What: Lucy Remington Wright finds herself at age 38 back where she began so promisingly with a daughter to support, no education and on her own for the first time in fifteen years.
Who: Lucy Wright received a triple blow when she discovered that her husband, George, a newly appointed partner in Lucy’s father’s Manhattan law firm, had been cheating on her, that her father knew about it and that the SEC was closing in on George for investment fraud. Soon to be divorced, Lucy, all of whose assets and property have been frozen by the SEC, packs up her rebellious 13 year old daughter Zoe and decides to move back to the one place where she had felt support, comfort and promise – “Chapel Hill”, NC. She had left college to marry George and now feels an irresistible pull to start again where she left off. Zoe, a child of Upper East Side privilege is very none too happy about this decision and begins plotting her return before they have even left the state. Already arguing about radio music on the drive out of the city – Lucy likes James Taylor, Zoe likes Eminem and there is no twain there:
Zoe: You kidnap me to Hicksville and I don’t even have my iPod anymore. What’s the government want with it anyway?
Lucy: Probably for homeland security. Spook the terrorists.
Zoe: It’s not funny. I really love my iPod. I need it. Especially where we’re going.
Lucy: You know they have running water in “Chapel Hill”. And electricity, too.
Zoe: If it was so great, why didn’t you stay?
Lucy: I dropped out of college to marry your father. I guess right now that’s not looking like the smartest thing I ever did, huh?
Living arrangements in “Chapel Hill” are abysmal and Lucy’s work prospects are even worse until Garland Rucker, a friend from her past, offers her a receptionist job at his chaotic legal aid office. Lucy immediately digs in and reaching out when she encounters the desperate mother of a Muslim student who has been expelled from the University because of a cheating scandal. As the mother explains, her daughter, a star student and champion soccer player, couldn’t possibly done what the school alleges, but the daughter refuses to defend herself; Garland has closed the case because of the girl’s lack of cooperation. A preliminary, off the books investigation leads Lucy to believe in the girl’s innocence and a possible conspiracy on the part of another student and a powerful faculty member.
Zoe has seemingly adjusted well at school, having attracted the attention of the popular girls. Her comfort is short lived, however, when she participates in a hurtful scheme concocted by her new “friends.” Zoe, alienated by her surroundings and feeling abandoned decides that she will return back to New York and live with her father. Lucy, hurt by Zoe’s decision, supports it nonetheless, making sure that Zoe knows that she will always be there for her.
Zoe exits the First Avenue bus terminal. She sees a man holding up a sign with her name on it.
Zoe: where’s my Dad?
Driver: He had to leave town for a few days. Everything you need is at the apartment.
Zoe: When will he be back?
Driver: He didn’t say.
She soon returns to her mother, determined to make the best of what she still considers a pitiful situation.
No Meaner Place: Cosin has written a warm, interesting character piece that, in the best tradition of both comedy and drama, is essentially about a fish-out-of-water adjusting to a new, smaller aquarium. The character of Lucy, though wounded, is a strong, resilient role model who decides that in order to move on with life she needs to start back at the point where she made her first missteps, as she realized almost immediately that leaving school and marrying George were colossal mistakes and that making the best of bad situations isn’t the same as moving in a positive direction. Zoe is a marvelous depiction of a teenager with all the contradictions of personality that exist –petulant/enthusiastic, hateful/loving, rude/considerate. As in all well-constructed pilots, we know who these characters are and eagerly await their growth and learning curves as they face new circumstances.
CBS commissioned this script in the 2005/2006 pilot season for possible launch in the 2006/2007 broadcast season but did not produce it to pilot. I would still like to believe that it is unusual for something of this quality not to get a green light. Researching that pilot season on Studio System I found that of the 121 scripts that CBS bought, 28 were produced – 12 dramas (among which was “Orpheus” by Nick Meyer), and 16 comedies. The shows that premiered in the 2006/2007 broadcast season were “Smith,” “Rules of Engagement,” “3 Lbs” (reshot from the previous pilot season), “The Class,” “Jericho,” and “Shark” – 4 dramas and 2 comedies, only one of which, “Rules of Engagement, may still be on the schedule. Elizabeth was in excellent company as Ed Bernero, Denise Di Novi, Tim Kring, Barry Sonnenfeld, Barry Schindel and Shane Black all wrote scripts that went unproduced.
