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This is a post that meshes my senior year at art school with Hollywood. For those who have ever watched The L Word on Showtime I have a story about knowing the series creator, Ilene Chaiken, when we were both art students in the '70s.
I have posted several stories about sharing a class with photographer Francesca Woodman, but in the case of Ilene Chaiken, the creator, writer, and producer of The L Word we were not only in the graphic design department, but I saw her nearly everyday of the '76-'77 school year along with other members of the sophomore class. I was the darkroom monitor for that year and I taught all of the incoming sophomores how to use the equipment, so naturally that included Ilene.
The RISD graphic design stat camera in a photo I took in May, '77 and subject of the petition mentioned in the story below. I had the job to keep the camera in good order and make sure there were enough darkroom supplies, etc.
It was late second semester in the spring of '77 that I was presented with a petition regarding the darkroom and making extra time available for the sophomores on a particular Sunday just prior to when a huge project was due in class. Ilene was one of the signers and I have reproduced the petition below. Had I not been a pack-rat saving various artifacts from college days I wouldn't have this student petition still on hand.
Ilene's signature, as shown below:
Anyway, the sophomores were granted their request by moi and we all lived happily ever after!
One particularly memorable story about Ilene was related to when she drove a classmate and moi to a blueprint company across town to pick up prints for the department-wide show we were all working on. The entire department was scrambling to finish the exhibit in time and Ilene's offer to drive us was a time saver that particular day with the deadline looming over us.
While the story of my classmate Francesca Woodman is one of a photo major at school becoming world famous for her photos, Ilene's story is about a graphics major switching to the film and video department her junior year and ending up as a successful screenwriter in Hollywood. I had no idea that she was so interested in writing at the time we were in school as my classmates were primarily focused on design.
Below is Ilene's school mugshot from the '75-'76 student ID book which also has New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast's photo diagonally across from hers:
During that school year Ilene lived off campus on Pitman Street which was on the eastern side of College Hill. It was about a 20 minute walk to school making it necessary to own a car.
Below are excerpts from an interview with writer Deidre Strohm on January 22, 2004:
DS: So... where are you from?
IC: I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia...I went to art school...the Rhode Island School of Design and realized in the course of being there that I wasn't a visual artist, that all I ever wanted to do was tell stories and I switched majors...I had been a graphic design major, and I changed to film making in the last two years of my matriculation. I remember that I was making films, narrative films, and at RISD that was not the thing to do. RISD was an art school and people who made films at RISD made films that were meant to be shown at the Museum of Modern Art, which is what my professors did. I remember editing my student film and getting ready for my thesis review and had a couple of the visiting profs stand behind me and with utter disdain say, "oh, you're gonna go to Hollywood."
IC: The summer I graduated I got a job as an assistant to a producer working on a film in London. It was a movie that nobody remembers, but it starred Burt Reynolds and Don Siegal directed it (Rough Cut, 1980) and then I went back to New York for a little while, and before the year was up I realized I had to move to L.A.
DS: So, then you came out here and you just started getting jobs...
IC: My first job, my legitimate job, in Hollywood was as a trainee at Creative Artists (CAA).
DS: To be an agent?
IC: To be an agent trainee. At the time, I just needed a job. I was a 21 year old kid who needed a job and the job I got offered was as a reader. I was the first full time reader that CAA hired, and when they hired me, they didn't accept women in the training program. That's who long ago it was. No women. The trainee program was exclusively for men.
IC: It was still acceptable to do that in 1980.
DS: That just seems unreal, doesn't it?
IC: Isn't that wild? It was a big deal. There were several women agents, but no women in the trainee program. It was an actual policy decision to allow women into the trainee program. So, I had started as a reader, I then became the assistant to one of the agents, in fact, one of the partners in the company. They made a policy decision. The very first woman they let into the trainee program was Judy Hofflund...a very successful manager and sometime producer. A couple of weeks after they let Judy into the program, they also made me a trainee.
DS: And how long did you last at CAA?
IC: Until 1983.
DS: That's pretty long. [Hollywood years are like dog years. You work one and it counts for seven.]
IC: I most definitely learned the business being a trainee at CAA.
DS: And you went to work from there...
IC: For a couple of CAA clients. It was pretty clear I wasn't cut out to be an agent. And Mike Ovitz actually placed me with Armyan Bernstein and Alan Greisman. They had a producing deal at Warner Brothers, and I went over to be their "D-Girl."
