Creative Career Advice From An Emmy-Winning Screenwriter

Courtesy on HBO.
Jane Anderson’s had an enviable career. The Emmy-winning screenwriter got her start as an actress in New York City in the '70s, starring in David Mamet’s first hit play, Sexual Perversity in Chicago. In the '80s, she moved to L.A. to write movies. She went on to pen the scripts for a number of big-screen hits, including It Could Happen to You and How to Make an American Quilt, and to work on some of the best shows on TV (The Wonder Years, Mad Men). Last week, she scored her fifth Emmy nod for her adaptation of Olive Kitteridge, an HBO miniseries starring Frances McDormand.

Anderson takes on an entirely new role in the HBO documentary Packed in a Trunk: subject. The doc, which premiered this week and was directed by Michelle Boyaner, is about Anderson's great aunt Edith Lake Wilkinson, an artist who lived during the early 20th century. Wilkinson enjoyed a successful career and lived happily with her female companion — that is, until she was locked away in an asylum and essentially forgotten. Check out an exclusive clip from the new doc, above.

Ever since she was gifted a book of the artist's sketchbooks in her 20s, Anderson has been determined to learn more about her great aunt. Thirty years later, she found herself freshly inspired to uncover the truth behind Wilkinson’s mysterious death. With the help of her spouse, Tess Ayers, she launched a website, and began developing the documentary. The resulting story may uncover more mysteries than it solves, but it’s clearly a passion project for Anderson, and her enthusiasm is infectious.

We chatted with the filmmaker by phone while she was busy in Berkshires, preparing a new play about Joan of Arc’s mother. She shared her inspiration for the doc, advice for young creatives, and how to overcome a severe kick to the head (a.k.a. the worst kind of career crisis).
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Courtesy on HBO; painting by Edith Lake Wilkinson.
Can you tell us a little bit about the beginning of your career? When did you decide to move away from acting to become a writer?
"When we start out as artists or people with a passion in our 20s, those are fantastic years, because you're young and you have unbelievable amounts of energy and you have your whole future in front of you. But it’s also, I think, one of the more terrifying decades in the human life.

"When I was in my 20s, I dropped out of college and I went straight to New York. I had a wonderful mentor, a man who was a dancer in his 50s; he was a guest director at the college I was attending and he cast me in a play. And when he saw how unhappy I was at the college as a young artist, he said, 'Come to New York, because in New York you’ll have everything. You can study voice and acting and movement, but you’ll also be surrounded by other artists, and that’s how you're going to learn.' And I spent a really incredible decade in New York finding myself.

"And, in the course of that I thought — you know when I was in my early 20s — I thought, Oh, by god, I'm gonna be a great actress. You know, I watched the Academy Awards; I had all those naive notions about what my future would be, and where my talent lay. In the course of those years, first I became a comedian, and then I became a full-time writer. I found my voice as a writer. I was an okay actress. I had a degree of success. I was in David Mamet’s first big hit. I thought I had it made, but I was never going to be a brilliant actor, because I'm just not built that way. I'm really meant to be a writer. And through the course of my 20s, I discovered that."

What advice do you give young people who want to pursue a creative career?
"What I advise my own son — and what I advise anybody in their 20s — is that as long as you’re pursuing something, even if it ultimately isn’t going to be what you're going to do in your life, as long as you go after something, it’s going to lead to the next big thing. My years training and working as an actor has made me the writer and the director that I am — that experience on the other side of the camera, the other side of the stage, has made me more compassionate toward actors, and it also makes me write better scripts for actors."

When did you realize you wanted to switch from acting to writing?
"Here is what I love about being a writer as opposed to being an actor: As you can hear from my voice, I have a very high voice. In my 20s, I looked like I was 16, so the range of characters I could play was very limited, obviously.

"As a writer, I get to play and get into the head of every form of humanity. My range is limitless as a writer. And I find that so deeply exciting."

My range is limitless as a writer. And I find that so deeply exciting.

You’ve always felt a deep connection with Edith. What made you finally decide to make it a bigger project, to make the documentary?
"Edith has always been tapping on my shoulder my whole life. It manifested when I would travel with my sketchbooks. You know she only painted in Provincetown, in Ipswich, MA, and mostly back East. And I've traveled to Greece and the Amazon rain forest and Africa, and I always felt when I was painting in those countries that she got to ride along with me.

"Her hand was in my hand as I drew. But then as my own life as a writer and director took over, it shoved her aside. Weirdly enough, when I turned 57 a few years ago, I got the call again. I just felt I had to do something, and I realized that it was also the age when she was put into the asylum and disappeared.

"Who knows? You know, I'm a pretty pragmatic soul and I try not to get too spooky or woo-woo with that kind of stuff, but I suppose if you really look at that fact, maybe I was getting that final tap and shake."

