SO YOU WANNABE A HOLLYWOOD SCREENWRITER? (or, Just Believe in Yourself, Dorothy!)
I was 53 years old when I walked in, knees shaking, to write the dreaded California Bar exam. Everyone says it’s the most difficult of all State Bar Exams, but that honor could just as easily go to New York, or any other State, depending on who you talk to, from whence they hail, and how resoundingly they had failed. How did I get there? ‘I drove, your Honor.’ Actually, I flew, and then drove. (It’s an old joke. See: Supreme Court, Judicial Humor). But I digress. The true horror of this story must be told seriatim. This is Part One, or as we in the screenwriting field say (or rather, would have said, had I ever gotten into it): Act One. Get your character up a tree!
I left my home and native land (Canada, as in its national anthem) at the age of 48, giving up a lucrative law partnership in a big Toronto firm to relocate to Los Angeles to become a (drum roll please) are you ready? That’s right, a screenwriter! When you’ve climbed back onto your chair and stopped laughing, I invite you to read on.
Sure, it sounds crazy, but hey, I knew what I was doing. I had flown to L.A., stayed in a dive motel on Sunset Boulevard, and even waited 45 minutes for a cab to come by and stop for me before the hotel manager informed me that cabs don’t stop for anyone in L.A. (This was to be the first of many painful learning experiences I was to have in, and about, L.A.) I was there to attended Robert McKee’s three-day intensive ‘Story’ screenwriting workshop and drink the Kool-Aid. I believed that, as he assured everyone (while scribbling charts and graphs and diagrams on big screen, to somehow prove that this was so) that ‘if you write a great story the world (i.e. Hollywood—the most unreal ‘world’ on the planet) will beat a path to your door. Adding to this shared delusion, I was one of those ‘believe in yourself and everything will work out the way you want it to’ people, thanks to my father. My mother? Not so much. A pragmatist, she made it pretty clear that she thought I’d lost my mind, throwing over everything I had in Canada to run off to L.A. to become a (pre-menopausal) screenwriter. For all those ‘believe in yourself and everything will work out the way you want it to’ people, I put it to you: ‘what’ll you do if it doesn’t?’ It’s something you need to ask yourself and have a ready answer for—some kind of a backup plan—as I was to discover.
I believed in myself from that very first day at American Film Institute when I looked around and realized I was older than the instructors, let alone my fellow ‘Screenwriting Fellows’ who seemed roughly half my age, perhaps younger. I also realized, to my disappointment, that the writing-talent-bar at AFI was pretty low. Let’s just call it what it was: $60,000 tuition, plus $25,000 in moving costs (and we’re talking USD here, Baby, not Canadian loonies) plus the cost of ‘taking time off’ (just over two years) from making an actual living. In terms of writing ability and experience required, that scribbled pitch on a cocktail napkin would pretty much do it for admission to the program, and that was all that Hollywood was looking for anyway; not some beautifully-written, passionate and moving screenplay with a real story to tell, not some literary novel that could be adapted for a major motion picture. Not from any ‘newbie’ anyway. Not from me.
I was then renting an apartment in a spooky old Hollywood building on a street called Rossmore (which is Vine, below Melrose). It was full of the ghosts of those who had believed in themselves, and even some whom others believed in as well, but who had eventually killed themselves anyway, like Judy Garland.
I should have understood the message the gods were sending me that day, early on in my Hollywood career-that-was-not-to be, when my car mirror touched the car mirror of an old car, parked on Vine, as I passed it. I stopped at the red light, and the owner of the car—an older woman (i.e. my age) with waist-length, tangled red and grey hair, and only one Whatever-Happened-to-Baby-Jane shoe on, charged over to bang on my window, wailing that I had hit her car. I pulled over and got out to take a look at her car, which had obviously been parked there on Vine for quite some time. I had merely touched her mirror, I was certain; it was impossible that I had caused any damage.
‘Look what you did to my car!’ she cried, pointing to the side of her car which was covered with dings, dents and a huge horizontal scratch.
‘I didn’t so any of this!’ I argued, scared out of my mind, and ready for a royal fleecing. ‘My mirror barely touched yours,’ I added. ‘Look. That big scratch it rusted, it’s been there so long!’
‘Please,’ she finally begged, abandoning the scam. ‘I’m trying really hard to make it here. I’m desperate to sell my screenplay.’
As I soon after discovered, so is every other homeless person, cab driver, short order cook, film school graduate, lawyer—you name it. And in a couple of years, would I be that crazy old lady with only one shoe, trying to scam others for money, after having lost everything? It gave me pause, as they say.
