TRUE INDIE: Interview with Development Exec-Turned-Screenwriter, Nicholas Thurkettle

Rebecca Norris is a writer and filmmaker with her production company Freebird Entertainment. Her award-winning self-produced feature film, Cloudy With a Chance of Sunshine, is currently on the festival circuit. Rebecca also writes the Writers on the Web column for ScriptMag where she explores the production process of creating web series, and enjoys teaches screenwriting classes and webinars through Screenwriters University and The Writers Store. Rebecca is also a busy script analyst who has read for multiple contests and production companies. Follow Rebecca on Twitter at @beckaroohoo!

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NT_016_Portrait_CropSome people carve a bit of a Forrest Gump-like path in the entertainment industry, trying out and succeeding at several different careers equally. One such fellow is Nicholas Thurkettle, a development executive turned optioned screenwriter, published author, award-winning playwright, director, and working actor.

Thurkettle first found success as a writer in college when his one-act play, Between 3 and 4, won awards from competitions such as Kennedy Center’s American College Theatre Festival. Later, he got his foot in the Hollywood door through a script-reading internship for independent film producer J. Todd Harris (The Kids Are All Right) at the 20th Century Fox-based production company Davis Entertainment Classics. He rose to the position of Director of Development, focusing on the creative development of such films as 29 PalmsDevil’s Pond, and Burial Society. He then followed Harris to IPW Productions to serve as Director of Development and head of the story internship program, where he developed projects based on IPW’s massive catalog of re-make and adaptation rights, one of which became Dimension Films’ Piranha 3-D. When independent financier/producer Room 9 Entertainment (Thank You For Smoking) purchased his comedy screenplay Queen Lara, it led to the end of his executive career, as he decided to focus on his creative ambitions full-time.

Since then, he’s had a number of scripts optioned, several of which are currently in development. At the moment, Nick is in development on an animated pilot and has published a book of short stories, Stages of Sleep. He was also nominated recently for Best Supporting Actor for the film Reclaiming Friendship Park at the Love International Film Festival in Los Angeles.

As a fellow multi-hyphenate creative, I was inspired by Nick’s story, as well as his hard work and dedication to multiple fields, and I thought you might be inspired as well!

Rebecca: You’ve had an interesting journey from working in development to becoming a multi-talented screenwriter, author, director, and actor! Tell us about how you became a development executive and why you decided to jump to the creative side.

Nick: I tried as many creative roles as I could in college, where I double-majored in Theater and Music. It was the perfect environment for that. I always describe college as a place where you pay for permission to fail. So I wrote, directed, acted, produced, composed music, studied a bit of sound design, and learned about how to patiently fill out paperwork and understand procedural hoops. (THOSE skills proved invalubable!) I wasn’t great at all of it but just getting in there and bruising around helped me internalize each task in a way I never forgot.

When I made my way to Hollywood, I psyched myself out at first, believing I needed to focus all my energy on one pursuit in order to succeed, so I focused on screenwriting. My first internship was reading screenplays, which proved a perfect education; reading 1,000 bad scripts will help you remember what not to do! The producer I worked for liked my take on scripts and invited me to start contributing creative notes all along the process from development through post, so I really got to watch the meat grinder and what it can do to the script. I never saw myself pursuing the studio executive track, though – I’m not very good at ‘lunching,’ so to speak. Most days I actually brought a sack lunch, ate it fast, and then used the rest of my lunch break to work on writing a script. I had a dry erase board behind me where I reminded myself how many pages I still needed to write!

In my job I got to know quite a few lit agents, so when I finally had a script I thought had a chance at selling, I went to one whose tastes I admired, and she sparked to it and offered to take it out. Six days after she started making calls, we had sold it; after that life-changing thrill it got harder and harder to keep wearing both hats. Eventually, my position got downsized out and it was actually the perfect time for me to make that transition.

Rebecca Norris Nicholas Thurkettle

I was still focused on screenwriting, until the WGA strike really woke me up to the truth that you can’t bank on anyone writing your ticket for you. It was easier, cheaper, and more urgent than ever to get out there and make your own stuff. Since I hadn’t gone to film school, I really felt like I was at a technological disadvantage, but I knew how to take a chance on something I don’t quite know how to do, and learn. So I started volunteering for little crew jobs on Craiglist to get to know film sets. The first short I worked on, I showed up to PA and by the second day they had promoted me to 2nd AD!

Acting came back in a funny way, too. A new theater company opened up near me, and a friend told me they might use their space for workshops. I teach a screenwriting class so I wanted to get to know them to see if I could teach a class for some side income there. Coming to an audition was mostly just a way to get friendly with the producers, and if my theater basics got me on-stage somewhere carrying a spear, that might be fun, too. They ended up casting me as the lead!

