The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hey, this is John. So, today’s episode comes from a panel I hosted for the Writers Guild back in October. We sat down and talked with a bunch of writers about their experience moving from being an aspiring writer to a professional writer who got paid for it.
There’s a few bad words in this episode, so if you’re driving in the car with your kids this is the warning. Enjoy.
Thank you so much. We are gathered here to celebrate – no, we are gathered here to talk about what it’s like to be starting off and hopefully offer some practical tips for beginning your career. This is hosted today by the Writers Guild of America West. I am so proud to be a board member of the Writers Guild of America West.
On all of your seats probably you got a No Writing Left Behind sticker as part of the approval process for the No Writing Left Behind sticker, but also the message. And so I think one of the things we’ll be talking about today is you’re going to be going into meetings hopefully and you’re going to be talking to folks about the things you want to write. If they are things that you own that you created by yourself, you can do anything with those. But so often you’ll be going in to talk about things that they own. You’ll be talking about the book they bought, or the remake they want to do, or their idea. And this campaign is to remind members but all screenwriters, great talk. Talk, talk, talk. Talk all you want. But writing is the thing you are paid to do. And make sure they’re paying you for writing. So don’t leave that stuff behind. Don’t email them pitches and treatments. That’s one of the things the guild can do is help protect writers from the abuses that you just encounter as a screenwriter.
But we’ll be talking about some scary things but also some really happy things hopefully with the amazing writers I’m very lucky to bring on board. So let’s bring them up. First off I want to welcome Tess Morris. Tess Morris is a writer whose credits include Man Up, she was on this most recent season of Casual.
Next up, Christina Hodson. Christina Hodson, she is a writer whose credits include the upcoming Bumblebee. Next up, Nicole Perlman. Credits include, oh, Guardians of the Galaxy, the upcoming Captain Marvel. And literally last to show up, but here, Jason Fuchs, whose credits include Wonder Woman and other great things. Jason Fuchs.
All right. Let us start a career before we started a career and let’s talk about that period of time in which you are writing but no one is paying you for your writing and what that’s like. Show of hands, who is in that stage of your career right now? Yeah! That was me. So let’s talk about that part of your career when you are hopefully a professional writer that you’re treating your craft professionally, it’s just that no one is paying you for that. Jason Fuchs?
Christina Hodson: Yes, start with him please.
John: Jason Fuchs, what was your life like before you were getting paid to write? What were you doing?
Jason Fuchs: I started off as an actor in New York City. So I was working here and there, doing the regular New York actor stuff. Law & Orders and all that. And–
John: So who did you play on Law & Order? Were you any bodies?
Jason: No, I was never a body. I was on Special Victims Unit where I was a teen rapist. I think we all remember that episode. Yeah, yeah, yeah. And then it gets worse. I beat her up with a baseball bat. And the reveal at the end is the reason why I did it is because she gave me the clap. That was the big twist at the end of my episode. Oh, right, we’re in a church.
And then my dad was killed at my bar mitzvah on Criminal Intent. So I really – I played a variety of Jews in my acting career. Criminal Jews. Hasidic. But so I was acting quite a bit. My first writing gig was actually working at a place called Defense and Foreign Affairs Publications. I had an interest in the Middle East, in politics. I did an internship there. I worked there very briefly. And I was pretty young to be working there. And I thought this is kind of a weird experience and I wrote a screenplay about that on spec hoping that that would help me start a screenwriting career.
It got me an agent. Got me more unpaid work. But ultimately I still couldn’t get hired to do anything. And the script that ultimately changed my life, I wrote a spec script after that called The Last First Time, it was romantic comedy, that my agent refused to send out. And so I was really sort of at my wit’s end because I thought this was really simple – it was a guy trying to lose his virginity in the two days before a meteor hits the world and destroys all life which we know it. And my agent read it and said, “I don’t get it.”
And you can dislike it. You can think it’s kind of juvenile, but how do you not get it? And she would not send it out. And so I really was sort of at an impasse and ultimately solving that and getting that script out there is what started my career really as a professional writer.
John: So during this time where the agent wasn’t sending this out you had a day job working at this defense writing place?
Jason: I was writing at the Defense and Foreign Affairs Publications being paid very little and I was acting a bit. And so voiceover stuff really helped me sort of support myself and pay for things while I was waiting for something to happen.
John: Nicole, can you tell us about your period of time like this before your big break?
Nicole Perlman: Sure. Absolutely. After graduating from college with my undergrad degree I was just subsisting on patched together gig work. I actually counted it once. I worked 26 jobs before I was a paid writer. And that included things like running a glass bead making program for underprivileged women at Urban Glass in Brooklyn. I was a personal assistant to a felon. I installed humidity control units and industrial refrigerators. So I had like the most random hodgepodge of jobs.
But a script that I had written in college ended up winning a lot of sort of midrange festivals and it got me a little blurb, like one paragraph in Script Magazine. And that got me a meeting with an independent producer who said, “I have a similar idea, will you pitch on it?” I pitched on it. He hired me for change that he found in his pockets, but I was so excited because I was temping at the time. So I continued my day job for sure for a couple more years, but that was the first time I got paid for it.
And then after he signed the deal, after he signed the contract, his head of development was like, “Wow, we really screwed you on that, and I feel like to make it up to you we should introduce you to a junior agent.” So that’s how I got my first agent. But at the same time I was hustling. Actually it’s funny you bring up Criminal Intent because–
Jason: Did you write my episode?
Nicole: No. Not that cool, but when I was living in New York I found a list of every television show that was shooting in New York and the production offices–
Christina: You took them some glass beads?
Nicole: With some glass beads, yes. And I put my little picture that was in Script Magazine. This was 2004 I think. And I put like a few pages of one of my scripts and I put my resume and a cover letter and I sent it out to like 50 places. And one of them got back to me and it was Warren Light at Criminal Intent and he’s like, “Sure, you can do some part-time assistant work for me,” but it didn’t go anywhere. But it was nice. I mean, I worked for him for a while, so I did write some lines one some Criminal Intent shows. Not yours, though.
John: Christina Hodson, what were you doing before you were writing for money?
Christina: My transition into writing was annoyingly accelerated and it will make you be made at me, but I did do the Nicole phase trying to get into development. So before I was a writer I was a development executive. My university said that was not a viable option. Movies were not a real job. And this was when the Internet was shit. So I just Googled “film company London” and wrote down every number I could find. Cold called every receptionist, just buttered them up. Asked if I could take them for coffee or anything. Managed to wiggle my way into an internship. Ended up anyway in like I was a runner and then an intern and then an assistant. Did all of that for three years in London and three years in New York.
And I was so unhappy in my job that I would go home. I don’t know why I would take off my clothes, but I would go home, take off my clothes, drink bourbon which I’m allergic to, and wrote a very weird, dark kid’s book in verse. Makes sense. And I just got super lucky. I gave it to a friend, because I thought like this is funny. I killed a bunch of kids in some funny rhyming poems. And they thought it was funny and handed it on to a bunch of people. And a week later I got a call from ICM saying, “Hey, thank you for your submission. We would love to represent you.” And I obviously had not submitted it to them, but that gave me some glimmer of hope that I could write for money.
I got a teeny tiny book job off of that. And then I moved to LA because my husband got a job over there. And I had this 90-day period where my green card was pending and I didn’t know what to do. I had never written a screenplay. It never occurred to me to write a screenplay. But I was like what else am I going to do. I can’t get a job. So I wrote my first screenplay and I got super, super, super lucky.
