Sometimes there are these hinge moments in life, infrequent but dizzying in their intensity, when change is less like a dripping faucet and more like a tsunami, a flood, a tornado that turns your world upside-down and drops you in a whole other version of your life. The result may be good or bad or somewhere in between, but what marks this sort of change, the kind that feels like a natural disaster, is that it’s permanent. Wherever you end up, you can’t go back again.
My own hinge moment involved a skateboarding chimpanzee, a hospital cancer ward, and the first time I got paid to write.
It was November 2000. The internet bubble of the late 1990s was popping. For a while, it was like you could add the letter “e” to any noun—eBay, ePet, eDesk, eWaffle—and some investor would fork over a few million dollars to renovate a loft, buy a ping-pong table and some bean bag chairs, and start a website with a nifty logo but no actual business plan. This happened to a number of people I knew.
I was not one of them. I didn’t want to run a website. I didn’t want to renovate a loft. I don’t even really like sitting in bean bag chairs. I was twenty-five, in grad school, broke, and deciding between working as a bartender or a barista or both while I wrote my master’s thesis. What I wanted was to be a writer. I had no plan for actually accomplishing this. I hadn’t even really written much of anything. But when people asked me what I planned to do after grad school, I’d say: Write.
I ran into a woman I knew from undergrad, who was working as an assistant to a movie producer. She asked how my writing was going. I said great. It wasn’t going great, because I’d have to be actually writing anything for it to be going great. She remembered me as being kind of a film geek in school. She mentioned that the production company she was working for had just made a successful kids’ movie and wanted to shoot a sequel as soon as possible, so her boss was meeting with writers. She said there was no chance I’d get hired, but she could at least get me a meeting.
I went to see the kid’s movie, MVP: Most Valuable Primate , which was still playing in theaters. It’s about a chimpanzee who learns to play hockey and helps a small-town kid’s team win the championship. It’s ridiculous, but I thought it was also cute and sweet. The company that produced it had a previous hit with Air Bud , a movie about a basketball-playing dog that spawned a franchise. MVP was their second swing at an animal-sports franchise.
At the time, I was studying media theory and watching art house films. I had no interest in writing kids’ movies. But since I knew I wasn’t going to get hired, I figured it could be a learning experience and an amusing anecdote: the time I met a real producer about writing a movie.
I met the boss. He didn’t seem to be aware I’d never done this before. I don’t know if my experience level—zero—was explained to him and he forgot, or if something crucial was miscommunicated by his assistant, but he treated me like I was an actual screenwriter looking for a gig. I didn’t correct him. He told me what he thought the sequel should be about. He put his feet up on his desk and asked me what I thought. In his concept, the sequel involved another season with the same small-town kid’s hockey team, and ended with the chimpanzee being drafted into the NHL.
“No,” I said, “that’s how the sequel should start .”
He was intrigued.
Since I knew I’d never get the job, I half-jokingly pitched him the idea that the chimp gets drafted into a brand-new NHL expansion team, not as a real player but as a mascot to drum up media attention. When it turns out he can really play, the coach puts him on the ice. “There’s no rule in the NHL handbook that says a chimp can’t play hockey,” I said with a straight face.
I suggested that the chimp become a star player, beloved by local fans, until an opposing coach, sick of his team being humiliated by a primate, schemes to have the chimp framed for biting a rival player. On the run from the police, the chimp is befriended by a young skateboarder who helps him hide out. The kid teaches the chimp to skateboard and the chimp helps the kid win a big skateboarding contest. The chimp’s teammates realize he was framed and help clear his name just in time for the team to win the NHL playoffs.
The producer said he had never considered adding a whole other sport for the chimp to play. He told me he’d think about it and get back to me.
The next day was my twenty-sixth birthday. That afternoon, the company sent me a mock-up of a poster they had created overnight with a chimpanzee riding on a skateboard. They liked the visual. They offered me a thousand bucks to write up an outline. It was my birthday, and someone had just offered to pay me to write for the first time. I wrote the outline, expecting that would be the end of it. The next week they asked me to write a first draft of the script. I said yes. I didn’t even negotiate.
I had no idea what I was doing. I bought the published screenplay of Pulp Fiction . My reasoning was that Quentin Tarantino did so many different types of scenes in that movie, anytime I wanted to know how to format something on the page I could just look it up in his script. What does a scene look like with two people on the phone? Or driving? Or dancing? I used Pulp Fiction as my guide.
I wasn’t even sure how long a screenplay was supposed to be. Pulp Fiction is 134 pages long. So I made my first draft 134 pages long. It turned out that a typical kids’ movie is more like 90 pages. The producer described my first draft as “ War and Peace with Chimps.” But he thought there was a decent 90-page script inside my 134-page epic.
The truth is, when I was writing the script, I didn’t take it seriously. Mostly because I kept expecting to be fired and replaced with a real screenwriter. It’s not that I thought it was beneath me—it’s that not trying too hard was a form of self-protection. Like telling everyone you only started studying for an exam the night before, so when you do badly it’s because you’re irresponsible, not ignorant.
I wrote three drafts in five weeks. Right before New Year’s Eve, they told me the movie had been greenlit for production in March. Six weeks earlier I had been a broke student with no job prospects. And now I was . . . a screenwriter? I couldn’t believe this was really how it worked.
