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Things you learn on a playground

by Rob Cowan

A few years back, my daughter who was about six at the time, had been watching me working on a screenplay and getting it ready for production. She has always loved and still does love watching the process of making movies. She’s grown up on sets around the world from London to Istanbul, and Perry, Georgia to Spokane, Washington.

Watching me work on the script she decided then and there that she was going to write a play and get all her friends to be in it. It would have lavish production values, possibly staged in our backyard, but most likely set to film at some point.

I showed her how to use Final Draft, and she set down to write her story. Along the way I told her about story, structure, character arcs, themes. She paid just a little bit more attention to me than most writers. After a few sessions and just days later, she had her completed screenplay. She immediately sat down to divvy up parts, designating the perfect roles suited for the personalities of her friends.

The next school day she prepared sides for her friends and on the drive to school, she highlighted each character’s name for the corresponding sides. Somehow instinctively she was more organized than most productions. I was excited to hear how her first day of pre-production would go.

That night at dinner I asked her to fill me in on the day’s events. She was a little down . . . a few kids were interested, and a few others weren’t quite grasping what she was trying to do. I suggested she enlist the kids that are intrigued and start working with them. I was certain the other kids would follow.

She eagerly went to school again, going through her pages in the car and reimagining roles for her friends. Today was going to be a better day. That night I again was anxious to hear how it all went.

Now she seemed to have everyone’s attention for her play, and there were starting to be arguments over who would play what role. Many of the actors were happy with their parts, while others felt they were miscast or had been given less lines than others. All I could do was suggest she try and diplomatically take charge. It was her project and the kids had to understand her creative decisions.

One more ride to school, and this time the apprehension filled the car. She so badly wanted this to work and was bewildered by the resistance she was getting. As I dropped her at the curb I really wanted to be able to follow her and exercise whatever producorial skills I’ve developed to help her solve the dilemma.

At my office a little later, I got a call from my wife.

It seemed the disagreements over roles, casting, story had escalated to the point that the playground monitor had come in and stopped the production. She suggested my daughter wait another year or so before putting on the project. Her greenlight had been pulled by a playground super.

She was understandably dejected. I felt horrible looking back at her enthusiasm those first few days as she prepared what she thought would be an easy endeavor.

After she went to bed that night, sad but resigned that her production needed to wait, I realized that she had just gone through a microcosm of the business. You can start with the greatest of enthusiasm . . . get caught up in casting squabbles, creative differences, petty arguments and if severe enough, someone can just come and pull the plug on your movie. It’s happened to me, though it took me 30 more years to learn what she did that day.

You can’t let egos get in the way of a movie, as they are too fragile. The best of scripts can be lost in the shuffle due to internal squabbles or perceptions of grandeur. Nothing is safe from the chopping block. I know I knew this, but after my daughter’s experience, it became clear to me again. Don’t let personalities hurt a film. Keep the goal in mind. No matter how important you think your project is, there’s always a playground monitor around the corner ready to tell you differently.

Rob Cowan

About Rob Cowan

Rob Cowan is a veteran film producer, having worked on over 30 productions, including Sandra Bullock’s "The Net" to the Golden Globe nominated films, "Life As A House" and "De-Lovely." The past few years he's produced the James Wan horror hit "The Conjuring," the Melissa McCarthy comedy "Tammy" and the upcoming action film "San Andreas." A native of British Columbia, he now lives with his wife and daughter in Los Angeles. Follow Rob on Twitter @filmpov

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