My husband gave it to his agent who was a junior agent. And my husband was like no one is ever going to read this. They may give it to an intern, but it would be embarrassing for me to like pressure them. And luckily that junior agent read it on a Saturday, handed it to his boss on a Sunday, and then by Tuesday I had an agent. So I feel very guilty for it. But I paid for it earlier.
John: So what I will say, I want to put a pin in that in the sense of your work was being passed around without you knowing it, because I think that’s going to be a recurring thing that happens. I’ve seen that happen a lot. Tess, talk to us about your life before you were being paid to write.
Tess Morris: I mean, can I just talk about my life before, like generally? OK. I was born in 1977. No, I’m basically very similar to these guys, although I think Christina you’re underplaying your luck. There’s also talent involved in your script. So, I did a film and TV degree at a terrible university in England where I was taught by a lot of people who had failed in the industry. It was very inspiring. And then while I was there I wrote a short film that I submitted to a competition for Channel 4 which is one of our networks at home.
It won and it got made. So that was sort of my first introduction into sort of doing stuff. And then I took a total curveball and ended up being a journalist for a couple of years. And I worked for lots of women’s magazines and subsequently interviewed a lot of soap stars. And found out that one of the soaps – any British people here know Hollyoaks? There you go. Still going, by the way, Hollyoaks. Still going.
So I got a job writing for that. So that was kind of my first gig. And I only gave them kind of the comedy sort of stuff. So my trajectory then went from there, but I think actually what I’d like to say was very important to me is that – which I sometimes think people are loathe to admit – but I lived at home for quite a lot of my time, maybe for the first, I mean, I moved out and lived with a boyfriend and then as soon as I split up moved back home again. So I had the luxury of always having a very supportive network around me.
And I actually gave up writing for two years in my early 30s because I blamed it for the failure of all of my romantic existence. And I thought it wasn’t very healthy. But I still was able to live at home and I became a script reader for companies and I produced short films and went on the radio and reviewed movies. But all of that I was allowed to do that because I basically didn’t have a lot of rent to pay. So I think it’s important like we can all sit here and be like yeah whatever, but I was very lucky in the sense that I didn’t have a regular – before I got paid regularly. Now I pay my bills on time. Myself.
John: Yeah. So I want to talk about these sort of practical concerns of like how am I going to keep a roof over my head during this time. So we’ll talk about that, but also during this time how are you still writing every day? How are you still getting new stuff done?
Tess: I’m not writing every day. Who writes every day?
John: But there was a period of time during which no one was saying yes to you, and how do you keep working when no one is saying yes? Nicole, like you’re going through your glass beads. You’ve won some competition, so you have the notice in Script Magazine. But no traction is happening. So what are you doing to write new stuff during that time? Did you keep writing new stuff? How did you keep going every day?
Nicole: Yeah, absolutely. I think, you know, people say that you should be a writer if you can’t live a happy life doing anything but being a writer. And I could definitely live a happy life being something other than a writer. There’s a lot of things that I could do that I would be happy at. But I think I couldn’t live a happy life without collecting stories and trying to think about stories and getting excited about stories and about characters. And so during that time period which was, you know, it was kind of bleak. I found things to do that I enjoyed, but I would find stories and I would jot them down. I would write them down and it would be for me or it would be for when I have time to actually dive into another script. This is the thing I can’t wait to dive into. And I’d start tinkering with it. And a very like low risk situation. And then I started a writing group in New York.
And so I ended up writing for the writing group. And just trying to work on my craft. And so I mean I think I could definitely be happy being like the person who travels around the world getting foot rubs and whatever that job is. Sure. But I think the thing that I did for continuing to keep my head up wasn’t like, oh, I hope that I get a job in Hollywood doing this. Because I don’t think I ever really thought that was going to happen. I think I was really deep down like this probably won’t ever happen but this is something that I enjoy doing and I want to get better at and I enjoyed the process of craft. And honestly like that can be very sustaining in difficult times.
John: Do you think you got better – so talking about craft, because if you were a violinist then ever day you’re practicing and you’re getting better. Did you feel like you were getting better with each new revision?
Nicole: Yeah, absolutely. And I think, I mean, maybe I’m just a nerd. I like school. I like classes. I like panels. I go to people’s panels here. I take notes. But I think it’s very optimistic. It feels good to make progress on something that you have control over. And so much of your career you don’t have any control over somebody saying yes, or maybe they’re looking for this kind of comedy and you wrote that kind of comedy. And it has nothing to do with your worth necessarily. And so the thing that you can control and feel good about is making progress on your own terms, showing it to a group of people you trust. They might say this sucks, but it’s better than the last draft you did. You know, it feels good. It feels good to make progress. And that can be very sustaining. Yeah.
Christina: Just on a practical note in answer to your question, I think like Tess I had the luxury of being able to live at home, and I don’t even know what I thought I was saving for at the time. But I knew that I may want to have some money at some point and I may want to do something risky. So I paid myself fake rent. And my parents weren’t living in the house, so I was living in my parent’s house on my own like a weirdo and paying myself an exorbitant amount of rent that I would put into a post office account. And I saved that money and having that money I also was – while doing the assistant job in the film industry, was a waitress, a tutor, and a job that we can’t talk about because it was terrible.
But I did all of that and saved all of the money so that when I did then take the risk of moving to America without a job in hand where I maybe wanted to be in film development, maybe something else, I just wasn’t sure, I had that reserve and it was the same thing when I started writing. Is because I had been such a weirdo squirrel like putting my nuts away, I was able to take that risk of that 90 days and not, you know, not that Uber existed then, but.
John: Jason, when did you identify that you – when did you like tell the folks that you were a writer, that you were a screenwriter? That you weren’t just a person who wrote for this journal or whatever? Or an actor. That you were genuinely a screenwriter? Was it only after you had sold something? Or when did you tell people that you were–?
Jason: That was actually a process for me. I felt like I was worried about telling people I was a screenwriter, particularly as an actor because so many actors at least my perception of it was every actor thought they were a writer. Every actor had a screenplay. And I was very, I don’t know, I was very sensitive to the idea that I was just another actor who thought he was a writer. And so I really didn’t tell a lot of people that I was writing. It was kind of my secret thing.
And I think it was probably once I had my first agent. I had an agent as an actor. I had written my first screenplay about my experience working for Defense and Foreign Affairs Publications. I handed it to the literary department at that agency. They refused to read the script because the script was 180 pages. I said I can get it shorter. And the agent said I need it to be 118 pages. I said great. That was a 10am phone call on a Tuesday morning. I was at Columbia as an undergrad at that point. I cut all my classes that day. I did a rewrite that afternoon and I hand-delivered her a 116-page version of that script that evening before she left the office. And went, “Here, read this.”
And once she said yes I felt like, OK, maybe this is real. Maybe I’m a writer. But I think that at each stage of my career that persistence has been very important. Because that same agent was the agent who didn’t understand The Last First Time and said, you know, I’m going to send it to a friend to get a second opinion. And she sent it to someone who worked at AOL. And I said why are we sending it to someone who works – why do I care what someone at AOL thinks about the script? She said, “Oh, no, she really gets movies.”
She sent it to the AOL person who also read it and said, “I don’t get it either.” And she said it’s dead. And so similar to what you did I went on IMDb Pro and I went through directors who had their direct contact information listed. And I went through director after director, because no one would have their – but one guy did. It was Jonathan Lynn who directed My Cousin Vinny and the Whole Nine Yards and is this amazingly talented comedy director. And I just emailed him and I said, “Hey, I’ve got this script. Big fan of yours. Hoping you might want to read it. He emailed me back—“
Christina: And it worked?
