In a speech to Nicholl Fellowship winners, screenwriter Billy Ray offered a seasonally-appropriate explanation of Hollywood rankings.
I grew up revering writers.
This is largely because I came of age in the ’70s, when Francis Coppola and Mario Puzo were writing The Godfather. Robert Towne was writing Chinatown. Frank Pierson was writing Dog Day Afternoon. Paddy Chayefsky was writing Network and The Hospital. William Goldman was writing Butch Cassidy and All the President’s Men.
Throw in Rocky by Sylvester Stallone and The Candidate by Jeremy Larner, Jaws by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb, Kramer vs. Kramer by Robert Benton, The Omen by David Seltzer, Annie Hall and Manhattan by Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman… and you have the beginnings of a writers’ hall of fame. These people were my heroes.
But the other reason I grew up revering writers was that my father represented them. He was a literary agent, a great one. And when I was nineteen I walked into his office and told him that I had decided to become a screenwriter.
Back in those days literary agencies still kept all their clients’ scripts on paper. My father’s office had a huge storeroom of tall metal shelves, stacked high with scripts. On one of those shelves were the scripts of his client, Alvin Sargent. My father pulled from it Alvin’s brilliant shooting script for Ordinary People. Then he handed it to me and said, “Here. Do this.”
He was setting the bar for me. I have been trying to hit it ever since.
Because WGA rules require that all successful writers begin their careers by struggling so they’ll have a story to tell later, I spent three years after college working at a regular job during the day and writing at night. But after I finally sold a script, things started happening for me pretty quickly.
At the age of 25, I was writing two movies for a big-time producer at Universal and was very much feeling like the flavor of the month.
One day, I was in this producer’s office for a meeting when I saw something spitting out of his dot-matrix printer. (This was the late ’80s for those of you unfamiliar with that technology.) On the page coming out of the printer I saw a list. At the top of it were the letters “AA” and the names of the producer’s wife and his lawyer.
I suddenly realized: I was looking at his Christmas list.
“Billy,” I told myself, “Stop reading. You don’t want to know what letter you are.”
But several weeks later, a Christmas gift arrived at my apartment from this producer’s office. It was a beautiful silver tray with a gingerbread house on it — inlaid with candies and lights.
And I said to myself, “Okay. I’m not ‘AA,’ but I’m ‘A’ and I’m only 25. That’s pretty good.”
The next year, both movies I was writing for him went into turnaround, and when Christmas rolled around again I found myself thinking, “I don’t think there’s another silver tray coming my way this year.”
Soon, a messenger from his office came to my house, and handed me a beautiful gift basket. It had wine and salami and an assortment of cheeses, and I thought to myself, “Okay, I’m not ‘A’ anymore — but I’m still ‘B’ and I’m only 26. That’s pretty good.”
An hour later I got a call from a panicked assistant who worked for that producer: “Did you get a gift from us?”
“Yes, I did.”
“Don’t open it.”
“We got your gift mixed up with someone else’s.”
“No problem. I’ll take his. He’ll take mine. It’s really fine.”
“Don’t open it. Someone will be right over.” He hung up, still palpitating.
Ten minutes later I hear a screech of tires outside my apartment, and the frantic steps of this assistant on his way to my door. He pounded. I answered.
His face was ashen: “Do you have it?”
I handed him the gift basket.
And he handed me a tin of yogurt-covered pretzels.
When people ask me what it’s like to be a young screenwriter in Hollywood, that’s the story I tell them.
Billy Ray’s screenwriting credits include Shattered Glass and Breach — both of which he also directed — along with State of Play and The Hunger Games. He serves on the WGA Board of Directors.