Dressed in a denim jacket and faded jeans, producer-director Steven Spielberg begins as if by instinct to direct his newest writers, three young women who stand stiffly before him, not saying a word. ''Everyone relax,'' he orders, amused by their awestruck discomfort, and reaches out to each one, gently pushing their shoulders down below their ears. For the first time since they arrived for their press conference, they smile.
''You're here for your talent,'' says Spielberg, who flew the writing team to the adobe-walled complex at Universal Studios that is his command center. ''Your talent and your great idea.'' He puts his arms around the three and poses them for the flashing strobes and TV cameras. Though Spielberg is slighter than they might have expected, meeting their famed employer is heady stuff. After all, Renee Carter, Sarah Creef, and Amy Crosby are only 13 years old.
Last October, when the eighth graders from Waynesboro, Va., mailed Spielberg their 120-page script for consideration as an episode of his animated Tiny Toon Adventures TV series, they didn't expect a response they didn't even photocopy their work because it was too expensive. But an employee of Warner Bros., which syndicates the series, accidentally opened the envelope and was impressed. The story eventually landed on Spielberg's desk, and so began the girls' surreal odyssey from small town anonymity to celebrity.
The buzz about the trio started on the jet bound for L.A., when a stewardess gushed, ''This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,'' as she reverently delivered a breakfast tray to Sarah. ''Is he picking you up in a limo?'' Creef, a friendly girl in oversize glasses who had been a little anxious about her first airplane ride, shook her head. ''You mean Steven Spielberg isn't springing for a limo?'' the flight attendant asked incredulously.
Spielberg is paying the threesome the $3,000 to $3,500 he usually hands out for a Toon script, but having Steven Spielberg get all worked up about their story is worth much more. ''I think the most we were expecting was a little fan letter with our names scribbled in,'' says Amy, a freckled girl who's keeping a journal of her close encounter with the movie maestro. ''This feels like it's not really happening. This is the kind of thing that happens to someone in another town.''
It all started one day at school when Renee, a wry, quiet girl who loves to draw, doodled two characters from the show, Babs and Buster Bunny, patriarch Bugs' descendants. A classmate remarked that Babs looked as if she were wearing a grass skirt so Renee decided she'd send the rabbits off on a hilariously disastrous Hawaiian vacation. Her friends Amy and Sarah joined in with ideas, and a creative team was born.
''Our minds are so warped,'' says Amy, ''that they're just one big soft pretzel.'' Apparently, Spielberg's mind has the same design. At a story meeting with the show's writers and producers, he asks for the girls' advice and seems genuinely interested in their earnest answers. ''Remember,'' he instructs them as they prepare to leave, ''water is hard to animate, very expensive. Get Babs and Buster out of the water as fast as you can.'' Renee, who has been surprisingly outspoken during the hour-long meeting, takes the directive in stride. ''Maybe,'' she suggests, ''Buster can say, 'Stop staring at the water. Do you know how much this is costing?'''