24 September 2020 The Irish Film & Television Network
‘Hairspray’ & ‘Limitless’ Screenwriter Leslie Dixon discusses her illustrious career
02 Apr 2012 : By Eva Hall
Leslie Dixon with her father Daniel
Screenwriters are often the forgotten link when it comes to films and television. While directors, producers and movie stars walk the red carpet at premieres and shoot spreads for Vanity Fair, screenwriters are “lucky to make it the wrap party”. That is, according to Leslie Dixon, the woman responsible for remakes such as ‘The Thomas Crown Affair’; ‘Hairspray’, and most recently ‘Limitless’, the thrilling adaptation of Dublin-born Alan Glynn’s book, ‘The Dark Fields’.

It is minor connections such as this that link Dixon to the Emerald Isle in many ways; she claims that ‘granny rule’ so many American’s use; yet isn’t sure where her great-grandmother comes from; her paternal grandparents put County Clare on the map as far as Hollywood was concerned, and now Dixon finds herself in Ireland for the first time, travelling from Clare to Dublin to Kerry, where she will host a two-hour masterclass as part of the Dingle International Film Festival. She is accompanied by her screenwriter husband, Tom Ropelewski (Look Who’s Talking Now) who will be hosting a Q&A after his screening of the autobiographical documentary ‘Child of Giants’, inspired by Dixon’s late father.

Dixon describes Ropelewski as the “complete and utter architect” of ‘Child of Giants’, despite it documenting much of her family life. ‘Child of Giants’ is a series of interviews with Dixon’s father, focusing on his unconventional upbringing with two of the most influential contributors to the arts in the 30’s and 40’s. Dixon’s grandparents were celebrated photographer Dorothea Lange and painter Maynard Dixon.

“My father travelled through County Clare twice, once helping Dorothea with the text for a photo series she was doing for Life Magazine which became quite famous, and secondly to do a lecture tour about that experience and different experiences he had with his mother. That was of interest to people, and that’s when my father realised his mother was this important person, and this is now a documentary about him and his upbringing with Dorothea and Maynard.”

Although Dixon describes the documentary as “inspiring and exciting”, she is quick to point out “there was some drama, this is not your flat PBS fact-filled documentary.” Even though Dixon insists Ropelewski was the driver behind it, playing down her role of suggesting Ropelewski get some footage of her dad before he died, which is the basis for the entire documentary, she also appears as an interview subject and contributed to the soundtrack, which she says came from “many of my former hippy musician friends.”

It may come as no surprise that ‘Child of Giants’ is not your run-of-the-mill fact-based documentary, as Dixon’s own credits have touched on a number of different genres in a number of different ways. Her first piece of advice for screenwriters is blunt: “Don’t be boring.”

After leaving her guitar-playing boyfriend to move to Los Angeles at a young age, Dixon took up with some hippies and met her husband, also pursuing a career in film. “I loved film more than anything in the world and I wanted to be a writer from the age of 10. When I got into my early 20's I realised that if I combined my passion for film and writing that would solve everything.”

What has inspired Dixon to take so many different routes in scriptwriting? “I've always had a side of me that was a bloodthirsty guy. I like crime thrillers, I like Quentin Tarantino, I like Scorsese. I just like edgy films, and woke up one morning thinking, if I like them so much, why wasn't I writing them?”

Dixon spent two years in LA before getting her first script commissioned, a timeframe which is the envy of many dreaming to make it big in Hollywood. She admits she fell foul to the reputation of Hollywood producers early on in her career: “There's absolutely no question that I would have been rewritten eight ways from Sunday… When you're the screenwriter you're alone, you have no power at all. You're lucky to be invited to the wrap party.” Dixon co-produces on many films which run her scripts, which she says gives you more power as a screenwriter: “When you are a producer; perhaps your agent negotiated a producing title for you out of vanity or you brought the project into existence by finding a book or inventing a screen play, in which case you are a power producer and you do have input in to all those decisions.”

Dixon is aware of the cut-throat nature of Hollywood many of us only see in films: “I've been lucky in my career that sometimes I haven't been rewritten, I can tick off a number of scripts that were shown almost word for word the way I wrote them. I'm lucky, given the way things go in Hollywood. Sometimes I've cleverly made myself less expensive than someone else they might hire so they save a book by keeping me around”.

She says there are five ways different ways to pitch a script, but maintains that obtaining an agent is key to survival in the industry. Dixon has used all five pitching techniques in the past. She obtained the rights to ‘The Dark Fields’ after much to-ing and fro-ing with Academy Award-winning producer Harvey Weinstein (Shakespeare in Love) to write and produce ‘Limitless’. She has written scripts which her agent has sold for her, she has remade old films and gotten studios to pay her to rewrite scripts (The Thomas Crown Affair/Hairspray), and she has pitched original ideas (That Old Feeling), which she admits are becoming “more difficult to get and less remunerative.”

This difficulty doesn’t stop Dixon pitching original ideas however, as she tells IFTN she is currently in talks with an Academy Award-winning actress to take the lead in a role which will show the actress in an “unexpected and possibly shocking light.”

Dixon will give a master class at the Phoenix Cinema in Dingle tomorrow (3 April) at 2-4pm, where she will discuss the changing face of the industry, the impact video games has on film, and she will also share tips on how to make that first page “start with a bang.”

Tickets for the master class are still available from bookings@dinglefilmfestival.com.

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