Sometimes I exaggerate.
So there I was, standing on the stage next to Rachael Leigh Cook before a packed, wildly appreciative audience at the Sundance Film Festival. Flashbulbs were popping. Next to Rachael, another star, Johnny Galecki, gestured to my writing partner Wade and me, “Who are those guys?” Rachael shot him a stern look, “They’re the writers.”
We wrote the film as a favor. Kevin, an up-and-coming director who was attached to direct one of our feature scripts, called one day asking for help. He had an idea for a short film and wondered if Wade and I would “take a pass” on the script.
Wade was skeptical at first, but I thought it would be a great way to demonstrate how well the three of us could work together. If we pulled off a quality short, it would only strengthen the viability of Kevin (as a first time feature director) and of us (as first time feature writers). Kevin faxed the script the very next day.
However, after a cursory glance, we realized certain things were notably missing from Kevin’s “draft.” Things like structure, plot, snappy dialogue… even basic fundamental formatting. Kevin had a nice concept and a few good sight gags, but did he have a short film here? No.
For the next week, we rewrote Kevin’s entire “script.” We added characters. We added dialogue and tone and clever punchlines. Hell, we even added a cat. Kevin was pleased, and soon cameras were rented, actors cast, and we were filming the sucker on 35mm.
About a month later, Kevin called, ecstatic: “We got into Sundance!”
It turned out, Robert Redford had even better news for us. In addition to our Golden Ticket to Park City, our little short would also be premiering in a prime slot before a feature starring Rachael Leigh Cook and Johnny Galecki. Sundance received over 3,500 shorts that year and selected only 90. From the 90, only five were chosen to screen before features. We’d lucked into one of the highest-profile spots of the entire festival.
We reveled in our good fortune, but the exciting news was eventually undermined by the ego-shattering discovery that we wouldn’t be receiving complimentary tickets to see our own film. Kevin would. Sure. He was the director. The production company that produced our film would, of course. They were producers. But we were the writers. We would have to purchase tickets just like everybody else. I’m pretty sure the second assistant grip’s sister’s boyfriend gets better treatment.
The morning the box office opened, I eagerly logged onto the official Sundance website, credit card in hand. But so did the rest of Hollywood, and within seconds the Sundance website crashed. When I finally got the home page to load, I discovered our short was SOLD OUT.
Every day. Every screening. Sold out.
We would have to try to get wait-list tickets in Park City.
GIVE ME A LITTLE CREDIT
While packing up the car for the trek to Utah, our lawyer called. She’d watched our film and was confused. “Funny short. Any clue why you’re not credited as the writers?”
My heart stopped. “What…?”
Our lawyer continued, “Yeah, the credits read, ‘Written and Directed by Kevin Lee.’ Toward the end of the crawl, I did find you guys listed under something called ‘additional writing.’”
For several seconds neither one of us spoke. Our first film was days away from premiering and we were already getting screwed. “Additional writing?” What the hell was that?
My face pulsed with anger. Either Kevin, or the company that produced the short, had removed our names without telling us. It was too late now. In less than 10 hours, we would be on our way to Sundance without tickets to a short film that we apparently didn’t write.
THE WAIT LIST
While walking down Park City’s quaint Main Street searching for the theater that would be premiering our film (without us?) later that day, Wade and I tried to remain optimistic.
“What if we stood outside wearing a big sign that reads, ‘We Wrote This Movie And We Can’t Get Tickets’?”
“Or Credit… ” he added.
Wade and I never had the intention of standing outside wearing large sandwich boards. Or at least Wade never did. Instead, we’d arrive at the theater way in advance and secure the very first place in the wait-list line. However, when we reached the Prospector Square Theatre, over 40 people were already hunkered down in front of us. We got in line.
Things went from bad to worse when Wade spotted the director of the feature that our short was attached to. The director was walking down the line trying to buy wait-list passes for his family. The showing was oversold and the director was explaining, “My family’s here, but I couldn’t get enough tickets. I know this sounds crazy, but it’s incredibly hard to get seats, even if you made the movie.”
Wade and I shot each other a look. Doesn’t sound that crazy…
A few people agreed to help the director out, but most had been waiting for hours and were willing to wait a few more. When the director reached us, he was looking rather haggard.
“Hey, guys. Can you help me out?”
Wade and I exchanged a glance, “We’d love to, but… well, we wrote the other film.”
“The short? And you’re sitting out here?” The director looked genuinely surprised. “That… sucks.”
What happened next was a blur.
We’d been waiting for six solid hours when we heard, “Anyone here need tickets?” A frumpy man had approached the wait-list line, oblivious. In one gloved hand, he was holding up TWO tickets.
“YES!” Wade screamed, ridiculously loud, and he leapt at the man. Dozens of otherswere already closing in, like rabid zombies fighting for a piece of the last uninfected brain. I shoved a 15-year-old down and hurled a wad of cash at the man. It bounced off his chest as Wade plucked the tickets from his gloved grasp. Within seconds, we were ducking under the ropes and leaving the madness of the wait-list line behind.
As we walked toward the section for ticket-holders, the wait-list line erupted into a volcano of indignant fury. “It’s not fair that he sold the tickets to people in the middle! Those guys don’t deserve those tickets!”
Ignoring the rancor, we approached the feature director, who was chatting with his family. He was happy we got in and even happier still when we handed him our wait-list passes. “We won’t be needing these. Hope your family gets in.”
“I owe you,” he said.
The theater doors opened, and the previously calm ticket-holders made a mad dash for the entrance: rowdy, careless, frenzied, embodying the spirit of a good, old-fashioned soccer riot.
We grabbed two seats right in the center. A few rows ahead, I spotted Kevin schmoozing it up. We made eye contact and Kevin grinned, showing no remorse, even giving me a “thumbs up.” I forced a smile and offered him a peace sign.
“That’s one more finger than he deserves,” Wade grumbled.
Moments later, the lights dimmed as a Sundance employee introduced the films. The theater was over its capacity, and people stood against the walls along both sides. As the man finished speaking, the crowd burst into applause and the film projector kicked on.
“Before the Q and A, I want to do something that never happens at these festivals.” The feature director was at the podium addressing the enthusiastic crowd. “This never happens, but, could the writers and director of the short that kicked this evening off come up here and join me?”
The audience broke into applause as Wade and I tentatively rose from our seats. We hadn’t asked for anything, but the director clearly wanted to pay us back for helping his family get in to see his film. His gesture would work brilliantly as sweet justice, forcing Kevin to acknowledge us, in front of this giant crowd, as the guys who, you know, actually wrote his hit short. We reached the front of the stage at the same time as Kevin.
“This is crazy… ” he muttered, his normal demeanor of confidence now undermined by something resembling shame.
“Yeah. Congratulations,” I said. Then I strode onto the stage, empowered.
Meanwhile, the director had invited the cast of his feature to join us. Rachael Leigh Cook and Johnny Galecki rose and took the stage as the Q and A began.
So, there I was, standing on the stage next to Rachael Leigh Cook before a packed, wildly appreciative audience at Sundance. We’d overcome the odds. We’d gotten tickets. We’d gotten seats. And while our names hadn’t been seen on the screen, we were now getting credit the old-fashioned way.
Next to Rachael, Johnny Galecki gestured flippantly toward Wade and me, “Who are those guys?”
Rachael shot him a stern look, “They’re the writers.”
© Aaron Ginsburg
Additional Writing - Originally published in Script Magazine’s March/April Issue