Years ago, I had an agent and spent a lot of time “chasing” a screenwriting career, and I never got anywhere. Today, I no longer have an agent, don’t live in L.A., am writing to please myself… and the work just kind of magically appears… not that I am buying my own private island or anything yet —
Those early years were a frenetic time for me. I had a (non-entertainment) job that kept me constantly on the go, shuttling to L.A. and Austin, living in planes and hotels. Great opportunities to shill my scripts in The Entertainment Capital of the World and The Hollywood of Texas.
Picture me as George Clooney in Up in the Air… minus the good looks and pretty women surrounding me.
I’d put in the countless hours to learn my craft, did the research, checked trends, tallied Box Office Grosses. I had scripts I’d written that were exactly what I thought the market would be chasing. I had easy access to Hollywood. Heck, I had an agent, too.
And yet, I did. Oh, I got reads here and there, talked with a few folks. But nothing that ever really evolved into a real deal. I couldn’t understand it – I had written what the market said it wanted.
Then my wife’s mother was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease. We moved to Alabama and I managed to get an early-out deal from my company, allowing me to stay home and be with my kids while my wife cared for her mother. After that, we began doing foster care and also began adopting a whole passel of kids (12 total), rescued horses, dogs, cats, etc. My agent moved his concentration back to his law firm. I had to stop trying to be a successful screenwriter and instead be a full-time dad.
The kids grew up. Eight years went by before I glanced at a newspaper article about a short screenplay contest with a $500 prize. At that time, decent money for fifteen pages. But I hadn’t written a script in quite a while. I thought maybe I still had some chops. But what was the market like? What was going to sell, therefore be likely to win? I found that now I didn’t care. Instead, I had something I wanted to say. I was an L.A. native living in The South. And loving being there. There was so much about this “adopted homeland” that I felt was misunderstood by the rest of the world. There were rich characters, speech patterns, towns and places that had become very dear to me.
Out of that came Mean Creek, a story of culture clash between North and South. I ended up sending it out to several competitions, and it won or was a finalist in almost every one. David Trottier (The Screenwriter’s Bible) read it in one of the competition finals and was gracious enough to reach out through email to congratulate me, saying, “I thoroughly enjoyed your clash of cultures, especially the characterizations; these characters are real people.”
Time had not only changed my outlook. It had changed my writing style, too. Although I hadn’t been writing, I’d spent eight years reading every professional script I could get my hands on. My own writing became better from absorbing what they had to teach about story, style and economy.
Perhaps I still would have left it there, though, if not for the British Short Screenplay Competition. The BSSC was the largest and most prestigious program in the world for the short screenplay format. Its judging panel for the final round consisted of renown film professionals like Kenneth Branagh and Sir Alan Parker. After taking runner-up, I began getting emails from British directors looking to hire a screenwriter to ghostwrite their ideas for short films. I suddenly found myself “in demand,” even if it was for short films. I found myself writing new spec feature scripts, too – for myself: stories I wanted to see, regardless of where they stood on someone’s Box Office methodologies report.
Then came The Chronic Argonauts.
The publisher was looking for a screenwriter to adapt their upcoming sci-fi graphic novel into a screenplay. New Baby Productions had already produced several fantasy graphic novels,. I had just completed a spec sci-fi feature that was getting some good buzz, so I sent that to them as a writing sample (along with my “award winning short screenplay”). They provided me with an advance copy of the graphic novel. The plotline revolved around a nineteenth century church minister being accidentally kidnapped by a time-travelling “mad scientist” – a Sherlock Holmes-style buddy adventure. Church and science, two of my passions. Reading it, I was completely drawn in and knew I had to be the one to write the script. The publisher, Eric Mullarky, and I hit it off right away, talking about the characters strengths, weakness, motivations, desires, etc.
But I had a problem. I was committed for the next month on a ghostwriting job. As much as I wanted this, I told Eric to go ahead and interview other writers. If he was still looking in a month, give me a call.
A month later, he called me back. They had waited on me all that time – I had the job.
Dawn Over Kitty Hawk came to me in a totally different way. A buddy of mine, who is a journalist, was friends with commercial director Jason Wallis, who had just optioned a book and was looking to turn it into a screenplay for his first feature. The book’s author was Col. Walter J.Boyne, a New York Times bestselling author with more than fifty books to his credit. He was the former director of the National Air & Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution and a former Air Force Colonel who has been enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame. The book utilized his research and unparalleled access to delve behind the scenes into the egos, deceits and attempted betrayals surrounding the race to be “The first to fly.”
My father had served in an Air Force bomber in his younger days and had his own airplane in his later years. He was born in North Carolina and had made many pilgrimages to Kitty Hawk, the site of the Wright Brothers’ first successful powered flight. Again, this was a story I just had to write – this one for my dad. My friend got the director and I together and again, we just hit it off. We talked about the focus of the story, the structure, etc. and found common ground.
Next thing I knew, I was on board and completing my second feature film adaptation assignment.
I have done all the above without an agent (although I do have an entertainment attorney I can go to) and without showing up at anybody’s production company doorstep carrying a satchel full of spec scripts. Or by cold calling every name in the Hollywood Screenwriting Directory until my number was blocked by everyone who even remotely had a film-related title… now, to be fair, I don’t have an “A-List Screenwriter Career.” But that’s not what I’m chasing. I’m just looking for the next project that interests me, that takes me to a fictional (or real) place I want to go, And sometimes they come when you aren’t even looking…
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