Susan McMartin is Studio City based TV and feature film writer with credits including Californication, Two and a Half Men, and Another World. She is also a producer and writer on the hit series Mom.
As the great writing precept advises to write what you know, she always wanted to write about the man who helped raise her. When she was a child “Mr. Church” had come into her family’s life to cook. But he gave much, much more.
Mr. Church was smart, well read and had many talents. He made the most delectable meals from scratch using no recipes. “To this day I’ve never tasted a better chocolate cake,” recalls McMartin. He was a master with meat, making perfectly seasoned tacos and beef stews. He also made dresses for her dolls. He could draw anything and paint. A voracious reader, Mr. Church set up a library in her house and inspired her to read classics like The Three Musketeers and A Tale of Two Cities.
But most meaningful was how Mr. Church made McMartin feel. He routinely told her, ‘Susan, my dear, you can be anything you want to be." As she explains, “I would have probably gone down a really bad path if he hadn’t been in my life.”
Mr. Church passed away before McMartin’s daughter was born. “I mourned the fact that she would never know this man. He let me know that I could depend on him, that I wasn’t alone and was worth loving,” she shares. “He made me feel special and that I mattered when I felt very awkward and not special.”
But how could she begin to write the story about such an influential man in her life? There were so many stories to tell.
And then, more than seventeen years ago, while she was taking a walk, lines of dialogue popped into her head.
“Henry Joseph Church could have been anything he wanted to be. He chose to cook.”
Those two sentences gave her the inspiration she needed. She understood how to share their bond. They also became the first lines in the film. “My daughter is never going to meet the real Mr. Church,” she says. “But I’m going to have them meet in this story.” She began writing and the story poured out of her. “It was the fastest I ever wrote a script and I didn’t outline it,” says McMartin. “It told me where it wanted to go.”
She sent the first draft to her agents who fell in love with the screenplay. Despite it being a first draft, they immediately sent it to Samuel L. Jackson. For five years the film, then called Cook was optioned by Jackson and his people. They tried to get it made but there was always something preventing it. “Either we’d have a director and lose Sam or we’d have Sam and we’d lose a director or we couldn’t get the financing,” says McMartin. “It was just always something. You’re told Sam Jackson is going to do your movie. You just assume it’s going to happen and it didn’t."
When the option ran out after five years, the script sat on a shelf for three more. “I had put all my focus on other writing projects but never stopped thinking about or hoping or believing in it,” says the single divorced mom and sole supporter of her daughter. “But I had to put food on the table so I kept writing.” Then her writing career hit a serious slump. Not only couldn’t she get her movie made, she couldn’t get a writing job. “Nothing was happening,” shares McMartin who had always earned a living as a writer. She thought she would have to let go of her dreams.
Unable to get any job, even outside writing, she would get cash for used clothing and took her jewelry to pawn shops. “The whole time, my sweet daughter said, ‘Mommy, you’re a writer. It’s going to happen,’” recalls McMartin. “She never gave up on me. But I never let her feel the impact of my career and always made sure she felt safe and secure.”
Undeterred, McMartin kept writing. Mike Szymanski, editor of the StudioCityPatch.com gave her a weekly column to write about juggling being a single mom, having a career and dating. Although the column barely paid and then didn’t pay, the experience was priceless. “That column forced me to write every week and keep my voice strong even when I wasn’t being hired to write,” says McMartin. “People would write me, 'you encourage me to keep going,' That gave me hope.”
She also feels the column was instrumental in getting her TV writing job on Chuck Lorre’s Two and A Half Men, which ended her dry spell. “I had a meeting with Chuck about my scripts but at the last minute had my columns sent over. That also gave insight into who I am,” she explains.
McMartin’s manager, who never gave up on her script or stopped believing in her was in a meeting on a different project and mentioned her Mr. Church script to some producers. At this point, it had been gathering dust on the shelf for years. The producers were enthralled. Suddenly the film was back on track. “There was a part of me that thought, I’ve been down this road before, but I believed in them,” shares McMartin. “They said, ‘Susan, we’re going to make this movie.’"
They pulled all the pieces together and established a dream team. Legendary director Bruce Beresford (Breaker Morant, Tender Mercies, Driving Miss Daisy) agreed to direct. Powerhouse producers and Co-CEOs of Cinelou Films, Mark Canton and Courtney Solomon, brought financing. When their thoughts went to casting, Eddie Murphy was at the top of their list. “I’ve been a huge fan of his forever and he also resembles the real Mr. Church. He’d be so incredible,” says McMartin. “But at the same time, I was thinking, would he ever want do a film like this? It’s not his usual thing.” Canton got the script to Eddie Murphy. Word came back that the actor read it and cried. Murphy was on board.
So after more than a decade of starts and stops, this month Mr. Church opened nationwide with Eddie Murphy in the title role. “I realized everything happened in such divine order. If this had gone forward when my daughter was a baby, she would not have appreciated or understood what was going on,” explains McMartin.”Getting the movie made over these years — and all the struggle — had so much more meaning.”
McMartin cherishes the opportunity to give her daughter and future generations an understanding of this unique man. “He knew how much I loved and cared about him, but I don’t think he really knew how special a person he was. His kindness, generosity, and unconditional love is so unique,” says McMartin. “He taught me that everybody is connected. Our fingerprints are all over each other’s lives. We all touch each other and we may not know it.”
And so his legacy endures. “He’s going to be in my daughter’s life forever. Future members of our family will have this movie,” she shares. “One reason I wanted the movie made so badly is that I didn’t want who he was to die with me. Now he exists forever. There’s an immortality about movies. They keep people alive.”