By Melissa Silverstein | Women and Hollywood April 28, 2011 at 3:30AM
Like many opportunities in life, it happened so fast I could have easily missed it. I was sitting in an executive’s office at Disney, when suddenly he said, almost in passing, “I’ve been thinking about doing a movie about Prom.” That was it. And then the meeting was over.
By the time I returned to my own office, my wheels were spinning. An original story about prom. How to approach it? Though Prom itself is a familiar concept, the idea wasn’t based on any source material – not a book, or a graphic novel, or a t.v. series. I’d have to build that from scratch, taking the relatable and universal idea of prom and make it specific, dramatic, and fresh. A tall order, particularly in the world of high school movies, where plots culminating at dances are practically their own sub-genre.
I started, as I always do, with character. I was the prom planning chairperson of my high school, so it was easy to imagine that my main character would be similarly engaged; a motivated, idealistic girl who wanted to create the perfect night. Also drawing from my own experience, I wanted an unlikely romance at the heart of the story. I brainstormed some potential prom-related set pieces, found a structure I could hang my story on, and I brought the pitch back to the studio executive, breathless in my conviction that I was the writer for this movie.
He didn’t love my pitch.
In fact, he kind of hated it. It wasn’t what he was looking for. Not that he knew exactly what he was looking for, mind you, but what I’d brought him definitely wasn’t it. I left his office again, this time awash in despair.
There is a lot of disappointment in this profession. Things don’t work out for all kinds of reasons. I’d sold feature scripts that never got made and would never see the light of day, I’d worked on television shows that got cancelled before an episode I wrote even got to air. I just couldn’t live with the thought that this might be yet another opportunity that didn’t pan out. I had to give it another shot. So I rallied from my despair, and wrote him an extensive email that night. I talked about the themes of the movie. I talked about what I saw in the story that would set it apart, make it surprising and funny and different. I talked about my character, her journey to discovering that the best moments in life are ones you can’t plan for. And I finished by telling him that despite his hesitation with regard to my initial pitch, I just knew I could nail this, if he’d give me a shot.
He called me the next day. And though it was a far cry from a greenlight, that phone call changed everything for me. Soon, I was developing a full pitch in collaboration with producers. I pitched a better, stronger version, which the executive did respond to, and from there I wrote my first draft of PROM. That was back in 2008. Then the real work started.
Though the central love story remained at the heart of the movie, the script evolved considerably from there. I collaborated heavily with director Joe Nussbaum, expanding storylines, building new characters and relationships that represented a broader swath of prom experiences. I attended proms around Los Angeles, I listened to as many prom stories as I could collect, working and re-working the script until it was the best version of itself I believed it could be.
Once the script was deemed ready, the production went into full gear. Actors were cast, speaking the lines I’d only heard from my own lips as I typed away in solitude. Production design and wardrobe and location experts were hired, each contributing their vision of how to put the script on its feet and visually execute the story on the page. This process was exhilarating – and humbling – to watch. Throughout this time, and all during production, I continued to work on the script, tweaking, cutting, churning out changes and rewrites, all in the name of getting the story as right as I could.
Last week, I walked the red carpet at the premiere of PROM. And just before I did, I sent an email to that executive, thanking him for believing in me, responding to my passion, and giving me the shot that ended up being the biggest break I’ve had yet in Hollywood. For most people, prom is just one night. For me, it’s taken three years, countless drafts, and endless hours for my prom experience to be fully realized. And even though nobody handed me a crown, I felt like a queen all night long.
PROM opens across the US, tomorrow, April 29.