Mary Marcus: Still life with hat

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DSC00147nnThe trouble with it being cold in LA is that it’s not really cold. You don’t technically need the heat on. Still, the houses are cold unless they are hot and overheated. I don’t have the heat on, but I’m wearing a down vest and my favorite hat, one I bought a couple of years ago in an expensive shop near Lincoln Center over the Christmas holidays. My dear friend who teaches at Columbia had lent her apartment to my husband and me while she was in China. The hat is cashmere in a grey/blue pretty knit. I bought it in case I got into the winter writing workshop at Sundance with my script for The New Me.

The year before on Thanksgiving weekend, after we dropped our son off at the airport, we went to a screening of a much-anticipated movie, and the place was packed with industry people. On the way out, my husband bumped into a director he knew, and I ended up walking with the director’s wife, who showed an unusual interest in me. No one in my twenty years in this town as the wife of a hard-working picture editor has ever showed me any interest. I say that without a touch of rancor; it’s just the way it is here. No one pays attention to you unless you are famous or rich or very young (under thirty and exceedingly beautiful). And in the case of the later, that doesn’t last long.

She actually asked me what I did. I told her (which was partly true) that I wrote short stories. It was what I was deciding not to do anymore – write short stories – which is what I had decided to do since I wasn’t going to write novels. She said she absolutely adored short stories and wrote her email address out and asked me to send her a few. The New Me was a long short story; technically, I suppose, a novella. I sent her also a few others that had been published in literary journals.

A few weeks later she asked me for lunch. I’d found out by then she had directed some interesting movies and had a career as a screenwriter/producer.

“You’re the real deal,” she said, when we sat down to lunch. “And is Jules your husband?”

“Jules is everybody’s husband, isn’t he?” I answered referring to the charming and narcissistic male in The New Me. I was flattered, but when I feel that way I am also distrustful.

It turned out she was affiliated with the Sundance people. She had gotten her own start writing and directing a film emanating from their famous writer’s lab. She wanted my permission to submit my long short story/novella The New Me. I said “sure.” And then nothing happened.

Every once in a while, she emailed me and asked me if I’d heard anything. I hadn’t. I believe there was another lunch that lasted a couple of hours. Finally, I got a call from someone’s assistant with an extremely snotty voice, telling me I had an appointment with Ms______________.

And once again, it felt unreal. I wrote fiction, I wasn’t a screenwriter. But if this appointment with the head person really meant something, I decided I would write what they asked me to. I wondered how much they would pay.

Nothing, as it turns out. They liked the idea, it was fresh, she said, and she was interested in comic views. She then informed me if they decided to accept me in their program it would do wonders for my career.

The meeting lasted all of ten minutes, but I left with this: You are very lucky to have been asked to write a free script. We guarantee nothing, and please don’t hesitate to call, if you have any questions.

“Where did she take you to lunch?” my sponsor wanted to know.

“We didn’t go to lunch,” I replied. “Apparently I’m going to write a script.”

“That’s wonderful! You’re so lucky! I knew it!”

“She didn’t promise me that I’d get in the program.”

“Of course not.”

“She said to stay in touch. Does that mean to show her drafts?”

“No!” replied my new friend emphatically, “Don’t do that.”

All my friends were extremely excited.

“This is the break you’ve been waiting for!”

“Sundance! WOW!”

“Aren’t you thrilled?”

The truth was, I didn’t know jack shit about writing a script and still less about adapting a story for a movie. But since I’m trying to tell the truth here, I didn’t have anything else to do since I had decided I was going to give up writing and hadn’t yet gotten a job or gone back to school to study to be something else. I didn’t even have Henry yet.

So, I watched Sunset Boulevard, Amadeus, The Lady Eve, Network – all the movies I thought were great. I’ll never be able to do this, I thought, because by that point, I had figured out that writing movies is all about the omniscient narrator, the “voice of God” I always called it. I’m terrible with the voice of God. First person, which is horrible to write in and allows you no freedom whatsoever, is the point of view that comes easiest to me. Limited point of view in which you go very deeply into the head of one person is also fairly easy for me. But writing a script, where I said to myself the voice of God is the camera, well that’s the hardest of all things and I’ll never be able to pull it off.

“Just write down what happens,” said my practical husband. “If you can write a book, you can write a script.”

And so I bought the software and wrote a first draft, a second draft, a third draft. By about draft seven, I asked friends to look at it. After all, practically everybody we knew was an editor or a producer or a writer or a something or other.

