INTERVIEW: Dramedy Screenwriter Deborah Pearl Talks Directing, Screenwriting, and ‘Getting Ed Laid’

Natalia Megas is a Washington, D.C. freelance journalist who turns biographies and ripped-from-the-headlines narratives into screenplays that have won awards and placed in contests like Austin Film Festival, Sundance Labs, and PAGE International. You can follow her on Twitter @DameWriter.

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INTERVIEW: Dramedy Screenwriter Deborah Pearl Talks Directing, Screenwriting, and 'Getting Ed Laid' by Natalie Megas | Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwriting

With a budget of $40,000, Deborah Pearl booked a swanky hotel room for five days in Los Angeles with two famous Hollywood film stars and thirty onlookers. Her goal? Getting Ed Laid.

Pearl, the screenwriter of the 24-minute dramedy starring Ed Asner and Jean Smart, made her directing debut with Getting Ed Laid, a story about an 85-year-old professor who hires a hooker for his last hoorah.

“Everything I write is a dramedy. Life is a dramedy,” she says. “And I write life. I have a very strong BS meter. Inauthenticity sets off an alarm that tells me something isn’t working.”

After graduating from Barnard College, the women’s college of Columbia University in Speech and Drama, Pearl became an actress and a singer, beginning her career singing jingles and back-up for recording artists from Linda Ronstadt to Neil Young. (If you think she can write, wait until you hear her sing). Pearl then teamed up with her sister, Leslie (who wrote the Folger’s Best Part of Waking Up jingle) for an album with London Records.

But her lingering passion for writing led her to become a playwright, a TV writer for 10 years, and eventually a screenwriter. She has written for critically acclaimed TV series like Designing Women, short films like Waiting for Yvette, starring Wendie Malick, and the Cannes Film Festival entry, In Confidence. She’s also an uncredited writer for Hotel for Dogs.

She currently has scripts in development with director Thor Freudenthal (Diary of a Wimpy Kid). Their latest is an adaptation of the Israeli graphic novel, Exit Wounds.

Here is our condensed phone and email interview about writing and directing her first short film, being a woman in Hollywood, and giving screenwriters solid advice.

How did being a performer first make you a better writer and/or director later?

Performers put it all out there. They’re willing to be vulnerable. That’s what writers and directors try to reveal. So having gone there myself gives me access to that. I have tremendous respect for actors. They deal with a lot of rejection. They’re always auditioning and you never know why you get or don’t get a part. Rejection is part of the process. I didn’t have the confidence to deal with that when I was starting out. So, I stopped acting. Writing, on the other hand, gave me a place to express myself without having to get approval from others. I could just sit down and write, which I did.

I totally love working with actors. The good ones bring your work off the page, sometimes in ways you may not even have imagined. That’s thrilling. Being a performer also helped my writing because I always read the lines out loud, put them in my mouth to see how they feel. I understand the rhythms of the language that change from what you hear in your head to actually saying them. And as a director, it deepens the way I communicate with actors. You know, some may say rejection makes them stronger. Not me. I still hate it. But now I let it slide off. It doesn’t stop me. That’s the difference.  Courage isn’t not being scared – it’s doing it anyway.


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How did you break into the writing business?

I’d been a closet writer.  Writing spec scripts but working as a singer, so I didn’t pursue jobs.  I moved to L.A. to write with a producer friend who had been my neighbor in New York.  We’d written a spec pilot together.  Instead, he paired me with a friend of his and gave us our first writing gig, a single script on a sit-com he was producing.  That began a writing partnership that lasted ten years.

Irma Kalish was our mentor starting out.  A strong and funny woman who ran shows with an amazing calm self-assurance.  My partner had worked for Harry Thomason.  That was our intro to Designing Women. Harry was amazing to work for.  And Linda Bloodworth Thomason is a brilliant writer.  We learned a lot.  Harry reached out to me a few years ago when I did my Benny Carter CD, Souvenir of You.  He’s such a supportive and great guy.

So what ends up getting writers work?

So, I guess you could say it’s the contacts and the relationships with people that end up getting you work.  You have to be ready. You have to have the product to sell yourself.  Have one, two or preferably three scripts that you’re really proud of. Strong samples of your writing.  It’s good to join groups and start interacting in places where you’re going to meet other creative people, writing groups, theater groups.  And now online chat rooms.  [But] you have to have work to show.  You won’t get the job as a favor, that’s for sure.


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Do you need to live in L.A. to be a writer?

Depends on the kind of work you aspire to.  Today, they do a bunch of TV shows in New York.  And Indie films are shot everywhere.  So much Indie production out there.  If I were starting out now, I’d be creating web series (I have one I’m writing) and just go out and shoot it with friends.  Put your work online…

Why?

