`Let Her Speak:’ Inside the screenplay of the Wendy Davis (Sandra Bullock) biopic

Good Monday Austin:

That, above, would be from the title page of the 133-page screenplay by Mario Correa, an accomplished Chilean-born, Brooklyn-based playwright and television and film writer, about Wendy Davis and the abortion filibuster that made her famous, a script that came into my possession Friday and which I read over the weekend.

Giving me a look. 2013.

On Thursday, Variety  broke the news.

Sandra Bullock will star in the spec “Let Her Speak” as Texas senator Wendy Davis, whose 11-hour filibuster helped stall an anti-abortion bill in the Texas state house.

Todd Black and Jason Blumenthal are on board to produce through their Escape Artists banner.

At the time, Davis was a little known Democratic senator who soon became a national icon on the subject of abortion after filibustering for 11 hours in order to stall a bill, and ultimately delaying its passage beyond the midnight deadline for the end of the legislative session. The bill would have included more restrictive abortion regulations for Texas and would have closed all abortion clinics in the state. (note: Not quite, but almost.)

Mario Correa penned the spec.

The package will now be shopped to studios and should court several suitors over the next week.

The role seems right up Bullock’s alley and could be another awards play for the star who won her first Oscar for playing Leigh Anne Tuohy in the real-life story “The Blind Side.” She just wrapped production on Warner Bros.’ “Ocean’s Eleven” spinoff, “Ocean’s Eight,” and is about start filming on the Netflix movie “Bird Box.”

She is repped by CAA.

I would have read it on Friday, but I was busy writing a Sunday story about Texas Democrats’ search for a candidate to oppose Gov. Greg Abbott for re-election, with Davis leaving the door open a crack that she would do it if an appropriate other candidate did not step forward.

The script is a good read.

I must admit, it’s a kick to read a screenplay about a moment in history to which you were first-hand witness – with all the name players bearing their real names – and to see how it’s done.

The script is drawn from the public record, from Davis’ book ” –  Forgetting to be Afraid: A Memoir – published two months before the November 2014 gubernatorial election, and, no doubt, from conversations with Davis.

It is written from Davis’ point of view and is hagiographic in the extreme. If you don’t agree with Wendy Davis on abortion, this will not be the movie for you, though, considering the subject and  the state of American political polarization, that should not be surprising.

The film opens with a terrifying and disturbing scene from Davis’ childhood that she wrote about in her memoir. As I wrote in the Statesman when it came out two months before the November gubernatorial election:

The book is replete with details of a sometimes harrowing childhood, of a loving but philandering father and a cold but dutiful mother who, after the first of two breakups with her husband, placed the infant Wendy and two siblings in the trunk of their car in the family garage with the intention of turning on the engine and killing herself and her children. Only a fortuitous visit from a neighbor who talked and prayed with Davis’ mother broke the spell of despondency and spared their lives.

We cut from that nightmarish scene to Wendy Davis on an Austin running trail in the spring of 2013, that sets the tone for rest of the movie.

Davis is portrayed as a hero –  strong, brave, brilliant, determined, relentless, tireless. This is not one of those movies where they throw in a fault or foible, however  minor, to give the character a more realistic texture.

This is not flawed-character-as-reluctant hero. This is up by her bootstraps, against the odds, hell bent for leather heroine.

The only hint of an imperfection is when colleague and ally Kirk Watson suggests to her that maybe she possesses the slightest hint of holier-than-thou moral preening – like she alone among her Democratic peers has the right stuff to lead the battle against the forces of darkness. But, of course, in the view of the film, she is also right, and so maybe, like all the great ones since Joan of Arc, she comes on a little strong.

At the time of the June 25, 2013 filibuster, I had been in Austin six months and it was one of the most dramatic scenes I’ve witnessed in 40 years as a reporter.

