This June, it will be officially one year since I graduated from the Toronto Film School and 11 months since I optioned my first feature film script. Yes, I optioned a feature right out of school. Yes, I genuinely thought I wrote a great movie. And yes, I felt like a success. That lasted about a week. Since then, my life has been a bottomless swamp of constant revision, debate, self-doubt, self-hatred and stress-induced digestive problems. Maybe your experience working on your first feature script will be different. Maybe it will be easier. Maybe you think I’m being unnecessarily negative about the privilege of taking part in the film industry and devoting myself to something that will ultimately become art. Maybe you’re right. If this is the kind of thing you want to read, I highly suggest you go to the library and borrow Shonda Rhimes’ “The Year of Yes” – it’s life-affirming, happy and celebrates the joy in the struggle. I would rather talk about the hard stuff I wish I had known about – and fully understood – when I was a recent graduate. Because at this time last year I had no concept of the stamina I’d need to turn what I had optioned – the second draft with snappy dialogue and a cool idea – into what it is now: a feature film script that my producer, director and the CFC thought should be pitched in LA.
Here’s a fun fact about optioning something: You get about one meeting where you can bask in the glow of your successful script, and then, everyone starts telling you how bad it is. Sorry, not how bad it is – “how much work it needs”. Your producer will send it out for notes. A lot of those notes will be thoughtful and helpful. Some of these notes will be thoughtful, but not be helpful. And perhaps some of these notes will be so bad, they’ll become your favourite stories to tell at parties. For example, a shocking number of people were very confused as to why my script – which is a comedy about university students making feminist pornography – had to focus so much on women. But more generally, it’s hard not to get emotional whiplash when you’re constantly being told “Great script but…. wouldn’t it be better if it was something entirely different?”.
For the first four months, I took it all in stride. There were so many options I could take as a writer, the story could go pretty much wherever, and it was still fun to just talk about ideas and play with the script. Then things got more serious. First, we got a director on board – a director who also happened to be a talented writer, and was very involved in every draft of the script I wrote after that. Then we got into the Comedy Exchange with Canadian Film Centre, and I started working with two story editors who were based in Los Angeles – screenwriter Kristen Smith and producer Ron Yerxa. Feel free to look these people up on IMDB. They are both very established, very big fucking deals. Yerxa is the producer behind some of the greatest indie comedies of my lifetime (including “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Election”) and Smith not only wrote one of my all-time favourite movies: “10 Things I Hate About You” but also a little movie called “Legally Blonde”. So not only was I sharing my story and my characters and what was, occasionally, my very personal reasoning for my artistic choices with all these people I didn’t know, but all of these people felt like giants to me, and I started to feel totally under-qualified to be working on my own script.
And I didn’t exactly rise to the occasion. I became defensive. I took things personally. I was overwhelmed and constantly, constantly frustrated. I was frustrated when I had disagreements but felt like I had no right to argue. I was frustrated when I absolutely agreed with input because I was embarrassed I hadn’t thought of them myself. When people suggested any kind of plot changes I wondered if my story could survive another restructuring or if it would just collapse into the heap of garbage it clearly was. I started to get mini-panic attacks whenever I opened Final Draft.
I made it to Christmas when I got a bit of a break and used it to focus on other writing – writing that was all my own, writing that I still liked. I felt a bit better. Then I was reminded by the most level headed person I know – my mother – that I was allowed to be emotional and defensive about my ideas, but only when it actually mattered. So I wrote a five list of things in my script that I wanted to fight for no matter what – hills to die on, so to speak. Then I cut the list down to three because five is too many. My mother also helpfully reminded me I had been to the Toronto Film School, where I had built a support system I was still allowed to use. When I needed to cut off 30 pages of a particularly messy draft that I could barely stomach reading anymore, I asked my old classmate, Nick Peterson, for help, and he came through for me. After that, I wrote another draft, then another, and another after that and eventually I got a text from my director which proclaimed that “this script is starting to feel like a movie.”.
At the end of March, I took a leaner, richer and ultimately better script to Los Angeles for meetings with various producers, casting directors and packaging agents. Those who read it mostly liked it. Whether they like it enough to work with us to get the movie made is entirely another matter – I’m pretty at peace with whatever comes next. I feel like I’ve done my job. And while it feels much less exciting now than it did when I first optioned the script a year ago, it feels better, because I’ve put the work in. I’ve earned it.
Mika Rekai, a screenwriter and journalist from Toronto, is a graduate of the Writing for Film & Television program at Toronto Film School. She is the creator of comedy web series, AntiSocial. A College Girl’s Guide to Pornography is her first feature.