Monday, February 3, 2014

What We're Writing... Hallie in a Hollywood moment

HALLIE EPHRON: Welcome again to What We're Writing Week on Jungle Red! I get to lead off...

Two weeks ago I reached that blissful moment when I typed THE END!! (yes, I added the exclamation points) and sent "Night Night, Sleep Tight" off to my editor and agent. Now I'm hot and heavy into revising, addressing their comments. So much more fun than writing first draft. And Yikes! So much to deal with.

The novel is set it in Beverly Hills in 1985 and 1963. The main character is Deirdre Unger who, like me, is the daughter of Hollywood screenwriters. Her father gets killed. Going through his papers, Deirdre comes across the memoir he's been writing.

The memoir opens at a pivotal Hollywood moment, the beginning of the end of "studio system." I'm drawing on my parents experience at Twentieth Century Fox when they, along with most of the studio's creative personnel who'd been under long term contract, lost their jobs.

For twenty years my parents had been churning out script after script.Then, just like that, they were out of work.

Cost overruns for the 
movie Cleopatra were blamed -- at $40M it was then the most expensive movie ever made. But within a few years, long term contracts were a thing of the past at just about all the studios.

Here's an exceprt that introduces Deirdre and the reader to her father's "memoir" in "Night Night, Sleep Tight" --

Deirdre started to read. The type on the first page, centered on an otherwise blank page, read "ONE DAMNED THING AFTER ANOTHER," and below that, "by Arthur Unger, 1984." 
Deirdre turned to the next page. 
The writing was on the wall of our office at Twentieth Century Fox when the secretary didn't show up and the phone disappeared. We were screwed. Shafted. Sucker-punched. Time to strike the set.
Deirdre smiled. She could hear her father's voice. For a moment her chest tightened and her vision blurred. 
Beneath the opening paragraph, text was indented and formatted like the slug lines and stage directions of a movie script.         
INT. TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX - SCREENWRITERS OFFICE - DAY (1963) ARTHUR UNGER opens the door to his office and starts to enter. He's trim, middle-aged, wears a suit and holds his hat. Stops. He looks surprised. Dismayed.
His secretary's desk is empty. Disconnected phone wires are coiled on the floor. 
ARTHUR crosses to the window, looks two stories down to a deserted studio street where a huge movie poster for Cleopatra is plastered across a wall. In front of it is an empty phone booth. 
ARTHUR raises the window. Sits on the ledge.
No, I didn't jump. Two stories up? Not high enough to kill me, and damned if I was going to let the sonofabitches cripple me for life. When I went outside to use the pay phone, I swear there were vultures circling overhead. Could've been a scene out of Hitchcock, but Hitchcock worked for Universal.

Turned out hundreds of us arrived on the Fox lot that morning to find our office phone lines had been disconnected and our typewriters returned to Props
Unfortunately for Arthur, losing his job twenty years ago isn't the only thing he writes about. He's unclear on the concept there may be secrets he knows that others might not want him to tell.

That's what it comes down to for me, over and over again in writing a novel: secrets. Who's got a secret, and who else knows it, and who thinks they do but are wrong? Usually the biggest secret isn't whodunnit, but why.


  1. What a fascinating glimpse into the behind-the-scenes [and definitely not so nice] workings of the studios . . . and the secrets . . . . I’m really looking forward to reading this book.

  2. Sounds fascinating, Hallie. Get some famous actors in there. And I personally can't wait to read what life was like on the other side of LA. Alhambra is a long way from Beverly Hills.

  3. Thanks, guys! Hollywood could be pretty toxic. Still is, I guess. Personally I'm saddened today by the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Such a hugely talented actor.

  4. Thanks for the teaser, Hallie. Can't wait to read the book. As Jack said, Temple City is a long way from Hollywood. I think I went into LA fewer than a dozen times before I went south to Irvine for college: to the hospital, to a ballet, to Alvera Street and Chinatown, to the Farmers market, and to Dodger stadium to see the Beatles! (Although I was on at least one TV show in the first grade when I was a princess in the Camellia Parade...) We might as well have been living in midwestern village.

  5. I can't wait to read it also Hallie. I bet it's come a long ways since we were brainstorming possible plots back last May:)

  6. Night Night, Sleep Tight sounds fascinating, especially as you aren't guessing how the abrupt cessation of long-term contracts reverberated through writers' lives, you witnessed that fallout.

    Was it difficult (in an emotional sense) to take on this plot line?

  7. Yay Hallie! I remember how you were trying to figure out the ending… what made you finally decide? And hurray !

  8. Thanks, Lucy! Way back then I was wandering around feeling like I had no idea what I was doing. Hank, I remember torturing you about the ending, too. The ending is... weird. Not like any I've ever written.

  9. Brenda, it wasn't hard emotionally to write about. I wasn't in its vortex, though I experienced the fallout. Kids can oblivious to other people's woes. And teenagers particularly so.

  10. This definitely sounds interesting. I'll have to keep my eyes opening for it.

  11. Gee, Hallie, the suspense is killing me! I can't wait to read the book!

  12. I am D; my fingers slipped as I was typing!

  13. This looks fabulous, Hallie. Congratulations on reaching "The End" :)

  14. And PS - Again, your comments about your life in L.A. continue to intrigue me. We must begin corresponding soon for my research!

  15. Love the title, Hallie! And you know I'm thrilled that you finally finished it!

    Secrets, yes, probably my favorite motive. And I love the time jump idea, too, although I know how hard that is to do...

    I visited Fox Studios on a book tour a few years ago. (I spoke to a studio book group, and had a tour.) It was fascinating, so I'll be picturing that when I read the book! Can't wait!

    And it's so nice to know that other writers struggle... We're going to be talking more about that this week!

  16. Oh me too, Hallie, about Philip Seymour Hoffman. He was such a huge talent.

    This is a great teaser! I can't wait for an insider's glimpse either. And I'm like you--I love secrets and stories within stories.

  17. Hallie, your new book sounds so enticing. I love secrets being at the core of the story. Your first hand knowledge of the setting will bring an unparalleled authenticity to the tale. I'll be looking for this book for sure.

  18. Fox Studios used to cover most of what's now Century City. It's was enormous. And there really was a fancy gate that you drove in through.

    Kim, you'll have to tell me what you're researching!

  19. Love "behind the scenes" stories — can't wait!

  20. I liked this excerpt. Gotta read the book!

  21. I am in line to buy this book the second it hits the shelves!! Good work, Hallie -- love the ideas you are throwing around.

    I am fascinated by secrets.

  22. Oooh. This sounds good!!! :)

    Pen M

  23. I very much like the multiple voices in the sample. Quite interesting.
    I look forward to it being published so we can get our hands on it.

  24. Very exciting! Can't wait/

  25. A must read! The sample pulled me right in. Want more.
    Also Congrats on the MH Clark Award nomination. Pulling for you.