WRITERS ON WRITING: Brian Godawa on Breaking In & Reinventing Your Writing Career

Jeanne Veillette Bowerman is the Editor of Script Magazine and a screenwriter, having written the narrative adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Slavery by Another Name, which was honored in the Top 25 Tracking Board Launch Pad Features Competition. She’s also the co-founder of the popular Twitter screenwriting chat, #scriptchat. Follow Jeanne on Twitter @jeannevb.

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Back in 2003, Brian Godawa wrote an insightful Writers on Writing post for our past print magazine, sharing his experience finally getting his first screenplay produced, To End All Wars, and out into the world. As I republished the post on our site, I searched for Brian on Twitter to see how the past 12 years have treated him and his writing career. We recently Skyped to catch up on all things writing and the unexpected turn his career has taken.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Brian Godawa

Jeanne: A very belated congratulations on getting produced! (laughs) Did you ever move to L.A.?

Brian Godawa: Thanks (laughs). Yes, I’m in L.A. now. About the time the movie came out, I was getting advice to move closer to the action in L.A. and I took it. I figured if things started bubbling up, Orange County was an hour and 15 minutes away.

Jeanne: isn’t that just 5 miles in L.A.? (laughs)

Brian: (laughs) That’s true. After being here, I realize all the more that it wasn’t enough to just be accessible in an hour and 15. There are so many things that can happen on the fly or running into people you know and having coffee or lunch. When they know you’re an hour and 15 minutes away, they’re more reluctant to reach out. It’s not like people are deliberately forgetting you; it’s just that you’re not where the action is.

I can’t point at any writing job or assignment specifically, but I met people who I may not have met and was able to network.

Jeanne: I guess you’d recommend people move here then, sooner rather than later?

Brian: I think it depends on how established you are. I have a director friend who’s a little more successful than I am in terms of writing and directing and he actually moved out to Wisconsin and flies in regularly. If you have a network in place and a certain amount of success, you’re linked into those networks no matter where you live. You just fly in when you need to.

But if you’re a struggling artist and trying to break in, or even where I consider I’m at – a good hard-working filmmaker who gets some work – you’re always needing to be building a network and being available by being around town.

TEAWposterFOXlargeJeanne: What year did you move up to L.A.?

Brian: It was the year that To End All Wars was released I think 2001.

Jeanne: I noticed the movie is listed on IMDb in 2001 but your the original Writers on Writing article was 2003, and you talked about it in terms of being about to be released.

Brian: It was an independently produced film and sometimes it can take a year or two to get distribution. The problem was they had made an independent movie that was very expensive, backed by independent backers, and they had a need for higher payback. If they would’ve taken earlier deals, those investors would’ve lost money. So they went straight to video and Fox took them on. It never got a theatrical release, unfortunately. Walden Media wanted it badly. At that time, the original focus of Walden was on kids’ movies, but they were starting to take on different ones. They had just passed on The Passion of the Christ because it was R-rated. They believed in our movie so much they even planned an Oscar campaign, but ours was R-rated too. The director cut it five times to try to get it to PG-13, but the rating board kept it at an R. It is about the suffering of Allied prisoners in a WWII POW camp, but it’s way less violent than many PG-13 action movies. Maybe it was just the fact that it’s a true story that makes the violence more impactful. I don’t know for sure. There may be other issues that I don’t know about.

Unbroken came out, and that had the same kind of violence, but it got a PG-13, but maybe that’s just because standards have laxed… or favoritism toward its celebrity director Angelina Jolie.

Jeanne: Maybe we’re just more desensitized to violence now. How did it feel to write those kinds of horrors and things that pained you to imagine happening?

Brian: It was very moving. I went through a lot of testimonies of men who survived the prisoner of war camps along the River Kwai. Quite frankly, there were times when I was writing when I wept because it was so emotionally moving and sad. We did have some big Hollywood directors see the original R-rated version of the movie, like Roland Emmerich. He said we’d have to cut much of the violence because the viewer couldn’t handle the truth. The reality is what those men experienced was five times more violence than what you see on the screen. I would sit there and think how did they even survive this — the kind of brutal beatings they endured? You can’t imagine it. And anyone who’s done these movies like this around the Holocaust or war find the same thing where you end up really showing a soft version of what happened because the audience can’t handle the truth; it’s that brutal.

Jeanne: I can handle a lot of violence on screen, but Passion was hard to watch, especially as a mother. Every time they showed Mary, it broke me. I felt like what they did artistically was to take you into a flashback to release some of the pressure, giving you a small break from the violence, letting you breathe a bit and your muscles relax before they took you back to the intensity. That was probably for me the most difficult film I’ve ever watched.

