Will an accident victim let big-time movie producers butcher and bastardize her story? 2,418 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
This was the long anticipated day that Hollywood would hear my story. I had moved to Arizona from Aspen. Loved it there, but the weather really bothered my leg. I finally had to hang up my hat, gloves and boots since the accident. But I did write a compelling treatment about the whole ordeal, and now I had the opportunity to pitch. I was more nervous than I thought.
I got on a plane to LA and did my best not to smack the little bastard who was kicking the back of my seat as I tried to freshen the lipstick on my chin. After several attempts, the mother of the child behind me gave him an irresistibly noisy toy, which of course was music to my ears for two hours. The Beaver finally pulled a ballsy move and grabbed the back of my hair and yanked hard. I realized he was far too young to get away with such a move and turned around abruptly with a firm, “No,” and a finger in his face. His mother said, “I think he just likes your red hair.”
We finally landed and I’m meeting with two independent film producers of that summer’s mega-blockbuster film in which aliens invade Earth and the hero saves the planet. The pair had a reputation for knowing how to make movies the public wants to see so I had high hopes they could make my story come to life. I had taken a few online courses to learn to write scripts, but I knew being a screenwriter takes a lifetime of commitment to the craft and, no matter how good I thought the script I’d written might be, the producers might see it a bit differently. So I kept it in a drawer. But I’d been encouraged to write a treatment and I had a tight movie title and logline: PACKED POWDER by Aislin Kearney. A woman has a tragic accident on the ski slopes of Aspen and empowers herself to write a true-life Hollywood movie script.
I was pretty new to all this pitch-your-story stuff, even though I had rehearsed enough times for my dog to think it a sure hit. As I walked into the room, Hal Blackburn and Steven Cohen appeared pleased to meet me and hear about my five-day ordeal.
“I know what your treatment says, Miss Kearney, but just tell us what happened to you in less than five minutes.”
“Um,” I said, wishing I hadn’t opened with um. “— I had a true-life experience in Aspen. I took a ski lift up towards Jackpot Run when someone skiing down the slope going so fast I could hardly believe it also had his pants down around his ankles. His frozen butt, pink as balloons, whizzed full throttle past my chair lift and I bent down for a good look and fell off the seat onto the packed powder below. I broke my leg and was left with an ice cold memory.”
“Very funny, go on.”
That comment made it difficult to go on as it certainly was far from funny to me but I got it. The circumstances were unbelievable.
“Well, I’m still in shock that I survived the fall without cracking my head open, and I’m rolling down the hill with a broken leg and doing my best not to scream. I’m coming to embarrassing terms with the fact that looking down to voyeur a man’s bare fanny was about as stupid as it gets, when I look up. If such a thing is possible, to my greater surprise, a Cessna airplane above is losing altitude and its engine begins to smoke. I’m still clumsily falling down the hill when the plane takes a nosedive from the sky, barely missing another lift going up filled with would-be skiers. And the plane crashes about fifty yards from where I finally came to a stop. Panic and adrenaline kicked in and I managed to run on the severely broken leg a few steps away from the crashed aircraft. And then I collapsed.”
“This is good,” Cohen said.
“Okay… Well, all hell broke loose for the next twenty-four hours as people were pulled from the plane and skiers going down the mountain tried to avoid strewn body parts without panicking. The ski patrol was doing its best to clear the area. One of the rescue crews saw me and watched my fall and yelled out to another first responder, ‘Get that dimwit out of here. We’ve got more important things to deal with.’ Of course, I wasn’t sure if he really said that or I imagined it since everything else that had just happened seemed so surreal. Weirdly enough, I could not decide which should hold my attention more: my shattered leg which would later have to be amputated from the knee down because of the severity of the break, or the smoking plane, or the various pieces of bodies strewn across the snow like Picasso’s Red Period. Oh. I guess that sounded gross, sorry.”
Both men looked happily grossed-out.
“Then a man went running, as best he could in the snow, to the burning plane and pulled out the pilot and cradled him like a baby. Apparently, the man knew him. It looked like the pilot died. But then so much commotion and gurneys and screaming kids and bewildered skiers made the rest a blur for a while. I was in an Aspen hospital for many days before my family arrived…”
“Okay, good,” said Blackburn.
“I really like her voice,” Cohen said to his producer. “The Irish accent really sets off certain phrases, like ‘His frozen butt, pink as balloons, whizzed full throttle past my lift!’ That’s funny as hell.”
“Well, I assure you, Mr. Cohen, there was nothing funny about it on that day. It was a bloody nightmare, if you’ll excuse the Irish.”
“I can imagine. We see it for a major motion picture. Let’s talk about the first impression of a movie. The tone, mood, scope, are all found in the opening image. Gives us the starting point for the hero, too. Our hero in this story is going to be named Jack Lambert. The type of movie we have here is ‘dude with a problem.’ His problem is this dumb beautiful chick that just seems to create misery for him even though he falls head over heels in love with her. She falls for him, too. Obviously.”
Blackburn grinned at Cohen, the cue for him to go on, while I sat almost as dumbfounded as on the day I fell off the lift.
“So it’s boy meets girl. They both buy tickets for the same lift in Aspen. Girl trips before buying her ticket. Boy helps her up. Which we see throughout the whole movie. Our boy Jack really wants this hottie with the Irish accent who tells her girlfriend, ‘I’d go through just about anything for true love.’”
“Bad idea,” said Blackburn.
Cohen laughed. “So the theme is stated: You’re gonna pay a miserable price for falling in love.”
