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A Storyteller's Journey: Caroline Thompson

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Caroline Thompson


Richie Solomon

Profession: Writer/Director/Producer

Credits: The Lonely Doll, Corpse Bride, Snow White, Buddy, Black Beauty, The Nightmare Before Christmas, The Secret Garden, Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey, The Addams Family, Edward Scissorhands

Bio: Caroline Thompson grew up in a house full of books outside Washington, D.C., where she fell in love with horror novels, fantasy and children's classics. Her suburban Maryland neighborhood and favorite novel, Frankenstein, later inspired her horror novel, First Born, and first produced screenplay, Edward Scissorhands.

Thompson continued to explore horror and fantasy themes in screenplays for The Addams Family and the stop-motion animation features, The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride. She ventured into children's classics, as well, writing screen adaptations of The Secret Garden and Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey. And, despite WC. Fields' maxim, "Never work with animals or children," she took on the dual roles of screenwriter and director for Black Beauty, Buddy and Snow White: The Fairest of Them All. Most recently, she wrote, directed and produced The Hills Are Alive, a digi horror video made for the new technology.

Thompson lives with two dogs, four horses and various humans on a ranch in Ojai, Calif., where she aspires to be as sassy, irreverent, crotchety and wicked as her beloved high-school Latin teacher. Of her screenplays, Edward Scissorhands remains far and away her favorite.

1) What were you doing before you "made it"?

I was living in Los Angeles. I had written and published a novel called First Born and had adapted it to a screenplay with a director – I guess that's kind of making it because the screenplay was optioned, but that's as far as it went. Times were terribly lean. I had great luck betting on the Kentucky Derby one year and amazingly enough earned my annual rent. But I still had to eat. I had several jobs – I wrote the occasional book review for the L.A. Times and the occasional celebrity profile for the likes of US Magazine (I was a perfectly wretched interviewer); I was a freelance story analyst (I read so many god-awful scripts it was a great way to learn what makes a good one). My favorite and best job, though, was substitute music supervisor on the soap opera, Capitol. My neighbor enjoyed a psychiatric leave every Friday, so I took over for him then. I got to go to CBS on Beverly Boulevard. I had my own booth and engineer. The show's library consisted of old music from a detective series and, I think, a Western – hardly relevant to a story about political shenanigans in our Nation's Capitol. I had been a soap opera addict in high school and found that I had an intuitive feel for where music should go and what its character should be. The pressure was amazing; we did one run through then taped the day's show. I loved it.

2) What was your "big break" and how did you get it?

My big break, of course, came from meeting Tim Burton. The screenplay I had written from my novel landed me an agent. His name is John Burnham – he remains my agent today – and, at that time, he was with William Morris. So was Tim's agent. Tim had just made Pee Wee's Big Adventure. The agents didn't know what to do with either of us so they introduced us to each other. Happily, we hit it off so much we wanted to work together. He had made a drawing in high school of a wild-haired boy with scissors for hands. I came up with a story inspired by that character. And we were off!

3) How does your career today stand up to your previous expectations?

This is a tough question to answer. I can't say I really had any expectations; I've always followed my nose where it has led me. That being said, the Hollywood I work in today is nowhere near as fun or rewarding as the Hollywood I first worked in. The micro-managing of writers disgusts me. They want to tell me where to put the commas for f***'s sake. I now will not take a job unless there is a director attached. And I no longer direct because the micro-management of directors is even worse than it is of writers and I have no stomach for it. The exception, though, is making digital movies outside the system – which I did last summer with my producer husband, amateur actors and a crew of film students. It's a charmingly creepy movie we shot on our ranch called The Hills Are Alive. It's weeks away from being ready to distribute on the internet. We're not sure what avenue to take, though have recently been advised to sell it ourselves as a DVD on a web site we'll have to make called CarolineThompson.com. Does that sound like a good idea? If anybody out there has a better notion, please let me know at SmallAndCreepyFilms@hotmail.com. Is anyone a web site designer? Do you know a great web site designer??

4) What do you find most rewarding about your profession?

At this point, the creative people I meet (NOT EXECUTIVES) are the happiest part of my work.

5) What are the pitfalls of your profession and how do you deal with them?

Everyone has his or her own pitfalls. Mine is that I have a reputation for being 'difficult,' i.e. standing up for the integrity of my work. I'm proud of that fact but, from my agent's perspective, it's a pitfall.

6) What is your personal philosophy, method, or style toward your profession?

I've kind of answered this one already. I only take jobs that have directors I want to work with attached. And I fight for quality. When I was first in the business, in order to compose myself for a meeting, I would pretend that it was my cocktail party and the executives, etc were my guests and that my job was to make them feel comfortable by entertaining them. That worked wonderfully. But I don't have the patience for such an effort any more. The great discovery is that one's priorities truly change with age. Mine now are food and drawing and horses.

7) What advice would you give to someone trying to "break in" to your profession?

Write, write, write. Plus read as many screenplays as you can get your hands on… The most helpful thing someone said to me, though, was – 'Don't say to yourself, if I don't make it within such-and-such a time frame then I'm going home or whatever. Plan on being here. They can't get rid of you, so sooner or later they'll have to include you.' It doesn't make logical sense, but it changed my attitude and the quality of energy I projected. Nothing scares them more than desperation. Studios, producers, agents – they all run from desperation. So don't let them see it. Ever.

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About "A Storyteller's Journey" Series

There are many trails you can choose when you're determined to scale a mountain, but as long as you keep climbing, they will all reach the top.

"A Storyteller's Journey" maps the paths others have taken before you. Writers and filmmakers tell you in their own words what they were doing before their ascent, the obstacles they faced along the way, and what they discovered at the summit of their ambitions.

I hope their insights and experiences will educate, motivate, and inspire you with your own goals. Whether you follow their footsteps or forge your own way, just remember that no rules for success will work if you don't.