Sunday 26 January 1997
When I graduated from college some five years ago, I knew one thing - I wanted to be a writer. I'd been doing small profiles for magazines, thought maybe I'd like to write books, and harboured a secret desire to be a screenwriter. So the spring before graduation I applied to and was accepted by Columbia University's film school.
When I saw how much it all cost, though, I changed my mind. I already had a gazillion student loans, and I couldn't bear the idea of taking on any more debt. I kept writing for magazines and gradually started to inch closer to Hollywood and the glam life I felt I was destined for.
My first job after college was assistant to the entertainment editor at Essence magazine. I wrote profiles and film reviews, and a year after graduation, an interview with director John Singleton led to my writing a behind-the-scenes account of the film Poetic Justice. After that, I joined the staff of Premiere magazine, interviewing actors, producers, and the like.
What I learned at Premiere is that, in Hollywood, the screenwriter is the lowest form of life. A script, unlike a novel or even a Pulitzer Prize- winning non-fiction book, is not considered a work of art to be admired reverentially. A script is merely a jumping-off point, an outline, and everybody - the director, the actors, the producers, the studios - gets to put their two cents in and change it however they see fit. As a journalist, I liked that for the most part what I wrote appeared as my editors and I agreed it should.
Living in LA, I met so many screenwriters who never knew the pleasure of seeing their story on the big screen in any way that resembled what they wrote. Producers and studio executives function like Roman emperors, throwing the script into the arena, then bringing in writer after writer to face down the beast known as the "writing process". The Flintstones, for example, used more than 30 writers. I heard these stories, and my ego said, "I'll never stoop that low." I pitied any writer naive and greedy enough to take the movie business seriously.
However, this posturing lasted about five seconds when my literary agent, Sandy Dijkstra, called to say that producers were interested in optioning - ie buying - the rights to make a movie of my first book, Mama's Girl. "Really?" I said, trying to sound as if a call from Hollywood was about as exciting as the Sanford and Son re-run I was watching. The truth is that my stomach was in knots. Not only because I was sick with desire - imagining fame, fortune, invitations to potluck dinners at Brad and Gwyneth's - but because at that point, I hadn't even written the book.
Mama's Girl began as a magazine article about the relationship between my mother and me - about how different we are, particularly because my mother grew up as a poor Caribbean immigrant and I, with all my post-civil- rights-movement privileges, had become a college-educated member of the black middle class. I wrote about how college and economics had separated us (my own mother called me an "Oreo") and how we eventually bridged the gap. Sandy suggested I expanded the piece to a book proposal.
Due to Sandy's diva-like status as an agent, several publishers wanted the book, and a mini bidding war broke out, pushing the book to auction. It was this auction - based on my 25-page proposal - that prompted the first calls about film rights. It certainly wasn't that these producers were moved by my prose; there wasn't even a manuscript.
Over the last few years, Hollywood has increasingly looked to books for movie ideas. Most studios have scouts in New York who let them know what the "hot" books are. And if you're a best-selling writer such as Michael Crichton, John Grisham or Terry McMillan, you can find yourself fielding offers of millions of dollars for books you haven't yet written.
I was flattered that my idea had provoked such interest. I was also terrified. I had a contract that said I owed Riverhead Books 250 pages in 12 months, but I was so preoccupied with whether they - Hollywood - would deem it worthy, I couldn't think straight.
During the first few months, I had numerous false starts. This isn't interesting, I worried. There's too much thinking, not enough scenes, I told myself. They won't like it. I was confused about what my task was.
I was getting paid to write a heartfelt, literary story, but a screenplay would have to move faster, be snappier and intellectually lighter than the book my publishers wanted. My loyalty, my obligation, I finally determined, was to my publisher. And as I dug deeper into the incredibly difficult job of making narrative sense of a highly personal story, I knew that I owed it to myself to tell it as plainly and truthfully as I could. So what if my little book would never get me onto the Disney jet or earn me tickets to the Oscars?
Writing a book - unlike making a movie - is solitary and often lonely. And there was a lot I didn't want to write about - my father beating my mother, for instance, or my mother's comments about my white friends. I spent a lot of time at the computer crying. But I eventually got it all down, if not exactly as I had imagined, still in the best way I knew how. And when I held in my hand the manuscript pages, as thick as a small telephone directory, I felt a rush such as I'd never experienced in my life.
The book was scheduled for publication, and once word got out that there was an actual manuscript, Sandy heard from CBS, from Fox, from Oliver Stone's company, and Demi Moore's. Although none of this guaranteed a deal, I let myself dream again. My friend Anna Perez, a vice-president at Disney, suggested I sign up with a film agent. She set up a meeting for me in LA with Brian Siberell, a young agent at CAA.
