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Writer Took Improbable Path to TV

March 11, 1989|DENNIS McLELLAN | Times Staff Writer

When Cynthia Farley of Laguna Beach asked several dozen friends to come over Tuesday night to watch her screen debut as a writer on "thirtysomething," she joked about "bringing your jammies and pillows so we can have popcorn and watch TV together."

Farley thought it was going to be a casual get-together.

But it's not every day you write an episode for one of television's most popular and critically acclaimed dramatic series.

So while Farley was out of town earlier this week, her attorney husband, Chris, rented a big-screen TV, hired a caterer and strung a "thirtysomething" banner over the driveway.

The roomful of guests, most of them seated on the floor, grew quiet once the familiar theme music for America's favorite yuppies began at 10.

But the hushed crowd exploded in a chorus of whoops, screams and applause when Farley's name appeared in the opening credits and the beaming writer, seated on the sofa with her husband and two children, threw her arms up in victory.

It was all a rather heady experience for Farley--made all the more so considering that she doesn't have an agent and she only started writing screenplays 18 months ago.

"People tell me what I did was impossible to do, that there's no such thing that somebody without an agent could come out of the blue and submit a 'spec' script to an Emmy award-winning television show and then be hired to do one," said the 36-year-old Farley, who writes under her maiden name, Cynthia Saunders.

She said she later talked to one agent who wanted to know: "How in the world did you do this? Don't you know you can't do that?"

"I said, 'I didn't know the rules so I just did it.' "

Farley began writing "literary fiction" 4 years ago. She's a member of the Fictionaires, an Orange County writing workshop, and won second place in the California State Short Story Contest in 1986.

Her decision to write screenplays came in the fall of 1987 when she found herself stuck in the middle of writing her first novel.

"I had done Part 1 and was working on Part 2 and having terrible structural problems with it," she said. "Somebody said, 'Why don't you make a screenplay out of it? That will help you structure it.'

"So I tried it and then got really excited about the idea of doing screenplays. I found short stories to be wonderful and novels to be extremely difficult for me. I think it depends on what your mind-set is and my mind-set seemed to be in screenplays. I really enjoyed it, and it just sort of came out of the typewriter."

She began writing a script for "thirtysomething" at the suggestion of a Los Angeles writer friend, Liberty Godshall, who had sold a script to the show.

Because Farley is thirtysomething herself, with a "yuppie husband" and two children, her friend said, "Boy, this is your life; you could write this."

Farley's response was, "I don't know how to do this." But her friend told her to just write it for fun, which, Farley said, "is a great way of taking the pressure off."

Within 3 weeks, Farley had written an episode dealing with the show's two main characters, Michael and Hope.

"I had such a blast with it," she said. "I think 'thirtysomething' is really trying to break new ground with their series in that they're more realistic. They don't paint a sort of rosy picture of life. They try to deal with interpersonal relations in a realistic way and, frankly, my opinion is that the best writers are students of humanity . . . and (the best fiction) gives us insight into who we are."

After sending in her script to the show's producers, Farley received a phone call from producer Ed Zwick. "He was real excited about it," she said. "I asked Ed, 'So, do you think I can do this?' I didn't have a clue. He goes, 'Absolutely you can do this. You can have a career in script writing if you want one.' I was thrilled."

Because of scheduling restraints and the Writer's Guild strike, however, Farley was not hired for that season. But as soon as the strike was over last August, the producers hired her to write a script for this season.

Farley said a "spec" script such as the one she sent in allows the producers to determine whether the writer is capable of writing for their show. "If they like your work, you go up and do a story pitch. You pitch them a bunch of story ideas. They may use yours or one they have and need for their seasonal story line."

At her first story meeting with the producers, Farley presented several story ideas, some of which were already written or being considered for the season. "I thought I had blown it," she said, but she was told "this is a great indication you're on the right track."

Although she was more interested in "writing a Nancy and Elliot story" (Hope and Michael's friends), the producers wanted her to do an "Ellyn story." Ellyn is Hope's best friend since childhood and is, Farley said, "a person who has trouble dealing with her own feelings. She's very success-oriented but not great at personal relations."

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