Susannah Grant

March 24, 2021
Online Originals

A Woman's Voice

Several of Susannah Grant’s major projects revolve around women who made their mark on history

Hillary Atkin

Flash back to the early 1990s.

While attending the American Film Institute, Susannah Grant was awarded one of the five annual Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting.

The New York City native then found herself co-scripting the animated feature film Pocahontas before landing her first television writing job on the then-nascent Fox network shortly after graduation.

Being in the writers room on Party of Five, which ran for six seasons beginning in 1994, gave her a strong foothold in the industry as she began a career in television and film as a talented writer who would go on to create shows and direct for the big and small screens.

Along the way came accolades including Academy Award, WGA and BAFTA nominations for writing 2000's Erin Brockovich, based on the story of the real-life environmental crusader. (The film also won acclaim for director Steven Soderbergh and stars Julia Roberts and Albert Finney.)

A number of Grant's other projects are based on the inspirational stories of women who have fought the system, including the story of Anita Hill which was dramatized in the 2015 HBO telefilm Confirmation and the 2019 Netflix limited series Unbelievable, which chronicled the battle of a teenage rape survivor to be heard and believed.

Party of Five was nominated for four Primetime Emmy Awards including a writing nod for Grant as well as the Television Academy Honors award. She also received the prestigious Writers Guild of America's Valentine Davies award in 2011, an honor given to those whose contributions to the industry and the community at large have brought dignity and honor to writers everywhere.

Among her other issue-driven screenplays are The Soloist and 28 Days. But not all her projects carry such gravitas. She's also known for lighter fare like In Her Shoes and Ever After: A Cinderella Story.

Currently working on several upcoming projects including one based on the life of Cosmopolitan magazine founder Helen Gurley Brown, we caught up with Grant by phone from her home office in Santa Monica Canyon.

Our discussion touched not only on her work but on the changes she's seen over the past three decades regarding gender equity, diversity and inclusion in Hollywood.

What was your experience like on your first television writing job on Party of Five? For those not familiar with this series, it centered on five siblings raising themselves after their parents were killed in an accident involving a drunk driver.

I met the showrunners as they were staffing up, and I loved them and loved the pilot. I hadn't planned on working in TV but I loved them and the integrity of the show and the feel of it.

I had already done two years of working on features. Then I got married and thought 'I don't want to work every waking minute.' So after three years, I scaled back to consulting.

The writing staff was fantastic. The actors, including Neve Campbell, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Scott Wolf, Matthew Fox, and Lacey Chabert, were really new. For most of them it was their first or second show and there was so much enthusiasm and excitement being on a set every day. I also loved the vibrancy of writing while other episodes were shooting and editing.

You hear so many stories of women and people of color being discriminated against in writers rooms. What was the room like for you?

It was gender balanced. It was a family show, and with everyone there it felt like being with family. We would talk about our friendships and early love stories. There is no better way to get to know everyone then talking about your first loves. I'm still friends with everyone in that room.

The work reflected that. It was a great show. People say it really resonated and it's because [creators] Chris [Keyser] and Amy [Lippman] are very heart-centric.

After Party of Five, you created the series A Gifted Man starring Patrick Wilson as a surgeon whose ex-wife teaches him life lessons from the hereafter. It ran on CBS for two seasons in 2011 and 2012.

I did that show with Sarah Timberman. She'd been a network executive during Party of Five, and had become a producer. She approached me with the idea, and I wrote it and we shot the pilot. I was not going to run the show, as I was doing something else, so didn't have much to do with the day to day, but launched it.

Let's talk about Confirmation, the story of Anita Hill's testimony in 1992 during the hearings to confirm Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas. Her testimony about sexual harassment in the workplace served to bring newfound attention to a widespread problem in our society.

When the hearings happened, I was just starting my professional life and watched every minute, riveted, horrified at what was a concerted effort to discredit her. The hearings were not fair to Anita Hill.

Anyone who had been out of high school had those images seared into their minds--they were indelible. It was really a pivot point in our collective vocabulary and dialog about sexual harassment.

