godfather 2”

My UCLA screenwriting professor Bill Froug interviewed Bowers for his first book – the Screenwriter looks at the Screenwriter – so I understood what a privilege it was to spend time with Bowers. He regaled us with stories about old Hollywood, each one better than the last. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to write them all down.

Martha Coolidge at early Halloween party
Martha Coolidge at early Halloween party

The other upstairs office belonged to Martha Coolidge, a rising young director. We formed a friendship that outlasted Zoetrope.

Martha and me at a Halloween party
Martha and me at a Halloween party

One of my most satisfying moments as a writer occurred when Martha and I shared a room at the Oaks, a health spa in Ojai.

Martha and me at the Oaks
Martha and me at the Oaks

She’d read and liked my spec script “At 17” but re-read it at the Oaks. From across the room, I scrutinized her face for clues – did she like it as much on her second read? What was she laughing at? Was it meant to be funny? It was hopeless, I couldn’t gauge her reaction — until she turned the last page, tears streaming down her face. Genuine tears! Does it get any better than that? I’ve never felt so validated. (I cried my eyes out when I saw “Rambling Rose”. A true karmic partnership.)

Eating very very little at the Oaks
Eating very very little at the Oaks

Recently, Martha suffered a serious fall from a horse that left her hospitalized for weeks. In true Martha fashion, she amazed doctors by her incredibly rapid recovery. It was less surprising to friends like me because I’m well aware Martha was born to break down barriers, exceed expectations and amaze the experts.

Martha also at the Oaks in Ojai
Martha, also at the Oaks in Ojai

Imagine that. My first paid writing job, and I got Bill Bowers and Martha Coolidge as office-mates – how lucky can one girl get?

 

 

January 19, 1981

 

january-19-1981

Brian
Brian

I was sandwiched in the center of a vinyl booth, two boys on either side. While they seemed semi-civilized at school, a round of Pepsis and fries at Denny’s unleashed their inner beast. As much as I hated to encounter obnoxious loud teenagers in real life, it was a thousand times worse to be dead center in a pack of them.

Disguised as high school student for my return enrollment at Wilcox in 1981. I hoped the huge hair would draw attention away from my face.
Disguised as high school student for my return enrollment at Wilcox in 1981. I hoped the huge hair would draw attention away from my face.

My adult self wanted to read them the riot act but my high school persona hunched speechless, red-faced.

Redfaced & Speechless
Redfaced & Speechless

They poured out the condiments Denny’s provided in little baskets on every table and scrawled their names in catsup, subbing salt for glitter.  They blew straw wrappers at each other. They insulted diners who viewed us with disgust. If my four-year-old acted like this, I’d whisk him outside where he’d remain until he could behave himself but I didn’t have that option here. I wanted to beg our waitress’s forgiveness and leave a huge tip – I doubted the boys would leave a dime – but I couldn’t without calling attention to myself.

reality-check

After they dropped me off, I called J in LA. “What’s up with your high school boyfriend?” he asked. I told him I wanted to dive under the table at Denny’s. It was hard for him to relate, since he lived a grown-up life with other adults.

After a date at Denny's with four teen-age boys, I need a glass of wine.
After a date at Denny’s with four teen-age boys, I need a glass of wine.

The worst was yet to come. My 3rd period teacher sent me to the library because they were taking a pop quiz on material I missed.  Another class, taught by Mrs. Murray, one of my former teachers in real life, already occupied the library.

When the lunch bell blared, students mobbed the door. A popular-looking perky blonde shook her bangled wrist and regaled her court with details about where she bought it, who designed it, and how much she paid. Most “girl talk” I overheard concerned fashion. They were as passionate about cute clothes as my sixties friends were about rock concerts and Viet Nam. My musings skidded to a halt when Mrs. Murray peered over their heads and said, 

kathy-knutsen

My adrenalin lurched into flight or fight mode. It was all I could do not to react, to pretend I didn’t realize Mrs. Murray addressed me. She repeated herself, not taking her eyes off me.

kathy-knutsen

I feigned confusion. “No,” I said.

“You look exactly like a girl I had ten years ago,” Mrs. Murray said.


sorry-not-me“Sorry, not me,” I said. As a preacher’s kid prone to Biblical references, I felt like Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane, denying my own identity three times. How could that exchange not arouse a glimmer of curiosity from one of the student witnesses?  It didn’t. They were all more  interested in being first in line at the snack bar than anything Mrs. Murray or I said.

January 21, 1994

January 21, 1994_edited-1

Steve & Linda
Steve & Linda

 As some of you recall, the Northridge earthquake struck on January 17, four days before this entry – but this 6.7 ten-second monster wasn’t over and gone like broken china.  The after-effects were massive and far-reaching. Steve and Linda (Angelique) were our two most affected friends – due to earthquake damage, their apartment was deemed uninhabitable, forcing them to move.  

Some of the group - Steve & Linda Stoliar, me, John, Jake Jacobson, Anne Kurrasch, Bobbi Goldin,Marva Fucci, Bill Atherton
Some of the group – Steve & Linda Stoliar, me, John, Jake Jacobson, Anne Kurrasch, Bobbi Goldin,Marva Fucci, Bill Atherton

 We were a close-knit group in ’94, we didn’t think twice about crossing town to lend a hand when one of our band suffered catastrophe (which didn’t happen all that often in the City of Angels). As of today, I’m still at least Facebook friends with everyone mentioned in the above entry – but I regret to report our paths have diverged. I’m not sure when or why it happened, but it did – much like other friendships that burned bright briefly and then faded for no reason, without ill feeling (at least, not on my side.)

Bill Atherton, John Rowell and Steve Stoliar
Bill Atherton, John Rowell and Steve Stoliar

I’d like to believe that nothing fundamental really changed – that we’d be there should a crisis arise – but the truth is I don’t even know where Steve lives these days. That said, it’s conceivable that should we find ourselves in the same location with a few hours of free time to talk, we’d discover that – time and distance notwithstanding – nothing fundamental actually did change. I hope so.

Me, Linda Field Stoliar, John Rowell, Steve Stoliar, Anne Kurrasch
Me, Linda Field Stoliar, John Rowell, Steve Stoliar, Anne Kurrasch

It’s probably a waste of time to quantify friendship and there’s no point looking back for longer than it takes to compose these diary blogs so I’ll focus on the present. I’m grateful to be FB pals with Steve –  reading his posts makes me remember good times and I feel like we’re close again.  I hope some of my diary postings affect people the same way.


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