How did the project develop?
"My first step — as you see in the documentary — was to create a website. I really do believe the internet is one of the greatest tools we have for pulling people out of obscurity.

"My spouse Tess and I are dear friends with Barb [Green] and Michelle [Boyaner], our fellow filmmakers. I really have admired their documentary films. I'm a narrative filmmaker, so I don’t know that form very well. I trusted them implicitly. And they’ve done some really beautiful work."

It must have been hard to give up some of the control for a passion project like this.
"Yeah. But because I'm not a doc maker, it was easy for me to give up a lot of the control to Michelle, who I think knows the form better than I do. I had a big hand in the editing, because I believe in being ruthless with the material in order to have a tight narrative and a tight story. Also, I didn’t really want to be in the film. It worried me, because I didn’t want it to look like an ego-trip thing of me starring in a film about Edith. But Michelle convinced me and she convinced Tess that we had to be the narrative center of this because we had so little about Edith.

"I completely ceded control to Michelle on that front, because when you're in a film you just have to give it up and just react. So it was a really interesting position to be in. And it wasn’t entirely comfortable all the time, but again, I was doing it for Edith."

How did HBO come into the picture?

"I have a long history with HBO. And Olive Kitteridge really helped get Sheila Nevins’ attention.

"I think another piece of advice I have is that we — as women — have very deep personal stories to tell, and the business often calls those stories — and I’ll put it in quotes — 'soft.' And they often don’t have a chance in hell of being produced.

"I think what does help a career, and to get these more personal stories out there and produced and told is if you also are engaged in more mainstream projects. Even though I wouldn’t call Olive Kitteridge a mainstream project, because it is very quirky and very female and it’s so not Game of Thrones or a tent-pole movie, and I feel so lucky that I was able to make it. But you also need to do a few projects that are a bit more mainstream to give yourself professional legitimacy.

"That is the game we all play. Frankly, I'm not really capable of writing mainstream stuff, because it just isn’t organic to me. It’s not my taste. And I've been really, really lucky in my career that everything I've made has been personal and something I care about.

"I have worked for HBO and Showtime and big, legitimate producers that have given me a little bit of heft. I think the reason I've been so fortunate in my career is that along the way I've had contact with people in power who believed in me.

"My very first directing gig, which was The Baby Dance, Jodie Foster, who had a production company called Egg [Pictures] at the time, she really believed in my work, and she took a chance on me as a director. So that’s an example of a wonderful, powerful woman in Hollywood who gave me a leg up. As you try to get your career to grow, you do depend on the good graces and the belief in other people, in people who have already made it, who really generously give you your chance. And without those people, you don’t have a career. We never make it entirely on our own."

Did you seek out mentorship? Or did people seek you out?
"A lot of it is right place, right time. And they noticed my work — my work got noticed. Jodie noticed my work when I wrote The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom. And she really dug that and then read some of my plays.

"It’s a combination of learning your craft — in my case, writing things that I really believed in, so that my work was excellent and well-crafted and from the heart. And that gets people’s attention, but there's a hell of a lot of luck involved in right time, right place.

"I've also had the opposite of that, where everything came to a crashing halt because there was a confluence of wrong time, wrong place. I’ll give you an example. The Baby Dance started out as a play and it was very successful in California. Then we took to Williamstown [Theatre Festival] and then we took it to Long Wharf [in New Haven] and then we opened it in New York City at the Lucille Lortel. And we thought, Fantastic, this play is going to be a huge hit.

"Frank Rich was the critic for The New York Times at the time. And he just destroyed it. He wrote a review that just slammed the living hell out of it. He just wanted this thing closed. I was devastated. I didn’t read the review because I knew it would be too hard to write my next play if I let that kind of vitriol in.

"Years later, I found out that [at the time], he and his wife had been trying unsuccessfully to conceive, and my whole play was about that. So, often there are forces out there that you have no control of.

"But you know as devastating as it was, many years passed, and then Jodie Foster read the play and said, ‘Why don’t you try to direct this as a film?’ And it was nominated for a whole bunch of Emmys. Laura Dern and Stockard Channing were in it.

"That’s an example of an extreme kick in the head. And I've had many huge kicks in the head in my long career. In your 30s, 40s — 50s even — you think, Oh my god, my career is over. But it never is, because there's always another avenue in the meantime. Every time I've had an extreme kick in the head, I give myself — I'm really tough on myself — a week to indulge the sorrow, to grieve, and then I get right back on it and write the next thing, or I go to a different project. I jump between theater, film, and television — it’s like having a couple of different lovers. When one hurts me and leaves me, I just go to the next one.

"And I think the secret for women especially, because we’re constantly having to start over and prove ourselves all over again, it helps to just have several projects going at once."
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