THE WOMAN WITH THIRTY WISHES
And then there are the quiet heroines.
As a Hollywood success story, Elisa Bell could still be termed a work-in-progress. But given where she started (a notch below the absolute bottom) and given what obstacles were strewn in her path (“Attractive women can’t write… and they especially can’t write anything but “women’s pictures.”), she is already at or around a Happy Ending. Just shy of her thirtieth birthday, she is a screenwriter in perpetual demand. And with a big-time holiday release looming, and a half-dozen other major film projects looming, the ending can only get happier.
If she has never known failure, she has at least been on intimate terms with frustration. Producers slammed doors, and a few who kept them open were more interested in dating her than buying her scripts. Others bought her scripts, then shelved them; still, Elisa triumphed over each setback with a tenacity that makes Horatio Alger look like a quitter.
You wouldn’t know it to see her. Whatever a writer looks like, she doesn’t fit the image. She looks more like a storybook princess; small wonder that she was born in Orange County, home to Disneyland. Her first paying job, in fact, was in the Happiest Place on Earth. In white knee socks and a pert blue skirt, she played Alice of “Alice in Wonderland.” She didn’t know it at the time, but she would grow up to go Through the Looking Glass into the much odder world of movie-making.
Her Disneyland gig lasted until the day her supervisor caught her, in an uncharacteristic moment, not smiling. Worse, she was not smiling and wearing a pink barrette in her hair. The Alice Dress Code explicitly specified a white barrette. She was summarily expelled – drummed out of the Magic Kingdom, figuratively stripped of her mouse ears.
At an early age, she decided on her life’s work: “I always wanted to be a writer. At first, I thought I was going to be a reporter. Then I decided I liked the idea of making things up better.” Thus was born a screenwriter. “Everybody in Orange County said,’what’s that?’ They didn’t know what I was talking about.”
She managed to get into film school at U.S.C., and there she made a secret deal with herself If she hadn’t sold a script by time she was twenty-five, she vowed, she would give it up and go to law school. One of the many happy endings to this story -Was that the world was spared another lawyer.
After three years at U.S.C., she secured a job at Tri-Star Pictures, running the Xerox machine. Some Fairy Godmother must have found her there one day, sad and smudged with toner, for she quickly advanced to the position of assistant to the assistant story editor – meaning, she assisted the person who assisted the story editor. Then she became the assistant to the story editor. “All I did every day,” she recalls, “was to fix someone else’ s script.”
Screenplays would come from all directions and Elisa would think, “I can write better than this.” What she got at Tri-Star was the best education money can’t buy. “I saw exactly how a studio works. I saw everything that happened to a script when it came through the door. I saw what they were buying. I saw what they were not buying.”
Soon, an idea popped into Elisa’ s mind. “I would send out my own script (with another name on it) and send it to my toughest readers. They would come back and say, “Oh, this was a piece of shit, and I would say, ‘Oh, really? Why?’ I’d end up listening to all this horrible stuff about my script…” It was brutal, but she learned from it, knowing all the time that if she couldn’t pass the readers at the studios, her scripts would never get anywhere near someone who could say Yes. She would take in the all the criticisms, then go home, rewrite, then send it to another reader. “It would come back with better comments. When I finally finished my action script, I sent it out to my hardest reader. It came back with him saying,’This is a consider. This is really good.’ That’s how I knew I was ready.”
She entrusted it to a new agent, Justen Dardis, who told her it could be a tough sell. “I thought there was a prejudice against women writing action,” he explains. He and Elisa discussed the problem and finally decided that the title page needed a sex-change. Her first script made the rounds with the by-line of “Brent Newport” – “Brent” from the name of a guy she was dating, “Newport” from the beach of the same name in Orange County.
Two weeks later, the phone rang… and that’s how Brent Newport (A.K.A Elisa) sold “his” (her) first screenplay. She had just turned twenty-five.
Several studios had expressed interest, all calling to say, “Man, this guy is a good writer.” Island Pictures got it. “I walked into the meeting and the first thing they said was, “Hey, you’re not a man!” I said, “No, I’m not. Let’s take the meeting.”
