|Gren Wells, a former stand-up comedian, started writing for film and TV in 2001. In the past year and a half, she has sold five feature projects, including "Earthbound" to Fox, "Diary of a Mad Bride" and "Boyfriend in a Box" to Warner Brothers, "Beard" to Universal and "How To Tell He's Not The One" to Paramount - and three pilots, to Fox, ABC and NBC. Wells is repped by Endeavor, Industry Entertainment and Barnes Morris.
Where are you from and where did you grow up?
I’m originally from Louisville, Kentucky but I grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. Basically, I’m white trash and I’m snooty about it.
My mom would buy old houses, fix them up then sell them so we moved around a lot. Sixteen times in eighteen years. And I wonder why I get bored in a place after a year.
Anyway, I grew up riding horses, hunter / jumper, competing at the national level. I had a bad fall when I was fifteen - and the horse stepped on my face. Fun! It was pretty traumatic because, when you’re that age, your face is everything. You don’t really know who you are yet. But it made me realize that I better develop a sense of humor because I didn’t think guys would want to date a girl with a hoof print in the middle of her face. (I was right. They didn’t.) Looking back, I’m glad it happened because that was the origin of my twisted sense of humor that eventually led me to writing.
Where did you go to college? Did you ever study film/writing?
I went to Manhattanville College during the year and NYU during the summers, studying film and theater. I never studied writing per se, but it was something I enjoyed doing. I took 10 classes a semester and graduated in 2 1/2 years. For some reason, I was in such a rush to get out into the world. I always felt like I was missing out on something - that I had to hurry up and become successful. Ah, the joy of being an overachiever.
I graduated, then moved into NYC. Not wanting to do the ‘struggling artist’ route, I started doing Mergers & Acquisitions, working for a European based firm - designing business plans for the companies going public. A six-month stint turned into five years and before long, I wanted to shoot myself in the head. The money was great, but I was miserable. So I quit and immediately started getting cast in some indie movies. One of them ended up winning best short at Sundance and another was in Slamdance that same year. I thought, ‘I’m ready for LA!’ So I packed everything up and moved out...only to realize that no one gave a fuck about indie films. So I started over...and began doing standup.
What was your stand-up about? Did it lead to anything else?
My standup material was always character driven: a crack whore who didn’t know she was a whore, a serial masturbator, one of a set of Siamese twins out on a date (but the date switches to the other sister once he finds out she has the pussy). It quickly turned into a one-woman show that I did at the HBO Workspace and the Acme Theater. TV execs (who are always on the prowl for new stand-ups) came and I ended up getting lots of offers to turn it into a TV show - but no one could figure out how to do it because it was so dirty.
I met with the whole CBS team and they actually said to me, ‘We love you. We just don’t know what to do with you because you say ‘cunt’ 47 times in your show.’ My first response was ‘Bleep me’ but they didn’t go for it.
We never did figure out how to ‘tone me down’ for network TV so I left that meeting and realized I had to take more control of my career. I had always thought about writing and directing but didn’t know how to break in. But then I was lucky enough to meet Bruce Gilbert...
Tell us about Bruce.
I met Bruce at his son’s birthday party. A friend from college, Jim Osborne, (who’s an agent at ICM) brought me. I had no idea who Bruce was and was just chatting him up when I asked what he did. ‘I’m a retired producer.’ Oh,’ I naively asked, ‘what have you produced?’ He casually said, ‘On Golden Pond, Coming Home, China Syndrome?’ (As if I hadn’t heard of them!!!)
So you started talking with him?
Actually, I think it was more like stalking. I followed him around for the rest of the night, making him tell me stories about Katherine Hepburn and Jane Fonda. I was so in awe of his knowledge of this industry and couldn’t believe how humble he was about it. By the end of the night, he turned to me and said, ‘You’re awfully persistent.’ I nodded yes. And he said, ‘Good. Because I’ve been looking for a protégé.’ I nearly peed right there.
