Nike inspired me. JUST DO IT! I’ve got to make my movie Au Pair, Kansas. Three and a half years in LA, and I’m in my last semester at UCLA, getting an MFA in screenwriting (yes, we believe it’s the best screenwriting program in the country. USC’s best for producing, NYU’s best for director, but you can’t beat UCLA for learning how to tell a visual story) and I’m homesick for Kansas.
Strange, strange place, Hollywood. I won three major awards in film school (I didn’t win any awards in medical school, maybe that should tell me something), actually, enough to pay all of my tuition, with three different screenplays I’d written before even starting the program. And I’m in San Jose, California, for their Cinequest Film Festival, with my old high school and fraternity bud, Tom Carmody. Our script, Johnny Pigskin, (about the Haskell Indian boarding school football team in 1914 that played Notre Dame) is a finalist in their screenplay competition. We didn’t win, but still nice recognition (it’s about the only thing you have as an unproduced screenwriter, those little letters that say, congratulations, you’re one of the top 100 screenwriters in our competition, but you didn’t actually win and no one will buy it or even call about it.)
So it’s opening night at Cinequest, and the premiere movie is this Norwegian comedy called United, about a soccer player who wants to be a professional, but is too much of a slacker, and finally JUST DOES IT! The lead actor is fantastic, one of the best screen personalities I’ve ever seen in an indie film (remember seeing Brad Pitt for about a minute in Thelma and Louis, or Matt Damon for about a minute in Courage Under Fire, or Matthew McConauhey for a couple minutes in Dazed and Confused? That’s what this Norwegian guy was like in United.) Alas, subtitles, so no one is going to see this movie except at a couple esoteric film festivals. And the lead actor and the director are there at the after party. So I introduce myself to Havard (the soccer player) and tell him he’s great (yah, sure, he’s thinking.) He speaks wonderful English, and is even more charming in person (not fair.) Tom, my writing and business partner, and I agree Havard’s an incredible screen presence, so we take him to lunch the next day. And I tell Havard he’s not going to break into film outside of Norway unless he does something in English. I’ve got to find a project for him. I love a challenge.
Hmm, so how do I get someone from Norway into a movie where he’s speaking English? I bring him to the States. Why would some young European come to the US? As an au pair. A male au pair. Perfect. Now find the characters. A recently widowed woman, with two sons, who feels the boys need a father figure. Think contrast. Let’s bring him to the middle of Kansas, to a Swedish town! And what roams on the plains of Kansas? Buffalos. Voila. The next day I pitch it to Havard (yah, sure, he’s thinking.) He goes back to Norway, I go back to LA for my last semester.
A week later I’ve got to pitch a project to my screenwriting teacher (wow, I get a writer/director who did a film shot in my hometown, Lawrence, Kansas, when I was in high school, very cool I thought. I was wrong.) and everyone in the class is pitching these sorta vague ideas, stupid I’m cool I’m a film student ideas, like it’s about this dude who, you know…and it comes to me and I very distinctly state, I want to write Au Pair, Kansas, a romantic comedy about a Norwegian soccer player who comes to a small town to be a male au pair for a recently widowed woman trying to raise two sons. The whole class looks at me sorta weird, and I feel them saying, “where the fuck did you come up with that?” It’s not really the first time I’ve seen that look (an agent at Endeavor once looked at me that same way, when I pitched Panther Lake, a thriller I wrote about a boy and his family that gets stranded in the Florida everglades and has to fight off animals crazed by illegal pesticide dumping. How the fuck do I sell an environmental action thriller? A year later the script wins the Alfred P. Sloan award for best use of science in a screenplay, and pays tuition for a whole fucking year. Note: a lead character in Panther Lake is a grown up Thalidomide baby with phocomelia who speaks only in Shakespearean-like iambic pentameter.)
I’m really, really busy that last semester at UCLA. We’re editing a feature film I produced, that we shot the summer before up at Lake Arrowhead (Alien Game), and I’m taking 26 hours! I got into Gil Cates’ (director of Academy awards) directing the actor class, Geoffrey Gilmore’s (head of Sundance film festival) indie producing class, Peter Wollen’s (world renowned expert on experimental film) film studies class, and the guy who did the TV movie in Kansas’ class! And I’ve decided to sell my house and move home to Kansas, and make a short film instead of writing a boring paper for my experimental film studies class (it’s called Kansas City Here I Come, about the last day in my mother’s life. Wollen gave me my first A++). I finish Au Pair, Kansas, (10 weeks to write the whole thing) and turn it in on time. I get all the grades except from the screenwriting teacher. I have all A’s thus far (like anyone but me gives a rat’s ass about grades at film school, it’s just ingrained after years of needing high grades to get into med school and residency). And I find out this guest teacher gives me an A-. An A-! Since they don’t give extra points for an A+, my overall GPA ends up being something like 3.98. I fail at film school (okay, bar was a bit high, I know, but I wanted a 4.0) and am not over it yet.
And that’s when I said, fuck you Mr. Guest Screenwriting teacher who didn’t teach me anything about screenwriting, just lectured about, come to think of it, I’ve forgotten what for 10 weeks, I’m going to show you. I’m going to make this little A- script, and it’ll be the first of my scripts to get made into a feature film, and it’ll ROCK.
Multiple rewrites later (each one makes the script better, especially the week I spend in Oslo working on Havard’s character, Oddmund) and four years later (why, oh why did I get involved in real estate? Maybe because I had a house in LA for two years, and it went up 40%, and when I sold it had no capital gains. But Kansas houses aint’ LA houses) and a move to Green Bay (6 months of doing physical exams on morbidly obese commercial drivers) and finally a move to New York (doctor stuff again, but only 3 days a week), and my New Year’s resolution for 2008 is to make Au Pair, Kansas. I’m going to DO IT. JUST DO IT!
And this is the journey…