Title: Writer / Producer
Leslie Dixon was raised in San Francisco by a single mother, an avowed movie fan who took her to revival houses and permitted her to stay up until 3 in the morning to watch Dr. Strangelove. An obsession was born.
While she came from a family of successful artists — her grandparents were the photographer Dorothea Lange and southwestern painter Maynard Dixon — there was no family money, and Leslie, fearing college debt, skipped higher learning entirely, going out entirely on her own at the age of 18.
After a series of menial jobs and guitar player boyfriends, she saved up enough money to move to L.A., where she knew no one. The menial jobs continued until she was able to produce her first script. While never made, it was bought by Columbia, kicking off a legitimate screenwriting career.
As a writer and/or producer she has had 16 films made, including Outrageous Fortune, Overboard, Mrs. Doubtfire, The Thomas Crown Affair, Freaking Friday, Hairspray, Limitless, and Gone Girl.
She recently moved to Berkeley with her documentary filmmaker husband, Tom Ropelewski. They have one son, two bunnies, and a paradisiacal 1898 Craftsman home they plan to be carried out of feet first.
I was reading that you actually didn’t have any contacts in the industry when you got started, can you talk a little bit about the professional journey you took coming into Hollywood, starting as a scriptwriter but not really knowing anyone?
I’ll say that not really knowing anyone is not as daunting these days as it was when I didn’t know anyone, because of the internet. The internet is a great leveler of the playing field. This may sound a little discursive, but I became aware of it when we started going up to a dude ranch every year in Montana. All of a sudden these young cowboys that were working there seemed much hipper and smarter and tuned in to pop culture than I had remembered from five years earlier. It was because they all were online reading the same things, streaming the same movies that people in LA were streaming and reading.
Now, at the time that I did it, it was so very daunting because you had to physically live there, go there, get a place to live, get some kind of a job, start networking, try to find someone who would read your script. Now you can enter your script in a contest that is legitimate, there’s Nicholl Fellowship, there’s Sundance, there are all sorts of, Final Draft has a script contest. If you place or win one of those contests, you instantly get an agent, somebody will represent you and you’re in the door, and you might not have to take a step out of your hometown.
That’s astonishing. It has brought forth a lot more people who are trying. The luck that I had was, a lot of people didn’t want to live in tasteless old LA back in those days, so you had to work up the willingness to leave perhaps the nicer, cleaner, prettier place you were from, which in my case was San Francisco and physically go to Los Angeles. It was just absolutely necessary. I didn’t know anybody, I hadn’t gone to college, I didn’t have a big network of that. There was an alcohol problem in my immediate family, so I kind of ran out the door at 18. I didn’t have the alcohol problem myself, wanted to be away from it.
I had kicked around in San Francisco, I was in a western swing band for a while, I had a habit of guitar player boyfriends, which I remember with bittersweet fondness. To this day I can play pretty good western swing backup, but that was not gonna be my career. I had a very functional childhood, a very fun childhood until the alcohol problem hit my household. And my house was filled with books and records, and we went to the movies a lot, so I had a lot of nutrients intellectually and emotionally, that made me strong to fight this left turn in my immediate home.
I had a kind of appreciation for pop culture. I didn’t come to LA with the intention of being an artist and writing Citizen Kane, I wanted to be more like a journeyman from the 1930s that cranked out delightful films that starred Carey Grant and Katherine Hepburn.
Do you have a process when you’re sitting down to write a screenplay, is it different every time, or do you have a routine?
It’s different every time. It’s different because, you don’t know whether you’re, sometimes you’re rewriting someone else’s work, I’ve done a lot of this. When you see my name on a script in the second position, it means I rewrote the first writer. Sometimes you start with a novel, and you actually have the story sketched out. Sometimes you make up the whole thing, and it’s an original screenplay. Sometimes you start with a graphic novel, that’s a lot of what’s going on these days.
There are so many different ways to break in, most people have to break in with some piece of original material, but you’d be amazed how many novels are lying around out there that are not optioned, or the writer will let you option it for a dollar because if a script makes it thought the pile and gets made into a film, then their novel will take off and sell more. So there are lots of ways.