CAA is the Tyrannosaurus Rex of agencies, representing clients such as Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt and Meryl Streep. Entering its huge I M Pei-designed building with its circular corridor and marble floors was like walking into a pantheon. From the door, it's an intimidating 20 feet to the receptionist's desk. When I went to CAA with John Singleton, I'd waited in the car while he took his power meetings. Now I was taking my own meeting, and as I walked in, I found myself smoothing out my skirt, checking my stockings for runs. When I got to the front desk, three receptionists stared at me blankly. Oh my God, I thought. What if they think I'm a messenger? I mumbled Brian Siberell's name, then nervously took a seat.
By signing with CAA, I joined a large and, by Hollywood standards, anonymous group of writers who routinely dance this dance, often to no avail. I had my foot in the door, but I was no player. I asked some writers whose work I respect about their experiences having their books optioned. This is what I learnt:
1. Be flattered, but don't get a big head. Getting your book optioned does not make you a person with one ounce of power.
2. Don't be surprised if your book is never made into a movie. If it is optioned, you still have a better chance of becoming President than of seeing it appear on screen.
3. Once you deposit the cheque, you have no right to catch an attitude if you don't like the movie they make. Unless you're really powerful and famous, you have very little say over who gets cast, who directs, how the story begins, how it ends, or if they kill off your favourite character ten minutes into the film.
Bebe Moore Campbell's experience is typical. Long before her fourth book, Brothers and Sisters, hit the New York Times bestseller list and was optioned by Disney, she had already boxed a few rounds with Hollywood. Motown Productions bought her first book in 1989. "I was so excited," she remembers. "I really thought it was going to be a movie. When the option ran out, they optioned it again. I didn't understand why they'd give me all this money and do nothing with the book. But that's exactly what they did. Then I learnt that's the way this business is."
Campbell's experience is typical. A studio or production company buys a book and is very keen on getting the movie made. Then the star they had in mind commits to another project, or they commission three scripts, none of which works, then another project gets a green light, and your book is put on the back burner. Still, someone at the company thinks it will make a great movie, and they renew the option. It's not so much that they don't want to make the film, it's just that Hollywood is scatterbrained and all sorts of elements - financing, casting, timing - have to be right for a movie actually to be made.
Nancy Taylor Rosenberg, a best-selling author of legal thrillers, has had three of her books optioned. Mitigating Circumstances is set to be produced by Jonathan Demme (Philadelphia), and the screenplay is being written and directed by Agniezka Holland (The Secret Garden). Annette Bening is rumoured to be playing the lead. Rosenberg had ambitions to write the screenplay herself, but she quickly found out that the Hollywood pecking order is very clear: A-list screenwriters, B-list screenwriters, actor/waiters, production assistants, then, at the very bottom, novelists. "Hollywood doesn't want to deal with writers who have no screenwriting experience," Rosenberg says with a hint of resignation. "They feel it slows down the process."
Again and again, writers talk about being edged out. Sad endings are made happy (The Scarlet Letter), plain women become beautiful (Michelle Pfeiffer in Frankie and Johnny), white characters become black (Eddie Murphy in The Nutty Professor). Nothing is sacred. Common wisdom is that it's better for the novelist to stay out of the process altogether, rather than struggle miserably to bastardise her own work.
Monique Jellerette deJongh and Cassandra Marshall Cato-Lewis are the joint authors of the bestseller How to Marry a Black Man. The book, based on their experiences as single women wanting to get hitched, has been blessed with good timing. "Everyone's saying they want the movie to get into production quickly to follow the momentum of Waiting to Exhale," deJongh explains. As a black woman, I also heard that the success of Waiting to Exhale helped generate interest in my book. This is another important lesson: Hollywood is imitative. Hence the succession of dinosaur books optioned after Jurassic Park.
Campbell advises that, to keep herself sane, an author shouldn't go beyond "getting excited about the option cheque" - and that is exactly what I am trying to do. During all the calls, I had two big fears. One was that the book wouldn't sell. The other was that the book would sell to some producer I thought was a creep. My mother asked, "Will they make me look like an Aunt Jemima with a scarf around my head? Will they turn me into some crazy crackhead?" Which, for the record, my mother is not. But the stereotypical images of black women are so awful that I understood her fears. I could only say, "Well Mom, I hope not."
Talking to other writers about the option process was so comforting, so instructive, that I now have a fantasy that we'll all meet periodically at some ultrahip LA writers' bar like the Bar Marmont. We'll dish without fear of leakage: who will star in our movies, how to negotiate for points (a percentage of the profits), the pros and cons of writing screenplays. We'll be our own little power clique, elevating ourselves just one step higher on the Hollywood food chain.
! Reprinted with permission from ELLE, a Veronica Chambers, all rights reserved.
`Mama's Girl' will be published by the Women's Press on 6 February (pounds 7.99).
Veronica Chambers will be reading at Compendium Bookshop, London NW1, on Friday 31 January at 6.30pm.
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