Unproduced screenwriter. Those words put together seem a bit contradictory. Can you own the label “screenwriter” if you’re not produced or being paid to write?
OK, I heard a couple of you chuckle. I’m aware every restaurant server and lawn boy in L.A. has a script. But to be a screenwriter, you need a lot more than that. You need balls of steel, along with an abundance of talent, determination and insanity. A big ol’ shot of tequila doesn’t hurt either. Anyone who follows me on Twitter knows I subscribe to the Hemingway style of writing survival.
So, how does one succeed in this crazy industry?
Each week, I’ll bring you screenwriters who forged paths for themselves in a unique way, as well as share my own personal journey to production. The truth is, sometimes you need to step off the yellow-brick road to get to Emerald City.
The first step is finding your ruby slippers.
It was 2008. I had written a couple of scripts, yet was restless to find that perfect project – the one that would propel my career, challenge my writing, and get the attention of a production company. Much to my surprise, I found my nirvana while leafing through The Wall Street Journal.
The book announcement jumped from the page. Douglas A. Blackmon, senior national correspondent of the WSJ, wrote an amazing historical exposé about slavery post Civil War, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II (SBAN). I clutched the paper and immediately ordered the book.
For the next six months, I basically stalked him, trying to muster the courage to make contact. Let’s get real, I’m a country girl from New York, and he’s a WSJ big shot. I had to be sure he wouldn’t laugh hysterically and hang up on me when I called. Much to my delight, in all the interviews I watched, he was humble beyond belief. I could do this. I could make contact, maybe even better than E.T.
Then it happened. SBAN hit the New York Times Best Sellers List. Expletives came spewing from my trucker mouth. I thought I missed my shot. I knew Oprah would have Doug on speed dial.
Without a thought, I snatched the phone and called the man. I left the most charming voicemail I could muster, which isn’t easy since I sound like I’m twelve. Yeah, that’ll impress him. I needed a Plan B. Email. I crafted a pitch, showing my humor as well as my passion and hit send. I had nothing to lose.
Guess what? The next day, Doug called me back. One of the first questions he asked was, “Forgive me, but should I know you… are you famous?” To which I calmly responded, “Not yet, but I will be.” Luckily I’m Sicilian, and I know how to bluff.
We spent the next 30 minutes doing the cat and mouse game. I couldn’t tell if I was winning or losing. But I wouldn't let him hang up without hooking him. I went for the kill, announcing I would be in Atlanta for business the next week and would love to meet with him. Bingo. He bit… sort of. He wasn’t entirely sure he’d be in town or not, but agreed to try to arrange it.
I got my ticket, made hotel reservations and raced to the airport the next week in hopes of landing the biggest gig of my life, and hoping he’d actually be there when I landed.
My business trip? It was a bluff. I had no business in Atlanta at all. My only business was getting Doug to say yes. I was on a mission.
It was late July on a hot summer night when I walked up to the Georgian Terrace. I stared at the famous Fox Theatre across the street, with visions of Gone With the Wind dancing in my head, not knowing if Doug would ever show up. Hours passed. Then my phone rang. It was 10:30 p.m. on what was one of the longest days of my life. Douglas A. Blackmon was on his way to the hotel to meet me for a drink. Game on.
In order to convince him to say yes, I had to stand before him as a screenwriter – produced or not. I knew instinctively this was the pitch of my life.
Doug sat in the lobby of the hotel, laptop in hand, forever the journalist. I took a deep breath, and wearing my screenwriting uniform of flip-flops and jeans, shook the hand of The Wall Street Journal correspondent. I will never forget that moment as long as I live. I immediately suggested the bar. Hell, I needed it. We sipped gin and tonics discussing the book and his seven-year journey writing it.
I wish I could say that upon meeting my brilliant self, Doug handed over the rights, but alas, I was an unproduced writer without money or an agent. He declared, “The only benefit for me is if we write this together.” It was everything in me not to jump from my seat and scream, “Cool!” But I didn’t. I smiled as if offers like this came my way every day. Sure, some writers would have scoffed at working with an author, but he wasn’t just any author, he was a playwright at heart. I could see it in his visual writing style. This was a gift I never dared dream I’d get. Douglas A. Blackmon – a writing partner.
But he wasn’t saying yes, he was testing me. This guy was playing harder to get than a virgin in a sorority house.
After three days and several meetings, my final day in Atlanta had arrived. I called Doug and asked for 30 more minutes of his time. His assistant showed me to the conference room where I sat, and sat and sat. Every insecure feeling I ever had surfaced. I felt like writer roadkill.
I looked out at the beautiful view of Atlanta and soaked in the moment. If nothing else, I had given this my all. I had to be proud of that fact. Without thought, I started my karate forms right there in the conference room. With each strike, punch and kick, my insecurities melted and my strength rose.
I was in a full-blown side kick, leg extended over the table, when the door swung open. There stood Douglas A. Blackmon. Busted.
I heard him laugh, “Well, this is a first for the Journal.”
And that was that. Laughter broke the tension.
It took six more months of determination, writing sample scenes, emailing, calling, sending outlines and going to different cities to watch him speak before he’d finally say yes. I literally broke the binding of the book preparing for this opportunity. It was the longest, most intense pitch of my life. But, it was worth every moment of risk I took, especially when the book was awarded the Pulitzer Prize while we were finally writing the screenplay together.
In the coming weeks, I’ll share with you our entire journey, which will prove, if nothing else, that in order to be called a “screenwriter,” you really do need balls of steel.
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