Brian: I agree. In my opinion, it’s the most violent film ever. Precisely because it’s not just that it’s real but the whole theological meaning to that story; it’s transcendent. That’s what makes it much heavier. What I do find in reading a lot of stories of men who survived these tortures of Holocaust and other atrocities, a lot of the stories are just about survival and endurance. While that’s good and true, that’s not very transcendent if all there is is a survival. The thing about To End All Wars is that they found redemption in the midst of their suffering that raised them above it. It helped them to respond to their captors in a powerfully redemptive way that I haven’t seen in other stories. That made it a great story to write because a lot of these prisoners of war remained bitter at the Japanese all their lives because they couldn’t forgive, while others transcended.

Jeanne: So you do this big heavy drama, you finally get yourself produced, and then what did you envision your screenwriting career would be like? Did you feel you would now be this war, heavy-drama writer or that you could write a different genre?

Brian: Once I got settled in L.A., I was waiting for the calls to come (laughs). The director’s career did start to blossom, and I expected something like that to happen for me. It’s a great movie, people were moved by it, and I certainly thought people were going to call me. But what was interesting is nobody called me. Nobody was interested in me at all. I was taken by surprise and crashed because I didn’t see anything going on for me while the director’s career took off. I realized I had to start from scratch all over again. Square one. It took that year for me to realize not everyone gets the big breaks.

This was the beginning of that big lesson of learning the idea of a “big break” is a delusion. It’s really all a series of little breaks. You definitely want to get up to that next level, but this belief that if I sell something good, I’ll be set and can quit my day job, just usually doesn’t happen. Yes, there are cases when that happens, but not for most. I’ve even heard successful A-list writers saying it was a series of little things, and before they knew it, they arrived.

But it was still discouraging to imagine going back to cold calls and screenwriting contests. I got very depressed and thought I’ll give this one more year of beating the streets, and if I can’t couldn’t get any more movies, then I’ll go back to my graphic design day job which I had been freelancing at the time. What was interesting was the experience forced me to realize the need to reinvent myself, so it was good. I had to take responsibility for my career; to work smarter, not harder. It wasn’t completely like square one though. It was like square 1 1/2.

Jeanne: It’s like you had a booster seat (laughs).

Brian: (laughs) Exactly. Get off your high horse, be humble, stop sitting around waiting for other people, and call them. I wondered why people wouldn’t call me, because I knew some people liked my writing, so I started calling them. Even just a simple call like, “Hey, got any work?” That was something I didn’t realize you should do. There was one producer who saw my movie who was producing best-selling supernatural novels by Frank Peretti So I called him and asked if he had any work. He did! He offered me a rewrite job, and if I did a good job, said he’d consider me for the next novel adaptation. That was the beginning of me realizing that everybody is so busy that we only tend to deal with what’s in front of our face. Not because we don’t care about people, but because we’re just so busy. They aren’t forgetting about you. It’s just that they’re not thinking about you unless you’re in front of their face. The point is, you have to get off your butt, find out what their needs are, and if you can be of help to them. Work isn’t going to just come to you.

A colleague of mine, who is now very successful, admits after he finishes a project, he worries what he’ll get lined up next. Everyone worries. The A-listers have the pressure too because they have bigger bills to pay.

Jeanne: Did you have an agent?

Brian: Off and on I’ve had agents helping me, but never a real solid agent. In general, I’ve never really had much of a strong agent experience. As an independent filmmaker, I’m kind of outside the studio system.

Jeanne: Were you still doing freelance graphic work?

Brian: I was writing more full-time. Maybe for the next 5 or 6 years, I continued to do my graphic design and write, but they switched places, like an “X” graph. I was doing less and less graphic design and more and more writing until I became a full-time writer. Now I still do graphic design on the side, but only very occasionally. It was a slow reversal of the workload.

ChroniclesFullPageAdSMALLJeanne: You should design book covers.

Brian: I do (laughs). Being practical is another thing I’ve concluded in my journey of life, because I, like you, am also over the hill.

Jeanne: (laughs) Did you just call me old?

Brian: (laughs) Sadly, I do feel Hollywood is very ageist and that’s a reality that you have to deal with. I started embracing the entrepreneurial approach to independent filmmaking. Don’t we all think we’re the greatest writers and can write the kind of material studios like? I’m confident I can, but I think the kinds of themes and stories that interest me just don’t always fit with studio fair. That’s okay. I don’t need to be a big successful screenwriter. I’m not where I thought I wanted to be after my first movie, but the passion doesn’t die within me. I want to make movies so bad that I just continue to do it.

Jeanne: is it making movies what really appeals to you or storytelling in general?