As I wrote in a First Reading on the third anniversary of the filibuster:

The Texas Capitol was the center of the political universe, the building fairly shaking, throbbing, pulsing with tension and consequence, with Wendy Davis – and that terse bard of the Texas Senate, Mike Ward – seizing the Twitterverse by the neck and shaking it for all it’s worth, and the moribund corpse of the Texas Democratic Party, laid out cold on a slab, being thumped and electric-shocked back to life.

I had been up the night before writing an anticipatory First Reading so I had only had an hour or two of sleep before showing up in the Senate that morning, and never leaving until well after it culminated in a delirious moment of confusion/triumph/defeat that made Mr. Smith, and all the fuss made about him, seem quaintly understated.

As I wrote in the Statesman that Sunday:

By standing her ground on the Senate floor for nearly 13 hours Tuesday against legislation that would severely restrict access to abortions in Texas, the petite Davis, in her now-celebrated rouge red Mizuno Wave Rider 16s, had provided downtrodden Texas Democrats with their best moment of the 21st century.

Overnight, Davis had raised the possibility that Democrats, against all odds, might mount a serious campaign for governor in 2014, scrambled Gov. Rick Perry’s political timetable, undermined Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst’s chances of re-election, and revised the politics of abortion in Texas by pushing final passage of Senate Bill 5 past its midnight deadline.

“That was the moment when the Democratic Party in Texas came alive,” U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, said the next day. “I was in the Texas Legislature for 10 years waiting for that moment. I never got it. It happened last night.”

This is the Wendy Davis that Wendy Davis and her campaign wanted to present to Texas voters when she ran for governor in 2014.

From Robert Draper’s February 2014 cover piece in the New York Times Magazine: Can Wendy Davis Have it All?

It did not take long for her and everyone else in the chamber to see that the usual permissiveness attendant to Texas filibusters — furtive sips of water, hard candy for sustenance, languid reading of the Bible, leaning against furniture, even a dash to the bathroom — would not apply to her. But as the hours wore on and the spectacle of the slight woman standing erect if dehydrated, and reading testimony from women who had gotten abortions, in a chamber full of glowering and mostly male Republicans spread across the Twitterverse, something began to tilt in her favor. At one point, opponents complained that she had violated the rules by getting off topic. At another, Rodney Ellis, a Democratic colleague, whispered, “The president just tweeted about you,” and Davis responded with an expletive of surprise. When the presiding Republican, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, ruled that she had three violations and ended her filibuster, pandemonium ensued, thus delaying a vote on the bill until just after midnight, when the session officially ended. Shortly after 3 a.m., Dewhurst reluctantly announced that Davis’s filibuster had prevailed and that S.B. 5 was dead. (The next month in a second special session, Gov. Rick Perry reintroduced the bill, and it passed.)

When she walked out to the Capitol steps, someone handed her a microphone, allowing her strained voice to be heard by the crowd of thousands who had gathered to greet her. She then decompressed in her office, after which she and Will Wynn walked together to her car — backs to the camera, savoring the semblance of privacy.

Overnight, a once-obscure state senator had become the Democrats’ most appealing new face. “I felt like she was Joan of Arc, standing up there for women all across the country,” (former Michigan Gov. Jennifer) Granholm said. Democrats in Washington were enrapt. When Davis visited the nation’s capital a few weeks later for a fund-raiser, Nancy Pelosi and more than a dozen senators were there. Anna Greenberg, a Washington-based Democratic pollster who until recently worked for Davis, explained that even for Beltway insiders, “there has been a feeling of disappointment in Obama — the inspiration just isn’t there anymore — not to mention all of the dysfunction in Congress. Then these new voices emerge,” like Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts “and Wendy, all speaking truth to power. They make Democrats feel inspired again.”

The cinematic possibilities of the moment were instantly obvious  and  the casting commenced almost at once.

I don’t think what I’m going to tell you about the screenplay requires any spoiler alerts. We all now how it ends.