Here was this guy, with 25 Oscar noms to his name, and he was going out of his way to help me. So he asked what ideas I had and I told him I had an idea for a funny cancer movie. He looked at me like I had, in fact, peed in his backyard, then told me to get him a treatment by Wednesday (it was Friday night). I said no problem and left. But upon getting home, I lost my shit. What the fuck is a treatment???
Tell us about writing your first script/treatment then. What was your approach like?
I had never seen a treatment before, and I didn’t know who to ask. I couldn’t go ask Bruce because I had pretended to know what it was. So I sat down on Saturday and proceeded to write the script, which I gave to him on Wednesday.
He looked at me, terribly confused. ‘I thought you said you didn’t have a script.’ I told him that I didn’t, but I was too embarrassed to tell him that I didn’t know how to write a treatment. Luckily, he laughed and read it, saying it was one of the best first drafts he’s ever read. He mentored me through the whole writing / rewriting process - never asking for a credit or anything. Just amazingly giving of his time and expertise. “Earthbound” - a comedy about cancer - was the result.
Oh, and I have since figured out how to write a treatment.
How if at all has your acting experience helped you? With creating characters? Dialogue? Do you find yourself acting out the parts much while writing?
Acting has definitely helped me. It makes a huge difference with dialogue - it’s the actor’s job to make their lines sound believable (even when they’re not written that way). I always read the dialogue out loud - to make sure it sounds ‘real.’ And I love getting my actor friends together and doing readings of scripts - because they’ll tell me if something isn’t working.
So this “chance” meeting at a party really got you rolling?
Working with Bruce started me on this path, but John Davis buying “Earthbound” was what started my career. The way John tells the story about how he met me, I sound like a hooker hanging out at the Four Seasons but the real story goes like this...
I was waiting for a manager friend to have a drink but she was running late so I sat down by myself. Unbeknownst to me, John (Davis) and Steve Carr (director of “Daddy Day Care,” “Dr. Doolittle 2”) were sitting behind me. John, always trying to be a matchmaker, nudged Steve that he should talk to me. He introduced himself and we all started talking. John, being the amazing producer that he is, said he’d read my script. Two days later, I got a call from my agent that he wanted to buy it.
What was getting your agent like? How did that come about?
Surprisingly, that was the easy part. After I finished writing ‘Earthbound,’ I sent it to everyone I knew. A friend of a friend of a friend called, saying she might want to direct it. She was a commercial director and told me to send it to her ‘team’ - Industry Entertainment and attorney Kevin Yorn.
About a week later, I got a call from Kevin. He wanted to know who I was, where I came from and how I wrote this great script. I was like, ‘I’m Gren from New York. Did you like it?’ He took me under his wing and started sending the script out.
Susan Solomon (who’s now my agent at Endeavor) was a manager at Industry at the time and she called a few days after Kevin, wanting to represent me but there were pre-strike politics going on within Industry at that point so she said, come hell or high water, she’d get me an agent. She called Nicole Clemens at ICM who read it that night, called me the next day and I signed with her by the end of the week. It was all rather magical.
You set up “Earthbound” in October 2002 with Davis Entertainment. Can you tell us more about that script? The genesis of the idea? And what happened with getting it set up? What is happening with it now?
The log line is as follows: it’s a romantic dramedy in which a young woman finds out she’s dying of cancer, she talks to God (who she thinks is Dianne Wiest), God grants her three wishes, one of which is to fall in love.
My favorite movies combine drama with comedy - something Jim Brooks does brilliantly. I think those movies are missing in today’s world and I wanted to write something that would make people laugh and cry. Simple as that.
This script is so special to me, it has so much of me in it, and I’m very protective of it. But in developing the project with John, Hutch Parker, Debbie Liebling and Jean Song (at Fox), I can actually say that it’s a better script. Everyone gave amazing notes and the development has been relatively painless!
Petter Naess, who directed ‘Elling’ (nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign film in 2002), signed on last year and we’re in the process of finding an actress as we speak.
What were the meetings like with Davis? Hutch Parker and Fox? Did they give written and or verbal notes? What was your turnaround time for getting the material back? And how did you deal with any differences of opinion in what should or shouldn’t happen in the story?
