In my nearly 20-year career as a working screenwriter, I’ve written movies (Killers, The Air I Breathe), television (White Collar), an award-winning web-series (20 Seconds To Live) and even a narrative podcast (Video Palace). Everyone usually asks me the same questions: How long does it take to write a script? How do you get something made? How do you get an agent? The last question I usually have no way to answer, but the first two I can tackle, even though the answers vary wildly.
The truth is some stories come together pretty quickly, others take their time. And it’s not really a question of quality. One of my favorite things I’ve ever written has taken nearly twenty years to finally become something people can see. This is the story of Gifted.
Back in the mid-90s, I was an aspiring writer/director living in my hometown of Orlando, Florida. I had a couple of award-winning short films under my belt, which meant I was living the good life waiting tables at a seafood restaurant called Shells. I’d gotten pretty good at my job, and if someone ordered a side salad, I could almost always predict their dressing of choice. I wasn’t psychic, I just had an instinct for it (here’s a hint: senior citizens always order Thousand Island). One day I thought, what if knowing someone’s salad dressing order was my super power? That would be kinda lame. I couldn’t fight crime with it or do much of anything really. What a waste.
A few years later, I quit that job and dove headfirst into a freelance life. I was booking acting jobs, doing corporate shows with my improv troupe, THEM, and working for a local casting director. I’d had a script optioned but not produced, and made a few bucks doing script rewrites. My most steady gig was as an assistant-programmer for the Florida Film Festival, and part of my job was traveling to Sundance and scouting movies. One year, I saw a panel of veteran screenwriters (including a young John Favreau), and I was so inspired that I immediately went to the café next door and took out a pen and some notebook paper (yes, notebook paper). A picture jumped into my head of my actress friend Mandi: post-punk with dyed hair and a nose-ring, smoking a cigarette, looking like she had a lot on her mind. And that’s when I wrote a scene about a girl with a gift. Her name was Ash, and she could see the romantic fate of any couple, but not her own. What the hell? I wanted to write Tarantino-esque crime epics, why was I writing this? I put the pages away and trudged back into snowy Park City. But at some point, I remembered my ability to guess salad dressing orders, and I thought what if this gifted girl met a support group of other gifted people? What if they tried to find camaraderie in being special? What if her gift could hurt people? What if…?
I wrote Gifted as a feature screenplay in a feverish three weeks between improv shows and casting sessions. The script was romantic, funny, and bittersweet. I sent it to the only the person I knew working in Hollywood, a producer I’d worked with who had moved to L.A. and was working his way up the ladder as a manager. He called me, told me my script was great, and that I had to come visit L.A. I spent two weeks on his couch, driving around the city, seeing all my improv friends who’d moved out there. By the time I came home, I knew I was leaving Orlando.
But what about Gifted? The Orlando Weekly had just named me Best Renaissance Man in their annual best-of issue (this is true), and in my mind the only thing I had yet to achieve in my hometown was the thing I’d always wanted to do: direct a feature film. So I decided to make Gifted as a low-budget indie and then move. Mandi was on board to star as Ash. My filmmaking buddy, Greg, agreed to produce. We put together an incredible cast and crew, got a digital video camera (so new at the time!), and with a few bucks and a meager two weeks, we shot a movie.
I was deep into editing when a friend in L.A. called and told me that an affordable place to stay had just opened up. I showed a 15-minute work-in-progress version of Gifted at the Florida Film Festival, then packed my bags and got on a plane. Another friend in L.A. owned a Final Cut rig and graciously allowed me to continue editing. I finished rendering the fine cut one night and went home, got an hour of sleep, and was woken up by a call from my manager telling me that 9/11 had happened. The days that followed were very, very gray.
I came out of it to a fistful of rejections from several film festivals. I was alone in a new city, broke and faced with a massive bill to finish the movie (this was before crowdfunding). Plus my manager’s boss and some industry consultants (including the guy who discovered Kevin Smith) had all watched my movie, and the response was unanimous: my debut feature wasn’t very good. My cast and crew were fantastic, but we hadn’t had much money or time, and it showed. And maybe I wasn’t as good a director as I was a writer. I was heartbroken. But my manager offered a silver lining: people really liked the script. I could use it to get work. Maybe even remake the movie someday. After much inner turmoil, I decided not to finish the film. To this day, it’s the single biggest regret of my career. I’d spent ten years making movies and thinking of myself as a writer/director. But if directing a feature taught me anything, it’s that I’m a writer first. That’s where my heart is.
So, Gifted (the screenplay) made the rounds. A lot of young executives at bigger production companies read it and really liked the writing, but felt it was too small for them to make. It did lead to some work. I sold my first pitch to Revolution Studios and became a working screenwriter! An indie producer behind one of my absolute favorite movies eventually optioned Gifted and attached a fantastic director. He sent me his notes, and I rewrote the script. Nothing happened. In time, the rights came back to me. By then, my writing career was taking off. I co-wrote The Air I Breathe with director Jieho Lee, and then a spec script I wrote was picked up by Lionsgate. Killers, starring Ashton Kutcher and Katharine Heigl, didn't exactly set the world on fire, but it played all over the world and hey, I got to buy a house! Plus, it set me off on a path of writing fun, character-driven action scripts. But people always asked, whatever happened to Gifted? Years later, I finally have an answer.
