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The Cinderella stories of Aline Brosh McKenna

by Naomi Pfefferman

December 30, 2011 | 7:30 pm

Aline Brosh McKenna

When Aline Brosh McKenna pitched her very first script in her first screenwriting class circa 1990, her words were met by a hushed, possibly startled, silence.  The setting was an extension course at New York University: “I just remember somebody writing something about an art gallery owner that was going to have a lot of surrealism, dream sequences and was heavily Ingmar Bergman-inspired,” said McKenna, now 44 and one of the most successful scribes in Hollywood.

Her idea was far more mainstream:  “a caper comedy about two girls, one of whom falls in love with someone she thinks is a criminal, but who turns out to be an FBI agent,” she said in her office not far from Temple Israel of Hollywood, where her two sons attend day school. “I just wanted to write a commercial film inspired by all the screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s that I loved.  I was always looking for a way to update those movies, which had such great female roles.”

By her mid-20s, McKenna had sold her caper film; she went on to become a go-to scribe for romantic comedies about plucky female underdogs who often get the job and the guy:  modern-day Cinderellas.  “The Devil Wears Prada,” based on the novel by Lauren Weisberger and starring Meryl Streep, embroils Anne Hathaway in more than fashion hell when she becomes the editorial assistant to an ice queen of the couture magazine world.  A New Yorker cartoon of Streep as the publishing doyenne hangs on a wall in McKenna’s office. 

“27 Dresses” stars Katherine Heigl in a part based on a friend of McKenna’s who participated in 12 weddings before herself tying the knot.  A poster from that box office hit adorns a different wall, with a wedding day headshot of McKenna’s friend photoshopped onto Heigl’s body. 

Nearby hangs a logo from Britain’s Rosemoor Wildlife Park, which inspired Cameron Crowe’s “We Bought a Zoo,” now in theaters, starring Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson with a screenplay co-written by McKenna.

A stack of fairy tale books suggests a project that McKenna, with her penchant for Cinderella stories, was perhaps bound to write: Disney’s new live action film, based on the classic fairy tale “Cinderella,” which sold for a reported seven figure pitch, according to Collider.com

According to The Wrap, “Disney…made the 1950 animated classic Cinderella, and, though [McKenna’s] project was shopped around town, it fit the Rich Ross/Disney branded family film mandate like, well, a glass slipper…That Cinderella storyline isn’t virgin territory: in recent years, Fox used the concept for the Drew Barrymore-starrer ‘Ever After’ and Warner Bros. used it for the Hilary Duff-starrer ‘A Cinderella Story.’”

During our interview, McKenna described how her Cinderella would differ from previous renditions, while flipping through her own beloved book of fairy tales from childhood.  “This kills me,” she said (meaning she’s touched), as she landed on an illustration of Cinderella, barefoot and ragged, sitting under a forlorn, caged bird.  McKenna’s heroine will be far less pitiful:  “She’s somebody who’s learning to go after what she wants,” said McKenna, settling into a chair near a gleaming, manual typewriter – her joke about the term Jack Warner coined for screenwriters:  “schmucks with Underwoods.”  “Basically, she gets separated from the prince and has to find her way back to him, but it’s more complicated than that.  She’s very active and independent.”

“’Cinderella’ is one of the most primal of stories,” McKenna said of why she keeps returning to the motif.  “The phrase ‘It’s a Cinderella story’ has become a catchall for any underdog story:  ‘Rocky’ and ‘Rudy’ and all sports movies are Cinderella stories. 

“Most of the time you figure out why you’re drawn to something while you’re writing it,” she added.  “I’m drawn to people who are underestimated, or have to fight their way through something.  It’s people who make their own lives and their own luck, which is what my parents did.”

McKenna was born in France to a veteran of Israel’s War of Independence and a Frenchwoman who, as girl, was hidden from the Nazis on farms near Lyon.  “My mother was always matter-of-fact about her wartime experiences, and spoke of them like I’d talk about moving from one house in New Jersey to another,” said McKenna, who relocated to the Garden State with her family as a baby.

McKenna’s father, a sabra, was shot and wounded while on patrol with his scout troupe before the 1948 war; the young man standing next to him was killed.  “But my father never talked about it,” McKenna recalled.  “My parents were tough Jews who survived a lot and have lived in many countries.  I was always struck by the fact that the dilemmas my brother and I had growing up were so miniscule compared to what they had been through.”

Even though McKenna’s mother had lived on farms as a girl, neither she nor her husband, an engineer, had any experience caring for animals when they bought their own menagerie in Montvale, New Jersey when Aline was 7.  (This inexperience was one of the connections McKenna discovered she had to the protagonists of “We Bought a Zoo.”)

