I was on the set directing my movie Moll Flanders — which starred Robin Wright and Morgan Freeman — when John Watson, my partner in Trilogy, asked me, “How come none of your characters have mothers?”
I had written the script in a state of flow. It had poured out of me.
After a three-year gestation!
Strangely, after finishing the story for our revisionist Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, (which John co-wrote into a screenplay), I literally carried a gut instinct that I was going to write a historical story about a woman.
I do mean gut instinct. The idea felt like an imaginary sausage in my left tummy near my hip. For those of you thinking I am nuts — no problem! I have learned to try and surrender to my inner voice, and encourage any weird process that will help me gain some writing traction. Over time, I kept looking for this historical woman. I looked up characters like Nell Gwinn and Molly Malone, but no spark. No magic.
I remember driving to work and listening to a PBS radio item about an Orphans and Foundlings home in England where they’d discovered letters a hundred years old or more, written by women when they abandoned their children on the doorstep. I thought: What does a woman say to a child at that time?
Later, I was doodling at my computer at Trilogy and out came a few words. Something like “Now child, what do you think of your mother, now that you have read her story?” and a little-girl voice replied: “You could throw me out, without a crust to eat, before I would deny that woman.”
Then I found myself writing: “Then prepare yourself child, for I am that woman. I am your mother.” And I found myself tearing up.
I had the end to a story with no beginning yet. In my mind, a mother who had abandoned her child had written a letter about her life, listing all her flaws and faults, and had asked her child to read it, keeping her identity hidden. She wanted the girl to know the unvarnished true character of her mother and not be tricked into loving her.
I read those very few lines to my assistant, at the time, Terri Clark. ((Terri Clark is now the Executive Director at Bring Me A Book Foundation. And still a great friend.) She got the same weird feeling — these lines moved her, too. Her support unleashed me … I was now totally committed trying to discover, in me, why that character had come to that place.
I decided Terri and I would tell no one about my writing this project. The idea was so ephemeral, a few lines. And, I distrusted even more hearing, “Pen, what the hell do you know about writing a woman’s story” from any male co-worker. I feared that alone could blow my tiny flame out.
I found myself unleashed — ideas gushed — it was like taking dictation. I did my normal work and the script flooded in all my spare time. It was like a love affair — I could not wait to get back to see my work. It was intoxicating!
Terri showed me the book Moll Flanders, which stated on the title page that it was “the memoir of a thief and a whore who ended up living rich in Virginia.” I realized that Moll was the perfect “imperfect” mother. I was no longer writing an anonymous story but was dancing with Daniel Defoe’s character, using a memoir device instead of a letter and mingling my own ideas with his story. I completed the script in five weeks in my spare time and in secret. It was never structurally changed when we shot it. It was poetic, deeply charactered, full of human insight and physical adventure. And it fell out of my head. Like someone else’s telepathy.
To my immense frustration, I have never experienced a writing jaunt like that since — but Lord, I would love to. I consider it my best “Life Script” experience. By “Life Script,” I mean a story that comes from your unconscious and not something calculated to hit a goal.
And, why did it happen to me? On reflection, two reasons. I think the experience of my wife giving birth to our daughter. [I don’t think it is an accident that I wrote birth scenes into both Robin Hood after we had a son, Nevin, and Moll after daughter, Victoria.] Plus, part of me wanted to make a statement about a forced abandonment and a mother and child’s unconditional love for each other.
So, on that day, when John asked me about my characters lacking mothers, I think I really did hit my fist into my forehead. Moll Flanders was born from a woman hung in Newgate Prison. My Robin Hood had no mother. I had written a script about Houdini — who became obsessed with trying to use psychics to contact his dead mother. In fact, every story I ever wrote seemed to share this mother issue. And I had never been conscious of it.
My mother, Edna, had died when I was eight.
MGM was gracious enough to allow me to dedicate the movie to her in the end titles.
Read Pen’s first “Alligator Tales” installment here.
If you like Pen’s blog, you can download a FREE chapter from his book Riding the Alligator: Strategies for a Career in Screenplay Writing (And Not Getting Eaten) at www.ridingthealligator.com, published by MWP. The book is a unique insiders guide to succeeding as a screenwriter in a difficult business, and has been lauded by top Hollywood talent such as Ron Howard and Paul Haggis.