I highly recommend, it’s far easier for me anyway, to start with something that somebody really smart wrote and Hollywood-ize it, than to make everything up yourself. That’s truly the hardest.
When you’re doing that, what is your relationship like with the original author of it? How involved are they at that point?
In the ideal world, the original author is dead, and can’t give you any grief [Laughs]. I’ve worked with Edith Wharton beautifully in that capacity. But that’s kind of a glib joke, because when I was working on “Limitless”, which is based on a book called “The Dark Fields” by Alan Glynn, we were in constant contact, I was so impressed with his writing and his book that I wanted to pay him the respect that Hollywood producers rarely pay to original writers, originators of material. I was in constant email contact with him. He was understanding about the Hollywood process, he was sophisticated, which helped.
When you’re writing a script and you don’t have a film optioned yet or you don’t have the cast for a film yet, how does that work for you as far as bringing your characters to life on the page? How do you envision them, and I guess do you have a say at all in the casting process, or are looking for certain attributes in certain people that will be cast?
Every film is different. A lot of it has to do with your relationship with the studio, and your relationship with the original director, who’s going to make those decisions more firmly than you are. Very rarely you might be in a position where there’s a bidding war for your script, and you might have some leverage, and you might be able to say, “I’m a producer on it and you can’t put a director on it I don’t like.” In other words, you can’t pick the director over their heads, but I’ve had some contracts where I had veto power over the director, and I have veto power over the lead.
So when they suddenly say that they want to cast the inarticulate hunk of the week as a character who is supposed to be a flaming genius, I could say no. But that is extremely rare. The best way you can bring a character to life on the screen is just imagine the role with your favorite actor or actress playing it, it sometimes works, you end up getting that person.
Just imagine your favorite star just doing this and saying that, and certainly that was one of my goals on “Mrs. Doubtfire”, I don’t think they ever would have made the movie if they hadn’t gotten Robin Williams. You needed to provide a large piece of bait, that seemed like encompassed his skillset. That was my job, it was fun to imagine, and it was even more fun to see it happen.
At what point did you know you were gonna get Robin for that, and did that change anything for you with the script when you guys did get him?
No, because at that point Chris Columbus started writing on it, I didn’t change enough to get a screen credit. No, I just found out because of my agent. And that was a personal triumph for me, because he had read a previous version of the script and passed.
What was it like to see Robin in that role for you?
Who else could have done that, at that moment? I mean, that’s where his really unique skillset, it was a shoot the moon, it had to be a hole in one or it wouldn’t happen. They wanted him from the beginning, it was a no brainer, I didn’t come up with that idea. And he had skirted this project and wasn’t interested in the premise, but the previous version of the script was not particularly comedic, and it needed to have that.
Going from writing the comedies that you have, to writing and then producing a thriller, what was that transition like from you? Did your writing background with comedy help still prepare you in a way for producing and writing a thriller?
It was an evolution. I always liked visceral films, and still do. I have absolutely no problems, my favorite show on TV is “Game of Thrones,” so what does that tell you? I love “Breaking Bad.” I just was, in the beginning in the first few years, so grateful to be employed at all and felt that it was very easy to go from one comedy to another. I don’t think I was particularly known as a writer of romantic comedies, although I’ve worked on a couple of them. I was just a comedy writer, an all purpose comedy writer. I’ve done family comedy, I’ve done romantic comedy, I’ve done just ridiculous comedy. And occasionally some dark comedy.
But my taste, my actual taste, really is a little more complex, a little more visceral, and actually quite sick to be honest. I thought “Get Out” was my favorite film of the year so far, I’m a huge Key & Peele fan, I just like all of that stuff. I have had issues over the years with things that really ought to be an R-rated movie, and you have to sanitize them to a PG-13. I just began to get sick of working in those genres, and wanting more to work in genres that I would want to buy a ticket to.
That evolution was very natural for me, but it helped to find, it helped to get the Thomas Crown gig, which was transitional, and work with John McTiernan who is a really, really good director. And then from there, it felt logical and natural that I could do a thriller. So I got to write the script for the book that “Limitless” was based on, which is a story unto itself.
