a party, not long ago, I was staring at a woman, trying to remember
who she was. Old friend? Movie star? Therapist?
know you," she said, catching my eye. "Didn't you have
a writing partner?"
I remembered: Catwings!
nodded. "I never forget a face."
Also known as The Flying Tabbies.
I forget all the time. But movie pitches? I wish I could forget
wasn't friend, star or therapist, she was an executive.
old writing partner, Margie, and I met her over 10 years ago, during
a period we now call the Dog Days, in reference to all the meetings
we attended involving movies about household pets. There was, for
example, Beethoven III, which we envisioned as a kind of
good dog/bad dog, mistaken identity caper -- "Trading Places
on four legs" in pitch-speak. And also Woof!, about
a lonely woman whose beloved Golden Retriever turns into a man.
Too late, we learned Hollywood was chock full of scripts with the
very same premise, give or take a breed.
Lisa we were developing an update of Doctor Dolittle called
Dolittle's Daughter. When a rights issue proved intractable,
we put Dolittle aside in favor of Catwings, a children's
story by the usually rather adult author, Ursula Le Guin. Our take
on the story was quite sweet, we thought, with the flying cats making
peace between cats and birds. Like peace itself, the project never
had a chance.
the family fare she developed, Lisa was an edgy sort, not given
to sentimentality. When she learned Margie and I were about to take
a meeting at Disney to discuss a sequel (or rather tri-quel) to
Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, she gave us some curt advice: "Know
the theme." She told us if we wanted to land the job we should
be able to state the theme of the movie in a single sentence. "Like
love overcoming differences. Or whatever bullshit. They're big on
I Shrunk the Kids is a high-concept comedy about a wacky scientist
who accidentally, well, shrinks his kids. Margie and I went back
and forth trying to reduce this deceptively simple story to a single
theme. "Small is beautiful" had brevity on its side but
was too glib. "Beware the hubris of science" fit the story
but was too grandiose. "Be careful of your loved ones"
was uncontroversial but too vague.
last, we he hit on it: Honey, I Shrunk the Kids was about
seeing old things from a new perspective. Sincere. Succinct.
Straightforward. And just suggestive enough.
Team Disney Building in Burbank is big and red and decorated with
seven dwarves - super-sized versions of Snow White's height-challenged
friends. We took the dwarves as a good omen when we walked under
them for the first time. After all, what was it to look up at a
dwarf from below but to see an old thing from a new perspective?
Our theme, we felt sure, was a winner.
screenwriting partners have a practiced patter with which they introduce
themselves at pitch meetings. Margie's and my favorite routine began
with a story about cheating off each other's tests in high school.
"And look," we would say, "we never got out of the
habit of 'collaboration.'" Usually, we got a big laugh. Not
this time. Renee, the executive in charge of steering the Honey
ship towards its next box office harbor, gave us a thin smile, and
looked over at Jim, the junior executive. Jim explained they were
running late, and suggested we talk about the project at hand.
admitted straight away that Honey, I Shrunk the Kids was
a pretty silly movie. But she offered that its success came from
something deeper than slapstick humor.
has heart," said Jim, on cue.
nodded eagerly. And Margie seized the chance. "It's so thematically
That's exactly how we feel," said Renee, in mild surprise.
"And what do you think the theme is?" she asked, as if
the topic represented an interesting but wholly unexpected turn
in the conversation.
and I tried to hide our grins. "We think it's about seeing
old things from a new perspective," I said, in as casual and
yet as forceful a tone as I could manage.
looked nonplussed. Jim looked nonplussed.
I explained that everyone goes through life taking things for granted,
but when you are shrunken to one one-hundredth of your former size,
old things take on new meaning. "And some things you see that
you never ever even saw before!" I lamely concluded.
smiled at me with all the patronizing sympathy of a doctor who's
about to tell you that you were wrong in your self-diagnosis --
the reality of your condition is far, far worse.
think," she said, pausing just enough to keep our nerves on
edge, "that Honey, I Shrunk the Kids is about feeling
and I stared, unsure whether she had just said something breathtakingly
incisive or mind-numbingly literal-minded. Either way, it was clear,
our theme -- and our team -- had just lost.
reveal much about the story we pitched for Honey III because
we signed a confidentiality agreement. I think I am on safe ground,
however, to say that the story involved some shrunken kids and a
tail-wagging animal commonly referred to as a screenwriter's best
friend. In any case, we had hardly started when we were interrupted.
sorry. I never do this," said Renee, as an assistant handed
her a cordless phone for the second time. "There's a situation
on the set of the Jungle Book in Thailand. I can't tell you
what it is. I'm afraid your pitch will have to be rescheduled."
spoke in a low murmur, but from the bits we heard of her conversation
-- for some reason, the words "tiger" and "escaped"
stuck out -- we were able to surmise what had happened. As excuses
to get out of a meeting go, we had to admit, this was fresh.
the way out, the red building looked a lot less rosy. I pointed
to the dwarves towering over us. "Oh, so that's what they're
for. To make you feel small."
there would be a gratifying postscript to the Honey story.
last time we met with Lisa she said she had just run into Renee
in an elevator. The executives commiserated over the difficulty
of making a sequel to a movie as successful as Honey, I Shrunk
the Kids. But Renee told Lisa she finally had a handle on the
project because she'd honed in on the movie's theme: "Seeing
old things from a new perspective."
Later, I heard a rumor, probably apocryphal, that Lisa had fled
town after a scandal involving a coat stolen from a movie set. So
it was with more than the usual morbid curiosity that I re-met her
at that party years later.
from looking like a shamed Hollywood outcast, she seemed to have
shed all the tension and competitive energy that fuel a development
executive. She told me she was a ceramicist now and indeed she radiated
all the earthy warmth of the kiln. She seemed to have, dare I say
it, a new perspective.
it was my turn to answer that dread question, "and what are
you doing these days?" I was almost inspired to tell her the
truth: Not much. I'd be lucky to get one of those dog meetings
now. Then I came back to my senses.
a lot of little things," I said -- just vaguely enough to suggest
that one or two of those things might be really, really big.
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