Skip to main content

NAVIGATING HOLLYWOOD: Whittier - Writing Partners

Manny Fonseca writes about teaming up with writing partner Cheryl Diffin. He also talks about how their script 'Whittier' came about as well as others.

After years as a development executive, Manny Fonseca is now on the other side of the table as a full-time writer and Podcaster. Now living the life of a writer, Manny is navigating a whole different side of Hollywood. You can follow him on Twitter: @mannyfonseca

Click to tweet this article to your friends and followers!

Over the course of the next few columns, I'm going to tell the story of writing (and developing) Whittier. As this column is dedicated more to navigating Hollywood and less to specifically writing, I'm going to tell you the WHOLE story. This will include some things that aren't exactly focused on writing.

I'm doing it this way because I think it's important to understand what it's truly like to navigate Hollywood...because don't forget, you also have to navigate LIFE too.


Cheryl at my studio in Hollywood

Cheryl at my studio in Hollywood

I had been living in my Hollywood studio apartment a couple of weeks when I met Cheryl Diffin. We met online and hit it off talking about video games and movies. Even though she was older, she was a die hard gamer. She was a programmer, so she had some hardcore gear, her own servers and would mod games. I was simply a console guy as I was also an Apple guy and as you Apple-heads out there know, they're hardly gaming machines.

We talked non-stop throughout the day and decided to just meet for drinks and continue the conversation. We met at this dive bar on Hollywood and Highland called Power House. A real "cheap beer" kinda place, but that's the atmosphere we dug. It was there that we talked about writing. I had just started my column in that "other" newsletter and she confessed she had always wanted to be a writer.

Whenever someone tells me they have "always wanted to be a writer," I immediately encourage them. Hell, if I could do it, anyone could. All it takes is a good idea. Now, I've met a lot of people throughout the years that had some great stories in them. Some personal, some not...I've always encouraged them to sit down and bang them out on the keyboard. I have always offered my support and promised to help in any way I could.

Now, just so that we're all on the same page, I've met a LOT of people in my adult years and a vast majority of them have "always wanted to write." I have encouraged every single one of them and have made them the same above deal.

Script EXTRA: Read tips on why you should pay it forward in this industry.

Wanna know how many people have taken me up on that offer?

Zero. That's right. Zero.

Cheryl was no different. She didn't feel she was a strong writer. I disagreed. She was a strong writer, just a bad storyteller. She often left out details and her stories raised more questions than anything else. "No one wants to know that," she would say after I would ask her a clarifying question. "Uh, I just asked, didn't I? You think I'm going to be the only one that wants to know?!"

Drove me crazy.

Cheryl and I hung out more and more. Some would say we were dating, some would say we weren't. We were our own thing. The bottom-line is that we liked being around each other so that's what we did...we were around each other.

After a few months, we got to that place that I think every writer gets to. The "Hey, will you read my stuff?" place. I especially wanted to get Cheryl's feedback on a script I was in the process of re-writing. In grad school, for one of my screenwriting classes, I had started a script based on the popular video game Return to Castle Wolfenstein.

Now, obviously, I didn't have the rights to the video game, but as luck would have it, the game was based on real-life myths about Hitler and the Nazi party. The Castle Wolfenstein in question, was based on a real castle called Castle Wewelsburg...needless to say, Wolfenstein sounded way cooler. Anyway, because of this, as long as I didn't use Wolfenstein or the lead character's name (B.J. Blazkowicz) I'd be good. Even the villains in the game were real-life Nazi's such as Himmler.

All I had to do was tell a similar story, based on history and not the game, and I'd be good. (Honestly, to this day I don't know if that's legally true or not, but it sounds really good and no one has told me otherwise, sooooo....)

Cheryl being a gamer and me having a script loosely based on a game...well, why wouldn't I want to get her feedback? She read the script, thought it was "good" and gave me a couple of ideas to feed off of.

Script EXTRA: Tips for Obtaining Life Rights


A lot of you wonder how to get good feedback. Well, I can't help you there, but what I can offer is some insight into three possible scenarios you could get:

1) They simply say "It was good."

Translation: "You have no idea how many things I want to tell you but if I do they will crush your inner soul to the point that you'll contemplate suicide as you will have no more reason to live."

2) They tell you they "liked it."

Translation: "I didn't like it."

3) They tell you that it was "interesting."

Translation: "If I could pour bleach on my brain to wipe the existence of reading your piece of shit script, I would. But I can't."

Cheryl, having been a new person in my life, opted to go with a little bit of one and a little bit of two. How do I know this? Well, I would find out MONTHS later, once she knew I could handle it, how she REALLY felt about my script. Overall, she liked it (for real) but felt it had some issues. "Why didn't you tell me!" I exclaimed. "Cause I didn't want to hurt your feelings. I didn't know if you could handle FULL CHERYL."