Jason: It worked. He emailed me back and said, “You know what? Sure.” And he emailed me about a week after that and said, “I love this. I want to direct it.” And I forwarded that email to my then agent with the subject “A second opinion.” I got a real attitude problem. And fired her and kept going.
But it’s constant – at least at that stage of your career particularly – it’s constant rejection. It’s constantly people saying that you’re not a writer, that it’s not going to work out, and it takes a certain amount of healthy delusion I feel to be in that place where you’re not a writer, you haven’t sold anything, you’ve never been paid, the majority of people are telling you it’s not realistic, but you think you have this little super power and somehow you’re going to do it. And you have to sort of invest in that delusion and nurture and hopefully it turns into something real.
John: Now, one odd thing about the career that we’re going into is there are probably more professional – there are more professional football players than there are professional screenwriters. So, but for a professional football player you can tell like is that person good at doing that sport. It’s very clear. It’s measurable. It’s not measurable whether we’re good or not. And so often I think we were all really good students who often got good grades and we sort of want to have that achievement. And so we want people to tell us, oh no, you’re really, really good.
So you’ve won some awards starting off. So someone has told you you’re good. You know, Jonathan Lynn tells you you’re good. But–
Jason: I’ll be totally honest. My mom was the first person.
John: All right.
Jason: I would get bad grades in creative writing classes, because I wrote differently. I wrote in a way that probably is more suited to screenplays than anything else. And even when I was a little kid, when I was writing stories, you know, I’d get bad grades and my mom would take the paper and she’d look at it and go, “No, I think that’s…” And she’d cross out the teacher’s grade and replace it. So, I had this–
John: Aw, Jason’s mom.
Jason: And my mom is a sweet lady, but she’s actually tough. She’ll see movies of mine and go, “I didn’t like that she’s…” But in that particular instance she’d read a paper and go, “No, this is better than Miss Rothstein thought it was.” So, I was very lucky to have that kind of support from very early on. And then having someone like Jonathan Lynn say, “Yeah, I think you can do this,” was obviously encouraging. But it didn’t, you know, it didn’t stop. There were still plenty of people that didn’t buy in.
Tess: Also, I always feel like my whole life is basically about rejection. So I just added to it by being a writer. But I think, I don’t know whoever did a roundtable with me this morning because I’m going to repeat myself, but I have like my five Ts that I think you need at the beginning to sustain you. And they are – remember them – they are Temperament, because you cannot be a wanker. They are Timing and Time, so combined. They are Talent. They are Tenacity. Hang on, on four. Tenacity. And they are a Tiny bit of luck. So I think sometimes you have to wait for the fusion of those five. I sometimes like to add Tits as the sixth.
Christina: But let’s be honest, sometimes that’s a disadvantage.
Tess: Right. Disadvantage. But I think like the way to keep going is to keep going. And if you don’t have that in you then it might not be quite the right career for you because even the most successful people that I know have constant neuroses and constant rejection and notes and everything. So if you don’t have that in you. And that’s OK by the way, because it’s not always the greatest thing to have in you. But you do have to find a way to cope with that kind of situation, with the ongoing situation.
Christina: I would like to brag, because I have two really awards. They’re not really mine. But my first two movies I earned the two lead actresses Razzies.
John: Oh, Razzies, nice.
Christina: Two years in a row. So, I’ve only had bad, obviously I’m very grateful for my career and it’s all great and people are nice to me in the industry, but outwardly I’m only told I’m shit. And when it was announced that I was writing Batgirl, not that I’m on social media, but my sister sent me screenshots of people being like, “Christina Hodson is the worst. She’s an untalented…” Because there is no way for the outside world to really know how good you are other than the movies that you have that are made which often you are rewritten, or things were changed, or sometimes it’s your fault, sometimes it’s not. One of mine was my fault. One of them was not. And it is a weird thing where there isn’t a nice metric of a number goals that you scored. It’s hard.
The negative is very loud.
Tess: But we are not down a coal mine. So it’s not the hardest job in the world.
Jason: But it’s still kind of, the negativity is tough, but it’s also exciting because people are talking. You’re a real writer who people really hate.
Jason: But you matter. I remember reading things, you know, something comes up on Deadline and people talk all kinds of shit in the comments section. And I just thought this is so cool. People are talking shit about me on Deadline. It was really exciting. And I think you have to—
Tess: If only to be talked shit about on Deadline is the ultimate.
Jason: It helps to have a thick skin. But it also helps to really love what this business is. And to enjoy everything. I love every single piece of what we do. I like when something negative comes out and people – it’s like this is cool. I’m a part of this whole process.
Christina: Can’t wait to troll you now.
Nicole: I know. You’re getting it.
Jason: I think you may have written one of those comments. But I genuinely think that the other benefit, you’re asking how you sustain yourself when you’re not getting a lot of positive reinforcement, and it’s the work itself. We’re so lucky to do what we do because it’s one of the few things that at any point in the day, any point in the night, you can actually do the actual thing. Most other careers you can work on an aspect. You know, the football player example. You can go to the gym and train, you can build up a certain aspect of what you do, but you can’t actually go play the game that’s going to change your life if it’s two in the morning and you’re pulling your hair out and going what am I doing.
As a writer you can get up at two in the morning and start working on the screenplay that potentially changes your life. And so for me it felt very empowering. Like, yeah, I haven’t made it. And yeah, I’m so far from where I want to go, but I have the constant ability to go do something about it.
John: So our last question before we get to things start getting better for you is the projects you were choosing to write during this period before you’re getting paid to do it, were you thinking about is this commercial? The idea of is this a thing, a movie that gets made. Is this a commercial idea? Because that’s a thing I often hear from screenwriters. Which thing should I write? Should I write the commercial thing? So what was your decision process for what you were writing?
Tess: I think no. Definitely not. But when I wrote, I wrote Man Up, the rom-com that I wrote on spec and it’s fascinating to me now what’s happening. Like I write it seven years ago now on spec. It subsequently did get made. I wrote it because I just was – I filled up a bit. I had taken two years off writing and this guy had come up to me under the clock at Waterloo and I thought I was his blind date and I said no. And then I thought that’s a good idea for a setup of a movie. So then I wrote it.
And then what’s fascinating to me now is that obviously there’s this huge romantic comedy revival–
John: All thanks to you.
Tess: Basically it’s all me. No, no, I’m more interested in whether that would have changed – because I was operating in a genre that was constantly being told it was dead and constantly being told, no, don’t write a romantic comedy. Whereas now if you are thinking of writing one really do write one now, because suddenly everybody wants them. But I don’t think that’s necessarily thinking commercially. I think you still need to think what’s the different story that I want to tell that is going to be my voice and that is going to attract people to want to meet me and say, “Oh, who is this person with this unique perspective on love and romance or whatever?”
John: Jason, were you thinking commercial as you were writing during that period?
Jason: I’m very lucky in that my tastes are commercial. So I wasn’t thinking specifically commercial because the marketplace wants commercial. I like those kinds of films. I love Spielberg and Zemeckis and I grew up with that. So, I wanted to write those kinds of movies. And the kinds of scripts I was working on were those kinds of films. So my tastes lent to that. I think you just have to write the thing you love. You have to think what’s the movie I wish I could go see but does not exist and go do that.
Nicole: I was just writing things I loved. I wasn’t thinking about writing commercially at all. Maybe sometimes to my detriment. But I find that now that I’m a professional screenwriter the only times I ever regret taking a project other than somebody being a terrible person to work with, the only times I regret taking a project is when it’s something that deep down I didn’t really love.
