“We met in high school, wrote a play and now we’re in Hollywood,” said writer Elizabeth Martin.
The other half of that “we” is Lauren Hynek, who has collaborated with Martin on dozens of projects during the years since they were in high school back in New England.
Martin and Hynek have not yet achieved the proverbial “household name” status, but Cincinnati theater audiences have good reason to remember their names. They curated and directed the Know Theatre’s memorable "We Will Rise: Stories from the Afghan Women’s Writing Project” during the 2011-2012 season, as well as a revised version two seasons later. More recently, they concocted a dark romantic comedy for the Know’s “Serials” series called “Saturday the 14th,” then resurrected it for a short run as part of the theater’s Second Stage series. Martin also is married to the Know’s producing artistic director, Andrew Hungerford, who splits his time between Los Angeles and Cincinnati.
Now, Martin and Hynek have leaped into one of the wilder experiences of their relatively short careers. In March 2015, the Hollywood Reporter announced that Disney had purchased the pair’s screenplay for a live-action version of “Mulan.” That’s Disney’s 1998 animated feature about a young Chinese woman who disguises herself as a man in order to go to war.
A Longtime Friendship
Hynek and Martin first met during their high school years in New England. Martin had a summer internship at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts, where Hynek was her boss.
"She was my slave labor," Hynek likes to joke.
The job lasted just a few months, but the friendship has endured. After high school, they reunited as colleagues in a small, commune-like Shakespeare company in New Hampshire where they lived in a barn. It was there that they decided to pursue screenwriting.
“We decided that if we were going to work that hard and not get paid, we wanted to be screenwriters,” recalled Hynek. “How hard could it be?”
They soon found out.
“The answer,” said Martin, “is very, very hard.”
They retreated to a cabin Martin’s parents own in Canada, hidden away from the outside world, and cranked out the screenplay for a horror movie called “Dead Stupid.”
Miracle of miracles, the screenplay was optioned. They had arrived -- kind of. Thousands of screenplays are optioned but never make it to the big screen. But this modest success meant that someone had faith in what they had written.
“It meant that we officially had a track record,” said Hynek. “It meant that we didn’t suck at this.”
But it’s a huge leap from there to selling a screenplay to one of the world’s largest and most influential media companies.
Trends Prove Fortuitous
Martin and Hynek are both inveterate followers of film industry trade publications. It was there that they noticed a couple of trends developing.
First was the increasing importance of China as a market for all manner of entertainment. Not only is China the world’s most populous country, but it also has a rapidly growing middle class, meaning there were more people than ever in a position to afford leisure time activities -- like movies.
The second had to do with Disney itself. They knew that Disney was producing a live-action version of “Cinderella” directed by Kenneth Branagh.
“We knew from that that live-action was a concept that Disney was interested in,” said Martin.
That intuition proved astute. Since that time, reports have said that Disney has begun exploring live-action versions of “Beauty and the Beast,” “Dumbo,” “Winnie the Pooh,” “The Jungle Book” and “Pinocchio.”
“We still love theater and that intimate relationship between actors and audience,” insisted Martin. “But the potential payday of a movie career is significantly different to that of a theater career. That was appealing. Besides, if you really want to have a global impact, movies are the biggest audience you can possibly have. And we think we have something to say about the world.”
Telling a ‘Strong Woman’s Story’
Underneath the love of showbiz and the shared passion for the stage, these two are impassioned social crusaders.
“We’re interested in telling a very strong woman’s story,” said Martin. “So we do love that ‘Mulan’ does not fit into Disney’s princess canon. She has a kingdom to save. We have friends who have small daughters now. It continues to inspire us to want to write heroes for them.”
Rescripting “Mulan” was a natural for them.
About the time Martin came to Cincinnati to direct “Friday the 14th” at the Know in early 2015, Disney issued a press release officially announcing their interest in a live-action “Mulan.” There was only one problem.
“We had not finished our screenplay yet,” said Hynek.
“We thought, ‘Write faster, write faster,’” said Martin.
So just as they had with that horror movie so many years earlier, they set aside everything else and poured all their energies into polishing their screenplay. A little more than three months later, Disney bought it. In Hollywood terms, a turnaround like that is almost unheard of.
There is still no official word about when the movie might actually go into production, or who might direct it. Or, for that matter, star in it. One rumor suggests “Fresh Off the Boat” actress Constance Wu as a possibility. Others suggest that “Glee” star Jenna Ushkowitz might be cast.
And there are dozens of petitions bouncing around online insisting that Disney not “whitewash” the cast by hiring non-Asian actors to play Asian roles.
If Hynek and Martin know anything, they’re not telling. When and if there are announcements to be made, those will come from Disney.
All they know for sure is how incredibly fortunate they are to be in this position. Their association with Disney has given them instant recognition in the film industry. They’ve become deeply involved with the Writer’s Guild of America and are constantly being advised about new writing opportunities.
“Being a screenwriter – a successful one – is less likely than being in the NFL or the Major Leagues,” said Martin.
“There are parts of it that still don’t feel real,” said Hynek.