Duo Bringing Discovered Screenplay to Life

More than a century ago, a confident young writer named Ella Higginson moved to Bellingham, and her career began to flourish.

She became the first poet laureate of Washington state, her work published nationally by journals like McClure’s and Harper’s Monthly. She helped establish Bellingham’s first public library, and made significant contributions to a young Western Washington University.

Higginson was the most famous writer in the Pacific Northwest during the early 20th century — so famous that when a line from her poem, “College by the Sea” was carved onto Edens Hall at Western, it did not include a byline because no one could imagine her ever being forgotten.

Somewhere in time, Higginson fell into obscurity, like so many other prominent women and people of color throughout history. Today, two female film producers have been called on — some believe by fate — to preserve Higginson’s legacy.

Cassidy Young and Stacy Reynolds, members of the Bellingham-based, mostly-female film production company, Talking to Crows, hadn’t heard of Higginson until about two years ago, when they happened to be in Western professor Laura Laffrado’s office one afternoon.

The plan had been to interview Laffrado for their documentary, “Free the Penis,” which addresses the disparity between male and female nudity in film. Little did they know Laffrado had been in the Washington State Archives that morning and had stumbled across a completed screenplay written by Higginson in 1912.

Laffrado had begun her research four years ago when she uncovered a trove of Higginson’s work, stretching 12 linear feet, in the archives. Laffrado, an English professor who studies Pacific Northwest women’s literature, had never heard of Higginson. She said Higginson had destroyed many of her personal letters, but kept the screenplay, drafts of the screenplay, and correspondence letters from the New York literary agency she’d pitched it to.

The agency sent Higginson’s screenplay to famed actress Mary Pickford (now namesake of Bellingham’s independent movie theater), who turned it down.

Laffrado considers it a message in a bottle. Higginson had left her screenplay for someone else to discover one day and bring it to life, and Laffrado thought Young and Reynolds were the perfect people to do that.

“It was one of those serendipitous moments, in the right place at the right time,” Laffrado said. “Here were these two young, energetic, women filmmakers who were right at the start of what they were doing, and felt really strongly about feminist issues. I told them about [the screenplay] because I thought it would be interesting, but it turns out they were the perfect fit and they totally get it.”

Soon after leaving Laffrado’s office in Red Square, where Higginson’s house had once stood, Young and Reynolds went to the archives to read the screenplay.

“The fact that we’re pursuing film in Bellingham just as Ella tried to a hundred years ago, and wasn’t successful and was completely forgotten, fills us with this rage fire of not only wanting to preserve her legacy, bring her back, and make her a name on everyone’s tongue, but to continue our work and what we’re doing,” Reynolds said.

Written in the era of silent film, “Just Like the Men” is a romantic comedy based on the real story of how Higginson helped her friend Frances Axtell, cousin of U.S. President Grover Cleveland, become the first woman elected into legislative office in Washington state.

“It’s clear when reading Ella’s character, Mrs. Carlton, which is based on (Higginson), she was the most confident woman you’ve ever met,” Reynolds said. “She was like, ‘I’m amazing, I’m pretty, I’m cute, and I can do anything.’ That sort of behavior is rarely seen in women. They’re seen as bitchy or in some way undesirable.”

Today, Talking to Crows raised $7,660 by campaigning on the crowdfunding website, Seed & Spark, to get started on creating their own film adaptation of “Just Like the Men.”

The film will include 13 selected scenes from Higginson’s original screenplay that have been adapted for today’s audiences, intertwined with a separate narrative about two modern women trying to pursue the arts and experiencing parallel issues that Higginson felt during her time.

“Just Like the Men” is set to release in 2020, just in time for the 100-year anniversary of the women’s suffrage movement.

"Higginson had left her screenplay for someone else to discover one day and bring it to life, and Laffrado thought Young and Reynolds were the perfect people to do that."