Monday, January 26, 2009

Dear Dolly

You'll remember last week: Brad Horvath - my single remaining "live" connection to Dolly Parton, my last hope of getting her approval and participation on my project - had kind of gone M.I.A. after he offered to hook me up with his link to Dolly. 

"Please don't let this be a dead end", I kept chanting through the days and weeks of not hearing back from Brad. "Please don't let this person be a flake."  The fact that I really don't like to hassle people for favours probably compounded the turnaround time though, because after one or two polite and well-spaced "reminder" emails to Brad, I just waited.  

Until I couldn't wait anymore. One day I picked up the phone and left a timid message on his voice mail. Shazam! - five minutes later I had the email he'd promised me! From then on, everything moved like lightning. By the end of the day, I was actually looking at the name, address and phone number of THE person who could see to it that Dolly Parton would see my project!! 

Hyperventilating, I wrote Brad and thanked him deliriously.  He advised me to get a really kick-ass package out as soon as possible. And he also mentioned I should include a fax number where I could be reached, as that was how he'd usually received business correspondence from Ms. Parton.

Simultaneously giddy and nauseous, I went right to work on the various elements of my proposal package - resisting the temptation to look at the script for fear I'd start to rewrite everything from scratch!

I'd decided the following Monday would be the day I'd send out the package. Barbara would be back from a film festival in Belgium by then and I'd have the weekend to clear my head and compose the last element that needed to go into the proposal - my personal letter to Dolly Parton.

But first, I wanted to phone this magical person who was about to receive my unsolicited package. I wanted to at least introduce myself - make a personal connection to the person who was so personally connected to Dolly.  I wanted to be more than just another FedEx envelope landing on a busy desk.

So, I waited until everyone left the house and I closed myself in my office. But wait. I couldn't make such a critical phone call in such a messy office - it would probably screw up my aura or karma or something. So I cleaned my office (first time since I moved in). But then, I was too dirty. After a thorough shower, I came back into my office, did some deep breathing and picked up the phone. Wait. Maybe I better do some positive visualization first. 

Holding my beat-up copy of Dolly's autobiography in one hand and the photo of my Grandma Kehl receiving her "Hole-in-one" trophy from football hero, George Reed, in the other, I "visualized" the hell out of my upcoming phone call. I got all the way to being invited over for a business lunch at Dolly's house when I decided I was ready to do this thing.

Maybe I should have a drink first.  Just to relax. 

It being 10:15 am, that idea could only end badly. So, reluctantly sober, I picked up the phone again and dialed the number of Dolly's right-hand person. WAIT!

I threw down the phone. What if someone answers? I'd forgotten everything I wanted to say. Clearly, I couldn't be trusted to wing such an important call. I needed a script. And for every foreseeable eventuality - like if the person answered, or if the person didn't answer, voice mail or secretary ... I had to have something written down for them all...

By 3 pm I was finally ready. I dialed the number, lined up my various scripts in front of me and prayed for voice mail to pick up.  But no such luck.  She answered.

I started off okay and managed to stumble woodenly through the appropriate script for the occasion, finishing up with, "So I was wondering if you would be willing to receive my proposal package?". When she cautiously asked me what exactly the film was about, I read her my short synopsis. And she paused.  And then slowly she said, "Well, I guess it would be alright. Go ahead and send it to me."  Just like that.

I hung up. And I cried. 

I was finally, FINALLY, within spitting distance of my goal. 

Now, only time and personal tastes could stand in my way.  

I sat down and wrote my letter to Dolly.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Giving

I think it's fitting that on this auspicious day - Dolly Parton's birthday! - I should start to wrap up the prologue to our story, and bring this blog into the present by recounting how my Dolly-seeking efforts eventually bore fruit, and I received the greatest gift an independent filmmaker with a dream could ask for. (not to mention an unexpected treat from Viggo Mortensen)

So, where did I leave off last week? Right, so there I was - it was coming up on the end of August, production funding deadline was fast approaching in November - and I was no closer to Dolly, or her blessing, or a distributor than I had been from the very beginning of this project. 

