In 1990 Darlene Craviotto was a steadily employed screenwriter, who hid out in her home office, coping with agoraphobia. Then she snagged what seemed the job of a lifetime – adapting Peter Pan as a Disney musical for Steven Spielberg – and had to collaborate, in person, with the intended star: Michael Jackson, then at the apex of his fame. After many months, many pages, and a dozen story meetings with Jackson, "Project M" was abruptly cancelled. No longer severely agoraphobic, Craviotto stashed away the project materials, and moved on. Recently she published a memoir, An Agoraphobic's Guide to Hollywood: How Michael Jackson Got Me Out of the House, which I read one recent rainy Sunday. Darlene agreed to answer my nosy questions.
Please welcome Darlene Craviotto.
Lisa Romeo: Was Jackson's 2009 death the impetus to write this book or had you considered it before?
Darlene Craviotto: When Michael Jackson died, I thought back to Project M and the work we had done together 20 years before. It wasn’t a time in my life I remembered with fondness. In fact, Project M had made me feel like a failure. As I wrote in the book: “No matter how many script assignments they might send your way, you’re always left with the hurt from the one that never got made. This time, the hurt was big.”
My way of coping was to put it out of my mind---to bury it away. And that’s what I had done with the audio cassette tapes I had recorded during story meetings for Project M. I put those cassettes in a Tupperware container, in a duffle bag I kept in the garage; I didn’t want to be reminded. Then, in 2009, with the news coverage surrounding Michael’s death, I started to think about him -- the Michael I remembered, filled with so much excitement, and such enthusiasm; he had such passion for his work. I thought of the tapes, and wondered if there was anything in them that might have foreshadowed such a tragic ending to a brilliant talent, and a genuinely compassionate man. So I dug out those tapes from the garage and started listening to them.
Lisa: Were they as you remembered?
Darlene: It was wonderful to hear Michael’s voice again, excited to be talking about a musical adaptation of Peter Pan. He was like a little kid, and so was I because I loved Peter Pan as much as he did. That was the common ground: we were excited to be working to bring a story to the screen that had meant so much to us as kids. Hearing that excitement in Michael’s voice on the tapes, and that positive memory of him, helped me block out the tragic portrait being played out in the news. The more I listened, the more I wanted to explore that period of my writing life so I could come to peace with it. And the way I usually come to peace with anything is to write about it.
LISA: You’re a successful screenwriter. So why a memoir?
DARLENE: I never set out to write a memoir. But as I listened to those tapes, I became fascinated by the creative process of collaboration and the building of a story. How does a story begin? Where are the roots, and how does it grow, and how does the imagination of the writer use the moments of her own life to create another imaginary life?
I was fascinated to hear on the tapes how the story of Peter Pan on the page was evolving into the cinematic Peter Pan, filtered through Michael and me. I thought perhaps I might be able to write a two-character play. I started to transcribe the tapes to see how the dialogue would look on paper. I began thinking about Michael’s character---how he evolved from the enthusiastic 32 year old on the cassettes, to the 50 year old who died such a sad and tragic death.
Michael’s backstory seemed to be something I could write. The problem for me was the character of the screenwriter. I knew I wanted the writer to be a woman. I knew I would have to create a backstory for her, and I decided to look at the source---me. That wasn’t easy; one of the reasons I write is I like hiding behind characters. I may use a character to articulate a personal feeling, thought or idea, but I don't put myself out there for the world to judge. But in this case, I felt I should examine who I was at the time to see if there was anything there of interest, anything I could use. And when I thought back to that period in my life, I remembered just how agoraphobic I was, and how my life was so tempered and narrowed because of it.
Lisa: You had been keeping to yourself, staying home a lot then?
Darlene: Yes, I avoided leaving my house and stopped driving completely. As I started to write down ideas for the formation of the story, I remembered back to that first meeting I had with Michael and Steven Speilberg, when I took a cab to Universal Studios. I was desperately nervous about the meeting but equally anxious about having enough money in my purse to pay the cab driver. So I was feeling very phobic, very agoraphobic, and when we arrived at the studio gate, my name wasn’t on the list of approved people. As I started to write about all this, I thought what a great opening scene it would make in a book. That’s when I stopped writing and said to myself, “This is a book, not a play!”
It’s strange but I never realized I was actually writing memoir until the manuscript was completed and I had to consider genre -- and could no longer avoid the fact that I had written a memoir. I think if I had started out to write a memoir I would have been too intimidated. It would have felt too self-indulgent and narcissistic. In fact, I could only write this story envisioning the screenwriter as someone else, as a character in a story. Many nights I would toss and turn, reviewing in my mind the previous day’s writing, filled with self-doubt because it was such a personal story. One of the areas I really had to work on in later drafts was making sure that all the interior motivations, objectives, and feelings of my character were expressed on the page. This book was such a departure from my comfort zone.
