Matthew Hickman was born and raised in rural Georgia. After dropping out of law school, he started working an hourly-wage job at a UPS store, and saved money for a year in hopes of moving to Los Angeles to begin a screenwriting career.
Several months ago he arrived in Santa Monica, where he now works at another UPS store, writing in his off hours. He recently published a novella on Amazon Kindle and has just started work on his second feature length script.
I want to stress my beginnings here because I know that for many of you, getting to L.A. is the battle before the battle. I think many of John’s readers may have a sensation similar to what I felt in the time I read this blog before I moved to L.A., and that’s one of isolation. In the middle of reading all this talk about getting an agent, pitches, script revisions, options, treatments, and copyrights, many of you probably feel left apart entirely from the ability to act on your ambitions. I know I did.
How it starts
As I sit here in my two hundred square foot studio, water is boiling on the stove. I live in a guest house attached to someone’s guest house. I’m not completely broke, but I do eat a lot of spaghetti these days. I don’t have much money to go out with friends, much less go out looking for them.
On the other hand, I recently paid eleven bucks to see a screening of The King’s Speech followed by a Q&A with David Seidler, Tom Hooper, Colin Firth, and Helena Bonham-Carter. The next week it was Darren Aronofsky between screenings of Black Swan and Pi. At my day job I’ve had conversations with Marcus Dunstan, Lester Lewis, and others about advice for new writers. I’ve met Jessica Biel without knowing it, and walked by Paul Haggis on an empty sidewalk on a Sunday afternoon. If I hadn’t been wearing a Cookie Monster t-shirt at the time (don’t ask), I probably could have exchanged a few words with him about what it takes to succeed here. Lastly (and most importantly), I’ve met countless other transplants from Normalville, USA looking to carve out their place in the entertainment industry.
All this has happened during my first four months in Los Angeles. These are a few of the trade-offs I’ve gladly made for a shot at what most of you reading this column want: to be a screenwriter.
Unlike a lot of the first-person columns you’ve been reading the last few months, I haven’t accomplished much yet as a screenwriter. I don’t have any writing credits to my name, none of my work has been optioned. Hell, I don’t even have an IMDb profile. But I have made one significant step toward that dream of being a working writer we all harbor: I made the jump and moved to Los Angeles.
For those unconvinced about the benefits of moving here, see the above paragraph for examples of why you should rethink your position. I’m not just namedropping (Jessica Biel aside). If a guy freshly transplanted from the foothills of Appalachia can run into all these people, imagine who you could meet here.
And I don’t even have a car.
My story starts like a lot of others: inconspicuously. I was born in Savannah, Georgia and lived in its vicinity until I went to college. You could say my path to screenwriting started with a religious upbringing. I grew up as something of a minority: a Catholic kid surrounded by Southern Baptist congregations in rural Georgia.
As I got older, my religious beliefs fell by the wayside, and movies gradually took their place. Instead of a man in a pulpit preaching a gospel of fire and brimstone, it was a few characters on the silver screen trying just as eagerly and honestly to figure out their lives. Here was humanity, in all its blissful, fractured glory, working itself out for all of us to see.
In 2008 I graduated from the University of Georgia. After making what are best described as several questionable career decisions (including a plan meticulously outlined on yellow legal pad to buy the local dive bar where my best friend and I feigned employment), I ended up in law school. Six weeks and ten thousand dollars later, I was certain I had no interest in being an attorney.
With law school not working out, I started to put a meaningful amount of thought into what I wanted from life. I had always followed the things that made me feel, and I always loved a good story. I’m reminded of the opening lines of The White Album, Joan Didion’s meditation on life in Southern California: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Faced with a universe that can sometimes seem callously indifferent, stories give me something to believe in. I don’t think I’m alone on this.