Meetings with John are hysterical. The man is the sweetest, most giving guy on the planet. He knows when to argue for something if he thinks it’s right, but is the first one to admit that he’s wrong. That’s so rare to find in a producer, let alone one with his resume.
The same goes for Hutch, Debbie and Jean. They know how to talk to writers - which may seem like a simple thing to do - but, believe me, it’s not. I’ve had exec meetings before that were downright painful because it’s like pulling teeth to get these people to lighten up, smile, or, god forbid, laugh. And I’m discussing comedies with them! But, a lot of times, that just comes down to personalities and I know the people I’m drawn to don’t take themselves too seriously.
Turnaround time is usually a week - so that everyone can read it, write up their own notes, then get together and formulate one master list. I’ll then come in for a meeting, we’ll discuss / debate them, they’ll give me a copy of the notes and I go off and write.
Luckily, any differences of opinion we’ve had, we were able to work out in those meetings - and that’s because everyone’s on the same page as to what movie we’re making. Not to say I haven’t fought for things I believe in, but I think you have to at least talk about a note someone has - because it means there could be a hole in your script. So even if the note itself doesn’t make sense or you think it doesn’t apply, you should try to figure out the inspiration for the note. Because that may help you figure out what was missing for them.
In July 2003, you were hired to adapt “Diary of a Mad Bride” for Warner Bros. with Josie Rosen and Zealot Films' David Levine and Gina Marcheschi producing. What is going on with that project? What was the process like being hired to adapt?
David, Gina and Josie brought me the book and I loved it. It’s a hysterical romp through the insanity of planning a wedding. We pitched it to a handful of places and Warners bought it.
Adapting is unique in that you have to change certain things to make it cinematic. For instance in Diary, she’s her own antagonist. She destroys her wedding by becoming a ‘mad bride.’ That works fine in a book - not so in a movie. So, we’re using the book more as a jumping off point, rather than a direct retelling because it’s written as a diary, i.e. it’s not active. But the hilarious tone of the book is still there - and that’s what I fell in love with in the first place.
Warners also gave you a blind script commitment with the “Diary of a Mad Bride” deal. For new writers out there, what is a “blind script” commitment and what did that involve? Have you written anything yet?
A blind script is when the studio thinks you’re going to be ‘hot’ and they want to get you cheap now! Actually, when I sold ‘Diary of a Mad Bride’ to Greg Silverman, we instantly knew that we would work well together. He got Warners to offer a blind deal as well.
Greg is fantastic. I always tease him that he’ll give a note like, ‘blueberry.’ And I’m thinking, what the fuck is blueberry? What is he talking about? The man has lost his mind! But then, after looking through the script, tearing my hair out that I can’t make it work, it finally makes sense. A subplot about the lead character judging a blueberry pie contest. ‘Blueberry.’ It’s uncanny.
In November 2003, you sold a pitch for “Boyfriend in a Box” to Warner Brothers. What is happening with that project? And what more can you tell us about the idea and further developing the script?
This actually filled my blind deal. It’s about a woman who’s sick of everyone telling her that she needs a boyfriend so she uses “Boyfriend in a Box” - a novelty toy - to make everyone think she’s in a relationship. Unfortunately, when she has to go find him to convince everyone, he’s nothing like what she expected.
Once again, the producers (Julie Yorn, Jill Tanner and Jackie Levine) brought me the idea. It’s based on a novelty toy called ‘Boyfriend in a Box.’ It contains love letters, cards, pictures, etc. - to make people think you have a boyfriend. So, we worked out a pitch and were going to go do it around town. Because of my blind deal, we had to go to WB first so when my agent called to set the meeting up with Greg, he asked what it was about. She gave him a 30 second rundown and he said, ‘I’ll buy it.’ She called me right after and said, ‘I think I just sold your pitch.’ It took a few minutes for the information to sink in because I kept thinking she was kidding. But she wasn’t. I sold a pitch without pitching!
I’m writing it now and it’s going great. Julie, Jill and Jackie are fantastic - I couldn’t ask for a better team.