Lisa: Did you outline the book first, or otherwise create a plotline or three-act structure as you might for a screen project?
Darlene: Because it was a story I had lived I didn’t feel the need to outline, not at first. I simply started with that opening scene – arriving at Universal for the first big meeting with Steven and Michael; and it was like finding the magic key to unlock a door. All of these memories started flooding back--and I wrote everything down, as if I were telling the story to a friend over coffee. That’s how personal I wanted the writing to be.
As I committed more seriously to a book, it scared the hell out of me, and I had to hold onto something tangible to keep focused and on task. I always use index cards on a bulletin board to visualize all of my screenplays. It’s a technique that feels comfortable and familiar so I would sketch out the next few chapters on index cards. But unlike the way I work as a screenwriter, I didn’t want to outline the entire book. I wanted to be surprised---it was like taking a trip and knowing where it would end, but I didn’t want to mark out the entire route on the map. I wanted to just follow my instincts and let the story lead me.
Lisa: Was anything else different from the way you work when screenwriting?
Darlene: Halfway through the first draft I bought an iPad and started using an application that looks like index cards on a corkboard (INDEX CARD), and the excitement of working with the new technology motivated me and helped me work faster. Sometimes working in a new and different way makes the writing feel fresher, and more exciting. It kept me off balance and that brought more spontaneity to my writing. Especially since I knew the story so well---after all, it’s a memoir, and I lived it---if I wasn’t careful, I was afraid that there wouldn’t be that tension that’s so vital in the telling of a story. Working with new technology solved that concern for me. I was still using index cards, but in a different way.
Screenwriting involves creating a story, memoir involves telling a story. As a screenwriter, I create my characters first and they begin to write the story for me---I just run after them with a pad and a pen jotting down everything they’re doing, everything they’re saying. But in this case, I knew I wanted to use Michael’s actual words---that was important to me---to capture Michael on the page. This wasn’t creating a story so much as shaping it to be interesting to a reader.
Lisa: Did you learn anything while writing the memoir that you could bring back to the screenwriting process?
Darlene: My strengths as a writer have always been in character development and dialogue. That’s why I gravitated to writing screenplays. I brought that skill to the book, and I think a reader will find this a fast read because of that craft. But I’m not used to using a lot of words in screenwriting, instead telling an entire story in 110 to 120 pages. So I found it odd when I had written 120 pages and the book wasn’t finished yet! I remember thinking: I’ll never finish this book---there are too many words required. I was used to being a sprinter and now I was being asked to run the marathon. It took me two drafts to relax and get into the rhythm of this new race. Frankly, I still prefer sprinting, but writing this book taught me about marathon running, and how to pace myself and the telling of the story.
Lisa: You mentioned that early on one major publisher said the book needed to be more salacious.
Darlene: I didn’t expect that response because I knew that I hadn’t written a tell-all about Michael Jackson. I wasn’t his sister, or someone who grew up with him, lived with him, represented him, or knew him on an ongoing basis. That wasn’t a story I could tell, or wanted to tell. For nonfiction, unlike with a novel, the book proposal has to sell the book: 8 – 10 pages and some sample chapters. The goal is to get a contract, and then the publisher would have input. But my book was already written: this was the story I wanted to tell and in the way I wanted to tell it.
Suddenly, I felt as though I had wandered back into Hollywood again where essentially you have to write a story the way the producers/studio want it to be written. If you don’t, you’re fired. The agent advised, “You don’t have to write anything you don’t want to write. It’s your book.” So then I realized I had control over my story and how it would be told. All I had to say was, “Sorry, but I’m not interested.”
Lisa: What was the reaction from the Michael Jackson fan community, if any?
Darlene: When I was working on the book I kept thinking of Michael’s fans. That’s why I wanted to use his actual words---to give those fans the feeling they were sitting in the room with him, “hearing” him talk about Peter Pan, learning what his creative process was like regarding a film adaptation. I think in many ways I must be naïve---I never foresaw any problems with anything I was writing about Michael. That was a big mistake. When the book first posted on Amazon, I went on the Michael Jackson chat board and announced that my book had just come out. The fans there really grilled me about the book, my motivation for writing it; I must have passed the test because a number of them bought and read it.
After that, however, all hell broke loose. I was not prepared for the vitriol. Many fans were in a rage because I included a scene near the end of the book, when I show up for a story meeting with Michael at10 pm, and he’s sitting on the couch with a young boy, and they're wearing matching fedoras. I didn’t understand why the boy was there for our meeting (so late at night), and frankly, I thought it seemed a little odd. These fans said I had no right to write about that, that I was stirring up trouble, making insinuations.