The good news in this bad news situation is that since this very well written script was not produced, it will within a short time return to Cosin’s control; and as she writes of a universal situation, it does not have an expiration date. More interesting, though, would be to try to interest the CW or a cable network such as Lifetime to take this to series.
Life Lessons for Writers: If they don’t make it you’ll get it back. But better yet, if they don’t make it the first time, find a reason for them to make it the next time.
Neely: Elizabeth, in the interest of full disclosure, everyone should know that we’ve been friends for a long time. That being said, sending me your script was risky because I have always told you how I felt one way or the other – sometimes good, sometimes not.
Elizabeth:I’ve always respected your opinion and knew you’d be honest about it. I’m just glad you liked it.
Neely: You now live up in the Sonoma region. What prompted the move? Don’t you find it more difficult to maintain a footing as a working writer when you’re away from the scene? I’m sure that part of the incentive for living far from the maddening crowd (the actual expression is “Madding” but since that refers to sheep and you’re closer to sheep up there than you would be down here, I changed it) is the love of gastronomy you share with Ignacio, your partner. I can envision the two of you giving Alice Waters a real run for her money. What did you serve at your most recent dinner party?
Elizabeth: The main thing that prompted the move was worry about the real estate market and a possible writers strike. Both of us are freelancers and our income isn’t consistent so the prospect of facing a mortgage in uncertain times was daunting. We took a chance and put our Santa Monica house on the market and got a great offer. After that, it was deciding on where to go from there. We picked a small town in Sonoma where we’d vacationed a few times and think we’ve found our forever home.
While we adjusted to small town life very quickly, work-wise it’s been a lot of trial-and-error. Early on, I probably didn’t get down to Los Angeles enough and then we had the strike and the only trips I made to L.A. were to walk the picket line. But I think it’s possible I needed the time away from the “big city’ to regroup and also to re-examine my creative life, to ask the tough questions of what I wanted to write and more important to finish projects that for one reason or another were gathering dust.
I started getting down to LA a lot last year and have a regular crash pad there which has made it easier to be consistent about going. I’m there for a week or two every few weeks and it’s worked out great. At first, I kept the move quiet but I’ve found it’s helped more than hurt. First, I’ve got way less stress in my life and second, people love the idea that I had the “guts” to make such a big move and to live in an idyllic place. They have no idea how easy it is though – and it’s not like I’m that far from L.A. – six hours by car or an hour by plane.
Plus the one great thing about living away from L.A. is being away from the L.A. scene. It’s not only the various distractions, it’s the expectations that can really crush a writer’s spirit. Down in L.A. you’re always hearing about who did what when and everybody’s in the business and the pressure can get to you, no matter who you are. Up here, the pace is slow and steady, people don’t care what you do for a living and there’s a great creative vibe that comes from people who work the land, or in kitchens or as artists. I’m sure that sounds like a cliché, but when I was living in L.A. I didn’t see how much I was caught up in stuff that doesn’t matter. I mean I take myself way less seriously up here. My friends and family count this as a good thing.
This year I rented a small office in town which has been a real godsend. It’s on the second floor of an old winery building – a small room with no windows to the outside, no phone. It’s a great environment for writing – I find there are days when I totally lose track of time.
When I’m not writing, I have this amazing landscape all around me. It’s like living in France or Italy – all these rolling hillsides and vistas that go on forever and the two-lanes that snake around past old farmhouses, giant oaks and of course acres of vineyards. That’s just what I see on a routine drive into town . It’s been more than three years now and I haven’t tired of it. I mean I love L.A. and I can see living there again, but it’s pretty amazing how much a little quiet, a lot of beauty and almost total lack of traffic does to lower your stress level and improve your general disposition. And even better, it makes you pay attention a lot more to the things around you. As a writer, that’s invaluable and I think maybe something I forgot to do when I was in the middle of the rat race.