For those of you that don't know Cheryl (and I know there are a couple of you reading this that do) let me explain that full Cheryl is a LOT. She IS B-R-U-T-A-L.

Here's a piece of advice for dealing with someone that either a) gives you one of the three above mentioned responses or, b) is hesitant to tell you the truth. Tell them what I tell them:

"It's okay. I can't fix it if I don't know what the problems are."

On her patio where we created "Detroit Manny."

On her patio where we created "Detroit Manny."

THAT'S the attitude you have to have about notes. Yes, it will hurt. Yes, you will want to chuck the script. But at the end of the day, writing is not writing. RE-WRITING is writing, and if you don't know what the problems are, than how are you supposed to make it better?

You did realize this job was work, right? You're not in this for funsies, right? Cause if you are, to quote our president-elect: "Stop it."

Okay, where was I?

Once Cheryl and I got over that hump, she was all in on my writing. It got to the point that I wouldn't turn in my articles for that "other" newsletter until Cheryl signed off on it. I trusted her. She was helping me DO something. In fact, she was integral in creating that "Detroit Manny" character that everyone loved and hated.

She would also be the one that I would bitch to after getting all the hate mail I used to get. She was the one to calm me down and let me know that I was doing the right thing. Over time I wanted to veer from the course, she'd force me right back on. When it came time to turn that column into a podcast, (Breakin' In!) she would act as my co-host.

Needless to say, that's the kind of person you want as a partner. It would be on my next script that the partnership would begin.

You know how us columnists are always preaching "be ready to strike when the opportunity arises?!" Well, here was my opportunity and here's how I struck.

Script EXTRA: 11 Ways to Avoid Disaster When Choosing A Writing Partner


One day at the office, the new president of production of the company (see last article) came waltzing into my office. He's going to be talked about a lot from here on out and after asking what he'd like his nickname to be in the articles, he has requested Big Dick Barny. There you go. You're welcome. Anyway, so Big Dick Barny comes waltzing in and asks: "Have you ever seen Greystoke?"

"The Tarzan movie with Christopher Lambert?"

"Yeah. That one. It's pretty dark, right?"

"It's been years since I've seen it, I don't really remember," I say.

"I just wonder how close to the source material it is."

"Couldn't tell you, I never read any of the Tarzan books. All I know are the movies."

Then Big Dick Barny hits me with this: "Tell me what you think about this idea, I was thinking about a version of Tarzan where they crash land on a planet of robots. So instead of the jungle and being raised by apes, he's raised by robots, void of any human emotion."

My reply? "Yeah, no. That SOUNDS really cool." Attach every ounce of sarcasm you can muster to that statement and it still wouldn't come close to the amount I used.


I'm not exactly sure how it started, but Cheryl and I would talk every night on the phone around 10 o'clock. Some days we'd chat for 30 minutes, other days we'd chat until three or four in the morning depending on how interesting our conversations got or how heated our debates got. On this particular day, I hit her with: "Oh MY God, you're never gonna believe what Big Dick Barny wants to do?! He wants to do a version of Tarzan with robots!"

Cheryl didn't miss a beat, she fired back with: "That might be cool. I guess you could do this, and maybe that."

I replied with, "Yeah, and if you did that you could do X, Y & Z."

She countered with some more thoughts and two hours later we had the entire story outlined. All the major beats...and, to top it all off, I was actually kind of excited about the idea!

The next day, when Barny came into the office, I let him get settled and then went into his office: "So, hey man...Um, I want to take a crack at your Tarzan idea."

"Yeah, you like it?"

"Not at first, but Cheryl and I were talking and we came up with a solid idea."

I then pitched him the opening and he liked it. He asked me what I was gonna do next and I told him that I was just gonna bang out the first 30 pages and see if he liked what I came up with. He said that would be fine, but...

then he gave me a heads up...

The screenwriter from the last column on development hell was still under contract to the company for one more script. This guy wanted to get out of his contract so bad that he would have literally written a script for a commercial for doggy boner pills if it meant he wouldn't have to deal with Cobra Commander at this point.

It was Barny's job to come up with a couple of ideas to pitch him to write. Tarzan and Robots was one of those ideas. Barny was 99% sure the screenwriter wasn't going to choose that idea, but he wanted to let me know it was a possibility.

I told him it was fine and said I was gonna move forward anyway. If the screenwriter wants to do Tarzan and Robots...then, well...whatever.

So that's what I did.

