Saturday, June 9, 2018

"FairyTale: A True Story" interview: Ernie Contreras (screenwriter)

Both my book Fairy Spell: How Two Girls Convinced the World That Fairies Are Real and the 1997 film FairyTale: A True Story are based on the Cottingley fairies incident of 1917 England. 

Ernie kindly agreed to an interview (conducted in 2015 and held till now, since the book released this year).

How did you get the job to co-write the FairyTale script?

The script wasn't co-written. I wrote the screenplay. Story credit I shared with Albert and Tom. "Screenplay by" and "story by" are different credits entirely

At the time my agents at CAA set a meeting with producer Wendy Finerman who had a fairy project they thought I might be interested in writing. The project was originally brought to Wendy by Albert and Tom. They'd worked up a story proposal based on the Cottingley fairy scenario. I was intrigued and signed on. 

Initially I fleshed out a story outline from Albert and Tom's original material and my own research and then pitched it out to the major studios. Paramount bought the pitch and I was cleared to write the screenplay.

Do you remember if you'd heard of the Cottingley fairies before being hired?

I was reminded the subject had come up at party years earlier, but I had no recall of the mention at the time I was brought in.

Were you ever in touch with the families of Frances or Elsie?

No, I was never in touch with the families.

What was the hardest part of writing the script?

I don't recall parts being "hard" to write. Once the story was set, the characters came to life and pretty much took over. It's not always like that.

Do you remember why you incorporated major elements that were not part of the real-life story (namely Houdini and Joseph, a brother of Elsie)?

If I remember correctly, Sir Arthur and Houdini had corresponded over the matter of publishing the fairy photos. Houdini's roll was expanded because at the time he was the grand de-bunker of spiritual fraud. He was the perfect skeptic and he held moral ground for that side of the equation.

Joseph anchored loss inside the Wright home. Originally, Joseph was a soldier lost to the war; this to bring home the devastation of a war that wiped out a generation of youth and put belief on the ropes. The director changed him to a brother who died of illness as I recall.

Do you remember why you chose not to explicitly reveal how the fairy photos were taken?

As far as I remember the director altered that course. I was not consulted.

Any funny stories about the process?

None that I recall.

What did you think of the movie?

For the most part I was pleased. Technically, it was superb.

Do you remember any reviews of the film that were especially meaningful?

I try to keep reviews at arms distance; good or bad they're out of my control.

Do you remember/have you saved any criticism of the film that was especially frustrating?

Have I saved frustrating criticism? No point in that.

What are you doing these?

I continue to write. I recently adapted a book, Elephant Winter, and I have a semi-autobiographical story, Last Night in East L.A., both in the process of acquiring funding. I'm involved in a number of other projects, mostly industry-based. I also teach, consult, and lecture.

Where do you live?

The Hollywood Hills.

When was the last time you saw the movie? How did it hold up for you?

It's been years since I last saw FairyTale beginning to end. I catch snippets when it loops through the cable channels. It holds up all right, though I tend to dwell on parts I would have done differently or changes made by the director that rip at my heart.

Do you believe in anything that hasn't yet been proven by science (including fairies)?

My faith continues to evolve. I'm open to miracles.

What did you think when you first heard from me?

Are you legit?

Has anyone else ever interviewed about this? If so, when and for what publication?

The movie has come up in interviews, but nothing specific. At one point I was approached about adapting it to the stage, but nothing ever came of that.

How do you look back on the experience?

Getting a studio movie made is a miracle in itself, so I'm grateful for that. The process up to production was amazingly straightforward. We knew what we had and everyone up and down the line was on board. The first director was my personal fairy tale choice, Lasse Hallström. Lasse and I worked together in Stockholm making final revisions. Soon before production, I get word that Lasse's out over budgetary concerns. Paramount recirculated the script and it was nabbed by Mel Gibson's Icon Productions. They took over, hired a new director who expressed no need for writer input. From this point on, I'm out.

My look back is bittersweet. No regrets.

Anything you'd like to add?

If I could only change that one scene…

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