When people ask me why I want to do what I want to do, I can’t help but think of examples that highlight that need to believe. How could someone not feel the kind of truth that is universal to the human condition when we see Oskar Schindler finally break down, guilty about his failure to save even one more person, at the end of Schindler’s List? What about Rick Blaine choosing the greater good over love at the end of Casablanca? Or the less grandiose but just as sublime affirmation of life Lester Burnham offers after his unremarkable suburban existence at the end of American Beauty?
To me, these movies don’t just say something about who we are as humans, they reveal something even more important: who we aspire to be, even — and especially — when we fail. That’s as close to God as I think I’ll ever get.
Can you tell I want to write dramas yet?
Making the jump
Given my life experience, it wasn’t much of a leap for me to decide — to know, really — that creating this kind of art is what I want to do with my life. Although this kind of inspiration is frequently perceived as naïve, I’ll be honest and say I had wanted to be a screenwriter since first watching Good Will Hunting as a wide-eyed nineteen year old. I was sitting on a couch in a home I was house-sitting when the credits rolled over that beat up old car riding down the interstate. I was convinced I’d just seen a piece of the kind of truth I’d sought after all my life.
Despite this, I dismissed it for several years as an impractical pipe dream. Now, with all my more “grounded” options falling apart, I couldn’t think of a better thing to do than pursue the only real ambition I ever had.
When I called my mother and told her I wanted to leave law school move to Hollywood, she cried a lot. Like any good mother, she worried about the decision I was making; like any good single mother of an only child, she worried that I’d lost my mind. Where I come from, writer hasn’t been very high up on the list of legitimate “callings” since the New Testament was written.
In my view, you can certainly start a career without living in L.A., but whether that’s feasible depends on what level of means you’re working with. If you’ve got the money to fly to L.A. whenever you need to take that important meeting or the equipment to make that short film that you know would capture all the buzz at SXSW, then get crackin’. If a parody of a movie trailer can get a million hits, your excellently made short film can find its audience too. But if you’re living more or less on a shoestring, there isn’t a substitute for being here.
I thought I’d need to save up anywhere from three to five thousand dollars to get out here and scrape by until I got a job. With a college degree and high marks, I thought I’d qualify for an entry-level position as a salaried worker somewhere in Athens. Instead the best option I found was hourly employment at a UPS store. I started out making $8.50 an hour. This picture was taken during the holiday season of my first month on that new job. From law student to Holiday-Elf, you can imagine the amount of humility this change in circumstance took. See those wild tufts of auburn facial hair? It was a rough time.
Some time later I read that Brad Pitt took a job dressed as a giant chicken for El Pollo Loco when he first moved to L.A. I’m sure many writers worked the same kind of jobs when they started out. To me it was a test: just how badly did I want this?
So I sucked it up for a whole year — the toughest of my life so far. It’s a unique kind of torture, knowing what you want out of life but feeling as if you’re unable to make any progress toward it. I knew in an abstract sense that eventually I’d save the necessary money and make my big move. That didn’t do much to assuage the day to day tyranny of working a job that in the grand scheme of things I didn’t give a shit about, surrounded by a town I’d long outgrown, in order to make just enough money so I could save and escape.
The toughest part in all that was seeing friends and former law school classmates around town and having to entertain their questions about why I hadn’t moved yet. I could tell in their tones they hardly believed I was sincere in my goal to begin with. For twelve long months, that was my reality.
I wasn’t entirely stagnant though. I continued to read about screenwriting. I finished my first feature. I wrote a few shorts, one of which was produced.
In September I took a roadtrip to New Orleans. I was fascinated by the city, and wandered around it without any money while my friends played Blackjack at Harrah’s. After that weekend, I wanted to learn more about what happened during Katrina, so I rented Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke. I was devastated after the first hour. I’d had a few glasses of wine, and without much thought I picked up my laptop and started typing a first-person narrative on the rug of our living room floor. I didn’t mean to tell a story, I was mostly just typing from a place of raw emotion.
Six months and an opposite coast later, those five paragraphs or so became Hope for a Funeral, my first novella. For the first time, I’d written something that I thought was damn good.
