Behind the Scenes - May
How did we get here?
I’m Claire and this is Letters from Callie, a fictional screenwriter in 1922. If you thought Hollywood was always a boys’ club… you need to read this newsletter 😎
Hello! Welcome to the first edition of Callie behind the scenes! Every last Friday of the month, I’ll give a bit of background info on the project, some historical notes and some suggested reading and watching.
As this is the first one, I thought I would start at the beginning: where this came from, what it’s all about, and just why it is so important to me.
It won’t be a surprise to any of you that I’ve been fascinated by early Hollywood and the women that shaped it for as long as I can remember. As I’ve said many times, I’m not a historian, just a geek — but also a former screenwriter.
When I left school, I knew that I wanted to work in theatre and film, but I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do.
No, that’s a lie.
I knew I wanted to write and direct, but was afraid to say so out loud.
Towards the end of my foundation course at LAMDA, one of the tutors asked what I wanted to do next. I plucked up the courage to tell him. His response?
“That’s near impossible for a woman. Have you thought about going into script development?”
But do you know who popped into my head?
My flatmates and I had watched Chaplin (yes I had a crush on RDJ at the time; no, I don’t want to talk about it) the previous weekend. As I sat there, trying to formulate a response to this ridiculous man, all I could think was, but she was a director and that was nearly a hundred years ago.
My curiosity aroused, I popped into the library on my way home (for this was the days before the internet. Yes, I’m very old; no I don’t want to talk about it). There were no books on Mabel Normand to be found, but with the help of a librarian, I came across a book called Chaplin and His Times, by Kenneth S Lynn. As the title suggests, it delved quite a bit into the world of the fledgling industry. And I was off!
Two years later, I was accepted onto a screenwriting program at the Vancouver Film School, with a first draft of a very early version of the story that will be told through Callie’s letters.
You might not be shocked to learn that an epic historical drama isn’t the ideal project for a baby screenwriter to go out into the world with.
I reluctantly put it aside for scripts that had a shot of getting made, but every few months or years, I’d pull it out and treat myself to a little tinker. Over the years I’ve developed movies, series, radio dramas and novels around various versions of this story.
Now and then, I’ve accidentally started chatting about it in pitch meetings that were supposed to get me actual jobs. Producers would invariably get excited and ask to read the latest draft. Then, a few months later, they’d point out that it’s not exactly low budget and I’d never hear from them again.
No matter! I’d think. One day, when I’ve made it and they all come begging for my next big idea, I’ll pull this out!
Ta-daaaahh! I’ll say. Look what I’ve had in my back pocket all this time.
Twelve years ago, I moved to Stockholm.
I spent that first, mad, summer when I didn’t know a soul or speak a word of Swedish, living in an unfurnished apartment on a blow-up mattress, reading every bit of information on Greta Garbo I could find. I even picked my way through a few Swedish biographies, painstakingly translating word-by-word. Towards the end of the summer, I stumbled across the information that when she started making money in the States, she bought her mother an apartment… in the very building I was living.
Yes, I went and touched every button on the ancient, rickety elevator, knowing that there was a chance she had touched one of them too.
That summer, I started developing a new twist on my story.
The essential theme has always been the bohemian creatives of very early Hollywood vs the patriarchy invading in the form of Wall Street investment and censorship as the “Golden Age” approaches.
The values of personal liberty and non conformity were clearly dear to Garbo’s heart. While she was shy, she was also obstinate and aware of her own value: we know that she went on strike several times early in her career when she wasn’t happy with the roles MGM were pushing her to play, or thought they were paying her enough to do so.
What if, I thought, she had gone head to head with Joseph Breen to protect Queen Christina from the coming of the Code?
Queen Christina was Garbo’s passion project, and very much of the Pre Code era. It told the story of an unmarried, bisexual queen of Sweden who has a three-day sh*g fest with a man she’s just met, then abdicates the throne for the sake of her own freedom. The driving theme is duty vs self, and it attacks the myth of women “having it all” decades before anyone thought of it.
Naturally, it made Breen’s head explode and he demanded it be cut to shreds before release, but MGM execs outplayed him and it was one of the last movies to escape unscathed.
While I personally believe Garbo would have been horrified by Breen and his demands, there is no evidence (that I’ve ever found) that suggests she confronted him herself or took any personal action to protect the film.
But as a dramatic proposition, it’s compelling.
So I wrote it.
I still had the same budget/baby writer issue, but I believed there was at least a possibility that a Swedish production company would get excited enough about a Garbo project that they would give me a chance.
Three years ago, one did.
A friend introduced me to a fairly big-time Swedish producer — basically, if you’ve heard of a Swedish production, he probably had something to do with it. By this point I was pretty well established as an author, but I still dipped a toe back into the film industry now and then. So I decided to go for it. I pitched an epic, ambitious, sprawling drama that was driven by Garbo as the main character, but really told the story of the women of the early industry and how they were treated, through her eyes.
I was in his office for over an hour, burbling over with stories of Frances Marion, Mary Pickford, June Mathis, Lois Weber.
He bought it.
You could have knocked me over with a feather.
Soon after, issue of a ‘name’ showrunner reared its ugly head.
While my issues with the way the American job title has been bastardised by European producers to be code for writer they are more comfortable with could fill a whole other newsletter, I was fully aware it wasn’t a battle I’d win. We discussed in detail how due to the nature of the story, any writer who came in over my head should be a woman, and that I would be deeply involved in the process as creator. The option contract confirmed that I had the right to write the pilot episode at least, so I made my peace with that, and sent them several wish-lists of potential female showrunners.
A year later, they informed me it was now going to be written by some guy I’d never heard of, but that I was welcome to be “involved.” On a project I’d been researching, writing and dreaming about for my entire adult life.
Initially, I was happy to discuss, to try to figure out a way I could get on board with their new plans (again, picking my battles — I would have tried to come around to almost anything to get the thing made), but my pleas to talk fell on deaf ears: they simply ignored me, for months. Eventually, I pointed to the clause in the contract that confirmed they couldn’t just hand the pilot to another writer without even discussing it with me, and told them it wasn’t happening.
They waited out the rest of the option term, then announced they would be continuing the project — minus me.
Their position was that because some of the story was based in history, I had no rights over it. My position was that their position was a crock of self-serving b*llshit, not least as I had invented the bits that made it into a dramatic story. Luckily, an eyewateringly expensive lawyer agreed, and it appears that the project is no more —
Along with my screenwriting career.
But I still have my story, and I’m going to tell it here.
I hope you enjoy it.
Letters come out every Monday, and next month’s behind the scenes will feature a bit more history! Thank you again to all of you who have followed and supported this story — some of you for many years and through many iterations of it! We’ll get there.