Yippee! My screen adaptation of The Improbable Wonders of Moojie Littleman has gone out for review. I couldn’t believe my ears when, after two years of working on it, my producer, John Crye, finally said the words, “It’s ready!”
Film description of Halfkin: A physically-disabled orphan discovers he has miraculous abilities similar to the Light-Eaters, a primordial race that warns intolerant locals in early-1900s America of an upcoming natural disaster.
In order to make the 294-page story fit into less than 2 hours on screen, we had to cut a few characters and scenes. Pappy and Auntie Tilda are now the central the focus of Moojie’s domestic squabbles. Light-Eaters, Ninti, Babylonia, Sarru’kan, and others remain true to the novel. Dear Moojie is exactly the same character. Early on, he struggles with disabilities and unrecognized healing powers, while searching for a sense of belonging.
More news: Book 2 of TheMoojie Littleman Trilogy is nearly done. The Boy Who Killed Time picks up four years later, when 18 year-old Moojie, now hailed in his hometown as a healer, escapes family and worshipful throngs to find the inter-dimensional realm where his true love awaits. What he finds when he gets there is completely unexpected.
The Improbable Wonders of Moojie Littleman by Robin Gregory Genre: Fantasy, Magical Realism Early 1900s, Western America. A lonely, disabled boy with a nasty temper and uncontrolled mystical powers, Moojie is taken by his father to his grandfather’s wilderness farm. There, Moojie meets an otherworldly clan of outcasts that he wants to join. Following a series of misadventures–magical and mystical–he is summoned by the call to a great destiny … if only he can survive one last terrifying trial. Having won a number of awards, Robin Gregory’s The Improbable Wonders of Moojie Littleman is being lauded as a classic. A haunting, visionary tale spun in the magical realist tradition of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, the profoundly unique voice and heart-stirring narrative recall great works of fiction that explore the universal desire to belong.
ROBIN GREGORY is a devoted wife and mother, and student of mystical teachings. Born in Pensacola, Florida, she grew up in California, accompanied by seven siblings, and surrounded by horses, real cowboys, and the occasional rattlesnake. She has always been drawn to helping others, a trait that began, to her mother’s horror, with bringing home swallow chicks stricken from their nests. She has worked as a journalist, lay minister, and infant massage instructor for mothers and babies at risk. Her studies include Literature and Creative Writing at University of California, Santa Cruz and Stanford University’s Writer’s Workshop. She lives with her husband and son in a Carmel cottage old enough to make you sneeze. “The Improbable Wonders of Moojie Littleman” is her first published novel.
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My Date With Marc Chagall
by Robin Gregory
When I was a kid, I used to like to build forts and dress like Zorro. At a certain point, I had to ask myself if I could make a living doing this, and realized I couldn’t, so I decided to be an artist. I loved the Expressionists, especially Marc Chagall. In fact, I give him some credit for why I became a writer. First, I spent a few years studying art. Much later, when my husband and I visited France, I wanted to find Mr. Chagall. I had questions. I found his address in an international registry: La Colline, St. Paul-de-Vence. No numbers, no letters. It took a bit of snooping around, but we did find the beautiful, old estate high on a hill above a dirt road. There was a wrought-iron gate with the word La Colline forged in it. Not so hard to find. My gosh, I thought, he probably welcomes visitors! Here was the plan: we were going to leave a potted plant at the gate, along with an invitation to meet for coffee at our hotel. How could he resist, we came all the way from the US to meet him! Anyway, what harm in asking, right? When I got out of the car to deliver the plant, I leaned down and grabbed hold of the gate, which it turns out had just been freshly painted. I recoiled to look at my black hand, and set off an alarm across the valley. Then this herd of Doberman’s the size of small horses came bounding down the hill toward me bearing teeth. I dropped the stuff, raced back to the car, and we sped away like a couple of frito banditos. NOTE TO MYSELF: This is the kind of thing that happens, and the next thing you know, there’s a warrant out for your arrest, and you end up in some rat- infested island prison, and following a hair-raising escape, you launch an elaborate plot to extract a bitter revenge against your betrayers … or not. So here’s how Mr. Chagall helped me become a writer: I learned from this experience that it’s a lot more fun to tell a story than it ever was to paint. I spent a few years studying Literature and Creative Writing, and worked for a while as a journalist. Surprisingly, my first novel was about a girl who wanted to be an artist, but ended up a writer. Nowadays, when I’m not writing about boy-wonders and aliens and fainting goats, I look after my son, make maps with my husband, drink tea, and am thinking of transforming that first novel into a series of knock-knock jokes. Who knows what makes a good writer? You don’t have to make money at it, or get a film deal, or win awards, or even publish your work. You could just start by stalking famous painters.
