Why I Wrote CENTS

I can't point to a moment in time when a specific idea for CENTS popped into my head. Instead, the story of CENTS really came together as several story ideas converged in my mind. When I look back, what fascinates me now is how disparate some of the story concepts were in my mind, yet when combined, the natural elements of a story emerged.

A Story about Mathematics

For many years, I was aware that the Sloan Foundation gave grants to narrative feature films with science, technology and mathematics themes. Having a personal affinity for those themes, I knew someday I wanted to write a screenplay that involved math or science with the hope that the Sloan Foundation may ultimately support the project. I never specifically brainstormed story ideas with math and science. I just always kept the Sloan Foundation in the back of my mind.

The Need for a Female Protagonist

I spent several years trying to write a screenplay that I thought could sell, which meant writing mostly comedies. After writing a string of screenplays focused almost entirely on men and their foibles, I honestly got tired of writing those stories. Plus, these weren’t the stories I found myself watching when I watched movies.

I had not written a screenplay with a female protagonist in over six years, and I felt compelled to find a story with a female lead. Moreover, I have a young daughter who inspires me, and none of the writing I was doing at the time reflected anything in her world. I wanted my creative process to connect with her life in a meaningful way.

Rediscovering Middle School

Looking back on my own youth, I have very vivid memories of my social world changing dramatically starting in seventh grade. Like most early adolescents, I could only see how these changes impacted me and couldn’t possibly imagine that my friends were going through similar struggles or that my choices would affect their lives in any way.

Also, right around the time the idea of CENTS started to form in my mind, I began working with middle school students on a short film project. Naturally, their relationships and interactions not only inspired that film project, but also gave me insights into how to develop CENTS.

Finally, as the youngest of three boys who went to an all-boys middle school, I really had no idea what the experience of middle school and early adolescence would be like for my daughter. That scared me. And that meant I needed to do some research to be prepared.

Learning about Relational Aggression among Girls

Simply to get up to speed as a father, I started to read books by Rosalind Wiseman, Rachel Simmons and others on girls and relational aggression. The personal stories and experiences in these books really opened my eyes to the struggles young girls face in adolescence, especially how covert some girls could be in their relational aggression toward other girls.

With the rapid change in technology and how we communicate with one another, girls (and boys) now with a single tweet, text or Facebook update can inflict serious emotional damage on one another without really considering or understanding the consequences.

I need to learn and understand more about this world, and I find that writing screenplays gives me a way to explore others’ lives as well as my own in a creative way. Screenwriting for me is really a process of growth and self-discovery.

A Penny a Day

With all of these ideas swirling around in my head, something (I honestly can’t remember what) reminded me of the penny a day riddle I heard one day in math class in high school. The riddle goes like this:

If someone offers you a million dollars or promises to give you one penny on the first day of the month, then double the amount of pennies from the previous day on the next day, and so on and so forth for the entire month, which should you choose?

When this geometrical series riddle reintroduced itself into my consciousness with all of the other story ideas swirling around, I really thought this math problem could work as a great plot device in conjunction with a middle school penny drive.

Everything Comes Together

Once all of these ideas evolved and coalesced, I discovered that I had my character, my setting, my plot device and my conflict: a strong (yet flawed) female protagonist, middle school, mathematics and relational aggression. Nevertheless, even with all of these ideas converging, it still took two-and-a-half years and several drafts to get the screenplay to a place where it reached the semifinals of the Academy Nicholl Fellowship. Mainly, that's because writing is rewriting, and to make CENTS a screenplay worth shooting, I've really had to commit myself to the rewriting process, which frankly never ends.