Christina: I agree with all of you. And I totally think you should only write what you love. I did however do it the other way. I was thinking 100% pragmatically. I had come from development. I knew how hard getting a spec noticed was. So I deliberately wrote a movie that was in a genre – I wrote a psychological thriller horror movie because I knew you could make those movies for very little money. I wrote a movie set entirely in a house so you could make it for under a million. Those movies had a history at that point in time of being made for nothing and then making a bunch of money. So, I did do the sellout, cheeky thing.
And I also wrote deliberately provocative, gross, extreme, horror stuff that isn’t really my cup of tea. I now feel like a filthy sellout, but it did get me noticed. And it was optioned because it was makeable. So it worked out for me doing that.
But I’m 100% with Nicole. The jobs that I have taken subsequently that I did because I felt like I should have been awful and miserable and I’ve hated them.
John: Yeah. So I want to talk about the transition. And so one of the things that you brought up which is a recurring thing that I’ve seen on writers who have become successful is I’ll get a call or a text message saying, “Oh, somebody said they just read my script, but I didn’t know that they were reading my script.” And it got passed around behind the scenes. And so that happened to me with some of my early stuff. It happened with Go. It happened with a string of former assistants who are all writing now. A moment at which a project seems to have traction by itself.
One of the first things that tends to come out of that is a meeting with some person who is potentially able to make a movie, or to represent you as a client. What are those initial meetings like? You have done nothing and you are just clearly an aspiring screenwriter rather than a professional screenwriter. How do you approach those meetings? How did you approach them? And what advice would you have for the first time you’re sitting down across from somebody who has read your thing who seems to want to make it or represent you? What stuff can you tell this audience is useful to know in that moment?
Nicole: Well, I was super nervous before my very first general meeting, which by the way was at Focus. I wonder if it was one while you were there. But I was super nervous. I had no idea what to expect. I didn’t know, you know, what to talk about. I didn’t know what I should be doing.
One thing I can say that I think is good advice is that one of the very first jobs that I ever went to – as soon as I had been just repped somebody gave me a script that was written by a screenwriter whose work I loved. And the script was really not fantastic. And so I was like, wow, they must have just been having a really off day or something. And the producers get on the call and they said how would you fix this script. And I start pitching them. But then I say, you know, it’s funny, like this writer’s work is so good usually, but I don’t know why he would put this terrible set piece that has nothing to do with anything in there. And what was he thinking for this ending?
And they got very quiet and, of course, it was the producer’s note to add the set piece and change the ending. And I did not get that job. So, very good advice to know is that a lot of times the scripts are not the way they were originally envisioned by the writer.
John: Christina, you’re probably on the other side of some of those meetings too, because you probably were bringing writers in. So tell us both sides of what it’s like.
Christina: Well I think, and this is something that I talked about in a roundtable this morning, often you’re advised to have your script that you go out on the town with but also to have two in your back pocket because people will say what else have you got. I didn’t have that because it was my first script that I went out. But what I would advise everyone does, because sometimes these meetings come when you’re not ready for them and maybe you do have two scripts in your back pocket but they’re terrible and you don’t want to share them.
So, the thing that I found helpful was just talking generally about what interested me. And it was the thing that I would always try and get out of writers when I was a development exec meeting with people is what drew you to the thing, even if it’s not that genre. So with psychological thriller wasn’t particularly my thing, but telling stories about women that were kind of strange and complicated like ordinary women backed into corners and seeing what kind of primal resources they would run. Talking about those big themes and those big kind of arcs and things that I was drawn to was very helpful because then people could connect the dots and see what else I would be good for, even if it wasn’t in the same genre.
Tess: I think as well you have to treat them a bit like dates. You’re going to make some mistakes. You’re going to work with some people that you shouldn’t work with. That you just don’t have the right chemistry with creatively. So I think with everything, like when you go into your first meeting with someone, you might have the best meeting ever with them and then never hear from them again. It’s very common. They might ghost you basically. Or you might like not quite connect with them, you know, you might be like, “Oh, I don’t think we’re quite on the same page about this,” or you might sort of kind of like them and then as you get to know them further down the line go, oh, I can really work with this person.
So, I think you just have to go into it open, but then the kind of older and more cynical you get obviously then you start to become – you have to watch that as well because sometimes you can get yourself into a situation where you think you don’t trust anyone or you think everybody is an asshole and that’s not the case at all.
So, I think it’s just like a process. You’re never going to know, because there is this strange alchemy that happens when you’re finally on set and something is being made that you’ll look back at the journey towards that and think, “God that was that one moment that turned it.”
John: Yeah. I think we need to define some terms. So sometimes you’ll be going in to talk about a specific project. They’ve read your script and maybe they’re talking about making your script. Or the meeting is about representing you if they’re a manager or an agent.
Sometimes it’s a general meeting. And so a general meeting means that they just want to meet you. There’s not a specific agenda here. But even in a general meeting there becomes a moment at which you stop talking about the weather and the most recent movies and it becomes sort of like what are you working on, or they have those little cards, “These are the things we’re working on.”
And what I didn’t realize in my first like 15 meetings probably that my responsibility was to say which of those things sparked for me. And if there was one that really sparked that I felt like, oh, I know exactly how to do that that it was my responsibility to tackle that and come back with a take on how I was going to do that. That was going to lead to the next meeting where I’d be pitching on that project.
So sometimes it would just be a very general story idea, or an area, like we really want to do a movie about clog dancing. And if I had a way that like—
Tess: John, you’ve got a movie about clog dancing.
John: I know how to do the clog dancing.
If that sparked to me, it was my responsibility to say I know that, I grew up clog dancing, and here’s what people don’t know about clog dancing, and then show my enthusiasm and then be able to come back in and really–
Tess: Come back wearing clogs at the next meeting.
John: Come back in with a plan to be able to pitch the clog dancing movie.
Christina: I just have to say this because it was one of my favorite general meetings ever. Somebody had one of those lists. At the top were like movie reboots and normal things, and then it descended into words, one of which was “cloudy skies,” and the other which is my favorite was “sweaters.”
Tess: Sweaters. Sweaters.
John: You could kill the sweaters movie. I want to see your sweaters movie. Now, Jason, you were an actor so you’re used to going in and auditioning. And so can you compare and contrast what auditioning is like versus these early meetings?
Jason: They’re sort of similar. Auditions are very specific. You’re going in for a specific role in a specific show. So there is an adjustment to the sort of general type of meeting you take, particularly when you’re starting out where you’re realizing I went through a very similar process to yours where I went, “Oh, I’m supposed to jump on these ideas. I’m supposed to build on these. I’m supposed to follow up.”
If you go in for an audition, generally speaking you should not follow up with the casting director the next day and go, “Hey, I’m really interested in this role. I haven’t heard from you. But I have some thoughts.”
Writing is not that. I think a lot of times you’re rewarded for seeming aloof and not wanting things. Writing I find to be the opposite. The more passionate and enthused you are, the more you follow up, the more you engage, the better the outcome is. And I also think that early you’re also balancing you’re creative instincts with what is available to you.
So, I had exactly the way you described it. I had a script, Last First Time. Didn’t get made. Bounced around. Ended up being read by an agent at WME, then Endeavor. He read it. Said I want to rep you. He didn’t tell me until a year into repping me that he was in fact an assistant when he signed me. But a year in he calls me and goes, “Great news, I got promoted.” I said, to what? He said, “Agent.” And I said what have we been doing for the last year? He said, “He don’t worry about. The point is I’m an agent now.”
He is still my agent by the way, and has probably had the most significant impact on my professional life of anyone. But that resulted in a meeting on Ice Age: Continental Drift, the fourth Ice Age movie. And that meeting was, again, I like animation, I like family films. Ice Age was not the thing I set out necessarily to write. In fact, when they called me about it, you know, Ice Age gets treated like it’s a Marvel or a DC film, or at least back then. It was like this is big stuff.
