note: Scroll down for the weekend’s Amateur Offerings post!
Hey everyone. Carson here. Today we have a very familiar guest poster, professional screenwriter John Jarrell. You may remember John from his Hollywood Horror Stories post a few months back. John wanted to write another article for the site, but this time focus a little less on horror and a little more on hope. Hence, today, John will be discussing that moment every writer dreams of – his first screenplay sale. As you may remember from his last post, John runs an awesome screenwriting class here in LA, one of the few held by actual working screenwriters. This man not only tells how you how to write what Hollywood’s looking for, but explains how to navigate the elusive trenches that only those with experience in the industry know how to navigate. If you feel like your writing has stagnated, if you don’t know where to go next, or if you just want some really awesome instruction, check out John’s site to learn more about him, then sign up for his Tweak Class. You won’t regret it!
Experienced this yet? You and your bros crash some screening, party, mixer. People (even women!) ask what you do. You admit that you’re a (cough) screenwriter.
Great, they say, wow. Anything I’d be familiar with?
Not yet, you explain, you’re unproduced and haven’t sold anything… but Lionsgate is really, REALLY excited about a project of yours, and it could be any day now…
And that’s pretty much where the pussy hunt ends.
Because other than credits and/or money, there’s no standard by which civilians and Industry insiders can possibly differentiate between those working hard to become legit screenwriters and the army of ass-clowns out there just playing at it.
So… what’s an aspiring screenwriter to do? How can we rid ourselves of this dreaded Wannabe Syndrome, shake the metaphorical monkeys clawing at our backs? Parents, classmates, landlords, loan collectors, the faux-hipster who spotted you Twenty at The Farmacy, and, most importantly, our own stratospheric expectations?
The answer’s pretty straightforward.
Get paid for your screenwriting.
Bury a fifty-foot putt. Knock the guy through the ropes. Or as DMX so succinctly puts it, “Break ‘em off somethin'”.
Because rightly or wrongly, the business of screenwriting ultimately comes down to convincing a complete stranger to give you real money for something you typed into Final Draft.
Actually, this is great news – that part about strangers paying money for scripts. Because they’re still doing it, making the blank page the great equalizer for us all, every screenwriter’s secret weapon.
Yeah, sure, no shit, John. Love the concept. But where the hell does one even START in this godforsaken town? By what means do you actually propose to get this done?
Bottom line? By any and all means necessary. Hard work. Blind luck. Freak breaks. Perfect timing. Brute Force.
At least that’s what worked for me.
Before you can get paid, however, you need an agent or manager. Getting my first agent is one of those bizarre, by-the-seat-of-your-pants Hollywood stories.
Summer 1990, my actor buddy Mike was cast in perhaps the most nonsensical martial arts movie of all-time — Iron Heart starring Britton Lee. Britton was actually Korean, not Chinese, and shouldn’t be confused with Bruce Lee, Bruce Le, Bruce Li, Dragon Lee, Bruce Dragon Li, or any other Enter The Dragon copycats of that era.
Shooting was in Oregon, and late one night Mike went to a wedding party at the Portland Marriot. The bash got crazy loud, completely out of hand. Two women from an adjoining suite came over to complain, but rather than turn the racket down, the Groom convinced them to stay and party instead.
The blonde one was hot, and my bro took a liquored shine to her. Mike’s a pretty handsome guy (he became a Network soap star years later) and so he followed Young MC’s advice to the Pepsi Generation to just “bust a move”. (Under 30? Google it.)
Small talk kicked up. “Where are you from?”, “What do you do?”, etc.
So she tells Mike she’s a literary agent in Los Angeles.
And Mike, bless his heart, blurts out — “Wow. I know about the best script!”
Cue needle scratching LP surface. This chick’s looking at him like, I’m on vacation, in Portland Fuckin’ Oregon, and I’m still getting scripts thrown at me!”
But he kept her talking (like I said, Mike’s pretty hot himself) and put it out there that I’d gone to NYU and long story short, she told him this —
“If you’re serious, leave a copy at the front desk and I’ll have somebody in L.A. look at it. I fly out at 6 a.m. tomorrow.”
Want to know if your best buddy is the real deal? Here’s the gold standard.
Mike hauled ass back to his hotel, got the only copy of the script within 3000 miles, penned a quick note with my contact info, then drove all the way back to the Marriot again, at 3 a.m., and left my script for her.
