Sunday, September 29, 2013

jackDawe, September 29, 2013

Oh! Lucky Man!
by TJ Dawe

I recently had a play of mine (Toothpaste and Cigars, co-written with Mike Rinaldi) made into a movie (The F Word, starring Daniel Radcliffe, directed by Mike Dowse), which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival to great acclaim, and garnered a fat distribution deal. 

The phrasing of that last sentence implies that I made it happen. I didn’t. If anyone wants advice on how to get their own stuff made into a movie, I have nothing to tell them. Other than this: it takes an extraordinary amount of luck. 

Here’s part of the story. A friend who saw the play at the Vancouver Fringe in 2003 liked it enough to offer to pass the script on to a few film contacts (she worked in documentaries). One of them bought the option. What if she hadn’t seen it? What if she wasn’t that crazy about it? What if none of her contacts wanted it? 

What if he hadn’t tried to get into that party?

It was part of the deal that the script would be rewritten by Elan Mastai - an experienced screenwriter. Elan told me that a few years ago he was at Sundance with a low budget movie he’d written, and was lined up to get into a party he didn’t have an invite to. He stood outside for an hour, and talked with two women in the line behind him. Eventually he got in and got them in. A year or two later, he encountered one of them again. She worked for Fox Searchlight, and was instrumental in getting that studio interested in The F Word. What if he hadn’t tried to get into that party? What if he hadn’t talked to those two women behind him in the line-up? What if someone else had been standing behind him?

Fox Searchlight lined up a director, star, shoot-date for The F Word... and then cancelled the production. Eventually it got into the hands of some Canadian producers, who got it to Mike Dowse (director of Fubar and Goon). I don’t know how that happened. I’m sure more coincidences were involved. 

Executive producer Jonathan Loughran - head of the Irish Film Board’s US office - told me he and some friends were sitting in a bar in LA, drinking and talking. The people from another table approached them saying “You seem to be having a good time - can we join you?” and did. After a few hours, it came out that they all worked in film, and the newcomers were having trouble securing some funding for their movie The F Word. Jonathan asked them to send him the script. He read it the next morning, and said it was funniest script he’d ever read. He offered that if they changed the scene set in Buenos Aires to Dublin, he could possibly get them the funding they needed. A matter of days later a redraft was in his inbox, with geographically correct references to Dublin. Mike Dowse, it turns out, has dual citizenship: Canadian and Irish. The movie is now a Canadian and Irish co-production. What if those people hadn’t approached his table? What if the bar was noisier that night? What if there hadn’t been a way to place part of the story in Dublin?

Making my living in the theatrical small-time, I had the sense that I never “made it” because the Big Machine had looked at my work and deemed it not good enough. I’ve had this view tempered by this list of coincidences (and there are certainly more I don’t know about), the absence of a single one of which would have collapsed the whole sequence. 

Is there a way to make these kinds of coincidences happen? Nope. Luck follows its own caprices. 

And of course, luck isn’t enough. Building your body of work, refining your voice, working on your craft, getting your stuff out there to as many audiences as you can - those are just as important. And those are things you can actually do. That friend liking the play she saw, the producer liking the script he read, Elan having a good source as a launching point for the screenplay he wrote - those weren’t coincidences, but the product of hard work. If you’re working away, and the unlikely string of coincidences somehow line-up, send in your best shot with creative muscles that are honed and ready from endless practice. Golf great Gary Player, when asked how he could be so lucky, answered “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”

Read also: What it feels like to have a play of mine made into a movie...


  1. Wow TJ! You so deserve to have fame and fortune.... though I get that the fortune part hasn't happened yet. You have enriched my life and the lives of the many friends and family I have directed your way over the years. Your obvious desire for truth, humor, and integrity are conveyed in everything you do. I love your accounts of this experience. Years ago, thinking that you were amazing and having no idea where to communicate such things, I wrote emails to David Letterman and Conan O'Brien's shows, telling them about you. I knew you didn't necessarily fit their cookie cutters, but I wanted the world to know about you. As a fan since your first fringe shows I feel privileged to have been witness to small parts of your human journey. Your work is profound.

    Last comment. I recently watched Mike Birbiglia (I think that's his name...or something like it) and thought of you.

  2. Congratulations TJ! We writers must always persist and be patient.

  3. Joan - thanks so much. It really does feel good to know that much stuff is reaching people. Whether it gets me on Letterman and Conan or not. and I've heard Mike Birbiglia on This American Life and follow him on Twitter. Love his work.

    Anonymous - yes indeed. Patience has never come naturally to me, but a while ago I realized that I'm in this for the long haul. And with that in mind, every project chips away at the giant mountain before me. This particular play, written so long ago with the same amount of sincerity and desire as all the others, seems to have broken through.


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