Thursday, September 25, 2008

How I Went From Film Student to Produced Screenwriter

Usually the first questions anybody in the film industry gets asked when they’re speaking somewhere is, “How did you break into the business?” So, I figured I would start this blog by answering that question. (The second question is, “How do I get an agent?” I’ll deal with that one at a later date.)

When I was a kid I saw Star Wars. I was so blown away by this movie that I read everything I could get my hands on about it – which wasn’t easy back then. This was before DVD commentary tracks and shows like Extra. As my young mind was devouring articles in Time magazine and the like, I kept reading about this guy named George Lucas who had a job called director. Sounds like a fun job, I thought. Maybe that’s what I’ll do when I grow up.

When I was growing up I didn’t know anybody in the movie business. In fact, I was so far removed from Hollywood that when I told friends, family and guidance counselors that I wanted to be a movie director, they all thought that sounded pretty great. Nobody knew how insanely competitive the field was or how many very talented people utterly failed in the business. I pursued directing the same way a high school student in Juneau, Alaska (where I lived) would pursue engineering. I researched what colleges were the best in the field and sent off my applications. I ended up at George Lucas’s alma mater: The University of Southern California.

As an undergrad I was in the production program. That is essentially a program to teach directing, though most people emphasized one technical area or another. I emphasized cinematography. When I graduated I worked back-breaking, low paying jobs doing such high tech tasks as coiling cable and holding the boom on music videos and public service announcements.

“At least you’re working on film sets,” people would say. I wanted to punch those people in the mouth. Turns out, having any job in film wasn’t enough for me.

I applied to graduate school largely because my father was bugging me to. I applied to USC because there was no application fee for alumni, and I applied in screenwriting because I figured I’d already done production. Right as I was coming off a job and wondering what I was going to do next, I got the acceptance letter.

I really discovered myself in USC’s screenwriting program. Turns out, I really liked writing and I was good at it. For my thesis, I wrote a romantic comedy script called “Melanie’s Getting Married” about a sophisticated woman from New York who must return to her small home town to convince her estranged white trash husband to give her a divorce so she can marry someone else.

When I graduated, USC sent out a list of all the graduating students’ thesis script log lines to producers and studios around town. From that I got a few dozen calls requesting to read the script. I guess that was a little unusual – the power of a good log line. From there, I met with half a dozen producers who liked the script. Half of those were actually real producers with offices and everything.

And then I started temping.

The people who had met with me said very flattering things about the script, but none of them wrote a check. So I sat down to write another script, one I’d started in school, an action adventure called “Undertow.” I didn’t know at the time you were supposed to stick with one genre early in your career. (Note: “Undertow” has not been produced yet, though another movie with a similar title has since been released.)

I sent “Undertow” to the people who liked “Melanie.” One of the companies I had met with was on the Disney lot. The person who had read my thesis script was the intern at the time. Now she was head of development. She really liked “Undertow,” but the company didn’t do action movies. However she thought I should have an agent and offered to make calls for me.

Her assistant had a friend who had just been made an agent at a large boutique literary agency. She asked if she could send the script to him. “Of course,” I said. That turned out to be the agent I signed with. (And that assistant became head of development at the production company a short time later…lesson: be nice to the assistants and interns.)

The agent sent out “Undertow” and Neal Moritz at Original Films liked it. We let him take it to three studios, all of whom also liked it. But all of them decided it was just too expensive. The project died, but Neal was pleased with the reaction and asked me to come in for a meeting. They asked what else I had and I gave them “Melanie’s Getting Married.” Neal didn’t go for it, but a protégé producer named Stokely Chaffin really liked it.

Stokely gave me some feedback on the script and I did a rewrite, but she was not able to get Original to buy it at the time. I went on to other spec scripts. Eventually I parted ways with my agent and got a permanent job at Disney Feature Animation. I was still writing scripts at night but with little success.

Then one day my phone rang. It was Stokely. I hadn’t spoken to her in probably two years but it turns out she’d been pushing my script the whole time and finally convinced Original to option it. We did the deal and I took the small option payment and bought a brand new piece of furniture for my apartment and went back to the day job.

A couple years passed. Other writers were hired to rewrite. Actors and directors came and went on the project. I would get phone calls from Stokely telling me the good or bad news and learned not to invest too much emotion into any of it. But they kept renewing the option and I kept cashing the checks and buying myself little presents. I also kept writing and got a new agent based on another script.

Then one day they actually made the movie. Nobody was as surprised as me. It had been re-titled “Sweet Home Alabama” and starred Reese Witherspoon. It resembled my original script more than I might have guessed and I was awarded “Story by” credit after a brutal Writers Guild arbitration process. The movie set a record for biggest September opening ($38 million) and went on to earn over $100 million domestically. I made enough to pay off my student loans and quit my day job.

I was an overnight success seven years after graduation.


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