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Getting older and retiring were not on my radar in 1979. I was 41, married, with two young children, and my concern was more short term: What should I do next with my career, which had focused on documentary filmmaking?
That year I took a family trip to visit my in-laws in Delray Beach, Fla. My wife Ellen’s mom had managed an employment agency; her dad was a postal worker. Approaching 70, they had saved money and had Social Security and pension income. They could live their generation’s goal of retirement among friends and peers. But what I saw at their condo complex surprised me.
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As residents played cards and mah-jongg they loudly debated interest rates, taxes, inflation heading for 12 percent. I wondered, why aren’t they discussing golf, early bird specials, shuffleboard, grandchildren and health issues, as I imagined retired people would? These people seemed to be cut off from the action, but still focused on it. They had moved to a new stage in life, yet still held on to the old one. This was a story to tell.
Back home, I wrote a story called “Cocoon.” A cast of retired people worked hard and grew (caterpillar) to be able to have a retirement (cocoon), but instead of changing (metamorphosis) into something beautiful (butterfly), they were stuck. Searching for a metaphor to deal with the inevitability of leaving their “earthly existence,” I had the characters encounter an extraterrestrial adventure.
Finding a way to get my story out to an audience did not come easily. I heard 51 “noes” before a “yes.” Among the rejections were many who deigned to read a few pages and said things like, “This is a wrinkle story,” and “Old people don’t go to the movies.”
It took five years to get a movie made, with a script by established screenwriter Tom Benedek and direction by Ron Howard, in 1985. The positive reactions to the story said to me that I got most of it right. The movie won two Oscars, and critics called it “feel-good” and “uplifting.” My novel was published after the movie. Cocoon was a New York Times best seller and became a brand of sorts, and I went on to a new writing career.