Leslie Dixon Addresses WGA Standoff, Why "the Money Will Never Be the Same" for Writers

Leslie Dixon-Getty-H 2019
Roy Rochlin/FilmMagic

The writer-producer discusses her own #MeToo experience and why she eschewed TV as she prepares to accept the Screenwriters Tribute Award at the Nantucket Film Festival on Saturday.

For most of her Hollywood career, writer-producer Leslie Dixon kept secret the fact that she hailed from art world nobility as the granddaughter of photographer Dorothea Lange and painter Maynard Dixon.

“For many, many years I never told anybody about this, because I didn’t want people to think I came from money, which I most certainly did not. But when your grandparents’ work was going at Sotheby’s for $1.5 million, people might get the wrong idea,” she says. “Certainly, I was never going to touch the hem of [Lange’s] garment. I mean, that was not even thinkable. So, I wanted to blaze my own trail.”

But her background — growing up in the Bay Area as the only child of an ad executive and an aspiring actress — did shape her current profession.

“Only children have a big inner life. They have to learn how to enjoy their own company because there isn't always going to be a bunch of chatter going on in the house. And you have to go inward and learn how to entertain yourself,” she recalls.

Skipping college, she headed straight to Hollywood in the late-’80s, which she described as the Wild West. “No one gave a shit where you went to college, if you went to college, if you just got out of prison, as long as you had a good story,” she adds. “It's one of the few businesses that could swing with my eccentricities.”

Over the ensuing decades, the Bay Area native has written such hit films as Outrageous FortuneOverboardMrs. DoubtfireThe Thomas Crown AffairFreaky Friday and Hairspray and served as a producer on Limitless and Gone Girl

Dixon, who now lives once again in Berkeley with husband Tom Ropelewski (Look Who’s Talking Now writer) and, occasionally, their 22-year-old son, will receive the Screenwriters Tribute Award at the Nantucket Film Festival on Saturday (past recipients include David O. Russell, Aaron Sorkin and Steve Martin). Ahead of the festival, she talked to THR about her own #MeToo experience, a new musical she's writing and how the agency world is “a whole underground of frightened women.”

Is it better for writers today than when you started?

In terms of getting a job, yes, because there are more jobs. But, unfortunately, the amount of money lying around is more thinly spread. So, I don't believe anybody starting out will ever make the kind of money that screenwriters made in the early 2000s. It's just I was very lucky to hit the business at the moment that I did. The great advantage is the Internet because you can learn how to write a script, you can see what a real script looks like. I had to get a library card to AFI to see what a real script looked like. But the money will never be the same.

How about for female writers?

I have a very unpopular answer. I've never experienced the slightest prejudice being a female screenwriter. I find that I don't know of any executive that has ever looked at the title page of a script, seen that it was written by a woman and thrown it in the “I'm not going to read this” pile. Generally, they say they’ll give it a few pages, and if you catch them in a narrative they don't care whether it's a man or a woman. I think it's much tougher for female directors because there's so much physical stamina involved, and I think there's sort of an unspoken prejudice that “the little lady might not be up for being general of an army.” But a writing job, there's never been so many of them for women. “Come on down.”

Female protagonists are few and far between as the major studios move to a nearly tentpoles-only mandate. How does that affect a writer like you?

If you have a particularly male-dominated weekend, you might see a comedy starring two or three women as counter programming. But that doesn’t bother me too much because I find most romantic comedies to be a little drippy, including some of the ones I worked on. [Laugh.] And I don't miss them all that much. That said, I really got a kick out of the Charlize Theron/Seth Rogen one [Long Shot] because it was more hip than they usually are.

Aside from Limitless you’ve never worked in TV before, why not?

I never worked in TV even then. That was just a passive credit. I didn’t want to write the pilot. I thought that was idiotic. Bradley [Cooper] and I had a great idea for a theatrical sequel, and they go and sell it to NBC instead. At that point I wanted nothing to do with it because I just knew it would be lame. Anything that continues the Limitless story should be foul, violent and sick.

So why no TV?

For the first third of my career, television was network-only. I had no interest in that. When HBO became really good, and Netflix exploded, I was starting to no longer wish to live in Los Angeles. So, a television show, usually you have to be in L.A. and run a writers room. I was always able to get work in features, and TV wasn’t a priority. I like a project that ends after three or four months. I like the fact that you can write an entire script in a few weeks and go on to something else and not be doing the same thing for five years. 

Do you do a lot of uncredited script doctoring work?

I have done uncredited rewrites my whole career.

What's the last movie you did an uncredited pass on?

That’s top secret again. There's so many movies I've worked on over the years. Runaway Bride. Honestly, there's gotta be 30 at least. But you're really not supposed to talk about it as per the WGA because it degrades the credit of the person who got it. People say, “Everybody knows,” but they don't. They only know if the writer goes around bragging that they did it. I have romantic comedies on my résumé because I was a woman. I had an edge on being offered those things.

What are you currently working on?

It’s top secret. There's competing projects. I know that sounds so clandestine. It’s a musical.

I’m guessing it’s not Cats. How do you think that one will turn out?

I think it's going to be the Cop Rock of now.

You spoke out about being sexually harassed by Relativity executive Adam Fields on the set of Limitless. How common do you think your experience was among female writer-producers?

Very uncommon. That was a psycho situation. You have to have a death wish because I was one of the bosses. That's just so, so, so very bizarre. Where I have heard the #MeToo of it all is really, really, really bad is at the agencies. There is just a whole underground of frightened women who didn’t realize before they went to work for one of those places that they expect you to behave a certain way if you're ever going to get a corner office. Especially with all the shit that the [WGA] have right now against [the agencies], you would think that some of this would be looked at. But I haven't known any other female writers who have really gotten harassed. Because they want the script. [My case] was just a perverse person doing a perverse thing.

What are your thoughts on the WGA-agency standoff?

I wish that the guild had gotten into this 10 years ago instead of waiting for it to become an ingrained business practice. Once entire agencies are structured to do this — to package, to take fees, to make more money than their clients — undoing it, taking the building down to the studs is gonna be kind of difficult to enforce. That's like telling a developer down at the New York skyline that put up a 60-story tower, “No, you know what, this really should be stables for horses.” But then again, they might not have been able to get the support of the membership until it was egregious. So, there's your catch-22.