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A Dog's Life

Taken for a ride: Screenwriter Gail Gilchriest knows how the namesake character feels in My Dog Skip.
Jeanne L. Buliard

"My movie opens nationwide next weekend."

I never in a million years thought I'd hear myself say those words. But lately I've been saying just that. Even more amazing: I'm not lying. It's true. I wrote the screenplay adaptation of Willie Morris's memoir My Dog Skip. It premiered January 12 in New York and Los Angeles, and has platformed to other markets, as they say in Hollywood, in the weeks since.

These days, I love talking about my work, but it wasn't always so. For years, as a freelance screenwriter, I'd dreaded the innocuous cocktail-party question, "So, what do you do?"

If I said, "I write movies," the next question was inevitably: "Anything I've seen?" To which the answer was sadly, "No. Not even anything I've been paid for."

So usually I responded to the query with a little shuffle of my little feet and some disingenuous, self-deprecating line about being an underachiever. Or sometimes I responded with a story about a woman I'd once met who'd described herself as a dancer. "How interesting," I had said. "Where do you dance? And for whom?" With total self-assurance, she had replied, "In my apartment, for myself." I'd go on to explain that I wrote movies in much the same way.

To tell the truth, I made that story up, pulled it out of nowhere. I figured offering it in exchange for drinks and canapés was about as close as I'd come to making a literary sale in Hollywood. I began to avoid parties or any social situation where the conversation might drift around to my pitiful lack of professional accomplishment.

But that was then. Today I crave invitations and questions about what I do. These days once I explain that I write movies, the next question becomes, "How'd you get into that?"

Well, I'm glad you asked.

For several years I wrote a column under the pseudonym Charlene for The Houston Post Sunday magazine. When the paper was sold, the new owners decided to ax my column and offer me a job writing features. I found, however, that I enjoyed the camaraderie of the newsroom (translation: eating candy and flirting) more than the actual reporting. So I began writing nonfiction books from home, stopping by The Post now and then when I needed a fix of human contact.

I published two trade paperbacks, The Cowgirl Companion and Bubbas & Beaus, before finally coming to understand that fiction writing might better suit my particular, uh, skill set. Journalism and nonfiction required an adherence to fact that I found stifling. The facts seemed to obscure the truth of the stories I wanted to tell. I presented this revelation to my agent, outlining for her an idea for a novel. She suggested that my idea might make a better movie. That sounded just fine to me.

Without much debate, I put all my Houston stuff into storage and went to New York. I enrolled in an NYU film-writing class and cranked out a screenplay over the course of a summer. With my credit cards maxed out and my script finished, I headed to Hollywood, ready to make it in showbiz. I figured it would happen like this: I'd show my script (a romantic comedy, still available at a reasonable price) to a few suits at a studio, and they'd cut me a check. I'd be back in Houston by Christmas, and the movie would be in theaters by summertime. I mean, how hard could it be?

Pretty dang hard, as it turned out. I didn't see any studio suits, and I didn't see any checks. I saw overdraft notices.

On the boulevard of broken dreams, I got myself a grunt job answering the phone at a cable company with the lofty goal of scraping together enough cash to get back to Houston. As I served out my sentence in la-la land, I had one friend, John Lee Hancock. He'd been a lawyer in Houston when we first got acquainted. Like me, he had left home and a good job to make his mark in movies. Unlike me, he'd done just that. After Clint Eastwood directed his second feature, A Perfect World starring Kevin Costner, Hancock emerged as a major player in the screenwriting business. Sometimes, when I was really broke, he and his wife, Holly, would have me over for dinner.

At the Hancocks' one night, I met a documentary filmmaker named Jay Russell. A native of Arkansas, Russell told a funny story at dinner about a man he'd once interviewed who held the world record for eating collard greens. Incredibly, I knew the man's name (C. Mort Hurst of Ayden, North Carolina) and the approximate poundage he'd consumed (a number I've since forgotten). This arcane knowledge earned me Russell's immediate attention and later his friendship.

