BALLS OF STEEL: Patience, Crazy Patience

Balls of steel aren’t the only things required on the road to production. Patience is paramount.

I’m not talking about the patience required to wait for Santa. I mean the kind that puts knots in your stomach and scares the hell out of you, knowing you could quite seriously be screwed over. But despite that fear, you accept there is no other option than being patient.

I’m referring to the kind of patience required when you write without a contract.

No papers. No lawyers. No bottle of champagne popping. Just a handshake. Old-school style. That’s how we rolled.

That kind of patience and trust takes big balls… and a little insanity.

In early 2009, Douglas A. Blackmon, author of Slavery by Another Name (SBAN), finally committed to partnering with me to write his book’s adaptation after six months of pitching/stalking him. In the following year, we crafted a 31-page, detailed outline for our adaptation.

Sure, a year seems like a long time, but in truth, Doug and I met on only a handful of occasions to work. In between those meetings, I’d plug away, come up with ideas, send them to him, and wait.

And wait.

And wait.

Patience.

It took us a while to learn each other’s work patterns and how to be productive as a team. There’s a definite learning curve in new writing partnerships, and for this one, emailing the outline back and forth wasn’t working. The project was simply too enormous.

Quickly we discovered that if we met in person, we could do the work of an entire writing team in just a few hours. One of us would throw out a nugget, and the other would grab it and run. The sparks of creativity ignited. The project’s energy was undeniable and a life force of its own.

We worked seamlessly together. But there was always a gnawing pang in my stomach, hoping at each meeting, he’d pull a contract out of his worn leather bag. I’d ask. He’d dodge. We’d get back to work.

Patience.

I remember one morning we had a breakfast meeting in a diner.  For some reason, we did our best work over eggs and coffee. Doug pulled out his journalist’s notebook and started mapping out a slave rescue scene nowhere on the pages of the book. It was brilliant.

One idea from him led to ten ideas from me, which led to another dozen from him, and so on. Before we knew it, we had crafted what would become one of our best, most dramatic scenes of the script.

If we had pumped out an outline in a month or two and hadn’t waited to be in that diner to discuss it, that scene may never have been born.

Patience was paying off.

But in between these meetings, we’d go back to our respective corners of the country and continue our lives. No doubt, it was frustrating to have that kind of energy halted, but we knew we’d get it back.

While Doug covered news stories and slipped in and out of SBAN when he could, I kept working on the outline in my little country home, far away from his Atlanta Wall Street Journal office and that NYC diner.

Patience.

At many points during that year, people assumed I had a signed contract with Doug. When asked, I’d mostly just smile and avoid the question, but on other occasions I’d boldly admit, “No, I do not.” To which they’d gasp, telling me I was insane.

My simple response, “I trust him.”

You can imagine how many heads were shaking when I said that.

Admit it, you’re doing it right now, thinking I was absolutely out of my freaking mind to work even one day without a signed contract, let alone spend a year outlining and breaking the binding of the book.

Guess what? You’re right. I’m crazy.

Of course I had knots in my stomach. Of course I wanted the validation. But for whatever reason, it hadn’t happened. In truth, I wasn’t quite sure why. But I had to trust him. There was no way I would, or could, stop writing this. Not even if it meant I got screwed over.

Bringing this story to light was too important. It had to be told.

Patience.

Then one sunny day in New York City, I finally found out why the contract was unsigned.

Doug and I met with Bill Pace, screenwriting professor at The New School and our script consultant. When Bill asked if we had a contract, I turned to Doug, who smiled at me, then confidently spoke.

“No, we don’t have one, but we will.”

Bill mentally measured my body for a straightjacket, and asked Doug why, as I sat on the edge of my seat wondering the same.

Doug explained, “I pulled the book rights off the market to give her a chance, despite the book having great momentum at the time. She had no money to buy the rights, and she was unproduced. I was taking a huge risk. So, I needed her to take a risk too. We both needed to have something on the line.”

Suddenly, it all made sense.

Patience, trust, and the willingness to take an equal risk. That’s the key to a great partnership.

He trusted me with his baby, and I had the patience to wait for him to be comfortable with my talent as a writer to sign that contract with me. I was only able to be that insanely confident because I knew we’d kick this script’s ass. Failure to do so wasn’t an option.

It would be over two years from the day we met before the contract was signed – after the outline, after the first draft, and after the Pulitzer win.

Patience… and trust. Old-school style.

I earned his signature, and he earned mine.

Yeah, I’m crazy, and I’m totally cool with that.

Previous installments of the journey of Slavery by Another Name’s adaptation can be found on Jeanne’s author page on the Script site.

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10 thoughts on “BALLS OF STEEL: Patience, Crazy Patience

  1. Pingback: WO: Weekly Obsessions | Wittyburg.com

  2. Jeanne Veillette Bowerman

    Michael, there is no question I am very fortunate Doug is a man of honor. You are absolutely right in that I will be very wary to ever venture into a project under those circumstances again. But each experience has to be weighed independently. This one was worth the risk to be because of the subject matter and my dedication to helping Doug get this story to as many people as possible. It was truly a piece of passion for me.

  3. Michael O'Daniel

    Jeanne,

    You were VERY lucky that the contract came through. The odds against that actually happening are incalculable. A great learning experience does not compensate for being ripped off, which you put yourself at the risk of happening. Don’t tempt fate — promise never to do anything like this again.

    From someone who’s been there too many times…

  4. Jeanne Veillette Bowerman

    Thanks for your support, everyone. Yes, Patti, it was a lovely surprise to me as well! 🙂

    In truth, I wasn’t “risking” that much. All I had to lose was time, not experience. Everything I learned working on this adaptation will be carried with me to every other project. Even if Doug had tossed me to the wolves, no one could take away all I learned.

    I know it’s not realistic to think one can work without a contract on a regular basis, but I do wish more people would go back to the old-school style and have a handshake actually mean something. Honor is rare these days.

  5. patti meyers

    It’s nice that there is still trust and integrity in this crazy world. Not only your patience was rewarded, but faith in human nature. A man of his word. Never thought he had a reason to his side to withholding the contract. That was a lovely surprise.

  6. Stacy Baker

    Great insight about both people needing to take risks, but more than that, I love how you trusted your gut. Every partnership has its own personality and habits … you were able to create one that leverages the best in both of you. Congrats and thanks for sharing the inspiration.

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