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Friday, March 25, 2011

All About Tidbits (Easter Eggs) in All About Marilyn

Here are some fun facts about my third book All About Marilyn:

The first draft of the script was completed in July of 2007. It was my first attempt at writing a screenplay from scratch. I've been told by many that my books read a lot like movies so I decided to give it a shot.

The original All About Marilyn script was 113 pages on 8.5” x 11” paper.

That first draft opens with Marilyn sitting in the AATA agency; around the bottom of page 20 in the book. This was changed in 2008 because I felt it the original opening scene didn’t effectively establish the characters of Marilyn Marie and Nikki Desmond or the theme of contrast in the story.

All About Marilyn was the last story I completed before my first laptop, a Dell Inspiron 2500 died after over six years of service. The last things I did with that computer was to print copies of All About Marilyn and The Temptation of John Haynes, then the computer died for good. I still have those manuscripts in a box today.

With my laptop dead and me having no money and no job, I was forced to revise the script by hand on notebook paper. It was while writing this second draft by hand that I established the opening scene in 1996 featuring the filming of the episode of All About Nikki, Marilyn’s failed movie career, and the brutal audition for a direct-to-video movie at G-Town Productions. I didn’t get to transcribe that part of the story into Word until April 2008 when I finally found employment for a couple of months.

The final version of All About Marilyn is actually 135 pages when printed on 8.5” x 11” paper.

For many in the film industry, 135 pages is too long for a script. But I feel at that length it comprehensively tells the story I want to tell about Black actresses in Hollywood. Besides, if I were to shoot it, I think the final movie would end at about 110 minutes anyway.

All About Marilyn wasn’t just the first screenplay I wrote. It was actually the first story where I intentionally used more complex literary techniques like irony, foreshadowing, and symbolism.

Contrast is a key theme in All About Marilyn. Light and Dark, Fantasy and Reality, Young and Old, Rich and Poor, Black and White are played off each other in the story to show the differences between Marilyn’s real world and Hollywood’s fantasy world.

I actually got the idea for the story of a washed up child star while watching an episode of California Dreams. It was first season episode featuring Heidi Lenhart. From what I saw in that episode, Lenhart’s acting was much better than the entire cast of the show. That got me to doing a search on her with Google and IMDB for her and the rest of the cast of the show. From what I’ve seen Heidi Lenhart is a solid actress who never got the breaks she should have. Her work in Au Pair proved she could carry a movie on her own.

What fascinated me about Heidi Lenhart (in addition to her great acting and her dynamite body) was that she was the same age I was at the time. That’s where I got the idea of making Marilyn a 34-year-old; I wanted the character to be similar to an old high school friend, and the story would be a way of seeing how well she’d be doing several years later.

And yeah, Heidi Lenhart is White.

But the Marilyn Marie character is Black. Inspiration does not know color, and anyone or anything can be a muse for a writer.

Still, my goal was to write a story about an African-American actress and the barriers sistas encountered in Hollywood, but the teen star stuff is what made the storyline relatable to me when I approached the keyboard. When I was in high school and in college in the 90’s I watched a lot of teen shows like California Dreams, Saved by The Bell, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Family Matters, Sister, Sister, Boy Meets World Sweet Valley High and many others. Many of the actors at the time who starred in those shows were about my age. And many of the African-American ones weren't working. Hollywood doesnt' have that many parts for Black women over 30.

So after reading about Lenhart, I did research on over 100 actresses from six decades. I pondered what it was that caused one actress to have a hit and a successful career another to stall. Was it race, politics or a combination of both? As I answered the question I began to develop Marilyn’s fictional experience in Hollywood.

The All About Nikki show is inspired by the classic 1990’s sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and the classic 1995 film Clueless.

Nikki Desmond is inspired by Hilary Banks from Fresh Prince and Cher from Clueless. All About Nikki was supposed to be a Fresh Prince-esque sitcom with a black female lead who acts like Cher from Clueless.

The Name Nikki Desmond is a play on the name of the character Norma Desmond, from Billy Wilder’s classic film Sunset Boulevard. It foreshadows the tragedy to befall Marilyn Marie in Hollywood.