I answered these accusations this way: this was told only from my point of view -- an agoraphobic struggling with leaving my house for any meeting, trying not to have a panic attack in front of an important client, and to arrive and see new faces, especially a child, made that meeting particularly stressful. I felt I had an obligation to include this scene because I had been honest throughout the entire book, and to exclude this felt dishonest to me. But some fans raged against me, calling me names, saying hateful things.
That hurt, and made me reconsider ever reaching out to any of Jackson's fans again. Within weeks, however, a Jackson fan site posted a positive review, noting a reader could better understand Michael through what he had to say about Peter Pan. And other people have since praised the book, even telling me that Michael’s portrayal humanized him.
Lisa: Though built around agoraphobia and Project M, the book is also about a screenwriter navigating Hollywood. Were you concerned about describing interactions -- with Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Disney executives?
Darlene: I was never concerned that this book would impact my career. I took early retirement and started collecting my WGA Pension several years ago. (The WGA is one of the few unions in this country that allows an early retirement, and there’s a reason for that: Once you hit your mid to late 40s it’s more difficult to get hired in Hollywood; ageism exists in the film industry. A group of screenwriters filed an age discrimination suit a couple of years ago and won $70 million.) I had worked steadily for 25 years, and suddenly, my work slowed down completely. I recognized the problem, and figured why fight it? I decided to stop pursuing screenwriting.
I probably wouldn’t have been brave enough to write this book a couple of years ago when I was dependent on Hollywood jobs. But now, I can write whatever I want to write. The funny thing about Hollywood is that the town doesn’t hold many grudges. Art Linson (a well known producer) wrote a book that was a scathing portrait of Hollywood, and it didn’t hurt him at all – in fact, a Robert De Niro film was based on the book (What Just Happened?). And Ricky Gervais hosted the Golden Globes last year and delivered scorching comments about certain individuals, and who hosted the Golden Globes this year? Ricky Gervais. That’s because the ratings for the Golden Globes were so good. The old phrase, “You’ll never work in this town again!” should really be “You’ll never work in this town again unless you can make us a lot of money and then of course we’ll hire you!” If Hollywood thinks it can make money off of you, it doesn’t matter what you’ve said, or written.
Lisa: Some of those deal-making portions of your book are hilarious, deciphering the subtext and codes -- what was being said, and what was really meant.
Darlene: There are other people in Hollywood that could tell you even worse horror stories!
Lisa: Some people of course will think of the book as another writer jumping on the Jackson post-death publicity train.
Darlene: I’m happy I wrote this book. I learned a lot about myself while writing it---and for me, that’s the importance of having written it. Yes, Michael is a major character, but he’s not the entire story. If I wanted to capitalize on Jackson's death, I could have tried to sell the tapes. I didn’t. The best promotion for this book is word of mouth. I hope when people read the book, if they like it, they say to a friend: “You know, I read this book and it was really entertaining.”
I was thinking the other day that if I had fictionalized this story it might have been easier to promote. I’ve always felt the story would appeal to women, especially those who work and have to juggle a domestic life. If this had been a novel, it would have been labeled “chick lit” or “women’s fiction” and no one would have said, “Oh, this book is a tell-all about Michael Jackson.” But because it’s nonfiction there’s a tendency to find one specific slot where it can fit. “Ah, Michael Jackson’s name is in the title---It must be entirely about Michael Jackson so we’ll put it in biographies.” But I’d rather promote it as an “irreverent, behind-the-scenes look at show business.” In fact, it says that on the back of the book! That’s what the book is to me, and that’s how I like to market it.
Lisa: Do you think you would have written about your agoraphobia if your turning point didn't come during the Jackson project? Might you have never dealt with the agoraphobia if that project had not come along?
Darlene: It would have been easier not to deal with the agoraphobia if that project hadn’t come along. Michael insisted I meet with him and that meant leaving the house on a regular basis since there was no chance in hell he’d be coming over to my little duplex. With all my previous projects it had been easy to hide out in my house and not take meetings. My agents used to get so angry at me because studio executives usually wanted lunch meetings and I always said no. My excuse was I was too busy writing a script or developing a story, but the truth was I was stuck in the house, terrified to leave.
Michael (without ever knowing it) forced me to get out of the house---if I had said no to him I would’ve been fired. So yes, taking Project M made all the difference in the world in setting me on that path to deal with the agoraphobia. I didn’t realize that at the time I was doing Project M, but those months marked the start of me getting better. It took writing this book to really understand that. Agoraphobia is so complicated that you don’t just “fix” it with one thing---it takes time, and a series of tries and victories to get better and better.
