THE FIRST TIME I GOT PAID FOR IT

My first professional screenwriting credit is for a motion picture called MVP2: MOST VERTICAL PRIMATE, released in 2001.
  1. I'm 25, in graduate school, broke, debating between working as a bartender or a barista or both while I write my master's thesis.
  2. I run into a woman I went to undergrad with, now working as an assistant to a producer/director. I tell her I want to be a screenwriter. I have no plan for actually accomplishing this.
  3. She remembers my short films from school, thinks I'm funny. The company she works for just made a kid's movie that's been successful and want to make a sequel as soon as possible, so her boss is meeting with writers right now. She says there's no way I'll get hired, but she can probably get me at least a meeting.
  4. An actual meeting? With an actual producer? That's so far beyond my current plan, which is nonexistent, I jump at the opportunity.
  5. I go see the kid's movie, which is still in theaters. It's called MVP: MOST VALUABLE PRIMATE. It's about a chimpanzee that learns to play hockey and helps a local kid's team win the championship. It's silly but cute.
  6. The company that produced it had a previous hit with AIR BUD, a movie about a basketball-playing dog that spawned a franchise. MVP is their second swing at an animal-sports franchise.
  7. I meet the boss. He doesn't seem to realize I've never done this before. For whatever reason, he's under the impression that this is a real pitch meeting. He tells me what he thinks the sequel should be about and then asks me what I think.
  8. In his concept, the sequel ends with the chimp being drafted into the NHL. I tell him, no, that's how the sequel should START. He's intrigued.
  9. Even though I'm Canadian, I know very little about hockey. Growing up, the only sport I was into was skateboarding.
  10. Half-joking because I know I'll never get the job, I pitch him the idea that the chimp gets drafted into a brand new NHL expansion team, not as a real player but as a mascot to drum up media attention. But when it turns out he can really play, they put him on the ice ("there's no rule in the NHL handbook that says a monkey CAN'T play hockey")...
  11. The chimp becomes a star player, beloved by local fans, rankling his human teammates, until an opposing coach, sick of his team being humiliated by a primate, schemes to have the chimp framed for biting a rival player.
  12. On the run from the police, the chimp is befriended by a young skateboarder who helps him hide out. The kid teaches the chimp to skateboard and the chimp helps the kid win a big skateboard contest. The chimp's teammates realize he was framed and help clear his name just in time for the team to win the NHL playoffs.
  13. This is the actual plot of the movie, with one change that I'll explain in a bit...
  14. The producer says he never considered adding a whole other sport for the chimp to play. But he likes that the skateboarding competition keeps the sequel from just repeating the "kid's team wins the championship" story of the first movie. He'll get back to me.
  15. I assume nothing will come of this because I'm not taking it seriously AT ALL. It's a sequel to movie about a hockey-playing chimp. Just getting a meeting seems hilarious and a good anecdote.
  16. The next day is my birthday. That afternoon, the company sends me a quick mock up of a poster they did overnight with a chimp on a skateboard. They like the visual. They offer me a thousand bucks to write up what I said in the meeting as an outline. It's my birthday and someone just offered to pay me to write for the first time.
  17. I write the outline, expecting that'll be the end of it. Surely they'll just take my ideas and hire a professional. But the next week they call to ask me to write a first draft. I say yes. I don't even negotiate. It's late November.
  18. I have no idea what I'm doing. They send me a copy of Final Draft because I don't even own screenwriting software.
  19. I buy the published screenplay for PULP FICTION. My reasoning is Quentin Tarantino does so many different types of scenes in that movie, anytime I wanted to know how to format something on the page, I could just look it up in his script. What's a scene look like with two people on the phone? Or driving? Or dancing? PULP FICTION is my format guide.
  20. I don't even know how long a screenplay is supposed to be. PULP FICTION is 134 pages long. So I make my first draft 134 pages long. The producer describes it as "War And Peace With Chimps".