Or so I thought...

Those "research" habits I'd developed over the years still had me compulsively going to visit the various web sites that had anything at all to do with Dolly (and yes, I've been recently told by a few readers that Facebook would have saved me a whole lot of time - but I'm kind of old-school about this interweb thing and besides that, I truly believe that all things come to pass in the time they're meant to).  Anyway, there I was, doing my habitual cyber rounds when I happened on an item posted at (the most comprehensive fan site I've found yet) that changed the course of things in a big way.

It was on this site - admirably mastered  by Mr. Duane Gordon - that I discovered a news item about a new documentary on Dolly's Imagination Library (her children's literacy foundation) coming to Canada.  I feverishly did some follow-up research on "The Book Lady" and discovered that Dolly had personally appeared in the film, and that the filmmakers were indeed Canadian.  I did some basic deductions and figured that they would have had fairly close dealings with Ms. Parton or her people in order to have achieved that kind of access to her. And since we Canadians are such a neighbourly people, maybe they'd be willing to give a fellow Canuck filmmaker some pointers on how to go about connecting with Dolly Parton...?

After some further digging, I was able to contact one of the filmmakers in Nova Scotia, Brad Horvath, the brainchild and producer behind "The Book Lady". He was immediately and graciously responsive. He answered my email within minutes, saying he'd be happy to recount his experience in contacting and achieving access to Dolly Parton. Not only that, but he cc'd the director of the film, Natasha Ryan, saying she'd be just as happy to give me her insights and experience.  Love these Canucks.  I instantly emailed them both back: When could we talk?  I could call them, or they could call me at their convenience. But the following day, I would be unreachable as I was enroute to Toronto.  

Another of Barbara's films had been invited to screen at the Toronto Film Festival, so we'd hatched a plan that I would travel from Montreal to crash in her Toronto hotel room for a few days during the big event and we'd do whatever kind of schmoozing we could to create some advance buzz around our project.

Within minutes, Natasha had emailed me back saying coincidentally she was going to be in Toronto for a job. Did I want to meet up while I was in town? Um, yeah!

So, I pack up my car and off I go to Toronto - glad for a concrete reason to be there but trying not to get my hopes up too high.  Six hours later, I meet Barbara in the lobby of the posh hotel where she's had a room booked for her by festival organizers, and we go to check in. Only to be told that there's just one bed in the room. We look at each other - can we do that? Can we sleep together for five nights? If we can do that, we reason, chances are we can make a film together...! Simultaneously we beg the clerk for a room with two beds. Unfortunately, the hotel's been sold out for months. Film festival, you know. Yeah. We know. 

The bed is a queen-size, the clerk offers helpfully.

Hanging our heads and clenching our butts, we take the keys and go off to our room. Once we settle the age-old debate about who gets which side of the bed, we head out to navigate the streets of Toronto and the daunting labyrinth that is a big-timey international film festival.

Exiting the Royal York Hotel, who should we bump into but Viggo Mortensen - standing right there on the sidewalk, casually resplendent in bare feet and having a smoke with Ed Harris.  Barbara and I blush furiously, pinch each other and walk faster.  That, we both agree once out of earshot, was a very good sign. Of what, we're not sure - but it felt great!

Over the next two days, we make our best attempts at schmoozing - at which I unfailingly suck - but Barbara's a great person to riff off of, and I eventually catch a bit of the festival beat. So while she goes to do some press for her latest film, A No-Hit, No-Run Summer directed by Francis Leclerc, I feel ready to meet with Natasha Ryan.

We hook up and have a great lunch. Natasha is more than forthcoming about her experience shooting not only Dolly Parton, but Miley Cyrus, Keith Urban and Robert Munsch!  We talk about what Natasha calls the Dolly Parton paradox - her larger-than-life looks and her down-to-earth nature - both of which Natasha can personally vouch for. And her many admirable causes - most notably the Imagination Library.  But with all the anecdotal information, Natasha admits it's really Brad who managed to get the access to all the personalities - and most especially Dolly. 

