Success Feels Better, But Doesn’t Necessarily Make You Better
by Susannah Grant
Hollywood, I’ve found, is a very interesting town.
The best description I’ve ever heard of it was said by Martin Mull, who said, “Hollywood is like high school with money.”
By that assessment Pocahontas would be my freshman year.
Here’s what I remember about freshman year in high school — lying in bed the night before school started, completely panicked thinking everyone else is going to know their way around, the secret handshakes, the lingo, and I’m going to be sitting there, like a dud, probably dressed all wrong.
This is how my job on Pocahontas started.
I got a call from my agent on Saturday saying, ‘You got the job. You’re expected in a meeting tomorrow morning with Jeffrey Katzenberg at 7 am, Sunday, Mother’s Day.
I found myself lying in bed, completely panicked, sure that everyone else was going to know their way around, the secret handshakes, the lingo and I would be sitting there like a dud in all the wrong clothes.
As it turned out, being a writer on Pocahontas was exactly like being a high school freshman.
In animation, the writer commands about as much respect as a pimply-faced 14 year-old does on a high school campus.
A lot of live-action writers complain about the lack of respect they get, but believe me, walk a mile in a feature animation writer’s shoes and you will have new respect for your station in life.
I don’t know how much you all know about Disney, but they’re very, very big on their little Mickey name tags there.
This is back when animation was housed in a bunch of warehouses in Glendale and they wouldn’t let you into any buildings without one of these Mickey nametags, but for some reason they wouldn’t give any to the writers.
So, whenever we had a meeting in another building, which was often, or wanted to get lunch at the commissary, which was daily, we had to borrow a nametag from our producer who was given about 30.
So, the two other writers and I spent a year-and-a-half wearing Mickey nametags that said ‘Jim’ on them.
Eventually, people took to calling us Jim collectively as “Jim, one third of Jim is here. Where are the other two thirds?”
And then there was the work, which was constant. There isn’t any scene in that movie that was rewritten any fewer than 30 times.
We wrote and rewrote and rewrote, often addressing notes from people who hadn’t even read the scene on which they were giving notes.
We wrote, literally, until we ran out of time.
And it sounds kind of hellish, and it was kind of hellish, but here’s the thing: Much like freshman year, despite all it’s frustrations, it was a fantastic experience. I wouldn’t change for anything.
I learned more in my year-and-a-half as one-third of Jim than I would have on 10 live-action development deals.
I learned how to throw something out if it isn’t working. Or if someone very powerful doesn’t think it’s working.
I learned to trust that I’d come up with something just as good or better.
I learned when to shut up in a meeting, which is a very valuable thing to learn.
I learned that I’m not always right, which is a very painful thing to learn.
But most importantly, I learned how to have a good time.
A lot of unpleasant things are going to happen to you in your careers and they will be infuriating.
Believe me, taking script notes from a Transylvanian artist whose only words of English were, “Script should be more like Witness. Make like Witness.’” — I know frustration.
But if you can remind yourself that you’re getting paid to write, that you’re making a living as a creative person and remember what a privilege that is, those frustrations will be a lot less burdensome.
So that brought me to sophomore year and Ever After.
Shortly after I finished Pocahontas I got a call from a guy at a studio saying they wanted a Merchant-Ivory Cinderella and was I interested.
I was and he was happy. I went in and pitched. Oh, he was happy.
I wrote a script. Everyone was happy. I rewrote the script. Everyone was happy.
The star signed on.
The director signed on and I never heard from anyone again.
The director and his partner rewrote me.
Everyone went off to shoot in Prague and I stayed in LA feeling kind of sorry for myself.
Here I had put my heart, mind and soul into a script, it was turning into a movie and everyone was off having the party without me.
I kind of held on to that put-upon feeling until I saw the movie and then everything changed.
Because every single thing that I hoped the movie would be, it was. The rewriting had only improved the script and all the important elements of my work were right there on the screen and that was remarkable.
And it reminded me that the work is the point.
Not the perks, not the prestige, not where your name is on the poster or whether the director knows you from Adam — the work.
If the work turns out well, there’s really nothing to feel bad about.
I’d still like to see Prague someday, but I guess I’ll do that on my own steam.
I actually have an interesting postscript to my experience on Ever After.
I was called in to be one of the umpteen writers on Charlie’s Angels. I was brought in specifically to work with the actresses on giving their characters some character.
So, I drove down to the studio and I got on to the elevator and Drew Barrymore was on the elevator with me.
I had never met her. And she was by the buttons and she said, “What floor?”
I said, “Actually, I’m here to see you.”
She dropped everything she was holding, burst into tears and wrapped me in the tightest hug I think I’ve ever had.
She went on to tell me how much Ever After had meant to her, that she keeps my draft of the script in a special box she has for all the things that mean the most to her.
It was very sweet and very like Drew.
Don’t think your work hasn’t had an effect, just because no one has told you.
If someone is playing the part, and someone is directing the movie, and someone is spending a lot of money to make the movie, you can rest assured that you’ve touched someone.
So, junior year.
After Ever After I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write. The one thing I did know was that I wanted to write characters who weren’t quite as delicate with language.
A producer friend of mine happened to tell me about a woman whose life rights she just optioned named Erin Brockovich.
The moment I heard about Erin, I knew I wanted to write the script.
“Yes, please,” I said. “Sign me up, I’ll do it, whatever.”
She said, “Well, we’d love to, but we’re out to Callie Khouri right now.”
A few weeks later I called her up and said, “Hi, how are you doing? Heard from Callie?”
And she said, “Yes, Callie passed. Now, we’re out to Paul Attanasio.”
A few weeks later, I called her up and said, “Hi, heard from Paul?”
