Melissa Rossi won a Student Academy Award for her university thesis film. That success prompted her to move to Los Angeles to begin a career as a writer/director. But she wasn’t ready.
She writes in to discuss what she wishes she had known, and what she’s doing differently to be ready the next time.
Back in 2005, I won a Student Academy Award for the thesis film I made at the Florida State University Film School. I had just moved to LA, just learned the real meaning of traffic, and had just added the word IKEA to my vocabulary. While I had the utmost confidence in actual technical filmmaking — I felt comfortable holding a boom pole, scheduling a film, and working with actors — I knew very little about the industry itself.
So after the exhilarating experience of winning a Student Academy Award, when I was contacted by twenty or so agents, managers, and producers all interested in seeing my short film, I think it’s fair to say that I was pretty out of my element.
The awards themselves were a dream come true. I was given the royal treatment during a celebratory week of lectures, dinners, and discussions. I met some amazing industry professionals, and made visits to the Academy, the DGA, and the ASC. It was an incredible honor, a huge ego boost, and an experience I know I will never forget.
Then, there was what came next.
Whether on the phone, or in person, literary agents and the like all wanted to know the same thing. There was some small talk and some congratulations, and then, always, always, THE QUESTION: “So, Melissa, what else do you have?”
This stopped me in my tracks. What else did I have? I had a solid short film and…a bunch of ideas?
Luckily (or so it seemed at the time), I had managed to outline and write around twenty pages of a feature spec script between graduation, the big move to LA, and my very first industry internship. True, my short film was a musical comedy, and this was a family adventure/science fiction film (and an astronomically high-budgeted one at that), but it excited me, and everyone that I pitched it to seemed to like it, so I thought, why not? I didn’t have much else to go on.
So I told them all about it. Of course, they asked when they could see it. The truth was, I had never written a full length feature script before. I didn’t even know if I could do it, let alone, when it would be done.
I gave myself eight weeks.
Writing for your life
Then I scrambled like mad to make it happen. I referenced all my screenwriting books, watched my favorite films in that genre, and wrote for hours every day. It was fast, furious, and the thought of becoming a real writer made my heart pound like it never has. I silenced the voice in my head that told me I had no idea what I was doing, and just did my best. I ended up with 118 glorious pages of action, dialogue, and sluglines, and after pulling an all-nighter making last minute tweaks and triple checking for typos, I drove to Beverly Hills on a Friday morning, bleary eyed and frazzled, and started handing out my very first screenplay.
One manager who had shown particular interest in me said he would read it over the weekend, and I should come back on Monday morning. I was elated, terrified, and exhausted. When I met him that next Monday, I was beyond nervous. The past weeks were a blur and I had no idea what he would think.
“You have a very nice little script here,” he said. Hmmmm. Interesting word choice.
“Have you ever thought about writing a comedy? You know, like your short film?”
Uh-oh. While I feel like he was relieved by my first attempt (I’m sure he’s seen worse), it was just that. A first attempt. And a rushed one at that. Looking back, not only was it FAR outside my genre, but deep down, I knew it could have been better. I knew it wasn’t 100% ready. But I felt like if I hadn’t given him something by my own self-imposed deadline, I would have blown this seemingly once in a lifetime opportunity.
Guess what? I sort of blew it anyway.
If I could look my twenty-two-year-old self in the eye and give her some advice, it would be this: Stick to your genre, at least in the beginning.
People are attracted to your work for a reason. If you made a comedy, they’re probably looking for comedies. And most importantly, don’t ever give anyone anything until you absolutely can not think of one single solitary thing that could improve it. Then keep working on it some more.
Looking back, I’m not exactly sure what I should have done instead, but I do know that I was simply unprepared for the door that opened. I thought if anything, my short film would prove that I had the chops to handle something bigger. I didn’t know that it was my responsibility as a newcomer to bring that something to the table.
Agents and managers are looking for talented people, but more importantly, they’re looking for talented people with something to sell. Your great short film may get you a phone call or a meeting, but if you are virtually empty handed when you get to that meeting, they can’t really do much for you.
Slowly but surely, the verdict came in. The rest of the responses were all pretty similar. They liked the concept of the spec, but I should call them when I have a comedy. While I was relieved to not get many “don’t call us, we’ll call you” responses, this was still extremely disappointing. Whatever naive notions I had about selling my first screenplay and starting my career overnight vanished. I was back to square one. On top of that, I was at the end of my savings and no longer had the luxury of focusing solely on writing. I needed to get a real job, and I knew that the next script I wrote would take a lot more time, not just because I’d be working full time, but because I realized how much time writing a really great screenplay actually takes.
