A feature falls into Bob’s lap…if only he can make the pieces fit
Sometimes a story is a story simply because you will it to be.
Over the course of three months, I bumped into three women trying to make it in show biz who each happened to have come to L.A. from Detroit. The first one, Renie Oxley, came to my attention in a press release from a group promoting women filmmakers. The second, Rita Wallace, simply walked by my desk in the newsroom upon the suggestion of a friend of hers who worked at the L.A. Times. The third, Lynn Isenberg, was also a fluke: When I called a Detroit columnist who had written about Renie two years ago, he told me he’d just done a column on Lynn, who had come back to Detroit for a book-signing.
You know the old joke: two is a pattern, three is a trend. I figured I’d squeeze a trio of mini-profiles into a feature story. It must have been God’s will that I stumbled into this trio, right? I interviewed each woman, but something was missing. I needed them to interact a little. Each was curious about the others, so I invited them to lunch. That worked. But the biggest problem remained: structure. The story had to transition from one biographical section to another with some sense of logic.
I wound up writing a brief outline over and over. It looked something like this:
I kept shifting the position of the women to make the story flow right. So, even though Rita was not the most interesting story–I thought Lynn was, as you’ll see–she worked best as Number 1 because of a moment where she and Lynn interact; if the story were a relay race, this would be a moment where Rita passed the baton to Lynn. It was crucial that, with three leading ladies, the story flow effortlessly from the intro, and then from Lady 1 to Lady 2.
Here’s the story, with my additional comments in caps:
GETTING BY ON INDIE DREAMS
By Bob Baker
May 2, 2004
STRAIGHT-FORWARD APPROACH. ONE GRAF TO PUT ‘EM TOGETHER, THEN A GRAF ON EACH
Three women from Detroit — Rita, Lynn and Renie — are having lunch at a budget-busting restaurant, far from where they started out. It’s the first tiime they’ve met, but they’ve got lots to talk about. For anywhere from two to 20 years, they’ve been banging their heads against the same wall, the one called Hollywood.
Rita Wallace, 28, spent four years making her own movie about South Los Angeles roller skaters. She and her two sisters estimated they raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from family and friends — but still fell short of a distribution deal. So earlier this spring Wallace rented a Crenshaw district theater that allowedd her to show her film for a week, and declared victory.
Lynn Isenberg, 44, came here to make movies that would force people to reevaluate their lives. But she wound up, for a few weird years, as an iconoclastic adult-film screenwriter — one who cared as much about plot as sex. Today she’s a novelist, promoting a semi-autobiographical comedy-drama about a womman whose scripts give porn flicks temporary integrity.
Renie Oxley, 35, who grew up five miles from Isenberg, gave up a $115,000-a-year law gig to throw the dice here. She made the choice after she fell in love with a quirky Detroit bar and spent half a year’s salary making a well-received documentary about life inside the tavern. In Detroit, she had employed a secretary. In L.A., she began her new life by becoming one, then hooked a small-time director’s job.
NEXT IN THE INTRO I HAD TO TELL YOU WHERE THEY FIT ON THE HOLLYWOOD FOOD CHAIN:
Odds are you will never hear about any of these Michiganders again. But have lunch with them and you’ll appreciate why they, and so many others, blissfully ignore those odds. Anonymous as they remain, as much rejection as they’ve absorbed, they’re still tangible proof that the skeptics back home were wrong, that you can simply come west and dive into the struggle — even if the best they can say about you is that you’re no longer unsuccessful. Even if you’re reduced to working out of your apartment, or your neighborhood cafe or, in Wallace’s case, out of your ’78 Beetle convertible, stuffed with movie posters and clothes.
THIS COMMENT BY RITA WAS A NICE MOMENT THAT SET THE TONE
“I dreamed of being in this big office,” Wallace tells the others, who’ve been brought together at the Pacific Dining Car by a reporter who bumped into them individually over the last few months. Wallace laughs at her dream. “This big office with a window overlooking the city. But instead, I got a front windshield I’m looking out of.” She pulls out a photocopy of a recent newspaper listings ad for Magic Johnson Theaters in Crenshaw — where her film, “Roller Wheelz,” played next door to “The Passion of the Christ” and “Barbershop 2” — and beams to her new acquaintances: “This is my Academy Award, guys!”
