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.
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.