The Year of the End and the Beginning—1892
He arrived on the heels of an earthquake. A minor hiccup as disasters go, the murmur rippling undersea, causing dories in the bay to bob and spider crabs to flood the beach like a ghostly pink tide. It was the sort of earthquake that hushes everything for an instant before nesting birds and sleeping butterflies burst out of trees. It makes your heart jump for joy because you realize the earth is flying through space at one thousand miles per hour and you have been spared the dreadful experience of the whole world falling apart and having to put it back together. It was the sort of earthquake that the nuns of San Miguel de las Gaviotas would call a mystical grumble. Really, there was nothing about it to suggest the terrible wonders looming on the horizon.
At a quarter past seven, the candelabras in the chapel stopped swaying. The nuns crossed themselves, went outside and found a wooden fishing bucket on the porch. Expecting the catch of the day, they were nothing short of horrified to see a baby boy bundled in fur and tucked inside it. He had bright black eyes, enormous ears, and his hair was the texture of caterpillar fuzz.
“He’s a Hostile, if I ever saw one,” said Mother Teagardin.
The word Moojie had been smudged across his forehead. And that was what they called him—a peculiar name for a peculiar boy, who wasn’t particularly welcome. Against her better judgment, Mother Teagardin, who always said the natives were ill- suited for local society, hadn’t the heart to surrender him to the local Bureau of Questionable Peoples. She appealed to the local families to adopt him. But the villagers were a superstitious lot. They believed the mysterious child to be, well, too mysterious.
It didn’t help that before he cut his first teeth, Moojie amused himself by magically snuffing out candles with the blink of an eye, and by sending objects into flight with the power of his mind. When he didn’t get his way, he caused the wind to rip off the nuns’ veils and flash their knickers. Like Odysseus, he was quick to act and slow to regret. Meanwhile, the sisters clicked their clickers, and swatted his bottom, and continued looking for a family for him.
Except for one early chapter of his childhood, Moojie was a virtuosic flop when it came to the only thing he cared about: finding and keeping a family.
This golden parenthesis began just before he was one year old, when Henry and Kate Littleman, a childless couple who had moved from the East Coast to San Miguel—along with hundreds of recent immigrants from Europe and the Far East, since America had opened her doors to the world—took him home to raise as their own. Mamma immediately left her post as a science and French teacher at the Charles Darwin Free School to look after him. Mornings, she tucked him into a knapsack suspended from a tripod, and went about her housekeeping. He grinned and giggled as she baked bread, smoked little cigars, knitted hats and booties, and arranged his wet flannel diapers on a drying rack near the fireplace. She wheeled him to the beach in a wicker pram, where they collected spider crabs and napped in the salty sand; she rocked him before a glowing wood stove; she bathed and coddled him. He watched Papa, a mapmaker, spin his curta and level his transit, slurp scalding tea, and leap out the door every morning in a pocketed vest. Sometimes, in the afternoon, Papa played piano for him or showed off his soccer moves in the backyard.
In those days, Moojie was a model child, the ambassador of lovability. He delighted at being the center of attention, always looking intently into people’s eyes, always smiling, as if he were in on some cosmic joke. In those days—before San Miguel de las Gaviotas had gone the way of Atlantis, that is to say, before it fell out of favor with the gods—Moojie was passed around at church like a peace pipe. Warmed by his charm, suspicious villagers now lined up after the service to take turns holding him. Once Mrs. Littleman contrived a plot to put the smiling Moojie into the arms of a miserable scrooge, and everyone sighed with awe as the long-suffering soul wept and sang praises to God in heaven.
“Have you noticed, my cupcake?” Mamma said to Papa as she pushed the pram home from church. “This is no ordinary child.”
“He’ll make a fine field hand, lovey,” Papa said.
