Eight years ago, Karen Essex moved to Nashville and ended up pursuing a career as a Music Row journalist. But she had greater ambitions as a writer when she moved hereaspirations that prompted her to move to L.A. last August. This week, when Essex returns to town, she’ll be coming back triumphant: In the midst of the recent and just barely averted screenwriters strike, she inked a deal to write a screenplay for Titanic director James Cameron.
Essex is one of the guests appearing at the third annual Nashville Screenwriters Conference, running May 18-20 at Hermitage Hotel. She’ll be joined by producer Karen Murphy (This Is Spinal Tap), United Talent Agency agent Julian Thuan, and writers Danny Rubin (Groundhog Day), Ryan Rowe (Charlie’s Angels), and Lewis Colick (Ghosts of Mississippi), all of whom will offer insights into the screenwriting craft, from the technique itself to finding an agent to pitching successful script ideas.
Essex is the second participating screenwriter in as many years to have Nashville connections. Last year’s lineup included Randall Wallace, the former Music Row songwriter who scripted 1995’s Braveheart and the upcoming blockbuster Pearl Harbor. “The hardest thing for anybody trying to break into Hollywood is that Hollywood is this great Byzantine maze that isn’t really set up for newcomers,” says Essex, who began her Hollywood career in her 20s. The only reason she encountered any success early on, she says, was because of her unstoppable enthusiasm. “Being too young and naive to know what I was up against, I was all courage and ambition.”
The New Orleans native graduated from Tulane University with a theater arts degree, but she’d always fostered an interest in writing. “As a child, I wanted to be both a psychiatrist and a writer because I was always fascinated with the motivations behind why people did things, and I loved literature above all.”
After a brief modeling stint in Europe, she moved to L.A. in the early ’80s and began working in film production. Her degree helped her land a job as a costume designer, and she soon worked her way up to an executive position with a subsidiary of Blake Edwards Entertainment. Following that, she served as senior vice president of Force Ten Productions, for whom she co-produced The In Crowd for Orion Pictures. “I have a very entrepreneurial side, and so I really actually enjoyed the wheeling and dealing aspects of Hollywood,” Essex explains. “People consider it a glamour job, but the truth is, it’s unbelievably hard work.... You get home exhausted at 9 at night, and you still have scripts to read.”
While co-producing a movie in Philadelphia, Essex awoke in the middle of the night and realized that she had been ignoring her longing to be a writer. So in 1988, she quit her six-figure job and embarked on a full-time writing career, beginning with screenplays (including co-writing an episode of Northern Exposure). She also dabbled in journalism, most notably doing a piece for L.A. Weekly on 1950s pin-up girl and native Nashvillian Bettie Page. (This article eventually led to a 1996 book, Bettie Page: The Life of a Pin-Up Legend, which will be reissued by Arena Editions in 2002.)
Of her early writing career, Essex says, “The first short story I submitted for publication was published, and my second piece of professional journalism won me the L.A. Press Club Award. I just thought that I had sprung upon the scene a fully formed writer. I now know that what I had was beginner’s luck. The universe gave me just enough encouragement so that I would persevere through all the difficult years of learning and experiencing rejection and doubt.”
In 1992, Essex started considering graduate school and immersed herself in studying feminist theory. “I got this idea to write something that would right the wrongs that history had done to Cleopatra,” she says. “She wasn’t actually this wanton seductress, but she was really a great queen. She had been remembered for the men she slept with, like history remembers so many women, and I just got really angry.”
In 1993, as she began research on the project, Essex moved to Nashville and quickly established herself as a well-respected music journalist, penning stories for TV Guide, New Country, and other publications. She remained here for seven years, during which time she continued to study Cleopatra; she did years of traveling and research before she ever wrote one word of her biographical novel, Kleopatra, which is now set to be released this August by Warner Books.
In the midst of finishing work on her book, she also earned an MFA in writing from Goddard College in Vermont. “While I was in grad school, I had almost no time to have any fun whatsoever, so at night, I would just watch movies to wind down,” she says. “Over two years of watching movies every night, I remembered how much I loved movies.”
That triggered Essex’s impetus to return to screenwriting, which she did with a script entitled Family Romance. She moved to Los Angeles last summer and soon optioned the screenplay to a television production company. That screenplay, along with the word-of-mouth on her upcoming novel, created a buzz in Hollywood about her writing. She spent the fall and winter meeting with various executives and last month signed a contract to adapt Anne Rice’s The Mummy, or Ramses the Damned for James Cameron’s company, Lightstorm Entertainment.
“Screenwriting is really a collaborative affair,” she says. “I think the people who fight that are never going to be happy. For example, on the Anne Rice book, I’ve sat around a table with Jim Cameron, his two producers, and various executives from his company and from Fox Studios.... Now, for me, a novelist who spent years alone in a room working on a book, this was actually joyous. I was so happy to have living, breathing human beings in a room with me, as opposed to people who had been dead for so many thousands of years.”
Although Essex has now reached the career level to which she aspired for years, she says she’s not yet able to slow down and reflect on her achievements. “Nothing makes me crazier than somebody looking at what is happening for me now and saying I’m so lucky, because I see it as the result of 20 years of dogged work and persistence. The work is harder than ever, and the stakes are higher than ever. Let’s face itit’s a little intimidating to be writing something for a filmmaker like James Cameron, who has written every successful movie he’s ever directed. When people are sitting at home dreaming about being a writer, I think they also need to dream about the fact that if their dreams do come true, they are going to be subjected to an awful lot of scrutiny.”
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