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.
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.
This was one of my favorite family vacations. Sam graduated from an upstate New York college the week before. John and I flew to Buffalo and rented a gigantic van. Our plan was to load four years’ worth of Sam’s worldly possessions plus ourselves in the van and drive it across the country to LA. None of us had done it before.
Aside from the fact our luggage didn’t travel with us to Buffalo and we weren’t able to reunite with it until we hit Philadelphia – aside from that snafu, everything went as smoothly as it possibly could for a sweaty family of four jammed into a hot (that’s hot as in sweltering, not Corvette).
We picked up Alex at the Columbus airport after he finished his finals. Regrettably, Chris and Serena couldn’t make it. Just as well, since two more riders would’ve meant strapping someone to the ski rack. Our van featured a DVD player to help the boring miles speed by. In between all the anime, we viewed the first season of Deadwood again to psych ourselves up for our visit to the same.
A brief review of Deadwood, the HBO series. The first season was brilliant. The second had its moments. The third jumped the shark. A traveling Shakespearean acting troupe planted themselves in Deadwood for the season and – like the big black hole of an idea this was – gulped airtime and sucked away all semblance of plot. A mercy killing would’ve been kinder. The Shakespearean acting troupe was tantamount to a Deadwood Talent Show.
You remember the dreaded Talent Show trope, you’ve seen it before – most egregiously in the final season of Showtime’s OZ, when inmates in a maximum-security prison sang and tap-danced for their fellow sadistic killers. Laverne and Shirley’s brewery threw a Talent Show. So did General Hospital. Suffice to say none of them have elevated the art form. IMHO, when a show stoops to the dreaded Talent Show, it deserves to die. No appeals, no reprieves. Everything must end someday; some should do it sooner.
Back to the Great Family Road Trip through Eccentric America in a few days.
Unfortunately, this was the first and last cast party for Malibu Shores – eight episodes aired on NBC at 8 PM Saturday nights before we got cancelled. It makes me feel a little bit better (but not much) that our time slot was referred to as the “Tower of London” – where shows were sent to await execution.
This was my only experience on staff at a TV show. At first, it was a huge shock to my system – we were expected to work in the Aaron Spelling offices from 9 AM until midnight or beyond (plus weekends) if necessary. Eventually, I adapted and grew to love it right around the time it ended. The time pressure could be as exhilerating as it was exhausting. It was gratifying to see what we wrote produced as soon as copies could be made instead of enduring the uncertainty of casting-contingent MOWs (also referenced above).
For the millions who never saw a moment of Malibu Shores, Charisma Carpenter was cast as the ultra-bitchy queen bee popular girl. She played the part perfectly – no one came close to her reading in the casting process – which was truly a testament to her talent for acting. In person, she was delightful, friendly and unassuming.
Keri Russell was also terrific in the lead role, which she also nailed with a sensational audition.
I love to watch her brilliant, nuanced performance on The Americans today and remember the beautiful sun-kissed teen she played on Malibu Shores.
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 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.