WITH THAT, WE MOVE INTO THE RITA SECTION. I WROTE ABOUT 18-20″ ON EACH WOMAN. I FELT I WAS SQUEEZING FAIRLY HARD TO COMPRESS A LOT OF MATERIAL, BUT THAT I HAD GIVEN MYSELF ENOUGH ROOM FOR SOME GOOD DETAIL. COULD I HAVE SQUEEZED EACH SECTION TO 10-12″? SURE. BUT I TOLD MY BOSS I THOUGHT THIS WAS WORTH 75″ AND SHE BOUGHT IT.
Wallace came here, in a sense, to vindicate her mother’s failed dreams. Mom was a teenage beauty contest winner. With her husband and four children, she drove to L.A. in the mid-’70s to pursue a career in acting. “The whole family in this ol’ beat-up Cadillac,” Wallace remembers. “Thinkin’ ‘We’re gonna make it big.’ “Mom signed up with a self-styled talent agent who could not deliver what he promised. Four years later, the family gave up and drove back to Hamtramck, a small blue-collar city surrounded by Detroit.
By the late ’80s, when Wallace was in her teens, they moved back to L.A. After graduating from Hamilton High in West L.A., she got some small acting parts and production-assistant work. In the late ’90s she took film classes and started writing a script she figured she’d produce: a good-time “urban” family story — no sex, drugs or violence. She’d seen the mothers crying in “Boyz N the Hood” and wanted to evoke something closer to her childhood of roller skating from home at 54th and Western into Hollywood. “Roller Wheelz” is a hip-hop comedy set around an L.A. radio station skating contest with a $5,000 prize that attracts a gaggle of desperate kids.
Wallace knocked on the doors of a few studios and got turned down — in one case, she says, because there wasn’t any violence to give the picture so-called “street cred.” It became inevitable this would be a do-it-yourself project. She had few resources but her optimism, some contacts in the business, two older sisters with credit cards and a slew of relatives. (Her mom was the oldest of 15 siblings, and one set of grandparents in Macon, Ga., had a total of 35 brothers and sisters between them.) Her sisters, Ernestine, 40, and Corzann, 36, urged her on.
She wanted to cast a few kids from popular TV shows, but could not get her calls returned. So she says she spent $4,000 to rent a rehearsal hall at Paramount for one day simply to have a recognizable phone prefix. That, she says, got her some callbacks and, eventually, actors like Antwon Tanner from “Boston Public” and Shar Jackson of “Moesha.” Small loans or gifts from family members and friends allowed her to rent cameras and other equipment. Corzann helped write and produce. Ernestine, who’d worked as a costumer for TV productions, became costume designer and associate producer.
They saved money by rehearsing the cast at the beach, convincing landmarks like Roscoe’s House of Chicken ‘n’ Waffles to let them shoot there, borrowing cars, purchasing wigs at party stores. They filmed in just two weeks. It would be a year before editing was done, and another year before Wallace “four-walled” her film at Magic’s cinema — simply renting one auditorium for a week. Even there she was snakebit: A Crenshaw district power outage cost her a day and a half of box office. She broke even.
Wallace, who lives in an El Segundo apartment with her 12-year-old son, now plans to head for Texas, Ohio and Tennessee to try to get her film screened there. The movie is cute in some places, ragged in others. But none of that mattered to Wallace one day in late March when she walked into the theater complex with a couple dozen others, took a seat in the second row for the 4:45 p.m. show and, a large bag of popcorn on her lap, watched her movie with an L.A. audience for the first time. There it was on the screen: “A Rita Wallace Film.” “I feel like a kid on Christmas Day,” she beamed.
HERE COMES THE TRANSITION TO LYNN. I CONVINCED MYSELF IT WAS JUST AS WELL TO HAVE THE MOST INTERESTING PROFILE AS #2 BECAUSE IT WOULD GIVE THE STORY A SENSE OF PROPULSION
A couple of weeks later, she is telling this story to her fellow Michiganders. “Rita,” the reporter suggests, “you ought to make a movie about somebody like you making a movie like that.
