What an interesting few weeks it’s been. I have once again been riding on the screenwriting contest roller coaster. Fortunately, I’m hitting more highs than lows at the moment.
BLACK SEA ROSE is a script I co-wrote with my friend Jillian Reilly. It is based on the true story of Marolen Mullinax, a proud Texan who traveled to Romania in the early nineties to care for HIV+ orphans after the fall of the country’s brutal Communist leader Nicolae Ceaușescu. Marolen wasn’t a nurse. She didn’t have any formal training in HIV/AIDS care. And her world travel experience was fairly limited. But she was answering a call. She saw children in need and she was determined to help, even if it meant living in a dangerous country that was shakily recovering from the fall of its government. Darker, more complex motivations were driving Marolen, too, which is what makes her story more captivating and relatable – it’s not a martyr tale. But there’s no denying that Marolen is an extraordinary woman…especially considering what she ultimately accomplished with so much stacked against her.
Jill learned about Marolen through her own HIV/AIDS prevention work in Africa. (In fact, Jill’s achievements are worthy of their own blog entry.) Jill and I met at Northwestern University and one of the things that immediately bonded us was our of love movies (and, yes, martinis). We’d often lament the dearth of interesting, complicated female characters in today’s cinema, so when Jill told me about Marolen and suggested we try to write a movie about her, I was totally game.
This was in 2004.
For the last nine years Jill and I have been working on BLACK SEA ROSE (and that’s one of a few titles the script has had over the years). Once our mission was set, we contacted Marolen (via Jill and Marolen’s mutual friend, William – another angel on this journey) and flew to Texas (her main residence once again) to meet her and talk with her at length about her time in Romania. She was nothing but supportive and gracious in allowing us to be the guardians of her story – what a trusting soul given our limited experience/credentials at the time. I’m grateful to say that Marolen remains our dear friend and champion.
The script has seen many iterations, and our friends and colleagues have offered a lot of valuable feedback along the way. Jill and I wrote draft after draft – not always easy since we don’t live in the same city – and finally got the script to a place that felt solid, effective. I figured it was worth a shot to start sending it to some contests, and I started doing so in earnest last year.
As far as screenwriting competitions go, I think most of my writerly friends would agree that the brass ring of them all is the Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting. It was established in the mid-eighties by Gee Nicholl (in honor of her late husband Don) and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. (You know…the group that puts on the Oscars?) Thousands of screenwriters submit feature scripts each year in the hopes of landing one of the five coveted $35K fellowships offered. I have submitted scripts to Nicholl for the past five years. Some years my scripts received “positive reads” and I even entered BLACK SEA ROSE last year where it landed in the top 10%. (Remember last year’s Nicholl experience? Refresher!) But to reach the quarterfinals you have to land in the top 5%. And this year that meant being one of 372 entries chosen out of 7,251. <GULP!>
Late last month I was walking to my car after dinner with a friend when I decided to check my e-mail on my phone. I clicked into my mailbox and saw three e-mails entitled Academy Nicholl Fellowships Notification. Oh God…the results were in. I entered the same three scripts this year that I entered last year: HUNGRY LIKE THE WOLF, BENEATH THE SURFACE, and BLACK SEA ROSE. I discovered that the first two screenplays did not make the cut according to the gently-worded rejection e-mails (although HUNGRY LIKE THE WOLF landed in the top 20%, which softened the blow). And then I opened the third e-mail and saw the word: “Congratulations!” BLACK SEA ROSE had made it to the quarterfinals. Unbelievable.
Moving into August, I knew that making it to the semis would be challenging as well. The cut goes from 372 to 149. I can’t even say that Jill and I were cautiously optimistic – it was such a longshot. Then this past Wednesday I opened up my e-mail and saw that familiar subject heading again: Academy Nicholl Fellowships Notification. I took a deep breath. I was going to pull off the band-aid as quickly as possible. I clicked open the message. And there it was…
My heart started pounding as I realized that BLACK SEA ROSE is still in the hunt for a Nicholl fellowship. We made it to the semifinals!
I immediately forwarded the e-mail to Jill and Marolen. We shared our mixture of surprise, elation, and gratitude. It was a virtual celebration, but a celebration nonetheless.
And just in case you’re worried this is all going to my head, I’ve been doing this contest rodeo too long to get overconfident. It’s worth it to know that BLACK SEA ROSE didn’t even crack the quarterfinals of my beloved CineStory contest this year, nor did it advance to the next round of consideration for the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. What does that say about the script? Or the contest readers? If anything, I think it’s just another reminder of how subjective this whole damn process is. Yes, it helps to try to write the greatest script ever, but a lot of it boils down to the randomness and hope of finding that one person who says “YES!” to your work.
Early next month the finalists are announced. The cut is a brutal one – the 149 become 10. But it’s humbling to still be in the running for it. Jill and I can still hold on to hope.