The Story Behind SURPRISE ME by Deena Goldstone
The day I met the man who would change my life, I was told I had one
hour with him and that was all. I was a young writer, struggling to
master a very demanding form – screenwriting, and he was a revered
screenwriter with awards and spectacularly acclaimed movies in his
resume. Just his name conjured up for me the kind of writing I most
hoped to emulate – subtle, moving, powerful.
The producers who had hired me had “notes”. In Hollywood, euphemisms are
generally employed so instead of saying, “We hate this first draft
you’ve turned in,” they usually say “It’s a good start but we have some
‘notes.’” And then they schedule a meeting in which they proceed to tell
you everything that could be conceivably wrong with your screenplay. A
screenwriter usually leaves those meetings bloodied and beaten down.
This time, however, the notes were to be delivered by the revered
writer. He had an advisory position with the company which was employing
me and would occasionally comment on scripts as they came in. His office
was on the Twentieth Century Fox Studios lot, and I was told the day and
time of the meeting and that he would be expecting me.
As I walked the hushed and carpeted second floor hallway of the
Executive Office Building at Fox, the only sounds the soft clacking of
typewriter keys and the faint ringing of phones behind closed doors, I
struggled to damp down my anxiety. Surely this wonderful writer would
see all the flaws and every bit of awkwardness in the script I had
turned in, only my second assignment as a screenwriter. The first hadn’t
gone well at all and I doubted my ability to write this script, a fear I
had admitted to no one but which consumed me each morning as I sat down
I found his office door, and gathering my courage, opened it to find the
revered screenwriter across the room, sitting behind a heavy wooden desk
loaded with stuff – papers, small disparate objects, books, screenplays.
I was immediately struck by how attractive he was. About fifty when we
first met, he had a New England face composed of angles and planes. His
hair was graying and full and unruly. It was his eyes which reassured me
though – they were kind and held sadness.
He introduced himself and motioned to a small sofa positioned against a
wall. I sat down and watched him rummage through his over laden desk for
“I liked the blackbirds,” he said, his eyes sorting through the mess in
front of him. “They were unexpected.” And then he looked up at me, “I
always like to be surprised when I read.”
The blackbirds were a detail, a small moment in a hundred and twenty
page script about a teenager who is sent to prison for essentially being
stupid and drifting along with a boy who was up to no good. In prison
she begins an affair with a guard and gives birth to a baby behind bars.
It was a true story I had spent months researching – meeting the girl,
spending time in each of the three prisons she lived in, traveling the
state in which all this had happened. I had made sure to put into the
script as many of the real details as I could. I was convinced they made
the story authentic and were far better than anything I could conjure
up. But the screenwriter glossed over all that to focus on one of the
scenes I had invented -“Tell me about the birds.”
I described pulling up outside the first prison set in a vast, flat
landscape of marshes and seeing the large birds – they might have been
crows - spread out across the empty land, and how I thought to put them
in an early scene when the boy and girl first meet. What if I had the
boy throw rocks at the birds and the girl stops him and the birds fly up
in the air in alarm? Wouldn’t you learn something about those two
His eyes never left my face as I spoke. “Okay,” he said, “you need to
get that kind of life into the rest of the screenplay.” But how, I
wanted to ask but didn’t. The how was my job.
Instead he asked me questions – “Why does this girl go along with this
boy when she knows he’s bad news? Why does she start up with the guard
who fathers her child? Does she fall in love with him? How does she find
the courage to sue the state to keep her child?” I answered the ones I
could and told him I’d think about the others.
The hour passed so quickly, and the questions themselves seemed,
somehow, to point the way for me. I stood up, mindful that my allotted
time was over, and thanked him.
And then he astonished me by saying, “You need to rewrite the beginning,
up to those birds, and bring those pages back to me next week.”
“Oh, no, I couldn’t ask you to take any more of your time ---“
“Do you think I’m going to let you write a wonderful script…”
“ … and not be part of it?”
What? I was speechless.
“Next week. Does the same time work for you?”
I nodded, dumbfounded by his generosity.
And so I came back the next week and the week after that and the week
after that, always with fresh, tentative pages I had struggled over in
the intervening days. He would read them and we would talk. He never
told me what to write and I never heard a word of criticism, only what
he liked or what he wanted to know more about. We worked together for
almost a year, just the two of us, in that small office at Fox, in that
way. That was the only time we saw each other, the only time we talked.
And what we talked about was the work.
There was something very akin to raising a child in what we were doing.
We were nurturing this entity, our script, into being; understanding it
in ways no one else could, loving it because we were nurturing it.
There’s an intimacy to that kind of work.
But there was more, and here it gets even trickier to describe. We fell
a little bit in love with each other during that year. But why? What was
the particular alchemy which created first interest, (why did he agree
to work with me?), then trust (why could I willingly give him every
meager, hard won page of script every week and know it would be received
with care?), and then finally a very particular kind of love between us?
I don’t have a good answer. But isn’t that the way of love – it’s
impossible to describe to others but is indisputably known to the
If I had to put a label on the whole process, I would say he had
mentored me and I had learned well. He had held a steadfast belief that
I would find a way to write something “surprising” and worthy and so I
At the end of the year, we had a new screenplay. I turned the script
into the company and the movie was eventually made. But that was the
least important part of it all. What my screenwriter had given me far
outweighed the modest movie which was made from my script.
There was a moment towards the end of our time together when we argued
over the necessity of a comma in a line of dialogue. For close to twenty
minutes! As we went back and forth, I realized there was more at stake
than the comma. I was declaring ownership of the work, because here I
was defending the placement of a comma. A comma! That was the moment I
finally knew who I was - a writer, a writer who had just produced this
script and it was good, just the way it was.
Over the next few years, he got married and then I did. I had my
daughter. Both our lives got busier, more crowded, but we knew that we
could always reach out to the other. And always, it was about the work.
Our roles changed a bit. He sent me screenplays he was working on to
read and talk with him about. I continued to send him my work from time
to time, when I was struggling or, sometimes, simply when I was proud.
Gratitude became part of our equation, both of us supremely grateful to
have the other to call on, to know that despite whatever else happened
in our lives, which we rarely talked about, rarely shared, we would be
the constant for the other. Over thirty years later, it is still about
I understood that absolutely one night a year or so ago. I had had my
first book published, a collection of short stories, and was having a
reading in Santa Monica, blocks from his house. Now my revered
screenwriter is in his late eighties and lives alone after the death of
his wife. I invited him to the reading but didn’t expect him to show up.
He didn’t like to leave the house, that I knew. He had read the book and
loved the stories. He had communicated all that to me. That was enough.
But as the small crowd filtered into the room, I looked up from the
lectern to see a distinguished older man, handsome still, sporting a
cane now, and smiling tentatively as he stood at the back of the room.
He had come! It had been so many years since I had seen him. Emails had
replaced visits and phone calls and then, there he was.
“You came?!” I said as I embraced him. “You surprised me and came!”
He understood immediately the reference – to the blackbirds, to the
beginning of our relationship – and his smile broadened.
“Of course I came,” he said as he returned my embrace, “You did such