“Which gets Lynn Isenberg’s attention. Because that, in essence, is what she did.
Isenberg had a dozen advantages over Wallace — more education, more experience in Hollywood’s creative and business communities, more contacts — and Hollywood still tookk her dream and, like a tornado, blew it in another direction.
She’d loved writing as a child. She grew up in white-collar Bloomfield Hills, went to the University of Michigan, majored in English and film studies and headed to L.A. in the early 1980s to become a screenwriter and producer. She got a job with the literary arm of Creative Artists Agency, got an associate producer credit on the Lawrence Kasdan comedy “I Love You to Death,” and worked on her own screenplays.
She also fell in love with a cult-favorite novel about friendship and loss, Lynn Sharon Schwartz’s “Disturbances in the Field.” She optioned it several times at a total cost of about $50,000 and set about developing it for the screen. It would be the first project she controlled from start to finish. “I really thought that it would help people deal with grief; the whole reason I became a writer was to help inspire people, to give them another way of seeing.”
But she could never close the deal: The well-known actress who loved it backed off in favor of a new project; the Oscar-winning screenwriter she’d lined up had to return to another film at a producer’s insistence; the nonlinear screenplay was, she suggests, ahead of its time.
After five years of reversals she was running out of money. So she called an old Detroit friend who had worked at PBS but was now with the Playboy Channel. Write me a soft-core script, he said. She responded with what became known as “Things Change,” the story of a lesbian who leaves her female partner to explore her sexual identity — a story based on imagination, not personal experience, she emphasizes.
Unbeknownst to her, Playboy co-financed the script with an adult-film company, which made a far more explicit version. (No extra speaking parts needed, just more sex.) Also unbeknownst to her, the film’s relatively sophisticated dialogue got considerable attention in the adult-film world and numerous nominations in the annual Adult Video News competition. “It allows its characters a dignity heretofore unequaled in adult entertainment,” one reviewer said in 1993. Isenberg was asked to write another script. And another. (All were done under an Italian pseudonym too gynecological to be translated here.) She negotiated her own four-picture deal with another adult-film company, making $2,500 to $5,000 per script. She cast and wrote an explicit sex-ed video for couples. She was, at different times, appalled by what she was doing and determined to go with the flow. “This was where I was at this moment in time. I was going to be open-minded … I let go of control.”
Isenberg kept telling a fellow writer about her experiences, and the friend, who found them hysterical, kept prodding her to turn them into a novel. After she quit porn scripting in 1996, Isenberg went back to Detroit and knocked out “My Life Uncovered” in a couple of months. Her protagonist, Laura Taylor, loses her dream screenplay deal when her agent vanishes and she accepts an adult-entertainment offer to pay her bills. Like Isenberg, Laura tries to reconcile the gulf between her ambitions and her new career as she listens to her rabbi’s Shabbat morning services. Like Isenberg, Laura pens an introspective line of dialogue about her inability to trust men that, when her father sees the film, helps heal the estrangement between them.
The first publisher Isenberg approached, Toronto-based Red Dress Ink, which specializes in “chick lit,” bought the novel and printed an initial run of 50,000 copies in December. The book has enjoyed favorable Internet reviews (as well as applause from the Jewish Journal). Isenberg says she is sifting through TV and film adaptation offers while working on her next novel.
Funny, she tells the other women from Detroit, she came to Hollywood to be a filmmaker and wound up the novelist she’d wanted to be at 8. They agree publishing is less barbaric. Like an agent once told her, Isenberg says, “the difference is, in Hollywood they want to kill you; in the publishing business, they just get bitchy.” Funny, too, how you wind up paying homage to your elders. Isenberg tells them that a great aunt was an author, and that next month she’ll return to Bloomfield Hills to address an annual meeting of immigrants from her great aunt’s native town, David Horodok, in what is now Belarus.
“You’re living her dream,” says Wallace, who knows the feeling.