 

Many months passed before I heard from Russell again. By then Russell and Hancock had secured the film rights to Willie Morris's book My Dog Skip, a memoir of his childhood in Yazoo City, Mississippi. Russell planned to write a screenplay based on Morris's book and find financiers. But then he got sidetracked with a new documentary.

One day, out of the blue, Hancock asked if I had time to read My Dog Skip. Just for grins, he said, just to see how it strikes you. It struck me just fine. It made me smile a lot, laugh a little and cry at the very end. I enjoyed it, I told Hancock, just as I had other things I'd read by Morris, a former editor of The Texas Observer and Harper's. Well, he asked, do you want to write the screenplay?

I couldn't believe it! My big break.

Sure, I said, just moments away from abandoning my receptionist's post. How much? I tentatively asked. Nothing, Hancock replied. You write it on spec, and we pay you Writers Guild minimum plus 10 percent when we set it up. ("Set it up" is Hollywood parlance for securing money.) To my mind, there were two catches: I had to write the thing first, and we had to find somebody with $5 million to make it.

But since it was the best offer I'd had so far, I took it. I started writing at night, on weekends and between saying "good morning" and "thank you for calling" at various temp jobs. I met with Hancock and Russell -- my producers, as it were -- for story conferences at Hancock's office on the Warner Bros. lot. I looked forward to the meetings because the Diet Coke was free, and sometimes they bought lunch. After several months, I finished a draft.

Now we send it to the suits at the studios, right?

Wrong. Upon completion of the first draft, the producers offered suggestions -- "notes," they called them. I went back to the drawing board and cranked out a second draft, killing off some characters, inventing a few new ones, eliminating a plotline while weaving in another. The second draft was followed by even more notes and a third draft. After a seventh draft, the boys announced we were ready to give the script a test-drive at the studios.

We sent it to five of the majors: Warner Bros., Disney, Fox, Universal and Columbia. They all passed, offering polite thanks, but no thanks.

I was crushed, but the boys seemed undaunted. Hancock had a secret weapon that he'd been waiting to deploy, Mark Johnson. Johnson is a powerful man in Hollywood. With his former partner, director Barry Levinson, he produced Bugsy, Diner and Good Morning, Vietnam. He even won a Best Picture Oscar for Rain Man. Johnson could get things done, and best of all, he believed in our script. Sit tight, he said. Let me see what I can do.

More months passed. So did several other studios and financiers.

To make matters worse, the option period was nearing its end. At Johnson's suggestion, Hancock and Russell laid out more cash to re-up the option. Then one day Johnson told us that he had met a guy in Memphis who was interested in getting into the movie business.

Met a guy in Memphis? I got discouraged. Meeting a guy in Memphis hardly seemed the pathway to $5 million. Against my better judgment, I maintained faith in Johnson. He got things done; his movies got made. I repeated this to myself as a soothing mantra.

The guy in Memphis turned out to be Frederick W. Smith, the chairman, CEO and president of the FDX Corporation, otherwise known as Federal Express. Smith had recently funded a small movie-production company looking to make family films on a budget. Johnson took the package -- the script and Smith's financing -- to Warner Bros., one of the studios that had previously declined to finance the project. With Smith and Johnson on board, the deal suddenly looked less risky to Warner Bros. The studio agreed to a "negative pickup," which meant it would purchase the completed movie for a prearranged price, then use its machinery to distribute the film.

Jay Russell signed on as director. He convinced Kevin Bacon to star. Seventeen drafts, four years and many temp jobs later, I now find myself happy in Hollywood. I keep enough cash stashed away for the inevitable return to Texas, but now my bouts of homesickness come less frequently. (Amazing what a little "guild-plus-10" can do for a girl's self-esteem.) Lately I'm writing less, and talking about writing more. In fact, I spend a lot of time standing around in social situations saying, "My movie opens nationwide next week."

 

Have I mentioned that?


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