Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Tricia Hopper: Once a Rider, Now the Writer of “Rodeo Girl”

It was a family tragedy that started Tricia Hopper on the path of becoming a screenwriter. In 1992, when her brother died of AIDS, she wrote a play about a family facing a similar ordeal, and toured it in high schools across Southern California. Then, because she’d always loved movies, she started studying the craft of screenwriting through classes in UCLA Extension’s famous Writers’ Program. (That’s where I had the pleasure of getting to know her.) Always diligent and enthusiastic, Tricia also read how-to books and took workshops, like one offered by screenwriting guru Jeff Kitchen.

Of course, fully half of SoCal’s residents are working on screenplays, as a visit to any local Starbucks will attest. But Tricia has had the good fortune to see one of her projects filmed and released. Rodeo Girl, a wholesome and inspirational script about a teenaged girl, her horse, and her estranged father was bought and produced by Vertical Entertainment. The production values aren’t all that Tricia would have wished for, but she’s a professional screenwriter now—and that’s cause for celebration.

 Rodeo Girl began as a screenplay by Aletha Rodgers, whom she’d met in Jeff Kitchen’s workshop. When Aletha asked for Tricia’s critique of her work, Tricia found herself drawn into the world of rodeo. They joined forces, meeting three times a week for over a year. Aletha showed her the importance of deeply researching the rodeo world, and she herself contributed the complex father-daughter relationship that adds tension to the proceedings. Once they’d finished, the script started getting optioned. A mere twelve years later (nothing happens quickly in Hollywood), their third option evolved into a deal with Joel Paul Reisig, a producer-director with whom she’d connected online through InkTip. He’d been looking for a horse story with a young girl as a protagonist, and Rodeo Girl nicely filled the bill.  

The story of Rodeo Girl takes place in Oklahoma, where young Priscilla (Sophie Bolen) moves past her earlier biases and learns to become a champion barrel racer, but the film was shot in Michigan. Since Tricia wasn’t present on the set, she was later surprised by a number of changes that had been made in her script. Her heroine -- who starts out as an equestrienne in a formal riding habit devoted to the world of show-jumping -- was originally supposed to be English, but the production honchos made her American. They hired a actor of some repute, Kevin Sorbo (Hercules), to play the father character: though his gruff presence in the film is effective, all of his scenes had to be shot in three days, and his salary ate up half the production budget. There was also some tweaking of important plot points, as well as the addition of a romantic interest who (though certainly a good guy) seems a tad too mature for a fourteen-year-old girl.  

Some of the changes, including some downplaying of the father-daughter relationship, at first made Tricia cringe, but she’s pleased that the world of bronco-busting and rodeo clowns shows up vividly on screen. Philosophically she insists that “it always feels good to accomplish something you set out to do. We all know how hard it is to get a script made into a movie.” In future, she hopes to have more control over her projects. She’s just finished her first novel, and a hotshot agent wants a look. If the book is successful and Hollywood wants to turn it into a movie, she’ll insist that a gig as its screenwriter will be part of her deal. Way to go, Tricia!

I’m always delighted to put in a plug for the good folks (and great teachers) at UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program. Courses are available either on the UCLA campus, at several other SoCal locations, or online. There’s a wide array of screenwriting courses to choose from, and spring enrollment is ramping up right now. So what are you waiting for?


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