Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Writing: Q&A #1

Well, first off, go rent/buy the DVD of The Laramie Project. Christ, I’d forgotten how good that was. It really is a showcase of great acting and a truly, filthily fine debut for director Moises Kaufman . There are a bunch of times, he made very simple but counter-intuitive camera moves (slow pullbacks where a lot of guys would have done the push …) which really knocked me on my ass. Wonderful what he does with so little actually happening on screen.

First of the Q&A comes from JDC, who writes:

"What are the odds of a 40 year old making it as a writer in LA? Do you find age-ism to be a problem?"

Okay, this depends in a failry major way on what kind of screenwriting you want to do. But let’s address that in a bit. My first reaction was to answer …

… would you find age-ism to be a problem in professional baseball?

I’m not being glib here. Okay, I am being glib, but more as a way in to a serious question. My point is that you need to understand something, something they don’t teach you at film school – writing is a career. It’s not just about writing the best damn script you can. Becoming a screenwriter means this. Is. Your. Life. You are not going to sell one script and somehow, magically, be a screenwriter, which means your life becomes … uh … you know, typing cool stuff. And selling it. In between fabulosity.

Becoming a screenwriter at 40 is no more nor no less insane than any other time you would decide to change your day job to something else wildly incompatible with how you currently earn your paycheck and how and where you live your life. The bigger question is, are you ready to give up everything – EVERYTHING – to make this change? Give up your friends, if you don’t live in LA? Give up being close to your family, if you don’t live in LA? Give up financial security? Grind out X pages a day for money, regardless of whether it’s your dream come true or another assignment to pay the bills? By the time you get an agent off your specs, and then get your first assignment, you’re looking at being 45. 45 and taking film assignments or being staff writer on a TV show. (who, by the way, are not listed in the credits. The PA’s are, but not the staff writers) Like any major career worth a damn, know this: you are going to spend ten years getting to the place where you have any rep or control. You can have fun along the way, and do some fine work, but there will be some shit to eat. I’m not saying that should dissuade you; I’m just saying you need to be aware of that when you’re making your life decisions.

This is neither meant to be a fire-ya-up pep talk nor a downer. One of the prices we pay for working in the creative fields is that often people let their passion get in the way of the idea that this is a career. Like law, like medicine. But unlike those fields – and this is a fairly major beef I have with the way film school is usually taught – you can’t just set up a shingle and call yourself “Screenwriter”, or partner up with a group of more successful screenwriters like a law firm, build a client base, etc. … My dad went to law school at 55 (go Dad!), passed the bar, called a couple friends he’d worked with on the other side of wrongful dismissal suits, offered to do some wills and other such work for lawyers he knew, and bingo, he’s a lawyer with a practice. (He also won a case in front of the Massachusetts State Supreme Court. Fighting to make sure a woman who was sexually harassed got full justice. No, I will never measure up. Thanks for asking!)

As insanely difficult as that was, there was still a framework for that occupation.

Screenwriting’s an odd duck even within the writing field itself. We can’t write our novel, get it published (also arduous, no arguments) and then go ahead and live in the exact same house and continue to type the exact same way, mailing in pages to our editor. If you want to write for television, you’ll be staffing which means full day-job hours (and longer), always with the knowledge that if Kevin James eats one too many mozzarella sticks and strokes out on set, you are officially unemployed. Hell, three bad weeks of Nielsen’s in a row and you’re turfed for the year. If you want to be a film writer, that means you need to learn a whole separate set of skills to help you in selling yourself in meetings and conveying your ideas in a concise and interesting manner in which the humans with the monies can understand. Our art is odd in that for it to reach any satisfying resolution, we require the collaboration of literally hundreds of people and millions of dollars*. All this on TOP of being a helluva great writer.

And, if I hear you cry “But there are plenty of shit writers working!” -- why yes. Yes there are. And they’ve been at it since they were 20, and spent two decades developing the contacts necessary to get their lame asses work. And got insanely, insanely lucky. In Hollywood, I cannot stress this enough: it is indeed far smarter to be lucky than it’s lucky to be smart.

I know we’ve wandered pretty far afield from JDC’s actual question. Yes, there is definitely age-ism … young guys work cheap and hard, and you’re perceived as a “bargain”. Writing and rewriting on a deadline is a far more physically taxing gig than you’d think. Also, people feel they’re developing a relationship with a young writer that’ll pay off over the length of the writer’s career – which will be, in theory, longer if the writer starts younger. Everybody wants to be able to say they’re the ones who discovered some young talent.