Was it just beginner’s luck? At first, Elisa feared so and hesitated to quit her day job at Tri-Star. “I cried and cried, wondering if it was just a fluke.”
Dardis reassured her: “You’re a writer now. Just remember that.” Fingers crossed, she plunged into full-time writing and soon finished a script for an erotic thriller. This one went out under the name of Elisa Bell, but no one seemed to notice.
“Everyone who read it called up and said,’Man, this guy is a really good writer,” she recalls. Apparently, people who read scripts don’t read title pages. “They just assumed it was a man!” When Justen told them it was a woman, all these guys would just say, ‘No!’ Then they would say, ‘Oh, I gotta meet with her.’” They couldn’t believe a woman had written some of those scenes – particularly the one in which the heroine licks ice cream off a man’s naked body. (A few producers also wanted to have dinner with her – presumably including a stop at Baskin.Robbins. They were politely told she had a boyfriend.)
This script, like the first, never got made. The week after “Basic Instinct” opened turned out to be the wrong time to sell an erotic thriller. Still, she was paid well – and other producers who read the scripts lined up to hire her, leading to an array of “women in danger” thrillers, primarily for the USA Network. She became a specialist in a genre best defined by its stars: Cheryl Ladd, Morgan Fairchild, and Lindsay Wagner were among those who top-lined Elisa Bell teleplays. She wrote so many of them that she finally came to the conclusion she was writing the same movie, over and over, but with different titles.
One night, while browsing the video store, she stumbled upon the 1947 movie, “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” starring Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison. She took it home, popped it in the VCR and quickly decided, “This would make a great remake!” It had been produced by Fox and she knew a producer at the studio. She pitched him on a nineties’ version, which he liked, and they got a director involved. “Then, we went to pitch it to the big guy. There were twenty people in the room. I do the pitch. I felt like I was bombing – Bomb-a-rino! But I finished. He sat there with no expression on his face and finally said, ‘I’ll buy it.’ That proves you’ve got to hang in there to the end.”
The project, which she hoped would get her out of the “threatened woman” ghetto, went South on her when a star expressed interest. “Sean Connery wanted to play the Captain, but he decided that he wanted his own writer and director.” Elisa went away with a large check and an even larger desire to write something of her own.
She decided to write a script on spec – something different, something personal. “The boy friend I was with at the time was going through this total crisis at age thirty. He hadn’t fulfilled his parents’ dreams. He wasn’t happy. Then I thought, ‘What if all the wishes he ever had started coming true?’ I wrote it as a gift to him – my way of saying, ‘Look, it can work out.'” Everyone loved the script –
– everyone except the boyfriend. “I guess it was like holding up a mirror in front of himself” Elisa had not only written about her boyfriend, she included his parents, real names attached. She also forgot one tiny detail: She didn’t tell him it was about him until after the script was sold. “We broke up. I might have told him before… but he wasn’t very good at listening.” Not that any men are.
But the boyfriend’ s negative reaction was one dissenting vote among many. “Thirty Wishes” (as the script was called) was passed about town to raves from many lots. It sparked an all-out bidding war, finally bringing half a million dollars – and that wasn’t even the highest offer. She had met Michael J. Fox, knew he wanted to do it and thought he was perfect for the lead. When Universal made an offer, intending to star Mr. Fox, Elisa had her agent grab it.
The script changed her career. It was a romantic comedy, thereby expanding the industry’ s view of what this Elisa Bell person could write. (They already knew she could write erotic thrillers… and Brent Newport could write action.) Other offers came flooding in, though “Thirty Wishes” would turn out to be another of those aborted endeavors. “Michael J. Fox was going to do it,” Elisa explains. “We did a draft together.” Michael acted it all out for her in his living room and everything sounded perfect.” Then, all of a sudden he makes ‘Life with Mikey,’ ‘For Love or Money,’ and ‘Greedy.’ Somewhere, the God of Bankability frowned on Michael J. Fox, who went scurrying back to situation comedies. The $500,000 script is presently residing on a shelf at Universal while Dardis seeks to negotiate its liberation.
Still, it did the trick: Offers started coming in for better projects, different projects… even projects that stood a good chance of getting in front of a camera. Even Mr. Spielberg called.
