Notes from the Z-List

From my sister this morning:

YOU REALLY NEED TO UPDATE YOUR WEB PAGE. YOU HAVEN’T DONE ANYTHING IN A WHILE. WHAT ARE U UP TO. DID YOU GO OUT OF TOWN OR SOMETHING?

She has to type in all caps for her job, and “doesn’t feel like” turning it off to converse with people who have over-sensitive email eyes. It’s like my little sister has turned into an 80-year old woman.

When I told her about the blog last week, she replied:

Clicked on it and don’t understand it.

As you can see, she doesn’t always have to keep the caps lock on.

Saw Lost in Translation last night, which couldn’t be more perfect. It captures that feeling of being a visitor to a new place, wanting to know more but also being so overwhelmed that you don’t want to do anything. That’s something I’m pretty familiar with, having moved around so much as a kid. Tokyo in this movie looks like a visitor’s memory of it — lights and noises and nothing makes sense, and you don’t exactly know where you are but you remember the colors and the sounds. And that’s just like starting a new relationship, of a new friendship that might not be the best thing for you, but is new and fascinating and makes you want more of it, makes you unable to sleep because there’s something new and humming out there, keeping your brain working. It’s that sadness of not being able to have something because every decision of every moment of your life up until that time wasn’t supporting the here and now. You ended up here, you didn’t choose here. You can’t have here because this isn’t your life. This isn’t your world. You are a visitor, everything and everyone is temporary. It’s the most exquisite bittersweet feeling.

And like any piece of truly brilliant art, it threw me into a shame spiral of depression and utter frustration. I know that a movie like Lost in Translation could only be made by an established filmmaker who doesn’t use her writing/directing to pay the bills. And yes, if it wasn’t by Sofia Coppola, we’d only have seen this film in a festival somewhere, but it does make me wonder how much my work has suffered as I try to get a foothold in some kind of industry — book or film or television.

I’m currently trying to sell the movie rights to Why Girls are Weird. Let me explain a little of how this works (Bosie! You’d better still be reading. This entry is completely because you told me to write, so you can’t just turn it off because you’re bored. Keep reading!)

A production company gets sent a copy of my book. If a development person there likes it (or if the assistant, in between his or her calls, is forced to read the book and responds to the material and then tells his or her boss that it’s good writing, and then the development person reads it, or simply the “coverage” — a book report a reader has written determining whether or not the material is worth a glance), then they may call my agent and ask to take the book into a “territory” (that’s a studio, or in some cases, a financing company).

Or they want to meet me, ask me what my take is on the material (if this was a script, and not a book, this meeting here probably wouldn’t happen, they’d ask for a territory and take it in). We meet, they make suggestions, we discuss things. They may want to work on my take before they take it somewhere else. They might have problems with the book the way it is, and know how their territory reacts to certain material.

This means I have to cater each treatment to the different production companies who then take the book to the studios and hope that the studios are interested, and want to buy the material so we can develop the book into a script. My agents want me to be the screenwriter for the project, of course, which means I’d write a draft or two before they kicked me off and gave it to the girls who wrote Legally Blonde to do a “polish.”

It’s been over two months now that we’ve been working toward selling the rights to Why Girls Are Weird. And several production companies are still talking to several studios, and I’ve made about five different versions of the film adaptation of this novel. The changes have ranged from subtle (“Can we cut out all the smoking?”) to the extreme (“What if Smith is a guy and Anna’s not a librarian and we change the ending?”) and I’m learning to detach myself from the project, to look at it as someone else’s book and keep trying to make a good movie out of it.

The meetings get rescheduled, I go back to work on another draft of Treatment C or Treatment A.4, and I wait to hear what someone finally decided. My favorite rejection: “This studio has decided to only greenlight male-oriented material from now on.” Go, Estrogen!

