Harlem to Vassar to Homeless to Hollywood: Screenwriter Kate Lanier proves all that glitters is not gold. But some of it is.

State Street Scribe

by Jeff Wing

One blustery autumn day in New York, Kate Lanier and Sheila Gray decided to take in a movie. It was late September, 2001. A couple weeks prior, there’d been a cataclysmic attack in the city’s financial district – an act so spectacularly gruesome, huge, and history-warping the event’s date would immediately and evermore reverberate like a trademark of socio-historical horror: “9/11”. Crowds famously flock to the movies for solace when the world’s on fire, and now Kate and Sheila seated themselves in the crowded dark and waited for the movie—Mariah Carey’s ill-fated star vehicle “Glitter”. Why this movie at this moment? Kate had written the film; Sheila was Mariah’s acting coach. There would be no solace.

Kate Lanier is your typical Santa Barbaran—a former substance-fueled hellraiser born and bred in the Harlem projects. The fledgling screenwriter’s meteoric three-picture deal with Disney would arrive hot on the heels of her living in an abandoned building in New York’s Lower East Side, her worldly possessions jammed into a Hefty® bag. That is, Kate did not initially seem poised for coronation by the Tinseltown Fates. “I was partying at 13. We would just go up to the roof and smoke weed and drink rum and do coke,” she says. Artists are either born in the crucible’s refining fire or turned to ash. This is that story.

Kate’s mom and dad (Bennington and Princeton, respectively) had met through literary circles and were a left-leaning painter and writer of the starving variety; “creatives” in an era that preceded that loaded signifier. Their social lives were a study in whiplash bipolarity, the couple regularly decamping to the Hamptons and Cape Cod to sip gin and discuss the social novel with their elbow-patch-and-heels cohort, then heading home to Harlem and the projects on E. 117th. 

Kate’s mother had suffered her own whiplash on arriving in the US as a teen. After six years of being secreted in Marseille by the family matriarch, she and her brother had narrowly escaped the Holocaust that would claim the rest of the family. On arrival in the US, having just escaped a racist shitstorm with her life, the young escapee would be stunned and disgusted at the racism here, her outrage fuelling a life of in-your-face activism, work with the NAACP, calling out of bigotry—and a sensibility that would likely influence her daughter’s own nourishing color blindness. 

Kate grew up with a fiery independent streak her mom and dad were at pains to manage. “At 13 I would go to these clubs up in the Bronx—you know Fab 5 Freddy? He would take me to see Afrika Bambaata, Zulu Nation…” Streetwise Kate, until recently a tween, dove into the day’s hip hop culture and began to build her identity. “I thought I was black. Everyone who knew me thought I was Puerto Rican. ‘Yeah, I’m Puerto Rican!’ I completely couldn’t deal with the fact that I was a white girl.” 

Upper East Side Story

Kate’s grade school years had coincided with NYC’s nadir as a city, opening doors that would eventually channel her Rimbaud-like heat into the visible light of art. “This is the 70s in New York when the city is falling apart,” she says. “They’re in a recession. They’re not picking up the garbage. I’m walking over junkies and walking around drunks. I saw a guy knifed to death outside my third grade window.” Kate’s desperate mother managed to land a gig teaching art at a tony Upper East Side school called Fleming. Kate entered that world and pretended to adapt.  

…portrait of the artist as a young night owl: Kate and Mercedes, NYC 80s

“It was like the Lycée Français; half French, half English. Very snooty. I had one dress. I’d play the part, go home, and tear it up with my crew till dawn.” Young Kate was aflame and brakeless. She had a “crew”, for instance. Despite her regular participation in episodes of chemical and spiritual mayhem, Kate later secured a scholarship to hifalutin Trinity High School in the city.

Her incandescent night life in full swing, she nevertheless fell in with an unlikely posse at Trinty. “These white kids were a little more open-minded, funky and progressive.” You have guessed correctly, reader –  she’s describing high school theater geeks. Wild Kate would fall hard, assembling a gonzo performance troupe, performing Brecht and Shakespeare at Lower East Side playgrounds. A sliver of daylight suggested itself, but Kate’s partying continued to ramp.

“I’m 14—ninth grade. Walking to school I would find my friend and buy 1/2 gram of coke, get to school, go in the bathroom and snort it. I’d have a little bottle of tequila with me, do a couple of shots and go to my first class.” 

AREA and Alan Taylor 

At 17, Kate fibbed about her age and landed a job at the day’s most wildly happening club in NYC, an epochal hipster centrifuge called AREA. The club was Art House Maximus—queued limousines, a nightly parade of the Grace Jones/Mick Jagger set, and heavily filtered Happenings the city’s cognoscenti were desperate to crash. Just working there conferred Big Apple cachet.

 

Every six weeks the club’s theme would change and invites would go out “…to the 500 coolest people in New York,” Kate says. Wild animals behind glass, a roaming monitor lizard, 10 million Twinkies suspended from golden threads; the usual. One notable “Outer Space” theme featured over the top cosmic decor and Kate’s fellow bartender and performance artist Christina, decked out as a messianic Barbarella, strutting around with her space rifle.

Kate and bff Karen in the day

When one of the owners took a shine to Kate and they began dating, she moved from coat check to bartender. This thrilling promotion to the middle of the supernova bade ill for Kate’s recreationals. “I was behind the bar drinking all night, then we would close down at 5am and head to an after-hours club. I started snorting heroin as well as coke, then I started shooting both of them.” 

Kate steps out from behind the bar

One night Kate was introduced to a new bartender at AREA; NYU film school student and future directorial darling Alan Taylor (Sopranos, Mad Men, Game of Thrones – you name it). Kate and AREA’s owner had split and she started dating Taylor, eventually moving in with him for two years. Just ahead lay higher ed, drug-addled homelessness, and Hollywood—that tired old template.