I banged out 30 pages in like two days and handed them in. As it turned out, Barny was right, the screenwriter didn't want to do Tarzan. He took my pages and had them read by the next day. He gave me some big notes and then I went away and tore down and rebuilt the first 30 and then started on the journey to 120.


Cheryl at Hollywood and Highland.

In that time, Cheryl came on to talk story and we hammered it out, going back and forth as to where the script needed to go. She was a programmer, so she had a very specific idea how she wanted the robot planet to work. I, on the other hand, was a human man, so I took care of the Tarzan/Jane shit.

At one point we even had a meeting with Barny to go over the script. Cheryl, tough as nails, wouldn't admit she was nervous, but I could tell differently. This wasn't HER world, it was mine and she felt out of place. Literally the only time I saw her get a little rattled. The funny thing? She knew Big Dick Barny. There was no reason for anyone to be nervous. I sure as hell wasn't.

Eventually, the script had to get finished and we just weren't in agreement about a lot of stuff, so I took over and rewrote the 3rd act myself. There were no hard feelings on either end. I handed the script in giving her story credit. The script was good and well received, but there wasn't a market for it. Warner Bros. had already rejected a Sci-Fi version of Tarzan for a more traditional model based on the source material and thus The Legend of Tarzan was born.


After Barny left the company, we had lunch and he told me about another idea that he was kicking around. It was an updated version of a 1983 Gene Hackman movie titled Uncommon Valor. Surprisingly there was an 80's action film starring Gene Hackman that I had never seen. I tracked it down and watched it that night. About 40 minutes in the movie, I texted Barny and told him that I knew how to do this movie.

The premise behind Band of Misfits was simple: a group of street smart, outcasts reunite to rescue their childhood friend who was thought killed in action in Afghanistan but is found to be held prisoner two years later.

Uncommon Valor meets The Fast and the Furious. It has franchise written all over it.

I quickly banged out a draft and sent it to Barny. He loved the script, but felt it wasn't quite there yet. It was missing something. I turned to Cheryl who jumped into the script with me. This time around, it wasn't about helping me come up with story...we sat together, in the same room and worked on it together. Passing drafts back and forth. I would rewrite her and she would rewrite me.

We were finally fully fledged writing partners.

Cheryl and I at a movie premiere.

Cheryl and I at a movie premiere.

We locked ourselves in my bedroom in Hollywood with enough food and booze to keep us fused through the weekend and hammered out a major re-write. On Monday morning, we had a draft that we were really happy with. We turned it in to Barny who thought we had hit the mark.

That draft got us a meeting with a manager who wanted to "start a conversation with us." He had Misfits and another of my scripts, Run, which was my modern day retelling of North by Northwest set in Los Angeles. He felt that Misfits was tonally off because one of the semi-main characters dies halfway through the second act. He felt we needed to change that. We agreed.

In the meantime, I had started yet another script based on a dream I had. It was a horror script entitled Sanctuary. Because I had basically dreamt the whole concept, I quickly hammered out a draft. Horror was Cheryl's thing, so I gave it to her to look at and make any changes that she wanted.

The plan was for her to rewrite Sanctuary because she was into horror more so than me, while I rewrote Misfits because action was my bread and butter. Divide and conquer = double the scripts.


While we were in the middle of working on that, Barny called me up and told me that he had an idea that he thought would be right up our alley. He had remembered reading a story about this small town in Alaska named Whittier, where the only way into the town is through a two-and-a-half mile tunnel which shut down in the winter. The population in the summer was around 3,000, but in the Winter, it dropped down to roughly 167 people and they all lived in one building together.

He asked us if we could do something set in that town. I pitched it to Cheryl and she thought it sounded cool.

We Googled the town and found these YouTube videos that the Mayor (who fancied himself a hobby filmmaker) had made all of these videos that showed us the entire town. Those videos really got us excited about the possibilities.

Cheryl and I sat down and figured out 5 stories that we could tell in this town.

We drafted an email with our thoughts and sent it to Big Dick Barny. He came back and loved three of the ideas. Told us to pick our fave and getta writing.

I wanted to tell the version where a group of bank robbers use the town to hide out in while waiting for their friend to come get them in a seaplane. They'd only have to wait the night. Kind of a From Dusk Till Dawn scenario. While they waited, they couldn't help but get into some shit and all hell breaks loose.

Ever the Horror queen, Cheryl wanted to tell a story where the town was made up of cannibals that fed off tourists to survive the winter.

Unfortunately, tragedy would prevent Cheryl from participating in either version of our Whittier script. A month later our lives would be turned upside down and life in Hollywood would take a very different turn.

Get more tips on writing partnership in Claudia Johnson & Matt Stevens' book
Script Partners: How to Succeed at Co-Writing for Film & TV