Hot Off a Spec Sale: Screenwriter Melissa Hilfers
Melissa London Hilfers is a powerhouse, and not just because she just sold her second feature spec, UNFIT, to Amazon studios for mid-six-figures with some high profile potential attachments three days after the script went out to market. I realized that this woman might just have what it takes to make it in this crazy space the first time I talked to her back in 2012: She was ridiculously productive (especially for a working mother!), constantly on the lookout for ideas and opportunities, doggedly exploring the breaks she could create for herself, rather than waiting for other to create those for her. She was fearless in the best way, and always, always generous, which explains why, on the night she closed the deal for UNFIT, sleep deprived and running purely on adrenaline, she volunteered to share with me the story and experience of her most recent spec sale.
Lee: For those who are not familiar with you… can you briefly give me your origin story?
Melissa: Origin story – love it. I wish I had been bitten by a spider or something. I went to law school right after college and began practicing law at a firm right after. Eventually I had kids and went on leave and after the birth of my daughter I had an idea for a movie and I wrote it. And I loved every minute of it. It’s really that simple. The not-so-simple part, of course was getting something sold, which took close to five years. And then I was bitten by a spider.
Lee: Your first “win” actually came in television, right? Could you tell me more about it?
Melissa: There was a dad at my child’s preschool who was a showrunner. I ran into his wife at a coffee shop and she asked how my writing was going, and I lamented how hard it is to make it as a screenwriter if you don’t live in L.A., and she insisted that I talk to her husband. I met with him and we hit it off. He asked to read a script, passed it along to a network that ended up buying it. Interestingly, it was a feature spec that they bought to do as a movie for tv, so although it was in television, it was actually a feature.
Lee: Did your previous success in television help you at all when it came to selling a spec?
Melissa: Hmmm. Well technically my first experience was with a feature spec, but there was no going out wide and such. But there was development on that script with the network, and the same for subsequent tv projects I have sold, so that was good experience in terms of collaborating and incorporating notes.
Lee: After you sold UNDONE, what sort of opportunities opened up for you?
Melissa: It’s amazing how many people can read a script in one week, and after the spec sold I went in for meetings with a lot of the folks who had read it. Those are really fun meetings. I made a lot of connections, and I did get some jobs specifically because people read and appreciated UNDONE.
Lee: Did you feel that there were specific expectations from you now that you wrote – and sold – a thriller?
Melissa: Yes. And not just a thriller, a thriller driven by a complex female character. I went in for a lot of thriller projects for sure, but also a lot of projects with interesting female leads – which was awesome. I even was hired to rewrite a feature to change the lead from a man to a woman.
Lee: How did you come to write UNFIT?
Melissa: I saw a biopic about an amazing woman – the woman who invented Barbie — was being made and I was really interested in doing it. My team explained, fairly, that I just didn’t have a sample that would convince the producers that I could do that sort of movie. So I decided to find a subject and write a dramatic, female-driven biopic. Once I found Carrie Buck’s story I knew that had to be the one. Then after the election it became like a mission – the story is so important, about not judging others and the importance of the Supreme Court – I just knew nothing was going to stop me from writing this movie and getting it out there.
Lee: This project also has the law at the center of it, which you are obviously very closely familiar with. Did that make the writing of it easier for you, or more difficult?
Melissa: I definitely gravitate toward stories involving the law and justice. A passion for justice is what sent me to law school, and that hasn’t gone away. There were many difficulties in writing this story, but the legal part of it was probably the easiest part. Also, it’s true, and I used as much as I could of the real briefs, arguments and opinions without sacrificing story.
Lee: This was clearly a different script than UNDONE, and one that lives in a different space. How did your reps react to it?
Melissa: Well, it’s a heart-wrenching, period biopic about the Eugenics movement, so the second I mentioned it they were like “Cha-ching!”
Lee: Your first spec – UNDONE – went to market and sold in 4 days. Often writers are told that scripts no longer hit the town on Tuesday and are sold by Friday, but yet here we are. Twice. Can you give me a blow-by-blow of how this went down?
Melissa: The process of a spec going out and selling is so exciting it’s hard to describe. It’s the biggest rush I have probably ever felt outside of giving birth (there are other parallels…it’s bloody, there is screaming and you’re elated at the end.) I knew over the weekend it was going to go out early the following week. Monday we made some tweaks. Tuesday morning, refined the logline and it was out Tuesday afternoon. It’s wild because there’s all this activity right before and then sort of radio silence for a bit. I saw it hit a tracking board, and heard within just a couple of hours that we had interest and the immediate reaction was very positive. The next 48 hours were absolutely insane – stars wanting to be attached, studios bidding, etc. in the end I went with my gut in terms of the place I felt was the best home for it, producers I wanted to work with and the star I felt was right. I happened to know that the Carrie Buck story was meaningful for Dakota (Johnson) and that meant something. It was all done by Thursday night. I asked one of my agents if it was any sort of speed record and he laughed and said no.
Lee: Is selling your second spec different in any way than selling your first?
Melissa: Not to use the baby analogy again but it’s similar in that it’s incredibly special every time, and you love each one equally but in different ways. This one was faster, but I knew what to expect. I also knew better what questions to ask.
Lee: You had different offers on the table from name buyers. Why did you choose to sell to Amazon?
Melissa: I really love what they are doing creatively. I also know that they pride themselves on giving artists creative room. They showed tremendous excitement for the project and I felt it was the place where it was most likely to get made in a way that I would want. Also Ted Hope has phenomenal taste. He’s worked on many of my favorite movies.
Lee: What do you think it was about this script that made it such a hot property or, as the industry likes to say, Undeniable?
Melissa: What is Undeniable to me is that it’s a true story about heartbreak and injustice and an ugly, divisive time in America’s history. It’s gut-wrenching and timeless…but also timely.
Lee: When you choose what to write, do you try to follow the trends in the market, or do you let inspiration guide you?
Melissa: When I do a project on spec it’s not really a choice, it’s a story that’s in me that I need to get out. I guess inspiration is the word, but it might also be compulsion.
Lee: What’s next for you?
Melissa: I’m currently working on an Emily Dickinson project with a phenomenal director, Ellen Kuras. As soon as that’s done, I will begin work on adapting a thriller that was an international bestseller. After two period pieces, I am looking forward to the dark, twisty modern thriller as a “break.”
Lee: Having sold two specs now, are there any insights you can share about your experience in this market?
Melissa: The spec market is tough, but writing a spec is the most pure thing you can do as a screenwriter – it’s all you – your vision, your words, your ideas, and there is tremendous value in that. Whether it sells or not, if it gets out there you will know that people are getting to see a side of you that they may not have seen.
Lee: Finally, what advice do you have for other feature writers who hope to find success in this ever-changing market?
Melissa: Do. Not. Give. Up. And write stuff that you love.
Want to learn more about Melissa’s journey? Check out my interview with her in my upcoming book, BREAKING IN: TALES FROM THE SCREENWRITING TRENCHES.