In Hollywood, everyone has (at least one) screenplay they are trying to sell, and for every wannabee Hollywood screenwriter there is a person, or company, or school, trying to help them out by fleecing them for whatever money they might have left. The conventional wisdom is that, at any given time, there are a million screenplays circulating around Hollywood. And that’s not counting all the ones in trunks, desks and closets that the writers have (temporarily) given up flogging. Ten million, would be a more realistic estimate. And that’s not even counting the screenplays flooding in from all over California, from other States, and from other countries. Anyone who’s ever written anything is trying to get into Hollywood!
But yet, I gamely trudged on. I believed in myself through the torture of getting up at 4 AM to drive out on some (freezing cold, remote, desert) set, hauling around equipment or laying out a craft services food table, or (achingly) holding a boom over my head for hours, waiting for a rain or wind machine to kick in.
Meanwhile, the Director Fellows (the crème de la crème of AFI) endlessly fussed with their Directors of Photography (DP’s) to get the lighting right, the background effect perfect, the scrims properly placed, the rain machine cranked up – and hey, could somebody find a way to make some lightning? I felt like offering to stick my finger in any available electrical socket, just to get the damn shot done.
I admit, I was beginning to feel the odd trickle of self-doubt by this point, wondering if I was really cut out for this screenwriting business after all. My back ached and my feet hurt; I was exhausted, and had gained a lot of weight from all the craft services junk food I’d been obliged to eat in 14 hour days on one film school set or another. But I was convinced that an MFA from AFI would be my passport to screenwriting success; my foot in the door; my edge.
As for my writing, I ‘placed’ in a couple of screenwriting competitions during that time, though, since there are dozens of these, and more every year, I soon realized there was little reason to get excited by a quarter, semi of even finalist ranking. But I was determined to push on, still burdened by that old devil: belief in myself.
I graduated AFI Conservatory with an MFA at age 50, probably the oldest AFI Conservatory Fellow since the program started in 1969. Armed with basically nothing but that cudgel around my neck (belief in myself) I set out to make my career in Hollywood. As a close friend of mine used to say ‘No One Need Apply’ when it comes to screenwriting jobs in Hollywood. He was also, for a time, determined to ‘make it’ as a Hollywood screenwriter. He’s now delivering flowers, somewhere in the Valley for a living, and though he voted for Trump we still speak.
I had a year or so of false starts, expressions of interest from producers, managers and agents (all of them, way down on the Hollywood food chain) who purported to LOVE my scripts, followed by a deafening silence that continues to this day. For another two years I worked on a cable show that shall remain nameless, writing lame voice over tracks until they fired me, for reasons still unknown to me. I also made a little money here and there as a Hollywood extra: the most soul-destroying and deadly-boring pursuit imaginable, and for the least amount of pay imaginable. Every scene (few and far between) that I was ever ‘cast’ in—as ‘deep background’—the faceless, out of focus people you see passing by in street scenes, for example—in an actual Hollywood movie, were always cut for one reason or another. But hey, I was working in ‘the industry’ as they call it, wasn’t I? And I was getting by, right? Wrong. California is an expensive State, and Hollywood an expensive town. I was far from getting by; I was sinking fast.
By now, five years had passed since I had left the Mother Ship, and I was headed for bankruptcy court, having eaten through what remained of my retirement savings plan from Canada, and living off credit cards. My ‘believe in yourself’ dad now suggested (during a brief panicky call I made to beg him for financial help) that I better get used to the idea of living under a bridge, or in a tent, and make inquiries as to whether some kind of welfare or social assistance might be available to a Canadian in California. (Yeah, right, Dad.) He couldn’t (or wouldn’t) do anything for me, he said, and I’m sure it pained him a lot to say it.
In addition to my father’s sudden treachery, the once-friendly waters of my home and native land had closed over for good, in terms of my making a living there. My law firm would not want an ex-partner back, now out of touch with the current law and tainted with the scarlet letters, ‘SF’ (SCREENWRITING FAILURE) on her tanned forehead, except perhaps to jeer at. Canadians love to say: ‘I told you so.’ Ask my mother.
But compared to the shark-infested tank that is Hollywood (though to be fair, I never got to dip more than a toe into it, and those sharks had no appetite for me it seems) that jealous mistress ‘The Law’ whom I had turned my back on years before, was beginning to look downright seductive. And, if not back in Canada, then where was I to pick up the pieces of my moribund law career?
Stay tuned, Folks! Act Two- Throw Rocks at Your Character – is on the way!