How this man's script leapt to TV - sort of

A screenwriter gets a taste of Hollywood humble pie

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

One of my favorite movie moments has Jimmy Stewart stumbling joyously down the snowy streets of Bedford Falls in Frank Capra's classic "It's A Wonderful Life." So, I suppose I had George Bailey in the back of my mind when, one February morning in 1996, I decided to write my own Christmas classic.

What if someone you loved died, and you were given the chance to live over the last three days of their life knowing you'd lose them all over again? It was with this premise that I sat down at my computer to begin work. I called my script "Three Days" and plunged ahead.

For the next several weeks, alone at my computer, I determined everything about my characters: What they looked like, what they did for a living, how they liked their eggs. It would be the only time in the entire process when I would have the power. I didn't know it then, but I would soon find out that, when it comes to the Hollywood food chain, writers fall somewhere between field mouse and possum.

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Almost anybody in the business will tell you - the odds of a movie going from your hard drive to the screen are somewhat greater than the earth reversing its course around the sun. So, when the first producer that read "Three Days" said yes, I was taken off guard. It all seemed too easy. But, the next thing I knew, one of the big four networks had signed on, and I was looking forward to the next stage of the moviemaking process, naively assuming that I would be holding hands with the producer every step of the way.

That's when I discovered that not only would I be out of the loop, but I'd need a telescope to see it.

"The deal is off." The producer's terse e-mail bidding me and my script bon voyage took me by complete surprise. As far as I knew, everything was sailing along. I wouldn't find out until months later that she had killed the deal by insisting that her novice husband be the director and claiming falsely that I had brought the project to him first. The network balked, and "Three Days" was dead in the water.

After a few weeks of mourning, I sat down at my computer and began to write again. This proved to be the best course of action because, as I continued to work on other stories, I forgot all about my little Christmas movie. Then, one day, out of the blue, another producer called and said she had read a copy of my script, loved it, and wanted to make my movie.

Soon, another network said they were interested, and I was back on the roller coaster again. This time, however, my expectations were tempered, and I determined to keep my hopes under close watch. It was a good decision because, shortly thereafter, network No. 2 backed out and "Three Days" was an orphan again.

By this time, I had figured out that the only way I was going to survive the emotional turmoil of being a screenwriter was to adopt a new policy: "Once you write it, let it go." No more waiting by the phone. I'd like to report that the day after I had this epiphany my script sold - but that would be too much of a Hollywood ending. It took a few months.

"Three Days" went before the cameras Feb. 5, 2001, five years, three networks, and several producers from the moment I began writing. From the moment it sold, to the day it wrapped, I had many more opportunities to taste the bitter filling of Hollywood humble pie. But by then, I had long grown accustomed to the taste.

What have they done to my movie?! This brings us to that magical moment every screenwriter relishes and dreads. "Three Days" had just been delivered to my doorstep and, naturally, I immediately popped it in the VCR and began my solo screening. For the next couple of hours, I sat alone in the dark watching what sounded and looked a bit like something I once wrote.

When it finished, I couldn't help myself. I watched it again. And then again. And yet again.

It was on the fourth or fifth viewing that a change began to come over me. I started to realize that while it wasn't exactly as I had written it, my original story was still there. And, to be honest, their version of my movie was actually quite good. As I watched the tearful ending one last time, I tried to remember what those characters had looked like when I had first imagined them and suddenly it dawned on me - they looked just like the actors.

'Three Days' premières Sunday, Dec. 9, at 8 p.m. on ABC Family (formerly Fox Family). Screenwriter Robert Tate Miller has several other projects 'on the burner,' including a couple of TV movies and a feature-movie script. He says there's a strong chance that one or all will move forward in the coming months - but it's still too early to say when.

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