Of course, the proximity to the land is part of the great adventure – exciting too because we’re practically at ground zero for this country’s burgeoning new fresh food movement. As you know we’ve been big fans of great food and there’s nothing like living practically on top of it. We buy almost everything at the source from meat to cheese to fruits and vegetables – it’s a rare meal where I don’t know exactly where my food came from or who grew and/or farmed it. Ignacio has flourished here too and has collected lots of fans among the locals, farmers and chefs included. Our last dinner party was Christmas Eve. We had broccoli and leek soup with foraged chanterelles, fresh pasta with hand-picked local crab and local rack of lamb marinated in garlic, olive oil and as Ignacio says “all the herbs the lamb eats”.
Neely: You’ve written a series of three mystery novels with a terrific protagonist – Zen Moses, a zaftig detective who is a lung cancer survivor – much like yourself. I always thought it would be the perfect vehicle for Camryn Manheim. I was disappointed that it never made it to series – again it was CBS that passed, but what about that third book? (This has been an ongoing conversation between us for some time).
Elizabeth: I still think Zen would make a great TV series but we sold it at the wrong time. Former Paramount exec Stacey Adams (now with CBS) and Kelly Edwards (who I think is also with CBS now) were the big fans of the project but I think CBS really wanted another procedural – and why not? They had so much success with the CSI franchise and shows like Without a Trace and Cold Case. Zen is really a character drama masquerading as a detective show – closer to, say Rockford Files than CSI and while I was willing to explore the potential of it as a procedural, I think everybody involved knew my heart wasn’t in it.
Neely: I look forward to reading a new version, one that stays closer to your vision. It’s been my experience that passion projects that are “adapted” to a studio’s proposed need rather than the “need” of the work or the artist never turn out as intended by either party. One can always insert a procedural element – which by any other phrase is just a mystery to be solved – in a work of detective fiction (for, after all, what is detective fiction but a mystery to be solved?). I still believe that the audience is hungry for character.
Elizabeth: At the time, CBS wanted Zen to be a cop, partly because they were worried about where the cases would come from. I understand a lot of this came from the trouble the networks have had in developing detective shows with female leads. Their ideas and choices were interesting and I tried to make them work but I think ultimately we just had different visions for the show. I’m not wed to Zen as written in the books – I realize I will have to make changes to adapt it to TV, but there’s one or two elements I just didn’t want to move off of and that was where we got stuck. I’m grateful that CBS believed in the project in the first place – maybe we’ll revisit together one day. I’ve been working on a new version of the pilot, my update of and homage to the detective genre. I’ll let you know if I pull it off.
Neely: You have one of the most interesting backgrounds that I’ve encountered. As I recall you were a sports writer. How did that start and is it still ongoing?
Elizabeth:Sports writing was a job I sort of fell into but grew to love. I definitely learned more about writing well from sports writing than any other job I’ve had. The single most defining moment of my life (so far) was getting lung Cancer in my 20s. When I got sick I was writing for a metro newspaper covering business but when I came back, I was kind of casting about for a new direction. The initial prognosis wasn’t good and there was a period there where I was forced to consider my own mortality. Nobody wants to have those thoughts ever but especially no one in their mid-20s and to say it rocked my world would be an obvious understatement. Those uncertain weeks really made me reconsider my place in the world, my future, my life and what I would do with myself if I didn’t have a lot of time left. One of the people who helped me through was the sports editor of my paper and he’s the one who convinced me to try writing sports – after all, I’ve always been a big fan. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done but I really learned about myself as a writer and was great training for my leap to fiction.
Neely: What an inspiring story, especially that you were nurtured at a time you needed it the most. I’ve always followed sports writing because I’ve always considered it the best writing in the paper. Historically some of our greatest American writers wrote for the Sports Pages – Ring Lardner (Chicago Tribune), Damon Runyon (New York American), both famous for their short stories; Jim Murray (Los Angeles Times) and Red Smith (New York Times) both of whom elevated sports writing to the art of the essayist; and Roger Angell (New Yorker) whose annual wrap-up of the baseball season is reason enough to subscribe to the magazine. I have particularly liked the books on baseball and baseball figures written by David Halberstam and George Will.
As a journalist and professional writer, what do you think has been the impact of the internet on the business, in general, and on writers, in particular?
Elizabeth: Probably this is sacrilegious to say but I think the Internet has killed journalism. There’s just way too much emphasis on getting the story first and way too little on getting it right. Bloggers don’t have to follow any of the rules of reporting or sourcing and too many rumors and incorrect stories fly around the Net too fast to make proper corrections or for wronged parties to respond. It’s a mess.