With “Limitless”, and going from a film to a television show, what kind of challenges does that present from a creative place, where you’re having to come up with a story that doesn’t necessarily exist, it’s just inspired by that original content?
I had nothing to do with the TV show, my name is on it for contractual reasons, and I was contractually obligated that they had to offer me the right to write the pilot. But I didn’t want to do it, I didn’t want to do it because I haven’t come this far to sanitize something for network television.
I was happy to cash the check, but I didn’t think it would succeed because it needed to be dark and complex, and it should have been on cable. And the studio, which was going under at the time, just took the highest bidder, which was the network, and then pretty much ensured that there would be nails in the coffin of that project. Because there was no way you could make it as dark and complex and interesting. It could have been a series as interesting as “Westworld”, with sci-fi tendencies and dark currents under the surface, and we don’t know who makes this drug, and who’s on it and who isn’t, and what’s the new version of it. I could see that going forever, but it would have had to be a cable universe, not network.
So I took my money, I kept my mouth shut, and it just petered out very quickly, I’m sorry to say.
With something like that, Hollywood is such a harsh industry, and in moments where you’re like, “Oh, I would love for this project to be an R-rating” and it can’t be, or you have to rewrite something you feel really passionate about. How do you kind of reassure yourself and stay motivated, even though other people are trying to break what you’ve created?
I’ve had better luck than most writers, being rewritten into oblivion. I’ve had better luck, I haven’t been the recipient of as many terrible notes as some of my contemporaries. And I seem to have been able to hang out on projects longer, and actually see a pretty good simile of what I wrote to reach the screen. Part of that has to do with flying a bit under the radar of blockbusters.
I mean, “Mrs. Doubtfire” was a blockbuster, but an inadvertent one, because it was simply set on a path to become a profitable comedy, nobody knew it was going to be a monster hit. In general, what I have done is hit doubles and triples; I’ve not entered the blockbuster sweepstakes. So the stakes are lower, and they don’t tend to throw four, five, six writers at the script when they don’t have a $215 million budget. It just ratchets up the fear.
And you’ll see … I do arbitration sometimes where you decide who deserves credit, this service that you do for the Writer’s Guild. Sometimes you’ll see 15 names on different drafts of a script, and it has to be so demoralizing. You see writers that got hired, and they’re fired and then brought back. I know lots of people who work this way, and it’s always the really big movies.
They’re interested in me for a Marvel movie right now, and I don’t want to do it because I don’t want to be 1 of 16 writers. I just don’t want to do that at this point in my life, I’m really happy that with “Limitless,” I had it in my contract they couldn’t change it. That’s what happens when you have the rights to the book.
That’s ideal, that way you can ensure your vision is the one being told.
Unless of course the movie sucks, in which case it was misguided. I do really believe in a collaborative process with the right people. I’ve gotten as much help from talented actors as anybody in bringing things to life, you have to be open. Not everyone that’s around you is going to be an idiot.
Do you feel that being a female in this industry has been challenging? Hollywood is still very much a man’s world, and we constantly are having the equality discussion iregarding pay and roles for females versus male.
Honestly you’re going to hate it, people hate it when I say this. There’s no challenge, the challenge is inside of you. No one cares whether a female wrote a script or a male wrote a script. No one. They don’t look at the name on the page before they start reading it and go, “Oh, a woman wrote this, I’ll throw it to the bottom of the pile.” They just don’t care. If you write something that fills into the slot of the kind of film or television pilot that somebody might actually want to make in this current market, no one cares.
I think it’s much harder for executives, because that can be kind of a boy’s club. Agents are making huge strides, there are women who run film studios; it’s really pretty good. But I think that women limit themselves sometimes, by choosing to write in genres that are not as popular right now and may have less chance of reaching the screen. I think that all this is really on women to broaden the kinds of movies they write. And not get so distracted by those babies, that’s the hardest one, because women will get distracted.
What I like to say is in a blinking contest between the man and woman, who are both working, the woman will usually blink first and spend more time with the kids. I think that’s probably the single biggest reason why there are fewer films written by women. If you choose to have children, there’s going to be some kind of a drop out. Or you’re having them raised by the nanny, and that’s really a horrible choice. I did a little of each and I think I balanced it fairly well. I’d probably have had a couple more films on my roster if I hadn’t had babies.
