by Andrea Davis
It all started with a 6th grade writing contest back in Montana. Patrick Tobin entered his short story and it took second place. He says of the experience: “I loved it. I discovered this writing thing is FUN.” Today Patrick is an award-winning fiction writer and is the screenwriter of Cake, which he adapted from his own short story of the same title. The film opened January 23rd, is in theaters now and stars Jennifer Aniston in the role of Claire Bennett, a difficult woman who suffers chronic pain.
Patrick credits his mom and dad with introducing him to the arts. “The thing about my parents was, they were a good mix. My dad loved movies. He would take me to things that probably weren’t super appropriate… like Taxi Driver. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. I mean, what other 4th grader was going to see these movies? But I did, and I loved it. This was in the 70’s in Montana. And my mom was a reader. She’d give me her Agatha Christie mysteries to read in 3rd, 4th grade. The thing is, I was more interested in adult worlds.”
What Would Happen If…?
Claire Bennett, the main character and chronic pain sufferer in Patrick’s movie Cake seems to need to learn how to trust people. The story behind Cake was sparked when a friend of Patrick’s who ran a support group for chronic pain sufferers, told him about how giving and supportive the members of this group were for each other. Patrick says that got him thinking… “What if there was one woman who was kind of a bitch? That made me laugh. I wrote the first scene and then I though, ok, what’s going to happen next?” In fact, Patrick elaborates that his writing process most often starts with the question: “What would happen if—?”
Lessons from High School Years
Learning how to talk with adults is one of the most important things Patrick Tobin says he learned in high school. “I had a really great English teacher who treated me like an adult. I think it’s important for kids to find adults who will talk to them on that level: being treated like a person whose ideas matter. That’s good training… well, that’s good training for anything!” And what does Patrick wish he’d learned back in high school? Something you won’t find on a syllabus: “I wish I had learned to not be so hard on myself. I had a lot of doubt, a lot of insecurity and I was shy. And as a result, I think I was really hard on myself back then and I wish I hadn’t been.”
Through high school, Patrick continued to write, sometimes for himself, sometimes for school projects. He says he had some great teachers who made writing and reading fun. “It never felt like a chore. Inherently I’m an introvert. I LOVE the solitary experience of writing. It never gets too solitary for me. Don’t get me wrong— I like people, but that takes a lot of energy. And the thing about writing, it gives you permission to be alone. But you’re never really alone when you write. You’re with the characters you create.
There Will Be Failures
As an undergraduate at the University of Southern California in the School of Cinema, Patrick signed up for a short story writing class taught by T. C. Boyle. “I totally lucked out. The class was filled with creative writing majors, and then there was me. T.C. Boyle was inspiring. One of the best teachers I’ve ever had. So eccentric and so good! But I did get feedback from another student that haunts me to this day. She told me in class, ‘You write really well, but I feel like this is a Hallmark card.’ That really hurt. But she was right. My writing didn’t reflect who I was.” So what does Patrick do when he hears criticism like that? Or meets with failure? He advises: “Let yourself feel the sadness. If there’s any anger or disappointment, you let yourself feel that, too. And then you get back to something that matters to you. Because you will have failures.”
Patrick shares a story he makes funny with the distance of years and healing. After he’d completed both a BA and then an MFA from USC in screenwriting, after he’d experienced the strange and difficult odyssey of seeing his low-budget script produced and then essentially shelved (No Easy Way starring Khandi Alexander), he found himself thinking that Hollywood wasn’t going to happen for him. He was given the opportunity to live in Stockholm, where he decided to return to writing short stories. “Pretty much everything I wrote that year got published,” Patrick shares with a combination of excitement with humility. Cake was among the works he honed by participating in on-line writing groups and workshops. Patrick submitted Cake to the Kenyon Review, where it was snatched up and published with high praise. Dave Eggers included it in the anthology 2008 Best American Non-Required Reading List, where it caught the eye of a literary agent in New York, who contacted Patrick and signed him. They talked about what he should write next, and when she heard about Patrick’s life— his dad was a con man and has been in and out of jail—she encouraged him to write about his own life. A memoir. “Typically, you do a 40-50 page proposal with a sample chapter. I started on it and wrote and wrote, and I decided just to write the memoir and skip doing the proposal and sample chapter. I took two years and then I sent the agent a draft. She read it and she told me… ‘It just isn’t very good.’ And she was right. The thing with writing a proposal first: it makes you focus. Yeah. So, you will have failures. And I can say now that it was a valuable experience.”
A Second Slice of Cake
It wasn’t until 2009, when Cake was selected by the Beverly Hills Library for the monthly live reading of distinguished short stories that Patrick, hearing it performed, realized “This would make a great movie!” He had returned to Southern California from Stockholm, and was working in marketing. Patrick devoted his scant free time to the adaptation. He gave it to trusted friends to read for feedback and then started rewriting it. “I kept working on it and kept entering it in screenplay competitions. I realized I was on the right track when it kept placing. When I entered Cake in a local screenplay contest called Cinestory, Daniel Barnz (director of Cake) was a judge. He wrote me and introduced himself. I watched his films and thought he was a really good director, so I met with him. He optioned it— he and his husband Ben, who is a producer. Their agency, WME, got behind it.” Patrick relates that it took some time to cast Claire, but once Jennifer Aniston committed, the production fell into place. They finished the film in time for the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival, where it premiered to great reviews for the screenwriting, directing and performances.
My Writing Journey Is Its Own Thing
And now… what’s next? Patrick is working on developing another film with David and Ben Barnz, based on his short story Hysteron Proteron (a horror / sci fi piece previously published in Gulf Stream) and has a spec script that is an homage to the telethons of the 60’s. Patrick is also looking at an array of writing assignments, most of which involve adaptations. “It’s hard work and it’s competitive and it’s all on spec. I’ve been sent some great books. You have to read the book as a reader, then read it again as a writer, then dissect it and put it back together as a screenplay. It’s easy to get burnt out.” And that rejected memoir? Patrick is retooling it, folding in a narrative non-fiction essay about his father, for television.
Patrick’s parting advice for young writers and creatives and well, for life in general: Don’t measure your success by the success of others. “I wish I’d believed earlier in my career that it doesn’t matter who is successful or not, that my writing journey is its own thing. All that anxiety and feeling bad about yourself doesn’t make you a better writer. It makes you dissatisfied with not just your career but your life. I’ve learned to be happy with whatever success I achieve.”
Ice cream, pie or cake? Cake, of course.
Please check out Patrick’s website www.patricktobin.net for more insights into his writing, his process and Tracy Partridge.
Official website for the film Cake: www.cakemovie.net
Some screenplay competitions: www.cinestory.org, http://www.nantucketfilmfestival.org/screenwriting/competitions/
Patrick’s favorites: Charlotte Bronte’s novel Volette, Hitchcock’s film Notorious (or anything screenwriter Ben Hecht has written), Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, David Foster Wallace’s Supposedly Fun Things I Will Never Do Again, Sunset Magazine
Author Andrea Davis worked as a development executive in the film business after having earned her Masters Degree in Production from the Cinema-TV department at USC. Despite this, she still loves to watch movies and television. She lives in the Los Angeles area with her husband and three children.