Ever since my time in Orlando, I was always writing theater, mainly short plays that I could produce quickly. After I moved to L.A., I happened upon Sacred Fools Theater Company in Hollywood. It became my “writer’s gym.” I wrote often for their hit late-night show Crime Scene and then their next hit late-night show Serial Killers. Never made a buck, of course, but it was joyful work with friends who cared about making cool stuff. In 2013, my wife, Jen, and I became company members. I should mention that my wife is very wise, and deserves credit for many things. She actually played a small role in the film version of Gifted, years before we started dating. And it was she who pointed out that I wasn’t really taking advantages of the perks of Sacred Fools membership, such as developing a play through their New Works Development Program. Much of the theatre I’d written for the Fools was blood-soaked silliness (with heart), but what if I wrote a real play, a two-act show about something meaningful? My mind drifted back to Gifted. I submitted it with a cover letter explaining the history of the story and how I wanted to see if it could become a play. I was accepted into the program, and sat down to meet with its curators: Jonas, Nathan, and a bright young woman named Rebecca.
One of my pet peeves in L.A. theater (and most people’s to be honest) is seeing a play that’s obviously just a staged screenplay. I wanted to make Gifted a true play. The team gave me notes, and I went off to write. After my first draft, they put together a reading so I could hear it out loud and get some feedback. It was a great experience and the results were obvious: it was a screenplay put on stage. I’d made some progress, but it still wasn’t a show. Part of the problem was that a crucial element that made the script work was voice-over from Ash that really drew us into her heart and mind. But distilling that voice-over into show monologues just wasn’t the same thing. I realized I was going to have to tear the show apart, pull out the monologues, and start from scratch. I got some great notes from my team and then put the show aside for two years, not knowing when or if I would find the heart to tear my baby to pieces before putting it back together. But there’s nothing like a deadline to turn up the heat sometimes.
Late last year, the artistic directors of Sacred Fools set a deadline of Dec 31 for show proposals for our company’s 23 season. I was set to finish up a new spec screenplay at the beginning of December and had nothing set for the rest of the month. I realized this was my chance to finish Gifted. I went “back to the board” which is screenwriting lingo I use for breaking down an existing script into note cards, putting them on a corkboard, and seeing what works and what doesn’t. I wasn’t sure if the play Gifted would work without the crucial voice-over, but I knew I had to start there. Also, I had to compress the amount of locations and characters, really make this producible on stage. And thanks to my constant conversations with Rebecca, I realized I had to dig deeply into the themes of this story and really wrap my head around what I was trying to say. With that pre-writing done, I set to work. I removed all those monologues and found organic ways to incorporate those lines into the dialogue. Two major supporting characters were combined into one. And after three weeks, I had a solid draft. But I knew for my proposal to have a shot, I needed one more important ingredient…a director.
Rebecca is a fantastic actress and had directed a couple of smaller things at Sacred Fools but never a mainstage show. Through our conversations about Gifted, I knew there was no one who understood the story better. Seriously, every time I talked with her, I learned something new about my own show. I sent her the script and asked if she wanted to propose it to the theater, with herself attached as director. She said yes, we put together our proposal, and got it in just under the wire.
I knew the odds were tough, but time passed, and I got the call from Rebecca: Gifted would have its world premiere at Sacred Fools in January 2020. I was beyond excited! Then reality hit: we had to make a show. Fortunately, we had several months before casting and rehearsals would begin, which gave Rebecca and I time to really dig into the script. We held a private reading and a two-day workshop. We attacked the story, deepening it, fleshing out the world in a way I had never done before. I realize after my failed attempt to direct this story that what I really needed all along was an ally, a director with a vision, another storyteller who would challenge me and push me to write as deeply as I ever have. Rebecca was that ally, and I’m eternally grateful for our creative partnership.
The next chunk of time was a whirlwind of casting, rehearsing, filling out the design team, and actually making the show. Artwork was commissioned. Press releases were sent out. My wife Jen jumped in to design costumes, as well as understudy one of the lead roles. My personal journey to tell this story had become a family journey.
Gifted opened on January 24 to a sold-out house and a standing ovation. Seeing this story finally come to life was a dream come true. The cast is astonishing. The design of the show is elegant and warm. And Rebecca’s vision is fully realized in all its emotional, magical wonder. Mandi (who lives in L.A. now) was there opening night and watching her take it all in was a show just for me. Afterwards, Mandi met Kacie Rogers, who stars as Ash in the play. Seeing them together was like twenty years of my life crashing together in an instant. I couldn’t help but cry.
I owe so much to Gifted. It helped launch my career. It taught me so much about myself and the artist I truly want to be. It led to a great friendship and creative collaboration. It pushed me to be a better writer. And most importantly, it’s already affecting people. Whenever I tell someone what it’s about, they usually answer with “Oh, it’s my life story!” Or their voice gets quiet and they tell me about the gift they possess. Gifted touches something in people. I really do believe we all have secret talents. Our super-powers may not help us fight crime or do much of anything, but we are all special And hopefully people who see the show, after spending time with Ash, this gifted girl who badly wants to be loved but is so afraid of it, maybe they’ll see themselves in her and realize they’re not alone. We’re all connected. We are all gifted.
Gifted is now open at Sacred Fools Theater Company in Los Angeles and runs through February 29. Tickets and more information can be found at Sacredfools.org.
Bob DeRosa is a screenwriter and playwright. He lives in Los Angeles, CA with his wife and their two sweet cats (well, one’s sweet, the other is kind of a jerk). When he’s not writing, Bob studies Kenpo karate and keeps his Little Free Library filled with good stuff. You can find him on Twitter at @thembob