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.
What looked like my lucky break was actually a crash course in how quickly “All my dreams are coming true!” can dissolve into no one’s returning my phone calls. Sadly, this was far from my last experience with emotional whiplash, careers version.
Still, Froug was right when he advised me to celebrate. Why not bask in the potential something amazing just might happen? So what if it doesn’t, this time? The near-miss zone is nothing to be ashamed of. Most people never get that close. Nobody gets there by accident. Somebody noticed you and said, “the kid’s got talent.” If they didn’t believe it, they wouldn’t waste their time. The least you can do is believe in yourself.
Legend has it, the average overnight success endures twenty to fifty rejections before they’re rewarded with that first life-changing YES. What are you waiting for? The faster you rack up the no’s, the sooner your dreams come true.
The script that earned me this near-miss – “Intimate Changes,” not the greatest title – never got produced, but it won me introductions to agents, producers and network execs, all pivotal in my later career. What felt like loss was only life unfolding more slowly than I preferred.
These were heady, exciting days. The chance to adapt S.E. Hinton’s novel for the screen was the break of a lifetime and I didn’t want to blow it. At my pitch meeting, I impulsively volunteered to return to high school – posing as a student – to determine if contemporary high school cliques resembled those depicted in Hinton’s 1967 novel.
I was a novice at writing as well as posing as somebody I wasn’t. I’d written two spec scripts and an unproduced MOW. Technically, I knew what I was doing; I could perform at a high level in academia but what about the real world, for real stakes? The story meetings were intimidating. Facing blank pages felt terrifying. Add to that, the pressure to pass for a 17-year-old high school student when I was a 29-year-old married mother.
Because I was a nobody in a sea of somebodies, there’s no reason Jon Davidson should have recognized me – particularly since I worked all of three months at New World, ostensibly as Roger Corman’s assistant (my title) but actually as the receptionist (harsh reality). Jon was sweet to pretend; it gave my ego a tiny but desperately needed boost.
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.”
This was one of my very first meetings on the first of my spec screenplays to be optioned – in this case by the late Steve Friedman who ran King’s Road Productions in ’79. The script was inspired by Janis Ian’s brilliant song “At 17” although I doubt anybody involved actually acquired the rights to the song (I know as a fledgling writer, I couldn’t afford it.)
Ultimately, the script got optioned three times by different companies and/or producers but – alas – never produced, at least not as of this writing. It did, however, launch my career. It was the sample script that got me hired to adapt S. E. Hinton’s novel The Outsiders.
Over the years, I rewrote it many times – incorporating notes from various producers and directors. Although almost every line of the script Steve optioned has been changed – hopefully, for the better – the original characters, theme and the crisis Steve and I added remain. Every time I completed another draft, I’d think I can’t possibly do more only to discover that if I set it aside for a year, the next time I looked I could easily spot room for improvement.
The lessons, for myself and anyone who aspires to a writing career?
You’re never done. No matter how wonderful you might think your current draft is, it can be better.
Take a break – as long as possible. My most recent break from this script lasted over twenty years. Talk about fresh eyes! It was like reading a script by somebody else.
Cutting improves almost anything. In particular, look for flab in the first act.
I didn’t know it at the time but this was my last day of employment as a secretary and the start of a major transition. Although it wasn’t officially confirmed I was pregnant, I strongly suspected I was and I was right. Since quitting my job meant relinquishing our health insurance, my timing was terrible.
In addition to impending parenthood, I faced an extremely uncertain future as a film and television writer – as illustrated by my conversation with my UCLA writing professor and mentor Bill Froug. Not only did I learn the unhappy story of another writing professor’s life, I realized it might take Froug – my champion – an unspecified “while” to read my outline. If the man who most believed in me wasn’t eager to read my latest, how could I hope to interest the powers-that-be in Hollywood?
At the time of this entry, I hadn’t earned a dime writing, John was in his second year of law school and our first baby was on the way. I should’ve been petrified but for some reason I wasn’t. To be sure, there were some hard times ahead – it would be four years before I’d see any success as a writer – but I believed we’d be all right – and we were.
There’s a bittersweet quality to seeing my oldest son do what I once did – albeit, in an entirely new way. Naturally, I’m proud of him (see my October 14, 2006 blog for details of his torturous – for his parents, anyway – journey from sophomore high school drop out to valedictorian in his film school major at UCLA. It was for real – we heard him give the speech. He thanked his father, who majored in poli sci at USC, instead of me, a fellow UCLA film school alumni. Go figure.) As happy and proud as I am, part of me longs to stand where he now stands. It’s less about envy than nostalgia.
These feelings became acute the night John and I attended the screening of his Project 1 equivalent film. Melnitz Hall looks the same, at least from the outside – and the Jakes Bridges theater where I screened my Project 1 film is oh so familiar – but look closer and everything has changed. I don’t recognize a single name on the faculty roster. Different people occupy all of my old professor’s offices.
During another student’s gory film, I took a breather and went into the lobby. Sitting there, by myself, sent me reeling through decades long gone. Memories of hours spent between classes in that very spot – albeit on funkier couches – flooded me. I half expected a classmate from my past to stroll up and say hello but that didn’t happen. As an old Madonna song might put it, Melnitz Hall used to be my playground. Now, although it holds a place in my life and my heart, it’s not my world and it won’t be again.
On the bright side, writing – my area of specialization – remains essentially the same, at least in terms of skill set, despite technological advances such as computers instead of an IBM Selectric, printers instead of carbon paper, script delivery by email attachment instead of by messenger. (What happened to the messenger industry? Are they out of business?) I got on board with word processing early and it hasn’t been hard to stay on top of the curve.
I was faced with another transition shortly after CD graduated, when I was offered an opportunity to teach screen writing at Columbia College Hollywood. I’ve always identified as a student – in part because I enjoy and take frequent writing workshops to stay current – and now I’m on the other side of the desk. So far, I enjoy it. Spending hours mentoring millennials is as close as I’ll get to re-experiencing my heady undergraduate days (albeit vicariously, from a different POV). There’s a palpable rush of creative energy that comes when I cross the threshold of a campus like UCLA or Columbia. It’s not a time machine or the Fountain of Youth, but it’s close enough.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.