March-April 2011

My (So-Called) Success

Gaithersburg screenwriter Dominique Paul's story has it all: a dizzying brush with fame, a crippling blow to a meteoric career, a bewildering illness...And that's not her movie. It's her life.

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As I drove toward Sunset Boulevard on that July afternoon in 2006, I felt my hands and feet go numb. I’d just spent the day at John Travolta’s house in Brentwood, lunching on grilled swordfish and discussing my latest project on his veranda.

Over the previous two years, I had come out with my first novel, written a screenplay based on it and been tapped to direct the film. I’d gone from struggling day to day to pay my bills, to a surreal ascent into the Hollywood stratosphere.

I should have been euphoric as I headed home from the luncheon. Instead I was having trouble breathing, and my eyes couldn’t seem to focus. Within minutes I lost peripheral vision and my heart felt like a metronome doing double-time. I pulled over and put my head between my knees.

I was having my first panic attack.

I’d like to say that as a kid growing up in Montgomery County I never dreamed I’d end up lunching at John Travolta’s. But I always assumed I’d do something of the sort.

At Rockville’s Thomas S. Wootton High School in the ’90s, I didn’t attend a single pep rally or football game. Perhaps it was being a child of divorce. Or simply a way of dealing with high school popularity horrors (I know! I’ll reject them first!). Whatever the reason, instead of engaging in high school life, I recorded my musings in a journal and set my sights on fame.

Not long after graduation (and much to my father’s chagrin) my best friend, Kristen Huff, and I headed for Los Angeles. I soon landed a job answering phones at Creative Artists Agency and then as an assistant to producer Denise DiNovi (Edward Scissorhands, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) at Sony Pictures Studios. Meanwhile, Kristen ditched L.A. for Milan to take a shot at modeling stardom.

Although I thought it was cool that I passed Arnold Schwarzenegger on my way to work in the morning, I soon realized I needed to finish my education if I wanted to get somewhere. I returned home to Darnestown in 1994, and in three years earned a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Maryland.

Afterward, my father suggested I get a steady job with benefits. Instead, I moved to New York City and waited tables at Picholine while I studied acting. But the city was loud and hectic, and my acting was going nowhere. So after a year I returned to Los Angeles. I went on auditions and landed a few bit parts, but quickly realized that acting wasn’t for me. I was too controlling to take direction.

I returned to my journal, where I pondered what to do with my life. Then one day I realized I was already doing it: I was writing.

At breakfast one morning I heard an inner voice: I am sitting on my front stoop. The other townhouses, some of them brick, some that colorful metal stuff, face me in the dark… I got up from the table and went to my laptop. Within an hour, I had what would become the first chapter of my novel. The last sentence of that chapter became the title: The Possibility of Fireflies.

My narrator was a 14-year-old named Ellie, who was watching fireflies flicker on a summer night. I realized I was writing about growing up in Maryland. My inner voice was leading me back home.

The novel took about a year to finish. During that time I worked in retail and as a personal assistant to pay the bills. Then, as I was writing the last chapters, I got a call from my former agent. Ross Fineman had gotten me spots on soap operas when I first moved to L.A., and for whatever reason he’d decided to look me up. We chatted for a while, and he told me he represented writers now. “That’s funny,” I said, “because I’m writing a book.”

After I sent it to him, he called. “I can’t tell you how relieved I am,” he said. “This doesn’t suck.”

He submitted my manuscript to several New York literary agents, who rejected it one by one. Fineman said he’d try to get me work writing for television if I could turn the book into a script. I bought How to Write a Movie in 21 Days, and four months later I had my first script to use as a sample for writing jobs.

Over the course of that summer, I pitched several projects (Holly Hobbie and Youth in Revolt, among others), developed two television series for CBS (Nightlife, Summer and Zoe) and worked 24/7. I had earned a reputation as a “dialogue doctor” and was often called upon when a script’s dialogue lacked pizzazz.

But the book that started it all languished in my desk drawer. Then, in the fall of 2005, I received a call from Diane Bartoli at Artists Literary Group in New York. It had taken her more than a year to read my manuscript, but she told me she loved it and hoped it was still available.

While she began shopping the book to publishers, I continued making the rounds at the studios, trying to land a writing gig. Nothing was happening.

Then, in early 2006, I got a call from Brad Wyman. He had produced Monster, the film that netted Charlize Theron an Academy Award for Best Actress. A friend who had done the musical score for that movie had slipped Wyman the script based on my book, and he said he loved it and wanted to meet me.

