Cinestory: Go Sell It On the Mountain

I clutch the steering wheel until my poor writer’s knuckles crackle. Glaring at the rental car’s GPS, I yell, “You’re insane. I can’t possibly go up there!” The moonlit mountain before me is so large, its peak exceeds my windshield’s visual capacity. I fervently repeat my latest mantra from Ralph Marston, “Excellence is not a skill. It’s an attitude.” The stubborn GPS counters with a mantra of its own, “Continue…continue…continue.” I recognize the simple wisdom in its command. If I want to achieve new heights in my screenwriting skills, I must follow this terrifyingly twisty road up the side of a mountain…in the dark. I double-check the seatbelt holding my laptop bag in the passenger seat and get back on the road.

Like all of history’s greatest gurus, the coveted Cinestory Writers’ Retreat in Idyllwilde, CA requires a pilgrimage cross-country, through the 405’s gauntlet of unforgiving drivers, and up a narrow mountain road that would make a goat tremble. Tracy King-Sanchez, a writer/director that I respect as a real warrior in film and life once told me if I want to master my screenwriting skills, I must “go cry on the mountain”. And cry I did, but that came later.

It’s taken me two years to be selected for Cinestory, a nonprofit screenwriting program that matches writers with respected film industry professionals for four days of intense group and one-on-one mentoring sessions. I was thrilled to win one of the twenty-five spots. The retreat’s magic lies in its relative intimacy, which leads to spontaneous conversations between mentors and baby screenwriters during sessions and over boisterous, wine-fueled meals. My first clue as to the caliber of mentors I would meet comes in the form of an etiquette contract, which we writers are required to sign. I happily scribble my name knowing that I would rather challenge Barbra Streisand to a sing-off than approach a mentor with one of my scripts.

Now, it’s been many years since I’ve endured a first day of school, but here I am again with my new pens, virgin composition notebook, and secret bag of candy. I introduce myself to some Cinestory board members, then get busy rearranging my pens to the absolute best of my ability. As others trickle in, I flip open to the screenwriters’ bios and feel the old panic sitting heavy on my chest. These writers are produced and represented. What the hell am I doing here? And how long will it take them to discover the lamb in wolf’s clothing amongst them?

I feel lost and numb as I watch the other writers laugh and shake hands. Meg LeFauve, renowned producer and screenwriting teacher, opens the retreat by drawing the traditional Hero’s Journey on a large pad, casting us baby screenwriters as the hero. She lays out the retreat’s milestones and opportunities that we will face, highlighting the possible paths to experience based on our choices. The Central Question of my Cinestory Journey is clear: will I overcome my fear and become the writer I’m destined to be?

As I nervously sit down for my first one-on-one mentor meeting, I wind my legs tightly together to remain upright and smile what can only be described as a Grinchy grin. I stare awkwardly at the Creative Executive from one of Hollywood’s most successful production companies. I now carry her business card in my wallet as a totem to remind myself, “Yep! That sure as hell happened.” My mind goes blank as she quotes her favorite scenes from my script. She has truly read it. And liked it. She points out opportunities to attract actors to the project, which forever changes how I write my characters. We discuss my recent writer’s identity crisis brought on by the well-meaning advice of a sharply dressed executive (see previous blogs), which led to a frustrating summer of wasted effort and zero completed scripts. She assures me that she hears my writer’s voice loud and clear in this script and she wants to hear even more of it. I scribble down her suggested notes and gratefully agree to send her a new draft. Can this really be happening?

I leave that meeting measurably taller. I startle a fellow writer by suddenly introducing myself with a hearty handshake and a ribald joke. She laughs and says, “You finally found your voice.” Yes, I truly have.

This is the magic of Cinestory. Unlike other script contests that look for the most marketable screenplays, the Cinestory mentors are listening for new authentic, entertaining voices. And they chose mine. Considering I had been depressed enough to consider hanging up my keyboard for good just a few weeks before, this revelation reduces me to sloppy sobbing in my rustic, little hotel room later that night. I picture Meg LeFauve’s character arc and resolve to answer every challenge Cinestory offers with a YES that will echo off these mountains until it reaches the sparkling studios of Hollywood.

I anxiously anticipate the next day’s one-on-one mentor session with one of the coolest writers in Hollywood. There will be more extraordinary group sessions, where I’ll perch on a sofa just a few feet from some of the film industry’s most dynamic professionals sharing their wisdom and answering our questions. I will also join a trial-by-fire session called “Fly On the Wall”, which is the roller derby of story pitching practice.

As I collapse into bed the first day, I now know two things. One of the greatest challenges a writer will ever face is to find and protect her voice. And, if my voice can reach this Executive at an award-winning production company, then it can reach another. And another. And another.