At the Nuart last weekend for The Nines, Kris Galuska re-introduced himself. He’s a writer I had met at the Austin Film Festival last year. On a short elevator ride, I had tried to convince him that he really needed to move to Los Angeles if he was serious about working as a screenwriter. Apparently, it worked.
At the screening, he started to fill me in on the last twelve months, but I was sure that his experiences would be especially valuable to readers, just as Adam Davis’s recent essay had been. So I urged him to write it up. Once again, Kris took me up on my suggestion.
I started writing as a way to pass the time during my first summer away at college. What began as a diversion soon became my obsession. A year or so later, that obsession led me to the amazing, uniquely writer oriented, Austin Film Festival. I chose a panel on pitching and was delighted to see that the writer of Big Fish (one of my favorite movies) was on the panel. Though, I have to admit, I knew nothing more about John August than what was written in his short bio in the festival program. As the panel began I was blown away by John’s ability to give honest and immediately useful advice. He was able to knock down many of the walls around the industry that countless books and “insiders”? had constructed in my mind. I changed my plans so I could attend the rest of the panels John was participating in. Eventually I got up the courage to step up and introduce myself.
I blurted out my name nervously and proceed to elaborate on my dreams of writing and the epic fantasy, action adventure, and science fiction movies I would help create. I wanted to make movies that entertained first and had a message second. I wanted to bring back the good name of the blockbuster and the popcorn flick. I pleaded with him for wisdom and any advice on how I could start my career and become the writer I dreamed I could be.
John’s answer was not a surprise, but it was an answer I dreaded. He told me to move to LA. To move away from the cheap apartments and light traffic of Texas and brave the ever growing expanse of Los Angeles. I left the festival and debated the decision until there were only three days left on my lease, and I would be forced to move out. My parents wanted me to work in New York, so that I could live close to them. I could even live in their house in Jersey until I found a place. NY had always held a certain lofty position in my head as a city made for writers, but I knew that John was right. The subject matter and the style of my writing was more in tune with the studios in California.
Unfortunately, as has been the case far too often, my expanding stomach led me to a different answer. It came in the form of two fortune cookies at a cheap, all I could shove down my face, Chinese buffet. The first said, “Spend this year with your family.”? The second continued, “Don’t be afraid to act now.”? Well who was I to argue with the wisdom of prepackaged, American made, Asian cookies? I packed what fit in my boxy little Scion and left for NY.
I don’t regret the six months I worked in Manhattan. NY is without a doubt a city every writer should spend some time in. You can’t walk down the street without a thousand stories striking your imagination. I worked each day with a constant monolog running through my mind – describing the people, the sights, the smells. Ah the smells”¦ like an expert wine taster you develop the ability to name the location and ingredients of the putrid perfume of alcohol and urine that give each corner of Midtown its distinct flavor.
Despite the unappealing smells and the layer of exhaust that forms a visible cloud of carcinogens in the belly of the Port Authority buss terminal, New York is still a charming, surreal city that I’ll remember fondly. Even though the city overflowed with creative energy, I knew I was not where I was meant to be. I met many artist, musician, and documentary film makers, and they were all passionate and creative people, but every person I met that was doing what I wanted to do ““ write and make movies ““ was visiting from Los Angeles. So, after a month of planning, I quit my job, repacked my motorized shoebox, and made my way from one coast to the other.
I’ve only been in LA for three months now, but I already know I made the right decision. In three months I’ve worked on the set of a commercial and a feature film. I had an internship at the production company responsible for amazing movies such as Kill Bill and Good Will Hunting, and recently I got an assistant job at a small talent agency. Though none of these experiences have been writing relate, they have given me insight, contacts, and a feeling of participation in an industry that was once impregnable.
The best part of living in LA is the realization that anything can happen. You never know who will have a contact that can push you that one step closer. While working as a boom operator on an independent feature, I made small talk with one of the actresses between takes. I explained how I really wanted to write, and I pitched her some of my screenplays. By the end of the day she gave me her card and asked me to send her a copy of “my quirky little thriller,”? as I like to call it, Sex and Pudding. It turned out that she was part of a new independent production company, and they were looking for scripts to pitch to investors. Less then a week later I received a call from her producer. We are now working together to get the project financed.
There is the strong possibility that the movie will not get made. If A-list producers and writers struggle to get their movies in front of an audience, how can an unknown writer with and unknown production company do any better. It is this impossibility that makes movies magic. Whether the movie gets made soon or not, I’ve already got the high from that first phone call. That first call when the producer said she loved my screenplay. It wasn’t a compliment from my mother or a friend or a competition I paid to enter. It was a compliment from another creative person that was willing to risk their time and energy in my story.
I have by no means “made it”? as a writer, so my advice is limited to my experiences so far, but maybe these three suggestions can help others about to make the trek to the magical land of sun, stars, and smog.
Change your cell phone to a Los Angeles number as soon as you get out here — preferably with a 323 or an 818 area code. I spent the first month and a half living on Craig’s list, mandy, and other similar sites. I couldn’t even get an e-mail rejection. The day I changed my number I got three calls for gigs.
Befriend the assistants and others just above you. Now if you have Jerry Bruckheimer eagerly listening to your pitch of “Lord of the Rings meets The Matrix, but with talking animals”? than by all means use that opportunity, but don’t waist your time stalking celebrities and producers, begging them to read your work. Get their assistant’s assistant to read it, and you’ll have a better shot.
Don’t be afraid to pitch and talk to others about your script. I’ve met a lot of people that are afraid of getting their ideas stolen, but if no one ever hears about your project it will never get made. As I discovered, you never know who can help get your script to the right people. Even if nothing happens you’ll get practice pitching which can never hurt.
Looking back it is clear to me why it took me so long to finally make the move to Los Angeles. I was afraid. Not afraid of the move or of leaving my friends and family, I was afraid of loosing my excuse. The excuse that I needed to be in LA that it was my location not my writing that was the problem. If I moved to LA the only thing holding me back would be my own skills and ambition, and that terrified me. I’ve learned in my short life that the thing your most afraid to do is probably the thing you should be doing.
I’m not going to say that everyone of you that wants to be a screenwriter needs to pack up and move to Hollywood. Many great writers and directors have proven that with enough drive and passion you can make a movie anywhere, but for me it was the change… the step I needed to really push me forward. Don’t let fear hold you back. Yes, it is risky to uproot your life to fight for a dream, but risks are what make our lives adventures worth having stories about. Live your life so you have stories to tell, even if they’re made up along the way.
Questions, suggestions or encouragement for Kris? Leave them in the comments below.