8.23.2005

Signs

When I first moved to the heart of Hollywood, I spent my first New Year's Eve with my then brand new Emotionally Available Gay Friends, who lived in the renovated Craftsman next door to mine. The previous fall I’d chucked my Job, Condo and Husband—though not necessarily in that order—and bet everything I had on my growing belief that I really could become the next Big Deal Hollywood Screenwriter.

In short order, I was recognized with a Major Screenwriting Prize for the first script I'd ever written, my Very Moving Yugoslavian Civil War Comedy. When my name appeared among the finalists on the front page of Variety, I began receiving dozens of phone calls from all kinds of Otherwise Unavailable Agents, Studio Suits and Producers with "projects set up all over town." I had no idea what any of this meant, but it sure sounded like big fun!

All the hoopla, however, was abruptly interrupted by a dark, deafening silence. It must be some kind of industry-wide holiday recess, I told myself when the congratulatory cheese baskets stopped arriving and follow-up calls to all my new fans went unreturned.

Although I've had a good healthy fear of the Ouija board since I first sneaked a read through my parents' copy of The Exorcist, when the game appeared at my neighbors' party, I couldn't help posing a single question.

"When will my screenplay sell?" I asked it, careful not to let the thing off with a simple yes or no answer. The Stoned San Francisco Granola Girl who'd brought the game down with her sat on the living room floor opposite me, both of our hands perched over the magnified game piece as it methodically spelled out the phrase, "7 S-U-F-F-E-R."

Convinced I'd been cursed by Linda Blair's Ouija board demons to seven long years of panic and despair, I got up and ran out of that house, never once to return after dark. Granola chased me down to put a positive spin on things just as the New Year rang in with a hail of fireworks and roving spotlights criss-crossing the Hollywood skyline. “It's 1997,” she announced. "I really think that's what the seven was for."

She really thought wrong.

Seven long and immeasurably insufferable years later, I still hadn't sold a thing—but I did graduate from my Big Deal Film School that spring. I'd completed my seventh screenplay, with which I won yet another big writing competition. I landed my Very Supportive Manager, quite possibly the seventh person to contact me after my name once again appeared in Variety, and signed up a Big Important Lawyer who may well wear seven-hundred dollar undershorts.

Then, for seven long months, nothing.

Finally, my Hilarious Funeral Comedy was optioned by a Former Cable Network President who'd left to start a new independent film production company. My Confident Young Producer Friend, a great pal of mine from film school, is now the D-Girl in charge of developing my movie, which seems an awfully long way from yielding the payday I'm counting on. She took me to The Corner Bakery in Westwood the other day to provide me with a ham and egg panino and some moral support. We've been doing this for one another since before either one of us could afford to pick up the tab. Back in grad school, we once had to pool the change in the bottom of our purses to split a styrofoam cup of cream of chicken soup in the campus cafeteria. Eventually, she landed The Big Job and set out, come hell or high water, to bring me along for the ride.

“I don't know how much time I have left,” I now whisper glumly across the breakfast table. “It's been eight years and eleven scripts. My curse was only for seven.”

She looks up from her bowl of green apple oatmeal and informs me plainly that we're going to start shooting in March.

Nearly spit-taking my Ruby Red grapefruit juice, I inquire into the source of her optimism. “It’s like following through on a golf swing," she claims. "You just have to keep watching the ball, and darn if it doesn't go right where you're looking."

Apparently I'm supposed to look somewhere other than the place where we don't have a director, an easily bankable cast or any firm offer of financing. I should also ignore the fact that she's suddenly peppering her speech with golf tips. She was always a big rock climber, taking off on break for Yosemite or Joshua Tree. She's also into synchronized swimming, which she gets a kick out of my calling "water ballet." She looks like a cross between Heidi Klum and Chloƫ Sevigny, only with way more upper body strength and a disproportionate sense of humility. She's my friend, and those are harder to come by in this town than a decent bagel.

Late for another meeting, she gets up from our table swearing up and down I only have to hang on a little longer while giving me a good hard hug. "All we need to do now is keep our eye on that ball," she reminds me, her blue eyes sparkling like those glittery rubber marbles prized in gumball machines everywhere. "You trust me, don't you?"

While they won't tell you much about trust in film school, I suppose you can always try to become a believer, to learn to embrace the good signs if you're going to keep attaching so much import to the bad.

Driving home along Sunset Boulevard, I recognized one that had been there in my backyard all along, spelling out the word "Hollywood" like some big Ouija board in the sky. I suddenly felt like Dorothy discovering the awesome power strapped to her own feet. I've since learned that the Hollywood sign has its own live Webcam anyone can visit, convinced they’ll discover something moving up there, intercepting some living, breathing message meant exclusively for them. Though I can't quite see the familiar landmark from my house, you could probably get a glimpse of it from the roof if you took the trouble to climb up. Some days, I'll find myself stepping back a few blocks and there it is, as reliable as an old school chum. And I'm left wondering why it is that after all these years I'm still startled by that nearness.

3 comments:

  1. Let me see if I have the chronology right: You won the first contest and then went to film school? I curious as to why you decided to go to film school.

    So Stanley Kubrick's giving an interview to Jeremy Bernstein in 1966. At one point, Kubrick comments, "I tend to belive that if you're right, people realize it." "Are you usually right, Stanley?" "I try to be."

    In the end, I have to believe that tenacity will always win and cream does somehow manage to rise to the top. Sometimes this belief is all I have, but it's better than nothing.

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  2. Well, you have belief and two features in the can. That's got to be something to hang onto, sink or swim.

    I started writing my first script when I was in Croatia after the war. I found an English language newsstand that had a book by Syd Field and just followed the dotted lines. I didn't know what the rules were so I wasn't afraid of breaking them, which the judges must have liked and the marketplace surely did not. After I came to L.A., film school seemed like the next hurdle. Despite it all, I had the time of my life there. It's what happens next that worries me so.

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  3. The worse thing to happen to screenwriting has been Syd Field. Since you found recognition without the "rules" [what a bullshti notion] have you gone back and done it the right way or are you still coloring outside the lines? At the film school I went to, they taught "the sequence". Every feature script had to follow this eight sequence crap. A book I always found interesting and helpful was Lajos Ergi's "The Dramatic Art of Writing". It takes a more character based look at writing. William Goldman is always good, but that may be because he admits right from the start he doesn't have any answers. Of course, I'm always weary of those who propose to have the answer. The more you're in the business, the more stories you here, the more experience you have, you realize that the fact of the matter is that no one knows what the hell is going to "work" or what is "good" or "marketable". It's all a gamble.

    The truth be told, there's only one feature. That other one is an amateur effort that will probably never see the light of day.

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