You are currently repped by Susan Solomon at Endeavor, manager Brad Mendelsohn at Industry Entertainment, and attorney Kevin Yorn? What is it like working with them? Do you talk often? What is your relationship like in general? How does each help you?
I talk to them almost every day. Brad has to be the nicest person in this entire industry. Susan is a pit bull - in all the best ways. And I will always be grateful to Kevin for going out on a limb for me.
In regards to how each of them help me, Brad’s the guy I call to discuss plot problems, ideas, etc. He’s the one who helps with most of the creative issues.
Susan does that as well, but agents don’t have the time to spend ‘cracking’ something. And that’s because she’s focused on finding new assignments / projects for me. She and I have very similar tastes in material so I know if she likes it, I will too.
And Kevin is the guy who comes in at the end and negotiates the actual deal. I go to him if I want to option something or just for simple legal questions.
I consider myself extremely lucky to have them representing me because, not only are they great at what they do, they’re incredible people.
This past September 2004, you were hired to adapt “How to Tell He's Not the One in 10 Days.” What was getting that assignment like? What did you have to go through? What has been your experience so far with Lynda Obst and Christine Peters?
This has been a dream project. I am so lucky to be working with Lynda and Christine - they really know their stuff. Lynda had read another project of mine, ‘Beard,’ (that just sold to Universal, with Michael Besman at Mandalay, Brent Emery at Maverick Films and Julie Plec are producing), and we wanted to find something to work on together. She sent me the book for ‘How to Tell’ and I loved it. So we got together for lunch, came up with some ideas and I went off and filled in the blanks. Two weeks later, I pitched it to Donald DeLine and he bought it. I kept thinking, ‘this was too easy - there has to be a catch.’ But there wasn’t. It went that smoothly because Lynda knows how to do her job. She’s a goddess.
Do you do much research when preparing to write a script? Do you travel? Take tours? Visit libraries?
I’m an internet junkie so I do a lot of research online (Google rocks). I also love the library - because to make a script ring true to people, you have to know what you’re talking about.
Questions come up all the time - before you start writing and during. So I’m constantly researching - even if it’s just to find the right restaurant that two characters would go to on their first date.
I don’t do formal interviews but I’m always asking friends / random people I meet about experiences that I might be able to draw from for my scripts. For instance, with ‘Diary of a Mad Bride,’ every time I met someone who was planning their wedding, I’d pick their brain about the little details that made them go crazy. I love using real events in my scripts because you can’t make some of this stuff up.
Have you done many pitch meetings? How have things gone for you? Do you have any recommendations or pointers for other writers?
I love pitches. They’re like little performances. I sold a pilot to ABC two years ago and when I was describing a scene that took place at a strip club, I got up and started pole dancing. The execs were a bit shocked but they bought it.
I always have my notes with me - but I’ve usually practiced the pitch so much that I don’t need them. I try to keep them under 20 minutes - which isn’t always easy but I’d rather leave them wanting more than checking their watches half way through.
I’ve laughed during pitches, I’ve cried, I’ve yelled because I think, if you’re excited about a project, they’ll be excited.
What about feedback on your work? How do you handle that?
I know that writing is rewriting so I’m never afraid if someone doesn’t like a draft because I know it will be great after everything’s said and done. So I love feedback because it helps me get perspective back on a project - an easy thing to lose when you’re in the throes of writing.
Do you rely much on feedback from friends and or your agent or manager?
I have specific friends who I trust - and their feedback is very helpful. Susan and Brad are also great at giving notes - and I trust them because it’s their ass on the line too. But, ultimately, the producers and I pick and choose which notes fit the story we’re trying to tell.
What are some things that you know now that you wish you knew when you were first starting out? Do’s and don’ts?
That’s a tough one because my ignorance actually helped me.
I didn’t know that you’re not supposed to stalk a producer around a party, you’re not supposed to be able to write a script in a weekend, you’re not supposed to sell your first project by sitting in the Four Seasons, looking like a hooker. (John Davis is going to kill me for this!) But because I didn’t know not to do these things, it somehow worked out.
What’s a typical writing day like for you?