And so they call you and they go, “OK, we couldn’t tell you what your meeting is until now but it’s for the next Ice Age film.” And they go, “Have you seen any of the Ice Age movies?” I had not. So I said yes I have. And they said, “Do you like them?” And I said, no, I love them. And the executive said, “That’s great. What do you love most about them?”
And the only thing I could think of is any time anyone from one of these movies is on like Tonight Show or whatever they kind of say the same thing. “Oh, the comedy, it’s accessible for grownups but appropriate for children.” So I said that and she said, “That is the thing we are the most proud of.”
So that night, I had the meeting the next day, I watched all three Ice Age movies back to back to back, which in isolation each of those are wonderful, charming family films. Three in a row, it’s Guantanamo. But I went in the next day as passionate about Ice Age as anything in the world and that was ultimately the first movie I had made. It changed my entire career. I owe a tremendous amount to the people who hired me for that movie.
Tess: I think it’s really important to remember with generals that you sometimes have a general that you think, oh fine, it was great. And then a year later they remember you for something else. So I think of them as just, like I go in and just talk about my life because most of the time they’ve read something of yours and they like it. You’re there just to chat really. They think that you’ve got some interesting things to say.
Then they might say, “Oh, we’re thinking about you for this or that.” And I think that you can never really be fully prepared for anything in this job. I was working on a show called Casual which is on Hulu and I had to binge watch 36 episodes of it. Like the entire first three seasons in the space of maybe four days or something before. So sometimes you’re just – I mean, I didn’t lie. I did actually watch them. But I think it’s like you sometimes have to be a bit flexible on that.
John: Well, it’s like improv. You’re saying yes.
Tess: Yes. You’re saying yes. Yes and.
John: Yes and.
Tess: Yes and.
John: Yes and I think we can do even more.
Nicole: I think one of the things that really comes through too with this is that when they meet you in the generals it’s your life experiences as much as your talent. You’re already in the door. They’re already interested in you as a talented writer. But it’s about what have you done other than write, or in addition to writing, that might make you the perfect fit for the untitled Glass Bead thriller that they’re writing.
Tess: Clogs 2.
Nicole: But being able to talk about experiences that I’ve had throughout my life was really what got me a lot of jobs honestly.
Christina: I think that and also not being a dick. Like Tess was saying, it is so much like dating. And you have to work with writers like fairly intimately. And if they’re annoying – like when I was a development executive at Focus there was a British writer who I loved. He was so talented. I had read everything he’d ever written. He’d made some TV shows. I made my boss read everything he’d ever written. We were so excited to meet him. And he came in and was just the worst. He was arrogant and annoying and angry and bitter and just all kinds of bad. And both of us just immediately like we’ll never hire – even though we would be lucky to have him and he was great – just couldn’t do it.
John: What qualities are you looking for? These people out here. Let’s say that they are meeting with agents or managers. What qualities would you think are most important for you to find in an agent?
Tess: Human being.
Tess: Because so many of them are not.
John: What things should they be watching out for? What are the red flags for you?
Tess: I think you need to have someone that really understands what you can do. And like Nicole says as well that you can say, “This is where I’d like to be in two years’ time.” And then they go, OK, let’s build towards that. Not just like, “Do this, do this.”
I did a deal with – I did like a blind script deal with ABC when I first moved to LA and I had a fine time and everything but as soon as it was up I was like, phew, OK, I don’t need to do that anymore. And my agent at the time went, “We’re going to get you another deal at ABC,” and I was like, no, that’s like hang on a minute. And I knew like intuitively that we were just a bit off. We weren’t quite on the same sort of page. So I think the most important thing is that you just feel like you can really talk to them and communicate with them.
Because you might not hear from them for like weeks and months at a time anyway. So when you do speak to them it’s good if you actually can have a normal conversation.
John: I have a friend who is talking with agents right now, and a thing I stressed to her is that you want to not dread when they call.
Tess: Oh yeah.
John: And so anybody you’re working with, if you’re dreading when they call that’s a bad sign. And definitely anybody who is working for you.
Tess: And that you know that they are not typing the whole time that they’re talking to you on the phone.
Christina: They’re always doing that, aren’t they? Even the ones that are humans?
Tess: So weird. Because then I just throw in a weird thing, like saying, “Yeah, I’m just sitting here naked.” And they go, “Right, great. So we’re going to call you about that thing.” You’re like they’re not listening.
John: So let’s say you’ve got an agent and a manager. You’re out for these general meetings. You’ve found a project. You pitch hard on this project. You think you have landed this project. For many people out here in this audience they have never made a deal. And so what can we tell them about the experience of making a deal on a project and what it’s like to be hearing from your representatives that like, OK, we’re getting close on this thing.
What is that like? And what do you need to listen for as a screenwriter making your first deal? Jason, what do have?
Jason: Well, I found it to be the greatest seesaw of emotion, for me anyway, you get your first big movie and you’re like oh my god these guys have entrusted me with this massive–
John: Was that Ice Age for you?
Jason: That was Ice Age. So there’s this massive franchise I’ve been entrusted with. They think I’m the man. This is so cool. And then you’re like what’s the offer. And then they tell you and they’re like – this is what? They hate me. They hate me. They think I’m an intern.
You get paid vastly less at the beginning. Maybe that’s just me. But you get paid vastly less than you expect to. You get something big, and shiny, and exciting, and that moves your career forward strategically in big ways, but the financial reward is certainly not what you imagine it’s going to be, or what I imagined it to be when I started out.
And that’s all well and good because you’re off to the races and you’re a professional writer and in truth I would have paid them to write an Ice Age movie at that point in my career.
Christina: My agent thought there was a zero missing from my first offer on my first option. He was like, “So we got their offer in but don’t worry, it’s a typo.” It was so small. But we ended up going for like a notch above that.
Basically in the beginning I would just say you kind of have to trust your representatives. Like you don’t know – that’s why I think it’s important you have representatives who are humans and who you like and who you can talk to and who you can trust, because you have to put yourselves in their hands. Like you have to trust that they don’t hate you and it’s just because that’s what deals look like in the beginning, and later on.
Tess: I think as well, these three are tent pole writers. Not tent pole writer. I mean in a complimentary way, by the way, as in like I don’t get offered anywhere–
Christina: Feel free to sell out.
Tess: Near the amount of money that you guys do. And this is not a competition, by the way, I’m trying to say this in a good way. I think that sometimes to speak from like the non-studio perspective, you know, often you are not really getting paid that much but just the mere fact that you’re getting paid is helpful. You know, like you can have – the first things that I ever wrote film wise I did not get paid a super amount of money, but just having a deadline and having a contract and having all those things in place meant that I could then allocate the amount of time I spent to those jobs and I could go, right, OK. So it’s a slightly different, you know, the deal sort of thing on my perspective now is more just like do I want to do this project? It’s clearly not going to financially be massively great for me, but if I love it then hell yeah I’ll do it.
Nicole: Can I just really quickly speak to the fact that when I first got paid scale for a project it was like the best day of my life. I had never seen that much money in my whole life. I couldn’t believe it.
I will say though that I wasn’t prepared for the lackadaisical nature of getting paid. It took the studio like nine months to pay me, and I was really struggling waiting for that check. And I didn’t want to be like desperate like I can’t make my rent if you don’t pay me, but it was really, really hard because I was like I turned in the work, why wouldn’t you pay me?
And so I’m glad you guys are doing your Start Button.
