On friends, colleagues and jealousy

questionmarkWhen you were first getting started as a writer, did you meet other hopeful screenwriters? And, if so, did you grow, over time, to absolutely despise them?

Because I’m feeling this. When I first moved to LA a few years ago, I met a whole bunch of disreputable screenwriter wannabes. I made friends with them. We helped and encouraged each other. But in the last year or so, I began to grow weary of their company and their lame-ass superficial ideas. I wrote a script that landed me a fairly prestigious agent and have since gone on to have meet and greets and do all the things that other screenwriters do who haven’t yet sold a break-through script. I’ve pitched for assignments. I’ve duly submitted new scripts that haven’t yet tweaked the fancy of some mid-level studio exec. I’ve met with producers. I’ve played the whole game. I feel like I’m on the cusp.

But I’m still sort of in that netherworld between WGA-sanctioned writer and struggling wannabe. The thing is, all the struggling screenwriters I’ve grown to know in the last few years… well, truth be told, they irritate the fuck out of me now. I have no patience for them anymore. And they seem to have no patience for me. They’ve grown really demanding. It seems like for every new door that opens for me, they feel like I owe them the passcode. The secret handshake. The “in.”

What I want to know is, did you go through this? Did you, at some point, have to sort of leave your fellow strugglers behind? I don’t want to lose my friends, but at the same time, I feel like it’s really important for me to separate myself from them right now. I also feel like, if the shoe were on the other foot, they wouldn’t think twice about blowing me (and all my scripts) off. I mean, they’re calling me and asking me if I’ll send their latest script to my agents… who have only hip-pocketed me and who I can barely get on the phone as it is.

Hollywood is such a weird place. I feel like I’m still learning all the ins and outs of the politics that go with it. How have you dealt with fellow screenwriter friends who haven’t yet crossed that line, but who still count you as a friend, with all the benefits that come with that friendship? Does that make sense?

I’d really appreciate some advice.

Los Angeles

Your letter pretty well encapsulates a lot of what I have felt, and to some degree continue to feel, about Los Angeles and the film industry.

To a surprising degree, screenwriting can be a meritocracy, where good writing (and savvy) leads to a fulfilling career. Talent and hard work are rewarded; laziness is punished. The lag between cause and effect can be frustratingly long, but there’s reason to have faith.

From your letter, it really does sound like you’re off to a good start. Congratulations. Work your ass off, land an assignment, and write the hell out of it. Then do it again, and again, and again. You’ll know you’re doing well if you’re too tired to go out drinking with your old screenwriting buddies.

Yes, I’m saying to let ‘em go. Not all of them, necessarily. But it’s time to thin the herd.

I think there’s an important distinction between friends and colleagues. Here’s the single most important question to ask yourself: Who is happy for you? A true friend is glad you’re finding success, without any ulterior motive for himself. Be smart: hold onto your friends. I have honest-to-goodness friends who I met the second day I arrived in Los Angeles, who will be my friends until I die.

But I also have colleagues, mostly other screenwriters, who are important to me even though they’re not really friends. With colleagues, it’s okay to feel some jealousy. Even small twinges of schadenfreude. Particularly at the beginning of my career, I was constantly comparing my success to their success, and it made me work that much harder. Yes, we helped each other out when we could, but the biggest help by far was by continually raising the bar, not just in the quality of our writing, but what we were able to achieve career-wise.

Most of your so-called screenwriter friends are probably fall into the “colleague” category. Some of them are definitely worth keeping in your life. Ask yourself which ones you think are actually good writers. Here’s the test: whose scripts are you genuinely excited to read? If you dread cracking open Jim’s scripts, and dread giving him notes, then you really don’t believe in him as a writer. You’re not doing him or yourself any favors keeping up the charade.

You don’t have to tell him, “Jim, buddy, I think your writing sucks.” Just be too busy to read the next draft. Say it’s too much like something you’re working on. (And remember that trading scripts works both ways. It’s not fair to ask for his notes if you’re not willing to do the same.)