Meanwhile, I’m working on a script that’s known around here as “high concept,” which means the opposite of what it intuitively sounds to me. Unlike “high art,” high concept means you can understand it in a sentence, and can see the entire movie without having to need something as silly as a script. “Jim Carrey becomes God.” “An updated Porky’s.” “Sorority Girl Goes to Harvard.” You get the picture.

One would think the high concept comedy would be the easiest to write, but I’m finding that it’s much harder for me. I like chatty characters, ones who are flawed but loveable, and ensemble pieces with strange family comedy. That’s not high concept.

I recently watched Anger Management. I couldn’t have written something like that. I wouldn’t guess that the right joke when Jack Nicholson cuddles up with Adam Sandler is a fart. Because I don’t think that’s funny. I don’t always see the easy storyline in the high concept. I tend to mess things up for myself and then get frustrated that it’s not just writing itself, as everyone seems to think the high concept comedy does.

I’m also finishing the last few notes on a script I wrote two years ago, that’s being optioned by a company who’s going to try and get the script made. (“You’re going to give me money?!” I shrieked. “Calm down,” he said. “It’s not enough to even count as money.”) The script has gone through a lot of work in the past two years, and it’s a story very close to my heart. When I look at it I wonder what I was thinking back then, writing a script without any knowledge of how people read scripts, what they look for, what gets immediately tossed over a shoulder. I mean, this thing has a road trip and is a cast almost entirely made up of women. If I had known how often it was going to be rejected, what strange notes people would have to dismiss it, and how many days I’d have to spend looking at that story over and over again, reading it for little changes, trying to tighten and shorten and deepen and enrich every single syllable uttered, would I have still gone through with it? I’m glad I did, because I really do love this script, and it would be amazing if someone actually got this thing moving, if one day I heard the words spoken out loud, right after someone shouted “action!”

I watch something like Lost in Translation and I wonder how far away from that kind of writing I’ve let myself get, in trying to make a career out of something I love to do, how much to I second-guess myself into becoming a crappy writer? How many changes have I made out of fear that someone will reject what I have written and make me start over? How much of what I’d like to see never gets seen because at this point in my life it’s more important to pay the rent? And if, if, if I ever get paid to do this for a living, will I have the ability to go back to the smaller stories I like to tell? Would I remember how to do that, or will I have become a different writer entirely?

What makes me qualified to be a writer, anyway? My acting degree?

I’m practically living for this Saturday, when I get to see one of my favorite performers in the world, Eddie Izzard in Sexie (spelled like “pamie,” thank you). The first time I saw Dress to Kill, I went through a similar dance of shame, because he doesn’t write things down, because he can command an audience like I’ve never seen, and because he’s so damn smart. I wrote about it here years and years ago. I just tried to find it, but saw this instead, which I think is rather fitting right now. (bonus: it also features the car horn story many of you asked for back when I was taking requests.)

My journal just pointed out that this feeling is nothing new. I go through it all the time, right before I make a big change. Not long after writing that entry, I did my one person show (which included that car horn story). Polaroid Stories was one of the most fulfilling acting experiences I’ve ever had. And I auditioned for Aspen. Three times. I did another One Person Show. I bought a new car. And just over a year later I moved to Los Angeles. Where I did Second City for a year, got a couple of agents, created a successful comedy show and wrote a book that got published.

So maybe this is probably a good thing, this frustrating feeling. Maybe it will help me figure out what kind of writer I want to be, and whether or not I can convince the game to play with some of my own rules.

Currently Reading

My iTunes just started playing “Country Grammar.” This is the song that I couldn’t remember on my cross-country drive with Dan. All I could hear in my head was “Shimmy-shimmy-coco-puff!” and “L. A.!” I’d alternate between the two noises, asking if Dan remembered the song. I couldn’t even come up with the title of the song. I’d mumble, “Dun, nun, nun, na, nuh — L. A.!” And sweet patient Dan let it go on for at least twenty miles.

I had no idea I had Nelly on this machine. It’s like Nelly just came in the room to make me feel better. “Don’t be a hatah, pam-ie-UH-OHHHH!”

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