Screenwriting Ain't For Sissies

graduation

I started my film career in 1983, a few months after graduating from college.  I knew exactly two people: a woman I had met through the mail who worked for Michael Douglas, and, coincidentally enough, his brother Joel, who was the unit production manager on “One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest”.  I met Joel when I was 15.   We were reading “One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest” in my psychology class in high school, so I decided to call the production office one day and ask if anyone would mind speaking to us about the film.  Joel Douglas showed up a few days later, and after class, invited me to visit the set any time.

They were filming at the Oregon Mental Hospital where the severely deranged were housed on the third floor.  The first two floors were no longer in use.  I showed up day after day to…

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Screenwriting 101 Or Why Writing a Screenplay is Much Harder Than It Looks.

20140321_142244I am beginning to think I may be the luckiest girl on the planet.  Things just seem to work out for me, even when it seems like I am standing in the bottom of a well, and the longest rope anyone can find to throw down to me is still three feet too short and a typhoon has just leveled the hardware store.

Fifteen years ago, when my art career was skyrocketing, and I was at a major crossroads in my personal  life, I was in Delray Beach, Florida looking for someplace to eat after supervising the final details for my one woman show at a popular art gallery. I was there alone, my sixteen year relationship in ruins, still reeling from the discovery that the man who raised me was not my biological father,  and with parents who said I’d known about him since I was six and had just “forgotten” about him.   I passed a restaurant with a handful of people in it, when something in me made me turn and go inside.  I sat at a table next to a pair of delectable men who turned out to be friends celebrating a mutual decision to relocate on opposite sides of the country. Richard had just moved to Palm Springs and Mark had just moved to Palm Beach.

20140226_114511My biological father lived in Mentone, California, so I had just decided to move to Palm Springs myself.  Richard and I exchanged phone numbers and the next day, I called my friend Daniel to give him the good news.  What I didn’t know, is that Daniel had only recently realized he needed a change in his life as well,  and was moving from Santa Fe to Palm Springs himself.  A few weeks later, I found an ad online for a house in Palm Springs, and called the landlord.   Since I was the first to call about the house, Jon agreed to hold it for me until I could find someone to look at it for me.  Richard was the only person I knew who lived nearby, so I called this complete stranger and not only asked him to look at the house for me, when he called back and told me it was perfect, but Jon needed a $1000 deposit, I got a blank cashiers check for the requested amount and mailed it off to him.  Richard delivered the check to Jon and took it upon himself to make sure that the house had new paint, new carpet and new kitchen and bathroom tile.

20140321_142853A month later I showed up at the house for the first time with some friends who agreed to help me move in.  The house, while far from posh, was huge.  Four bedrooms, (one with a fireplace), three bathrooms (one with an oversized tub for nice long soaks in the winter), a fenced yard, a pool with a waterfall and a garage.  I had room for a studio, a guest room, an office, and a library, which I filled with remarkable finds from dozens of thrift stores, and when I wasn’t getting ready for an art show, I was  “taking the waters” at the Spa Hotel and Casino, or driving backroads to Idyllwild to buy myself lunch and take a walk through town, or combing through  bookshelves at a second hand store in Joshua Tree.  I had a wonderful life, with great friends, and a successful career.  But when my father died in a car accident, I decided it was time to see what else was out there.  To “shake things up a bit”.   So I sold everything I didn’t absolutely need, packed up, and headed East.Denise & Red

I hadn’t been to Palm Springs in years, and this weekend, I am housesitting for Daniel, who is off to London and Paris with his boyfriend, Kenny.  Being here reminds me of so many things, not the least among them the sleek red dog I got as a pup, who hated the swimming pool, ate a hole in the carpet, and loved his girlfriend, Katie in equal measure.  It floods me with the memories of meeting my friend Tom Tyler (who was an extra in SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON), and dinner parties at Colin Webster Watson’s (a sculptor from New Zealand who had everyone from former Broadway stars to a couple who wrote for DYNASTY as his guests), of working for photographer, Michael Childers and  film director, John Schlesinger, meeting David Hockney, and Stephanie Powers, and Franco Zefferelli, and Steve Zaillian, and Michel LeGrand (who still owes me for the bowtie I bought him before the Palm Springs Film Festival!).  The six years I spent here were among the best years of my life, and being here this weekend reminds me of the people and places I loved, but it reminds me as well that I am making new memories, and reconnecting with old friends, that everything (and nothing) has changed, that the stars have lined up to give me a second chance at seeing the dream I’ve had of “making it” in Hollywood played out one way or the other.

20140312_143050I used to drive through Palm Springs in early April, when the weather was perfect, and the sky was so blue it hurt your eyes, and declare to the universe that I was “the richest woman in the world”. And you know what?  Despite how hard the last few years have been, being here again reminds me that I still am.  I have the support of a wonderful man, generous friends, and the memories of how things used to be as the inspiration I need to make the most of this opportunity.  I am writing my heart out, and learning things about screenwriting I only thought I knew.

But that shouldn’t surprise me.