DS: How long did you stay with them?
IC: I stayed with them for a couple of years...and then...I don't know they split up, and then I went with Alan to Aaron Spelling.
DS: What made you decide to leave development and...
IC: Oh, I had a crash and burn job. My last job was as an executive with Quincy Jones. I was involved in putting together Quincy Jones Entertainment. By that point, I was a fairly senior executive, and I helped put together the Quincy Jones/Warner Brothers joint venture. And wound up as the senior executive in the company. Reported to a board of directors and had a very "heady" Hollywood experience. We put together The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, of which I was the coordinating producer for the first year. I was having a fabulous time for a couple of years, and then it got nasty in the way those Hollywood jobs do. There came a Christmas time when I just knew I was going to be fired. It had come to that. A lot of back biting among the executives, and a lot of people swirling around. And I knew that I was the one who was going down. And I was really angry about it. I went away for Christmas with a group of friends to a cabin in Telluride, and while they were all out skiing, I locked myself in a cabin and wrote a script.
Moving ahead one decade and the following story relates what was happening with Ilene's career In an interview with Steven Priggé (see the link at the top of the story).
"The concept for the show, The L Word, originated with my writing an article for Los Angeles magazine. I am not a journalist, nor have I done any journalistic writing. Our children were two-years old and I was kind of taken by the number of gay people I knew who were starting families. I had a group of friends who were either adopting children, giving birth to children, or contemplating starting families. All of a sudden, gay men were doing it in large numbers. I saw it as a real phenomenon. I told my agent about it, and he hooked me up with an editor at Los Angeles magazine. I told the editor some stories about the subject and she told me to write the piece. I wrote this rather long essay piece in 1999 and it was the forerunner of all of the articles, which have surfaced in the last couple of years on this subject. This was just at the very beginning of recognizing this as a cultural phenomenon. Anyway, I wrote this magazine article and I realized I was writing stories about my life and the lives of people I’ve known. There were a lot of wonderful stories and it was not just about gay people having babies. It was just simply about the stories of our lives in a way in which they hadn’t been told. That is what made me want to do it, and as I started thinking more, it was apparent that it should be a television series."
From March, 2011, an interview in Marie-Claire with Ilene and her partner, Louanne Brickhouse. Click on the image for the full story:
From the above story in Marie-Claire:
"I have a sporadic freelance life. When I'm writing, I usually start early in the morning, and normally I stop around 6 p.m. When I'm on a deadline and feeling inspired, I may get up in the middle of the night and go upstairs to write."
A few years back Ilene signed on with the famed William Morris Agency and her name is listed below under TV. This list is at least 12 months out of date since Amy Winehouse and Whitney Houston are still listed in the music category:
Below are three interviews with Ilene. I have to say that she still looks great all of these years later and she still has the same wonderful voice I remember from college days:
In a video created by RISD president John Maeda, Ilene is seen trying out new technology as described below:
"Together we visited the site of my old friend from my MIT undergrad years John Underkoffler — one of my dear heroes that merges creative thinking with advanced technologies. John is the visionary force behind a new paradigm for computing where the keyboard and mouse give way for your hands (literally) to navigate large digital information spaces. In the video above we see RISD and MIT collide in a very hands-on way (smile)."
To sum up the story here, it is impressive to see the drive and creativity that Ilene has shown over her career. It is fun to look back and remember Ilene from the days when we were in school together in the '70s. While her career has been focused for some time on writing, I would love to pose the question to her about whether or not the design process classes she had as a sophomore at RISD helped to benefit her creative screenwriting.
I want to acknowledge yesterday's passing of a huge favorite of mine, Ernest Borgnine. When it came to McHale's Navy, I watched them all and loved the series from start to finish. He will be missed by millions upon millions of fans.
Secondly, with regard to the cartoons, not seeing anyone but Dicky and Lefty post a cartoon over the weekend says to me that nearly all of the OS cartoonists except both of them and moi have left the OS scene. For several years we had a wonderful aligning of the planets here with many regularly participating cartoonists including Graham Sale, Liza Donnelly, Ed Stein, Maria Scrivan, and Bob Eckstein, but those days are apparently gone unless something big happens here to attract them and others back for a regular feature on the cover.
My story and the personal photos are © 2012 by B+Co., Inc.