At the time, San Miguel de las Gaviotas was a nick on the Pacific Coast of America, a clammy, cluttery mishmash of thatched rooftops, crumbling walls, and crooked towers surrounded by rugged mountains that rose out of fog like ancient pyramids. Moojie’s new home, Number 11 Wimbley Wood, a mildewy cottage with a drip line and assorted mushrooms growing in the basement, appealed to otherworldly visitors. Only Moojie could see the celestial bodies spinning and whirling all about him. And he sometimes heard voices beyond the range of normal hearing—gifts, of course, that he did not yet understand. In the witching hours, lights floated down through the ceiling over his crib. He giggled and tried to grasp them as they bobbed playfully into and out of his hands. Mamma came in and held him in the rocker, while moths and flower flies haunted the spirit lamp—like all that is born, seeking to return to light.
Having landed in the nucleus of love, charming, handsome Moojie surpassed his parents’ every expectation, blessing them with unmitigated joy.
I first met John Crye through a media company in Los Angeles. He has deep roots in theater and film, which covers experience as a writer, producer, actor, and director. For more than a decade, John was Creative Director of Newmarket Films, working in the development, acquisition, production, and distribution of such independent classics as Whale Rider, Memento, Donnie Darko, Monster, and The Prestige.
A founding member of the filmmaker’s collective, Fewdio, John produced The Nightmare House web series, and also wrote and directed several episodes. He helped launch Wrekin Hill Entertainment, with whom he acquired and released such films as Peter Weir’s The Way Back and Hesher, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Since 2011, John has been producing and directing under his own banner, SharpCrye. Chance, the latest project, is a Family Drama based on a true story, starring Matthew Modine. They are in post-production now and planning a film festival run. He is also publishing an online serialized Fantasy Adventure novel entitled, The Elect Stories. His new company, True Development, offers coaching and editing services to screenwriters.
Having worked with John on two projects, I know firsthand that he is multi-talented, possesses several lifetimes worth of knowledge and experience, and is a highly skilled mentor. I am thrilled that he agreed to do the following interview:
ROBIN: Would I be correct in saying that visionary films are taking center stage? I’m thinking of The Shape of Water, Black Panther, and Dunkirk specifically. In the broadest terms, they seem to share roots in mythology, and they explore social or personal evolution (devolution). Is there something more that you, as a filmmaker would say about this?
JOHN: I think that cinema progresses through cycles like everything else. I agree that we are seeing a spate of films right now that share a sensibility, a reaction to the “make or break” times we are living in. Many of us are feeling like we are living through times that will either be the end of society, perhaps of humanity, or a bold new beginning. Artists are feeling those same things and expressing them. I’m happy to see that so many of these reactions are hopeful.ROBIN: What does it mean to “develop” a film project? Film studios used to do this, right?
JOHN: Development is just the Hollywood term for the process that all writers engage in: nurturing a story idea, exploring its potentials, and then crafting the language that expresses the story best for the given format. The important difference is that development is always done with at least one source of feedback, whether an editor, producer or executive. As with most film industry conventions, development started in the studios, back in the days when an entire staff of screenwriters were kept under contract to meet the high production demand. By the heady days of the mid-1990’s, development had become a boondoggle, a vaguely defined line item where outrageous wastes of money could be hidden or excused away. Development’s value as a refining tool for the writer, and as protection for the producer, was diminished to the point that it has become little more than a trite curse: “development hell.”
ROBIN: You were with Newmarket Films when they acquired rights to Whale Rider (2003). For those who haven’t seen it, I wholeheartedly recommend it! It’s the story of a young girl whose destiny as a leader clashes with a Maori chief who holds that males only can ascend to chiefdom. What intrigued you about the story?
JOHN: I think almost everyone has experienced the pain of rejection or of being an outsider at some point in their lives. I have. If you haven’t felt it, perhaps you’ve feared it. The girl in the story, Pai, wants nothing more than the love of her grandfather, and the yearning that Keisha Castle-Hughes expresses in her performance is so palpable that I ached watching it. I do every time.
ROBIN: Apart from writing novels that distinguish themselves, how can authors best develop stories that adapt to film?
