As the sequel to My Big Fat Greek Wedding is about to hit American cinemas next month, a look back at how, and why, Nia Vardalos created the original My Big Fat Greek Wedding screenplay.
by Fin Wheeler
Originally from Winnipeg, Canada, Nia Vardalos caught the acting and comedy bug at college. She started out in the Canadian Second City troupe, was scouted and moved to Chicago’s Second City where she both wrote and performed skits.
Her work with Second City got her noticed, and got her an agent. She scored small parts in The Drew Carey Show and 2 Guys and A Girl, but the larger roles she auditioned for always went to the blonde girls who had fairer skin than her.
Frustrated at all the roles she was missing out on, she decided to write something for herself. Not just a bit part, but a nice juicy main role for a good Greek girl. A role tailor-made for her.
She’d often used material about her own family and own life in her comedy work. And lord knows her friends had been entertained by the antics of her Greek orthodox family when she decided to marry someone from outside the faith — she’d write a role for herself based on that.
Between and around her work schedule, Nia found time to write and rewrite the My Big Fat Greek Wedding screenplay. She showed it to her agent. While she did have some profile, unfortunately, she wasn’t well-known enough for any studios or indie producers to pick up the package of her and her script. All the work she’d poured into the screenplay, and it was dead in the water.
Back in Canada and Chicago, being a cast member of Second City had made her part of the theatre crowd, which meant she’d seen a million one-person shows performed by friends and friends-of-friends. Now she’d write one of her own. After all, she’d basically been doing a monologue every time someone asked about the screenplay she was working on. A one-person show version of Greek Wedding seemed a logical extension of that.
By day, Nia continued to audition for those tiny “of any ethnicity” roles. By night, she adapted her spec to monologue.
(Note: If you want your screenplay to be judged in the ‘original’ not ‘adaptation’ category, you must register it as a screenplay before the first public performance/publication of any adaptation.)
In 1997 she had a six-week season of her one-person show at the Hudson Backstage Theatre, a well-respected theatre in LA. Her agent worked hard and whipped up interest. Several prominent Hollywood executives and celebrities saw it. Nia also worked hard to publicize the season. While her agent lobbied within the industry, Nia was more grassroots in her marketing. She visited all the Greek orthodox churches in the surrounding areas, talked about her production and left flyers.
It worked. The season was a success. The Industry insiders came and were impressed not just by the amusing, original content, but also by the enthusiastic, natural response from the civilians in the audience. Nia had a series of meetings across town with execs from various studios. All of them were interested in making Wedding… but there was a catch. Or two.
- They loved that it was about a minority group, but they just weren’t sure that Greek would play across American and around the world.
- They wanted a star as the lead, not Nia.
With every exec she met with, both points were non-negotiable. They didn’t want her, and they didn’t want it to be about Greeks. (Most execs have very specific mandates and quotas to fill regarding Hispanic and African American projects. Other minorities can be much harder to find funding for in their budgets.) So Nia said, “Thanks, but no thanks” and walked.
It was now two months since the first season of Nia’s one-woman show had closed. She’d gone to all the meetings her agent had arranged. Nothing had come of it.
Nia was wondering, ‘What now?’
Then along came a call from Rita Wilson. The Rita Wilson. From a big Greek family herself, Rita had gone to see Nia’s one-woman show with a group of her girlfriends. She’d gone home and raved about the show and it’s concept to her husband, Tom Hanks, suggesting that his production company should seriously consider developing and producing it as a film.
A call was made, a meeting set up.
Still cynical from her rounds of failed studio meetings, Nia took the meeting with Playtone, but wasn’t expecting much.
Nia was pleasantly surprised. Playtone loved the original concept. They didn’t want to change the story from Greek to Hispanic or African American, as so many other execs had. Best of all, Playtone wanted Nia for the lead.
As Tom Hanks stated months later during publicity for the film’s release, “Nia brings a huge amount of integrity to the piece, because it’s Nia’s version of her own life and her own experience. I think that shows through on the screen and people recognize it.”
Nia signed on with Playtone and the screenplay went into development. It was greenlit and made on an indie budget of $5 million.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding opened modestly in 2002, but with word of mouth it grew, and went on to gross over $368.7 million worldwide, at the time the highest grossing romantic comedy ever. It was also nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the 75th Academy Awards.
Nia’s difference, her uniqueness and her refusal to make her work more generic made it harder to initially find the right producer, but in the end it was those same exact qualities that allowed the audience to universally falling in love with the emotional journey of the protagonist, which was the key to the indie films phenomenal success.
So write from your heart, from your authentic self, and from your own, very personal, experience. Know your demographic well. And respect that they will respond, should you be brave enough to craft a truly unique, genuine and emotionally rewarding screenplay.
Fin Wheeler is a member of the Australian Writers’ Guild and has a feature in development.