But I think I can be of service by letting you know which roles require casting, and how the script treats each of those characters.

First things first.

The only reporter with a name and a real part is Laura Kamen. There is her cameraman, and another unnamed reporter, who gets to engage in some irrelevant reporter banter, but, otherwise Kamen’s it. I don’t think there is an actual reporter named Laura Kamen, and I don’t think she is based on anyone in particular, but I think Kamen is  a Jewish name, for what it’s worth.

So, sorry Johnathan, Evan, Steve. Not gonna happen.

The villain of the piece is Dan Patrick, then a senator, now lieutenant governor.

Here is how Dan Patrick is introduced in the film.

 

Well, I suppose he’s available. But not nice.

MY CHOICE TO PLAY DAN PATRICK: Dennis Quaid.

Patrick’s sidekick in the screenplay is Sen. Donna Campbell.

Here’s her intro.

Not nice.

MY CHOICE TO PLAY DONNA CAMPBELL: Holly Hunter.

The best line that I haven’t heard before is delivered by Dan Patrick (think Dennis Quaid) to Donna Campbell (think Holly Hunter) about eight hours into the filibuster.

The most interesting and demanding role is Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst – because he is written as conflicted and is a character with shades of gray. Dewhurst in the script is  torn between his own fundamental decency and respect for the traditions of the Texas Senate and political reality, and, what in retrospect, was a wholly legitimate concern about a challenge from Dan Patrick.

Here is Dewhurst’s intro.

Ted Hebert is, as far as I know, a made up name. I think he’s probably a composite, or maybe he’s just made up. He’s the slick political adviser/chief of staff/consultant, who tells Dewhurst what he needs to do to keep his job and keep Patrick at bay.

For Hebert, a special session that includes abortion is a gift that will enable Dewhurst to show the Republican base that no matter that patrician persona, and his previous defeat in the 2012 Senate primary runoff at the hands of Cruz, Dewhurst has the right right stuff.

The base is represented by three made up characters.

The script offers a sympathetic view of Dewhurst. He is not just some hapless ditherer.  I would like to see them build his character a little more. If the movie is going to be ore than a polemic, it’s got to build on Dewhurst’s dilemma.

I like that.

But, MY CHOICE TO PLAY DAVID DEWHURST: Colin Firth

Why Colin Firth?

The stutter, and the empathy I think Firth would bring to the role. (They can make him up to look older than he is.)

From a story I wrote on the eve of Dewhurst’s May 2014 primary runoff loss to Patrick, coming after his defeat two years earlier in a runoff with Ted Cruz for U.S. Senate.

Dewhurst found himself being challenged for the Senate by, among others, Cruz, who would turn out to be a once-in-a-generation political talent — a championship debater at Princeton and former solicitor general for Texas who had argued nine cases before the Supreme Court. Dewhurst put $20 million of his own money into the campaign, spending a lot on attack ads that hurt him more than Cruz. Most crucial for Cruz, the campaign calendar was stretched by court battles over redistricting, giving him time to mount a campaign that forced a runoff, and he stampeded to victory in the midsummer runoff.

Now, in an awful deja vu for Dewhurst, he is facing, in Patrick, another natural talker — a former sports broadcaster who for years has made his name as a conservative talk radio host on a station he owns in Houston.

“It’s very frustrating for me,” Dewhurst said in an interview in his campaign office Monday, just before going over to the early voting trailer at the H-E-B at Oltorf Street and Congress Avenue to cast his ballot. “On any given day, I’m going to be a slower talker than Dan Patrick or Ted Cruz because my father was killed by a drunk driver when I was 3, and it must have been so traumatic because for a while I couldn’t speak and then I had a horrible stutter.”

“It was a long time before I started to get it under control,” Dewhurst said. “In ninth grade, I was president of the student council, and I would try to preside over meetings, but I couldn’t talk sometimes.”