Marilyn Marie’s show All About Nikki comes on Monday Nights because that’s the night The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air came on back in the 1990’s. And Fresh Prince was one of the most dominant shows of the 90’s.

The All About Nikki dolls on Marilyn’s bookshelf are inspired by the Clueless and Blossom dolls that came out in the 1990’s. Yeah, those shows were popular enough to warrant their own dolls back in the day.

The joke Rumsfeld What Would I use this for?...Why we’d use these to wax the Rolls was created one Sunday during Sunday dinner in 2004 when I was showing my brother some clothes in a Brooks Brothers catalog and we were talking about rich people. Since then it’s a running gag I toss around every now and again.

Nikki Desmond is supposed to be the polar opposite of Marilyn Marie. One of the things I noticed is that many actors often play characters who are the opposite of who they are in real life. So a mean nasty girl would probably be played by a girl next door type. It’s crazy, but that’s how Hollywood works.

Marilyn Marie’s name is a play on Marilyn Monroe. Like the iconic starlet, her career is supposed to end in a mysterious and tragic fashion in her mid 30’s.

Marilyn’s adult life is inspired by the tragic fall of many child stars I’ve read about over the years. Many child and teen performers struggle in their adult lives because their larger than life television alter egos are so endearing society can’t see past them when they star in other roles.

Marilyn’s fall isn’t due to drugs or alcohol, or any substance abuse because I wanted to make the point that that a descent into poverty can happen to anyone, even good hardworking people. Contrary to popular belief, many actors, especially African American ones live paycheck to paycheck like the rest of us and struggle to pay their bills. Sometimes a brotha or a sista just hasn’t caught a break.

Marilyn’s faded 1990’s wardrobe is based on my personal experience from being long-term unemployed on three occasions. As my newer clothes wore out, I found myself reaching in the back of the closet for more vintage garments from back in the day. If it fit, and was clean I wore it. From my experience the last thing out-of-work people buy are new clothes, groceries and other bills often take priority first.

Story wise Marilyn’s faded 90’s clothes, hair, and her beat up Mercedes convertible symbolize how much the world has changed around her. She’s supposed to look like her life stopped in the 1990’s when her career stalled.

This is something I actually had to do whenever I lost a job. My life practically stopped durinig that year and things didn't really get started again until I got another job.  I wound up putting stuff I wanted to do on hold while conserving funds to pay bills and praying for a break.

Marilyn getting excited over a box of Kashi cereal is also something I’ve experienced personally. When you don’t have a lot of money, you tend to appreciate the little things like a box of cereal in life.

Marilyn's taking handouts from her Church food bank and hustle at the gym is something I've had to do as well to make money. When you're unemployed long-term, the only way to make ends meet is through handouts and odd jobs. 
And Marilyn assessing her soap in the locker room before going to wash up is also something I’ve had to do myself with a variety of products. When you’re poor, you have to really make every penny stretch from soap to snacks. At one point around 2006-2007 I was living on $2 a day. Buying dinner one day can mean you don't eat for the rest of the month or you don't have any soap. I can practically look at a package of anything and size up how many servings I can get out of it.

The Clown is a character that represents the young struggling actor; a kid right off a bus. He’s caught up in the fantasy of Hollywood. He doesn’t wake up to see real people until the fight between Marilyn and Tabatha.

The Clown is the second of three guys to be kicked in the nuts in one of my books. The first poor fella to get kicked in the nuts is Gerald gets kicked in the testicles during an argument with Cassandra Lee in The Cassandra Cookbook And Lucifer gets kicked in the nads by John in the final act of The Temptation of John Haynes.

Marilyn vs. Tabatha is actually the second catfight I’ve written. The first is between Isis and E’steem in the final act of Isis.

Sabrina Lowenstien is inspired by actress Stockard Channing. When I wrote the character I heard her voice. I thought she had the range to play a tough ballsy woman with a loving softer side.

Sabrina and Ava are agents on two sides of the spectrum in Hollywood. One is the young, hungry kid, out to steamroll anyone who gets in the way of her success, the other a seasoned pro who has learned to see the value of the people around her.

