I first met my writing partner, Terry, in 2006. I had just put my house on the market and she stopped by with her dog to take a look. We were the same age, went to the same undergrad and grad schools and lived one block apart in similar bungalows, but had never crossed paths. We bumped into each other one more time and discovered we both liked to write. She mentioned she wrote screenplays and was looking for a partner to work on a new comedy screenplay. Before I knew it, I was a screenplay writer.
I imagined us sitting around a sofa like Sally Rogers and Buddy Sorrell bouncing ideas off each other. We just needed a premise. We brainstormed and came up with five potential ideas and eventually settled on writing about what we knew — housewifery. Our protagonist would be Emma, a 39-year-old stay at home mom who is feeling increasingly unfulfilled as her children grow. She lives in a pretentious upper middle class suburb, but sees the absurdity of it. She is occasionally sucked into their lifestyle, but is grounded by her buddy and side kick, Jackie, who works at Costco.
When Emma’s husband announces he is running for congress Emma feels like her life is being completely absorbed by her husband’s passions. She struggles to find her purpose before her looming 40th birthday. It will be a hilarious series of misadventures as she tries different careers and comes dangerously close to starting something with the handsome campaign manager (who sees the real potential in her).
We met weekly and ate and laughed and edited and ripped it apart and put it back together. Terry taught me how to write a script. There is a formula to screenplay writing. They should be 90 pages long – about 1 page/minute. There are 3 acts. They must have certain elements and apparently it is critical that the protagonist hit bottom on page 75, suffer for about 10 pages and then grow and resolve everything in Act III.
We had very different styles. Terry is an outliner. I just like to dive in and see where things take me. Terry writes in longhand. I need to peck away on a keyboard to capture my fleeting phrases of brilliance before they disappear. Terry likes index cards (we generated thousands). As I look back through them I see a few gems that somehow didn’t make it into the final draft – like how Emma decides that her passion is helping babies that develop flat heads (from laying on their backs all day). Terry thought that was gross, I thought it offered rich comedic material.
We labored over this thing for four years, and then suddenly it was finished. We chuckled as we read through the final scenes. This was good stuff. We planned the outfits we would wear to the Oscars (Terry, a redhead, would wear green, I would wear sapphire blue).
However, we really had no idea what to do with the finished script. It is not easy to sell any piece of writing, and screenplays are especially tough. I was happy to send queries to a few agents and file away the rejection letter with the rest of my short story and novel rejections letters. Terry, however, was more of a go-getter.
Terry: We are going to pitch this to Hollywood!
Terry: They have these things called pitch festivals. You sign up to meet with producers in Hollywood and sell them your script.
Terry: We can fly to LA. It will be fun.
Me: You’re not serious.
Terry: We have to sell this. It’s good. We won’t settle for less than six figures.
Terry could tell she wasn’t selling me on the idea. I had an endless list of excuses – money, babysitters, dog sitters, a band concert, fear of flying (OK, I made that one up). Then she discovered we could do an online pitch festival and pitch Emma over Skype. I was no more keen on this idea, but none of my excuses held water.
We signed up for the PitchFest. It wasn’t cheap. I know I only agreed to do 5 meetings, but somehow I ended up signing up for 10. Terry kept talking me into buying more. Before I knew it we had 17 pitches scheduled over 4 days. I was going to be a basketcase.
The company running the PitchFest sent us a list of all the participants. We selected our top choices – a nice mix of agents, producers, and studios. We were then given a long list of do’s and don’ts. Basically they let us know these big wigs were doing us a favor and we needed to be deferential. Here are a few of the 17 keys:
- DON’T “nut and bolt” the pitch. Keep it short. 5 minutes, tops. If the exec/agent is not interested or has heard enough and wishes to move on DON’T demand they stay on the call. Remember: It’s up to them if they wish to speak to you for the full ten minutes – not you!!!
So we may not even get 5 minutes with each person, this was now coming out to over $20 per minute.
- DON’T use notes (that they can see) or read them the pitch.
Come on, even Obama uses a teleprompter
- DO begin with your log-line.
