When asked about my “journey as a screenwriter,” I ﬁrst have to admit that I really have no easy answer to that question. Since I am pre-WGA, it seems that the question could only refer to success in various contests, in which case I could reasonably pin my self-esteem to their soft and ﬂuffy coattails. Among others, I’ve been lucky enough to have been a Finalist at Screencraft, and a Semiﬁnalist at The Austin Film Festival and the PAGE Awards, and I’m certainly honored to be a Finalist this year, here at the Atlanta Screenplay Awards.
For me, the Atlanta Screenplay Awards are extra-special because your work is read by working producers, directors, and writers, and so to receive any recognition whatsoever from such talented creatives is not only deeply touching, but a great gift to those of us who can’t wait to collaborate on our next project.
Since every screenwriter’s journey is different, I think success in any endeavor could be boiled down to a few general things: persistence, dogged determination, and a passion for the work.
Personally, outside of those personality traits, I don’t have any hard and fast answers. It feels a bit like asking where one’s journey as an eternal optimist (or pessimist, as he case may be) began; it’s more of a predisposition than a conscious decision. There is no ofﬁcial “before and after” in my personal recollection, just as there is no “before and after” oxygen.
It has just always been there. When pressed, the nearest thing I have to a meaningful answer is that as a child, I loved writing and putting on plays with my friends. It was great fun to get into costumes and act out my imagination on the stage for the entire world to see. We were little child stars living out our greatest fantasies from movies, broadway and television. With the proviso that the stage may have been the tool shed next to the house, and the entire world may have been the dog and a few neighborhood friends, we were living the dream nonetheless. On rare occasions, the cat would grace us with her presence, if only to express her total contempt for the performances. Film critics had nothing on her. The cat later claimed, in one of her less scathing reviews, that she actually liked the writing, but a few morsels of catnip were later found near her bedside, so it carried no import. Smarter child playwrights, in the hopes of garnering more favourable reviews, might have doled out the catnip before the opening curtain. Nonetheless, she persisted. Years later, I’m a mainstream genre writer, who ﬁnds herself drawn to the underdog and the triumph of the human spirit. These types of stories are important, especially now, to stay in touch with our humanity and sense of “higher selves,” to give people hope, and to prevent history from repeating itself, insofar as possible. Once I discover these types of stories, I’m compelled to write them, and I can’t really do anything else until they are ﬁnished. They grab me by the neck and refuse to let go until I’m done.
One such tale, and the one that became a Finalist here, is the that of Oliver Wellington Sipple, who was a decorated marine and wounded Vietnam veteran with PTSD, who heroically saved the life of President Ford from an assassin’s bullet. The would-be assassin, Sara Jane Moore, actually ﬁred twice, and Mr. Sipple intervened, with no thought to his own physical danger. This one heroic act, a split-second reﬂex, landed Mr. Sipple directly in the crosshairs of history, with major irreversible and terrible consequences for his own life. Living as a gay man in San Francisco in the 1970s, he was working for gay rights in perhaps the most transformative decade in American gay and lesbian history, especially in New York and San Francisco.
That time in history was tense, with the US in the midst of a cold war with Russia, and there was much violence against members of the LGBTQ community. In many cities, gay people were denied their civil rights, and the police were often part of the problem, inﬂicting serious violence with impunity. In the state of Florida, there was even a Miami ordinance toward the end of the decade, banning gay people from adopting children, courtesy of Anita Bryant and her venomous crusade against the community overall.
Before the assassination attempt, Mr. Sipple was able to live a happy, quiet life in San Francisco, but at the same time, maintain his relationships with friends and family back home. In his conservative home town of Detroit, he knew that his religious family would never accept him if they found out the truth. When he saved Ford’s life, his ﬁrst instinct was to remain anonymous, and even asked the police not to release his name, but they released it anyway. A few days later, his good friend, Harvey Milk, spilled the beans to a local columnist.
To his great misfortune, at a tenuous time in history for minority rights, and gay rights in particular, he was outed and betrayed by the media, and propelled into the national zeitgeist, which destroyed his life forever. Sadly, his religious mother severed ties with him, and his father refused to allow Mr. Sipple to attend his mother’s own funeral, in accordance with her wishes. It’s a shocking narrative with themes that resonate today, such as the right to individual privacy versus freedom of the press, civil rights in general, and LGBTQ rights in particular.
At a time when minority rights are once again being questioned in our highly polarized culture, my pilot project screeched out of my head and onto my computer screen in a kind of fever dream, probably because when I ﬁrst researched the story, I was completely gutted by it, and still am. I was actually doing research for another project, a feature that I was outlining, and I had to drop it temporarily just to get this one out. It’s not the kind of thing you can forget. I found myself compelled to create a 10 hour anthology series, highlighting the many inspirational unsung LGBTQ heroes and trailblazers who have failed to get their due.
They are heroes we can all root for, and yet have not been celebrated. Until now. Frankly, each hero in the series deserves their very own biopic, which hopefully, I will get to do at some point, but this is the perfect immediate project for a streamer like Netﬂix or Amazon, and I’d love to see them take the ball and run with it. The pilot occurs in the aftermath of the thwarted assassination attempt, and leads to his untimely demise a short fourteen years later, at the age of only forty-seven. I’m currently working on the screenplay for the feature ﬁlm version.