Vassar, Misery, Kismet

By the time Kate entered Vassar on yet another scholarship (English Major with Distinction in Creative Writing), she was trapped in the jet stream and couldn’t come down. No one knew. ”I always had the functional addict thing where I wanted to look good on the outside. It was a secret from everyone. I wanted to be the A student.” Her writing voice began to find its footing at Vassar, even as things otherwise careened out of control.

Following Vassar, Kate’s long run of adventurism came to its natural denouement—“I was living in an abandoned building on the Lower East Side, doing whatever to get drugs…”—when who should appear but Barbarella. “I was in SoHo, track marks on my arm, filthy, trying to meet this guy who’s going to get me high.” Kate saw her friend Christina, but had to squint to positively  i.d. her old AREA chum. Last time she’d seen her they were doing coke together behind the bar. Christina looked radiant and put-together. Kate did not. “She sees me,” Kate says, “and she’s like ‘Kate! Come here come here come here!’, and she takes me to this church, and I’m like, oh **** she’s taking me to church! But it was a young people’s recovery group.” Christina had been sober for 6 months. Copycat Kate would follow. 

Amends

Part of recovery is making amends – going to those you’ve wronged and setting things right. Kate’s longish “amends list” included AREA colleague and ex-dance partner Alan Taylor. He’d called off their relationship a couple years earlier—in part because Kate had broken into his home and robbed him. She now approached with the abjectness these occasions summon, and cash to repay what she’d taken. Alan forgave.

And then some. “He says ‘Look, I’m doing this movie and it’s kind of based on my relationship with you. Would you play the character?’”

Taylor’s movie was his capstone film school project, a short called That Burning Question. It opened the NY Film Festival in 1990, won a raft of awards, and effectively launched Taylor into a directorial stratosphere he has since inhabited with aplomb. It all happened very quickly. 

“Suddenly he’s meeting everyone, and they’re asking him ‘who’s the girl in your movie?’ And he’s like, ‘That’s Kate Lanier, she’s a New Yorker. She’s also a great writer.’” Kate had shown Alan a couple of scripts she’d written (“…very rough sketches”). Hollywood literary agent Ronda Gomez was intrigued. “Kate’s a writer, too? Let’s meet her.” In the event, Kate showed Ms. Gomez a script she’d written called Gabriel’s Watching (“…a black guardian angel watching over a white girl in Harlem…”). Ronda became Kate’s agent, gave her some notes on the script, and sold it in a bidding war to Warner Bros. “She loved my writing!” Kate says, then blinks. “I was 23.”

What’s Love Got to Do with It?

Kate was still fumbling with her seat belt when the rocket sled launched. “I suddenly had one job after another. When (Tina Turner biopic) What’s Love Got to Do with It came out, that was my third job that I’d ever done.” Kate’s speaking manner—what I call “calm-face-exuberant- vocals”—is on full display here. “What’s Love was a dream job – they even gave me a part in the movie, so I got to act. I was allowed to be on set the whole time. Brian (Gibson, the director) was so respectful of my words. I thought every movie was gonna be like that. I was wrong.” Please go on, Ms. Lanier. 

Kate Lanier

“You’re going to really laugh, but I’ll tell you about a wonderful experience. It was writing Glitter for Mariah Carey. THAT was the best experience.”  Why would I laugh? Well…it must be said that Glitter’s reputation in filmdom is that of a 900 lb Golden Turkey with all the trimmings; a film so deliciously misconceived it has nearly become legend. How to draw a line from the world-conquering What’s Love to Glitter? Kate explains.

“Glitter came out right after 9/11. It came out on September 13. No one was going to Glitter.” Check. But there’s more. “The studio f****d us—we had written a story that was dark and edgy, a lot of violence and sex and drugs, real emotions….” Kate pauses. “Mariah is one of the smartest, most creative people I’ve ever met. Her ‘I’m A Star’ is this very performative character. Her acting coach, Sheila, is this fantastic woman. The three of us had been working on this movie for two years!”

Kate’s rhapsodizing is a stark counterpoint to the film unleashed on the public. She couldn’t wait for this passion project to be unveiled. “I was like, ‘oh God, people are going to be blown away.’” When Sony saw the script they took scissors to it. Fearful that Mariah’s young fan base would be scandalized, the studio stripped out everything…but the glitter. ”It became this piece of crap,” Kate says plainly (see this article’s opening paragraph). “We just….cried! I was like, I can’t believe this is what it is.”

Directing for Touchstone

Kate brushed that one off and went on to conquer. Her projects include films for New Line (Set it Off), Disney (Everybody Can Float, The Rap Factor), Warner Bros (Cinderellas, Out of the Darkness), MGM (Beauty Shop, Mod Squad) and many others. Today, Kate is working on three TV projects, a spec feature length script called Dance Magic, and a novel about “3 generations of women impacted by the Holocaust, their interwoven lives playing out over a landscape that encompasses Nazi Germany, 50’s art world SoHo in NYC, and 80’s Manhattan nightclubs.” Her full screenwriting portfolio—and details of her services as writing coach and mentor—can be found at katelanier.com.  She can be reached at klwritingcoach@gmail.com.

Kate Lanier’s journey to artistic self-discovery was fraught, let’s say—and featured the occasional jarring revelation. 

“I was in a summer camp for city kids in second grade,” Kate says. “I remember getting the group picture and looking at it with my mom. Mine was the only white face in the picture, and I looked at it, pointing. I was like, ‘who’s that?’ And my mom said ‘…that’s you.’ I literally said ‘I’m white?!’”

 

 

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