J BUSH

She’s Not Just Some Secretary

She’s not just some secretary.”

 

This is what one of the producers on my movie said about the female lead, three hours before we went in to do the studio pitch. We were arguing on the phone about the fact that I wanted her to have a certain job that would give her status more equal to the hero of the film – and he thought her having that job would be unrealistic considering everything she does in the movie and that it would take the audience out of the movie. So he gave her a job demotion right before the pitch, which I argued about – leading him to say “she’s not just some secretary.”

 

I spent the next couple hours timing myself reading the highlighted portions of my beat sheet – and eating anchovies (brain food) – (a fatal mistake as I would be self-conscious about my breath all afternoon) and turning over that sentence in the back of my head like a kid’s rock-tumbler –

 

She’s not just some secretary –

 

I got to the production office a half hour before the pitch. The exec who’s been working with me this whole time sat with me with our feet up on his coffee table and kept me calm. He had tried to demote the female lead for the same reason a month or two before – at 7 pm on a Friday – and I had launched into a histrionic speech that went something like “we are trying to attract both male and female audiences with this movie. And as a female audience member, I can tell you, we know when we are being patronized. We know what kind of movie this is going to be, when it’s being promoted. We see when the female lead has a lesser job and less status than the male lead – when the filmmakers and producers making it consider her less than – and we know what they think of her and us. And if this is going to be that kind of movie then I can’t be involved.”

 

Gulp.

 

In case you don’t know, those are the words of a crazy person.

 

But those are also the words of a person who is crazily dedicated. Crazily invested. Who believes in what she is doing. Who feels it. Who is leading, not following.

 

And at the time, this exec had said “Ok. I get it. I’m in.” (For what it’s worth, that’s the worst/craziest thing I’ve said to him or any exec. And it’s a sign of just how hard we’ve worked on this movie. And – he deserves hazard pay.)

 

So we’re in the production office, before the pitch. My exec friend is keeping me calm. He looks me straight in the eye and goes “I want you to know I was on your side. We didn’t even talk about it.” And I knew what he was talking about – and in fact, I never even questioned that he was on my side on that. So I proceeded to tell him why this thing about the male lead and the female lead being equal means so much to me.

 

“It’s not, like, some abstract feminism thing for me. I was raised by a single mother who had no education and worked full time as a secretary –

 

She’s not just some secretary –

 

– and all she wanted for us girls was to go to college and never have to work a desk job like her and have better lives than she did. And not only did I go to college but I went to Princeton and my first job out of college was [the same job we’ve now given the female lead in the movie]. And despite all that, I have felt marginalized my entire fucking life — growing up in a house of all women (already marginalized as a gender in this species) — abandoned by my father who went off and left us to sink from middle-class into poverty — abandoned by a culture that couldn’t care less about what it feels like to be less than, displaced, marginalized, disempowered always. This is real for me. Visceral –” 

 

She’s not just some secretary –

 

I didn’t know you grew up in a single-parent home,” he said. “I did too. That must be why we’re so …”

 

Sympatico?” I said.

 

We drove the golf cart over to the studio where I met another exec for the first time. (The producer was already inside.) The three of us stood around nervously chit-chatting before the pitch. Making conversation about our families. They asked about my sister, and I told them about how she’s never come to visit me in LA. How she disapproves of my risky choice to become a writer and how she’s basically waiting for me to fail and move back home. How up until recently, it’s been hard to argue with her.

 

The assistant called us in to the pitch.

 

Afterward, the producer, my exec friend and I drove the golf cart back to their bungalow. We were laughing cuz I thought the producer was mad at me cuz I kept stopping the pitch to make jokes (and once to accuse the studio exec of yawning — he wasn’t) cuz I was afraid the mood was getting too dour. The producer goes “you want the mood to be dour if your movie is dour!” Through the whole pitch he kept saying “keep going!” cuz I kept detouring.

 

But as we drove across the studio lot, the producer said “you did really really well” and I appreciated that as it was my first studio pitch ever and I was nervous as hell. And as the sun set over the soundstages and the balmy breeze blew my half-shaved hair back, I took a mental snapshot and said to myself in my head – remember this moment cuz your life is about to change.

 

And it did. We sold the movie the next day. My dream project. There’s nothing else I’d rather be working on right now.

 

But with dreams answered comes responsibility too. I just spent a week with my mom (I’m writing this on the airplane back to LA), and I was telling her about one of the many complicated aspects of studio filmmaking. I was uncertain about what to do.

 

I always err on the side of being vulnerable,” she said.

 

Mom, you’ve got to remember – screenwriting is heavily male dominated. Like 85%. Everyone already thinks I can’t do the job because I’m a woman. If I go around showing my belly, I’m going to look feminine and weak and lose all respect.”

 

Well then I guess your industry is just over my head.”

 

She’s not just some secretary.

 

No mom I think you understand it just fine.

 

 

  • Seth Burn

    So, like you, I grew up with my mom in a single parent home, although I did have two older brothers there with me until they went to college. One of my older brothers ended up becoming a screenwriter, which led to my father basically disowning him. My father pretty much valued people by the amount of money they could make. Now, I will admit that my brother did take a risky path, but he was doing what he loved, and he’s been able to feed himself with commercials and TV work. He and I have discussed production meetings and pitches and such, and I can assure you there is NOTHING he’d stand up and fight for in his scripts. You want the emotionally distant teenager to be played by an animitronic hamster? You got it. A writer standing up for a vision in a production meeting is indeed the action of a crazy person. Writers are NEVER supposed to stand up for something, at least until they’re already successful. You’re willing to stand up for women, yourself, and perhaps more specifically, your mom, and you were able to sell the script without sacrificing your dream. Mind you, there is a lot more horseshit ahead, as I’m sure you’re aware. I’ll be rooting for you to succeed and for your strong female lead to stay as such. Good luck. :)

    • J Bush

      Seth,
      Sorry it’s taken me so long to respond. As you know I’ve been banging my head against an outline/treatment/thing. But I just heard — it’s almost perfect (and I’m a “killer” YAY!!!).
      Oh god I hate to hear about your father’s reaction to your brother’s career. But I do appreciate your sharing your background and story. And I appreciate your support.
      Julie

  • Shaula Evans

    Julie, I just fell in love with you all over again. (I’m a huge fan of yours. Has that come up before?) THANK YOU for standing up for women / yourself / what you believe in from inside Hollywood. Taking a stand is scary as hell and it’s important and it’s hard. It doesn’t always pay off in the short term. But it is really the only way to build a satisfying career with artistic and personal integrity or to make a difference in the world. Your mom sounds like a wise and remarkable woman–no wonder you turned out so great. (Give her a hug from me!) I am so impressed by you and so proud of you, sister to sister. Keep it up, and any time you need moral support, you know where to find me.

    • J Bush

      Shaula,
      I’m a huge fan of yours too!! This stuff is so hard. Making it as a woman writer in hollywood is like pushing a boulder on top of a boulder up the mountain. I appreciate your offer of moral support — I just may take you up on that. Cuz man, I do have my low moments sometimes. But plenty of highs too. :)
      Julie

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