Tess: Yeah. And also scale is great, by the way. That’s the other thing.
Christina: But it’s broken up. And it’s broken up into so many different pieces.
Jason: And I would also say you don’t get scale when you write an animated film because an animated film is not covered by the Writers Guild.
John: Yeah, so many things we need to tackle here. First off, this is a WGA panel so I’m going to define some things here for everybody. Scale is a guild-defined thing which is the minimum a screenwriter can be paid for doing this work. And so there’s scale for writing a network television show. There’s scale for writing a feature film. It’s not high, but it’s enough that you can make a living. And god bless scale because every other international screenwriter would be thrilled to have scale.
Tess: That’s speaking from a UK perspective. Yes, scale is good.
John: They have not protections like what we do in the United States and that’s because of the guild. So god bless the guild for this.
You said that the WGA doesn’t cover animation. Traditionally most of the movies that you’ve seen that are animated movies have not been guild, but there are some movies that are guild. So don’t give up on animation and the guild. It’s something that we continue to sort of make little small bits of progress with.
But let’s talk about the money being broken up into chunks, because that’s a thing I did not really anticipate going in and I had to quickly reassess what I was doing. So before I got paid my first job, first scale job, I had been an assistant. And so as an assistant I got salary every week and I just sort of knew what my expenses were and it was easy. I wasn’t getting a lot of money as an assistant but it was regular money. There’s no regular money anymore when you are a professional screenwriter. So instead you are paid half at the start and half when you deliver the script. So that half at the start, well it should be before you’re starting writing. It should come quickly. It doesn’t come as quickly as it should. We’re working on that for the guild as well.
But that money and the money you’re paid in those chunks, that’s all you’ve got. And so one of the very first things I did is I would make a spreadsheet of like these are my monthly expenses. This is the money I’m getting in. And how long can I last? I could last three to six months. Weirdly I had to really cut back my expenses once I started getting paid because I just didn’t know how long the money was going to last. And it’s a real thing we need to talk about.
Christina: Billy Ray, at my induction into the WGA, said one of the best pieces of advice which was I know you’re all feeling really great right now because you’ve just earned some money as a writer. And the money does feel big, like if you’ve been in an assistant job, or film jobs on other sides, the money feels real. And he said, “Don’t lease an expensive car. Don’t buy a house. Don’t be crazy. Buy yourself one treat, like really enjoy it and feel good about it, whether it’s a really nice dress or something a little bigger. Whatever it is. But just enjoy that one thing and then save. Just save the rest of the money because you don’t know when the next check is coming.”
John: Yeah. So my big splurge was I would get Panda Express and I would get the extra egg rolls, because that was a reach for me. I was otherwise on a lentil kind of budget. So that was the reach.
Tess: Whenever I get a gig I always buy a new duvet set. It’s the weirdest.
John: She’s got a beautiful cat who needs proper–
Tess: She needs to be displayed correctly.
Jason: My big splurge is I moved out of my agent’s guest bedroom.
Tess: Oh nice.
John: Little bits of things. Yeah. One of the challenges of once you start getting paid, you’re writing this project, is ideally you would have multiple steps on this first deal. So you would write your first draft, you’d turn in your first draft, and they’d say, “This is great. Here’s some things to do on this next draft and you’re doing this next pass.” When I started, my first scale job I went through five drafts. And I got paid for five drafts which was remarkable. It was a great sort of learning about how to write for a studio. That’s really challenging to get these days. And so often I talk to these writers who they’re so excited to be hired onto write this thing but they’re only guaranteed one step. And so they’ve got that one step and then it’s like well maybe I stick around, maybe I don’t stick around. They’re so desperate. They’re doing the stuff to the script that Nicole sees in this thing because they’re desperate to stay on this project. And it’s really tough.
But at the same time you have to go out and meet with other people about other projects. And so figuring out how to be writing this thing but also be talking to other folks about writing the thing after that and do your own work, how are you guys balancing writing stuff for other folks and a sense of what you want to do in your career? Is that an active thing that you’re thinking about most days?
Nicole: Oh totally. I actually got some really good advice from Audrey Wells who has passed away recently who was a wonderful woman and a wonderful writer. And she a few years ago at Sundance – I met her at the Labs, at creative advising for the screenwriting labs. And she told me, I was talking to her about all the crazy studio work I had been doing and how it was kind of grinding me down. And she said, “You have to stop doing these jobs that your agents want to put you on to make you a lot of money. Do one every so often and then do something that makes your soul happy, because otherwise you’ll hate your life and you’ll hate yourself.”
And I absolutely agreed with her. And what I ended up doing is I started taking one thing a year that would piss off my agent because I wouldn’t get to make any money, but I would learn something from. And so I wrote a comic book. I did a directing fellowship and directed a short film, which was a fantastic adventure and I can’t wait to do it again, and I’m starting a production company. So, every year I do something that’s very time-consuming in addition to my career that is probably not necessarily going to make a lot of money but is something that–
Tess: That is the best advice ever. Because I know all three of you write, you know, big movies and it must be very important that sometimes you don’t get caught on that treadmill of only doing that. I mean, obviously it’s great, but there must be a point where you’re like, right, I need to do one for me and one for–
Nicole: It’s fear-based. It’s totally fear-based. It is. It’s fear-based. And so if you get to a point where you’re not, you know, I’m not putting kids through private school and I keep my expenses really low so that I can take risks and do things that may not ever generate me money but that make me happy.
John: Show of hands, who out here in the audience lives in Los Angeles right now, or Los Angeles area? So maybe a third of people. Talking about the creative career, at what point should a writer consider moving to Los Angeles or I guess New York.
Tess: Can I? I have a hot take on that.
John: Please give your hot take.
Tess: I don’t think now you need to live Los Angeles unless you want to be on a TV show.
John: Tell us more about this.
Tess: I think if you’d asked me five years ago I would have been like 100% you have to be in Los Angeles. I think the landscape has changed so much in the past five years that you could come for three months if you’ve got a great script that’s going to get you a rewrite job or is going to get you a commission for a pilot or going to get you a film commission. And then you can go and write where you like.
I think that we are living in a much more – I mean like my UK agent is always putting me up for stuff still. I think we live in a much more obviously international world. If you pitch something for Netflix now, you pitch something to Amazon, once you’ve got that commission you can then go off and do that. I think the only difference is if you do want to be a TV writer and be staffed. But then you can also be in New York. And also there’s a lot of rooms in London now. The room for Succession is in London. The new Game of Thrones spinoff is in London. So I’m not saying it’s not – obviously it’s Hollywood and I keep doing Joey from Friends air quotes. But I don’t think it’s as important. That’s my hot take.
John: If you wanted to go back to previous episodes of Scriptnotes, Ryan Knighton came on the show. And so he’s a writer who lives in Vancouver but works in Hollywood all the time. But his way of dealing with it was he would say I’m always available to come to Los Angeles. And he will fly down for meetings. And when he does come down he will schedule a bunch of meetings so his days are packed. And it’s worked for him.
But this last year he staffed on a TV show and had to move down to Los Angeles. And it was a big challenge.
Tess: But the other thing as well, and I don’t know whether, I mean, you live in–
Nicole: I live in San Francisco.
Tess: Yeah. I have found, I’ve been in LA for three years, and I do love it and everything, but there is a certain malaise that can happen there. And I really encourage people to live their lives elsewhere as well because I think you can run out of steam a bit and you can stop actually seeing what’s going on in the real world and you can get very kind of insular in that LA way. And it is a beautiful, wonderful place to live, but I just think you don’t want to get too caught up in that it’s the only thing.