After all, I am the luckiest girl in the world.

oprahbagI suppose most people would say I am too ambitious for my own good, but I think life goes by too quickly to waste time thinking about what I want to do.  I have a short list of regrets and I’d like to keep it that way. When I am faced with an opportunity, or something that looks like an opportunity, I ask myself “is this something you might even remotely regret not having done some day?”  I didn’t go to Japan as a foreign exchange student when I was in college and to this day I still wish I had,  and despite having been told a million times that some of the things I want are out of reach, I never persist in thinking, if Dale Chihuly can reinvent glass art or Erin Brockovich can have a movie made about her life, then I can, and should, go after what I want.  I honestly believe you never know unless you try, and you don’t know what the answer will be unless you ask.  After all, I only get this life to go after my dreams.  I might as well make the most of it, even if the word “no” becomes an essential part of the journey.

WASPA few months ago I applied for a screenwriting scholarship at the New York Film Academy.  I applied on a lark, since the screenplay I wrote about the Women’s Air Service Pilots never got any farther than placing in the top twenty percent with the Nicholls Fellowships (which are offered by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences).  That’s a significant accomplishment considering the fact that they had over 5000 entries, but when I got my “thanks but no thanks” email from The Write Room competition designed to promote the works of women writers, with female themed topics, I was beginning to wonder if the dream I have been chasing since I was 24 was even worth pursuing.  I love movies, but I struggled mightily with writing when I was younger.  Every word I wrote was painful, and even though I understood story structure, character development and theme intellectually, I could never seem to marry what I felt with what I knew into a screenplay that was worth a hill of beans.

The original draft of LUCKY 13 was completed in 1992, but it wasn’t until this past winter that I felt I actually knew how to write it.   The idea is as fantastic as the women who  trained at the only all female airbase in American history, and who went on to fly military aircraft in World War Two. After completing it  I was told repeatedly that it would never be made because of the predominantly female cast. Statistics on women in Hollywood both behind and in the front of the camera bear this sad fact out, but since I am never one to give up without a fight when I believe deeply in something, I decided to submit a story for a screenwriting scholarship through The Writers Store just a few days before the competition closed.  The scholarship offer was predicated on the idea that contestants would submit a story idea to be developed into a screenplay if they were chosen to participate.  The original offer was six scholarships (later increased to eight) and out of over three hundred submissions, I was selected along with seven other writers for an eight week screenwriting intensive.

Bessie StringfieldThe story I chose to submit was about Bessie Stringfield, the first African American woman to be inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame.  Bessie was a Jamaican orphan adopted by a wealthy Irish woman in Boston in the 1920’s.  Bessie’s adoptive mother gave her everything she ever wanted, so when Bessie laid eyes on her first motorcycle, her mother bought the bike for her and the stage was set for a long and remarkable life as a motorcycle stunt rider, World War Two motorcycle dispatch courier, and long distance rider with eight cross country trips and three overseas trips to her credit.

20140210_162354I have also decided to turn LUCKY 13 into a TV series and hope to pitch it to some  old friends who still work in the film industry while I am in Los Angeles.  In the meantime, I am also hard at work on a collaboration with James Mellozzo, a highly respected guitar maker who sent me a telecaster, and a stratocaster, to turn into art pieces for the New York Guitar Show and Exposition in April.   The first guitar is close to completion, while the second will feature a pack of timber wolves on the front and  back of the guitar.

The Handbag A Day calendar helped bring my work to the attention of the Tassen Museum in Amsterdam, which boasts the largest collection of handbags and purses in the world.   Considering the fact that the Handbag A Day features over  a hundred of the Museum’s best bags, I am over the moon to be included in such a prestigious collection.  handbag calendar

I have no idea if any of the opportunities I have been blessed with in recent months will lead to the career or life I ever envisioned for myself, but I do know that once I’ve had the chance to take advantage of this screenwriting scholarship, my dreams of writing a really good screenplay will have come full circle, and whether THE MOTORCYCLE QUEEN OF MIAMI ever gets made, or LUCKY 13 winds up on a shelf, or I find myself on stage at the Kodak Theatre with an Oscar clutched to my breast, at least I will know that I gave it my all.

I used to be quite the guerilla marketer in the days before the internet and social media.  After selling a gourd for $20,000 several years ago, I approached anyone and everyone I could think of to carry a story on the sale.  I sent press releases to every newspaper and magazine under the sun, and press kits to everyone from Katie Couric to the Carol Duvall Show.  I discovered, days after it had been published, that the Wall Street Journal ran a small (and admittedly snarky) article on the sale, and several months after that, I received a letter from Carol Duvall, informing me that she wanted to do a segment on my work.  I was thrilled of course, but when her production team called to ask if they could interview me in July, in Palm Springs, for their fall season, I wasn’t quite as over the moon.