On New Year’s Day 2001, my mom was diagnosed with cancer.
She’d been having some health problems, but they were misdiagnosed as something more benign. It turned out it was as malignant as it gets.
After her diagnosis, I no longer cared that my first screenplay was about to be produced. I spent the next few weeks with my mom, who was bedridden in the hospital cancer ward. The producers needed me to do a script rewrite, but the last thing I wanted was to spend precious hours away from my mom writing a silly kids’ movie. I had zero interest in my fledgling career.
One day, walking down the hall in the hospital, I heard laughter, which you don’t hear a lot in the cancer ward. I looked into a room and saw a group of bald kids on IV drips—children with cancer—watching a movie. It was Air Bud . These kids, with every reason to be miserable, were giggling and squealing at this dog playing basketball.
I get it. It’s my Sullivan’s Travels moment. A silly movie can light up a child’s day when they need it most.
The next morning, I woke up with the worst flu of my life. I wasn’t allowed to even go to the hospital because my mom’s immune system was too weak from the chemotherapy. So, for the next week, addled by flu, in a disoriented, sweaty fugue, I rewrote the screenplay. I made one major story change: The skateboarding kid who befriends the chimp is an orphan. His mom died, he ran away from foster care, and he’s living in the decrepit lifeguard station of an abandoned swimming pool, which he uses to practice his skater tricks. Everybody loved this. The movie finally had a genuine emotional pulse, not just whimsical banana jokes. (Although, to be clear, my banana jokes were hilarious.)
I sent the draft to the producer and immediately forgot about it.
A couple of weeks later, my mom died.
When she was diagnosed on New Year’s Day, her doctors told us they wouldn’t have a sense of how long she had left for at least six months. But they were wrong about a lot of things, and six weeks later she was gone. My mom was an art critic and a curator; she had a PhD in education, edited an art theory journal, and was writing a book. Six months before she died, she accepted her first job as a museum director. It was the beginning of the next chapter of an already amazing career. But life didn’t turn out that way.
On Valentine’s Day, my dad brought my mom a vase of roses. They were still sitting in a vase on the windowsill of the hospital room when, just a few days later, she was taken to the morgue. It seemed impossible that my mother, so vibrant, so brilliant, so kind, so mordant, so insightful, could be dead and the flowers were still alive. It felt like a scene from a bad movie. But it wasn’t. It was real life.
Two weeks later, the movie started shooting. I only visited set one time. It was a surreal experience, actors speaking dialogue I wrote in locations I described. Dozens of people spending millions of dollars on scenes I thought up while debilitated by the flu. It felt like I was walking around inside my own dream. I hung out with some chimpanzees and the guy who played Al on Home Improvement .
They actually taught the chimpanzees to ride skateboards. I assumed it would be, like, people in costumes or visual effects. But, no, it was apes in hoodies pulling tricks in a full-size half-pipe. This was the moment I understood that Fellini movies are basically documentaries.
I spent the next several months grieving—and writing. By Hollywood standards, I didn’t make much off the movie, but it was enough to pay off my student loans and not rush to find another job immediately, which was exactly what I needed in the wake of losing my mom.
I haven’t seen the movie, MVP2: Most Vertical Primate , since it came out sixteen years ago, but I recently discovered it’s on Netflix. I watched a few minutes and it’s not as bad as I remembered. It’s cute. It’s silly. It’s heartfelt.
The assistant who got me the meeting that wasn’t supposed to go anywhere was made an associate producer for her efforts, her first producing credit. She’s produced twenty-two movies now.
Every writer starts somewhere. I walked into a room I had no business being in, told someone a story I’d concocted out of thin air, and now it exists, all these years later: a weird memento of the time my life changed forever.
Real change never happens how you imagine. Real change doesn’t care what you want, or hope, or wish. Real change draws a line in your life—before and after. You can’t go back to the way things were. The way things were no longer exists. It’s permanently gone.
When I was twenty-five, I thought the most dishonest thing about Hollywood movies is that they tell you people change. At twenty-five, I was positive that nobody ever changed. When I was twenty-six, I learned the most honest thing about Hollywood movies is that they tell you people only change if absolutely forced to by circumstances; that nobody ever wants to change, and they’ll do whatever they can to stay the same, until there is no choice. At twenty-six, I understood that you never choose to change. You are changed.
A day before my mom abruptly slipped into the coma that would take her away from us, we had a long conversation in her hospital room about what I wanted to do with my life. I had no clue if I’d be able to take this random opportunity to write a movie and turn it into an actual career, the kind I might one day be proud of. But I told her I really liked screenwriting, that I thought I could be good at it, that I was going to make a go of it. I told her this because I wanted to give her a picture of my future. The future that, within a few days, she wouldn’t be around to see. I wanted my mom to know that I would be okay. That I had figured it out. That I was going to be a writer.
It wasn’t a lie, but it also wasn’t true. Not yet. I made it the truth one day at a time, one word at a time, writing my way from that twenty-six-year-old telling my dying mother “I’ll be okay” to a version of the world in which I actually was.
My mom was buried on a bright spring day in 2001. A couple of weeks later, I stood on the set of my first movie and watched a chimpanzee ride a skateboard while dozens of crew members walked around holding a screenplay with my name on it. I already felt like the person who’d written the script was a stranger.