- DON’T cast your story, i.e., ”This is a part for Tom Cruise…”
Damn, I really wanted to ask for Julianne Moore.
- DON’T stand up while pitching!!! Remain seated at eye-level with executive.
OK, not a problem
- DO let the exec/agent interrupt and even make suggestions. Make him/her a part of the creative process.
Did he write the script? If he buys it he can change every word for all I care
- DON’T marry two movies (i.e., “It’s The Mummy meets The English Patient.”).
Damn, I wanted to tell them that this is “When Harry Met Sally” meets “Working Girl”
- DON’T ask the exec what he/she thinks. Don’t ask for a verdict. If the exec has an opinion, he/she will let you know.
Seriously? What am I paying for here?
I couldn’t decide if I was incensed or terrified after reading the list.
Terry: What is our logline?
Me: What’s a logline?
Terry: A description of our movie in one phrase.
Ugh, I hate condensing my writing down to its essence, probably because it lacks one.
We settled on this sufficiently vague, yet all encompassing, logline: After her husband declares his senate candidacy, an unfulfilled suburban mother sets out on a comedic adventure to find her life’s purpose before she turns 40
Then Terry informed me that we had a practice session with the PitchFest lady. I refused, insisting she would just see how bad we were. Terry explained that that was the point.
On the night of our practice session we created a little cocoon around my downstairs computer.
I checked the setup out on Photo Booth:
It was not an ideal location as it was located in front of the bathroom, but it had the best Skype reception. I decided my hair looked flat, my face pale and the scarf like I was trying too hard. We closed the bathroom door so the Hollywood elite would not have to look at my toilet. I also weeded out some distracting background objects. I changed clothes and fixed the hair and added more under eye concealer. I tried smiling slightly and hiding my turkey neck under the turtleneck.Take two:
We set glasses of water outside of camera range and applied lip gloss. We stuck hot pink Post It notes all around the edge of our computer. We checked our images on Photo Booth to make sure we looked serious, yet polished (and not like we were reading our notes).
At 7:00 Jane Skyped us for our practice. With a shaking hand I accepted the call. A frazzled woman, about 40 years old, was on the other side of the camera. We greeted her in our peppiest voices.
Jane: OK, let’s hear what you have.
Terry: I’m Terry and this is my partner, Deb (OK, that sounds like we’re lovers, I jotted a not in my notebook to change our intro). Our screenplay is called “When Emma Turns 40.”
Me: After her husband declares his senate candidacy, an unfulfilled suburban mother sets out on a comedic adventure to find her life’s purpose before she turns 40
Jane (nodding thoughtfully) What else?
We explained that Emma was going on a journey
Jane: A real journey? Like “Thelma and Louise”?
Terry: No a metaphorical one.
Jane: What is your theme?
Theme? We needed a theme?
Terry: Self actualization
I nodded as if I even knew what that really implied. I then explained all the various obstacles Emma faced as she struggled to find her place in the sun and finally described the touching ending where Emma realizes she has everything she needs right at home (OK, I guess it’s a little more “Wizard of Oz” meets “Working Girl”). I tried not to laugh as I noticed Terry looking at me lovingly while I spoke.
Jane: I thought you said this was a comedy?
Jane: Did you hear me laugh?
We froze, horrified. How do you address that?
Terry: Well, her adventures are funny. There are lots of funny scenes.
Terry tried to give an example of a hilarious escapade involved haircolor. I smiled and tilted my head slightly toward Terry, trying to simultaneously acknowledge Terry’s insight and Jane’s response. I’m sure I just looked creepy.
Jane: I think you have written a dramedy.
Terry’s face fell.
Jane: Also, the logline needs irony. The best ones all have it. You know, like the woman who hates kids raising orphans. Also, your ending is lame. There is nothing at stake for Emma. She doesn’t change at the end. Good luck girls.
Jane hung up.
Me: Oh my god, she hated it.
Terry: She didn’t say that.
Me: She said it wasn’t funny. It’s not even a comedy. What are we going to do? We can’t go through with this?
Terry: We just need to tweak it a little and work on the pitch. We have almost two days to work on it. Come over to my house tomorrow.