Because the real road to discovery these days is the Internet.  You have access to the world on your desktop, if you can attract attention.  That’s the opportunity and the challenge.  Today you can get your writing out there, but you need social media chops. Followers are eyeballs, and eyeballs are money.

How do you approach rewriting?

It depends on the piece and what the purpose of the rewrite is.  A first draft is almost always your starting point. It will need adjustments.  Sometimes, it’s structural, and you’re looking at what’s happening when.  Does the story drive forward or stall anywhere?  Is there enough tension?  Sometimes it’s character work.  In every scene – what do they need?  Are there big enough stakes?  Do you buy their motivations?  (BS meter time)  Sometimes you discovery you have too much, things you don’t need.  Do you get to the story soon enough?  It’s good to overwrite and put more stuff in when you’re first writing because you want to let your unconscious explore what’s there.  Then, you can go back and trim out what you don’t need.  Keep asking, how do I make this stronger?

It’s a little like knitting a sweater.  You pull on a thread and all of a sudden you don’t have a sleeve.  But you learn to be less precious about it.  You have to be willing to kill your babies, you know, those lines you love that you think really make the whole thing.  Well, much as it hurts, you have to let them go.  You have to cut off a limb if it’ll save your life.  Keep an open mind and allow the script to become what it’s meant to be.

Why did you make the transition from TV to Film?

I first turned to playwriting while working on TV, to express something personal.  Some of my short plays made good short films.  And I had met and partnered with Thor Freudenthal who had just directed an award-winning short after graduating from Cal Arts.  He wanted to direct, so we started writing films for him to direct.  They got optioned but none got made.  Truth is, I had wanted to direct for years, but was just too afraid to go there.

The transition from writer to director seemed like a mountain I couldn’t climb.  That’s why it took so many years for me to do it.  I failed to realize that everyone starts somewhere.  So, I had no experience or training – you don’t do this alone.  You really just have to declare it and move in that direction.  It turned out when the opportunity presented itself, I’d grown enough as an artist to be able to go for it, to ask for help, and take it.  Ironically, rather than it being a mountain, it was simply me inviting friends to join me on the journey, which they did.  It’s never about you. It’s about the work.  And making a film takes a (very talented) village.

GEL Press Still 2-

Jean Smart and Ed Asner

What was the Genesis for Getting Ed Laid?

My old friend, writer and producer Cindy Begel, asked me to invite Ed Asner to perform at a luncheon for Vicki Abelson’s Women Who Write, here [in L.A.] that invites actors and musicians to perform and promote their latest work.  She knew I knew him, and said, if he doesn’t have something, would I write something for him.  When I asked Ed, he joked, “Write me an F—ing scene.”  So I joked, “I’ll write you an f—ing scene.”  We laughed, but then it was like, OMG, I’ll put him with a hooker!  Soon after, I was talking to my 90-year-old mother who had a 93-year old boyfriend at the time.  He tells me he’s gone to his cardiologist to ask if he could take Viagra because he was afraid it might kill him.  And I thought: Perfect!  That’s my story.

What was it like working with Ed Asner?

It was great.  Working with him and Jean, a dream cast.  Ed’s a pro.  As soon as the camera rolls, he’s right on it.  We asked a lot of him, too. Eight to 10 hour days at his age.  He’d be tired, but then the minute I said, “Action,” he transformed.  He’s right on it.  Never misses the joke.  Nails it every time.  And he’ll give you different takes. It was amazing and very impressive. I’ve known and loved Ed for years.  He’s a wonderful man- and he’s all in – whether it’s being politically active or as an actor.  He keeps his word and puts his money where his mouth is.  A rarity anywhere but especially in show business.  He works all the time because it’s his passion and his art.  Over the years, he’s done play readings for me and has come to my one-woman show, Chick Singers and my Benny Carter show.  It’s always meant the world to me to have his support.  We met on his TV show Thunder Alley, with Haley Joel Osmont who was then five years old.  The chance to write something for him now was a joy.  Here’s this brilliantly funny, astute, crusty, lusty old guy. Making him a professor who hires a hooker was perfect.

So Ed inspired your lead character?

Absolutely.  It all came from him. And knowing him personally made finding his voice easy.  The fun was putting in his alter egos where he got to alter that.

ME directing Ed at desk

Deborah directing Ed Asner

What inspired Jean Smart’s role?

Actually, I wrote her role initially without an arc.  Basically because I played the role at the luncheon myself.  When she read it, she needed a place to start and a place to end up.  Great actors will tell you a lot about your work.  So, I thought, okay, I’ll put in a dramatic arc for her.  Which created a surprise that deepened the piece emotionally.  The awesome thing about Ed and Jean is they both do drama and comedy with equal brilliance.  That’s why I really, really wanted to get her on board.  I knew she had that heart, that lovability, and would nail the humor and the pathos, just as Ed does.  I wanted it to feel real.  Acting is a team sport.  With a lessor actor in either role, it wouldn’t have had the humor and the gravitas.