Jason: I think the malaise-y thing can be real and I think it sort of depends person to person. I think that if you are one of the people who tries out LA and has that experience then LA is probably not the most creatively fertile place for you to live.
I would say that for me I never had that vibe. And LA in my experience has been really helpful. Not just for meetings, because so much of it is not about scheduled meetings. It’s living in a city where there are all these incredibly creative people. Creative people who can make a major difference in your life. And so there are lots of people I’ve met, whether it’s at a coffee shop, or a party, or we happen to write at the same spot every day.
You know, I’m writing Robotech for Sony right now. And it’s going to be directed by Andy Muschietti, who directed IT and Mama, and he’s one of my favorite filmmakers. And he’s now also a friend and someone I’m working with. And the reason he became a friend is because we went to the same coffee shop all the time. And we’d run into each other and we’d talk movies and then we’d see each other at parties. And all of a sudden we realized we both loved Robotech and though, well gosh, that would be something fun to team up on.
So I do think it’s not to say that you can’t run into talented, creative people in other cities, but I think in a sort of per-square-mile density oriented way LA is very unique. And if you can sort of not be impacted by the weird nature of being surrounded by people who only do what you do, then it’s a really great place to live, and work, and build a career as a writer.
Nicole: I agree with both of you. I lived in LA for eight years and I love LA. I think it’s a great city and most of my best friends are in LA. And I totally agree. I think that being in LA is really, really, really helpful for all the reasons that Jason said. I think you just tend to absorb more of what’s in the air in terms of knowledge, and rumors, and all the gossip. And you can check hall files on people and get reputation checks. You spread out, you see people at things. And I think it’s very, very helpful.
But as soon as I got to a place in my career where I could go, I decided I would rather have – for me personally – I think I like a little balance. And I think that you can definitely work elsewhere. I think it helps already to have some traction. It’s a tradeoff. I say this all the time but it takes less time to fly from San Francisco down to LA then it does to cross town during rush hour traffic.
Tess: And also I think the other trick is to leave LA regularly. Because if you are living there and you do make the move, I try every sort of three months or so I just go somewhere else. Even if it’s just for the weekend. I think that also can – I mean, maybe it’s just me. It’s just me.
Christina: Well, I think what Tess said in the beginning about like if you can do that chunk of time when you come, that is when it really does matter. When you’re breaking, if you can be in LA for a chunk of a time it will be a lifesaver. Because you can’t schedule all of those first meetings in one day, because you don’t have any power to move people’s schedule around. You’ll be lucky to meet them whenever you can.
Tess: And everyone, if you come for two weeks you’ll have something like 50 meetings scheduled. 50% of them will get rearranged. You’re like, “I’m not here then. I’m going back to England.”
Christina: So I think a chunk of time is really good. I live in LA now and honestly I’m like a hermit cat lady. I never go out. I don’t go to meetings. If I can do a meeting as a call instead I will. I had to live in New York for about six months last year for family reasons and I just lied and I was like, “Oh, I just popped in New York and you just missed me. Let’s do a call instead.” No one even really noticed. There are ways of doing it where, you know, like I’ll catch you next time I’m in LA.
John: So, I want to talk to you guys about rooms. Traditionally screenwriting is a thing that one writer is hired at a time and that writer is working on the script and working through it and getting that script hopefully into production. Sometimes it doesn’t get into production, or a different writer comes over. It’s a serial process. Versus television which is generally written as a room. A room of writers are together to come up with the story and one writer will go off and write it. But it’s a room process.
Some of you guys have worked in rooms on features. And if you are a newer writer who is invited to be part of one of those rooms what things should a writer be mindful of going into a room situation?
Nicole: Oh, by the way, we’re doing a panel about feature writers’ rooms tomorrow, so.
John: Sorry, spoilers.
Christina: Oh, I thought you were doing advertising for us.
John: Sorry, practical tips.
Nicole: I would say that usually new writers aren’t invited to be in those levels feature writers’ rooms. Those tend to be for very established people that are being brought in for anything from a roundtable to a month of advising another writer, or breaking a story. There’s a lot of different kinds which we can go into in depth. But I’ve never met a new writer in any of the feature rooms.
John: Tess, Casual was your first time. No, I guess you had done Hollyoaks before that. So you’re used to–
Tess: Yeah. I’ve done a couple of shows in the UK that were room-based. But the shows in the UK are not really room-based. I mean, Hollyoaks very much is. But Casual was great. It was eight writers. Like 13-week contract I think we were on it for. Or maybe a bit longer. 16. And then got to be there for my episode.
I’d say the biggest thing with – I mean, I love being in a room because I really like getting out of my house. And I like being around people. So I’m the over-excited person. I have to like land when I get into the room. I have to like land myself because I can feel myself being very like. But it’s a great way to really – that is an opportunity for newer people, particularly if you want to be – in Casual we had a writer’s PA and then we had a writer’s assistant. And that definitely is a way to move up. Because you’re allowed to pitch stuff if you have a good creator or showrunner then they are obviously are open to you saying things. And it’s a very collaborative obviously compared to movies and less so I suppose if you actually have got a room that you’re pitching for films. But I was like a pig in shit. I loved every second of it.
John: Yeah. So that writer’s assistant job is a thing that exists in television and doesn’t tend to exist in features in a meaningful way. Like I have an assistant and I’ve been lucky to have great assistants along the way. But most screenwriters are not going to have a fulltime assistant who is doing stuff for them. But writer’s assistants in television, that is a great entry stepping stone. And people will fight really hard to get those jobs.
Tess: And you have to be – our writer’s assistant on Casual, she has to take down everything you’re saying. So we’re pitching ideas. We’re pitching new storylines. It’s all going up on a board. And she is have to choose what she puts down. So it’s a real skill. And if you’re good at it then you can also – you’re very involved in the storyline process so it’s very easy to say, “Hey, I’ve got an idea.” And then if that showrunner or creator creates another show he’s going to say would you like to be staff writer because there’s a hierarchy and you can move up. So it is a good gig to get.
John: Last topic before we open up for questions. I want to talk about feedback you get now, or feedback you solicit now. So when you’ve written something who do you show it to, what is the context for showing it? How much do you try to keep emotion out of it? What is your process now for getting feedback? Jason, you’ve written something, who is the first person who reads the things you’ve written?
Jason: I think it’s good to have a small circle of people. You want to get outside opinions, but not too many. And ideally it’s someone whose work you respect as a writer. For me it’s a writer named Robert Mark Kamen. When I talked about a lot of people telling me I couldn’t be a writer, Robert was one of the first to agree. Robert I met at a restaurant in New York City. I was telling my parents I was dropping out of college to pursue a career as a screenwriter. Random guy turned around and said, “I overheard what you said. You’re an idiot. Everyone thinks they’re a writer. You’re not a writer. Go do something normal. I’m a writer. I’m telling you this is not for you.”
And I said, “Well what have you written?” And he went, “Ugh, Karate Kid, Lethal Weapon 2, Lethal Weapon 3, The Fifth Element.” He reeled off 20 of my favorite movies and I was like, oh, those were good movies. But I think I’m going to do this. And I would see him at this restaurant and he would look at me and go, “Are you a screenwriter yet?” And I’d go, “No, not yet.” And eventually I’d written a script I was proud of and I said why don’t you read this. And he said all right.
And he read it and he called me up and said, “All right. You’re a writer. Let’s grab lunch.” And he’s been one of my best friends ever since. And he’s the first guy I share my screenplays with.
John: Nice. Nicole, who is in your circle of trust?
