interview by Douglas Eby
After adapting Dorothy Allison's book "Bastard Out of Carolina" as the directorial debut film for Anjelica Huston, Anne Meredith went on to write the screenplay for "Losing Chase", for which she recently won the prestigious CableACE Award. It was produced for Showtime cable, directed by Kevin Bacon and starred Helen Mirren and Kyra Sedgwick.
Writing has been an interest of hers for a long time: "As long as I had crayons. I was writing before I could spell," Meredith says.
"I never really planned on being a screenwriter, but rather a fiction writer. I couldn't get any of my fiction published to save my life, and I ended up here in LA about six years ago, and a friend of mine who's an actress said I should try to write a screenplay.
"Losing Chase" was a novella I had written as part of my senior project at Bard College. It was about ninety pages. I actually wrote that when I was about twenty, and I adapted it when I moved here, so the story had been with me a long time.
"I think it was actually ten years to the day that they started shooting it. It was never meant to be a movie, but I always wrote very visually, so it wasn't a big leap for me to make from writing fiction to screenplays.
"I had written it after reading a book on writing screenplays, and I gave it to my actress friend, to see if it read like a screenplay was supposed to, because I had no clue what I was doing.
"Then I went home to visit my parents for two weeks, to borrow some money, I think, because I was starving at the time. While I was away, she kept giving it to other friends of ours from Bard to read, because she thought it was so good.
"Any writer sees their characters living and breathing, whether they're writing a novel or poem, haiku or play or whatever. Writers tend to see their people, their characters, moving in real time. So it isn't that big of a difference for me between writing fiction and screenplays. The only real difference is the structure of the writing, and it's actually kind of liberating to have a structure imposed on you. It's more freedom than less.
"But casting is a whole other thing. Basically what you want to do is write your first draft, give birth to your baby, and then watch as you send it off to day care, and it can either get molested or abused, or coddled.
"It's a crap shoot. You don't know. If you're working for people, and not making films by yourself, not casting and producing and directing, you have no control over all that. I've been very lucky so far in my career with the people that I've been working with."
One of the themes of her story "Losing Chase" is personal identity, which is something Meredith is familiar with: "I definitely had that problem as a child" she notes.
"Boy, did I have that problem. I had so many possibilities. The only thing that got in my way was the fact that I was a girl. But I was so hard-headed that I didn't realize that was a liability, so it didn't become one.
"But if I had chosen to be a professional athlete -- if I had been able to play Little League, I probably would have wanted to be a baseball player. But I wasn't allowed to play.
"I painted, and played music, and was a ski racer, and played tennis on the junior circuit -- there were so many things I loved doing, and was good at doing. It wasn't problematic for me, but I think my parents thought it was.
"I felt like Superman, which is probably what has allowed me to be here with such a happy heart, because Hollywood can bruise sensitive people quickly. It's not that I'm not sensitive; I'm incredibly sensitive, but I feel like I'm able to leap tall buildings and come down on the other side and land on my feet somehow.
"That's one thing where girls really do themselves in. I blame their mothers for that. I think for the most part, their fathers are clueless about raising daughters.
"And there are studies about when girls get to school, that first grade girls are as good or better at science and math than boys are, and as time goes by, it reverses. And it's only because the teachers, and most of them happen to be women, are calling on the boys and excluding the girls.
"So I really hold women accountable for not empowering their own daughters, and for empowering their sons over their daughters. I speak to that a lot in my work as a writer. It makes me mad, because I've seen it around me so much."
Meredith says she doesn't know how she escaped all that.
"But pretty much as a child, I felt genderless, and that's probably why. I was a tomboy, and I was able to beat up any boy who picked on my best friend or whatever, and I had a lot of power on the playground.
"It wasn't brute strength, and I wasn't bigger than they were, it was just determination, and I had a real strong sense of what's right and what's wrong, and how to behave and how not to behave.
"The gym teacher always picked me and another boy to select others for the kickball teams. That's a rotten position to be in, because you want to pick the teams that will win, but you don't want to exclude anyone.
"I always picked the kid with the glasses that were like ten inches thick, and the girl who couldn't run because she'd been in an accident when she was a kid, and like that.
"And if I heard any other kids mocking any of them, I just took off like a banshee and beat the crap out of them. I was constantly being sent home from school. But I was in the gifted kids program, too, and that was good."
She always knew she was different from her brother and sister, she says, and "from everybody. And I liked hanging around with old people, like eighty-year-olds. I grew up in a little town in Pennsylvania, and I loved these old ladies who had gin parties every afternoon on their porches. They taught me how to mix the perfect martini.
"My sense of being an outsider got worse and worse through my adolescence. Or better and better. It helps me work in Hollywood, because I'm not intimidated by anybody, and it helps because I have a kind of innocent way of looking at things, but at the same time I'm completely aware of what's going on around me, like I have eyes in the back of my head. I'm not naive about this business at all.
"You could be a very charismatic woman, and say all the right things, do all the right things, but that doesn't mean you're a great writer, and if you can't write, they will find you out quickly, and you will not be working any more."
"Losing Chase" was her script sample, and people didn't want to make the movie.
"A lot of top -- the 'A List' -- movie stars all got that script, and I had meetings with their production companies, but nobody wanted to make it because they were afraid of the lesbian connotations, or they thought [Chase] was too crazy, and she wasn't sympathetic enough, and on and on.
