Tarantula in a Sunbonnet

13 Mar

The fourth script I ever wrote was Against the Wind, based on a newspaper clipping about Christmas tree growers on the Michigan Peninsula; who leave their families during the holiday season to sell Christmas trees on the streets of Chicago.

Michael and I worked on it from time to time but never got it to where we both felt great about it.

Years pass and Michael is walking down the hall in the AFI when a colleague, Nichol, buttonholes him and asks if he has a Christmas script – she knows a production company that is looking for one. She tells us what they need: It has to be shot in California, with a minimum of company moves, a small cast and no scenes shot from moving vehicles. Michael says yeah, we have one.

Michael and I huddle and decide how we’ll rewrite Against the Wind to their specs.

We have about ten days to reconfigure the story and write a new draft. We decide that I’ll take the first pass and then Michael will stir out the lumps. I know there are some things I’m going to miss from the original, such as the interracial romance and the contrast between city and country, but I’m realistic (and desperate) enough to chase a sale.

The desperation comes from a mounting pile of bills and dwindling physical resources.  I don’t even talk about my daily five-hour commute anymore – it sounds masochistic to my ears. More like whining than anything else.

The morning I’m deep into the new treatment for Wind, I decide I better make another visit to the local loan office and get a few thousand dollars to bail us out. I make an appointment and take my notebook with me.

The woman in the loan office is named Dorothy and although her name brings instant thoughts of The Wizard of Oz she’s a huge cow. On the surface she’s as sweet as can be. Underneath, she’s a big, suety tarantula in a sunbonnet, waiting to pounce if you fuck up on a payment. I know she’s angling to get me to put our house up for collateral but I won’t bite.

I’m early for my appointment so I sit in my car and work on Wind, trying to come up with a new ending. In a strip mall parking lot ideas start raining down and I write as fast as I can. In minutes I have an organic ending that, when written in script form, proves to actually bring tears to people’s eyes. What a rare moment – waiting to go into a loan office and receiving a gift out of the blue.

Michael and I nail the rewrite and a funny thing happens: The script we write under the prodco’s gun is immeasurably better than the one we wrote with a free hand.

Against the Wind is given a new title, Keeping Christmas. It’s a heartfelt, commercial script. If we can’t sell this I don’t know what the fuck we can sell.

(2003)

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