I wake up at 5am everyday, read the trades online, then start writing. I try to average between 5 and 10 pages a day, and I write until my dogs yell at me to take them on a walk.
Do you outline all your scripts first? Write treatments?
Treatments have become a necessary evil for me. It’s more work and isn’t usually included in the deal, but I find that if everyone’s on the same page at the beginning, it makes it easier down the line.
I tend to do really detailed, scene-to-scene treatments - 15 to 20 pages. That way, when it’s ready to go to script, it’s basically about writing the dialogue. The good thing about treatments is that, if it’s not working in 20 pages, it’s certainly not going to work in 120. So I spend the time working out the story in the treatment before going to script. It saves a lot of time and energy in the long run.
How much of theme do you keep in mind overall? Scene by scene? And do you find yourself initially or eventually asking what's the point?
The first draft is usually just to get the story out - not a lot of jokes or character depth. Because the theme of the piece usually changes slightly - it gets more focused - and as you continue to rewrite, it becomes easier to see what the movie’s going to be. From there, the characters start to come to life, getting individual voices as opposed to just being there to try to tell the story.
How do you approach rewrites? Any method or path that you typically follow?
You can’t be afraid to kill your babies. The reason I don’t put jokes in the first draft anymore is because you don’t know if that scene is going to be cut in the next pass and I don’t want to fall in love with a specific joke or scene if it doesn’t help move the story forward.
And I’m never afraid to try something completely different. If it doesn’t work, I can always go back to what I had before.
What things do you feel more writers need to know or recognize about themselves and or the industry?
That it’s not personal if you don’t get a specific job. I’ve been passed over for assignments before but that doesn’t reflect on my talent. It just means that my ‘take’ wasn’t what they were looking for.
Also, they want individual voices. Not a watered down version of what you think the audience wants. Every job I’ve gotten was because they liked what I was bringing to the piece.
Do you find it difficult at all being a woman and working in the business? Is it a male dominated world still? Is that ever a problem do you feel?
I understand that people don’t immediately see me and think ‘writer’ but I use it to my advantage. For example, I had a meeting at a studio and I walked in the office. The assistant immediately got huffy. ‘Casting’s down the hall.’ I politely said, “I’m actually here to see so & so.” “And you are...?” “Gren Wells.” The assistant looked at me, stunned. “You’re Gren Wells?” I just smiled and said, “What’s throwing you, the hair or the boobs?” I recounted the story to the exec, who laughed hysterically. The meeting could not have gone better.
And what are your favorite scripts? Scripts you’d say every writer should read and learn from?
“The Opposite of Sex” by Don Roos is the most incredible read because every page is laugh out loud funny. I was almost angry when I read that script because it reminded me how much more work I still had to do on mine!
“Jerry Maguire” is fantastic. “Terms of Endearment” is brilliant. And “Bringing Up Baby” is perfect.
Besides “How To…” what are you working on now or next? Spec scripts? Assignments? What are they?
I optioned an Irish comic book called “Colometers Davis” with Bruce Gilbert last year and am finishing that up (yes, I dragged Bruce out of retirement!). I found it on the internet and contacted the creators in Ireland. We’ve changed the title to ‘Do You Believe in Magic?’ - and it’s about a leprechaun who doesn’t believe in magic who goes on a journey to find out who he really is.
I’m also writing a high school musical called “Theater Geeks” with Julie Plec and Meredith Morton that is extremely reminiscent of my dorky high school years. And I just sold a project to Maverick called ‘The What Tribe,” with Steve Howey and Kevin Christy starring, based on their own painful high school experiences.
I’ve also been mentoring some new writers, working with them on specs to produce.
How did you meet these writers? How many? What are you doing specifically to actually help them?
I met another writer because he was puppy-sitting for my dogs! We were talking and he told me about a script he had. Once again, I thought the idea was great so we started hashing out the details - throwing out different scenarios about how to make it work.
Basically, I get excited about an idea. I love the development process because the script could go in so many different directions but it’s about finding the best one. So I respond to people who are equally as excited. Because, if there’s one thing Bruce Gilbert taught me, it’s that you have to give back.