Nicole: I feel very lucky now in that I have an incredible community of screenwriters. I went through sort of a weird period where before I was a professional screenwriter I had a fantastic circle of friends who I could show my work to. And then I started working professionally and having to sign NDAs and feeling a little uncomfortable with the idea of sharing it with other people who didn’t necessarily understand the NDA. And so then I went through this weird like one or two year period where I didn’t want to impose on any of my other professional screenwriting friends, but I didn’t feel comfortable sharing it with other people.
And I think it was a serious handicap because you need to be able to show your work. And so now I feel like I have an incredible network of people that I love and respect. So I show my work – first of all, I always show my work to my husband because he’s really fantastic. But then after that I show it to, if I’m doing a pilot for example, I showed my recent pilot to Amy Berg who is a good friend, Jeff Pinkner who is a good friend. My manager will give me notes. So getting stuff from people who are experts in the field. I try not to impose too much.
Christina: I’m in a terrible, terrible bad habit, so what I do is bad. I wait till the day before I absolutely have to deliver. At about 8pm I give it to my husband and I give it to my manager and I say, “I’m so sorry. I need you to read this and you need to read it before 12pm tomorrow.” And all I really need at that point is them to just say you aren’t going to destroy your career. I always when I finish a script am like this is the one that will tank me. So I just need someone to say it’s OK, this isn’t embarrassing. You can turn it in and then that’s what I do.
Tess: My manager, my best friend Amy Johnson who is not here but is on some panels, and Craig actually Mazin, I’ve tapped him a few times. Because Craig can give you one note that will solve your entire script problems. So yeah.
John: With me, I find stuff I’m writing for an assignment my assistant will have read it and so I can have a conversation with them about what I’m trying to do and if there are things that are confusing. But I don’t go big on the circle trust for that. But for stuff I’m writing for myself, like stuff to direct, stuff that’s really my own thing, then I really do seek it.
And Kelly Marcel told me once, I had given her a thing to read and she said, “Now, just so we’re clear, do you want me to tell you that it’s really good or do you want me to tell you what I actually think?” When I handed it to her. And it was a very smart way of looking at it is that sometimes you do need just somebody to tell you that you’re good. Someone just to be reassuring. And that’s totally valid.
But sometimes you are actually asking for the notes and for where the problems are. And so as you’re handing stuff to somebody at any stage in your career make it clear what you’re really trying to get out of it.
We have some time for some questions. So if you have a question. Yes, right there. So the question is the longevity of a career and what does the back half of the career look like.
Tess: I think once you’re in it it’s very hard to – it’s like the mob. It’s very hard to get out. I have regular weekly fantasies about opening a cat sanctuary in Ohai. But I think that really it’s such a great career that you can do for as long as you want, like health permitting and life permitting. So I think once you’ve gotten there there’s no reason. Unless you don’t have any other stories you want to tell. There’s like no reason to not continue. I think if it’s actually damaging you psychologically. I know people that have given it up or taken some time off because that does happen. But I think really the reason you don’t hear about it is because once you’re in you’re in. You know? You don’t tend to sidestep around unless you maybe end up producing or directing or starting your own company or whatever you’re going to do. So I think that’s probably why you don’t really hear about it so much.
John: I’ve actually seen, I mean, people who have left the business involuntarily because people just stopped hiring them. It is a weird thing where like if people stop paying you to do the thing are you really still doing the thing? And that is a thing to watch out for. You know, at a certain point people may not be wanting you to write movies for them and you may not be able to make a career doing it. And so you’ll find people who become professors or who have other things they end up doing. That is one of the frustrations.
What Jason said earlier is that the great thing about being a writer is you can just write. You don’t need anyone’s permission. But in order to be paid as a writer someone has to pay you. And I do see some people who have stopped getting paid.
Nicole: Yeah. I think ageism is a real thing. I haven’t experienced it yet. But I’m sure that I will at some point.
Tess: You’re going to get older, Nicole. It’s going to happen.
Nicole: I know. God, I mean that’s the best case scenario, right? So I think that the thing that I’m trying to do right now is to plant little seedlings for when I’m older that are things I can explore that I have more control over. I actually do read the WGA Magazine. I think I might be the only one who does. But I totally read it. And Ed Solomon said something really smart in his interview that he did a couple months ago where he said I don’t want to be the guy who in his 50s is chasing the projects that he went after in this 30s. And I think that’s really true in terms of the kinds of projects that attract you or you’re expected to write at certain time periods in your life.
I am still chasing those in my 30s. But I think the things that I’m doing right now are meant to sustain me. I do a lot of mentoring. I love mentoring. And I think I could be very happy doing that. But in terms of just paying my bills and stuff, I’m just trying to keep in mind that I won’t always be booking studio jobs when I’m like 75.
John: I think while we’re here at the WGA panel, you earn a pension. So, every project you book, some of that money goes towards the pension fund. So you get a statement that shows your pension. That pension is not enough to support you. So I think a crucial thing every writer up here will say is that you’re also saving money for retirement and it’s you’re responsibility to save extra money beyond your pension to retire because hopefully you’re going to get to that place where you’re ready to put this up.
Jason: I would also just say that if longevity is something that matters, like obviously there are writers who have other things they want to pursue and maybe plan for the latter stages of their career a little bit differently, but if you’re like me and feel a desperate need to do this till the day you die then you look at writers, or at least I do, who have had longevity and you try to figure out how they did it. And I have no idea if I’ll be able to replicate that. I perpetually feel like I’m 120 pages from not being in the business. But, I look at guys like Robert Kamen, with a career spanning from Taps to he’s now got the sequel to Olympus Has Fallen coming out. That’s a career.
You look at Eric Roth. You look at a lot of these writers who sustain careers over 30 or 40 or 50 years.
John: Alvin Sargent.
Jason: Yeah. And so I try to learn from them and how they did it. And it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach, but it’s something I’m very cognizant of. From my perspective there are ways to approach it and I’m still trying to learn how.
John: Another question? So his question is we talk about No Writing Left Behind, and so if you’re going in to pitch on a project that they own, if you’re going in to pitch on Transformers don’t leave stuff behind. But let’s talk about sort of you’ve talked about your idea for something, would you send stuff after you’ve talked in a room about a thing would you send in a write-up for it? What are the pros and cons of this thing that is entirely yours, writing up a little thing to show them. What’s good and what’s bad about that?
Tess: I mean, I don’t know, because I don’t know what it’s like when you pitch – if you’re pitching on a big movie, I’ve only ever done it once and I did probably do too much work. These three would know better than me. I look back on the experience and I thought I did a little bit too much work for nothing. Because I didn’t get it. But if I got it I’d be like oh I’m so glad I did all that work. So, I don’t know. It’s difficult because I tend to work in a way where I will go in and see a producer and have an idea and then we’ll have a bit of back and forth for six months and then I’ll form something and then I’ll go pitch it. Whereas I think if you’re pitching for an actual open assignment it’s a different thing.
John: Yeah, so it’s open assignments that I really want to stress the No Writing Left Behind. But even if it’s your own idea, one of the reasons why it can be a bad idea to write up that three paragraph thing is then your idea becomes this three paragraph thing and you’re dealing with this written document rather than this idea of a document. And ultimately you are going to be writing a screenplay which is the plan for making a movie. So, the plan for writing the screenplay for making the movie, spending all your time and energy on that thing and letting that be the focus is probably not as good as the conversation about what the screenplay will be, what the movie is going to be is more useful to everybody.
Do we have time for another question? We’re all done? This was great. I want to thank our panelists and thank you to the WGA for having us.
- Thank you, Tess Morris, Christina Hodson, Nicole Perlman, and Jason Fuchs!
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