JOHN: Well, those may be two different animals entirely. Writing a distinguished novel is the finest goal a novelist can set for herself. Developing stories that adapt to film, on the other hand, requires stepping away from some of the elements and techniques that might otherwise make for a distinguishing novel. The stories that work best for developing into screenplays tend to follow those same rules that Aristotle set out in his Poetics, namely the unities of action, place and time. Intrinsic dramatic values like tension and suspension of disbelief are more effective in these confines. Cinematic stories tend to be plot-driven, as well, since the audience witnesses the characters actions without being privy to inner monologue. In other words, stories where one or a few characters take clear actions that affect a dramatic change within a limited time frame.
ROBIN: In your recent newsletter, you referred to yourself as a “personal trainer for writers.” Would you like to say more about that?
JOHN: Procrastination, negative self-talk, undisciplined work habits… these things destroy a writer’s productivity and, ultimately, their creativity. More than simply being an editor or story analyst, I act as a coach, helping the writer develop better habits and improve their skills.
ROBIN: Do you work with unpublished writers?
JOHN: I do! While many of my clients are professional screenwriters who need a coach to keep them hustling and on their game, I also work with new writers. My True Development service can function as a one-on-one screenwriting course. I walk the client through the process from concept to finished first draft using the same methods that I have honed over the past 23 years in independent film.ROBIN: Can you name a few deal breakers? Qualities in a story that will guarantee a quick “pass” on a producer’s part?
JOHN: That somewhat depends on the company or producer. For instance, most of the films that I acquired, developed or produced for Newmarket were passed on by other companies at some point. I was trying to think of a story element that would be a no-go across the board and I honestly can’t think of one. Successful films have been produced from the least likely stories. All I can say is take the time to research who you are submitting your work to and ensure that your material is a good fit for what they do. (And be honest with yourself about that.)
The collaborative nature of film is the double-edged sword that invigorates some and infuriates others. It is important to remember that the screenplay is not a finished work, it is a blueprint for a work to be created by a team of other artists. This is not to diminish the screenwriter’s value. No good thing can be constructed from a faulty plan and, indeed, the structural elegance and the power of the dialogue is often what we respond to as audience and those things are the purview of the screenwriter.
ROBIN: Say a producer, director, or studio shows interest in your adaptation. What happens next?
JOHN: Let the negotiations begin! Hopefully, they are coming to you or your reps with an offer.
ROBIN: What do screenwriters generally get paid?
JOHN: The WGA minimum for an original screenplay is (at the time of this interview) $71,236, or roughly 1.4% of the budget on a film of around $5M. Non-WGA writers get significantly less, and “star” writers negotiate for more.
ROBIN: Must writers have an agent or talent manager in order to sell a screenplay?
JOHN: No, though the writer will want someone skilled to handle negotiations on their behalf.
ROBIN: What do authors do if they want someone else to adapt their novel?
JOHN: The first step is to think very closely about what kind of movie you’d want your adapted novel to be, or at least to identify those kinds of movies you don’t want it to be. The second step is to discuss the story with a few screenwriters until you find one whose vision of the adaptation matches your own (which is why you need to do some envisioning of your own first.) Work closely with the screenwriter on a scene-by-scene treatment, so you can assure that you are on the same page before they go to draft. If you don’t know any screenwriters personally, try contacting the local film commission of your nearest large city. They should be able to provide some guidance, if not an actual list of writers in the area. You can also try the writing or film departments of a local college or university. Failing that, head to a Starbucks and look for someone working on a laptop with a Star Wars decal on it. (Kidding.) (Also, not really kidding.)
ROBIN: Can you recommend an app for screenwriting?
JOHN: I’m a big fan of Final Draft, which is industry standard. Movie Magic Screenwriter is also used a lot because it interfaces easily with budgeting software. You’ll want to work in a commonly used program so you can collaborate. Film, after all, is a collaborative artform.*
The other day, I started feeling symptoms of a cold.
I prayed to the angels to heal me.
I prayed to Jesus to help me.
I prayed for the Great Spirit to protect me.
The symptoms got worse.
I thought my prayers weren’t being answered.
Put down your aloneness and ease into the conversation, says poet David Whyte.
I persisted in praying for help.
Soon, an idea came to me: Baseball.
When you step up to bat, your mind is fully focused on putting the ball where you want it. Now, focus your consciousness on what you want! Realize peace and health are already yours. The Spirit in the midst of you is infinite. What does that mean? There is nothing else. So-called physical symptoms don’t mean a thing unless you give them meaning. Spirit is infinite, and It is Love, therefore there are no good/evil germs, there is only the embodiment of Spirit. Sickness is a belief/effect of other powers, causes, conditions. Focus your vision! Heaven on Earth is right here, right now, dear heart. Let it flood the sphere of your experience.