It went on like this. I’d call, she’d mention an A-list writer, we went back and forth.
Finally, they all passed and I think she just got tired of hearing from me and she said she would introduce me to Erin.
As long as she approved, I could have the job.
Bless her heart, Erin did approve. We got along great.
A lot of things about the experience of Erin Brockovich the movie were great, but I think researching the script was probably the best part.
Getting to know Erin and Ed, meeting the plaintiffs from Hinkley and seeing the amazing end result of her dogged determination and her just plain human decency was nothing short of a privilege and it was fun.
My God, it was so much fun.
Erin has a way of living the full spectrum of emotions in every single moment and if you’re with her, it’s impossible not to do the same.
Here I was, researching this really dreadful, tragic story, talking to people about the single worst experience of their lives, completely taking it in and somehow laughing so hard every day, that I would almost break a rib.
But when it came time to write the script, the laughter came to a screeching halt.
Up until then, all the characters I had written had been fictional. I’d sit down to write them, completely confident that I knew them better than anyone else did.
I was their maker.
But obviously, that wasn’t the case here. There was a real Erin and she knew herself far better than I ever would.
So, suddenly the act of putting words in my main character’s mouth seemed presumptuous.
I felt like, rather than creating a fictional person, which I’d done up until then, I was being reductive of a real one. I struggled with it for a few days and then finally decided, okay fine.
For my purposes there are two Erins. There’s the real one, the one I know who is nothing if not her own boss. And then there’s the fictional Erin and that one I’m the boss of.
It was the only way to win back that feeling of omniscience that, for me at least, is essential to writing a good story.
And let me tell you, if you think turning a script into a studio is nerve wracking, try turning it in to the person on whom the person is based.
The silence of my phone while I waited for Erin’s reaction was one of the most deafening sounds I’ve ever heard. I don’t know how long it took her to get back to me.
It felt like a month and a half. It was probably two days.
I came home one day and saw that little light blinking on my machine.
There had been an exchange in that draft which, ultimately didn’t make it into the movie, in which one of Erin’s coworkers is giving her a hard time about the length of her skirt.
The coworker says to her, “Erin, for God’s sake, I can see your panties.”
And Erin says back to her, “Liar, I’m not wearing any.”
So, I got home. I pushed the little button on my machine and the only thing I heard was Erin’s voice deep and low saying, “I always wear panties.”
She was incredibly good-natured about the whole thing. She wasn’t vain. She wasn’t paranoid.
She didn’t suffer about how she would come off. In fact, she didn’t even really care.
She said to me more than once that even if she came across badly, it would be worth it as long as people found out what PG&E did to those people in Hinkley.
And then what can you say about a movie in which everything goes right?
Except that it never happens.
It never happens that the best actress for the job is: a) available; b) interested; and c) the biggest star in the world.
It never happens that the best young director around wants to do the movie, as well.
It never happens that nothing goes wrong during production, that the movie wraps early, that it’s under budget.
It never happens that you go to your first preview and the movie scores a 98, that every demographic loves it and that there were virtually, no negative comments on the cards.
Or, actually, there was one.
An older man wrote on a card, “The 100th time I saw Julia Roberts’ breasts was too many. One through 99, though, were fantastic.”
One dear friend of mine said an interesting thing to me after seeing the movie.
“Erin reminded me a lot of you. Only she said to people’s faces what you say behind their backs.”
I chose to take it as a compliment, although I know it’s a stretch.
So, junior year was junior year. It was great. You get to play the Varsity squad.
Suddenly, people know you. You walk around campus in your letter jacket.
I went sailing into my senior year, 28 Days, with enough clout to get what every writer wants — total involvement in the process.
I wrote the script about a recovering addict and Betty Thomas signed on to direct.
To say that Betty kept me involved is an understatement. She made me her true partner in turning the script into something she really wanted to shoot.
She dragged me everywhere. She dragged me to rehabs. She dragged me to therapy. She dragged me into her brain, which is a very lively place.
But I must say this, this falls into the “careful what you wish for” category.
I was very, very pregnant at the time and much as I wanted to love all the involvement, the day I found myself sitting in the middle of a dusty horse corral in the blazing sun at a rehab center in Arizona, trying to get a horse to read my mind, while Betty watched from the sidelines, made me rethink all of that.
The horse thing was a therapy technique.
Ideally, the theory goes, if your mind is clear, the horse will come to you telepathically when you ask him.
Well, my mind wasn’t clear. My mind was yelling, “Hey! I’m hot. I’m pregnant. I want to go home. This is bullshit. Why don’t you hire someone else and let me go home?”
Needless to say, the horse did not come.
28 Days was, ultimately, a very interesting movie. I think the polite term is box office disappointment.
I personally think it succeeds on some levels and fails on others.
I feel my work in it succeeds on some levels and fails on others. And here’s the thing — that has to be okay.
Even better than okay, that has to be good.
Because, believe me, you learn so much more from your failures and disappointments than you do from your successes.
Success feels better. It’s more fun.
But it doesn’t necessarily make you a better writer.
Failure, like senior year in high school, prepares you for the complexity and real work that lies ahead of you for the rest of your life.
Here’s the most important thing I’ve learned in my short time in the business.
You must write what you want to write.
Don’t listen to people who tell you you shouldn’t write something. Or if you do write something, it will never get made.
I’ve been told that a movie about toxic waste would never get made.
I’ve been told that a movie about someone in rehab would never get made.
I was told that if that someone was a woman, it would definitely never get made.
And I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been told that a movie with a female lead will never get made.
There are no rules. Write what you want.
Write what moves you. Write something beautiful and unique to you.
Write something that no one else could write.
This is an excerpt from Susannah Grant’s keynote speech at the 2000 Academy Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting awards.