Raises the bar pretty damned high, doesn’t it? Saying nothing of the fact he could’ve gotten laid if he hadn’t decided to hook me up instead.
Next morning, Mike hipped me to what happened, and I was like, great man, thanks, really appreciate it… and promptly forgot all about it. I’d already had my ass kicked so many times over that script I’d given up all hope. Shitty coverage, angry agency rejection letters, demoralizing notes from two junior, junior, baby execs, all that. A man can only eat so much shit in one sitting.
But one week later I found a message on my Panasonic answering machine.
“Hi, I’m Susanne Walker, from the New Talent Agency in Los Angeles. I’d like you to call me back. I read your script and I think it could be very, very big.”
Completely blissed out and brimming with newfound hope, I drove down to L.A. in my ’66 Bug, $200 to my name, ready to take my rightful place astride the Industry’s brightest and best paid.
Susanne got me meetings everywhere. Mace Neufeld, Scott Rudin, Paramount, Warners – all the Town’s heavy hitters. This was Ground Zero of the ’90’s Big Spec Era. It was ridiculous then, like a cartoon when compared to today’s Business. Writers were selling dirty cocktail napkins sketched with story ideas for a million cash. As the trades boldly confirmed each morning, with a decent script, anything and everything was possible.
There was only one little glitch.
My script was essentially Taxi Driver meets Romeo And Juliet. Two tough Irish kids, living in the burned-out bowels of Jersey City get in trouble with black gangsters and the Mob, gunplay and tragedy quickly to ensue. People loved the gritty action and characters, and it was the type of genre film Studios were still interested in making back then.
But then State of Grace opened, just as I was taking all these meetings, I’m talking same exact week. Even though it boasted Sean Penn and Gary Oldman, it completely cratered at the box office, sinking its home studio, Orion.
Everybody agreed, our stories were COMPLETELY different. But they did share the same world, and quite literally overnight, all my hard work turned toxic, Fukushima’d by State of Grace’s blast radius.
One veteran producer put it perfectly — “It’s a shame one big, dumb movie out there is going to kill your sale.”
And that’s exactly what happened.
My new agent had nothing for me after that. One unknown with one good unsold spec wasn’t any more likely to get an open writing assignment back then than they are today. All she could suggest was to write another spec — the last thing on Earth any aspiring screenwriter wants to hear.
I got pissed. Mega-testosterone, 24 year-old white-boy pissed. I cursed the Film Gods for crushing my quick sale and the lifetime of Hollywood leisure to follow. Bitterly, I resolved to knuckle down and write that second goddamn script, vowing it would be so good that some stranger would be forced to give me money for it — they simply wouldn’t be able to help themselves.
Mike moved down to L.A., and together we took shelter in an old beach studio. Venice in ’91 was a dicey shithole, not the Pinkberry/ iPad skinny jeans love-fest you know now. Borrowing a PC, desk and chair from our dope-harvesting landlord, I barricaded myself inside our place and went on a screenwriting killing spree.
Grinding day and night, punching out page after page, wearing nothing but a bottomless bowl of Cheerios on my lap, I summoned the gripping tale of a Brooklyn attorney who witnesses a murder committed by a Mafia client he himself got off in court. When the attorney threatens to testify, the Mob comes after him and his family, gunplay and tragedy quickly to ensue.
Twenty-four days later, I chicken-pecked “The End”. I entrusted my magnum opus to Mike, holding his Backstage hostage until he read it. He finished, grinned and said — “If someone doesn’t buy this, I don’t know what to say.”
Flushed with pride and riding the final, indignant fumes of my prior rejection, I pointed The Bug down to my agent’s place. I remember bulldozing into her office like I was storming the Bastille.
“Here it is, my new spec, exactly what you asked for,” I stammered, thrusting it towards her like a broadsword. “I believe this is The Big One.”
“Okay, swell, thanks for driving in,” she said, ward nurse handling potential mental patient. “I’ll call you the second I’ve read it.”
Standing next to her desk was a stack of client scripts maybe twenty, twenty-five specs tall; a Xeroxed, three-bradded Leaning Tower of Pisa. In harrowing slow-motion, she took my newborn masterpiece and discarded it atop of the pile. Number Twenty-Six.
Something about it just broke me.