The remnants of his speech problem are still well in evidence. He speaks slowly — more slowly if he’s tired — and very deliberately.

Campaign staffers have in the past urged him to just speak from the heart and not overthink everything he is about to say, but the desire to get things just so seems to have become a general habit of mind.

The other Democrats in the Senate get roles of varying size.

Watson plays Davis’ foil – a friend and ally but just lacking a little of her moxie until the close of the filibuster when he delivers in brilliant fashion.

The script makes it plain why Davis was chosen to make history.

MY CHOICE TO PLAY KIRK WATSON: Billy Bob Thornton.

You want someone with a little friendly tension with Wendy/Sandra. Someone who can puncture her sanctimony, appear a bit world weary but who rises to the occasion and sounds like he’s really from Texas.

There are a couple of other meaty roles.

Sonya Grogg, as Davis’ chief of staff, is the woman behind the woman. The script describes here as a “young Wendy in the making.”

Dr. Lisa Chang is the 28-year-old physician – I have no idea if that is her actual name – who fits Davis with the catheter that enables her to make it through the filibuster, which allows for no bathroom breaks. Only the catheter is too large and painfully cumbersome so Dr. Chang has to rush over through impossible Austin traffic and an impossible line to get into the Capitol, to fit Davis with a more appropriately-sized catheter moments before the filibuster begin.

I predict the catheter scenes will be Oscar bait.

And, by the way, it’s Donna Campbell, a physician, who realizes Davis is catheterized.

 

There’s also a nice part in Javier Costa, the wide-eyed 21-year-old intern who arrives in Davis’ office on Sine Die of the regular session and finds himself thrust into the middle of history and playing his own pivotal role when he is dispatched, deep in to the filibuster, to the local CVS to procure a back brace Davis needs if she is oil to make it to midnight. Against all odds, Costa gets the brace to Davis just in the nick of time, although Sen Rodney Ellis’ memorable assist to Davis in getting the brace on cost her one of the there strikes she was allowed, imperiling the filibuster.

Ellis’ part is good, but doesn’t take full advantage of his personality.

Senate Parliamentarian Karina Davis – no relation to Wendy – has a nice little part in the thick of the filibuster action.

There are also roles, in flashback, for Jeff Davis, Wendy’s second husband, and former Austin Mayor Will Wynn, who plays her sympathetic and supportive boyfriend. It’s the kind of part Sam Shepard could have played, but, lamentably, he’s dead.

There is also, of course, Leticia Van de Putte, who the script describes as “Latina, confident, big-boned.”

The filibuster created the Democratic ticket in 2014 – Davis for governor and Sen. Leticia Van de Putte for lieutenant governor, though, for whatever reason, Davis kept her distance from Van de Putte during the campaign, which was odd considering their triumphant moment of sisterhood at the close of the filibuster.

As I wrote in a First Reading just after the election:

The most self-defeating and inexplicable aspect of the whole Wendy Davis campaign was the failure to take advantage of the party’s candidate for lieutenant governor.

Davis and Van de Putte should have campaigned side-by-side across the state. They needed each other. Van de Putte needed the exposure, needed to let Texans know who she was and that, notwithstanding her married name, she was actually Hispanic. And Davis desperately needed the Van de Putte touch. Van de Putte is warm and approachable and spontaneous where Davis is cool and distant and canned. It was Van de Putte who, arriving late in the filibuster after burying her father, delivered the killer line – “At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognized over her male colleagues?”- that threw the gallery into pandemonium and won the day for the Democrats.

And how does he screenplay handle that moment?

Very oddly.

Wait. What? Hold on.

In the script, Davis is delivering Van de Putte’s spontaneous, immortal line.

That’s just not right. They’ve got to fix that.

MY CHOICE TO PLAY LETICIA VAN DE PUTTE; Kathy Bates.

UPDATE:

In the script, as Davis, Kirk and the other Democrats celebrated after the filibuster, we see Rick Perry, in a silk bathrobe, over at the Governor’s Mansion, taking in the scene on TV, and talking to an aide on the phone.

