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Feeling Small
by Raphael Simon

At a party, not long ago, I was staring at a woman, trying to remember who she was. Old friend? Movie star? Therapist?

"I know you," she said, catching my eye. "Didn't you have a writing partner?"

Suddenly, I remembered: Catwings!

She nodded. "I never forget a face."

Catwings. Also known as The Flying Tabbies.

Faces I forget all the time. But movie pitches? I wish I could forget them.

Lisa wasn't friend, star or therapist, she was an executive.

My 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.

With 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.

Unlike 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 that there."

Honey, 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.

At 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.

The 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.

Most 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.

Renee 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.

"It has heart," said Jim, on cue.

We nodded eagerly. And Margie seized the chance. "It's so thematically strong."

"Yes. 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.

Margie 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.


Renee looked nonplussed. Jim looked nonplussed.

Desperately, 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.

Renee 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.

"We think," she said, pausing just enough to keep our nerves on edge, "that Honey, I Shrunk the Kids is about feeling small."

Feeling small?

Margie 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.

I can't 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. Twice.

"I'm 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."

Renee 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.

On 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."

Nonetheless, there would be a gratifying postscript to the Honey story.

The 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.

Far 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.

When 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.

"Oh, 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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