NAVIGATING HOLLYWOOD: Writing Partnerships – When Tragedy Strikes

After years as a development executive, Manny Fonseca is now on the other side of the table as a full-time writer and Podcaster. Now living the life of a writer, Manny is navigating a whole different side of Hollywood. You can follow him on Twitter: @mannyfonseca

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On February 28, 2014, my writing partner, Cheryl, suffered a ruptured aneurysm in her brain. The doctor’s were amazed she even made it to the hospital due to the fact that this type of aneurysm rupture was a sure-fire killer. Like I said, sometimes you have to navigate life while trying to navigate Hollywood.

It was two days before the Academy Awards and I lived three blocks from the event. For those of you that haven’t experienced it, Hollywood basically shuts down for the grand event… Cops everywhere with bomb sniffing dogs. It’s not fun.

I talked to Cheryl Thursday night as usual and then again via text Friday morning. She had a meeting that morning, and afterward, I was going to go down to Long Beach that afternoon so I could escape Hollywood before it turned into a complete police state.

TRAGEDY STRIKES…

I was farting around in my apartment catching up on a week’s worth of Jimmy Kimmel’s on Hulu when Cheryl’s daughter, Ally, called me. When I saw her name come up on my phone, I chuckled and thought: “Cheryl must have lost her phone again.”

“Manny, it’s Ally. My mom suffered from a ruptured aneurysm in her brain and she’s in the E.R. I just thought you should know.”

Cheryl on Day 2.

Cheryl on Day 2.

I asked her what hospital, flew around my bedroom throwing things in a bag and raced out the front door. It was the longest subway ride in my life. When I got to the E.R. They had already intubated Cheryl (put in a breathing tube) and knocked her out. To add insult to injury, she had been strapped down in restraints due to the fact that her stubborn ass had been fighting everyone.

It was heartbreaking to see the strong woman I completely adored completely helpless.

About 20 minutes after I got there, the neurosurgeon came by and told us that he didn’t expect Cheryl to make it through the night. A few minutes after that, the hospital’s chaplain came around and offered to give last rites. They didn’t know Cheryl like WE knew Cheryl. She wasn’t gonna let a measly thing like her popped brain slow her down.

SPOILER ALERT: CHERYL DOESN’T DIE…

Of course, we were right. She survived the night and the next day. On that Sunday (March 2nd) they went in to her brain to fix the bleed. Before the procedure, we were given the gloom and doom from the doctors about her chances of survival. I stopped them and said all we wanted was for them to keep her alive. “The bar is very low for us, just don’t kill her,” were my exact words.

Cheryl survived the odds and made it through the surgery like a champ. The question on everyone’s mind now was: “How would she be when she woke up?”


Script EXTRA: Manny Introduces Cheryl & Their Writing Partnership


The next day Cheryl not only woke up, but while the nurses weren’t looking, she ripped out her breathing tube even though she was still in restraints. It’s my understanding from the nurse that the only way she could have done that is if she sat there and worked it out with her tongue until there was enough of the tube for her to grab.

Take that in for a minute. Can you imagine the determination? l can’t help but think about The Bride laying in the backseat of the Pussy Wagon in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill…repeating over and over “wiggle your big toe.”

THAT’S the Cheryl we knew.

When we went into her room, she took us each by the hand and very weakly said, “Don’t leave me.”

I didn’t.

MANNY SETS UP CAMP…

I was there every day from very early in the morning until visiting hours were over. I sat by her bed while she napped, talked to her when she wanted to talk, spoke to the doctor’s for her when she couldn’t and listened to audio books with her when she wanted to listen to audio books.

There was some weakness on her left side, but nothing she couldn’t come back from. She fought the doctors when she could, made jokes with the nurses when she wanted to, and deeply apologized to a couple of them for not being a better patient.

She was the queen of the ICU.

Cheryl Gives a Thumbs Up via a "Moment of Lucidity."

Cheryl Gives a Thumbs Up via a “Moment of Lucidity.”

I told Ally that once Cheryl got home, I would move in with them for a couple of months to help Cheryl get back on her feet. I freely admit that I was naive about the situation. We thought once they fixed the bleed that, like with a broken bone, she would be home in a few days.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

After the surgery, when the doctor informed us that everything went great, she told me…quite casually…that they were going to keep her in the ICU for observation for at least 4-6 weeks! And that was just in the ICU. After the ICU, they would transfer her to a regular floor for a certain amount of time before they cleared her to go home!

