'Dewey' movie on fast track
Cat lover eager to write script
The woman who's agreed to write the script for the upcoming movie based on Dewey Readmore Books' life is a natural for the job at hand.
Pamela Gray has a cat paraphernalia collecting fever. She's been visiting people and places in Spencer this week, and she's jotting her important notes worth remembering in a notebook covered with cartoon cats. She currently has 10 cats of her own. The woman even has a tiger stripe tattoo -- based on the stripes of tigers she fell in love with while serving as a volunteer zookeeper -- inked on her right shoulder.
Gray arrived in town Monday night and has spent the week immersing herself in interviews with people, as well as experiencing the sites associated with the late cat who deemed Spencer Public Library his home for 19 years. She's been accompanied by Vicki Myron, who co-wrote the bestseller book "Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World" about the feline she adopted as her own.
"It's very exciting to have Pam here finally to see where Dewey lived and get this process moving," Myron said of her screenwriter guest from California. "Because I've been living with the idea of a movie for two years. Even though we hadn't written the book yet, everyone told us, 'There will be a movie.'"
Gray's road to becoming a screenwriter
Just like her passion for cats, Gray's love of writing was forged at a young age. While she can readily recall the second grade teacher who encouraged her to write, by the time Gray was enrolled as a high school student she'd fully developed a love of play writing also.
"Brooklyn High School had a tradition called 'SING,' where within the high school each grade would write, produce and perform musicals. We were given a topic and we used the music of old Broadway shows. I wrote the scripts and lyrics all the years -- and we always won. It was my first experience of writing for an audience, and I loved it," she recalled.
Poetry also became the way in which Gray expressed herself throughout her teen years and her twenties. While focusing on her poetry career, Gray started writing plays. She even had a few produced in the Bay area.
"It didn't take long to realize that I would be just as poor as a playwright as I was as a poet, so I made a living as a teacher," she said. "I loved teaching writing. I taught mostly college level, but also did some work with children."
But Gray, who still found herself waking each morning and wondering how she could write and have somebody pay her for it, taught herself how to write TV scripts for sitcoms and one-hour shows. She also set writing a screenplay as a goal for herself. The New York native moved to northern California -- with her sights set on Hollywood -- and a goal of selling a movie she'd penned by the time she turned 40.
Enrolling in film school at the age of 35 marked a turning point for the aspiring screenwriter. It wasn't necessarily what she learned while a student at UCLA film school, as it was the contests she entered and won.
"I won a TV writing contest and my prize was a summer on the staff of 'Star Trek: The Next Generation.' They let me try my hand at writing a script for them, and they bought it. So, I had my first television credit when I was still in film school," Gray recalled.
Next, she won a major screenwriting contest. The winning screenplay wound up becoming "A Walk on the Moon," Gray's first movie.
"I was out of film school by the time it was bought and produced. It took five years to get it made into a movie. As a matter of fact, I remember everything was later than I wanted it to be. I'd wanted to sell a movie by 40. When it was my 40th birthday, I was so depressed. Someone reminded me that I was going to be 40 for a whole year. The week I turned 41, I sold the movie to Dustin Hoffman.
"From that point on, I had a career," said the woman who hasn't had a day off work since 1997-- except for last year's writers' strike.
"Music of the Heart," her second film, starred actress Meryl Streep. Gray recently finished filming the movie "Betty Anne Waters" in Michigan. Featuring Hilary Swank, it tells the story of a single mother who works her way through law school in order to free her brother, who was wrongfully convicted of a 1982 murder.
"Betty Anne didn't even have a high school diploma. It took her 18 years to get her brother out of prison," Gray said. " ... She did the impossible, which is how you have to feel in Hollywood -- that you can do the impossible. Or else you have to be a wild optimist who can also deal with the depths of despair."
While a hard transition for the poet-turned-screenwriter was having other people involved in her creative process and giving up creative control, Gray acknowledged, "But truly the most difficult part of being a screenwriter is you do not have control over whether your movies get made."
'Dewey' movie on the fast track to being made
Myron and Gray were introduced in September 2007, right after the former Spencer librarian's book proposal had been sold and it was making big news in Hollywood. Knowing her love for cats, Gray's agency sent her the proposal.