After Natasha comes with me to a screening of Barbara and Francis' film, we part ways, and she urges me to contact Brad again for more nuts and bolts advice on getting access to Dolly.  Which I immediately do. Still don't know if this is the breakthrough I'm hoping it is, but I keep on pushing. 

While I wait to hear back from Brad, Barbara and I go about the business of the rest of the festival. We go to a blur of cocktails and screenings and after-parties.  We hone in on industry types - solo and in tandem - trying by any means necessary to talk up our project, The Year Dolly Parton Was My Mom. As I think I've mentioned, I am conversationally-challenged, so I would systematically have at least a couple drinks to get me through these functions.

After one particularly long day of such functions (and drinks), our taxi dropped us off in front of our hotel.  This evening, Barbara and I were in the company of Francis Leclerc and Marc Robitaille, the writer of Francis' film.  Francis is a huge hockey fan and a red-blooded Quebecois boy.  So when he heard about us spotting Viggo Mortensen, his fondest wish was to meet Viggo during the festival and talk hockey, in French, with the actor who is a well-known Canadiens fan and multi-linguist. 

When we spilled out of our taxi that night, we were all delighted to find ourselves face to flushed faces with Viggo Mortensen - dressed this fine evening in a Montreal Canadiens shirt bearing the number 27 (Alex Kovalev). Talk about signs!

So Marc, being that oddest of animals - a very gregarious writer - just walked on up to Mr. Mortensen and hailed him like a brother - in French. Viggo responded pleasantly in French and smiled at all of us standing there beaming at him like idiots. Marc stepped forward first and formally introduced himself, holding out his hand. A surprisingly star-struck Francis woodenly did the same. But when it came my turn and I held out my hand, Viggo took it, clasped my elbow with his other hand and pulled me toward him for two very warm kisses - one on each cheek.  Thank god Barbara arrived right then after paying the cab and planted two right back on him - because I was at a complete loss for a charming comeback. 

It took a day or two after returning home to Montreal for the glow of the festival to wear off.  It was a small personal triumph that I'd even put myself out there on that circuit as I had. Felt good and hopeful about the Canadian Dolly connection I'd found. 

But I still hadn't heard back from Brad.  As the month of September was quickly slipping away, I started to get nervous.  Did Natasha tell him that I was really a geek in person?  Should I have offered to buy her popcorn at the film? I wrote another email to Brad, trying to stay light, and waited...

Okay, I have just about blogged myself right out at this point! My eyes are seriously crossing - and if you've managed to read this far, no doubt yours are too.  But I promise I'll come back fresh, pick up this thread next Monday and tie this particular package up in a bow.  

Meantime, wishing Dolly Parton a very happy birthday and hoping you'll all come back now, ya hear?!

Monday, January 12, 2009

In Search of Dolly's Blessing

"Go get Dolly Parton's blessing. Without it, we don't have a hope of making this film."

With my script now in show-able shape, and none of us getting any younger, that "call to action" so often voiced by Barbara through the development years was becoming more urgent, more insistent. So insistent in fact that it moved right into my brain and set up house.  Kind of like a haunting. Or a possession.

Barbara and I both agreed that simply cold-submitting the script to some agent or manager who didn't know us from Adam probably wasn't going to get us or the project anywhere near Dolly. So for quite some time, I had been looking for a more "personal"  way in. Being the socially awkward writer I am, though, I preferred to tackle this challenge head on - by doing lots of research. 

I did things like read Ms. Parton's autobiography (a delicious, well-written story - highly recommend it). I surfed the bjillion websites dedicated to her, I pored over her lyrics, listened to her music, read her interviews, watched her old t.v. shows. I explored the "six degrees of Kevin Bacon" by making lists of everyone I knew who might possibly know someone who might know Dolly Parton. And I kept my ears, eyes, mouth and heart open in the hopes of catching or creating some kind of serendipitous connection to her by pure accident. 