I went to his Beverly Hills office the next day. By the end of a two-hour meeting, he had optioned my script and suggested I direct the film myself. “You’d be the first woman ever to write the book, write the script and direct the film,” he said. “And now that I’ve met you, I can see you’ve got what it takes to cross the finish line.”

I later learned that Wyman’s Monster success with first-time writer-director Patty Jenkins had earned him a two-picture deal with a European production company. They were hoping to capitalize on the female trend. He already had first-time writer-director Beth Schacter lined up for one film. That morning I became Female Writer-Director No. 2.

It was daunting. Still, I was excited and thinking that things couldn’t get much better. Then they did. Bartoli called the following week to say Penguin Books was interested in my manuscript. So was Simon & Schuster. And Little, Brown. My book was going up for auction the next day. “Sleep well,” she told me. “Tomorrow your dreams come true.”

The following morning, March 16, 2006, my book was bought by Simon & Schuster. That afternoon, Wyman called to say his investors loved the project and he hoped to begin shooting before the end of the year.

Within a week, I’d gone from a struggling solo career to having a publisher, an editor, a producer, a manager and an attorney. I was no longer a wannabe with my nose pressed against the glass. I was on the other side now.

The summer of 2006 was a blur of casting calls and meetings. My book was about an adolescent girl named Ellie growing up in 1980s suburban Maryland with an alcoholic mother, Susanna, and a metal-head big sister, Gwen. The girl falls in love with her much older neighbor, and we needed to find the perfect person to play the part.

I attended readings over the course of eight weeks, listening to actors I’d only seen on a big screen as they read my words aloud, often moving me and casting director John Papsidera to tears.

Kristin Davis waited for me for more than an hour when I was stuck in L.A. traffic. Mary McCormack had just delivered a baby but wanted the part so badly that her hands trembled as she read. Natasha Henstridge came in fresh from vacation with a golden tan. Gina Gershon, Connie Nielsen, Rebecca DeMornay all read for the part of Susanna, and I found myself awed by their ability to bring the words to life.

And for the role of the narrator and her sister, there were Megan Fox, who came in from the Palm Desert set of Transformers to audition, Blake Lively and Potomac’s Taylor Momsen. I fell in love with Blake Lively for the role of Gwen, Ellie’s rebellious big sister. But Gossip Girl was still a year away, and I was told she wasn’t a big enough star. That’s when I realized how little my opinion mattered. “You will cast the actress who satisfies my financier,” Wyman told me. “You will do as I say or there is no movie.”

I already had spent my option fee, and Wyman threatened to make me pay him back whenever I tried to flex my new directorial muscle. The day after our mega-casting, I was told that Kelly Preston was interested in the role of Ellie’s narcissistic-alcoholic mother. But instead of coming to the casting office, she’d meet me at her house.

That’s how I ended up at the large gates of the Travolta home in the hills of Brentwood. A quaint French country chateau stood in the distance, and two little white dogs trotted out to greet me as if on cue. At the door, Preston gave me a warm hug. “I love your script,” she said. “I feel like I already know you.”

Travolta came into the room moments later, wearing a baseball cap, and I was struck by how handsome he was in person. He looked at his wife, then at me, and said, “My goodness. You two could be sisters!” In a strange way, I felt as if we were. She was like a friend I hadn’t seen in years. And she really wanted the part of Susanna.

Several hours after discussing the role and sharing lunch on her patio, I climbed back into my car and headed off, musing at the strange new life that was now mine. Ten minutes into the drive I suffered the panic attack—the first of many over the next six months.

I didn’t have the mental bandwidth to properly reflect on the cause of the panic attack, so I brushed it aside and dived right back into movie discussions. Wyman told me he thought Preston was perfect for the role. She had overseas name recognition, which was key to the financier. We cast her—and Michelle Trachtenberg—the following week and announced the start of production.

On Oct. 20, 2006, the story of my movie made the cover of The Hollywood Reporter.

Shortly after, on Nov. 6, Simon & Schuster threw me a book-release party at Book Soup, a famous book store on Sunset Boulevard. My dad flew out from Darnestown. Extra and Entertainment Tonight covered the event. My mouth dry from nerves, I read a passage aloud to a standing-room-only crowd of several hundred, and then I found my dad in the audience. You see, Daddy? I thought. You don’t have to worry anymore. I told you I could do it.