Is the screenwriter thinking about the script or how it could help her bank account? 3,019 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Coverage by Michaela Gruen. Let me guess. She moved to L.A. right after graduating from Smith or Wesleyan. I was close: Skidmore. My agent sent over the book, Callie Growing Up, and the coverage. “Take a look, Mina,” he said. “They weren’t happy with the first draft so they need a page one rewrite. You want to take the meeting?”
Not especially. I’m trying to finish a spec pilot about a post-apocalyptic world set in Las Vegas and it isn’t going well. But I don’t want to staff, so a movie would be a good gig right now. The Prius is about to die. The central air is on the fritz – my fault for buying a house in the San Fernando Valley.
The first thing that makes me nervous about Todd, the development exec, is the flag pin in his lapel. Not that I have anything against flag pins. I’m proud of this country, a big fan. "Oh, say can you see." But when a pin is the size of a quarter, that’s too much, "Hey, my country is greater than yours. So fuck off, buddy."
Todd is in his 30s and geeky. I can see his neck isn’t big enough for his shirt collar. He has big ham-sized hands, however, like he goes home from work and splits logs with an ax and then hovers in front of his laptop all night. I’m a writer so I’m always imagining things. The reality is Todd probably drives home to the Palisades in his brand new (leased) Audi A8, kisses his trophy wife and sips a nice cabernet as he enjoys his Paleo mini-meatloaf.
Today I’m wearing a dress: longish, not too short. My agent told me StairWays Productions tends to be “a tad” conservative, so no cleavage and nothing slutty-tight. Callie wholesomeness, that’s what I’m trying to project. You’re looking for the right person to do your Callie Growing Up rewrite? I’m your gal.
Here’s the coverage I read:
SETTING: A small town in Pennsylvania circa 1957.
LOGLINE: 11-year-old Callie Henderson’s life changes when her mill worker father loses his job and her mother is forced to work to support the family.
CONTENT SUMMARY: A coming of age story with an unpredictable appealing character everyone will root for.
SUMMARY: CALLIE HENDERSON is an only child who lives with her parents in the country. She has a vivid imagination and invents stories about the people around her. Fascinated by the stars, she spends time with her father, MIKE HENDERSON, who teaches her about astronomy. But when her father is injured in a mill accident, everything changes. Physically Mike recovers, but depression keeps him from working and Callie’s mother, MARTHA HENDERSON, takes a job as a waitress. Callie retreats into her imaginary world to avoid the escalating tension between her parents. Only with the help of a kind teacher, RICHARD MOSS, and a troubled fellow student, ANDY O’MALLEY, does Callie begin to recover. She learns people have real secrets – Richard Moss is gay and Andy O’Malley is trying to hide his polio. The world seems small until the Russians launch Sputnik 1 on October 4th, 1957. Callie and her father look up at the sky. What will happen next?
COMMENTS: Callie is a delightful, relatable character and her journey, while familiar, takes some surprising turns. The movie has the tone of STAND BY ME, BOYHOOD, and MY LIFE AS A DOG. There needs to be more plot, something bigger than the tension between Callie’s parents and the secrets Richard and Andy are hiding.
CONCLUSION: Real potential for a small film to make a big profit. CALLIE could do well on the festival circuit and clean up at awards time. With higher stakes, CALLIE GROWING UP could be a success.
“So,” Todd says, followed by a long pause. “What did you think of our Callie?”
I hear this a lot in meetings. Because a company has bought the rights to a book, it becomes theirs. Our Callie. Nothing about the woman who wrote the book, Tracy Hudson. She’s long gone.
“I loved it,” I tell him. And it’s the truth. Callie Growing Up is a beautiful book and would make a beautiful movie. “It’s surprising how Callie sucks you in. A small town, a regular family. But it sneaks up on you. By the end I was sobbing.”
Todd nods. I can tell he likes my answer. Telling them a book makes you cry usually scores major points. But let’s face it, Todd is wearing a suit. And a tie. When was the last time I went to a meeting with an exec in a suit? A month ago, I took a meeting at a small production company in Santa Monica and the exec was wearing camo shorts, a Slipknot T-shirt, and Birkenstocks. With black painted toenails. It’s a safe bet Todd doesn’t have painted toenails.
“It didn’t make any money,” Todd says. “It received good reviews, but no media attention. Most people never heard of it.”
“That’s a shame.” I notice a bowl of jelly beans in a paper bowl on the table. I was given a glass of water in a paper cup. Tap water? Environmental concerns? Or is StairWays just cheap?
“So,” Todd says. Again with the long pause. “If you were to write a script based on Callie Growing Up, what would you do, Mina?”
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this. The $100,000 (hopefully) question. Todd is meeting with several writers and he’s asking each one the same thing. What would you do? What is your vision for Callie?
I pretend to look down at my notes. I always have notes, but I don’t need to check them. Part of my pitch is that I memorize what I’m going to say. But still make it seem off the cuff. Prepared, but flexible. Throw anything at me, Todd.
