Delusion to Delusion to Delusion: How I Wrote a Movie and Then Got it Made

If I were to write a screenplay of what my life looked like when I set out to write my first screenplay, it would probably go something like this:

fade in:
int. brooklyn apartment. winter, 2010. day.

Halley lies in bed, looking at the ceiling, crying. Or maybe not crying, since she just actually feels numb and lifeless. She opens her laptop, and Googles herself. She cries (or doesn’t cry) some more. She closes her laptop. She cries (or doesn’t cry) some more.

fade out.
the end.

In other words, I wasn’t doing great.

Halley Feiffer. Photo by Hal Horowitz.

I am an actress and a playwright, and I had been really lucky—and pretty delusional—up to this point. I grew up with artist parents, one of whom was a hugely accomplished multi-hyphenate: cartoonist, playwright, screenwriter, children’s book author. I think it’s safe to say that it truly never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be able to achieve the same level of success that my father had—that massive worldwide acclaim on multiple platforms wouldn’t just be handed to me by the age of, oh, say, 27. Sure I would have to do some “work” in order to get these things that I was more or less positive were my birthright. But like, mostly, I was fairly sure I would just get everything. I wanted. Ever. Like, pretty soon. I mean, I’m kidding—but not really. It never really dawned on me that there would be dry spells, periods of intense discouragement, bouts of crippling envy, months of self-doubt.

This lovely bubble of self-delusion had been propped up by years of good fortune. I had realized what I wanted to do very young, and, having grown up in New York City, was able to get an agent and start auditioning when I was a kid. Since then, I had been able to work steadily in theater—and occasionally appear in indie films and TV guest-spots. I had also started writing plays in high school, and as a result of winning the Young Playwrights National Playwriting Competition as a teenager, I had the rare experience of seeing my play produced off-Broadway during my freshman year of college. I’d commuted from Connecticut to the Cherry Lane Theatre in Manhattan for half of every week during my first semester to work on my show. I loved not being at college and pretending I was an off-Broadway superstar so much that I continued to travel into the city every other week or so to audition and just be generally fabulous. People at school thought I had transferred, since I was there so seldom. And I didn’t care—I was a success! I was on the right path! Fuck you losers, “going” to “college”! Sure, I only had like three friends at all of Wesleyan University, but whatever—I was living the dream! There was no stopping me, now! And, perhaps to my eventual detriment, I continued to work steadily and harden this entitled attitude for the next several years to come.

But then: fast forward to the winter of 2010. I was three years out of college, and the work had stopped. It had been barren for months. The movie I had shot a year and a half prior—and on which I was secretly pinning all my hopes and dreams of global notoriety—had come out recently and bombed. I had no jobs lined up. I kept auditioning for all kinds of projects, and kept feeling like I was falling flat on my face. Callbacks were rare, booking a job felt impossible, and while I tried to find solace in my playwriting, I couldn’t help succumbing to despair in that arena as well, as I felt more and more like I literally couldn’t pay anyone to read my plays. I woke up every freezing morning that winter with a stinging, gnawing knowledge that I may not, in fact, emerge as the billionaire 27-year-old entertainment mogul that I had more or less assumed I would become. And, most mornings, sickened by this realization, I went right back to bed.

I spent a great deal of time that winter indulging in this sort of narcissistic self-pity—feasting on it, almost. I felt so depressed about my current state of affairs and the infertile future I foresaw that I was barring myself from changing my luck in any way. Picking myself up and dusting myself off felt nearly impossible—a much easier feat would be to lie in bed feeling sorry for myself and crying, so that is what I did.

So when my friend Ryan Spahn called me up that winter and announced that he, too, had a fair amount of free time on his hands by dint of also being an unemployed actor, and then asked if I might want to try to co-write a screenplay with him, I almost laughed—I probably would have laughed, if I had had the energy (most of that energy had been sucked clean out of me by the crying and self-pitying). Sure, I had ideas for screenplays, but who cares? I’d been sending my plays out to everyone I knew who had ever even set footin a theater, and, judging from the response I had received (or lack thereof) it felt like I might as well just be sending them all to a big trash can. So how in the world would Ryan and I ever get a movie produced? You would have to be delusional to think that was possible.