Ava’s elevator pitch is something that is commonly done by the more ambitious in L.A. When actors, executives or agents are leaving offices and are waiting for an elevator to arrive, people rush out and try to pitch projects them in that brief time. It’s part ambush, part query, and it takes a lot of balls to attempt because it can go either way.

Marilyn’s pitch for the movie SELL OUT is a commentary on how hard it is for African-Americans to get a screenplay produced in Hollywood. Out of the 14,000 screenwriters in Hollywood, only two percent of them are African-American. And less than a tenth of them work. So maybe two or three brothers or sistas are writing scripts in a given year.

The movie title SELL OUT is also a tongue-in cheek way of foreshadowing on character actions in the story and a commentary on making it in Hollywood. It’s implied in the subtext that Garrett sells out to get his film made. It’s also implied the only change he made was allowing Tabatha Strong, a White actress to star in his film. And that’s when he gets a $100 million budget to tell his story.

Marilyn’s failed movie Dark Ride is actually inspired by the numerous late movies I watch when I’m relaxing on the weekends. One of my guilty pleasures is to watch bad movies on WABC’s Channel 7’s Late Movie. These B-Movies usually have cheesy production values, lots of nudity, sex scenes and next to no plot. The perfect way to end a night of writing. Trust me.

Marilyn’s failed movie Dark Ride is also based on research. Of those 100 actresses I did research on Most of their first film projects are absolutely terrible. Usually actresses’ first movies are plotless with cheesy production values, lots of nudity, sex scenes and next to no plot. The perfect way to start a career.

The dig Natalie makes about finding Marilyn’s movies in the 99-cent bin is based on my shopping jaunts at PathMark here in New York. I often find many DVDs there of movies both good and bad, and I’m surprised by the now big names featured in starring roles in these discounted films.

The Tabatha Strong character is inspired by Amanda Bynes. Bynes always plays sweetheart roles, but I always felt she could do well in a dark gritty role. If I ever made an AAM movie I’d hope she’d come out of retirement to play the role.

Tabatha’s self-destructive behavior is based on the self-destructive behaviors of many actors and actresses like Lindsay Lohan and Charlie Sheen.

The build up to Marilyn and Tabatha’s fight is loosely inspired by the riot in Sal’s Pizzeria at the climax of Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. That move taught me in a hot crowd where emotions are running high anything can happen. People can say and do things they normally wouldn’t when a crowd is egging them on.

Tabatha’s handlers were added in 2009 after a screenplay contest reader told me in their analysis that the script fell apart for them when a high Tabatha rushed out to confront Marilyn. I was told handlers would stop the fight between Tabatha and Marilyn and my rewrite of that scene was to call bullshit on that reader’s analysis. Having personally seen drug addicted people go BERZERK in the South Bronx, and on TV shows like COPS, I know NO ONE can handle a junkie. (Just ask Charlie Sheen’s Publicist) When someone is high on angel dust, cocaine, or Crystal Meth like Tabatha, the most people can do is find a room, lock the door, and call 911. Do not come out until police show up. Do not try to reason with a person who is high on drugs and berserk! It can cost you your life!

Marilyn’s disfigurement was to show the impact of the violence berserk drug addicts do when they’re high on drugs like Crystal Meth which make users paranoid. I wanted to show how dangerous drugs like Crystal Meth are and how the actions of addicts hurt other people.

Several numbers in the script sluglines have significance to me in real life such as:

Room 167 is a reference to 167th Street, the street I lived on growing up in the South Bronx.

3430 is the number of the building I lived in as a child on Park Avenue in the Bronx.

Apartment #3C I lived in as a child in 3430 Park Avenue. I try to feature Apartment #3C and the number 3430 in all my books.

1820 was the original address of STRIVE the job readiness workshop I worked at during my term of service at Americorps*VISTA.

The Next School is actually based on The New School in New York City. I don’t know if they feature fine art as a major, but being located in Union Square near the Village, I figure it’s got to be a starving artist hangout.

Professor Chris Cherry is inspired by veteran actor Robert Gilluame. Gillaume has the staid demeanor of a college professor.