I gave thanks and the symptoms soon abated.
This is how prayers are often answered. The angels, Jesus, and Spirit did not heal my body. They guided me to step up to the plate, to forget about my human self, and all that I’d been told about the body, germs, physical laws. To be fully focused on Spirit. That was the healing.
…Magical realism has finally found a toehold in mainstream America. If the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has a finger on the national pulse, it seems America is ready for stories that treat supernatural and mythic themes as a natural part of life.
I’ve been drawn to mysticism and spirituality most of my adult life. During this time, I’ve witnessed a number of healings (my own and others’)—from the common cold to terminal cancer—without the aid of medical science. So-called miracles have become a natural part of my life. As a writer, I am excited to build stories on this premise. With a little help from Charles Dickens, I follow a tradition of subverting expectations and use irony to call into question social and religious traditions. For example, in The Improbable Wonders of Moojie Littleman, I address Pappy’s bigotry in a historic (and personal) context while showing him also as protective of bi-racial, disabled, troublesome Moojie. On the other hand, Moojie, who is developmentally challenged, is often wiser than Pappy and the adults around him. Another example can be found in The Whale Rider. Paikea, the protagonist, is excluded from her grandfather’s search for the next tribal chief because she is a girl, but she is more capable than any of his male choices.
My greatest wish as a writer is to publish stories that show characters subverting human expectations by awakening to their divine nature. As some of you know, for the past year I’ve been working on the film adaptation of Moojie Littleman, Book 1. Adaptation and screenwriting are completely different from novel writing so there are a number of changes to the story, but the basic themes and premise remain true to the book. My mentor, John Crye—writer, actor, producer, editor, and former Creative Director of Newmarket Films (produced Whale Rider)—is as excited about magical realism as I am. While my screenplay is still in development, I credit John’s magnificent oversight for this pre-production review:
“The Improbable Wonders of Moojie Littleman” is an emotionally powerful and viscerally stunning fantasy with a fascinating and hard-hitting family drama not overshadowed by all the spectacle. We are, with Moojie, entering a strange new world here where the incredible seems possible. At the heart of the story is always his quest for belonging, a universal human drive that resonates even in such extraordinary circumstances. The Light-Eaters are intriguing and capable of holding our interest with both their capabilities and thematic nature. Nahzi is a particularly breathtaking and memorable element. They are inspirational as well, and we can see that it is Moojie’s time with them that helps him mature in the way that he does, whether it is taking responsibility for starting the trouble, or telling Babylonia he loves her with the stirring speech, “The day I met you, it was like I fell asleep and woke up in a better world.”—THE BLACK LIST, Hollywood (Aug/2018)
Europe, Australia, and South America have long-embraced magical realism in art, literature, and film. It is thrilling to see it finally recognized in America. Thanks to David Lynch’s legacy, and other commercially successful films, like Being John Malkovich, Donnie Darko, and Edward Scissorhands, the road has been paved for stories that normalize mythical, spiritual, and mystical experiences. If you are drawn to films like this, you’re going to love the Moojie film! Also, here are some magical realist films worth seeing: The Whale Rider, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Amélie, Micmacs, The Delicatessen, The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey, and Pan’s Labyrinth.
So it’s onward and upward! Time to get back to work. I love hearing from you. Whether you are parenting or writing or being the CEO of a national corporation, I want to hear how you are following your dreams!
“The Improbable Wonders of Moojie Littleman” is an emotionally powerful and viscerally stunning fantasy with a fascinating and hard-hitting family drama not overshadowed by all the spectacle. We are, with Moojie, entering a strange new world here where the incredible seems possible. At the heart of the story is always his quest for belonging, a universal human drive that resonates even in such extraordinary circumstances. The Light-Eaters are intriguing and capable of holding our interest with both their capabilities and thematic nature. Nahzi is a particularly breathtaking and memorable element. They are inspirational as well, and we can see that it is Moojie’s time with them that helps him mature in the way that he does, whether it is taking responsibility for starting the trouble, or telling Babylonia he loves her with the stirring speech, “The day I met you, it was like I fell asleep and woke up in a better world”.—THE BLACK LIST (August 2018)