That’s it. Perry could play himself. He’s got an equity card.

The Legislature passed the law in the next special session that Davis had filibustered, but three years later, the Supreme Court struck down the law.

But, for Davis and Texas Democrats, the political aftermath of the filibuster was a letdown.

A First Reading I wrote on the occasion of

Well, the adrenalin rush didn’t last, except maybe for Dan Patrick, who used the public flummoxing of David Dewhurst to launch a successful bid to remove and replace him. Davis’ gubernatorial campaign was a disaster. And somehow, when all the dust had settled, we had Sid Miller occupying the august office of Texas Agriculture Commissioner, once occupied by Jim Hightower and Rick Perry, and Ken Paxton succeeding Greg Abbott as attorney general.

From Robert Draper’s New York Times Magazine piece.

(T)he campaign had chosen as its lead narrative a heroic struggle of a different sort: that of a teenage, trailer-dwelling single mother, who, while raising two daughters, bootstrapped her way into Harvard Law School and soon, possibly, the governorship. On many levels, the story was politically exquisite. It connected the candidate and her devotion to issues like education in a personal rather than an ideological manner. It also sidestepped the divisive issue of abortion while framing her as the kind of hard-working mother to whom suburban women (a critical voting bloc) could relate. More broadly, as one of her Washington-based ad makers, Maura Dougherty, would tell me: “The bio connects her to Texans in a way that very few other things do. Her personal story makes her one of them.” Playing on the state’s self-reverence, the campaign titled the slick four-and-a-half-minute ad announcing her run for governor “A Texas Story.”

But it was also very much the story of a female politician — and was thus fraught with choices for which male candidates are seldom second-guessed by either voters or pundits. And, as it would develop two days after our drive around Fort Worth, the story was far from a tidy one.

In the movie, the tidy story makes a comeback and fits seamlessly with what led her to perform the Great Filibuster of 2013.

But, as I wrote in a First Reading  just after the 2014 eelection: O Pappy where art thou? What Wendy Davis could have learned from W. Lee O’Daniel:

Davis’ gubernatorial campaign peaked three months before it began, with her filibuster. From the moment she formally launched her campaign, it appeared to be an exercise in negative branding.

In other words, Davis ended up getting something less than the base Democratic vote. Not good. Jim Hogan, running for agriculture commissioner, did a great service by providing what amounted to a real-world control experiment. He raised no money. He did not campaign. He simply got his name on the ballot as the Democrat running against Sid Miller for agriculture commissioner and received 37 percent of the vote, two points less than Davis.

The 2014 election nationally had the lowest turnout in 72 years, since World War II, since Pappy O’Daniel roamed the campaign trail.

The starkest statistic of the Davis campaign is not the 20 percentage point margin by which she lost – vastly larger than former Houston Mayor Bill White’s 12.7 point loss four years ago to Gov Rick Perry – but how she lost it.

Attorney General Greg Abbott did not much improve on Perry’s performance – he received only 53,246 more votes than Perry out of a larger potential electorate. But Davis received 274,148 fewer votes than White, who has all the dynamism of Ferris Beuller’s high school economics teacher, and even though Davis would regularly remind voters at campaign appearance that her candidacy had generated more excitement than any Democratic candidate for governor in decades.

 

 

The screenplay ends, fittingly enough, with a call to action.

 

In the screenplay, that is followed by a note explaining what subsequently  happened to the people depicted in the movie.

One correction – Rodney Ellis is now a Harris County commissioner.

As for Davis’ vow to run again for office. We’ll see about that. Perhaps sooner than later.

But I got to figure being played by Sandra Bullock in a big-budget biopic has to be way better than being governor of Texas, and certainly far better than running for governor.

I admit I’m jealous.

If only there were a bankable star who could play me on the big screen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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