Melissa London Hilfers, Writer of “Undone”
When Melissa Hilfers was working as a civil litigator in New York City, she never imagined that her experience writing legal briefs was preparing her for a career as a screenwriter. A mother of three, Melissa took up screenwriting after she left the legal profession to raise her children. She recently sold her first spec screenplay, Undone, in a rare six-figure deal at competitive auction.
“Lawyers actually do a lot of writing,” Melissa says. “It’s a different kind of writing, but I was a litigator, which means you write briefs a lot, and legal briefs are persuasive writing where you’re trying to tell a story in a persuasive way. There are also very strict confines to it. There are a certain amount of pages to do the argument, and a certain amount of pages to tell the facts, so bizarrely it ended up being really good training for screenwriting.”
Hailing from Baltimore, Melissa Hilfers lives in New York City, a location she originally perceived to be a hindrance in developing her career as a screenwriter. “Everyone said to me when I started writing that it’s never going to work if you don’t live in L.A. It’s so discouraging, and I hope people don’t believe it when they are told that.”
When Melissa sat down to write her first script she admits she had little idea what she was in for. “Other than being a huge fan of movies, I really didn’t know what I was doing,” she says. Her first scripts tackled the challenges of parenting which she herself was then embroiled in, but over time her scripts became darker.
Melissa was determined to make it, and took the pursuit very seriously. “You have to act like this is your job,” she contends. “When people ask you what you do, and you say screenwriter, they say, ‘Oh great what have I seen?’ When you say, ‘Well, nothing yet,’ they roll their eyes and are like, ‘Oh yeah, another one of these screenwriters.’ It can be really demoralizing. You just have to know that it’s really going to happen, or I guess not care. But I cared. I really cared. I was really invested in this.”
Melissa isn’t sure how many scripts she wrote before selling her first project, but if she had to guess at it, she’d say 10 to 15. The first script she sold, a TV project that was picked up last year, was one that she had actually set aside.
“I knew someone from my child’s preschool who was a writer on TV. I ran into his wife at a coffee shop and she asked how my writing was going, and I said to her it’s really hard to make it as a screenwriter if you don’t live in L.A., and she said you have to talk to my husband. I met with him and we hit it off. He asked to read a script, and ended up passing the script along to the executives who ended up buying it, and he became attached as executive producer.”
This experience made Melissa re-evaluate the way she approached people about her work.
“You need to think of yourself not as someone who is a bother to people, but as someone who can help the other person, that you have something to offer. It’s really changed the way I look at reaching out to people. I didn’t view myself as someone who could help him, and what ended up happening was a relationship that helped us both. So it really changed the way I felt about my value.”
Melissa remembers that it was the small bites of interest that kept her going over the years, such as the year she was a Nicholl quarter-finalist. “I think unless you’ve been a struggling screenwriter it’s hard to understand what it is to go to bed every night thinking about your script, and waking up in the morning thinking about your script, and hoping that someone’s going to like your script for years.”
Eventually Melissa came to the attention of manager Alan Gasmer and agent David Boxerbaum of Paradigm. Boxerbaum was inspired by her past as a litigator and advised her to write a dark, female-driven legal thriller, which eventually became Undone, which is described as Gone Girl meets Primal Fear. The screenplay is about a popular podcast that brings a strange, decades-old murder case into the spotlight and leads to a re-investigating of the 35 year old murder case. One of the nation’s top litigators fights to free the man the entire country believes was wrongly convicted, until she begins to suspect her own past might be the key to the murder itself. Melissa was partly inspired by the phenomenon of the Serial podcast, and a character she had been developing for quite some time.
“The idea that a media event like a podcast or a TV show could actually impact the criminal justice system for real, really interested me. It felt like the tail wagging the dog in a really interesting way. I also had a character kicking around in my head for a long time, a woman with a very deep Shakespearean flaw connected with her family and her family’s history, but I didn’t know what the story was. Undone is the dovetailing of those two ideas.”
As for her writing process, Melissa prefers to outline before she plunges ahead into a first draft.
“I’m a huge outliner. Oftentimes ideas cook in my head and I don’t know what’s going to become of them, but then when I sit down to actually write I outline in detail. The actual writing is just fun because the entire structure is laid out in its entirety. Sometimes it can change. I know it sounds cheesy, but sometimes the characters start talking to you, and the story has to go in a different direction. Sometimes the story tells you what to do.”
For Melissa, writing a script can take anywhere from six weeks to a year depending on the project. “Being a mother gives you the focus to make every moment count. I’m very efficient. I don’t goof around. I sit down at the computer and I’m there to work until they’re back, and then after they go to bed I write for several more hours.”
Melissa wants her success as a screenwriter to act as encouragement for others seeking a career change who are too scared to do it. “I feel like people get to a certain age or point in their lives when they feel like they can’t start something new. It just isn’t true. In reality, I wouldn’t have been as good a writer when I was 22 as I am now because I’ve lived, and I’ve experienced different things, and that all comes through in my writing. Sometimes when you change careers you wonder why you did the other thing for so long and wasted so much time on it, but in the end it all informs the work that you do.”