Monday, February 1, 2016

How I Broke In

Today I thought I would share the story of how I got my start as a professional screenwriter, along with some of the lessons I learned along the way.

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 unofficially 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 hauling gear on music video shoots, or holding the boom on public service announcement shoots.

“At least you’re working on film sets,” people would say. It didn’t make me feel better. Turns out, having any job in film wasn’t enough for me. I had been working on screenplays on those days when I wasn’t working on set (there were a lot of those days), and I’d completed three of them. None were very good, but I enjoyed writing and at least one of my ideas felt like it could maybe be a movie if it was better.

So I decided to go back to USC to study screenwriting in their graduate program. Fortunately, they let me. The program taught me an enormous amount about the craft of screenwriting, and once I’d learned those skills, I discovered I was actually a pretty good writer. 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 hometown to convince her estranged white trash husband to give her a divorce so she can marry someone else. It was very loosely based on one of the scripts I’d written before going to school.

Lesson 1:
Learn your craft.

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.

Lesson 2: Create a good log line.

One of the companies I met with was MBST. The intern, a woman named Emily, had read my script – because interns are the people who read film student scripts – and recommended it to her boss. The boss liked it and they brought me in for a very nice meeting. “Send us your next script,” they said. Which is pretty much what everyone said.

So I started temping. And at night, I worked on 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.” When I called MBST, I discovered Emily was now head of development. She really liked “Undertow,” but the company didn’t do action movies (thus the advantage of sticking to one genre). However she thought I should have an agent and offered to make some recommendations for me.

Her assistant, Aghi, 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 Aghi became head of development at MBST a short time later.)

Lesson 3: Be nice to the interns and assistants. They control your fate.

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 - not his genre - 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 and got a permanent job at Disney Feature Animation to pay the bills. I won a screenwriting contest with a science fiction thriller script called “Overload” (also still unproduced) but otherwise wasn’t having much success. Eventually I parted ways with my agent.

Then one day my phone rang. It was Stokely. I hadn’t spoken to her in nearly two years but it turns out she’d been pushing my “Melanie’s Getting Married” 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 china hutch to replace the cheap shelving that held my liquor supply (hey, I’m a writer). And then I went back to the day job.

A couple years passed. Other writers were hired to rewrite my script. 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, this one a broad comedy (I still hadn’t learned to stick with one genre).

Lesson 4: Always keep writing.

Then one day Disney and Original 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 after all that time, 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.

People called me an overnight success.


Want to learn your craft? Check out my book: The Three Stages of Screenwriting.

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