“It doesn’t have the warmth of the story,” said one tactful person.

“It’s brilliant,” said my darling friend Lisa who is invariably supportive.

My husband said, “I don’t know…” which is what he always says when he doesn’t want to tell you what’s on his mind.

“There’s nothing much here,” said one of his editor friends and I could tell he was enjoying himself. “It’s just a lot of filler.”

My sponsor spent an entire morning with me. I brought lunch, and we sat in her beautiful house, and she gave me notes. The maid walked in and out, the clean dogs were off in the distance playing in what looked like a meadow designed just for them. I’d love to have a meadow like that for Henry. She said, “No emotion here” and “What are you doing there?” I took notes, my head was spinning, and I stumbled out of there several hours later.

Then I sat down and wrote a draft that didn’t seem half bad and I hand-delivered it to the Sundance offices a few miles from here in Beverly Hills.

A few weeks later, I awakened to the following email:

Dear Mary we are writing with the disappointing news that your script for The New Me isn’t going to be included in the spring writer’s workshop. Please resubmit in three months.

“Nobody gets in on the first round,” my sponsor emailed me back. “I didn’t and nobody else I know did. You’ll get in the next time.”

“You have to!” everyone I knew said. “Not everybody gets asked to submit again.”

So I sat down again. I got into the characters. I wrote another draft, then another. I changed the character of the new me from one based on my friend Sarah who a lot of people thought we were having a ménage a trois with. The three of us hung out a lot and we always took hikes together, followed by cappuccinos and rolls at a trendy coffee joint where lots of people we knew saw us. I replaced her with someone based on another friend of mine, who we also hung out with. She, I decided, was a more formidable new me. I even named my character after her.

Then I got into Harriet’s sons more. Before, they had been sketches, so I fleshed them out. It was fun listening to them talk. It made missing my own son less heart-wrenching. But it was nerve-racking. I didn’t have much time to hand this new draft in. And there was still something missing. I was having lunch with a screenwriter friend of mine who is very smart, and I told him how nervous I was.

“I’m screaming in the shower,” I told him and it was true. I was screaming in the shower quite a lot. I wouldn’t do anything like that now because it would frighten Henry. But back then, I was screaming in an empty house.

My friend widened his eyes and smiled. “Use the screaming in the shower in your screenplay. It’s great!”

And that’s what turned everything around. That scream of frustration and fear is the emotional center of the screenplay and in the subsequent novel I wrote based on the screenplay.

“I think you have a good chance of getting in,” said another screenplay writer friend of mine, after he read my final draft. “What will you do if you get in?”

“I don’t know, “I said.

“I mailed you the final draft of my screenplay,” I emailed my mentor. I think it’s much better than it was. I’m even sort of proud of it.”

But she was too busy to read the screenplay. She wished me luck. So once again I hand delivered the script to the Sundance offices a few miles away in Beverly Hills. I filled out some forms to enter graduate school to be a shrink, and on the day of the campus open house, I twisted my neck so badly I couldn’t drive there.

My husband’s show had their winter break. We went to New York for several days and on to East Hampton because our house was empty. A couple of weeks later I awakened to the following email.

Dear Mary,

I write with the disappointing news that you will not be invited to take part in the Spring Writer’s Lab. It may interest you to know that you got to the very last round. We all were struck by your wit, your warmth and your humanity….

FUCK! I screamed and woke my husband up. This was six-thirty in the morning Eastern Standard Time.

I got back in bed and picked up Middlemarch, which I had started rereading for the ninth or tenth time. Mr. Casaubon had just died, and Dorthea was now a widow, walking around dazed in the cold grounds of the Parsonage.

I moped around for a few days. When we got back to LA, I moped around some more.

Not too long after that, I got Henry. My husband was working seven days a week, and we were having a lot of Santa Anas. So I took Henry back to East Hampton with me because the house was still empty. And he kept me company for the time it took me to turn the script into a novel. I never could have done it without him, or of course without the script I had written for Sundance. By then it was spring and a very cold spring it was indeed. I kept the house really cold because I hate working in hot houses. I wore my cashmere hat at my desk while I was working. I followed the screenplay scene by scene. I used a little from the opening of my long short story, but the screenplay had it all.

As soon as I finished the manuscript, I sent it to Lou Aronica at The Story Plant and he accepted it. And it was published last May. All’s well that ends well.


Mary Marcus is the author of The New Me and she is currently hard at work on her next novel, Lavina. Stay up-to-date with Mary at her website.

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On January 9, 2015
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