Jim may think you’re an asshole. That’s his right. But the process of adding and dropping friends and colleagues isn’t unique to this business. I’m guessing you’re in your 20’s. With certainty, I could say you’d be going through the same thing no matter where you lived, or what you were doing. Things change. People move on.

What’s different about this business is the musical chairs aspect. Hollywood only “needs” a very small number of screenwriters. Maybe it’s a hundred. Maybe it’s three hundred. Whatever the figure, it’s a very small number compared to the vast legion of wannabe screenwriters in Los Angeles.

The cliche is that every waiter in LA is an actor. The truth is that every non-waiter is probably working on a screenplay. So when these aspiring screenwriters see you climbing those first few rungs of the ladder, it’s no surprise there’s some jealousy and resentment. After all, just a few months ago, you were exactly where they were.

In some ways, it’s easier to begrudge a person a little success than a lot of success. There’s a relatability, a why-not-me factor. It sucks for them. It sucks for you. Accept that and move on.

If it’s any consolation, look around at all the aspiring actors in your midst. They’re going through the exact same winnowing process, but at least you’re being judged on your words. Imagine how much more frustrating it would be to succeed or fail based on the whims of a casting director who liked your look, or felt you could stand to lose 10 pounds.

The Constant Gardener, infant edition

Constant Gardener Yesterday, I saw The Constant Gardener.

My quick review: I respected the filmmaking, but I can’t say I loved the movie. Throughout the entire film, I was so far ahead of the Ralph Fiennes character that I found myself thinking more about African theatre, diplomatic passports and shallow-focus lenses than what exactly had happened to poor Ralph’s wife. However, I’ll probably see every movie Fernando Meirelles makes. He’s terrifically talented.

More interesting than the movie itself was the film-going experience: it was my first outing to a Monday Morning Mommy Movie at The Grove.

The whole Mommy Movie concept is pretty basic. Every Monday morning, the theatre shows one of the new releases. Generally, it’s not a kid’s movie — last week, it was The 40-Year Old Virgin. Parents are allowed — encouraged — to bring infants. The theatre lights aren’t turned down all the way, and there’s table set up for changing diapers. There’s also a stroller-parking area outside the theatre.

Depending on whether or not you have a baby, this is either the best thing that ever happened, or a quick descent into Hell. I don’t think anyone accidentally bought a ticket for the Mommy movie, but if they did, I’m sure they quickly got their money back.

At first, I thought I wasn’t going to be able to enjoy the movie over the constant din of fussy infants, but it’s amazing how quickly you tune it out. It’s all a matter of expectation. If you expect a quiet movie theatre, one crying baby will ruin it. If you expect noise, it doesn’t bother you a bit.

One phenomenon I hadn’t expected was the seven-minute rule. I don’t know if it’s really seven minutes, but next time you’re at a dinner party, pay attention to the ebb and flow of conversation. About once every seven minutes, it gets really quiet for some reason. Then in starts up again.

It turns out, the same thing happens with babies. One minute, the auditorium will be filled with cries, then it will suddenly get quiet. It’s spooky. And welcome.

The whole think struck me as a particularly ripe arena for a Wedding Crashers-style comedy about guys looking to pick up MILFs, since it would be so easy to strike up a loaded conversation about onesies, breasts, and butt paste.

For the record, “Mommy Movies” is pretty heterosexist, but I’m not getting up on my soapbox. There were only a handful of dads in the audience. Most weeks, I’ll be one of them.

Hey, why didn’t my comment get posted?

questionmarkAs a fairly-frequent commenter on other people’s blogs, I know how frustrating it can be when I’ve spent a few minutes working on the perfect riposte, only to have it disappear somewhere in the void. So I thought I’d explain a little bit about how comments on johnaugust.com work, and why they sometimes don’t show up right away.

In the beginning, there was spam. It cluttered your box. Then came blogs, and soon followed comment spam. These are short, meaningless posts that generally link to some site involving gambling or prescription drugs. In most cases, the comments are not made by actual humans, but rather by automated programs (bots), who scurry around the web looking for open comment systems.