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How long did it take you to write?

Once I got the inspiration, it kind of poured out in an afternoon.  Then, over the next week or two, I did some refining, rewriting funny lines, and getting the flow of the piece.  You discover things as you go so I noodled with it until the luncheon where we performed it in front of an audience.  We got so many laughs!  It was so much fun.  I asked Ed if he’d do a film of it and he said he would.

That’s when the next part of the writing process began, taking the story that was performed live and telling it with both words and pictures.  Instead of a soliloquy to the audience, I created Ed’s alter ego in the mirrors.  When Jean came on board, it was about finding her arc.  So I did another pass for her. Then, when it was shot, there was the edit.  I loved editing – you’re writing with pictures.  That’s like the final rewrite.

What were some of your challenges filming – did you have any?

Oh God, yes. We were shooting in one hotel room.  I spent a couple of months with Tom Meleck, our production designer finding the perfect room.  It had to be big enough to accommodate a two-camera shoot, have a couch or sitting room area and a bed and be within budget.  I’m most proud of the fact that it doesn’t feel like it was all shot in one room.  Our awesome cinematographer, Richard Crudo, then President of the ASC, generously spent hours with me in the hotel room, planning shots that would give us the most coverage with the most economy of time.  Being so green, I relied on him and he was amazing.  We had special effects shots that also needed prep.  The film takes place in Tokyo and we shot at the W Hollywood Hotel.  So we green screened the windows for Tokyo and the mirrors for Ed’s alter egos, all put in post.

How do you juggle writing, directing and producing?

Me directing jean outside

Deborah directing Jean Smart

My main gig is writing.  Everything comes from the material.  I love directing, but doing it will depend on the project.  Right now I’m writing something I want to sell.  It’s historical fiction with strong roles for actors.  I have a webseries I’d like to direct and would probably produce with others.  Producing is an enormous challenge.  Rather than the big picture of writing and directing, it’s details coordinating all the pieces that make a production happen.  Producing film is like theater on steroids.  So many technical areas to be addressed.  Even when the shoot is done, the data transfer, the edit, the postproduction adding sound and music and fixing dialogue, color correction, it’s an enormous process filled with technical necessity.  Thankfully, I got to work with some great talents… My learning curve was straight up, but surrounding myself with great people, taught me what I needed to know and made me look good!

You’re an author, playwright, screenwriter, screenwriter, singer-songwriter, director.  How do you juggle it all?

For better or worse, my work is my primary relationship in life.  When I’m doing a project, no matter what medium, I wake up to it and go to sleep with it.  Coming up with a great idea, or scene, a funny or poignant line, moving people with a performance, it’s as thrilling today as it was when I first started out.  I’m committed to a creative life.  I move from one genre to another as the project demands.  I’m working on self-help book now about creativity and personal growth.  That’s a first for me.  I like the challenge.  Solving creative puzzles and knowing you’ve nailed it, is a rush that’s worth it all to me.

If you had to pick one, what are you?

Wow…  I think I’m a writer first and foremost.  A writer is a storyteller.  If I go for a long time without writing, I get very uncomfortable.  Though I love performing and it comes naturally to me.  But it was an emotional cover, so doing it never felt like it was really me.  Writing comes from a deeper, more authentic place.  And it’s also, interestingly, more challenging.

What’s your writing environment like?

I work in a wonderful office in my house where I look out at the mountains in the Cahuenga Pass.  I can see the Hollywood sign. It’s really inspiring.  I don’t turn off my phone or the Internet and with the political atmosphere today, I leave MSNBC on in the living room so I hear the din in the background.  I guess because when I started out, I would write in bars.  I’d buy a club soda and eat bar snacks for hours.  Writing long hand on a legal pad.  Some writers like music in the background but I like the din of talking.  I like tuning everything out.  As a result, I can focus on my work anywhere. Supermarket lines, airports, wherever I need to.  Only now, it’s on my iPad.


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What’s your process like?  You said you start with an outline . . .

It depends.  For my plays, I usually have an idea or a line of dialogue that launches it.  Since I’m a musician, dialogue is like melody to me and every character has their own.  When I get the idea, I’ll think about it for a bit, let it gain traction in my mind.  Then when I sit down, I listen to the characters, who just start talking.  Sometimes, it feels like I’m taking dictation.  And after you get all that out, you shape it.  With screenplays, once I have the idea, I try to be a little more aware of form.  I’ll write a rough treatment and try to make sure I don’t write myself off a cliff, which can happen without thinking it through.  Some ideas if not shaped before you go to script will burn out too soon.  You have to have a beginning middle and end. And you can fill it in from there.