Why all of this concern? Well, simply put: Vasospasms.

WHAT ARE VASOSPASMS?

Think of it like this: Your brain is a sponge and blood is water from your kitchen sink. When you get a sponge wet it expands, when the sponge dries it contracts. That might be fine in the open air, but your brain isn’t in the open air, it’s in an enclosed space. When your brain expands it puts pressure on the tissue of…you know…your brain.

Now, the more pressure, the more damage so it’s important to get in there and get that blood out to prevent damage. But doing so, contracts the brain quickly…which would be equally as bad. So it’s important to do it over a period of time. Unlike a sponge, we don’t just want to “wring out” the brain.

During the process, for up to 21 days after the initial bleed, vasospasms can occur. Vasospasms are little, quick expansions and contractions of the brain’s blood vessels… Aftershocks from the initial earthquake, if you will.

These little fuckers can do ALL sorts of damage.

When they contract, they restrict blood flow to the brain. If vasospasms are present, then the doctors have to go in and give the brain medicine to open up the blood vessels.

So it was important to monitor Cheryl for vasospasms via a doppler machine. A guy would come in every morning and use this machine on various spots on Cheryl’s head to make sure the vasospasms were being kept at bay.

If they were small, they would be left alone. Medium, and the doctor’s would confer as to whether to go in to her brain or not. Large would be no discussion… She would be whisked to radiology to have an angiogram in order to give her brain medicine. Each time they’d do this, there’d be a risk. After all, they’re messing with a person’s brain every time.

That 21-day window is one of the worst experiences anyone can go through. You’re sitting there hoping to make it through the day without any incident and each day that you make it through, is one day off that 21-day prison sentence. During that time everything is on the table… including death.

It was horrible waiting, but as it turned out, I wouldn’t have to wait long.

THINGS GET DARKER…

On the Sunday after Cheryl woke up, only seven days later, her breathing became erratic to the point where the doctors decided to re-intubate her. She would slip into what was called a “light coma” and, as it was discovered the next day, suffered from a severe stroke.

The vasospasms had won.

I sat quietly by her bed for seven days as she laid unconscious. Listening to the sounds of the ICU monitor beeps and the Darth Vader-esque sound of the breathing machine that was keeping her alive.

When Cheryl finally woke up, she was wiped clean. She was a complete zombie, unable to speak, unable to move her left side and couldn’t respond to the simplest of commands.

The stroke had done the damage that the ruptured aneurysm should have.

Cheryl walks for the first time.

Cheryl walks for the first time.

We spent roughly over a month in the hospital and because Cheryl was on “Cheryl time,” in terms of her recovery, she wasn’t ready to go home. We were transferred over to a nursing and rehabilitation center.

Once there, we were able to get her back on her feet and walking again. She still wasn’t able to move her left arm or speak. Hell, she wasn’t even fully “there” yet. She would have these “moments of lucidity” but they were few and far between.

After spending 67 days in the nursing facility, we were finally allowed to transfer to acute rehab. We were only supposed to be there for 10 days but ended up staying for close to five weeks.

MANNY THE ADVOCATE…

I was with Cheryl for every single one of those days. From morning until night. During that time, I advocated for her every time I had to, which was surprisingly more often than you’d imagine. I questioned the therapists, argued with the doctors and fought with the insurance company.

My proudest moment in the entire ordeal was when I found out that the insurance company had an emergency meeting to discuss how to deal with me. They wanted to send Cheryl to a hospital that I didn’t want her to go to. I ended up losing that fight, BUT I LOOOOOOOVE that I pushed them to the point where they had to call one of Cheryl’s doctors at home and “encouraged” her to call me and try to “calm me down.”

After seeing some of the things I’ve seen, I couldn’t imagine what life would have been like for Cheryl had I not been there. Even when she was lying in bed with nurses checking on her periodically, she still needed someone to take care of her. I’m glad I was there to do it.

WRITING…

Needless to say, I had a lot of free time on my hands. Cheryl, after all, WAS still pretty much a zombie. Yes, there were therapy sessions that I needed to be a part of, and yes, there were phone calls and battles to be fought, but a lot of the time she just slept or stared off into space.

