This article teaches so many lessons it makes our head spin. But the most important may be: “Be careful out there. Those showbiz streets can be treacherous.” You’ll see what we mean:
by Jameson Brown
The art of storytelling, screenwriting specifically, is like a golf swing, it can get rusty fast if you do not practice every day. To have a canon of work (especially in today’s industry) in screenwriting and for it to be an actual career is one of the hardest feats to accomplish. Cue Amy Jones.
Her work includes some of our favorite films: Mystic Pizza, Indecent Proposal, The Relic, Beethoven, The Rich Man’s Wife and the list goes on. But what’s most important is that she has mastered this field with damn good storytelling. That’s a near impossible task to achieve. She did. This is her story.
Q: Amy, would you mind giving me your full A-Z as a writer? Where did you start? What initially drew you into this medium of storytelling?
Jones: I did not set out to be a writer. I studied still photography and documentary filmmaking at MIT from 1972-75. The documentary department was spectacular, run by one of the founders of cinema-verite, Richard Leacock. The films we made there had no scripts. You took the camera into life and shot then found the story in the editing room.
A student documentary of mine, made at MIT and called A Weekend Home, won the AFI National Student Film festival. Martin Scorsese was a judge. He hired me as his assistant on Taxi Driver and that was the first time I ever read a script. I did not consider writing one for several years. I came at film through an interest in the visual, not the verbal.
The first time I wrote was for Roger Corman. I’d worked as an editor for him first, then Roger gave me my first chance to direct when I was just 27. I’d shot the opening of a script he owned without telling him I was doing it, and gave him a finished reel, just to show him I could direct. To my shock he asked me to finish the film. At that time, I was supposed to edit E.T. Spielberg graciously released me and I found myself rewriting and then directing Slumber Party Massacre. It was a big rewrite and when I gave it to Roger, he was the first person to tell me, “You can do this. You can write.”
Slumber Party Massacre remains the only slasher film directed by a woman and was recently re-released on BluRay. The budget was $200,000. It was highly successful but women were not allowed to direct much in those days. No one offered me a job. To direct again, I had to generate everything myself, and so I had to write an original script. I decided to do the opposite of a genre/comedy/exploitation film, an art film. I read the screenplays of Harold Pinter to prepare. The result was Love Letters, starring Jamie Lee Curtis and Amy Madigan. Roger insisted on commercial elements, in this case sex and nudity. Apart from that, as on Slumber Party, he left me entirely alone. The film did well on the festival circuit, got a nice limited release and some very fine reviews.
Again, no one offered me a directing job so I sat down to write again. The result was Mystic Pizza. Every studio passed on it. Universal offered to make it if I made the women into men. Ultimately Samuel Goldwyn optioned it with me to direct. But Sam was not a fan of working with women and he made my life hell. Every day he’d come in and say something designed to irritate me, like “We have to change the title,” or “We’re shooting in Palm Beach.” Ultimately, he stalled, finding reason after reason for not making it and then tried to claim he had an option on it for my natural life. I set it up again at another independent but to block me, he sued me, claiming ownership of Mystic Pizza although he’d only paid me $5,000. Lesson learned: don’t get in a lawsuit with a multi-millionaire. If you have no money, they stand to win by default as you can’t defend yourself.