I’m an agoraphobic.
It’s taken me a lot of years to admit that. Nobody likes to
confess they’re different from the rest of the world. Especially
when the world they live in is Hollywood. Oh sure, we all
know that stars can be a little wacko, but that comes with the
job. Bad press is still press, and any kind of press is good as
long as they spell your name correctly. Superstars and their
eccentricities have always been good for the box office.
But I’m a screenwriter, and there are different rules for
those of us behind the scenes. Hollywood wants us normal
because normal means no problems, and no problems means
television shows and films come in on budget, and on time.
“Nobody needs to know about your little issue,” my agent
advised me when I finally had the courage to confide in him.
I kept turning down lunch meetings (free food), pitch meetings
(sometimes free food), studio screenings (free food and
free booze), anything that took me out of my house. I was beginning
to look a little strange. I had to tell him something.
“It’s nobody’s business but yours,” he explained patiently,
with a rare sensitivity seldom seen in agents.
I thanked him for being so understanding.
“Hello! They might stop hiring you!!!”
Now, he sounded like an agent.
We agreed never to talk about “my issue” again.
I continued to write. My career started to take off. I
learned to work around the agoraphobia. I was always “too
busy writing” to take lunches, dinner meetings, or studio interviews.
I once met with a film producer for a 20th Century
Fox project in my living room with its avocado green shag carpet
and my grandmother’s floral sofa. I was six months pregnant
at the time, so it all seemed perfectly charming to the
producer (a parent himself) who said he wished his wife had
been so willing to “sit on the nest.”
Once I started having babies, I had the best built-in excuses
for staying home.
“I’m still breast-feeding. I can’t be away from the baby, or
there’s leakage. Can we do a phone conference?”
This worked especially well with nervous male producers.
And since most producers who hired me were male, I was
able to comfortably accommodate my agoraphobic needs
for more years than breastfeeding is even possible. Sure,
there were those occasional meetings I had to take to get the
job. But since professional screenwriting assignments keep a
writer busy (safely tucked away in her house) for at least six
months, I could sweat my way through those occasional mandatory
employment interviews. I always took a cab, made
sure the meetings were brief (“I’ve got to get home to breast
feed”), and told the cabbie to take the fastest route home as
possible. Once home, I would collapse, reach for a fast glass of
Chardonnay, and vow to quit show business.
Somehow all of this worked.
And then one day Walt Disney Studios called me with a
project that would change my life. They called it “Project M”
so that no one would know about the true nature of the film.
Why it was kept a secret I still don’t understand. Except for
a press leak early in the development stage, there was no further
mention of the film at the time. It was to be a co-venture
between Disney Studios and Amblin Entertainment, Steven
Spielberg’s film company. Steven was attached to direct, and
equally as exciting, Michael Jackson would be its star. It was
to be the film musical of Peter Pan. A blockbuster of a project
and Disney wanted me to be the screenwriter.
No one has ever heard of it.
As a mater of fact, if you do a Google search, you won’t
find a thing on Project M. Although there is a brief mention in
a Wikipedia entry that says Steven Spielberg was considering
a musical of Peter Pan with Michael Jackson in the early 1980s
but then reconsidered.
That’s not exactly what happened.
This book tells the true story of Project M. It’s a Hollywood tale,
a behind-the-scenes look at show business: how we work, how we
keep secrets, and ultimately how some of us are forced to grow up.
Peter Pan is all about growing up. It was my favorite story
as a little girl; I loved Peter’s adventures. His freedom and
escapades are what excited me much more than Wendy’s
“stay-at-home” ways. True, she took flight with Peter, but she
always ended up playing Mommy to the Lost Boys and cleaning
up Peter’s house. Not much fun to my seven-year-old sensibilities.
My agoraphobic life certainly had taken a turn away
from those carefree, fearless days of my youth. My adventures
had become limited: I was housebound and surrounded by
little children, domesticity, and my writing. I had turned into
Wendy as a grown-up. But was this the kind of grown-up I really
wanted to be?
Certainly not the housebound part.
As much as I loved Peter Pan, Michael Jackson loved the
story even more. He named his ranch Neverland after J.M.
Barrie’s mystical island, and he filled his life with symbols
and memorabilia from the imaginative tale about the boy
who never grew up. Michael felt destined to play Peter. “I am
Peter Pan,” he would often say to me. And during Project M,
in many ways, I became like Wendy to him.
When I first met Michael in 1990, the controversy that
found him in later years was not there. But he was already being
called “Wacko Jacko” by the gossip magazines. Bubbles
the Chimp, plastic surgery, and sleeping in a hyperbaric
chamber were listed as a few of his eccentricities. Okay, he
had issues—but so did I.
And now I was going to be forced to face them.
Nobody told me when I first signed on for Project M that
I’d have to meet privately with the biggest superstar in the
world. I thought I’d take that one obligatory meeting, a little
different this time because Spielberg, Jackson, and the head
of the studio (gulp) were all in the room with me. But then
I figured I’d speed back home in my cab, bolt back that one
glass of medicinal Chardonnay, write the script in the safety
of my home, get paid, and live happily ever after.
Life is not like the movies.
I didn’t know it at the time, but this project wasn’t going
to be like any of the other projects I’d written. Working with
Michael would not only be different, but I’d have to do something
I hadn’t been able to do for a long time.
Get out of the house.
This book is about how that happened.
Getting Past the Gates
Nobody living in L.A. ever takes a cab.
But there I was in the backseat of a red and white taxi with
a Russian driver who could barely speak English. Not that it
was a problem. We were in the film capital of the world, and
Hollywood is spoken in every language. “Ivan” had no trouble
understanding when he asked where I was going, and I told
him Universal Studios.