What better way to fill the time (and escape the horrors of the situation) than to dive into a fictional world? I started tinkering with Whittier, but I couldn’t really decide which way to go with it. I ended up putting it on the back burner in order to write yet another failed attempt at a Rom-Com. It was horrible and thankfully only one person has ever read it. That script will never see the light of day.

It was time to shift gears and dive back into what I was good at. My wheelhouse. Writing thrillers.

THE BIRTH OF WHITTIER

In a tribute to Cheryl, I went with her idea of a small Alaskan town of cannibals. The downside was horror wasn’t really my thing. SHE was the horror guru of our partnership. If I was going to write a script about cannibals, I was going to have to do it MY way. It was going to have to be a thriller. So I started thinking about what I had at my disposal…

Begich Tower, Home to most of the population of Whittier, AK.

Begich Tower, Home to most of the population of Whittier, AK.

I knew that the town of Whittier had the entire population living in one building, which immediately made me think about Die Hard. Instead of having to escape terrorists who took over a high rise, I’d have to have my hero (or heroes) escape an apartment building of cannibals. Same thing, only different.

I also knew that I wanted to combine some of my ideas into the fold. One of my story concepts was a version of The Shining. Dealing with the cold isolation of the town, being surrounded by a large group of people, yet at the same time, being completely alone.

I also knew that I wanted to try and re-create one of my favorite movie experiences.

The first time I saw From Dust Till Dawn, I only knew three things about the movie: 1) Robert Rodriguez directed it, 2) Quentin Taratino wrote it and 3) George Clooney was in it.

So there I am, sitting in the theatre, thinking Clooney is killing it as a badass, when all of a sudden, all hell breaks loose and vampires show up? W. T. F.!?

THAT’S what I wanted for Whittier.

I was going to use a family, moving to a small town, as our protagonist. Once there, the town was going to seem “off” until… BOOM! All hell breaks loose. Once the top blew off, it was going to be non-stop action.

First half Shining, second half a Rob Zombie movie. Sub cannibals for terrorists and our family for John McClane. Done. I started hammering it out in between fighting for Cheryl in all of the different facilities we spent time in.

CHERYL COMES HOME…

Cheryl Comes Home. July 4, 2014

Cheryl Comes Home. July 4, 2014

Cheryl was finally released from the hospital on July 4, 2014, 127 days after being rushed to the E.R. Her demeanor, although had gotten slightly better, was still pretty much the same. She couldn’t get up on her own, still couldn’t move her left arm and still couldn’t speak.

She was immediately enrolled in an intensive in-home rehab program. A program she was only supposed to be in for roughly two months. She would ultimately spend eight months in it. One of the longest patients they ever had.

I left my apartment in Hollywood behind and moved in with Cheryl down in Long Beach to take care of her. She needed 24/7 care and there was no one else physically or emotionally capable to do it.

I continued to work on Whittier through those months, finally finishing it in November, 2014. I shipped it off to Big Dick Barny to get feedback. Barny loved it and immediately signed on to produce it. He gave me his notes, and I went off to start the process of rewriting it.

CHERYL WAKES UP…

On March 2, 2015, at around 11:30 am, I woke Cheryl up to get her ready for her outpatient speech therapy session. She was rather chatty, which wasn’t all that odd as the “moments of lucidity” had become more frequent, yet she couldn’t remember those moments after they happened.

I didn’t think about it at the time, but looking back on it later, I realized that it was exactly one year, almost to the minute, that she got out of the surgery to fix her bleed.

Manny Fonseca talks about the tragedy that strikes his writing partner, Cheryl Diffin, before they have the chance to write their horror script Whittier.She went to speech therapy and, from what I hear (I couldn’t go in because I had to call the insurance company), was talking about everything. She told her therapist about our podcast and that we were writers and had been working on a horror script about a small town, etc.

It was a completely different Cheryl. This wasn’t a “moment of lucidity.” Cheryl was back. Almost one year, to the minute that she was repaired. She just kinda… “Woke up.” She started asking what happened to her, wanted to know all of the details. I had taken pictures and documented her entire journey, so I sat down and started filling her in on everything that happened to her, slowly diving into everything she missed over the past year.

Including telling her about finishing Whittier.

It was a perfect time for her to come back to us too, because about a month later, Whittier would find a director, starting an 8-month long journey to trying to get our first film made.

script-partnersGet more tips on writing partnership in Claudia Johnson & Matt Stevens’ book
Script Partners: How to Succeed at Co-Writing for Film & TV

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