It’s 108 to 118 degrees in Palm Springs in the summer, but of course, I said yes.  I had to make four or five gourds in various stages of completion to make it look like I had created the work they focused on in one afternoon, and when the team finally showed up at my house, their equipment kept blowing the circuit breaker, so I had to turn off the air conditioning then act like it was as cool as a summer breeze on the Oregon coastline the rest of the day.  After all was said and done however, I think the production team did an outstanding job.

A few weeks ago, I started work on one of the first new gourds I have done in years.  I decided to photograph each stage of the process, then edited it to show how much work goes into creating a single piece of artwork.  I hope you enjoy the short video I did on it.

I was struck by a quote I ran across from David Hockney a few weeks ago, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind because, for the first time in my life, someone was finally able to put words to the powerful and unquenchable thirst that motivates and drives my soul, a drive that, as time goes on, is becoming even more pronounced.David-Hockney-painting-Th-005

“I think I’m greedy, but I’m not greedy for money – I think that can be a burden – I’m greedy for an exciting life. I want it to be exciting all the time, and I get it, actually. On the other hand, I can find excitement, I admit, in raindrops falling on a puddle and a lot of people wouldn’t. I intend to have it exciting until the day I fall over.”

At 76 years old,  Hockney  has a show at the de Young Museum in San Francisco entitled “David Hockney: A Bigger Exhibition” that features 398 master works, most of which was produced in the last decade alone.   “This is a man who is very active, very energetic, but we are in a period where every day counts, and I sense that with this desire to work all the time. However, the idea of old age and old age style is something that when you look at Hockney’s recent work, you’re sort of dumbfounded, because these look like the work of a very young man: energetic, exuberant, vital, optimistic” says Fine Arts Museum director Colin Bailey, in remarks based on art historian Kenneth Clark’s essay on aging and the arts.

It’s true that David Hockney is filled with the kind of relentless quest to stuff as much life and living into his remaining years as possible, and I know this, because I had the opportunity to spend and afternoon with David Hockney many years ago at a Boxing Day celebration at the home of film director John Schlesinger and his long time partner, Michael Childers.

Mr. Hockney had just completed a documentary after years of study to discern how the great masters produced such incredible detail in their portraiture, and he was eager to talk about his discoveries with anyone who would listen.  I knew David Hockney’s name, of course, and I knew he was famous, but I’d worked in Hollywood for many years and met lots and lots of famous people, not many of whom were kind to a “complete unknown” such as myself.

I think the only other major figure who ever treated me with that sort of respect was the great film producer, Ray Stark, who I met at a Prince concert when I first started working at the William Morris Agency.  I was sitting alone at a huge table waiting for the rest of the agent trainees and assistants I’d come with to return from the bar, when this man came sailing up to me to say hello.  Once he realized he didn’t know who I was, he left for his table, just as my friends all arrived.  One trainee asked how I knew Ray Stark and I said, “would you like to meet him?”  Everyone looked at me like I was nuts, because at this point, a line of influential Hollywood A listers had lined up to pay homage to Mr. Stark.  I got up and walked over to him, and said, “Mr. Stark, would you mind coming over to say hello to my friends?”  He left the A listers standing there while he came over to my table to meet my friends, and while they  were impressed that I “knew” Ray Stark, I was even more impressed that he treated me so kindly once I figured out who he really was.

It was the same with David Hockney.  Shortly after we were introduced, he grabbed a mirror and my elbow and guided me to a wall near a huge floral display and proceeded to explain, at length, how the mirror enabled him to create a precise reverse drawing of the display, and how the great masters used mirrors to capture their subjects in such incredible detail. Later, when my uncle told me he had a rare copy of a book by David Hockney, I sent the book to Mr. Hockney to have him sign it for my uncle, and he did.

When I read his quote about money and an exciting life, I couldn’t get it out of my mind, because that’s exactly how I have felt since I was ten years old.  I have wanted more money than I have ever had, because I have  wanted the kinds of huge adventures I thought being wealthy would afford, but I am old enough now to realize two things;  I am on the “other side” of the years I have left to cram as much living as I possibly can into a single day (and I do), and that not having the kind of money I have always wanted to go on a safari (for example) or stay in a five star hotel just because I could, or to make the dreams of people I run across every day of my life who have far less than I do come true, because I have the money to do it (which is as much a part of the adventure as sky diving or weeks spent on the Orient Express) is one of the reasons I have had the adventures I have had in the first place.

I have had to get very creative about how I live my life because I don’t have a lot of money, and paying attention to things like the bright flash of red I saw in my yard yesterday as a male cardinal darted past, or waiting at the corner of 81st and Central Park West in the freezing cold for the Macy’s Parade to start, is all part of the wonderful adventure of my own remarkable life.

I will never stop striving, never stop reaching for the stars, never stop challenging myself to drink in every moment I possibly can, even when I complain that I don’t have enough or the things that I want aren’t happening fast enough to suit me, but I have come to embrace the fact that my incredible impatience to stuff as much as I can into a day is all part of my charm.  I don’t have forever and there is still so much to be done.  The time to live, is now…..

For more information on the David Hockney exhibit, which is in San Francisco through January 20 at the de Young Museum click this link.

Now get out there and play…..