Since then, I’ve described what I do as just banging on every door that opportunity might be behind – and opportunity could mean money or fun/creative fulfillment. Ideally both! I don’t know if I’m that great at acting or directing or any of these things, but I have faith in my capacity to hustle and study, and that bringing work to life is the best way to move your career forward.

Nick Thurkettle at the Laughlin International Film Festival

Thurkettle at the Laughlin International Film Festival

Rebecca: You wear multiple hats – which is your favorite, and why?

Nick: It always comes back to the writing. I think it is the thing that unifies all of my creative endeavors and shapes the way I interact with the world, creatively.

I don’t have a huge drive to direct for the sake of directing; it’s mostly about doing what needs to be done to get the story told.

Rebecca: Can you explain the general process of self-publishing a book?

Nick: In a nutshell, it means taking responsibility for all the tasks that a publishing house would have handled in the past – editing, artwork, layout, printing/publishing, distribution, promotion. You probably don’t do all of these things directly yourself – in fact, one thing I always emphasize is that you should never, EVER, edit your own book. NEVER. You have to think of yourself as managing a professional process: hiring the right people, and applying the resources you have in the most effective way. There are infinite configurations for it depending on the level of control you want, how much money and (valuable!) time you are willing to spend, and how concerned you are about quality.

It really staggers me when I see someone put the time and heart into writing a 900-page book, then seemingly didn’t even run a spellcheck on it. I think people either view it as un-fun or get insecure that they won’t know how to do it, so they let their justifiable pride in their accomplishment talk them out of doing the less-glamorous work. “My book’s brilliance will shine through any such deficiencies!” a voice inside will tell them. That’s not the voice you should listen to.

[Note from Rebecca: I completely agree here! As a script reader/story analyst I’m always amazed by the sheer number of typos I see in scripts, even professional ones. There’s very little in your control as a newbie screenwriter, but spelling and grammar is one thing you have complete control over! Don’t overlook it.]

Think of it this way – it probably takes hundreds of hours to write a book. If you had spent those same hours doing something for money, even just mowing lawns, you would have made thousands of dollars. So with at least thousands of dollars’ worth of your labor sunk in, why would you begrudge your lovely book a few hundred more for an outside editor, or a professional cover artist? And if you say you don’t have that money – mow some lawns during those hours you previously set aside for writing! Believe your book is worth it.

StagesOfSleep_KindleCoverRebecca: Why would you recommend self-publishing?  Is it better than going the traditional route?

Nick: The entire business model of traditional publishing no longer functions for a majority of books being written. If you’re not already established, don’t have a name they can leverage for visibility, or aren’t writing for a publisher with a good foothold in an evergreen genre, your manuscript is going to be lonely out there for the very sensible reason that they’re going to have a hard time making money on it using their techniques. Pulling some numbers from thin air – they might need a book to sell 10,000 copies to break even; but if you’re clever you can have a “successful” self-published book selling 6-700 copies.

Self-publishing is great for diversity of genre and voice, it allows you to find your audience niche and meet them there, to see through the purest version of your vision and sink or swim based on that. If your measure of success is becoming rich and famous – well, there’s no way to guarantee that no matter what you do. However, if you feel genuine creative pride in bringing a book into the world that is the best you know how to make it, and have faith that, long-term, that’s the most probable route to success, all the tools are there.

After that; the work doesn’t end. You have to decide if the one was enough, or if you intend to be an author that publishes continuously. That affects everything from pricing strategy to the investments you make. For example, I bought a block of ISBNs when I published my short story collection. I only needed one right then and buying ten cost more at that moment, but it saved me like 60% off the price of buying just one, because I know I’m going to publish more books. (And if you don’t know what an ISBN is and why you want one – put that on your list of things to learn before self-publishing!)

Rebecca: If you had one piece of advice to give to an aspiring screenwriter or author, what would it be?

Nick: Be resolute in your long-term goals but flexible as to your path. Life presents some weird opportunities that can push your career forward in unpredictable and astonishing ways! A lot of writing jobs come along because someone, somewhere, is suddenly under the gun and needs someone they know and trust to come in and deliver. You want to be the name that jumps into their mind first, and you don’t do that by hustling them, you do it by building that credibility with your work.

To learn more about Nick, visit his website, and follow him on Twitter and Instagram!

To listen to Nick perform on the Earbud Theater podcast, download episodes HERE.

Nick’s book, Stages of Sleep, can be purchased on Amazon.

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