“Da, Da, the tour!”
Uh, no. Not the tour, I tell him. I’d already spent three years
in my 20s going to that tour, playing sheep dog to tourists as I
pointed out Lana Turner’s dressing room (as if anyone cared),
and the Munster’s House (as if anyone remembered) while wearing
a red, white, and blue checker-board miniskirt. The tips I received
I knew I was getting for my legs and not my oratory skills.
The studio knew it too and built modesty gates to cover
anything below our laps as we sat on the tram giving our spiel.
So much for tips.
“I have a meeting,” I tell the driver. “You have to go in
through the back gate.” He looks into the rearview mirror, lifting
his thick bushy eyebrows as he checks me out to see if I’m
famous. In my mid-thirties, I still had the legs (somewhat more
padded from having two kids and a sweet tooth) and long, silky
hair (minus the split ends) left over from my tour guide days.
The green-tinted aviatrix sunglasses I always wore added a certain
glamorous show biz effect (I was blind as a bat without
them), and I could see that the driver was trying to place me.
“Yes, actress!!! Actress!!!” he insists.
I wasn’t about to argue with a man behind the wheel of a
speeding taxi going seventy. So I smiled and nodded and tried
at least to pretend I was famous. Ivan looked thrilled to have
me in his backseat as he turned the cab into the rear entrance
of the Universal lot.
I had never come into the studio this way, and somehow
it just felt so forbidden. This was the entrance they used for
emergency vehicles and deliveries, not for legitimate meetings.
Not for meetings that can change your life, that can buy
you a house, and put your children through college.
“Just pull up to the guard’s booth; I have to give my name,”
I instruct Ivan, and he pulls the cab over.
The uniformed guard approaches the driver’s window,
and bends down closer.
“Who are you here for?” he asks as his eyes search the
I take a breath.
“Steven Spielberg,” I say.
Ivan gasps in the front seat, “Actress!!!!”
“I’m not an actress; I’m a writer,” I explain. “A
The guard remains unimpressed as he checks a list on his
I roll down the back window, preparing to spell it.
“There’s nothing listed.”
“What? Wait. I haven’t finished spelling it.”
“There’s nothing listed here.”
“You want to check G? Maybe it’s under G.”
He starts to go back inside his guard booth. In the front
seat, Ivan turns around to stare at me in disappointment—I
wasn’t famous; I was just a screenwriter. Even worse, I was a
screenwriter trying to sneak onto the lot.
Ivan looked so hurt and disillusioned.
“This is a mistake, okay? Could you check the list again?!” I call out to the guard.
Clearly, he’s not listening because he isn’t moving from
the air-conditioned comfort of his tiny security booth.
“I have a meeting with Steven Spielberg!” I yell out to
him. “A lunch meeting with Steven Spielberg! At Amblin
Entertainment, Steven Spielberg’s production company!”
If I’m trying to impress the guard by overusing Steven’s
name, it’s not working. I can tell by the way he’s opening up
his sack lunch that his investment in my plight is much less
than his interest in whether his salami sandwich has mustard
on it. I reach for the car handle and climb outside.
“Hey, you got to pay!” Ivan starts to swear in Russian, and
the guard looks shocked to find me suddenly in his doorway.
“Could you call? Could you just please call Amblin?”
Ivan appears at my side, and Russian comes speeding out
of his mouth.
“I’ll pay!” I promise him. “Just wait, okay?”
After a few minutes of negotiation, the guard finally places
a call to the Amblin offices. The receptionist seems to know
nothing about the meeting or who I am. I frantically start
naming names of every executive I’ve ever spoken to or met
with at Amblin. But I’m terrible at names.
“Um…Debra…I think it’s Debra…Yes! It’s Debra…uh…
Where’s my agent when I need him?!
The guard tightens his jaw; he looks ready to call for
“Bettina Viviano!” I shout, suddenly remembering the
one name I know because it’s Italian, like mine. “Please call
I hold my breath as the guard puts down the salami sand-
wich and reaches for the phone. Above us, at the top of the
Universal hill, I hear the voice of a tour guide in a parked tram
stopped at the photo op point of the tour. The material was
still the same: the guide pointed out Bob Hope’s house, the
water tower of Warner Brothers, and made the same tired
joke about the brown smog covering the valley being a special
effect. I still remembered the script perfectly. It would come
in handy if this meeting killed my screenwriting career, and I
needed to be rehired.
“Okay. You can go through.”
I was stunned by the words. Five little words said with
such indifference and with just a touch of mayo at the corner
of his lips. They were words I had been waiting to hear for almost
twenty years, giving me legitimacy and stature. I was
about to take my first really Big Hollywood Meeting.
The guard pushed a button, and the electronic gate started
to slowly rise. God Bless Bettina Viviano. I was finally going
to meet Steven Spielberg…and someone else who was
Ivan was all smiles.
Hemingway’s advice about writing is to write one true
sentence. My advice is to just write anything. It doesn’t matter
if it’s true, false, good, or bad. If you write it, it can be rewritten.
And in Hollywood chances are it’ll be re-written
by someone else. Just get anything down on paper because
someone somewhere is going to find fault with it, think
they can do better, or simply change it because it’s their job.
Knowing this not only helps you finish writing your scripts,
but it should also help you say goodbye to them when
they move on or end up gathering dust on a studio shelf
You don’t think about these realities when you’re first
hired. Anything seems possible when you’re having celebratory
dinners with agents, managers, parents, or lovers you
(End of Excerpt)