  21. But they think there's a good 90 page script inside my 134 page epic. I work with the producer to cut it down to a more appropriate length.
  22. I write three drafts in five weeks and right before New Year's they tell me the movie's been greenlit for production in March.
  23. This is obviously not how it usually works.
  24. I found the process of writing for kids fascinating. Particularly because I tend to write dialogue-driven stories and the chimpanzee doesn't speak. I had to focus on pure storytelling, choices and consequences, which I'd never really done before.
  25. On New Year's Day my mom is diagnosed with cancer.
  26. I no longer care that my first professional screenplay is about to be produced. I spend the next few weeks with her in the hospital. The producers need me to do a rewrite but the last thing I want to do is spend precious hours away from my mom to write a silly kid's movie. I have zero interest in my fledgling career.
  27. The producer calls me to discuss. He tells me when his mom passed away, he found a lot of solace in channelling his emotions into creative work. This is true and helpful and also the guy needs a script because they've already opened their production office and things are getting frantic.
  28. I spend all my time at the hospital cancer ward. One day, walking down the hall I hear laughter. I look into a room and see a group of bald kids on IV drips - children with cancer - watching a movie. It's AIR BUD, made by the same company. These kids, with every reason to be miserable, are laughing and squealing at this dog playing basketball.
  29. I get it. It's my SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS moment. A silly kid's movie can light up a child's day when they need it most.
  30. I wake up the next morning with the worst flu of my life. I'm not allowed to even go to the hospital because my mom's immune system is too weak from the chemotherapy.
  31. For the next week, addled by flu, in a disoriented, sweaty fugue, I rewrite the screenplay.
  32. I make one major story change. I make the skateboarding kid who befriends the chimp an orphan. His mom died, he ran away from foster care, and he's living in the decrepit lifeguard station of an abandoned swimming pool, which he uses to practice his skater tricks.
  33. Everybody loves this. Finally the movie has a genuine emotional pulse, not just whimsical banana jokes.
  34. I'm so messed up by the flu that it never occurs to me I'm pouring my anxiety about my mom's illness into this ridiculous kid's movie. But I just became a writer.
  35. I send the draft to the producer and immediately forget about the movie.
  36. A couple of weeks later my mom dies.
  37. Two weeks later the movie starts shooting. I visit set one time. It's a surreal experience, actors speaking my dialogue in locations I described. Dozens of people spending millions of dollars on scenes I wrote while debilitated by the flu. I hang out with some chimpanzees and the guy who played Al on "Home Improvement". He's super-nice.
  38. This is not how I imagined my professional screenwriting debut would happen. They actually teach the chimpanzees to ride skateboards. I assumed it would be, like, people in costumes or visual effects. But, no, it's apes in hoodies pulling tricks in a full-size half-pipe. This is the moment I understand that Fellini movies are documentaries.
  39. I spend the next several months grieving... and writing. I didn't make much off the movie by, like, Hollywood standards but it was enough to pay off my student loans and not immediately need a job, which was an amazing gift in the wake of losing my mom.
  40. I had nothing else to do with making the movie. It was theatrically released in October 2001, eleven months after I was hired to write it. Which now seems insane to me. It's not, like, a good movie by any definition but Warner Brothers picked it up for international distribution and it made enough at the box office to get another sequel.
  41. I did not write the sequel, MXP: MOST EXTREME PRIMATE, in which the chimp learns to snowboard. "I'm all out of banana jokes" is what I said. But I did write three other scripts for the same company, so it's not like I was precious and those paid gigs genuinely helped me transition into being a full-time screenwriter.
  42. The assistant who got me that first meeting that wasn't supposed to go anywhere was given an associate producer credit for her efforts, her first producing credit. She's produced twenty movies now.
  43. I haven't seen the movie since it came out, 14 years ago, but I just discovered it's on Netflix. I watched a few minutes and it's still not good, but it's actually not as bad as I self-deprecatingly remembered.
  44. And that was the first time I ever got paid to write a movie.