Brian: I think my heart is always into making movies, but these past few years, with the writer strike and economy, it’s harder and harder to make films. Most people I know, including me, are juggling 8 to 10 possible jobs and prospects in all different levels, but it’s all about getting money, and money is so hard to get. Nevertheless, I had a few years where it was hard and I felt I needed to reinvent myself yet again. My goal had always been to become a successful screenwriter. Did I want to be A-list? Did I want to get an Oscar? I guess everybody does, but mostly I just wanted to be a good, working screenwriter, and I thought and hoped I’d be the guy they go to first for spiritual themes. That’s what I wanted, but it didn’t happen. I have made a few movies over the years about spiritual themes but small movies.

So I started thinking maybe I can’t just be a screenwriter. I had to consider doing other things and expand. My writing had helped other directors, but it hadn’t helped me, so I thought maybe I should direct. Of course no one’s going to give a lot of money to a first-time director. So I had to come up with a super low-budget movie, a horror film, titled Descent of the Gods It picked up some attention and interest from producers, and since it was so low-budget, I get to direct it. That will happen hopefully this year. I also directed documentaries. Directing documentaries is very different, but it still gives you experience.

Jeanne: How did you like writing horror after writing something so historically significant and meaningful?

Brian: I actually think horror can be a very powerful and morally spiritual medium for the kinds of things I’m interested in. Yes, there’s a lot of crap horror, but so is there a lot of crap romantic comedies and crap action and crap everything. But at the end of the day, horror can examine true evil. We live in a culture that denies absolutes in morality, but in horror it’s the one genre that’s a punch in the gut of moral relativity. A horror film proves evil is real and some people do deserve to die. It’s a medium that can deal with spiritual realities of demons and things many people deny exist. I like what I call “intelligent horror” as social commentary and critiquing our society.

I’m working with producers who are working on funding my movies. As for now, I wouldn’t mind writing my own small movies to direct and still writing bigger movies for other directors. I haven’t given up on doing studio stuff, but I’m still making movies. In the last 10 years the independent realm has exploded and you no longer need huge budgets to make great films.

Jeanne: Many of our readers struggle with juggling writing/life/day job while they’re trying to break in. Any advice?

Brian: I would say I’m still breaking in. Even if you do get that big movie, they don’t give you all the money upfront anyway. Or you might get fired and rewritten. And then you wouldn’t get all the money you were promised. So it’s a step-by-step more than a “big break.” You have to accept the fact that it’s a slow progress. You need the endurance for it and to keep reinventing yourself, but it’s doable.

I’ve been writing full-time for at least eight years, but it’s still a matter of finding work. Another angle that happened was I started writing novels. Because of the Amazon and self-publishing revolution, I figured I could write them in-between making movies.

Jeanne: I’m a big advocate of screenwriters turning their scripts into novels.

Brian: Exactly. I had written a screenplay about Noah, but while I was pitching it, I heard a movie about Noah was going to be made. I decided to write it as a novel instead, and I fell in love with the concept of it. The novel sold really well, and I wrote a whole series of other Bible stories called Chronicles of the Nephilim. These are not your Sunday school bible stories. There have giants, angels, demons and a supernatural fantastical aspect to them that no one has done before. And I might add, there’s quite a bit of sex and violence in the Bible, so I don’t shy away from that. I’m a screenwriter, so reading my books are like watching movies. I don’t want to write long, boring inner monologues or thoughts. I want to write fun, exciting action.

I’m an entrepreneur, so I educated myself, learned about self-publishing and how to market myself. My first novel was released three years ago, and since that time, I’ve written two novels a year. I realized I’ve got all these unproduced scripts on the shelves that I’ve already done all the work for – creating great characters and storylines – so why not turn them into novels? Adapting them to a novel is easier than starting a story from scratch.

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Jeanne: Were all of these books in your series screenplays prior?

Brian: The first one was a script. But because Noah was so exciting, I just had to keep writing the series in novel form. If they were to be movies, they’d be big budget. I do plan on adapting all of my scripts to novels, and now that I’m finishing up the Chronicles series, I’m planning on adapting my other scripts.

Jeanne: Will you adapt the horror one too?

Brian: Absolutely. That’s the next one I plan on doing. I’ve been telling screenwriters to adapt their screenplays and self-publish. Amazon affords you 70% royalties on Kindle. You can do print-on-demand paperbacks for people who still want physical books, without having to have inventory or any money. You can do audio versions too, which I’ve done. I’m actually selling more audio books than I’m selling my other books.

Jeanne: That makes sense. You’re in the car so much or in headphones at the gym.

Brian: Exactly. If you know anything about the publishing world, it takes about a year to get a publisher to read it then accept it, then another year after that to publish it. It’s way too slow. But self-publishing, as soon as it’s done, you can put it up and start selling it in two days. I’ve hired a professional editor to help me make it the best writing it can be. And I am using my graphic design background to design the covers with a quality look.