In that dark instant I got my first, unfiltered snapshot of how infinitesimal my odds really were — and it ruined me. Like they say, when you’re walking a tightrope, never, ever look down…
Returning to Venice, expecting the very worst, I marched into my half of the hovel and hand-shred all my notes; stepsheet, page revisions, all of it. Then I staggered, crushed, to the Boardwalk, bought a pair of 22 oz. Sapporo’s, found an empty bench and got ridiculously, pathetically, shithoused blind drunk.
Like a little baby, I cried out there, a six-foot, 190 lb. pity party. I bawled my fuckin’ eyes out among the hacky-sackers and forlorn homeless, casting my broken dreams atop the invisible, flaming bonfire of their own.
So this was the real Hollywood, I thought. The one every B-movie, t.v. show, and Danielle Steele beach-book warns you about. A financial and emotional Vietnam from which cherry young recruits like myself never returned.
Fuck me. How in the hell could I have thought selling a script would be that easy?
Alas, Dear Reader, I’d overreacted. Turns out, I had not been irrevocably voted off Screenwriter Island.
Susanne called three weeks later. The ol’ good news/bad news.
Good News — She liked my script and thought it could sell. You heard me — sell. For money. Awesome, right?
Bad News — She felt it needed an entirely new Third Act. She wanted to throw out everything I had and rethink the whole thirty pages from square one.
Sooner or later every screenwriter’s life reaches a crossroads where the whole of their career — the full possibility of what they may or may not become — comes to rest in their own fragile hands. In that brief instant, there’s nobody and nothing to rely on save your own gut instincts – not unlike the process when any of us face the empty page. All the solemn risks and rewards rest squarely on your slumped shoulders alone.
My own crossroads came very quickly. On this very call, in fact.
Susanne insisted on a new Third Act before she’d go out with it. Not only didn’t I want to do extra work, I honestly wasn’t sure it was the right call creatively. I was exhausted, beaten down, my self-doubt was flaring up, and the Imposter Syndrome had me by the throat. The concept of more time in isolation, the unique self-loathing only a screenwriter knows, was simply too much to bear.
So, brain racing, I decided to sack up and posit this —
Why not cherry-pick one of the many esteemed producers we’d met when I first hit town, slip the draft to them and get their opinion?
It seemed the perfect solution. We could get an objective, world-class opinion without exposing the script and burning it around town. Further, the producer’s take would be our tie breaker. If he/she agreed with Susanne, then I’d get to work on the third act straight away, without another whimper. Conversely, if the producer agreed with me that it was ship-shape and good to go, we’d fire things up and paper the town with it.
Susanne liked the idea. Now all that remained was to choose the producer.
We picked Larry Turman, the wise man who produced The Graduate. Larry was a real straight-shooter with a ridiculous wealth of experience.
Susanne messengered my script (remember those days?) over to Larry’s office on the Warner Hollywood lot, and a few weeks later his assistant called saying Larry wanted me to drop by and talk about what I’d written.
Enduring the endless crawl up Fairfax that day was awful. That Third Street intersection has always been a clusterfuck, long before The Grove arrived. Legions of ornery blue-hairs shot-gunning in and out of the prehistoric Vons parking destroyed traffic with a sadistic regularity.
Running way late, tragedy struck. I stepped down on the clutch and SNAP! the clutch cable broke. I actually heard it shatter, like a little bone, and the pedal sank straight to the floor, useless as a severed limb.
No clutch, no drive car. Simple as that. If your clutch goes AWOL, it’s game over. You pull over, Siri Triple A and wait.
But I still had one blue-collar trick up my sleeve. True fact — you can drive an old VW without a clutch. Here’s how. Turn the engine off, cram the gearshift into first, then restart it. Your Bug will lurch and whiplash terribly, then start grinding forward. If you match the RPM’s just right, you shift back into second, too — top speed, 20 mph.
So that’s what I did, said “fuck it” and snailed onward, my Bug’s antiquity a sudden asset in my favor.
This went down at Third and Fairfax, Clusterfuck Central. Hazards on, I politely edged to the shoulder, but that did nothing to halt the on-coming bloodbath. Apoplectic motorists began HONKING AND CUSSING ME OUT as they passed. Every single motorist had their horn pinned down and/or were commanding me to forcibly insert my Bug into my own colon. Zero mercy. Welcome to L.A.
