Success in screenwriting has a wiggly definition. Are you in it for fun? Or are you in it to make a Hollywood blockbuster movie? Screenwriting can be a tough and fulfilling hobby, sure. But there comes a time when you've got to stick a pin in the map and hurl yourself toward an improbable destination, such as Independent Filmmaking or wherever you deem success to be. Here is one such chimerical story.
I'd been a professional writer for a couple of decades when my old friend Todd Bull asked me to take a look at a script he'd written, Singlewide Pride. He'd developed it over the course of years with guidance from his screenwriting coach in Hollywood, Lee Jessup. The piece had seen several rounds of professional notes from competitions as well. I thought it was pretty good, but I had a few comments.
"A woman would never say that line," I told him. "That's not how we think."
Todd was visibly pissed off. "What?! What do you mean…?" His nostrils flared. "Well, how would you write it?"
I answered him. "She'd never ask permission." Todd stopped short - at first confused, then appreciative. Our screenwriting partnership was born.
SINGLEWIDE PRIDE GOETH BEFORE A FALL
At the time, I was living in a pink singlewide riveted 1955 PanAmerican mobile home on 72 empty acres. The Oregon property - the Circle B Ranch - belongs to Todd and his four siblings. We had played there as kids in high school, their grandmother Ethel chiding us among the chickens and the apple trees all the while.
It was 2016 when I moved onto the vacant property, half-expecting Ethel to wag a finger at me around every turn. I'd needed a home after my newlywed husband died. At that same time, the Bull siblings needed a new caretaker on the ranch after their loving dad passed away; Ethel had long since gone.
Todd moved me into the pink palace on the 4th of July. I spent a large part of my time swatting away vagrants like flies and cleaning up junk from the neglected property. In the meantime, I wrote screenplays with Todd.
"For now," he said on a weekend visit to the ranch, "let's develop three scripts and sell them to studios. Later on, we can make our own movies."
"What do you mean, 'make'?" I quivered.
"Produce and direct."
I swallowed hard. Two months later, I ordered Dov S.S. Simens' DVD Film School. I watched it again and again in my abundant spare time, but Todd always blew it off. He was more focused on the next script edit, the next contest, and the next round of pitching to studios.
"You have to watch this," I urged.
"Okay, okay - later."
Finally, a year into our partnership, we got a nibble. At the Hollywood Pitch Fest, a mega-studio asked us to submit one our scripts for coverage and a full read. "This is it!" we beamed, faces flushed as we bolted toward the festival's taco truck for a quick bite. "Finally, we get a break!"
A few weeks went by, and all we heard from the studio was crickets. Our hope deflated slowly, like a gold helium balloon after a Roaring '20s party. Evetually we figured out what happened as we watched a developing story on the nightly news.
The head of that very same studio was embroiled in the biggest Hollywood sex scandal of our time. The studio closed its doors as the "Me Too" movement was born. We'll never know how close we came to success and failure at the same time. We just know the bend in the road was not the end of the road for us. We made the turn.
GOING SOLO WITH THE HELP OF A HUNDRED PEOPLE
Sometimes the greatest gift is not getting what you want. If we'd made a deal with the Weinstein Company back in 2017, it could have locked up our script for years, maybe forever. Suddenly, writing for Hollywood seemed like a bad idea.
That same summer, a series of wildfires surrounded the Circle B Ranch for months and choked me out. Gasping for breath, I moved to Sacramento, taking up residence with Todd and his wife Patty in a couple of their spare rooms.
It was Christmas when Todd finally sat down with me and watched Dov Simens' DVD Film School. This was Todd's present to me, the one thing I asked for. It had been just over a year since I'd bought the 16-disk series.
"Oh, you gotta see this part," I chuckled, elbowing Todd in the middle of Disk 1. He stirred and momentarily stopped snoring. I sat on the edge of my seat.
"You are a Producers, not filmmakers!" Dov shouted comically through the TV. "And if anyone asks what you're working on, you say with a straight face that you have numerous projects in various stages of development!" Simens' studio audience murmured uncomfortably.
"Well?" he retorted, "Isn't that true? Who here does not have numerous scripts in varying stages of development?" Todd raised one eyebrow, John Belushi-style. He sat up.
This was it then. Dov Simens finally kicked loose the pebble. Eventually the landslide came tumbling down. We gingerly stepped over the threshhold into Independent Filmmaking and, like kids in a chocolate factory, entered a world of pure imagination.
Todd and I wrote a 10-minute short. The script was an official selection of the 20th Annual A Place Called Sacramento film festival. A month later we bought production equipment. We stepped onto the road with no idea where it would lead us.
Todd and I made Flight of the Heron ourselves - with the assistance of about a hundred people. That's cast, crew, mentors and professional help. The 10-minute version made its World Premiere with the other official selections of A Place Called Sacramento at the Crest Theater in October. So far we've submitted the 14-minute Director's Cut to about a hundred film festivals.
For a lot of people, this would be the pinnacle of success - actually realizing the dream and making a movie. Many write scripts and enter them in this one film festival year after year.
Todd and I both appreciate where we are and the humble beginnings we've come from, let alone the humble surroundings where we find ourselves now. But we're moving ahead. We stuck a pin in a map, and we're steering toward it.
Why? Because we are producers. We do have numerous projects in various stages of development. We are independent filmmakers with lots of equipment, a bevy of scripts and a ton of ideas.
Today we're picking up the keys to our new office. We're forming a real company. Circle B Productions is going old school, real world.
Success in filmmaking does indeed have a wiggly definition. For me, I think that just getting to make movies at all - getting to do what you love - is the best reward any screenwriter could ask for. Everything else is just dessert. I have a feeling Todd agrees with me on that one.
Flight of the Heron and nine other short films from A Place Called Sacramento will air on Access Sacramento TV, November 29 at 7pm Pacific. You'll love them all!