Jeanne: With self-publishing you can even upload a new file if you have revisions, right?

Brian: Yes! I’ve uploaded changes on all my novels, and with Kindle, they’ll automatically upload changes to people who’ve already bought it. With writing two novels a year the past three years, every year I make double the money I made the previous year. And now, it’s my monthly income. You keep making passive income plus money from the new ones.

Jeanne: What advice would you have for someone wanting to give it a try?

Brian: You tend to do better if you pick genres that are more popular, of course. I don’t write teen supernatural romance, unfortunately, because that would be a big buck there. You have to write what you believe in and are passionate about. But be aware that, just like the movie business, there are genres that make more money and some that make less. Genre isn’t everything though. People like series instead of one-off’s. You also have to learn how to market yourself, which is a whole different world. A great book doesn’t sell itself, so I spend a lot of my time marketing, which is annoying and tiresome.

Jeanne: But it’s the same thing in screenwriting. You spend a lot of time querying, pitching and networking. We market ourselves. I imagine when you were a kid thinking you wanted to be a writer, the marketing and business aspect wasn’t something that came to mind as a needed skill set.

Brian: Absolutely. My novel income not only pays my bills, but it’s enabled me to be stronger in my negotiations for movies because I don’t need the work as desperately. The fact is I’ve been approached with abusive offers, as many screenwriters are. You have to decide what is the lowest point you’re willing to go to write a script for someone before which you won’t respect yourself anymore. I realize sometimes you have to do something for a lot less money, but because my novels are now my income, I can be more selective in what offers I take and what I turn down.

I’m telling you, self-publishing novels has been the most empowering thing for my storytelling and my whole pursuit of Hollywood. And here’s another aspect of it: As all writers know, we pour our heart and soul into these scripts and spend hundreds and hundreds of hours writing them, only to have them sit on our hard drives and no one sees our story. So now, I write a story and thousands of people are reading it. I have that satisfaction and fulfillment that my stories are being appreciated; that then allows me to have more patience and endurance for the movies, which, as we know, take forever to get made and most of the time never happen.

Jeanne: I’m a huge believer in this avenue! I’m writing a novel now, and loving how I can break the screenwriting rules and go into a character’s head or go into detail describing the room, the temperature, or whatever.

Brian: Novels are as varied as everything else.

Jeanne: Exactly.

Brian: There are readers who love immense detail, but there are others who love fast action, like Hunger Games, and some of these other novels that were written by screenwriters. I actually think screenwriters bring to the novel world a better handle on structure than many novelists have. Yes, character does drive a story to some degree, but there’s a reason why the story structure of movies is very successful. We screenwriters bring a fast-paced goal-driven structure that makes for the best storytelling in the world.

brian godawa

Brian Godawa

Jeanne: We are trained to make something a fast read. We’re trained to make the exec have to turn the page. In today’s age, one of the benefits we have is the younger generation wants fast consumption. They want to be able to sit down and read a story in one sitting. Screenwriters can do that.

Brian: It’s wide open for every kind of writing possible. It empowers you. It’s satisfying to have people read your stories. It’s not an either/or for me. I’m back writing screenplays too and working on projects that are almost funded. I’m doing it all.

Jeanne: So as you’re doing it all, are you happy with that or, in the perfect unicorn-leprechaun world, would you prefer to just write movies?

Brian: I prefer the abbreviated and visual nature of movies. But when you’re forced to reinvent yourself and discover new paths, you discover joy and fulfillment you didn’t even realize would be there. I will say that novels do give me a lot of fulfillment as a writer and satisfaction that I don’t get as a screenwriter, and in different ways. For instance, when I write a movie, I feel like I’m watching it on the screen, but when I write a novel, I feel like I’m in 3-D virtual reality. It’s wild.

Jeanne: As a novelist, you’re also inviting the reader in to use their own imagination that’s not on the screen or in your head, but in theirs. That’s a cool thing.

Brian: Absolutely.

Jeanne: If you could go back and talk to your 18-yr-old self, and you’re sitting on the couch with him. What would you want him to know or what advice would you give him?

Brian: I would say to move to L.A. sooner because being around the action is significant. I’d also say not to operate on a big-break mentality and to accept little steps as progress, and to network more. I’m not a people person in that I just want to be home and write. I felt if I just wrote a great story, the cream would rise to the top, which you hear a lot. But I don’t believe that. Sure, it can rise to the top, but not always. That cream has a lot of help and relationships behind it. I’d tell myself to not spend all my time on my writing, but to go out and network and go to parties or whatever. Be out there around the people of that world more, even if it’s not my tendency.

Follow Brian on Twitter @BrianGodawa and sign up for his newsletter on his website.

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