Michael Giampa turned his back on a promising part-time video clerk career to become a full-time screenwriter. A top 100 placing in the Nicholl Fellowships and a win of the American Accolades Screenwriting Competition for his script Clean secured him representation and his first paid writing gig. Since then he has penned several produced features (including Johnny Tootall starring Adam Beach) and been optioned or commissioned to write over twenty more.
“But what is it to be a writer? Writing is a sweet, wonderful reward, but its price? It is the reward for service to the devil. This descent to the dark powers … of which one no longer knows anything above ground … ”
— Franz Kafka – from a letter to Max Brod, July 5, 1922 —
“I am a screenwriter who creates worlds to entertain the world.” That is the mantra I repeat before I start my daily grind at a dilapidated laptop. “I am an idiot who wishes to make things up for a living and is paying interest on the interest on long overdue bills.” That’s my other mantra. This bipolar approach allows me to dream and yet be miserably grounded at the same time. It wasn’t always like this …
THE FIRST HIT
I love movies. I’ve worked at five movie theaters and five video stores. Years ago, after a particularly bad film, I left the theater and uttered the all too common phrase “I could write something better than that.” Six months and many evenings at home later I had my 258-page, dialogue-bogged, masterpiece. I’d tasted the nectar of a creative wellspring and wanted more.
One has to pay rent. Work takes time from writing. Ask yourself, “what would you be willing to forego (aka sacrifice) in order to allow time for your new passion?” I moved in with my parents. No matter how I tried to convince myself it was just short-term and that I could draft my second script worry-free, I still couldn’t ignore the sad fact that at 26 I was moving back in with my parents.
HOW TO WRITE YOUR SCREENPLAY IN ONE DAY AND SELL IT FOR A MILLION DOLLARS THE NEXT.
“How to” books. I read them all. You will, too. But not right away. First you will waste irretrievable time at your keyboard before you realize you don’t have a clue. Then you will inevitably start with Syd Field’s Screenwriting Paradigms etc. Read Field. Absorb his incantations like “setup, confrontation, resolution.” Field also counts a lot. “Two-thirds through your first act,12 pages in, three lines down and 11 syllables across lies the 19th inciting incident.” It’s a number system that rivals Jewish Mysticism. Some of your favorite films will not fit into Syd’s paradigm at all and you’ll think he’s insane. But remember – you have to learn the rules before you can break them.
If possible, have your pride surgically removed early on. After two years of writing I didn’t need mine anymore anyway. The groveling to come, like Buddhist Enlightenment, requires the absence of ego.
Writing is the hardest part of movie making. Period. Those multi-faceted actor/director/producer/writer types like Ben Stiller and Kasi Lemmons admit this. Suit up with cute anecdotes (“Write makes might”) and pithy analogies (“William Goldman used to be a garbage collector”) to inspire you. But know this: There is no Muse. You are the Muse. It’s similar in rationale to (more Buddhism) there is no God because we are all God. The work does not come from a nebulous rainbow land of floating plot lines. It comes from, as Oliver Stone states, “you keeping your ass at your desk.”
Next, I sent my labors of love out to “industry people.” Heartless, cigar-munching “industry” people who dress in black and drink gallons of Evian. I wasn’t prepared for their abuse. Abuse can be in the form of: no response to your script, response on characters that don’t actually exist in your script and a response in which your script is returned stuck together by a substance of unknown origin.
Even if their response is favorable (“We’d love to see your script about the bionic monkey”) the odds are still stacked monstrously against you. Over 40,000 new scripts a year are registered with the Writers Guild of America and another 10,000 at the Library of Congress and assorted author’s agencies. Factor in a batch of online registration services and the “mail it to yourself poor person’s copyright” and that adds up to about 60,000 newborn scripts annually. Considering there are really only 12 major studios that each release about 12 movies theatrically within 12 months and about triple that for serious production houses that manage to get out, say, a half dozen films for wide market “straight to video” and – are you keeping up? – I’ll do the math. Your script has a .0006 % chance of seeing the light of any screen in any aspect ratio ever.
And I haven’t tallied in all those old unproduced and foreign scripts floating around out there.
STRENGTH IN NUMBERS
You’ll soon realize the “how to” books are redundant. I read scripts instead. Professional and amateur. In my opinion, this (aside from writing) is the single best teaching tool. Also, watch movies. Many libraries provide AFI-voted favorites for free. And join a writer’s group to see how your competition stacks up. Host the group at your house. Provide beverages (water) and let them bring the snacks. You can live for days off another’s baked goods.