For fiction writers, the Net has been great though. Especially for authors – bookstores, publishers and authors connect easily through sites like Twitter and Facebook and fan, retail and publisher sites. No genre author can or should embark on a publicity tour without getting a presence on the Internet.
Neely: Living in Sonoma, you must miss the sports action. Who do you root for up there? You can’t still be a Clippers fan, can you?
Elizabeth: I’d be lost without my DirecTV. I get to follow my favorite teams – the Mets, NY Giants and Knicks from the comfort of my living room. We make occasional trips to see games in Oakland and San Francisco.
Neely: Let’s talk a bit about “Chapel Hill”. Why Chapel Hill? What’s the connection?
Elizabeth: No connection at all. Except that when I first started as a sportswriter in Washington, DC, I covered the ACC conference in football and basketball and I used to drive down to the Raleigh-Durham area at least a couple of times a year. That sign in the pilot where the distance is replaced by a basketball score is real -- I remember seeing it once on one of my trips.
“'Chapel Hill 15, Wake Forest 40’ Someone has scrawled out he mileage and replaced ‘15’ with ‘85’, so it reads like a lopsided basketball score.”
When I was thinking of a town, I wanted to use a place that had a liberal arts college and a varied population ethnic and class-wise -- a spot that could be part small town, but burgeoning new city.
Neely:Was this an idea pitched to you or did you come up with the premise?
Elizabeth: It all started because I wanted to write something outside the procedural world where I’d been pigeon-holed – I mean I just came off a run of working for shows like Law & Order: Criminal Intent, 24 and Dragnet and while it was awesome and certainly paid the bills, I wanted to write something different, show my character chops. The original idea was pitched to me by Charles Segars who produces as well as runs development at Scripps Networks (Fine Living and such). He liked my work and I loved his sense of characters and situations (and loved working him) so we set out to try to come up with a pilot together. He had a grain of an idea, kind of a like a female version of the hero in The Paper Chase. I loved the concept but I knew I needed to make it personal to me to really get my head around it. Charles was really generous in allowing me to take the story where I felt it should go and I ended up writing a spec pilot we both were proud of. It’s not that much different from the CBS version, a little more set-up and slightly more comedy.
We tried to sell it over two cycles but got no takers – probably because the original had almost no procedural elements at all. As I talked about earlier, I had sold my detective novels to Paramount but we couldn’t agree on a tone or approach. I was trying to save my deal with them when I brought up “Chapel Hill” over lunch with execs at Paramount and CBS – all women. I actually pitched it on the fly with no preparation but it worked because I’d been living with it for so long, I knew the characters cold and I believed in them and I had a definite clear idea about what the show was about.
Lucky for me they loved the concept so we set about re-conceiving it for them. It’s often in vogue for writers to whine about development execs and notes from the suits, but developing “Chapel Hill” was a great experience all around. Kelly Edwards and Jonathan Axelrod were the producers and they never stopped believing in me and the trio of Julie McNamara, Leigh Redman and Stacey Adams at Paramount plus Laverne McKinnon at CBS were all very supportive of the project and gave awesome notes. In fact, a note Julie gave me was critical to making the end of the show work.
Martha Williamson came on to help guide and focus the story and she was a wonderful mentor throughout the process. She took the time to understand my vision and never once tried to impose hers on it. I remember going off to write feeling very confident I’d deliver a solid script.
If I learned anything developing this script it was the importance of getting your whole team to believe in your show and in you. The crucial part is selling both – you and your show. Or more precisely, that you are the person they need and can trust to deliver this show. Every successful show has a steady leader at the creative helm, someone who will not compromise on the singular vision of the series, someone to make sure all the varied moving parts adds up to one big idea. The clearer your vision, the easier it is to get everybody on the same page. “Chapel Hill” was a true collaborative process and throughout it, I never felt like the network or the studio didn’t believe in my vision for the show or tried to impose their own over it.
Neely: I know it had to be heartbreaking because it was one of your best scripts and telling 100 stories would have been easy. Seems to be just another case of the right script at the wrong time.
Elizabeth: It was terribly heartbreaking I admit. Though when Nina Tassler called me personally to say CBS was passing, I also thought it was going to open some other doors into development. So I was feeling hopeful for my future anyway. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to find another pilot to work on together. I’m not sure who said it originally but I love the expression that Hollywood is a place where you can be encouraged to death.
