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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
It’s exciting when a script goes out for casting. The Helios Movie of the Week, “She Led Two Lives,” ended up starring Connie Selleca. The project I was about to travel to Texas to research didn’t get made. A disproportionate number of research trips took me to small towns in Texas, probably because a lot of stories ripe to be turned into TV movies occur in small Texas towns.
These were heady, exciting times but some of my weaker diary entries. Today’s entry reads like a call sheet. Mentions of J and my family are cursory, I didn’t record any adorable things the kids said or profound observations from my dad. In retrospect, I wish I’d filled these pages with personal anecdotes and quotes from my family instead of tracking blips on the radar of my career.
This leads to a bigger regret – I wish I’d spent more time with my children when they were young instead of obsessing about my next writing assignment. The writing doesn’t matter much now but I’d give anything for a few days with Chris, Sam and Alex when they were thirteen, six and five. (Maybe not thirteen, that was rough.) In my dreams, they’re always five or six.
Before I feel too guilty or too sorry for myself, I should add that I was lucky. I wrote at home, not in an office, and I could make my own schedule. To all intents and purposes, I was a stay-at-home mom who could volunteer at their school or scout troop, pick them up if they got sick in the middle of the day etc. Maybe I took all that time for granted and that’s why I didn’t value those years enough. I hope to do better when and if I have grandchildren.
The night before – my 22nd birthday – the guy I was dating took me to see Rudi Nureyev in Sleeping Beauty with the National Ballet of Canada at the Shrine Auditorium. Jani’s boyfriend from Irvine took her to the ballet too so we met them at intermission – Jani’s 20th birthday would be the following day. I don’t know about Janet, but this is the only professional ballet I’ve ever seen. The lavish fairyland sets were amazing, as was Rudi in his prime, but the truth is ballet doesn’t hold my interest. I pretend to be interested, because I feel like I should be, but I’m bored. I don’t blame ballet – I’m well aware it’s my own attention span that’s deficient. (Yet another reason I failed to realize my early dream of growing up to be a ballerina, see November 7, 1966)
Jani’s comment – “Did you try and do any of the ballet steps when you got home?” – got to me. It was so spontaneous, so in the moment. Obviously, she paid attention, so much so that she was moved and inspired to try to do the steps at home. I envied her enthusiasm then and I still do today. I’d love to be that kind of person but it’s impossible to be somebody I’m not.
The closest I’ve come to ballet since then is taking my kids to ballet lessons. CD and his BFF Geo Ackles took ballet as toddlers. It was a great excuse for the boys to get together and for me to chat with David Ackles but neither lad looked like a future Nureyev.
Sam was more interested in climbing than ballet although she did play a dead ballerina in one of my television movies, Friends to the End. She and a dead male ballet dancer haunt the villainess in the final scene. Her blue costume was the reason I wanted to be a ballet dancer in the first place – the gorgeous fantasy clothing.
Alex was spared ballet, to his great relief, so no embarrassing photo ops of him.