In the meantime, as my savings started to accumulate (thanks in no small part to a kick-starting donation from my best friend), I started looking for jobs in Los Angeles.
My plan was to move in January 2011, with or without a job. I ran down the list of jobs I was unequivocally qualified for: doorman at a bar, assistant manager at a Gap, UPS store employee, maybe LSAT tutor. Not the most promising start. But with that list in mind, I started looking around. I knew that when I moved here, I wouldn’t have enough money for a car. The beater I’d been driving around was a 1993 Accord; although it served me faithfully until well after the 200,000 mile mark, over a thousand bucks in repairs during the last year I owned it let me know it was time to move on.
Living without a car
“But you have to have a car in L.A.!” I hear the choir ringing.
Here’s the thing: you can make the bare necessities of life work in Los Angeles without a car. There are enough strip malls with mini-marts and grocery stores within a bike ride of wherever you live to make sure of that. Where it gets difficult is with anything extracurricular.
I’ve got a few friends and a cousin out in the Valley. Living in Santa Monica, it’s almost as if they’re in another state to me. If I were to get a call from a studio tomorrow about a script I wrote, I might have to ride the bus for two hours round-trip. Fun is limited to whatever is in your surrounding area. You can make it work in L.A. without a car; you just won’t enjoy it. For me that was exactly the point. I put myself in a hole and said, “Write yourself out of it.” That kind of extremity may not be necessary for everyone, but it sharpened my focus.
So I started looking for jobs out here, preferably in pedestrian friendly neighbors. As those go, Venice and Santa Monica are two of your best bets. Unfortunately, they’re also among the more expensive, but the cost of living is mostly offset by the money you save from not having a car. After a week of uninspired efforts, I picked up the phone and called a UPS store in Santa Monica. The guy I spoke to happened to be the owner, and they were currently looking for help. Within a few weeks I had a job offer and a concrete plan. I would move during Thanksgiving.
On one of my last nights in Athens, I sat in my room in a house I’d either lived in or been visiting for four years, surrounded by piles of clothes for Goodwill and empty hangers on the floor. It took me longer than I planned, but I was finally leaving. I thought of all the moments I doubted myself but had never allowed myself to break under the strain.
Making the decision to leave law school was the easy part; everything after it is when the rubber met the road. In keeping with my love of a good story and trying to find the elements of narrative in my life, I pulled up a clip from a movie I love before packing my computer. And I cried. Buckets. I still do when I think about that moment. Even now.
I think my desire to own a motorcycle started somewhere in that story.
That week I shipped three boxes of belongings ahead of me to Los Angeles, got on a plane, and landed in California for the first time. During my job search my mother had told me about a guy in our extended family who lived out here. I’d never met him, but when I called him on the phone a few times we spoke at length about my plans.
He lives in Venice, less than two miles from the job I found, and was generous enough to offer me a place to stay while I got settled out here. I lucked out with this. During my first two weeks here I crashed on the floor in his attic-turned-loft by the beach while scanning every Westside apartment ad on Craigslist. It was a little drafty at night, but it was free and he did whatever he could to show me around during his off hours. He moved out to L.A. several years ago with similar ambitions, and has been a producer on several low-budget indie films. Since then we’ve become good friends.
The first purchase I made was a bicycle. I spent $130 for a used tourist bike on Venice Boardwalk, and I’ve used it ever since. Make sure you buy a good lock and lights if you have a bike here. It’s a mistake you’ll only make once if you don’t.
I started working at my new job and developed a routine quickly. After a year of doing the same retail work, I had learned all the essential tasks thoroughly, which allowed me to focus on my writing at night. It’s a situation I’ve discussed at length with other aspiring writers: having a job as someone’s assistant or as a PA will reward you with enviable connections and industry knowledge, but the trade-off seems to be that it can be more mentally and emotionally taxing. A woman I was talking to just the other day relayed an anecdote about working as a high profile producer’s assistant for a month. Aside from being paid the same as most hourly wage positions, she worked regularly from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m.