In order to keep this site from being overrun with comment spam, there are a few safeguards built-in:

  1. In order to comment, you have to type the required word from the 16-word phrase. This is sort of a home-brewed solution, but it’s worked fairly well.
  2. Comments that have certain words (or combinations of words) are flagged for review. These comments are logged in the system, but won’t show up until the administrator (me) approves them.
  3. The same applies to comments with three or more links in them.
  4. Comments from certain spammy IP addresses are automatically flagged for review.

The three-links rule is often what trips people up.

If you’ve posted something and it hasn’t shown up, be patient. The system will automatically kick me an email when a comment gets flagged for review. Unless I’m swamped, I’ll usually get around to approving it the same day.

Thanks for posting.

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Dear Governor Schwarzenegger: Marry Me

Dear Governor Schwarzenegger Arnold,

I want to get married.

ArnoldNot to you, since you already have a wonderful wife and family — and I’m not the home-wrecking sort, unlike other celebrities I could name. No, I want to marry my partner of five years. That’s why I’m writing. I need your help.

Right now, we can’t get married. Unlike movies you may have seen, the obstacle in our case is not a generations-old family feud, nor a mystical curse, nor a war that has torn this great country apart. What stands between us and the altar is bureaucracy.

I know you love freedom and hate bureaucracy, so I thought you’d want to know.

Some backstory, since we’ve never met. Like you, I come from the film industry. I’m a screenwriter. I wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Big Fish, along with some other movies you unfortunately didn’t star in. (This can be rectified.) My partner Mike is an MBA. He’s clever. He balances the checkbook. Like you and Maria, we complement each other.

Right now, we’re registered domestic partners. California currently has pretty good domestic partnership laws. You signed them, so thanks for that. As Californians, Mike and I have benefits basic human rights that we wouldn’t have in any state other than Massachusetts. We’ve also spent a couple of thousand dollars to draft up wills, trusts and powers-of-attorney to get us a little closer to marriage-equivalence.

But we’re not married.

Do you remember when Britney Spears married that guy in Vegas earlier this year, only to have it quickly annulled? Well, for that day or two, she and whatever-his-name had vastly more rights than Mike or I have ever had. They could file joint taxes. They could adopt children. They could inherit each other’s property. (Probably a better deal for him.) In the eyes of the law, they were more legitimate than Mike and I could ever be.

And the Britney coincidences continue: she’s about to have a baby; we just had one. Her new husband, Kevin Federline, was an unwed father; I am an unwed father.

That’s the uncomfortable truth, Governor, that has me writing to you today. I’m an unwed father. And I don’t want to be.

Sometimes, being unmarried is merely aggravating. For instance, I recently got into heated words with a representative from my health insurance company, who told me I would have to adopt my own daughter. Never mind that my name is on her birth certificate. “With gay people,” she explained, “we have to have official adoption papers.” (Fortunately, her supervisor corrected the misinformation.)

Sometimes, being unmarried is more troubling. It’s no shock that there are some places in this great country we probably don’t want to travel as a family, and that’s not going to magically change overnight. But even in Los Angeles, everyday life is subtly different for us. To wit: when your kids were little, did you carry copies of their birth certificate in the diaper bag, just in case some overzealous official questioned whether these were “really” your kids?

Look, I’m a realist. Letting Mike and I get married won’t suddenly make everything better. There will still be bigots and assholes, and women who cluck their disapproval at the grocery store. However, affirming the right for us to marry would take away one official sanction against gay people. People will still discriminate, but they won’t feel like they have the state backing them up.

And here’s where you come in.

By the narrowest of margins, the California legislature has just passed AB 849, the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act. It says civil marriage is defined as the union of two people, without specifying gender. Now it’s up to the Governor to decide whether to sign it into law, or veto it.

That’s you, Governor Schwarzenegger. And that’s why I’m writing.

In your movies, you always play the hero. Do it again. Sign the bill.

I know you’re worried about the political implications. Personally, I think you’d get a big boost for standing up for what you believe, damn the conventional wisdom. But in case you need to fall back on your Hollywood career, know that I’m offering to write Terminator 4 for you. Hell, I’ll write Jingle All the Way 2. That’s how important this is.