Cohen and Blackburn seemed to have it all worked out in their minds and Cohen continued. “So we see all the strange things about the bombshell that need fixing.” He counted out the things on his fingers. “She needs a relationship. She’d fall for almost anybody who gave her a little attention. As the story goes on, she has an amputated leg, she has a heart condition, etc..”
Blackburn took over, and they played good cop/bad cop as my story was turned into a sappy love story gone wrong.
“Alright, let’s be a little nicer about the clumsy broad because she’s gonna make us a lot of money. Okay, so then we have the catalyst of the movie. That’s what gets the movie going. The hottie falls off the lift watching her would-be boyfriend ski down the slope with his bare butt hanging out.”
“So she falls for him,” I said, like I’m understanding the direction.
“Yes!” Cohen answered, looking briefly at the script they whipped out from my treatment. “So then there’s the debate. Gorgeous asks herself if getting involved in a relationship with handsome boy is going to break her heart. She’s already broken her leg which will be amputated. We’ll take it all the way up, more dramatic. But will our boy Jack still want her?”
“Probably not,” I interjected with a small breath.
“No. Nothing. Go on. You’ve got this, obviously.”
“Okay,” said Blackburn. “So now the story breaks into two. Here’s where the plane crash complicates the whole falling-in-love thing. Jack’s father is the pilot in the small plane and he’s killed. Jack has his pants down and manages to stay on his skis and he’s the one that pulls his father out of the burning plane. Dad dies in his arms. The pilot tells his son to always remember to ‘do what you love.’”
“So are you following us so far?”
“Yes. I’m following you.”
“Our girl will probably be called Maggie. So, moving right along, now we’re in the B story. The B story is the love story. So these two love each other and love to ski. She gets an artificial leg and still can ski. Then they get married on a snowy hill in a forest. We need more tension here so a stray bullet from a hunter’s gun shoots her other leg and shatters her kneecap and she can’t ever ski again. But then we have a slower pace which gives our movie the psychic breather it needs.”
I was now doing all I could to not appear deaf from the sound of the gunshot but I smiled generously. I felt like my ears were closing to this conversation.
“Can I break in here?” asked Cohen. “So now there’s the heart of the movie. Maggie has two messed up legs and a heart problem. But she gets pregnant and gives birth to two healthy twin boys. Looks like all is terrific with the twins until they find out the boys have heart problems, too. It’s monitored, and all seems okay with medication. But husband Jack is always out skiing with the boys, and wife gets jealous and depressed. Husband teaches boys to fly small planes ‘like grandpa’s’ and it’s ominous.”
“Wow. So interesting you came up with all this from my little story.”
“I know, right?” Cohen said. “Now what comes is the all-is-lost moment. So the boys do grow up and fly a plane and simultaneously both have a heart attack and the aircraft crashes. They are killed. So now comes the dark night of the soul.”
“Makes sense,” I said taking a drink of water to keep hiccups at bay.
“Well, Jack realizes that ‘do what you love’ is being there for his family. He loves his wife. They will do whatever it takes to stay positive even after losing their boys. Perhaps they will teach children with heart problems how to ski. So then the finale. The father flies to meet the wife in Aspen, giving the first ski class to the heart kids. He gets almost to the location when a car hits him and he’s killed. In his pocket is an organ donor card that his wife Maggie didn’t know about. Here’s the real tearjerker. So his wife has a heart attack from the shock of finding out about her husband dying and it looks like she’s going to die on the operating table — but Jack’s heart is used to save her life. The final image is where she’s sitting in a wheelchair and hugging a picture of her husband. She says, ‘You’re still with me, Jack.’”
“What do you think, Aislin?” asked Cohen. “Pretty amazing what your little story developed into, right?”
I paused to give an intelligent answer. “I’m thinking you don’t want to know what I think. How much are you willing to pay?”
“Oh. She gets right to it,” Cohen said to his partner.
The offer was considerable.
“That’s a very generous number,” I told the pair. “But we’re not talking about fruit from the same tree.”
“Well, think about it,” said Blackburn. “You should be pleased we liked your story enough to flesh it out.”
“This offer could change your life,” added Cohen.
I lifted my pant leg and removed a long boot. “Someone who creates a prosthesis not made out of swing-set material could change my life.” The two men sat straight faced without words. “Come on, you have to laugh. That was funny. —I’ll think about it,” I said. They stared at my leg. I slipped my boot back on.
They shook my hand and it was over. I wasn’t really aware until the plane ride home how emotionally attached to the Aspen situation I still was. The thought of butchering and bastardizing my very real experience which had been life-altering for everyone involved made me quite nauseous.
The ride home however, was more than I could have ever hoped for. It must have been fate because, on the plane back, I began talking to an attractive man who made state of the art prostheses and he asked if I would like to go out to dinner when we landed. My black suede boots had been killing me. I had slipped one off. My toe found his pant leg. I already was imagining dessert.
“Yes, Jack,” I answered. “I would.”
Jack and I talked way into the evening. At one point he said, “— And for a quarter of a million dollars, you can have a leg that looks just like your own.”
The next day, I phoned Cohen and Blackburn who were very happy to know I had reconsidered if they would sweeten the deal just a little.
Cohen asked, “What made you change your mind?”
“I realized it really doesn’t matter how the story is told. I told mine, you’ll tell yours, and the audience will have a story of their own to tell. Now my words will have a new leg to stand on. I think I like that.”
I could feel their smile all the way from Hollywood.