Sunday, January 29, 2012

On Being a Screenwriter (or Down the Rabbit's Hole)

I am so excited about having the opportunity to get my mystery novel, On the Road to Death’s Door, out to people via Amazon.  But the format I honed my skills on is screenwriting.  

Back in the 1990s I had the opportunity to team up with Christine DeSmet, a wonderful writing teacher at UW-Madison. We wrote a pilot script for a tv series we’d invented called Ask Gloria.  That pilot earned us a spot in the Warner Brothers Comedy Writers Workshop. Over three hundred people had competed to get into the workshop, and eleven of us were chosen.  We spent a week–all expenses paid–at a posh hotel in Chicago.  Our instructor was Reinhold Weege, the creator and producer of one of the most popular sitcoms of the late ‘80s, Night Court. 

We had a fantastic time and learned an amazing amount.  But what we discovered about ourselves was that neither of us was interested in moving to L.A., and neither of us was interested in working 12 to 15 hour days (often long after the actors leave the set), both prerequisites to becoming professional sitcom writers. Oh, we loved the writing.  We just weren’t interested in the lifestyle.

So, we switched our focus to feature film writing, something a writer can do from anywhere in the world. Over the years we’ve written ten screenplays together. We’ve done a lot of marketing, taken two trips out to L.A. together, won a couple of awards, and had a couple scripts optioned. But that big break remains elusive.

Our biggest success was with a screenplay called Chinaware Fragile that we co-wrote with Bob Shill of Veradale, Washington.  Based on the true life story of Dolly Cameron, Chinaware Fragile tells the story of the sex-slave trade in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the early 1900’s.  Sadly, the social issues mirror much of what is still going on today.  Dolly ran a mission house that rescued the slave girls; she was bold, fearless, and passionate about her cause.

Chinaware-Fragile took the first place award in an alternative film festival call Slamdance, which took place in Park City, Utah at the same time as the famed Sundance Film Festival.  That win garnered us a manager who helped us get an option deal with New Line Cinema.  New Line paid us decent money for the option, and it looked for a while like the movie was going to go into production as they shopped around for a director and a lead actress.  However, they couldn’t seem to interest a director into taking on the movie, at least not for what they were willing to pay.  And it turns out they were in the middle of funding a huge gamble on a fantasy trilogy being directed by a then unknown New Zealand director named Peter Jackson. Yeah, it was Lord of the Rings. 

So Chinaware Fragile languished.  New Line renewed the option a couple of times, but eventually the rights reverted back to us. So…if you know a director or producer looking to do a period action movie about an amazing woman who made a difference in the lives of the people she touched, please, send him or her our way!

Chris and I haven’t given up.  We’re still writing and still networking.  But we’ve branched out.  Together we’ve dabbled in playwriting.  Individually, Chris writes romance novels (more about that to come!) and is beginning her own mystery series. I’ve been freelancing, writing corporate and educational video scripts—all of which have been produced—and working on the mystery novel with my other writing partner Mary Joy.

One of my favorite compliments about On the Road to Death’s Door is that the final chapters are impossible to put down.  I credit that to my screenwriting experience.  I’ve learned to write stories that are visual and action-oriented. 

But I think the most important thing I’ve learned from all my years as a screenwriter is to never give up. Someday I’ll see my words on the big screen. But until that happens, I’ll just keep on writing. 

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