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.
These notes on a Hollywood party were accurate for a newcomer/outsider in 1980 and I suspect they hold true today. It was thrilling to scan the room and recognize famous people even though I understood the unspoken rule to act as if I didn’t.
Even now, I’m not sure I understand the rationale for why, particularly if you’re a fan as was the case for me with Claudia Weill’s movie. I can’t imagine there are very many people – even celebrities – who don’t enjoy hearing that someone loves their work, thinks they’re a genius. I know I wouldn’t mind being interrupted by someone who wanted to rave about my writing. It’s never happened and probably never will but I’m reasonably confident I’d enjoy the hell out of it.
Our aging green Plymouth Satellite car – unmistakable in a sea of Mercedes, BMWs, and Porsches -– outed us to the parking valets if no one else – as people who didn’t really belong in this rarefied atmosphere. That’s never a comfortable feeling, but I’d endure it any time for the fun of watching a party like this unfold.
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.
My adult self wanted to read them the riot act but my high school persona hunched speechless, red-faced.
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.
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.
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,
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.
I feigned confusion. “No,” I said.
“You look exactly like a girl I had ten years ago,” Mrs. Murray said.
“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.
Third period physiology was taught in the same classroom where another hapless instructor tried to teach me chemistry. I recognized the Periodic Table of the Elements I failed to memorize as a genuine junior. This time around, my lab partner was Jennifer, a girl who projected calm intelligence – just the type I’d be best friends with if we existed in the same time frame. At the end of the period, as she scrubbed our beakers, I said, “Want to have lunch?”
“Sorry. I eat with my friends.”
Rejection! It doesn’t get much more unequivocal. It felt as crummy as it did the first time I did high school. What disqualified me as a friend of Jennifer? The wrong shoes, my aging face, my lack of aptitude for physiology?
These questions will never be answered. Girls either like or dislike you “because.” That’s as specific as it gets. For what it’s worth, here’s my personal theory about how and why any hope of being BFF with Jennifer died in September, long before I returned to Wilcox.
Female cliques form hard and fast and – once established – they aren’t known for flexibility, diversity or the warm welcome extended to strangers – quite the contrary. The more exclusive and difficult a group is to access, the higher their status. I was four months too late to Jennifer’s party and nothing I did could change that.
In comparison, boys were a breeze. Looking lost and stupid – something I excelled at – was basis enough for a relationship. A boy named Brian showed me the ropes, introduced me to his friends, fixed my car and got me a part-time job at the same place he worked.
The latter was problematical since I couldn’t offer my real social security number (and get paid) without the risk of revealing my true age.
I was 29 years old – married and the mother of a 4-year-old – when I returned to Wilcox, the high school I graduated from, as a transfer student. Technically, I was there to research a script I’d been hired to write based on S.E. Hinton’s novel the Outsiders. The director and producers wanted to know if high school kids in 81 were much different from those in the early sixties.
On a deeper level, I was obsessed with high school and curious about how it would feel to do it again. Would the benefit of my vast college, professional and personal experiences make me more confident? Would I feel like I had all the answers? In a word – NO.
If anything, it was more hair-raising than the first time around. In part, this was due to my realistic fear that someone would notice I looked closer to 30 then 17, assume I was a narc (because why else would a woman my age be posing as a student?) and knife me in the girl’s bathroom. Making the situation even dicier, I was staying with one of my real Wilcox contemporaries – Debbie Callan – who, at that time, worked as a dispatcher/translator for the Santa Clara police department. How could I not be a narc?
There was never a moment I could relax. I didn’t have a fake driver’s license and I needed to carry the real one – which meant taking pains to make sure nobody saw it (especially the birthdate). I didn’t carry credit cards or checks because a 17-year-old wouldn’t. When making reference to music or books that weren’t contemporary, I had to calculate how old my fake self would’ve been as opposed to my real self.
Before I started, I devised an elaborate backstory to explain my mid-semester transfer – an alcoholic mother in rehab, I was staying with an aunt etc. – but it turned out to be totally unnecessary. Nobody I met showed the slightest interest in my backstory.
To be continued in upcoming blogs – because January ’81 was one of the more interesting Januarys in my life.
This was an amazing day, full of promise, and it retains its magic quality in my memory even though almost nothing unfolded like expected. I got the assignment to adapt S. E. Hinton’s classic novel, the Outsiders, for the screen. I did pose as a high school student and return to the high school I graduated from (more than a decade earlier) without getting busted.
Augie didn’t direct the movie, Francis did, which was the good news and the bad news. I’m awed by his talent; he directed some of the greatest movies of our time IMHO. How could this development possibly be bad? He’s an equally talented writer and took over the rewrite himself. When I saw the final shooting script, my name was nowhere to be seen.
Under the Writers Guild of America rules, this triggered an automatic arbitration because a production executive (director, producer etc.) sought screenplay credit. Three anonymous writers read all of our scripts and rendered a decision about screenplay credit. After a second and third arbitration and a Policy Review Board, I prevailed. It was a tense time.
This experience piqued my interest in the arbitration process and I volunteered to serve as an arbiter. Eventually I got to serve on the Policy Review Board, which I continue to do to this day.
Reading multiple drafts of the same script to decide who deserves screen credit provides a spectacular education in screen writing or, more accurately, rewriting. It was a front row seat to see exactly how scripts assume their final shape. I also learned a lot about human nature.
There are significant financial rewards for getting your name on a script, even if the movie’s a bomb. That might have motivated a few writers to battle but I think most of them fought because they believed they deserved to win. It reminds me of the joke about the actor playing the gravedigger in Hamlet, who’s convinced the play is about the gravedigger. Time after time, writers clearly saw – and frequently exaggerated – their own contribution and missed or minimized the contribution of writers before or after them. I doubt I’m immune to this self-serving blind spot; no doubt I do the same thing, despite being aware of this trap.
I suspect this tendency isn’t restricted to actors and writers – that many, if not most, human beings focus on their own contributions to the exclusion of others regardless of their line of work.