Who knows why some shows get pick-ups and others don’t – mainly I imagine “Chapel Hill” wasn’t procedural enough (that’s a lot of what got added in the development process). Still, I’m hopeful that shows like it will make it onto the air more now that we’ve seen successful character dramas. My favorite at the moment and the one I think that has a real kinship to “Chapel Hill” is “Friday Night Lights.” It’s so brilliant, especially in the inter-relationships of its characters.
I love the way it investigates the deep inner world of small-town life and the people who live there, relying on emotional truths rather than familiar clichés. These are the places I would have wanted to explore in “Chapel Hill.” It was one of the rare scripts I’ve written where I can really say I know the characters, they’re based on real people I know. I mine a lot of true-life stuff for my Zen novels but those are fantasies. I mean I totally enjoy writing them but I felt “Chapel Hill” was going to give me a chance to create a rich landscape about a place and the characters that live there and the way their choices and mistakes weigh on themselves, their hopes and dreams and also about rising to the occasion when your life veers off course in ways you never expect. In a funny way, writing “Chapel Hill” made me a better novelist too. My new novel is in some ways a connection to what I was trying to do with Lucy and Zoe – different characters and places but the emotions are very much of the same family tree. I’m not denigrating my Zen novels by any means – I’m really, really proud of Zen as a character but I grew up faster than she did I think and while I have every intention of returning to her adventures, I really needed to go to this other place in my writer’s heart first. Who knows if I’ll make it work but then it’s supposed to be about the journey anyway, right?
Part of this has been theme and like almost all writers, I find I keep returning to the same themes over and over again. I don’t do it consciously, it sort of evolves on its own. “Chapel Hill” turned out to be about one of those themes, in this case it was the idea of starting over, changing your life – making a big leap of faith into your future away from something comfortable and into some great unknown. Of all the things I write about, this is among the most personal for me. I’ve uprooted my life more than once – moving out to L.A. from the East Coast was one of those times. First, the move was in part precipitated by surviving Cancer and wanting to make a big change in my life. I had a job waiting but I only knew one person in L.A. and didn’t even have a place to stay lined up past a week or two. The drive itself was an adventure – I had an idea of where I wanted to go but basically I just followed major roads and figured the route out as I went. To me it was a great new beginning, something I felt I had to do no matter what -- kind of like the kid in “Into the Wild.” I considered for maybe 3 minutes that it might suck being far away from friends, family, living in a big, new city, etc. but I never once considered what the cost would be to those people. Here I am on my great adventure and my parents are sort of grieving over me moving 3,000 miles away – this mere months after almost losing me to Cancer. They never once told me not to go and have been great anchors for me along the way, but since I moved out to LA we see much less of each other. I think by now they know I made the right choice but there will always be a tiny bit of guilt that I wasn’t physically closer to them, no matter that we talk on the phone every other day.
What’s a writer to do with that kind of shit but to write about it and that’s where I started with Lucy. Sure, her motives are ultimately noble but what’s the affect on Zoe who has as many reasons to want to stay in New York as Lucy has to leave? It’s not a reach for her to feel she is being dragged along on someone else’s adventure. In imagining the future of the series, I thought a lot about their relationship and especially how it’s Zoe who has made the biggest sacrifice. I was looking forward to exploring how this affected both Lucy and Zoe and what it would mean for their relationship. That’s why Lucy has that moment in the pilot where she lets Zoe go – it’s as much symbolic as it is literal. She has to do this, even though it goes against everything she feels is right and it’s at that moment when Lucy really understands the big responsibility she’s taken on – that it’s not just her journey alone. I love that scene when she meets Zoe at the bus station. Those are the moments writers live for. I was really looking forward to seeing this relationship grow and change over the course of the series -- I know it would have been fun to write. As you can tell, I loved Zoe. She’s a perfect character because she’s an age where kids want can’t wait to grow up but are still holding on to their last gasp of her childhood. Of course, like Lucy she has no idea she’s crossing a line. We hardly ever notice stuff like that until we’ve lived through it.
Neely: What about a different avenue? Since CBS Studios is behind it, have they considered selling it elsewhere, or rolling it to next season?