I also couldn’t fathom successfully co-writing anything with anyone—not even Ryan, one of the sweetest, smartest, funniest people I know. I am extremely particular and strongly opinionated when it comes to playwriting, and I did not want to endanger Ryan’s and my relationship with my bullheadedness as writer. At the same time, I knew I was in a desperate way. If I didn’t seize the opportunity to coauthor something with Ryan, I would spend the rest of that winter in bed, getting a lot more crying and self-pitying done, but probably not too much else. And a screenplay did seem to be the perfect collaborative form: I had absolutely no reason to be precious about writing a screenplay, since I had never written one before and felt pretty convinced that I couldn’t ever write one in the first place.

Reluctantly—and pretty hopelessly—I pitched Ryan an idea I had been toying with for the last year. And, to my utter shock, he said: “That’s funny. I think we should write it. Come over.” And amazingly, Ryan’s endorsement of my half-baked idea was all I needed that day to get myself out of bed, throw my soiled tissues away, take off my pajama pants and put on pants that only mildly resembled pajamas, throw my laptop in my bag without even sneaking in one self-defeating Google search of myself, and get moving.

I began to take the long subway ride from Park Slope to Ryan’s apartment in Hell’s Kitchen two to three times a week, and every time I got on the subway, I thought: “This is going to be terrible. This is not going to work. There is no way Ryan and I can write a screenplay. I’ve never written a screenplay. I DON’T KNOW HOW TO DO THIS AND I SHOULD JUST GIVE UP NOW.

And yet—thank God—there was a tiny, very quiet voice that kept saying: “Stay on the subway. Go over to Ryan’s. You don’t have to finish the screenplay today. All you have to do is write with Ryan for three hours. You can do that, can’t you? No, you can’t? Okay, how ’bout this: you can order some of those insane french fries they have at the restaurant right next to Ryan’s building. They have Parmesan cheese on them and chives and truffle oil and they come with an aioli dipping sauce. You like aioli dipping sauce, don’t you? Go write with Ryan.” And that’s how we got our movie written.

And to my further shock, I found that, more and more, I did, in fact, kind of know how to do this. The years I had spent working in theater both as an actor and a playwright had taught me enough about the universal elements of good storytelling that I was able to overcome my insecurities about my capabilities as a screenwriter and realize that I was a writer, and that the form did not matter so much as the content. Moreover, the years I had spent working off-Broadway had taught me the value of, well, working really really really hard for, like, no money. And loving it. And letting the work save you—letting it be the reason you are getting up every day, and not contemplating your life any further than the work you are setting out to do that day—of not Googling yourself, of throwing out your tissues and putting on your real-pants-that-don’t-double-as-pajamas, and of showing up, and working.

To my massive surprise, writing the movie with Ryan changed that entire winter for me—the creativity and inherent joy of collaborative screenwriting was the elixir I needed to pull me out of my depression and carry me to a place of excitement, hopefulness, even, dare I say, optimism. And I continued, and continue now, to be carried by that optimism I got from our collaboration. Because, I soon realized, you cannot make a movie—well, you really cannotmake anything, I think—without optimism. A huge amount of optimism. An insane amount of optimism. An amount of optimism that could be called, well, delusional. And thank God. It beats delusional entitlement and delusional depression any day of the week. 



The film Halley and Ryan co-wrote is He’s Way More Famous Than You, directed by Michael Urie, featuring Halley, Ryan, Michael, and New York theater staples Michael Chernus, Tracee Chimo, Mamie Gummer, Natasha Lyonne, Austin Pendleton, Jesse Eisenberg, Vanessa Williams, as well as Ralph Macchio and Ben Stiller. The film is available now from Gravitas Ventures and Warner Bros. Digital in a pre-theatrical VOD release (iTunes, Amazon Video, and On Demand), and will be in theaters in 15 cities starrting May 10. For more info, please visit heswaymorefamousthanyou.com.

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Halley Feiffer

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