Margaret Nagle was one of the first women in met in Hollywood who told me really what it was like to be a working woman in Hollywood. She told me about unbelievable (which I totally believed) stories about how women were treated in writers rooms and so many other things. She schooled me. It was a revelation.
Margaret has been working her ass off as a writer for many years. She’s no different than lots of other women toiling in the trenches, except that this year she is basically having her coming out party. I like to call her the ten year overnight sensation.
Her movie The Good Lie – which she fought so hard for is out today. (I saw it in Toronto at the premiere and balled my eyes out. It was an incredibly moving story.) And the show she developed The Red Band Society is now airing Wednesday nights on Fox.
Margaret answered some questions about her current and future projects in between screenings of her film for folks at the UN and in DC.
Women and Hollywood: Tell me exactly how you got involved with the Red Band Society.
Margaret Nagle: Red Band Society is based upon the Catalan drama series Polseres Vermelles, and it was offered to me to develop as an American TV series for Amblin Television and ABC Studios to air on the Fox network. I had a terrific time writing and executive producing the pilot episode.
WaH: You started as an actress – talk about being on My So-Called Life.
MN: Well, if all jobs were of the quality of My So-Called Life I might have stayed an actress! I was very fortunate in that Winnie Holzman, the show’s creator, was a longtime friend and she wanted to use me on the show. I only did three episodes, but it meant a lot to be a part of something so special that has proved to have such a long and enduring existence, considering it was only on for one season with only nineteen produced episodes.
WaH: How did you morph into a writer?
MN: While I was doing My So-Called Life Winnie took me aside and said “I have some very, very bad news for you. You’re a writer.” And I knew she was right but I was scared. So Winnie encouraged me, and then I started writing, and I wrote a spec script called Warm Springs (that was eventually made and critically well received) and that writing sample got me the job to write The Good Lie eleven years ago.
WaH: Talk about your dedication to Eleanor Roosevelt. You wrote Warm Springs for HBO about FDR and Eleanor, and there is a part two to that story that you have been trying to get made.
MN: Eleanor Roosevelt, in my opinion, is the most influential and important women of the 20th century. There is an endless well from which to draw to tell not just one, but many of her life stories. Her life had so many periods of loss and growth. She influenced not just her husband and his work, she also inspired men, women and children around the world. She led by example in her dedication to human rights.
My second screenplay takes place during the campaign, election and first 100 days of FDR’s first term as president, when the country was at its lowest financially and spiritually. Eleanor didn’t want to be First Lady. I explore the deep relationship she developed with the talented political journalist, Lorena Hickok, and how their
relationship transformed Eleanor into the First Lady and activist we remember her as.
And that also begs the question “do we know her so well?” With all the books written, there are still many
mysteries surrounding Eleanor and it’s something I’m exploring not only with this script, but a play that I’m writing that will feature Eleanor and just one day in her life in 1960 when JFK— who was in a neck and neck race with Nixon — came to ask her to endorse his presidential bid. That’s what I mean by how many stories there are to tell about such a fascinating and important woman.
WaH: The Good Lie has such a rich back story. Talk about that process and why you are passionate about getting the story out.
MN: I have felt such a personal responsibility to move this story forward for over a decade. To get this film made and let the world understand on an emotional level the story of South Sudan. I believe that this film will have a larger reach. Film is a language we all can speak, feel, experience and understand. I want to shine a light in a dark place. I want to put a spotlight on South Sudan and help us as people who share this planet come together and do more for each other.
It started in 2003 when I was hired by Robert Newmyer at Outlaw productions to write the script. As for my own journey with the script… all I can tell is that if you’re a writer in Hollywood stuff happens. And with The Good Lie two years down the road of development we got stuck with a new regime at the studio and Robert Newmyer unexpectedly died of a heart attack at 49. The studio put the script in turnaround but wouldn’t let it out. The script wound up on what is called “The Blacklist,” which is the best unmade scripts in Hollywood that year. I then proceeded to get work as a writer off this unproduced script but it was a struggle because you need to have a film made with your name on it as a writer to really move forward as a screenwriter.
However, the Writers Guild has a little-known rule called the “Writer’s Re-Acquisition Rule” — which is that after a script has not been touched for five years by any other writer, the original writer can legally get it back for a free eighteen month option and try to re-sell it themselves. So I waited for five whole years from the last time I’d been paid to write on it and with full legal authority in 2010 took the script back to find it, hopefully, a new home.
But every producer I sent it to turned it down.
But here’s where some luck entered the picture: Imagine Entertainment run by Ron Howard and Brian Grazer was starting a one-year writing program designed as a TV writer’s room for feature writers run by Karen Kehela Sherwood, which is a pretty terrific idea. Feature writers can be so isolated and alone, so the concept of being able to check in with other writers from time to time and, maybe even help each other along, was very inviting. So myself and eight other writers were hired for this experimental program and I was fortunate that Ron wanted to redevelop The Good Lie as the best use of my time in the program. I was very excited, especially as there was some decent financing that we were going to be able to take advantage of once we got the script into shape. Only the financing fell out after twelve months. And I’d used up twelve months of the eighteen month window I had to find the film a new buyer.
Finally, the script found its way to a producer named Molly Smith as a writing sample. And what were the odds that it would just so happen her father had adopted a Lost Boy in Memphis and put him through college. He got his PhD in Engineering. Molly read the script and said, “This is about my brother. I have to make this.”
The Good Lie was made independently and Warner Brothers is doing its domestic distribution with Lionsgate handing its international distribution. Reese Witherspoon, took on a small, but vital role in the picture. The adult Lost Boys and Girl featured in the script are all played by adult refugees of war and the children acting in the film are all children of surviving Lost Boys and Girls.
When we premiered at the Toronto Film Festival a couple of weeks ago, we had no idea how it would be received. The film finished and we got a long standing ovation as soon as the credits came up. In the dark, before the actors, director or I even walked out on stage. The audience of 800 people stood and cheered for many minutes. I felt a surge of relief.
We have now created a fund called The Good Lie Fund 2 million people are displaced. The Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya has 160,000 people on limited food with no running water or electricity. The Good Lie Fund is working with UNICEF to deliver humanitarian aid and educational opportunities to the camp. It will also pay for education for Lost Boys and Girls in the United States. Our hope is that everyone who sees the film will give a dollar or five dollars to the fund.