Escape From Film School

Approximately thirty-five years ago I got an idea for a screenplay called Film School. I like to consider the script an ‘homage’ to Billy Wilder and his Oscar winning Sunset Boulevard.

Another way to put it is: I stole the idea from Billy Wilder.

If you’re going to steal, steal from Wilder.

….Boulevard opens, of course, with an impoverished, down-on-his-luck Hollywood writer (Oscar performance by William Holden) driving down Sunset Boulevard. We are not surprised to learn that he has fallen behind on his car payments. When repo men attempt to seize the vehicle, he makes a run for it. Eventually he steers into a random driveway, which happens to be the mansion of a long forgotten silent movie star.

Film School opens not in 1950 but ’66, in downtown L.A., not on Sunset but Figueroa Boulevard. A Vietnam-war era youth is chased by federal marshals seeking to apprehend him for draft evasion. He steers at random into a side street, which happens to be the location of the U.S.C. film school. In order to win a college draft deferment, he registers as a student.

Dorothy Parker famously said: Hollywood is the one place on earth where you could die of encouragement.

I had so much encouragement for Film School. What I did not have was a nickel. However, after a long, long while a film production company optioned it and commissioned a handful of rewrites in which, among other changes, the title became Escape From Film School.

Options were dropped; options were picked up.

Dropped again; picked up again.

Then dropped again.

While I’d earned a little money for my efforts, what I’d mainly reaped was frustration, heartache, and disappointment.

Also grief.

I abandoned the project.

Years earlier I had achieved modest success adapting into a novel another of my unsold scripts, a Noo-Yawk doo-wop adolescent coming-of-age story Barry and the Persuasions, published in 1976 by Warner Books. The sale to a major publisher legitimized the project in Hollywood. It was followed by a studio deal, which included compensation for the film rights and a fee also for writing the screenplay. (I declined to tell the studio that I already had the screen adaptation ready for them in a drawer.)

Mid-assignment, the studio changed hands and was sold to a conglomerate. My producer was fired. Barry… was abandoned. Even at the time of this writing, however, scores of years later, there is action surrounding the project. I’ve adapted it into a stage musical and, now more than forty years after its earliest inception, I’m submitting it to theatrical production companies.

Years ago, during a writers strike, when no one could submit material to the studios or networks, I decided to go the Barry… route with Escape From Film School, that is, I would adapt the script into a novel.

Various agents represented and abandoned it over the years. No publisher ever expressed any interest. Eventually I consigned it to the personal slush pile every writer has somewhere in an actual or metaphorical closet.

I largely forgot about it.

Then, in 1998, at the Rolls Royce of writing retreats, the legendary (and now defunct) Maui Writers Conference, I pitched Escape From Film School to the prestigious New York book agent Jane Dystel.

A few weeks later Jane called me to tell me she wanted to represent it. She said she was willing to submit the book exactly as it was. That said, however, she urged me to let an editor in her office read it and give me notes. “If you don’t like the notes, just say so. I’ll go out with the typescript in its present form. I have to tell you, however, that when my authors work with Miriam, I sell their stuff right away.”

To work still further on Escape From Film School appealed to me about as much as a colonoscopy. The last thing I wanted to do was rewrite yet again. Hadn’t it already been shot down at lit agencies, publishing houses, and film studios across the media landscape? And who was this Miriam? Some twenty-two year old English major fresh from Swarthmore or Skidmore or Bryn Mawr? Didn’t they know who was?

Hadn’t they already agreed that, should I decline to do any further work, they would all the same represent the script as it was?

After all the disappointment I’d experienced regarding Escape…, I was hardly optimistic. I was fairly -- indeed unfairly – depressed at the time, hardly in the mood to take on yet again a project that had brought me mainly grief.

I resolved not to tell Jane how much I hated Miriam’s notes until she sent me the notes.

The notes arrived. I read them carefully. They were so smart, so insightful, so supportive, that I sank into despair. I knew I was in for some months of toil if I failed to exploit – that is, to make the most of – Miriam’s great notes. I reloaded Escape From Film School into the computer. The moment I wrote the first new sentence, the fog lifted, my depression evaporated. Here’s saluting the power of creativity. It’s no mere metaphor: art heals.

The editor: Miriam Goderich. What can you say about Miriam except that the agency is now called Dystel/Goderich.

In six weeks I had a new draft.

Jane sold it immediately to a major NY house.

It made the Times best seller list, even if only for a week, even if only at number thirteen.

Still, there I was, on the list in the company of Kurt Vonnegut, Isabel Allende, JK Rowling, Michael Cunningham, John Rechy, Kent Haruf, Nicholas Sparks, Michael Frayn, Dick Francis, Erik Larson, Mitch Albom, Dominick Dunne, Edmund Morris, Tom Brokaw, Neil Simon, Esther Williams, George Bush, and even Stendahl.

The lesson?

Nobody said it better than Yogi: it ain’t over till it’s over.

In Hollywood – in public and popular culture -- it’s never over.

By the way, if anyone knows of a film company that might be interested in the film rights, thanks for letting me know.

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About the Author: Richard Walter is a playwright, screenwriter, author of best selling fiction and nonfiction, celebrated storytelling educator, associate dean, entertainment industry expert and longtime professor and chairman of the graduate screenwriting program at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. His books include the novels Escape From Film School and Barry and the Persuasions. His non-fiction titles include The Whole Picture: Strategies for Screenwriting Success in the New Hollywood; Screenwriting--The Art, Craft and Business of Film and Television Writing; and most recently Essentials of Screenwriting. His books have been translated into eight languages. Professor Walter is also a court authorized expert in intellectual property litigation. For more information and to order his book visit www.richardwalter.com. Contact Professor Walter at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. if you would like to subscribe to his monthly screenwriting tips newsletter.

 

Richard Walter Copyright © 2016