What interested me was Anita Hill's experience away from the mic, the hearing room and the TV cameras and to an extent, those of Clarence Thomas and Joe Biden. They were not interested in giving me any more than in the public record.

There had been two seminal books about the hearings and reporting on what was discussed. At the time, there was no time for reporters to dig into the allegations.

I wrote the script before Anita would agree to work with us. She wanted to feel our intentions. She had said that her law students had never heard of her. I thought it was important that her story not be erased, as women's stories are erased at a far quicker rate than men's. Making sure her story was not erased was important to me.

Kerry Washington came on board and was a fantastic collaborator. Kerry had all her own questions of Anita and we met as a threesome several times. It was wonderful.

Unbelievable, the recent Netflix limited series also deals with sexual assault, the knifepoint rape of a young woman who is accused of lying about it, which is based on a true story. Tell us more about that experience.

It is another story about a woman not being believed. It's not that people don't believe women, it's that people don't care. No one doubts that women are sexually assaulted. One of the goals of Unbelievable is to make people care, to turn the dial a little bit. I'm realistic about what change can come, aside from telling a gripping story, but we wanted to move the dial and make them care a little bit more.

Sarah Timberman optioned the Pulitzer Prize-winning work of Ken Armstrong and T. Christian Miller about the case and put a team together and made the show. We reached out and told Marie Adler what we were doing, and kept the door open, but she'd already told her story and I didn't want to burden her.

She was always available and incredibly generous with the experience. The ONLY reason she participated is because it might prevent the same thing from happening to someone else. That's heroic. I'm really grateful to her.

When it came out, I watched on Twitter a conversation all around the world of people having been raped and not believed and finding a fellowship and community. To me it was incredibly moving.

Erin Brockovich, for which you wrote the screenplay and were nominated for an Oscar and won a PEN Center literary award, was not only a huge box office hit but was an inspirational biopic about how one woman almost single-handedly brought down a California power company causing devastating illnesses from its toxic pollution.

The big headline is Erin herself. She is every bit as wonderful of a woman as she was portrayed and especially if you follow the work she's done since then. I saw her 18 months ago. We did an event, and we couldn't get her out of the theater. This is the thing--she wanted to talk to everyone--she cares about everyone and feels they deserve to be heard.

The beauty of her and of the movie and obviously the really important environmental themes about perseverance and making a difference is the essence of what I find so admirable and beautiful.

I had a general meeting with Jersey Pictures. I had written one film that hadn't been released and didn't have a track record, but after weeks of persistence they let me meet her. We got on like a house on fire and saw a lot in each other. She had writer approval.

Not all of your work involves such weighty topics, so tell us about In Her Shoes that you co-wrote, starring Cameron Diaz, Toni Collette and Shirley MacLaine.

It's based on a wonderful book by Jennifer Weiner. I adapted it and [director] Curtis Hanson was a mentor to me and a delight, an utter joy and so generous. Curtis had me in rehearsals and on set and I love the movie and have a tremendous fondness for it. Cameron Diaz, Toni Colette and Shirley MacLaine are iconic and brilliant in it.

There is a whole category of men who approach me and look sheepish and tell me that they've really loved it. They have watched it with their partners and it's like [I feel] little hearts around my eyes.

In light of the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements, what changes have you seen in your worlds?

I'm a writer primarily. All the rooms have been very equitable. I look at stats, and there are more women writers and directors and in crews as well. It's changing, it's slow, and people in power are resistant to change, but I think it's improving – and it has to be.

It's about what voices we elevate. If you look at my work, it tends to have a theme of women's voices. It demonstrates why it's important for all voices to be heard. We need to be elevating entertainment from everyone who's a part of our community.

What are your thoughts on adapting versus original?

I like them both. I loved taking something in another form and turning it into a film or a limited series to tell a story to a wider audience. I also love seeing what my unconscious will pick up in an original.

The series world is so interesting creatively, because of its flexibility. To me, the decision of a limited series or feature film is dictated by content.


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