“I’m not kidding you, at film school they used to say, ‘Okay, when you go into pitch to Spielberg…’ and everyone was going ‘yeah, right.’ Suddenly, here I was driving to the pitch to Spielberg! I’m like having a heart attack, thinking that if l screw up, it’s not like screwing up with Joe Blow.” To add to Elisa’s terror, her pitch meeting fell on the Monday after the record-setting opening weekend for Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park,” so he was Hollywood godhood had just received a major renewal. “And it wasn’t just him there,” she recalls. “Diane Keaton and about ten other people were staring me in the face!”
Somehow, she got through it, and Steve, Diane (who would be attached to direct) and the ten other people all said yes. She did two drafts of that project and, while it didn’t get made, her scripts were at least languishing on better shelves, in more prestigious offices.
Another writer might have started to panic. Sure, she was drawing down good paychecks but you can only do that for so long. Eventually, if you don’t get a project in front of a camera, you either get out of screenwriting or, in her case, return to TV-movies about women being stalked in the dead of night.
Elisa feared neither; she knew that big, blockbuster movie was looming in her future. She continued working on scripts in her lovely West L.A. home, surrounded by pictures of her beloved dog Sherman, and her favorite TV dog, Scooby-Doo. Her mother, at least, considered her a smashing success – and not just because of the income. “You know, I’ve worked with Spielberg, Michael J. Fox, Diane Keaton… but when I told my mom I’d worked with Robert Wagner, it was like,’ Oh, my God! Robert Wagner! I’ve got to tell all my friends!’ He left a message on my phone machine. I played it for her and she kept the tape. I’ll never top Robert Wagner, ever!”
One year, she was home for Thanksgiving, helping Mom serve the yams, when the phone rang – Mr. Spielberg calling. With enormous difficulty, his people had tracked her down, asking her to hurry home and begin work on a rewrite. “I’ll never forget,” she says. “Here I was, my mother was talking to the dogs, running around screaming, and I went,’Mom, I’m on the phone talking with Steven Spielberg. Could you please be quiet?’ And she screamed back,’Yeah, sure you are!’” (The task was to punch up the action scenes in “Casper,” which did get made, though Elisa did not receive screen credit. Well, she was getting closer.)
Elisa went on to write ( or rewrite) three more scripts for Warner Brothers, “Blondie and Dagwood,” “Good Dog Carl,” and an animated feature, “Tut Uncommon.” Still no matter who was attached, from Joel Silver to Wendy Finerman, these movies have yet to see the darkness of a theater. “I really wanted to get something made,” Elisa explains. She continued to work so hard that someone at Warner Entertainment decided she deserved a vacation.
Back in 1983, they’ d sent a family named the Griswolds on an outing. “National Lampoon’s Vacation” did so well at the box office that it was soon followed by “National Lampoon’ s European Vacation” and “National Lampoon’ s Christmas Vacation,” all starring Chevy Chase and Beverly D’ Angelo, all to great success. Ms. Bell was asked if she had a notion as to where else Clark Griswold and his brood might travel. She suggested a town in Nevada… and so “National Lampoon’s Vegas Vacation” recently completed shooting and is now being finished for a Spring release, script by Elisa Bell.
With that hurdle behind, there may be no stopping this woman. Poised at the moment for filming, she has “Model,” which is slated to be and produced by Dawn Steel. She also has “Ann Jones, Secret Agent,” which Diane Keaton is set to produce and star in for Touchstone Pictures. (Touchstone is a division of Disney. The check for that one has gone a long way to atoning for that day when she was ousted from the Magic Kingdom for Conduct Unbecoming a Fairy Tale.)
Dardis, whom she has now followed through three agencies, has no doubt. In his office, he keeps an array of crystal paperweights on display. “I get a new one, every time a client makes a screenplay sale or scores a major writing assignment,” he proclaims. “Elisa, when she comes into the office, always counts to make sure she’ s ahead of everybody else.”
Even before her work made it before the.cameras, there was no stopping her. Now, she’ s truly arrived… and the only one in Hollywood who’s likely to make as many sales is the guy across the street who sells the crystal paperweights.