"I was a Dewey fan before because I had seen him in 'Cat Fancy.' I have 20 years of 'Cat Fancy' magazines in my house. I don't throw out anything with a cat in it. And, I had seen the documentary 'Puss and Books.' So, I knew it was Dewey," Gray said. "I don't even know if I'd read a page or two and I was on the phone saying, 'Yes, I want this. This must be mine.'"
At that point, there wasn't a job, a producer or anything set in stone. But, there was someone in Hollywood who had the book-to-movie rights. United Talent Agency got in touch with him and received an "unofficial, verbal contract" that Gray would be allowed the time to try to get someone interested in the project.
While the screenwriter promoted the potential Dewey movie to anyone she talked with, an agreement was worked out in which the film would be produced by Temple Hill Productions for New Line Cinema. Myron, meanwhile, had given the film her blessing, and the two women began conversing about the project on the telephone.
"She sent me the 'Small Wonders' documentary she had based 'Music of the Heart' on so I could see how she made it into the film. I thought, 'She's good. I can work with her,'" Myron said of Gray. " ... I trust Pam with the story. I know she knows the story. And, she cares about the story and about me."
The screenwriter, meanwhile, wasn't officially commenced to start the Dewey screenplay until April.
"But in order to sell the project to a studio in Hollywood, I had to figure out the entire movie in advance. So, I've already done a great amount of work and I've been working on the screenplay in advance of this trip," Gray said this week in Myron's Spencer home. "But I think everyone knew that it wouldn't really kick in until I was here. As beautiful as the book is and as much as it gave me a picture of everything, it's still not the same as being here, seeing the closet where Dewey had the big blue rubber band and being with Vicki."
While Meryl Streep has already signed on to star in the adaptation of Myron's book, the full casting process won't happen until after the screenplay is written.
"Our dream, of course, is to have it be the cat version of 'Marley & Me' in terms of the popularity, the pre-existing awareness of the project, the built-in fan base and the love for the project," Gray said of the northwest Iowa tale she'll be writing.
The Dewey movie, which is on the studio's fast track, is tentatively slated to be released around Christmas 2010.
"For that to happen, this has to move quickly," Gray said. "At this moment, it all depends on me, I'm frightened to say. It depends on how quickly I write the screenplay and how quickly I get it to the point where they'll say, 'We're ready to go.' That's a long process and there are a lot of people who have to love everything before it moves to the next step."
But the screenwriter with a passion for this particular script has no doubts about her subject.
"It's in me," she assured. "The book is in me. The future movie is in me."
'Dewey' movie and more books in the works
By Kris Todd
Daily Reporter Staff
It's safe to say that Vicki Myron, Spencer's former librarian-turned-author, feels a bit overwhelmed at times.
Even before her and Bret Witter's "Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World" book became a No. 1 bestseller, Myron had been working the media channels to promote it.
She's still doing that, but also finds herself in the midst of helping to jump start a movie about Spencer Public Library's late feline now, too.
Since the book's September 2008 release, Myron and Witter have found themselves combining forces again to co-author "Dewey: There's a Cat in the Library!" The 36-page children's picture book designed especially for 3-5 year olds is illustrated by Steve James. It's scheduled to be released this September.
"I'll be touring with that and starting all over again, basically," Myron said of the children's book she viewed a final proof of Wednesday morning in her Spencer home.
The literary duo's young adult book also being worked on behind the scenes currently is a "Generation Y version of Dewey," Myron explained.
"It's more for reluctant readers," she said of the book she and Witter are still editing. " ... This one, I think, is going to have real pictures of Dewey -- which I'm also supposed to be mailing into the publishers. I think they're going to do an eight-page spread. And, I think it's going to be color this time, which is nice."
The two authors are also collaborating on a children's Christmas book.
"That comes out Christmas 2010, but we're working very hard on that book right now," Myron revealed. "We're also talking to the publishers about a second adult book. But that's just in discussion so far."
Myron, who's currently stationed in her Spencer home for a while before heading back to New York, said she's purposely planning for her travel and work schedule to be a bit lighter this June and July -- so she can prepare for September, when the next Dewey book hits the stands.
"The thing that I didn't expect with all of this is that my new job, which is all things Dewey, would be 24/7," she said with a smile while seated at her dining room table this week.