With a twist. “When they asked me,” Isenberg says, “I said, ‘Maybe I should talk about storytelling, and how traditional storytelling carries on … ‘ and the woman on the phone said, ‘No, you don’t understand. You have to talk about porn. They’re expecting it. I think we’re gonna have the biggest turnout yet.’ ”
People tell Isenberg, who is single, that, despite her Detroit roots, she reminds them of a New Yorker, in a Sarah Jessica Parker-as-Carrie Bradshaw way. And the image fits as she puts a copy of “Things Change” into her Marina del Rey condo’s DVD and tries to locate a moment of dialogue between the two female stars that she’s proud of. She has to keep skipping around, and every time she does there’s — whoops — another graphic sex scene. “Oh God,” she apologizes earnestly to her guest, “I’m so sorry.”
I TRIED AND I TRIED TO FASHION A TRANSITION FROM LYNN TO RENIE, BUT THEY ALL FELT STILTED. SO I SIMPLY CUT TO RENIE, FIGURING THE READER HAD BEEN WELL PREPARED. I SAVED HER FOR LAST BECAUSE HER REFLECTION ON HER CAREER WAS GOOD AND SEEMED TO WORK AS AN ENDING.
Renie Oxley, living her second year in L.A., has met a potential manager who urges her to ask a reporter not to disclose her age. She thinks it over and rejects the advice. She is who she is. Plus, how old is 35? This is one of the differences between Hollywood and the Midwest. “I feel like I spent my 20s fitting in, compromising,” she says. “When I moved out here I said, ‘I’m not going to compromise.’ This has been 10 times harder than I expected. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it’s also the most fun.”
She, like Isenberg, grew up in Bloomfield Hills, the daughter of an architect and a teacher now retired. One sister is an interior designer, the other works in a personnel department. Oxley went to an all-girl Catholic school, then Michigan State University and law school. All the while, the film buff inside was trying to break out.
She clerked for a judge, then joined a law firm and did trial work, then took a job as a utility company attorney that offered relatively cushy hours. It was here that Oxley made “my deal with God”: She promised to use her newfound spare time to become a filmmaker.
She made a couple of shorts and took film classes, then set her sights on a documentary about an opera singer. Then one night in 1999 the singer took Oxley into a bar in a deteriorating section of Michigan Avenue on Detroit’s west side, where Oxley met the crusty owner, Irene Kress, reportedly the first woman in Michigan to obtain a liquor license — back in 1937. Kress was still holding court in a bar that resembled a ’40s museum, so little had changed. Nude paintings off women — some believed to be Irene — lined the walls.
Oxley’s 47-minute “Irene’s Last Call,” made with a $10,000 grant and $50,000 of her own money, captured an untold piece of feminist history and showed how life in a bar can virtually stand still if the patrons and the owners will it so. Oxley also got a plot break: Months after she’d finished shooting and was editing her work, Kress and her husband fell ill, sold the bar to an automotive dealership that wanted the land for a parking lot and moved to Florida. The already poignant documentary had a heartbreaking ending: bulldozers demolishing the bar.
Oxley rented a Detroit theater for two nights to show her film, entered it in some festivals and moved here, landing the proverbial mailroom job with International Creative Management, then becoming a secretary there. She sent copies of “Irene’s Last Call” around; one of them landed in the hands of Amit Vaidya, who was about to produce a $300,000 film about a classically trained Indian American singer who encounters musical and cultural tensions while competing in an “American Idol”-like contest. Vaidya, impressed by her storytelling skill, gave Oxley her first paying director job.
Oxley splits her time between the directing gig and writing a screenplay modeled on “Irene’s Last Call.” She rents an apartment in the Silver Lake district. (“I used to wonder, ‘What are all these young people doing in the coffee shop at 10:30 in the morning?’ Then I realized: They’re all writers.”) She’s still trying to break the news to her parents that this is a permanent move.
HERE COMES THE ENDING
The words she uses come from the same part of the heart that Isenberg’s pronouncement came from in the ’80s and Wallace’s came from in the ’90s when friends in Detroit wondered if they’d embarked on a true quest, or just a lark. It’s the part of the heart that fights off rejection, that vows, as Wallace does, “The more they say ‘no,’ the more I love it. ‘Cuz the guys who say ‘yes’ don’t come through anyway. They just say ‘yes’ to get you off the phone.”
“My parents ask me at least every other week when am I coming home,” Oxley says. “When am I done with this little adventure? And I don’t feel done at all.”