Lisa: Did you find that recreating dialogue based on memory was easier or harder than creating fictional dialogue?
Darlene: I had the tapes from the story meetings, and they served as a springboard, and that's where all the dialogue came from for those scenes between Michael and me. But it took several drafts to be able to craft scenes from that dialogue. I had to understand what the scene was about before I could trim the dialogue and shape the sequence. And there were several meetings we had where the tape recorder wasn’t present; but I must have thought that someday I'd write about the experience because I also always wrote down what we had talked about in a journal. Later on, that journal was invaluable in the writing of this book. I’d refer to it over and over again to remember how I felt at the time, and to read what we had talked about at a specific meeting.
My favorite scene is the first time I met with Michael at his Los Angeles condo, and it was just the two of us. That scene is all based on meticulous notes I took when I returned home. It was at that first encounter that Michael had suggested we tape future meetings, so there wasn’t a tape of that initial encounter. When I wrote that scene in the first draft of the book, I never had to touch it again. I love that scene so much; it was very freeing creatively to close my eyes and to remember that first meeting. Hearing the tapes helped me begin writing the story, but, for me, fictional dialogue is so much easier to write.
Lisa: When the book begins, you were writing alone in a sparsely furnished office, isolated because of agoraphobia, while on the page, you were conjuring adventurous characters, fearlessly traveling to new worlds. Did you have an appreciation of that irony?
Darlene: I never saw the irony in that until you just pointed it out! It’s interesting because when I first started working in Hollywood I was writing personal, intimate dramas. When I branched out of television films into feature films I started writing more adventure screenplays. And I remember how much I enjoyed that because I was incapable of traveling, or doing anything adventurous. So I guess in many ways I was living vicariously through my writing. I’m not sure it helped me become more daring, but it certainly was fun. Isolation feeds my imagination---I’m not the kind of writer who can work in Starbucks. I need to be alone to see the images and hear the dialogue.
Lisa: Underneath the main story is another about perseverance, flexibility and the long-haul attitude any writer needs.
Darlene: I was one of the lucky ones: I worked non-stop as a screenwriter for over 20 years. That’s not so easy to do anymore. Now, script assignments are rare; project development has declined over the years. I read in an issue of the WGA magazine that anyone going into screenwriting now has to be prepared to make money doing something else. Hollywood is going through the same transformation as publishing. Content is available outside the traditional system and the rules of the game are changing. Anyone can make a movie now and put it up on the internet. We’re not dependent exclusively on Hollywood to give us movies. In a way, that’s good, and in a way, that’s bad. It means less jobs in Hollywood, and more competition.
When I was working, a producer would call my agent and ask if I was interested in a certain project. If I said yes, the agent set up a meeting, and I told the producer my ideas. I would never start writing until the deal was in place. Nowadays, screenwriters are asked to come back with ideas, scenes, characters, and dialogue on paper. You're expected to write, and turn in a fully developed story for FREE. This might take weeks--weeks when you're not getting a paycheck. And there's not even a guarantee that the producer will even hire you for the job. Worse, the producer or studio isn’t doing this to one screenwriter, but maybe to two or three, or five others, so essentially screenwriters are being asked to work for free before they are even hired. Sometimes the project goes away and no one is hired. How can a screenwriter pay the rent and feed kids that way? So what the union says now is be prepared to make your money doing something else while you pursue your screenwriting career.
It’s a brutal business--especially for the scribe. Screenwriters are on the bottom of the food chain. You have to understand that to negotiate your way through the business. Yes, you do have to persevere, be flexible, and be in for the long haul. But you also have to accept that there is a hierarchy and understand where you fit in -- at the start of your career, the middle, and at the end. Know your place, and be willing to play the game. And keep your honesty and passion for the page. Finally, there’s a saying around Hollywood: “Never forget what they’ve done to you, but never let them know that you know.” Unless you take early retirement, and then you can write a book about it! (she said with a smile on her lips and a twinkle in her eye…)
Lisa: What's next for you? Will you write a screenplay from this book?
Darlene: A documentary I wrote and directed (“No Girls Allowed”), about the last all-male public high school to go coed in 1983, will have screenings in March and April, before we do a final post production polish and put it out on DVD. (Our first screening will be for the Orange County NOW chapter, March 24 at Cal State Fullerton, and I’ll be speaking at that event.)
I don’t have any plans at the moment to adapt my memoir into a screenplay. I’m just concentrating on the marketing efforts right now. We’ll see where the book leads.