"The only reason it got made is because Kyra's big brother Nikko is a good friend of mine, and he called me up a few years ago saying Kyra was looking for a movie to make. Then she gave it to Kevin [Bacon, her husband] and he wanted to direct it. And they took it to Helen Mirren who was doing a play on Broadway, and she said she wanted to do it, so two months later a movie was being made."
But still, the script had been "floating around" for five years before anything happened, she notes.
"It was used as my writing sample, and it was a great proof of what this kid was capable of doing, and it was on the strength of it that I was hired to do 'Bastard Out of Carolina.' So it's basically hurdles that you jump, and how many are you going to knock down when you're going through this race. Well, I got through that race without knocking any hurdles down, then I get another job for kind of a bigger movie, then a bigger one.
"But each time, as the jobs get bigger, the stakes get higher, and you're a trained seal, pretty much, and you have to know how to bounce the ball on your nose, and when to slap the trainer across the face with your tail.
"You can't, as a person, allow other people to manipulate you, just because that's what they do. You have to learn when to give in on arguments on which direction the script is going to go. Luckily, that didn't happen with either of the two movies of mine that have been made.
"But you have to learn when to surrender, when to fight, how to fight, and all of that is instinctual; no one can tell you how to do it."
"And there's not like a girl's club here that's protecting us, like a sisterhood. At least not that I've met. Nobody's called to ask me to their meetings. Not that I would go, but actually I think there are some groups that exist around town to help women.
"I personally don't think anyone can teach you that stuff, just like no one can teach you how to write. You're either born a storyteller or not. You can buy these books and get the format of a screenplay down, and come up with some really catchy idea and get lucky and sell it, but the improbability is high.
"If you keep giving them things that are better than they've seen before, then their expectations of you increase and increase. So the best you can do is match your prior performance, and not let it slip."
To keep working, she finds, it is also helpful to "take a lot of holidays and go to the beach a lot. Every opportunity I have, I get out of this town. I like it here, though. I'm very amused by this city.
"But I don't think I'd be if I weren't working. This is a cruel town. It eats its young. It's not a pretty story. If you're doing well here, you have to thank God or whoever you're going to thank, and hope that your luck continues and that your well doesn't dry up.
"And you have to keep your sense of humor, and you cannot take these people or this town too seriously, and stay true to what it is you set out to do, or else you lose your soul, and that happens to so many people here."
Meredith has a strong warrior sensibility about working and surviving in such a spiritually demanding business: "I'm more like a resistance fighter" she says. "Blow things up. Take hostages. Be heard.
"I was never treated like a little girl, because I never behaved like a little girl, I always behaved like a boy. And it did serve me well. A lot of people were trying to force me into being a girl, it's not like everyone was very tolerant in the kind of town where I grew up. But somehow I was born this way, and so there's really nothing for me to do about it.
"The best thing I can do is just go someplace and calm down, because I get more and more -- I want to be in 'Road Warrior' - I want to get on a motorcycle, with leathers and studs, and be a gladiator" she says, laughing.
"But I don't indulge that. I do things to counter it. I do yoga, I take hikes, I try to suppress that beast. I try to keep that maniac contained so that when I'm writing it can come out there. But I don't even identify myself as female, exactly. Or male.
"I mean, I know I am a woman, and there's no doubt about it, but all of this stuff that society heaps on girls and women about what it means to be a woman -- I just never bought any of it, so I really don't know how to define myself or where I stand, except I know it's on the fringe. I'm happy there. Totally.
"I wouldn't be anywhere else. I'd kill myself. That's what 'Losing Chase' is about. It's about me imagining, at twenty, what would I be like if I were forty (which is what she started out; when Kyra go involved we had to up her age a bit), and I had made some stupid decision to marry some banker guy and live out on the Cape with him? Well, first of all, I'd have a nervous breakdown. Second, I'd be really bitter. I'd be incredibly cynical, I'd take it out on everyone around me.
"It was so easy, I wrote that in like two days. It was stream of consciousness, and like a session with a therapist.
"And that quality of expressiveness is still in my writing, about ninety percent of the time. Although I tried not to get involved too much in 'Bastard..' -- I tried not to pay attention to what I was writing.
"I remember going to see 'Once Were Warriors' and the domestic violence was really hardcore, but the film was really well done, and I remember it was right when I had finished writing 'Bastard.'
"In the theatre, I felt physically ill. I had never felt like that in a movie. I'm like a soldier. But I felt like throwing up, watching, and I thought 'My God. I've written a movie that's ten times worse than this, and I'm not even going to be able to sit through my own movie.'
"But the main thing was, how did I write it without paying attention to that. I was completely on autopilot. And now I've seen 'Bastard' twice, and that's enough."
Meredith ends with a message to "Tell little girls to go for it. The time when you really need to get to girls is when they're kids. That's when you need to tell them they can do anything they want, because they can.
"Before the boys, and their parents, and the schools and everybody else takes their big collective boot and puts it on their throat and says 'Oh no you don't.' So if there's anything I want to impart, it's to those kids.
"Like when they put the boot on your throat, just grab them by the ankle and kick them off. And then beat the crap out of them, dust yourself off and go about your business."
~ ~ ~more quotes about her film "Bastard out of Carolina" by actor Jena Malone and novelist Dorothy Allison on page : abuse & creative expression3
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