Art modeling is a job many actors do in New York City when they can’t find paying jobs. Universities often pay top dollar for good models. It’s decent money…If you don’t mind being nude in front of a group of strangers! I gave Marilyn that job because it’s a starter job that most people can get when they come to New York with no college degree and no office skills. Plus it was a way to get her into college.

The verbal barb “I have something to say to you…You Stink.” Marilyn tosses at Shay in the hall at the Next School after she gets the job as an art model is an actual joke I use in real life. It’s actually one of my catch phrases.

Marilyn not only poses nude for money, but it’s a metaphor for her courage. By allowing herself to be vulnerable she shows her inner strength.

When looking at a nude, the strongest element of the art is supposed to be the face. That’s where the story is in the picture. 

The decision to put a nude on the cover was risky, but I believed it was the definitve scene in the story. When I designed the art, I wanted people to focus on the red lips on the cover; they're the strongest point of the drawing.

Eric James is based on…ME! Usually I stick myself in my stories either as a lead or supporting character. This is actually the third time I’ve based a character on myself in my books. The only stories where there is no Shawn James based character are Isis and the upcoming All About Nikki.

Before I self-published Marilyn I submitted it to several screenplay contests to see how it fared with the so called “professionals”. It didn’t do well at all. Two contests told me in their analysis that the screenplay fell apart. One reader said the story fell apart for them at the part where Marilyn is confronted by the paranoid drug addicted Tabatha. They couldn’t believe that a drug addicted person surrounded by a mob of people would attack Marilyn; that handlers would stop the fight. These people have not met Charlie Sheen or Lindsay Lohan on a good day. This same reader didn’t understand why Tabatha disfigured Marilyn and went on to defend her at length. I guess they overlooked Tabatha’s meth-fueled paranoia, and insecurity about taking her job. And that addicts who are HIGH don’t follow logic!

Another contest reader felt the story fell apart for them when Marilyn went to New York. They said that part meandered for them there. They felt Marilyn getting the job as an art model was too convenient (in real life, 95% of people get jobs through friends. And art modeling isn’t a job most people want, especially in the winter!) and thought her confessing to Eric was arrogant. I always felt her confession was the ultimate act of humility and courage, a way of starting her relationship with openness and honesty.

Both thought 135 pages was too long. One reader told me they’d cut 30 pages from the script, the other actually wanted the story it to end at Bob Hope airport with Sabrina. And we wonder why Hollywood makes so much crap. Without the fight there’s no powerful climax to act one. And if the story ended at the airport, we’d get no Chris, No Eric, and no romantic happy ending!

All About Marilyn was the first book I self-published on my own through my SJS DIRECT imprint. My first two titles Isis and The Cassandra Cookbook were published by However, the page layout for screenplays is very precise and I wanted to make sure the pages printed properly so I decided to do it myself. Everything from the front cover to the back cover is designed by me.

The page layouts for All About Marilyn follow the industry standard for screenplays but with a few modifications for paperback readers. First, there’s a bit more white space so the reader can rest their eyes. Second I used Garamond font instead of Courier so the pages would be easier to read. In addition to being entertainment, I wanted the book to be utilized by others who wanted to write their own screenplays.

The original plan for All About Marilyn was for the book to be a “DVD with pages” and the book was to contain several special features in addition to the main script. In addition to the “Behind The Scenes” featurette I wanted to feature scripts from three episodes of All About Nikki. But I thought those additional scripts in the back would confuse readers. So I scrapped those plans and made Nikki her own book.

The reception to All About Marilyn has been extremely postitive from the public.  Women of all ages and races identify and relate to her character, and really enjoy the story. Right now it's the second best selling title out of all my books.

I'm hoping these Easter eggs get readers excited about picking up a copy of All About Marilyn. It’s a great story that will make you laugh, cry, and think about what goes on in Hollywood!

1 comment:

  1. Shawn, I read this with deep interest. I love All About Marilyn from its truly artistic cover to the first chapter and thru to the last. Your Easter eggs here deepen my enjoyment of this book immensely. This is the thick, buttery icing on the cake and oh, it's a wonderful cake.

    You know Stephen Wilbers feels that music is one element of a great book and Marilyn has lots of music throughout to add to my enjoyment.

    Carry on, my friend and thank you for the Easter Eggs.