“I’m from a small town, like Callie,” I say. “I grew up in Virginia. And I remember looking up at the night sky, like Callie. Learning about constellations. In a small town you can see the stars. No light pollution. Not that I don’t love living in L.A.”
I smile at Todd and he smiles back. I googled him the same way I googled Michaela so I know he’s from a small town in Michigan. Feel the connection between us, Todd? Not that I’m going to let him know he’s been googled.
“You’re probably from New York, a transplant.” I smile again.
“No. I’m a small town kid, too. I remember the sky.”
And desperate to get the hell out of Bumfuck, Michigan, I bet. Just like me. Come to L.A., make it big in the biz. Who needs the night sky? Go to the Griffith Park Observatory if you want to see stars.
“No wonder you liked the book,” I say. “Both of us, we didn’t grow up in the ‘50s, but that’s one of the things I love about Callie. How it’s set in 1957, but in some ways it could be 2015.” He’s nodding so I go on. “And Callie, she’s old-fashioned and yet contemporary at the same time. A girl out of time.”
“True. A girl out of time.” He sighs. “Do you think there’s enough plot in the book?”
A tricky question. Because there’s not a lot of plot in the book. Callie’s dad loses his job, then gets depressed. Her mom does the waitress thing, but – shades of Mildred Pierce – ends up managing the restaurant. Callie finds out Andy, the class bully, had polio and has only recently learned to walk again. Near the end of the book, right before Andy tells her he’s moving to Pittsburgh, they share a kiss.
Callie is curious about her mysterious teacher, Richard Moss. What happened to his wife? Did she die tragically? Callie spies on his house. Sees him play in local softball games. She tries to find him the right woman, but comes to realize Richard Moss is gay.
And Callie’s parents – she’s afraid they’re going to get a divorce. Is there any way she can keep their marriage together?
Not exactly Avengers 2. But what can you do?
“It’s not a book about plot,” I say. “It’s definitely more character driven.”
“To Kill A Mockingbird and Stand By Me and The Lovely Bones have dead bodies,” Todd says. “I was wondering what would happen if we had a dead body.”
A dead body? In Callie Growing Up? Okay, why not just add a rabid dog.
“I’m not sure we need something as big as a body,” I say.
“But there’s no engine.” Todd frowns. He reaches for the jelly beans. But reconsiders.
“The engine is Callie,” I say. “Her journey. That’s what drives the story. I think it’s all there. In the book. Like the storyline with Andy.”
“Polio? People don’t even know about polio any more. We could change it. Give Andy a different disability. He’s blind.”
Blind? A boy hiding his blindness could be tricky. When he plays kickball. Or has to read from the blackboard at school. Sheesh, Todd, could you come up with a more moronic idea?
“That could work,” I say, not wanting to be Debbie Downer. Need to get the job first. New Prius. Central air. I’d like to go to Maui for Christmas. How long can I live off CSI: Miami residuals?
“The first draft of the script, did it follow the novel?” I ask.
“It was dreary. Unrelentingly so.” Todd makes a face.
“But the book is so positive. By the end Callie’s brought her parents back together.” I happen to know this same plot was box office poison for a Christmas movie which Brandon Tartikoff greenlit at Paramount years ago. He was fired. Do I say anything? Of course not.
Todd is talking again. “The screenwriter wanted to focus on the Cold War. How Russia launching Sputnik was the beginning of the end of innocence.”
I’m dying to know who wrote the first draft. But I can’t ask.
“Big feature guy,” Todd says, as if he’s finally reading my mind. “Nominated for an Academy Award a couple years ago. Boy, we ate it on that numbnut.”
I suppose Todd isn’t allowed to say motherfucker. Time for me to pump Todd up. “I saw Sputnik as the beginning of space exploration, the race to the moon, which we won. Sputnik is a metaphor for Callie expanding her life.”
Whoa, too much? But Todd is looking at me. Yeah, he’s impressed with that. Keep going, Mina.
“And the music is an important part of the time period,” I continue. "The beginning of rock’n’roll: Elvis, Buddy Holly. Think what’s happening. Eisenhower. Jackie Robinson retires from baseball. The ‘50s are ending, but it’s not the end of innocence. It’s the dawn of the ‘60s right around the corner. And Callie is there at the beginning.”
Yeah, I do my research. When in doubt, pummel them with facts.
Todd is thinking. He slides the bowl of jelly beans close and picks out a pink one. Sniffs it. Puts it back.
“But Callie is missing something. It’s too… ” Todd is struggling for the word.
“White bread?” I suggest. “You’re right. But people are tired of quinoa. They want white bread now. When Callie Growing Up comes out, everyone will be talking about it. Because it takes them to the place they want to be. Not standing in Whole Foods fighting over organic kale. They weren’t doing that in 1957. White bread, Todd.”
