A tip for liberal arts majors: The next time someone asks snidely what you could possibly do with your field of interest - say, Elizabethan and Jacobean drama - here's your answer: "Help make the highest-grossing movie in history."
With Laeta Kalogridis as your role model, taunters have to shut up.
Twenty-three years ago, she left Davidson College with a profound understanding of 17th-century theater. Six weeks ago, James Cameron thanked her at the Golden Globe Awards for her help with "Avatar"; she earned an executive producer's credit for spending 81/2 years as his adviser and sounding board.
She's riding two waves of success at the moment: "Shutter Island," for which she has sole script credit, opened at the top of the U.S. box office last weekend. Director Martin Scorsese so liked her screenplay that he barely asked for changes and never brought another writer on board to touch it up.
"It's a director's medium," she says. "You're in service of his vision, 100 percent. But I think of myself as someone who works collaboratively with directors in service of that vision. I'm not a stenographer."
What she was, until this year, was one of the best-kept secrets in Hollywood. She'd spent this decade working on an English-language adaptation of the Russian horror film "Night Watch," a much-ignored remake of a Viking drama ("Pathfinder"), Oliver Stone's much-reviled biopic "Alexander" and two short-lived TV shows, "Birds of Prey" and the "Bionic Woman" remake.
But her uncredited work on "Scream 3," "Tomb Raider" and other action films had made her a presence behind the scenes.
"Like a lot of people, I sold my first script in graduate school at UCLA, a 'Joan of Arc' for producer Joel Silver. (It was never shot.) I finished my degree and did a great deal of paid writing on movies that didn't get made.
"I hadn't had things end up in production, where people (saw) my name, but I was making a very good living in the '90s," she said. "To be a working writer is the holy grail, where you don't have three other jobs on top of that."
Professors remember her
Her success doesn't surprise two women she considers mentors from her Davidson days, Cynthia Lewis and Elizabeth Mills.
Lewis, who taught her drama, recalls a young woman who was "self-assured, fearless and, of course, very verbal, one of those ultra-gifted students...for whom you can take little credit. Her screenwriting has come as something of a surprise because, in the '80s, she couldn't take courses in screenwriting at Davidson. Her strengths as a writer and a collaborator would have predicted her current success."
Mills gave young Laeta (pronounced LEE-ta) the top mark in a Women Writers class that included several future professors and novelist Sheri Reynolds. What stood out about Kalogridis?
"Her energy - absolutely non-stop," says Mills. "Her creativity - edgy, yet grounded in clear thinking. Her questions - frequent, unpredictable, original. Her love of purple - I think she wore purple to class every day. I can still see her: slight build, dark curly hair, flowy purple clothing, hand in the air.
"She always seemed very independent to me, not needing other people's approval. Years after she'd graduated and moved to California, she called me to talk about being pregnant, (wondering) if she'd be able to combine motherhood and work. Clearly, she's been a great success there."
In fact, kids may make Kalogridis even more creative. She can share with them the two closets full of comic books she has collected, and she is about to write a PG-13 version of the scarily comic "Demonkeeper" that her sons might enjoy.
A penchant for darkness
In fact, all her future projects - including a live-action remake of the animated masterpiece "Ghost in the Shell" - are in the action or horror fields. There, too, she draws on what she learned at Davidson.
"I'm a big fan of (the violent Jacobean writers) John Webster and John Fletcher," she says. "Violence in drama is an external contextualization of internal conflicts. People talk about violence being gratuitous, but not all of it is. Look at 'Hamlet,' where you have only two people standing at the end.
"I've always felt the idea that something is inherently masculine about violence is mistaken. I've never felt intimidated by it. As a means of storytelling, it's a good way to get at certain things."
But it's also a way Hollywood has traditionally barred to women. Kalogridis and Kathryn Bigelow, Oscar-nominated director of "The Hurt Locker," are among the few allowed to explore it on film.
"On one hand, my gender has never been an issue," says Kalogridis. "The issue has always been what's on the page. But the reality is, an awful lot of women fought an awful lot of battles to get me to that place.
"Kathryn has been saying what we all hope for: The goal should be for the appellation 'female director' to be meaningless. Ultimately, the work is there, or it isn't. That's all that should matter."