By Jennie Jarvis
Anytime I read an interview with a famous screenwriter or watch a director talking on some behind-the-scenes sneak peek of an upcoming film that I can’t wait to see, I always hear the interviewees saying the same thing: “I remember the first time that I went to a movie. It was magical, and I was hooked.”
I hate that shit.
I mostly hate it because I have a terrible memory, and I can’t exactly remember the first time that I sat my lily white ass down in a theater seat. But mostly I hate it because the first memory that I do have of a movie isn’t a good one.
It was 1984, and I was apparently around five or six. I only know this because my math skills aren’t quite a bad as I pretend them to be, and not because I actually remember my age. My father took my sister and I to see Dune. I can’t tell you a thing about the movie except that my sister got embarrassed because my dad grabbed us by the hand and walked out, demanding that the theater give him his money back. He thought it was terrible. Apparently, I did too because I remember that I fell asleep. The only other time that I remember falling asleep during a film was in 1999 during The 13th Warrior. Even though I was well into my hormonal years and Antonio Banderas was still in his hot pre-Puss In Boots years, I was out like a light on that one.
And the thought of writing something that someone sleeps through terrifies me.
Granted, the thought of writing something that no one will ever see terrifies me more.
Writing for the film industry is one of the most gut-wrenching experiences because, when you are first starting out, it doesn’t matter how good you are. It just matters how well you can socialize. You can be the best writer in the Universe, but it doesn’t matter if you are just Susie-Nobody from Florida. To get your script read, let alone optioned or purchased, you have to know the right people and attend the right parties. You have to say the right thing and be sure to not talk about your script at all until you are hanging out with someone for at least the third time (it’s like waiting for that third date to have sex – you really want to jump the gun and do it sooner, but they will respect you more if you hold out a bit).
Maybe the most important skill of all, however, is that you have to know when to stop talking. Since I first started working in the film industry many moons ago, the number one thing that has plagued me is talking too much. In the beginning, when I was working in London and San Francisco, I was the one that was talking too much. I didn’t know when to shut up. I was too excited to pitch my stories that I missed out on the body language around me that was screaming for me to shut the hell up already. As a result, I got some experience on some pretty nifty projects, but they weren’t the kind of positions that I was hoping for. I got in the door, but not in the way that I wanted. And even though my naive younger self was always saying that getting in the door was the most important thing, I later learned that this isn’t the always the case. Just like the nerd who only gets invited to the party because the popular people are hoping that he will run out and buy them all booze, I was only given those positions because there was no one else who wanted them.
And that kinda sucked.
By the time I moved to Los Angeles, I learned to shut up a bit and let the world around me do its thing. I learned how to become a better reader – of both body language and screenplays. Because, who woulda thunk it, as soon as I started paying less attention to myself and more attention to the world around me, I started to discover how people worked. This made my writing a lot better. In the short time I was in Los Angeles, I wrote and directed half a dozen films and a music video. My most “successful” work was a short film that was accepted to dozens of film festivals across the country, obtained internet distribution in the United Kingdom and even screened at Comic Con.
Not exactly something that the average Joe Schmoe dreaming of moving to Hollywood would consider all that successful, but I’m very proud of that body of work today.
However, the truth is that most people thinking of moving to Los Angeles consider the only form of “success” to be making it big, with a three picture deal at Sony and a film showing up on the cover of Entertainment Weekly. It’s either a seven figure paycheck and a gold statute of a naked guy or nothing!
I have to admit that, in my more self-obsessed days, that was my vision of success as well. As much as I tried to defend my piddly career to my ever-pessimistic critics, the truth is that, on the inside, when I was forced to leave Los Angeles with nothing but $300 in the bank, four maxed out credit cards, whatever would fit into my two door hatchback and my dog, I felt like a failure. I thought that I had rolled the dice and lost all my chips.
But a brutal divorce, a handful of food stamps, a couple of abusive relationships, too much drinking alcohol with the wrong sorts of people and a few years of therapy later, I can see my life in LA for what it was. Life experience and a chance to do what I have always loved to do best – tell stories.
Since moving back to Florida, I have written and directed several short films and a feature that has shown at a couple of festivals to date. I have become a script consultant for clients around the country and a college professor in Writing. I even ran a screenwriting competition for a couple of years. And you know what – today, I still a have a problem with talking too much, but this time, it’s others who won’t shut up. The last few years, I am constantly being bombarded with people who suffer from the same golden-laced image of Hollywood that I once had – they want me to help them get rich quick by selling their scripts to some deep-pocketed Hollywood exec who will help them on the way to winning that naked gold man.
I try to be polite because I remember that I was there once too.
Today, despite my long hours of working with my students, I’m still writing my own stories. Most of them are screenplays, but I have a few other projects in the works as well, including a web series, a graphic novel serial and a YA novel. Sometimes, when I look at my rather cynical view of how Hollywood works, I’m amazed that I’m still willing to write. I’ve been through so much, why in the world would I want to continue to put myself through the wringer, hoping to get something that I write sold? And why would I encourage my students, many of them the young naive hopefuls that I once was, to follow in my very uneven and painful footsteps?
Because, at the end of the day, I know that we are all addicts. We are addicted to sharing those stories that develop in our heads. We have people walking in the space between our ears, sharing their universe with us, showing us their pain and whispering in our ears as we try to fall asleep at night. And unlike some video game addicts who can happily live inside their imaginative worlds for hours on ends, we writers need to get those people out of our heads and onto a page. We get our fix from sharing the quests that we create with others. We have to tell those stories, or the people in our heads will drive us mad.
I once heard a professor say that it was our jobs to give life to the people inside our heads. If we don’t write them down, then they will perish when we pass from this world. We will commit homicide by letting our characters die.
I became a professor so that I could help my students avoid a triple life sentence for fictional murder. I became a professor to help them get the world out from inside their heads. I became a professor because I have walked the path that they want to walk, and perhaps my treads can help them walk a bit further than I did.
I write because I have the same desire that the screenwriters of Dune and The 13th Warrior had – to share the world inside my head, no matter how bad it might be. I write because it’s the only way that I can get my fix. I write because I must.
“I have seen the world inside your head … and know that all things are possible.” – Doctor Who, “The Girl In The Fireplace”
#1 by wordimprovisor177 on March 27, 2012 - 5:02 pm
Wonderfully written, Jennie. What a wealth of experience you share. Well done.
#2 by jpgirl27 on March 27, 2012 - 9:10 pm
#3 by priceswrite on March 28, 2012 - 9:49 am
I love the thought that if I don’t give life to the characters in my head, I am committing murder. And that as a prof you help your students avoid that. What a great way to validate their need to write – which many people in their lives will try to stifle.
I so admire the fact that you don’t try to dismiss your bad experiences – or allow them to color your world with negativity. But you see them for what they are – pieces in the puzzle of who you are, stepping stones on your writing journey.
#4 by jpgirl27 on March 28, 2012 - 11:17 am
Linda, thanks for your feedback. And yes, I worked hard to accept my past for what it is, part of what makes me who I am today. I like me today, with all my quirks and strange obsessions, and I know that I wouldn’t be as appreciative of what gifts I have in my life if I didn’t accept my past.