There are benefits to each situation; I personally enjoy having plenty of free time to write. Within about six weeks I completed a draft of Hope for a Funeral. I sent it out to a few people for comments and revisions, went back to work, and came up with a draft ready for publishing on Kindle and Nook by February. I’ve recently started research for my second feature, which I hope to have written this summer.
Where I am now
I moved here because Los Angeles is the place to be if you want to write for the screen, and my move hasn’t disappointed. Living here, you are swimming in a sea of people connected to the industry. They go out for dinner, coffee, and drinks like any other human; you couldn’t avoid running into them if you tried. You’ve just got to be on the lookout. In most cases, if you approach them like a normal person instead of some fan lusting after fame, they’re happy to talk with you for a few minutes.
Once I finish my next script, finding someone to read it whose opinion Matters will be the easy part. That’s a beautiful and motivating feeling. The only thing standing in my way is something I’m in control of: I need an excellent script. It frees me to focus on the important work of writing something as well as I possibly can.
I was talking with a producer of The Office the other day who told me, “You’re only going to get one chance with anybody.” Agencies, he said, keep records of people they’ve read. If they’re not impressed after that first reading, you’re done. That might seem kind of dispiriting, but the truth is, it’s great news. It’s great because it means novices get one chance with anyone. No matter who you are, if you find the right person and strike up a conversation, when the day comes that you’ve written that script you know is rock solid, you’ll have someone to give it to.
On most days I come home from work, fix dinner, and do some combination of research, writing, and watching Charlie Rose interview my favorite filmmakers. On nights when I’m not feeling particularly motivated to be productive, I’ll watch a movie on Netflix or ride down to the Promenade and catch one of the new releases there to remind myself of what I’m here for.
For any of you out there wondering whether you should take the plunge and move to Los Angeles, it’s something to think long and hard about. If you know you’ve got the talent and you’re still relatively foot-loose and fancy-free but you just haven’t pulled the trigger, I’d offer this clip that I’ve drawn inspiration from every so often since the first days I decided to pursue this.
When I moved here, California’s unemployment rate was 12.5% and it wasn’t too long ago that several concerned friends and relatives warned me that I could easily run out of money before I found a job here. This isn’t to make light of those legitimate concerns, but I’m still here, and that victory is a small but significant one. If you’ve got the impulse, act.
For those who like checklists, here are some things to think about while preparing to move here:
You’ll need a few thousand dollars (at least three if you can move with a job, closer to five if you’re moving without)
You’ll need a place to live for a few weeks when you first get here (this can be as simple as a friend’s or a friend of a friend’s floor to throw your suitcase on).
Have your resume updated. Don’t underestimate the power of that and a well-crafted cover letter. The job I snagged, as average as it sounds, had over a hundred applicants before I was hired. Know your experience and your strengths. Have realistic expectations. Apply for jobs you’re overqualified for.
Consider film school. For me I very quickly decided that this was not something I wanted to pursue but I won’t deny how great of a learning experience it can be.
Use whatever connections you have, even distant ones. There is enormous value in them and everyone remembers what it was like when they first moved to Los Angeles. This is a city of people from other places and most of them are willing to help if you just ask. If it hadn’t been for this, I don’t know where I would have lived when I first moved here.
After that, it should be pretty simple. I say simple, but not easy. It will be simple because once you’ve found that job folding clothes at American Apparel for thirty five hours a week you’ll make enough money to cover your apartment in Culver City, lots of noodles, and maybe a beer or two a week, but not much else. With that kind of lifestyle, you’ll be forced to focus on the thing that brought you here: writing. And you will write. And you’ll get better.
If you’ve got any questions, feel free to contact me. Keep me mind that I’m not much farther ahead than many of you. Check out the beginning of Hope for a Funeral here. Or if you’re in Santa Monica and just want to have a beer, I’d probably be up for that too. All the best, and keep writing.
The world is always waiting to hear a good story.