“Uh-huh,” Todd says. “I was thinking we should do more with Callie’s mother. Waitress – that’s not very interesting. Unless… she could be a hooker.” Todd picks up a red jelly bean and pops it in his mouth. “Starts as a waitress, but when that doesn’t pay enough, she takes customers from the café out in the back and slips them a little extra mayo, if you know what I mean.”
Todd is wearing a wedding ring. I wonder if Mrs. Todd slips him a little extra mayo every now and then. I hope not. I hope she’s sleeping with her trainer.
Todd licks the end of his fingers, one by one. A piece of red jelly bean clings to a tooth.
“I’m not sure about the hooker thing,” I say. “It makes it harder for Callie’s parents to get back together.”
“It makes it bittersweet.” Todd is getting excited. “They’re back together, but her husband doesn’t know. And maybe she’s caught a disease.”
“Ah. That’s an interesting take. I’m not sure how that will affect Callie’s arc.”
“I think we have to shift the focus away from Callie. Nobody’s coming to this movie to see some kid actor. We’ve got to get somebody more box office. Jennifer Lawrence.”
“As Callie’s mother? I don’t think she’s old enough.”
“Ben Affleck as Callie’s father. And he finds out his wife is a prostitute and goes after her pimp.”
“Yeah, instead of the teacher being gay – he’s more Walter White. With a stable of prostitutes.” Todd eats another jelly bean, green this time. “Now we’ve got conflict. Ben Affleck is crazy with jealousy, his wife’s a whore and he’s cracked up. Maybe he tries to kill himself. He shoots himself in the head, but at the last minute he panics and the bullet just blows off his ear.”
Oh, fuck me. I see my new Prius, central air, and Maui slipping away.
“I don’t know, Todd. We’re getting away from the spirit of the book. And we’ve lost Callie completely.”
“No, Callie can witness her father’s suicide attempt. That’s why he changes his mind and misses. And Callie does something heroic. Like he’s blown off his ear and it’s lost and Callie is the one who finds it so the doctor can sew it back on." Todd is in the zone. “And in act three, Ben Affleck confronts the pimp – Hugh Jackman. We give Hugh an affliction, make the part Academy Award bait. Best Supporting Actor. Anti-Wolverine. A humpback. No, missing arm. No, missing leg. Missing arm and leg.”
“He could be blind,” I suggest. “You mentioned that about Callie’s love interest, Andy. The boy with polio.”
“Polio.” Todd bangs his fist on the desk. “Perfect. Hugh Jackman as the quiet teacher, with braces on his legs and crutches, and he’s a secret pimp. That’s a fantastic idea, Mina.”
“Thank you,” I say.
“And there’s a big confrontation on a cliff by the sea between Ben Affleck and Hugh Jackman. Jennifer Lawrence arrives and she tries to stop them from fighting and one of them goes over the edge and dies. Which one?”
Should I point out that Callie Growing Up is set in a small town in the middle of Pennsylvania, hundreds of miles from the ocean? No, because I’m thinking about a new Prius v Five in Toasted Walnut Pearl with Entune™ Premium JBL® Audio with Integrated Navigation.
“I think it has to be Jennifer Lawrence,” I say. “So both men are left to live with the regret of what they’ve done. And we see Callie’s mother has sacrificed everything for her family.”
“Yes, yes. I’m loving this direction. Great work, Mina. I’ll run this by my people and let you know. The title, it doesn’t work now. Thoughts?”
That’ll be the day, I want to tell him. I need to get the hell out of this room, call my agent, inform him Todd is batshit crazy, but I still want the job. I need this job, goddammit. Does it always have to be like this?
“That’ll Be The Day,” I say. “The Buddy Holly song.”
“I like it. Good.” He stands up and I do the same. “You’ll be hearing from us. Thanks for coming in.”
When I’m at the door, he has a last thought. “Sputnik. What do you think about it crashing into Callie’s house at the end?”
“Awesome,” I say. “I wish I’d thought of that.”
And as I ride down the elevator, I think maybe the Clear Sky Metallic would be better than the Toasted Walnut Pearl. I close my eyes and I can smell the new car leather seats.
6 comments on “Development”
In the end it’s all about the benjamins, baby!
This made me cringe I hope I wasn’t that awful when I was a development executive. As always Ann captures the big picture absurdity and the nutty little nuances with real wit. Pink jelly beans…my girl!
same as it ever was.
The pacing is so quick and Todd’s descent into feedback hell so complete, one almost forgets the the nuance and substance Hamilton applied in creating a whole fictional world just to have it soon rendered unrecognizable. Diabolically crafted.
As demented as Todd seems, he’s actually right about what’s more marketable and real. Wendy and Lucy vs Breaking Bad. Thanks for the thought provocation.
Funny!!! It’s a miracle any screenplays ever get made that make any sense. If I had to deal with an executive like this, I’d go crazy!!!