Film & Television

Writing for the Screen

In 1981 a script of Agnes of God somehow made it into the hands or David Rintels, an Emmywinning writer and producer, who was at the time contracted to produce three live theatre events for NBC. He read my play and wanted to present it as one of the three, casting it with Jane Fonda, Ingrid Bergman, and Sissy Spacek. (I still have Ms. Fonda’s gracious letter turning him down.) I got my first paycheck as a writer for NBC’s option, and then (fortunately) NBC changed their minds and decided it was too controversial for them to air.

Jane Fonda (left) and Meg Tilly in the film version of “Agnes of God.”

In the meantime David was asked to write a television movie (to be produced with him by his good friend John Housman and directed by Joe Sargent) about Jean Donovan, one of the four American church-women murdered in El Salvador in December of 1980. David turned it down, telling NBC that if they hired me to write it he would guarantee the script. They agreed; I wrote it; and eventually (in 1983) they produced it as Choices of the Heart, a film starring Melissa Gilbert, which won me a Writers Guild Award nomination, a Christopher Award, and the Humanitas Award. My career as a writer of movies-for-television was launched, and it has brought me a lot of joy as well as a nice amount of bread-and-butter!

My main complaint about Hollywood is that it tends to box people into certain categories and then does its darndest to keep them in that box for the rest of their career. I wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation of Agnes, directed by Norman Jewison, but since my TV career was moving forward so rapidly and my Feature career was moving at a typical Feature pace, everyone on the West Coast started thinking of me as a TV writer rather than a Feature writer and so that’s pretty much where I’ve been living for a long time.

I don’t mind this too much. Yes, Feature-writing is a lot more glamorous in the end, and the final products look and feel like a lot more money has been spent on them (which is true), but at the same time I wouldn’t have had so many of my scripts produced in the Feature world, and getting that greenlight is an important thing in any writer’s life. The opportunities presented to me in the television universe have been extraordinary, and for them I continue to be very grateful.