Her family’s own property was an oasis amidst the suburban sprawl, complete with horses, chickens, roosters, ducks, dogs and a cat always in the barn.  “Everyone else in the neighborhood had regular houses with regular lawns, but we had this rambling property with a stream running through it and a pond we skated on in the winter,” she said.  “What we started to learn from the responsibility of taking care of animals was profound.  You become very matter of fact about rats and all the denizens of the barn, and you do have a different connection to life and death.  The horses would get sick, and we’d spend long evenings when it would be dark out, and the vet would be there and we’d have lights set up in the barn.  It wasn’t a small animal that would be down, it was this giant being.” 

McKenna differed from her suburban classmates in other ways as well:  “ “Where I grew up it was so ‘regular;’ it was America, people ate baloney sandwiches,” she said.  “But in my lunch box there would be a hunk of salami or cheese, and when people came over our refrigerator was filled with steamed leeks and halva.  All of which I would love now, but then, I was like, ‘Where’s the Wonderbread?’

”The other lady at carpool had big acrylic nails and a bouffant hairdo and smoked out the window, but my mother was still very much a Frenchwoman,” McKenna said.  “A lot of American cultural norms were strange to her—she was always so mystified by Halloween, among other things.  There was one year where she carefully filled zip lock bags with crudités and handed them out.  It’s just that as a child you want to be like everyone else, so these differences were inherently funny – mortifying and funny at the same time.”

All this fueled McKenna’s budding sense of humor:  “Being funny means you’re honest, almost to the point of transgression – you’re saying the thing that isn’t supposed to be said,” she explained.  “I think that people who are in some ways outsiders have more of a tendency to name the strange dynamic that has heretofore gone unnoticed.”

McKenna continued to hone her comic sensibility at Harvard University, where she found her niche directing theater.  Following her graduation in 1989, she co-authored a satirical guide for college women, “A Co-Ed’s Companion,” that was published the next year.  Then came an unsuccessful stint trying to break into the women’s magazine business before the script she wrote at NYU secured her an agent.  He got her her first job, a blind deal at Universal; thus McKenna was off on her own Hollywood Cinderella story. 

Her big break came when she was hired to write the screenplay for “The Devil Wears Prada,” a 2006 film for which she drew on her own dismal experience in the magazine business. “Of all the things I’ve tried to do in my adult life that I’ve failed at, that was the worst,” she said.  “I could not get any traction whatsoever.  Like Anne Hathaway’s character, I had been that young person in New York, trying really hard to break in. 

“But I also loved Meryl Streep’s character [Hathaway’s boss], a woman who has achieved so much in life yet still feels like nobody is helping her. The director would always be reminding me, ‘It’s “The Devil Wears Prada,” not “The Not-So-Nice-Woman Wears Prada.”’”

McKenna calls “Prada,” along with “27 Dresses” and “I Don’t Know How She Does It,” her love-work trilogy: “They’re really about a woman’s relationship to her work,” she said.  The New York Times magazine titled its recent profile of McKenna, “If Cinderella Had a Blackberry.” 

After penning a coterie of Cinderella-esque features, it’s only fitting that McKenna is now writing a re-imagining of the actual Cinderella story:  “It will be set in fairy tale time and done like a wondrous kind of fairy tale with some comic elements,” she said. (The director will be Mark Romanek of “Never Let Me Go” and “One Hour Photo.”)

The project began during a conversation with her friend, Simon Kinberg, a screenwriter who had worked on 2009’s remake of “Sherlock Holmes,” starring Robert Downey, Jr and Jude Law, and who will produce the new Cinderella film.  “We were talking about classic stories that had not yet been updated, and I mentioned Cinderella, which in some ways I’ve written versions of, but I hadn’t seen a live-action version that was sort of fun, a bit swashbuckling and an exciting adventure.  So we came up with a pitch that I took around, hoping that Disney would be interested, and they were.

“Even with these other elements, our film will definitely be a classic adaptation of the fairy tale; it will feel like one of these books come to life,” McKenna said, pointing out assorted tomes on magic and dragons around her office. 

“I’ve read 345 different versions of Cinderella,” she said of her research.  “It’s such a compelling story that many cultures have some version of it.  One of the fascinating things I’ve learned is that because so many women used to die in childbirth, many fairy tales deal with a man remarrying and with stepmothers.  It’s amazing how many cultures have an evil stepmother.  So yes, our stepmother will be pretty evil. 

“There’s something about Cinderella that’s really keyed into our primal imagination,” she said. 

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