So I found myself back in the same boat with everyone else. I now had to figure out how to support myself while holding on to the purpose of me being here in the first place: to make films. I needed to build up a “portfolio” so that if and when I (hopefully) got a second chance, I’d be ready for it — really, really, REALLY ready. As it turned out, finding a job that allowed me to do this took a few tries, but I did manage to learn quite a bit along the way.
Let’s talk about day jobs
One of my early jobs was with a very small production company, and part of my job included reading scripts.
I started out with a pile of around two hundred screenplays that had all won a small contest. Thankfully, if I didn’t like the script by page twenty, I was allowed to stop reading. I think I read about six scripts in their entirety. I gave only three to my boss to read. One of them had already been optioned, and one my boss ended up optioning herself. Overall, I could not believe how truly terrible those screenplays were.
I almost immediately learned three things:
I needed a different job. Reading incoherent, or even mediocre scripts all day was exhausting and depressing. I made my own hours, which ended up translating into being on call at all times. It was devastatingly hard to find time to write, and at the end of the day, the last thing I wanted to do was look at another script, even my own. I also found that I had subconsciously lowered the bar for my own writing dramatically. This was not good.
More isn’t necessarily better. If the same writer had written five scripts and they were all mediocre, it didn’t get him any further off my reject pile than someone who had written just one script that was mediocre. Most people in the industry say not to put all your eggs in one basket, but I started to realize that one really well structured and interesting basket would get me much farther than five that were frayed, disorganized, and boring.
There are a lot of bad screenplays out there. The caliber of material was astoundingly bad, which is why writing something undeniably good was so important. A reader weeded through more garbage than a dumpster diver, so I couldn’t let them assume I belonged in the same heap. I had to get their attention immediately, and never let it go.
I set a goal that day: To write a script that was so good, it would be virtually impossible for someone to even consider putting it in their reject pile.
I didn’t want them to be able to sleep at night unless my script was in their bag, ready to be passed on to their boss in the morning. And I would not let anyone see it, no matter how long it took, until I KNEW it was 100% ready to be read.
With this gargantuan goal in mind, choosing my next job was a big deal for me. Being a long term planner and a worrier by nature, I knew that it was a pivotal moment in that I would have to settle down and stay on some sort of a career path at some point. Should the worst happen, and my “real” career never happen, I still had to eat.
For all intents and purposes, I was about to choose my life’s Plan B.
I realized that in order to go for this all out, to give it everything I had, I would have to put my writing over my image. I had a lot of friends who worked for impressive people, but they worked extremely long hours. One friend would get to work at 7 a.m. and stay until 2 a.m. the next morning, every day. He was so drained that working on his own projects was an impossibility. I realized that I needed something that had set hours, no overtime, and that was not creatively draining. Yes, my parents would ask me incessantly when I was going to make another film, and when my peers asked me ‘what I have been up to lately’, I would not have a very interesting answer, but in my mind, it was the only way this was going to get done.
I took a job in servicing, which means delivering physical film and video elements to other parts of the world for distribution. It was technical, straightforward, and repetitive. It was the polar opposite of creativity. And it worked.
In defense of mindless employment
I started waking up at 5 a.m., driving over the hill at 6 a.m. to my favorite Starbucks, and writing for two solid hours before I started work down the street at 9 a.m. I was tired all the time; I became addicted to coffee; my boyfriend (now husband) wasn’t thrilled by my 9 p.m. bedtime. But as long as I showed up every morning, something got written. Before I knew it, I had gotten up before dawn for four solid months in a row, and I had a script that I was becoming proud of.
I spent over a year rewriting and getting feedback, and after I felt like it was finally ready, I entered that script into the Nicholl’s Fellowship. A postscript at the end of my condolences email let me know that I was within a hundred scripts of making it to the quarter-finals. This was encouraging.
For the past few years, I’ve kept at it.
I now have a teen comedy spec that I’m really proud of. I’ve just finished shooting two scenes from it to use as part of a director’s reel, and just to be sure, I’m in the midst of writing a musical comedy spec to have in my back pocket when the inevitable “what else do you have?” question is asked.
I won’t lie. It has been hard, and it has been long. On some days, writing feels like a chore. There are days when I sleep in. I get into funks. I doubt myself. My job seems so unrelated to actual filmmaking that I feel like I may as well work as a bank teller, and most of the time, I look back at the stretch of time that has passed and I can’t help but feel unaccomplished.
But I haven’t given up. And I don’t plan to.
Most people ask me what I plan to do when I’m “finished.” The truth is, beyond calling up all of the interested parties from six years ago and hoping they still have the same phone numbers, I try not to think about it too much.
I’ve read over and over from working writers that worrying about “how to get an agent” is a waste of time — to concentrate on the work and the rest will follow. I hope this is true. Because that’s what I’ve been doing.