It’s a hard decision to make because I think, and not just limited to Hollywood, but really any career, women feel like they have to make a choice between being a mom and having children, or their career. It really shouldn’t be that, but I still think it’s still somewhat perceived as that.
Yeah. And the good thing about being a freelancer, is you don’t have to entirely quit, it’s not an either/or situation. But I will say I think that a studio might have some hesitation about hiring a woman who has just had a baby, right? It may take four times as long to get the final script, I could see that happening. So we do have challenges, but not in the way that they perceive the actual work.
As doing this in a freelance capacity, what is your day to day like, how do you balance work and life?
I’ve re-balanced everything, and I’m in the process of changing my life. I lived in Beverly Hills for 22 years, which was quite a trip, but I’m originally from San Francisco. And a couple of years ago, when it came time for my kid to go to college, we decided to move back up to San Francisco. And without expecting to, landed in the liberal crazy capital of America, Berkeley, California, where I now live.
I go down to LA frequently, it’s extremely easy to do, but I now have one foot in and one foot out of that world. There was just a period in my life where I cannot let those particular currents and values take up the frontal lobes of my brain all the time. I have a foot in my old life and a foot in my new life, and I actually think that’s going to lead to new and different kinds of work, that might not even be screenwriting. I’m not in the best with the treadmill as I was. You may never see another film from me, or may and probably will actually, see a couple of films that are not like anything I’ve done.
I’m just at a jump off point where I’m really interested in writing what I want. And frankly, between us, have the scratch to do that. I’ve kind of dried up that system for so many years, and now I really want to take a step back and enjoy the fruits of it. That will mean working less, and working more selectively, but I’m perfectly alright with that.
What pieces of advice you would offer to others that are looking to pursue a career in writing for film or television?
I would say get your hands on scripts to shows or films you admire. And look at them, look at them for form, look at them for economy, look at them for whatever tricks the writer might employ to keep you reading, to keep your eye moving along the page. It’s very important, because the culprit, your enemy is the boredom of your reader. That fact that they have a big pile of scripts to read, or loaded on to their device as the case may be, why should they read yours? Why should they turn the page? You really do have to be a bit of a showoff, and you have to have economy. One of the best ways to learn how to do that is to just read good scripts. Go, “Oh, huh, I like this movie, I’ll read this script.”
And that will give you an idea of what a truly professional, sprightly piece of material looks like. That would be a better teacher than any book that you can get. What you want to hear from your friend when you give them the script is, “I couldn’t put it down.” Which means, you have to pay attention to the story, you have to. If you have a nine page scene of two people talking in a room, you are not a professional writer. Unless one of them has a gun on the other.
Some sort of twist.
There needs to be some tension, otherwise yeah, it’s not working. That would be my biggest piece of advice. Then my next piece of advice would be, when you’ve really, really, really gone through the script with a fine tooth comb, and gotten a really good response from other people, then enter in some of these contests, skip the painful journey I had of having to physically go to Los Angeles and knock on doors. Maybe you can come to Los Angeles on a nice magic carpet.
That would be ideal.
I think that’s my best advice. And then finally, I would say if you do get into a room with someone, and someone wants to meet you, be confident. Nobody wants to hire a shy, insecure writer. You’ve got to put on a very confident, fun, playful personality. That’s the kind of person that they want to be. And luckily I’m a bit of a brat and have always been able to pull that off, that’s the easy part. But if you’re a shy, inward kind of person, then you need to work on your people skills. Because when they’re trying to decide to hire somebody, it’s somebody you might be stuck with for months, and they want, you should be a good hang.
Culture’s important, being able to just get along with people.
That’s so true that is, I would say that people who are slightly showoff-y and the class clown, the qualities that did not work for you in school maybe, when you were growing up, can be tremendous assets in Hollywood. Everybody likes sort of an immature prankster who is fresh and different. They won’t tell you to shut up and do it a certain way, your eccentricities can be really a plus in Hollywood. I know mine have been.
Catch Leslie Dixon on TCM this October as the guest on TCM Spotlight: Trailblazing Women!