Streep Loves Bird

Beloved Austin author wins prestigious competition funded by Meryl Streep

Austin author wins prestigious competition funded by Meryl Streep

Sarah Bird
Sarah Bird named a winner of a new screenwriting competition for women over 40.  Courtesy photo

Meryl Streep is anything but a sore loser. When Patricia Arquette won what could have been Streep’s Oscar for Best Supporting Actress at this year's awards ceremony, Magnificent Meryl gave her a passionate standing ovation. 

Maybe it was Arquette’s acceptance speech about gender inequality in Hollywood that set Streep’s cogs in motion, leading her to create and generously fund The Writers Lab, a screenwriting competition for women over 40 that will take place mid-September at Lake George in New York.

Women writers from all over the country jumped at the chance to have their screenplays considered and more than 3,500 entries poured in. Twelve writers were selected.

You may have heard of one of the winners — she’s Austin’s Sarah Bird.

An award-winning columnist for Texas Monthly, Bird has written nine novels (Above the East China Sea is the 2015 Seattle Times Best Book of the Year); she’s been voted Best Local Author four times by readers of the Austin Chronicle; has been inducted into the Texas Literary Hall of Fame; and has written screenplays for Paramount, CBS, Warner Bros, National Geographic, ABC, TNT, and independent producers.

To have accomplished all this, of course, Bird has to have been around a while. At 65, she is the affirmation of what actress Patricia Arquette indicated in her Oscar acceptance speech —  a woman who must battle age and gender discrimination despite her proven talent.

Winning script
The script that earned Bird’s place at the Lab is Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen. It’s based on the true story of an unconventional hero of the western frontier, Cathy Williams (1844-1892), who was the only woman to serve with the Buffalo Soldiers.

It must be a good script, damn good in fact, to warrant accolades from high-caliber industry judges solicited by the contest presenters: New York Chapter of Women in Film and Television (NYWIFT); IRIS; and the Writers Guild of America, East. Members of these groups have written, directed, produced, acted, costumed, cast, edited, and scored for productions on big screens and small, around the world. Streep herself is a member of NYWIFT.

In an email interview that began while Bird was vacationing in Vancouver, I jokingly asked if the great actress herself notified Bird of her win.

“Ha! No, Meryl Streep did not take time off from being the Queen of Modern Cinema to ring me up,” she said. “I was at a family reunion in Estes Park, Colorado when the finalists were notified, but they couldn’t reach me because I hadn’t had cell reception for several days.

“The third day of the trip we trekked to a scenic vista high enough or clear enough that my voicemails were downloaded. I had several telling me I’d been selected and asking me to call immediately or lose my spot.”

While there’s been no mention of whether Streep will make an appearance at the Lab or not, Bird says the actress’s participation has already been colossal and game-changing. “On the strength of her name, female screenwriters have been featured, not just in entertainment news, but in publications from The Guardian to El Mundo.”

Bird confirms that it’s much harder to be an older screenwriter than an older novelist and that The Writers Lab addresses the double discrimination that women face in Hollywood.

“I was 40 and had had a movie made when I actually started going out to LA for gigs. The overage frat boys whom I met in abundance at pitch meetings had no idea what to make of a female of my advanced age. The crinkling when I walked into a room was the sound of many dinkies shrinking. I started out reminding them of the first wife that none of them wanted to think about. When I fell into the dreaded Mom Zone, I was done.”

First film experience
It’s a wonder that Bird didn’t give up on screenwriting after her first film (based on her novel The Boyfriend School) didn’t turn out to her satisfaction. (A screenwriter is rarely involved with a film’s production or even allowed on set once the script is in the hands of the director. The original story can change dramatically in the process — and not always for the good.)

Though there was a bidding war for her script, the final film, starring Shelley Long and Steve Guttenberg, was “fairly forgettable,” she says.

It was at that premiere that Bird decided to return to novels.

The seed for her current prize-winning screenplay, however, was sown back in the late 1970s.

Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen is based on the true story of Cathy “Cathay” Williams, a slave freed by the Civil War who made the momentous, inspiring decision to reach for a better life by disguising herself as a man and becoming the only woman to ever serve with the legendary Buffalo Soldiers.

“I did a bit of research, but, back in those pre-Internet days, I could find no further information about Cathy and assumed the fabulous story was apocryphal.”

Nearly a decade later, Bird attended a childbirth class taught by Pamela Black, who additionally was an elementary school teacher. Ironically, Black had been researching Cathy Williams, too, as she felt students at her predominately black school didn’t have enough heroes. “Pam shared the information she had gathered and insisted that I had to write a book about the amazing woman who had made such a singularly courageous choice,” remembers Bird.

At that time though, Bird felt no one but an African-American had the right to tell Williams' story. “So, I put the story aside and concentrated on bringing another amazing character, our son Gabriel, into the world.”

Williams' story continued to haunt Bird. She felt generations of girls should have grown up knowing this inspirational history. “Still, I couldn’t put aside the feeling that I was not the one to write it,” she recalled. “Then, one evening, I had dinner with a remarkable friend, Emily Tracy-Haas, screenwriter, opera singer, visual artist, who has access to realms that many would call psychic. As we were eating, she asked if someone close had died recently.”

Though no one had, her friend couldn’t shake a feeling. Reluctantly, she told Bird, “There is someone, a woman, trying to contact you. I see her standing behind you. I can’t tell what she wants but ... I see silver doors opening up at the top of your head almost as if you’re opening yourself to her.”

Bird asserts that, “Those who know me will attest that I am among the least woo-woo of people, but that message seemed pretty clear and undeniable. Though I thought I had abandoned screenplays, in that moment I realized that, in order for Cathy’s story to reach the girls who needed it most, I had to write it as a screenplay. There followed an experience that was the closest I’ve ever come to automatic writing.

“The screenplay opened lots of doors for me, silver and otherwise, and earned many writing assignments in both feature films and television. Sadly, though, the belief at that time was that the cross-over audience which had supported Roots no longer existed.” (Roots was a hugely successful 1977 TV mini-series that dramatized a slave’s ancestry from enslavement to liberation.)

By the time Bird felt she could tell the Williams story she had turned 60. “I wanted to follow her life from the Civil War, to her posting out West, to her final years running a boarding house in Colorado. I wanted to experience being a woman in the ultimate man’s world. And, though this is a bit woo-woo, I felt Cathy wanted that as well.”

The Writers Lab will give Bird an extraordinary opportunity to get her script made into a film. She will be mentored by professionals who know a thing or two about the business: Kirsten Smith (Legally Blonde, Ten Things I Hate About You), Jessica Bendinger (Bring It On, Aquamarine), Gina Prince-Bythewood (Secret Life of Bees, Beyond the Lights), Caroline Kaplan (Time Out of Mind, Personal Velocity), Mary Jane Skalski (Win Win, The Station Agent), Lydia Dean-Pilcher (The Lunchbox, The Reluctant Fundamentalist), and Meg LeFauve (Inside Out, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys).

Help from Pantheon
In addition, Houston’s Pantheon of Women is working towards getting the screenplay produced. (The organization produces and presents film and television that change the way women are perceived by men and the way women perceive themselves.)

“Pantheon of Women has been incredible,” says Bird. "Like Meryl Streep, they are devoted to putting more female faces and female stories on-screen. The principals, Alicia Goodrow, Donna Cole, and Deborah Kainer, are phenomenal entrepreneurs who have put together an entire business plan. They are currently interviewing directors and casting directors.”

With so many professional women acting as a driving force behind Bird, it looks like neither age or gender will stand in her way this time. Streep has created a nuclear fission.

I asked the writer what would she say if she could sit across from Streep over tea — or beer or bourbon — and she replied, “Thank you, you have done more to focus attention on the dearth of women’s stories being told by women writers than anyone else has in the 30 years since this imbalance became an issue.”