Ed and jean crack up

Ed and Jean cracking up on set.

Do you follow the three-act film structure?  You know, save the cat and things like that.

I’m actually getting to it now more than I ever had.  I was much more a free-form writer.   I knew something had to happen at around page 30 and 60.  I knew I had to have something happen because I could just feel it.  Now, after all these years, I’ve been learning techniques studying with Paul Foley who teaches at USC.  You think you know everything about your process and then, it’s inspiring to realize you can still make your work better and the creative journey more efficient.  It’s what my book is about, the relationship of creativity and personal growth. I love when I get to grow and creativity has been a great way to do it.

You say that writing is harder (than directing and performing).  Why is that?

Writing is harder because it’s ground zero for creativity.  A blank page is where it all starts.  It’s not interpretation; it’s creation.  You shape a story and its characters out of whole cloth, and you live or die by the outcome.  Like a puzzle, you make all the pieces, shape them and assemble them and the overall outcome is a journey that you hope will keep an audience invested and engaged.  My work with Thor Freudenthal on the graphic novel Exit Wounds was my first time working with a pre-existing story and I loved it.  I’m now working on a story of historical fiction, which gives you lots of pieces to work with that aren’t there when you’re starting from scratch.  I mean you can screw it up either way.  The way you fashion and use the pieces becomes the same challenge.  And you end up adding and changing things to make source material work, too.  It’s like no matter what you’re writing, each moment is an opportunity for a home run, a base hit, or a strike out.  It’s the process.  You’re recreating reality.  Sure it’s hard, but how cool is that!  That’s why I was drawn to it.  I got to be God in that universe, when I was so not in my own life.  The ease of singing and performing made it seem less important.  I like being in my own world facing the blank page.

Me directing Ed and Jean2

Deborah, Jean and Ed on set.

Being a female in this industry, has it been challenging?

Being a person is challenging!  Of course, when I started, it was kind of advantageous.  They were hiring women because they needed them on staff.  There weren’t a lot of us and we were the female point of view.  Of course, I was also sexually harassed.  Which was weird but it happened to me when I was an actor too.  Those times have changed.  Now, there are lots of women writing and directing.  And that kind of harassment from superiors is only fodder for a lawsuit.

I’ve heard how women aren’t really getting the opportunities in Hollywood they deserve to direct or write.

It’s true.  When it comes to studio films and there’s a big budget, yes, definitely women have gotten the short end of that for years.  There is a tremendous disparity.  It takes time for things like that to change.  But it also takes time for women, like yourself of this generation, to decide it’s what they want and to go for it relentlessly.  Today, unlike during my time, if you want to be a director, you can get friends together and get an iPad or your phone and you can actually post stuff on the Internet.  If you have an interest in that, I would say go for it.  It will make you a better writer, and it will teach you a lot about what works and doesn’t.   Doing something versus not doing something is really the ticket – no matter how it turns out.  This is something I had to go through with my movie.  I was terrified that I would make a shitty movie.  And then I thought to myself, you know what?  Even if you have an ugly baby, you still love it so go make an ugly baby.  Get over yourself!

Nobody is fabulous the first time.  You have to give yourself permission to go for it.  The older you get, the more you realize – it’s not the things that you do that you regret.  It’s the things you didn’t do.  And you just have to be willing.  It’s not about failing.  You may miss the mark, but so what?  Go for it again. Producer Walter Shenson once shared his advice to his sons with me – you better love the thing you decide to do in life because you’re gonna spend the rest of your life doing it.


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What advice do you have to aspiring writers then?

Write.  And write some more.  Just keep writing.  And something I didn’t do that I recommend you do – find a mentor.  Someone who has the success you want to achieve.  Someone you can trust to advise you.  Also, after you write something, let it go, and write something else.  I spent years and years perfecting the same script and it just kept getting better and better but in today’s market, you miss the trends.  If you want to sell, today they buy ideas, not execution.  If you perfect something that no one wants to buy, it’s not gonna further your career.  It’s important to get something in good enough shape that you’re happy with it.  You need a kick-ass spec script that shows your best work.  But after that, move on to other things.  You never know what story is going to strike the fancy of a buyer or someone looking to hire.  So, have loglines for a half a dozen stories worked out.

I think writers write the same theme over and over again that reflects what they’re working on emotionally within themselves.  Most of my work has to do with identity, where we come from, and why we are the way we are – who we are in relationship to the world.  That’s not everybody’s mandate.  Some people write about injustice.  Some, about getting screwed over.  It’s an incredible opportunity as a writer to tell the story of the human condition through your own filter… and ironically, the more specific you are about yourself, the more universal it becomes.

So, does Ed get laid?

Well, without spoiling the surprise, let’s just say it’s a feel good movie!

More articles by Natalie Megas
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