Zhadi's Den

Random essays on wine, writing, moving to San Francisco, surfing, cats (exotic and otherwise) and zombies...depending on my mood.

Monday, June 13, 2005

What I learned from Sound of Music

When we were young, my sister and I loved the movie, SOUND OF MUSIC. True, we loved it for reasons other than the filmmakers probably intended (did they really mean to include that whole Captain Von Trapp as sexy sadist subtext? Or Maria's overnight transformation from gawkish klutz to graceful sophisticate just by virtue of getting laid? I don't THINK so...), but love it we did. We had substantial portions of the dialogue memorized and could sing Maria's wedding song in three-part harmony (it involved some switching back and forth with only two of us, but it can be done).

One of the lines that stuck with me through the years (along with 'Do you mean to tell me that my children were running about Salzburg dressed up in nothing but some old drapes?!') was Reverend Mother's words to Maria after telling her to get herself from the nunnery: "Whenever God closes a door, somewhere he opens a window." Religious implications aside (I was raised to be devoutly open-minded), I always liked the thought that if I lost an opportunity that somewhere along the line another one would open up.

As I got older and wiser (oh, let's just use the 'm' word), more mature, I realized that it wasn't always about missing the boat or making the wrong choice. Sometimes it was realizing that certain things had run their course (relationships, jobs, even dreams) and that nothing new could come into my life if I didn't accept this and do something about it. It's a time in a person's life where they draw The Fool from the tarot deck. Leap of faith time, folks.

I've been trying to earn money as a writer for many years now. I'd had scripts optioned (on spec), even had one low budget horror film produced, but didn't make a dime from it. I always seem to get so far in my writing career and then things just slam to a halt. Over the last couple of years, no matter how many creative irons I'd throw in the fire, nothing was really happening. Somewhere along the line, things were in a logjam. Stagnation. Something needed to be done to get rid of the blockage, both creatively and on a more personal level. But I was afraid to leave Los Angeles because everybody knows that you can't be a real screenwriter if you don't live within spitting distance of Hollywood. Besides, while I wasn't exactly happy, I wasn't unhappy. Change was too scary to contemplate.

Last April, I got a DUI and spent the night in L.A. County Jail (you'll be reading about the experience in my next post). It was the worst experience of my life, but it did what I was not willing or able to do - it shook me out of my complacency and forced to me to re-evaluate my life. I was wide awake for the first time in several years...and saw that changes had to be made. I had definitely drawn The Tower card from the deck this time around. The result? End of my marriage and my life in Los Angeles.

10 months later I was preparing to move to San Francisco. I didn't have a job waiting for me, so while I packed, I'd checked Craigslist every day for employment possibilities. On a whim, I checked out the Gigs/writing section and found a posting advertising for a screenwriter to rewrite a script, preferably someone with a horror background. I answered the ad, talked to Josh, an aspiring first time director/producer, sent him writing samples and got the gig.

Now the original script was problematic. Josh had basically decided he wanted to make a movie, but had never written a screenplay before. He had some ideas of what he wanted, but no real idea how to meld them together into a cohesive story or write realistic dialogue. What Josh did have, however, was A: the ability to sit down and pound out a first draft, and B: the common sense and willingness to pay someone to rewrite it. He even had a contract drawn up, insuring me of prompt payment and himself of a finished draft by a certain date.

It wasn't a lot of money for the amount of work. By industry standards, it was chump change. But for an 18 year old shooting his first movie, it was substantial. And for someone used to doing up to five drafts on spec for established producers and directors, both the pay and Josh's professionalism and courtesy were greatly appreciated.

I read the script and wrote notes while I was packing for the move. We met in person on one of my trips up to San Francisco, getting together at Francis Ford Coppola's wine bar/restaurant, Cafe Niebaum, where Josh bought me a very good glass of Cabernet sauvignon (he had a Coke) and we hammered out plot points. Two thirds of the existing plot points were thrown out, characters ruthlessly discarded, and the emphasis changed from psychological thriller to straight out horror. We had no trouble seeing eye to eye (Josh loved my ideas and was open to just about everything I suggested - a writer's absolute dream) and quickly came up with what we both agreed was the best direction for the story.

After the initial meeting and notes exchange, I did the rewrites without any feedback from Josh. I was certain I'd have no trouble making the deadline of May 1st. I didn't count on the stress of the move, the job search, trying to unpack and settle in, the homesickness and depression. I'd try to write, but could barely do a line of dialogue without thinking of all the other things I had to get done. It didn't help that I knew I'd be getting money when the script was finished; if anything, that added more tension and gave my screaming case of writer's block a little something extra.

I'm not sure what finally kickstarted me, but about five days before the deadline, suddenly things began to work. The plot elements came together, scary things were happening, and I got to kill my first character. Whoo hoo! And best of all, I came up with the closing line of dialogue for the entire script before I even got to the final scene. I didn't have to flounder along, trying to figure out the best way to end the story. I knew where I wanted to end up, so it was now just a matter of herding the characters to that point. And by crikey, they cooperated! Working on the script switched from being a source of stress and angst, to something I looked forward to doing. It was...fun. Which is supposed to be why we write. Right?

Josh loved the finished script, now named REVENANT. And more importantly, I love it. This was the first time I'd worked without writing partner in years, without that safety net of someone else's creativity to catch me if I faltered. Josh and I are sharing writing credit. True, probably 95 percent of the completed script is my writing, but I wouldn't have come up with any of it without Josh's original screenplay and ideas as a starting point. It was a true collaborative effort, yet one that did wonders for my confidence as a solo writer.

REVENANT is currently in production here in Northern California. Josh already has two small distributors interested in the finished product and wants me to write a synopsis for the marketing package. Who knows what could happen? He could be the next hot young director and I might end up writing another movie for him. Maybe even for Writer's Guild pay. Regardless of the ultimate outcome, I don't believe I would have found, let alone climbed through this particular open window if those other doors hadn't finally shut behind me.

Thank you, Reverend Mother.

Now about Captain Von Trapp and his whistle...


  • At 11:13 AM, Blogger Other Lisa said…

    not to mention Captain Von Trapp's regimental sword! And how about that Landler dance? Dang!

    That's good news - do tell about the production!

  • At 11:19 AM, Blogger zhadi said…

    Oh, I could have gone on about SoM...but figure one of these days YOU might wanna blog about it!

    The movie's shooting now up in this area. I was invited to set next weekend, but I'll be in LA for the Twilight Tour...

  • At 11:19 AM, Blogger zhadi said…

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


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