SOME CHEESE WITH THAT WHINE?
The world will seem to turn against you. Or at least become much less conducive to your “space” as a writer. Neighbors will discover the bass on their stereos. Children with Attention Deficit Disorder will move in down the hall. Peace and quiet will now only exist for you if you are in a coma.
How you choose to view these incidents dictates how long you will survive. Annoyances or anecdotes? An astute writer realizes that everything, the good and (more likely) the bad, are all but grist for the creative mill.
Sioux warriors believed that true wisdom comes from pain. Following this theme, you will end up under many thumbs. Some press down gently. Some use all their weight. Eventually anything that keeps you from writing will become a thumb. The landlord is a thumb after you haven’t paid the rent. Your ancient computer that administers random electrical shocks is a thumb when it erases your work. These all serve to annihilate pride.
Hah, you thought you had no pride left? What you really lost earlier was moxie. Pride is much more in the marrow. It has to be chiseled out over time.
And at this point my loved ones intervened. They noticed me growing pale, thinning.
The hardest thing (other than the writing and getting anyone to return a call) is to accept help from others. Learn early that people want to help. From a read of your script to food to eat – these gifts are from modern-day patrons of the arts. Michelangelo had the Pope. I have my Uncle Ken who gets me fish wholesale. So accept these offerings, dreaming that success is not only one day being able to have all the people who belittled you beaten; it is also the ability to spoil those who reached their hand to you when you needed it.
THE UPS AND DOWNS
Mood swings and writers go hand in hand. Because you spend your days internalizing – your thought filter is bound to clog. You may try to cheer yourself by recalling that Solzhenitsyn and Dr. M.L. King wrote from a prison camp and an Alabama jail cell. But they were social catalysts who orchestrated revolutions of thought and ideal. You are a screenwriter who wants to orchestrate a scene in which Bruce Willis flies through the air sideways with a gun in each hand.
But coping does get easier over time. That’s where the discipline (“ass at desk”) pays off.
Okay. A few years into it I started to figure out the scam artists from the serious players – the magazines and websites worth reading and those not. You will, too. Maybe you’ll place well in a contest (I was a Nicholl Fellowship semi-finalist and an American Accolades winner). People call. God Almighty in Heaven above, the phone is ringing and it’s not a debt collector!
Now, this is the moment where “overnight successes” are born. Somebody actually does get that life changing let’s-do-lunch-this-is-Steven-Spielberg-calling phone call. The reality is it’s not going to happen. Forget that cover story about the teenager who sold Hip-Hop Hootchie for more money than Iraq’s defense budget. Do not base your motivations on this. That is an exception to the norm. And you and I are likely “the norm.” Some screenwriters are lucky. Some are deserving geniuses like Billy Wilder and … uh … Billy Wilder. The rest of us will have to settle with being marginally talented. Skills come with practice. Style comes with discipline (“ass/desk” etc.).
THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL
Once in a while you will get glimmers of good fortune. You may come close to a deal with a producer or agent of renown. The Viet Cong used to do this to POWs as a sort of psychological warfare. They would clean the POWs up, dress them in their uniforms, tell them they were going home and march them to a helicopter that would carry them to freedom. A few steps from the chopper and it would fly away. The enemy had a good laugh. The POW was returned to his cell. False hope. Screenwriting is similar – minus the helicopter.
“DO” OR “DO NOT.” THERE IS NO “TRY.”
For those of you wondering, “Gee, Michael, this sounds like fun. How can I, too, become a despair-ridden, credit-line-defunct, macaroni-and-cheese-subsisting individual who finds the front of speeding buses strangely inviting? Try this simple test:
1) Would you eat wieners past their expiry without question?
2) Would you steal toilet paper from a public washroom instead of buying it?
3) Would you keep your ass at a desk and write for free for hours, weeks, possibly even years at a time?
If you answered “yes” to any of the above (especially the last one), then you have what it takes to brave screenwriting and one day reap its rewards. Forget the money, fame and table at Spago’s. The best reward, if done right, is when you end up in “the zone.” That mysterious and dense writer’s high akin to a black hole, where the speed of escapism exceeds the speed of reality and for a brief shining moment, you control everything.
But if you answered “no” or still harbor reservations, then the next time you come out of a theater after watching a particularly bad movie and say “I could write something better than that,” have someone who loves you very much immediately smack the living bejeezus out of you.
- Balls of Steel: Dear New Screenwriter
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- Navigating Hollywood – 11 Ways to Develop Your Screenwriting Hustle