I’m also urging all my friends and readers who live in California to take two minutes and call the Governor’s office: (916) 445-2841. I did. It’s absolutely painless, like voting for American Idol. And there are local numbers, too, for much of the state:

Fresno: 559-445-5295

Los Angeles: 213-897-0322

Riverside: 951-680-6860

San Diego: 619-525-4641

San Francisco: 415-703-2218

Your spokespeople have said that you prefer to leave the decision up to the courts. I doubt it. You’re a man of action. Take action. Sign the bill and marry me.


– John August

Update: (9/30/05)

Governor Vetoes Gay Marriage Bill. Arnold, you broke my heart. But at least you stood up for the current domestic partnership laws, and promised to fight any backsliding.

Please state your purpose

questionmarkI’m in the middle of applications for USC and UCLA, where I hope to get an MFA in screenwriting.

Any tips on writing the ultimate statement of purpose? Also, what kind of references play well? Should I get industry types or not — I have a couple of contacts in L.A.

I notice you went to USC. Was it very expensive?

– Matt

Last question first: yes. Film school is and was expensive. In my case, it was definitely worth it, but for every film school grad who’s making a living at it, there are probably three who aren’t. It’s certainly not like an MBA, where you’re pretty much guaranteed to get some kind of decent job at the end.

I was tempted to dig back through the archives (which are probably on floppy disk) to find my original application letter for the Peter Stark Producing Program at USC. Laziness trumped temptation, and I didn’t. But here’s my recollection of my “statement of purpose”:

I want to learn about the film industry in a comprehensive way, everything from loading a camera to analyzing a marketing plan. In specific, I’m curious to learn how the industry learns from its successes and failures, both critically and commercially.

My letters of recommendation came from a journalism professor and a marketing professor at Drake, and a film instructor I’d had for a summer program at Stanford. I think if you have a film-related reference, use it. But make sure at least one of your references is someone who knows you well and can really speak to your unique strengths with specific examples. To me, there’s nothing worse than a hollow, generic letter of recommendation from someone who seems to be a near-stranger.

For USC requirements, I also had to take the GRE exam. Apparently, the Stark program doesn’t really care about the scores, but I’ll gloat and say I did well. I really miss standardized tests.

The Stark program didn’t ask for a writing sample, so I didn’t need to send in anything for that. What’s weird to realize is that back then, I really didn’t know what screenwriting was.

How to get into film school
Is film school necessary?

O Great Rosenfeld!

rosenfeldThe fifty or so friends and family on my Christmas card list this past year got signed copies of Daniel Wallace’s O Great Rosenfeld!, which tells the story of a hapless prehistoric tribe.

Daniel describes it as a kid’s book for adults. Being a crass Hollywood type, I say it’s Quest for Fire meets The Office.

Either way, it’s very funny.

Daniel, you may recall, wrote Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions, which became the film of the same title (though not subtitle). My adaptation of his novel was the first screenplay he ever read. He liked the format so much he became a screenwriter himself. (He’s also a witty illustrator, which benefits Rosenfeld greatly.)

As of last Christmas, O Great Rosenfeld! hadn’t yet been officially published, so Daniel and I did a special press run, with numbered copies. Friends who got the book would always ask me where they buy it for their friends, but Daniel was always a little evasive on the answer. He said something unusual was happening with it, and that he’d tell me when he could.

It turns out, Amazon bought the book as part of its new Amazon Shorts project.

Most of the stuff available on Amazon Shorts is bonus material from top authors: essays, short stories, deleted chapters. Think of them as the literary equivalent of DVD extras. Everything on Amazon Shorts is delivered electronically, and best of all, it only costs 49 cents. (Of that, the writer gets a very significant portion, since there’s no printing or storage costs.)

Daniel’s O Great Rosenfeld! is divided into two parts, so it costs a whopping 98 cents to find out what ever becomes of “Our Esteemed Leader, Rosenfeld, and His Tribe of 33 and 1/2 Followers” as they strive to protect Sally, the most beautiful woman in their tribe. It’s money very well spent.

And if you’d like Daniel to sign it, he probably will. He’s a friendly guy.