And then one fine day,  such an accident happened.

It came all the way from Nashville - by way of Phil Lalande, one of the terrific producers I work with when I shoot commercials for the production company, Quatre Zero Un here in Montreal.  

Because I had been telling anyone and everyone who cared to listen that I was in search of a way to reach Dolly Parton, Phil immediately thought of me when he knew that a certain country music veteran was going to be at Quatre Zero Un one afternoon, screening some concert footage that a mutual friend of theirs had shot. 

That's how I found myself bowing my head in prayer around the company's  boardroom table while George Hamilton IV said grace.  During the catered lunch that followed, he chatted about the storied Grand Ole Opry where he still performs regularly, his gigs with his son, George Hamilton V at Euro Disney, and Mr. IV's reputation as Country Music's Ambassador to the world. At more than 70 years of age, he's a lively storyteller and a true gentleman with a soft spot for Canada. And to top it all off - he had an inside track to some people who were very close to Ms. Parton in Nashville! How could I not love him?

And how could I not accept when the engaging friend of Phil's asked me to help put together a documentary on Mr. Hamilton IV with the material he'd shot?

I don't mind telling you, I left that lunch about three feet off the ground, with visions of me meeting Dolly Parton backstage at the Grand Ole Opry in the very near future.

I phoned Barbara with the good news.  I was making some serious headway - and I'd be making a little documentary on the side to boot!

Not so fast, Grasshopper. As with so many "projects" in this business - this one unfortunately did not pan out. Mr. IV went back to Nashville, the friend with the footage and I had a few follow-up meetings, but despite good intentions on all sides, the connections eventually faded.

And I was back to square one-ish.  Far from the Grand Ole Opry. Far from Dolly. And close to crushed.

If we didn't get Dolly on board, then the script - good or not - would just be so many dead trees lying in the recycling bin. And three years of my life would be lying there right along with them.

I had to find another way in. And fast. The Telefilm deadline for production financing was rapidly approaching. But without Dolly Parton attached to the project, we couldn't approach a distributor or any serious casting prospects. And without a distributor, we couldn't submit to Telefilm... Something had to give.

More on the giving next week...

Y'all come back now, ya hear?! 

Monday, January 5, 2009

Long-time Writer, First-time Blogger

What a way to start this shiny New Year! After spending more than three years in "script development" (industry euphemism for: a seemingly endless stream of achingly lonely days interrupted by alternating fits of pacing, planning, nail biting, writing, recoiling, brainstorming, re-writing, self-loathing, and questioning whether your half-baked story idea will ever lead anywhere beside divorce court), here I am - making my first entry into my first blog about actually MAKING my first feature! (Thanks to Theresa-pedia for setting me up in all things blog. And thanks to Pierre Drouin for the title art.) 

For those of you who aren't members of my immediate family or circle of long-suffering friends, maybe I should quickly fill you in on how far I've already come - and how far I still have to go - on the rugged road to making a first feature film in this country...

Going from story idea to the final draft of a screenplay can be an arduous process (have I mentioned that?) and I personally would not have made it this far if it hadn't been for my producer, Barbara Shrier and the good people at Telefilm Canada, SODEC and the Harold Greenberg Fund who, at various times over the years, have funded and nurtured the project's development. Extra special mention goes to my rock-solid guy, Martin Ulrich, who's nurtured everything else.

Anyway, by the grace of all above - and by the end of this past summer - I'd pretty much arrived at a version of the screenplay that Barbara and I both felt good about. A goal we'd been working toward since early 2005! Halle-freaking-lujah! 

But now for the REALLY hard part:

How to get a script from a first-time writer/director in Montreal, Canada into the hands of superstar, Dolly Parton in Music City, USA? Not only that, but how then to convince Dolly Parton to allow us to use her name in the title, her image and music throughout the film, as well as get her to perform in the film as well?!

How, indeed...

I may not know much about blogging, but I have learned a thing or two about storytelling and right about here seems like a good place to sign off. Until next week...

Y'all come back now, ya hear?!