Elizabeth: I think at this point, it’s back in my hands. I’d love to pitch it elsewhere – I have some ideas to update Lucy’s character vis-à-vis the recent financial crisis faced by the country. But I could easily see this on TNT – something to pair with the fabulous “Men of a Certain Age,” for example. And I’ve never given up hope that CBS will take another look at it – it’s really perfect for them and isn’t it true that “women of a certain age” (I won’t use THAT word) are in vogue these days? I’m so proud of that script. I entered it into the WGA Writer Access Contest and won in the Diversity (women) division.
Neely: Congratulations. But in some ways it is ironic…I never considered women, as a group, to be a minority.
Elizabeth: I know. But if you look at the writing staffs of current programs you will find very few women. You’d be surprised how many shows don’t have any women on the writing staff.
Neely: What’s up next for you? Have you been in town to pitch?
Elizabeth: I’ve got a new novel I’ve been working on. It’s not a Zen novel. The character is an LA cop on leave for a psychological problem and he ends up investigating a crime that forces him to confront his family’s past. I’m very excited about it and hope to have a publisher in early 2010. Then there’s the as-yet unpublished third Zen novel Zen Justice which may also see the light of day in the New Year.
I’ve done a lot of pitching the last couple of years – I’ve been out with two major projects in particular. One was a cop drama with a writing partner where we came this close to selling but I think in the end it was just too risky for most places. I’ve got a new project with two young producers that I’ve excited about – a sort of character cop drama that takes place in another small southern town – which I’m just finishing a script for.
I also have a couple of spec pilots. One is a crazy cable drama in the vein of “Out of Sight” called “Small Crimes,” and the other is about a female cop who is haunted by her dead ex-partner called “Magic Hour”.
And finally, I’ve decided that 2010 is the year I will direct my first feature film. I’ve got a script I’m working on that I’m going to shoot on a shoe-string budget up here in wine country with an almost all local cast. It’s a story that I’ve wanted to tell for a long time and I can’t think of a better place to tell it than my little bucolic town.
Neely: All of that sounds fantastic and I can’t wait to see what happens. Also, I still think there’s a home waiting for “Chapel Hill”. I’m so happy to hear that you are pushing harder than ever. As Phoef Sutton remarked in an earlier “conversation with”,
When I started, I knew it would be hard to break in; I didn’t realize that I’d have to continue to break in.
Please keep me posted and finish Zen Justice because I want more Zen Moses (and because I don’t think you’re done with her yet)!
As a parting note, I loved your “advice for young writers.” The following is an edited (for length) version:
It doesn't matter what anybody says or how much work there is or who gets gigs on the Who You Know circuit or who the best unemployed writer or unpublished script is. It doesn't matter. None of it does. What matters, what always will matter now and forever, is the work.
And not just any work but your work. What matters is if you are one of those people who are hard-wired to write then write you must do, no matter if it pays the bills or not. No matter what anyone tells you. No matter the prospects of getting paid or published or even printed on glossy white 3-hole punch paper. No matter what, period.
Because if you are one of those poor suckers, you already know the gospel by heart. You ain't in it for the money. Only a fool becomes a writer to get rich. You're in it because you're in it and there's no way out of it. You're here because you have no choice, because there are forces at work well beyond your control that compel you to turn that glob of gray between your ears into words and sentences, paragraphs and chapters, dialogue, scenes, acts, to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard or blood to stone. Because you have no fucking choice.
If it's in you, you know. And if you know, then you don't need anybody to tell you that you've just turned on to an endless two-lane between the voices in your head and those voices on paper making any kind of sense, the latter so far out on the horizon, you can't be sure if it's home or a thousand-foot death drop off a cliff.
I'll tell you what you say to that young kid just starting out or to the reflection in your mirror on those days when you're certain you've either written your last good word or the last word of yours anybody will ever read. You remind that kid (and you) that nothing will ever matter more than the work, that on this crazy, winding, frightening, amazing, wondrous, magical and sometimes fucked up ride that for sure has been chosen for us and not vice versa, the only thing you'll ever have any control over is your craft. And nobody can take that away from you. Not if you don't let them.
Check out Elizabeth’s blog on photography - www.shyonelung.blogspot.com