This road-rape only encouraged me. Smiling my best “fuck you, too”, I continued surfing the glacial grind towards Warner Hollywood.
I was shown into Larry’s office a humiliating forty minutes late. Here I was, this Dickensian scrub, some hat-in-hand wannabe, accidently insulting the only ray of hope I had in Hollywood.
Besides being mortified, I also looked like shit now. Oil-smudged hands, pit stains pock-marking my only clean shirt, hair matted flat to my humid skull.
“Larry, I’m really, REALLY sorry. My sincerest apologies.”
I’d blown it, and I totally accepted that. No doubt, it was a colossal bed-shitting, one I’d have to live with forever. But Larry was legitimately one of the nicest guys I’d met since crossing over the River Styx — hell, he’d actually taken time to read my script as a courtesy! — so I felt it important he know my fuck up was not intentional.
“Believe it or not, I drive an old Bug, ’66 actually, and the clutch broke. Those last two miles I had to baby her in, at, like, ten miles per hour.”
Larry peered back. What sense he might make of these ramblings, I had no clue.
“Well, your car may not be working too well, but I know something else that is.”
“Huh? What’s that?”
“Your brain,” Larry said. “You’ve written a really good script here…and I want to buy it.”
I am Jack’s completely blown mind.
“You’re fuckin’ with me, right?”
“Not at all, John. We’ve partnered with a venture capitalist, and I want to acquire your project with some of the development money we have.”
By naïve force of will, what Orson Welles once called, “The Confidence of Ignorance”, trusting my gut and a shit-ton of hard work, I’d fought my way onto the big board. I was now a paid writer.
Money changed hands, and that changed my life, forever.
I was working a $125-per P.A. gig at Magic Mountain when I got The Call. Over the payphone, Susanne confirmed the deal had closed. Tomorrow, I’d have a check for $25K in my pocket, with the promise of THREE-HUNDRED THOUSAND MORE once we set it up.
Believe me, it felt EPIC. Something I pray every last one of you tastes someday. Think Tiger Woods, ’97 Masters, triumphant fist uppercutting Augusta sky, Barkley suplexing Shaq flat on his back, Hagler/Hearns with Marvelous alone still standing.
Oh, and by the way, Susanne was right — it did need a whole new third act. Five of them, in fact. And I started working up the first Day One/Page One with Larry.
Looking back, who knows? Maybe Susanne’s approach would’ve been best. Maybe if I had rewritten the Third Act in-house, we’d have sold it for even more money; started a bidding war, landed a massive, splashy spec sale putting me squarely on top.
But for me in ’91, there was no tomorrow. It was land this script, now, or beg my folks for airfare and crawl back to N.Y.C. busted apart. Many times, I’ve reflected about how not getting it done would’ve affected me, as both a writer and a man. Thank Baby Jesus, I never did find out.
Of course, here’s the punch line, the part I had no idea about —
This was just the first, brutal step of my climb up Screenwriter Mountain. Game One of a seven game series that would eat up a full decade, with a thousand times the agony of this little walk in the park.
Eventually, though, I’d pay off my student loans with a single check. Realize the Great American Dream and buy my parents a house, then grab a vintage Marshall and Gibson SG I’d always masturbated myself to. But meeting after meeting, script after script, I kept driving my trusty ’66 Bug as a reminder to keep my head on straight, come what may.
If you take nothing else away from my mangled musings, let it be this —
Screenwriters are special. Americans in general are taught never, ever to say that; never to imply any relative value between ourselves and our neighbors. But the fact remains — we writers have undertaken special challenges, endured special risks, absorbed a special amount of punishment and persevered with a special amount of grit, determination and (hopefully) integrity along the way. Screenwriters make a spectacular effort to scale our mountain of dreams while the majority of others huddle in the warmth and easy shelter of the base camps and ski lodges below.
So yeah, by any and all means necessary. Work hard. Trust your instincts. Fight like hell to spin every setback, every strand of Hollywood bullshit into gold.
And on that glorious day when you finally see an open kill shot, take it, my friend. Bury it right between the eyes.
Carson back again. I don’t know about you. But this sure makes me want to go write. Once again, John’s classes start THIS MAY in Los Angeles. So get over to his site now and SIGN UP! He only has a limited number of slots open!