BUT … sure this is a world where youth culture drives the business, but I’ve never heard, when discussing writers to hire, anyone say “Nah, he’s too old.” As a matter of fact, the two guys who wrote the first draft of FATAL FRAME were both over forty, and I believe we were their first assignment. One of the team even lived in Houston, if I remember. For TV staffing, I and many other exec producers I know are looking for some cool life experiences or research skills that’ll be valuable to the show dynamic when talking to writers. A fair number of the writers I talked to for GF were just entering TV writing from reportage; there’s been a run on that since the procedurals became popular, and the ability to properly research 22 deadly new conundrums for House to solve rises in value.

The more I think about it, the more I realize there’s a fundamental divide. Do you want to make your movies, or do you want to work in the industry as a writer? Now, I’ll tell you, I just love writing for a living. I only take work I think will be interesting and challenging, but for me, the thrill is in the storytelling. And, we should note, that ability to choose is a luxury I have now that I’m fairly well established. I assure you, writing the “Cosby and Dougie make a wacky bet” episode on COSBY back when I was making my bones … that wasn’t exactly channeling my Muse.

If you only want to make your movies, then God bless you. But you then must accept the idea that you will be working outside of the Hollywood system, and need to then gather up the skillset necessary to compensate for that loss of money and availability of talent for your project. Each film will be years in the making, and you’ll be functioning as a producer while you’re writing.

I guess my concern is – too many people look at screenwriting as a jackpot situation, a lottery, where “this is the spec that’ll break me ...” Getting an agent off your script is just the beginning of a difficult – fulfilling but difficult – lifestyle. Assuming you somehow navigate through the maze of Hollywood to accomplish even that small victory.

Don’t worry about being forty, or a minority, or a women, or anything else. Worry about developing the mindset that writing stories is now your job. It is your craft, your vocation and avocation. It is EVERYTHING. Get paid to write stories. Anywhere, anyhow. Work breeds work, and saying you’re working as a writer in something else conveys a legitimacy as you try to get work in screenwriting. The intrepid David Slack went from running TEEN TITANS to staffing on LAW & ORDER this year (and he’ll be a producer on any show I ever run). All because he started writing animation scripts back as a wee lad. My friends Tyrone and Tom worked on industrial films in Chicago. I get sent spec scripts for staffing from playwrights and even poets all the time.

What are the odds of making it as a 40 year old writer in Hollywood? When the odds for ANYONE making it in Hollywood are 10,000,000 to 1, do you really need to worry about the extra +/- 50,000 against?

Listen, kids, I don’t want you to quit. (if my little downer post made you want to quit, then you don’t have the sack for the industry anyway. Just saved you five frustrating years as a reader at William Morris. You’re welcome) But in the name of God, start thinking about how you want or need to fit into this big-ass beast, and try to be smart about how you go about cracking the joint. Know your strengths, your limitations, and most importantly, what you need to accomplish with your writing to feel like you’re achieving your art. In short, as cheesy as this is – know yourself.

* The closest non-writing job with a comparable problem I can think of is architecture. Make of that what you will.


James Everett said...

That sounds a hell of a lot like being a game designer, except if anything we have it just a bit easier because we don't have to get the game signed, that's management's problem. The parallels are striking, working up to your first job with building mods/going to school can take 2-5 years to break in as a level designer. Being a staff writer is similar to being a level designer except you get credit, and working up to any kind of senior role can take a few years and some decent games under your belt.

Age also plays a role insofar as starting out as a junior designer probably means taking a serious pay cut if you've had any other kind of career and at most shops you'll get more overtime than is necessary.

The thing I've noticed about game design is the longer you do it, the more locked in you are compared to the other disciplines. Artists can always get other commercial work outside of games, and the private sector is hungry for programmers across the board, but game designers don't have many options other than some kind of writing gig. Does the same hold true for TV/film writers?

Bill Cunningham said...

John, as usual an excellent post that digs to the marrow of the matter in your own eloquent style. Welcome back!

As someone who got into this business later in life after a turn in the Air Force, I have to agree with everything you said. Here it is, 430 am LA time, and I'm getting up to work on a script I have to turn in to my client on friday. Writing is a career and you have to work at it and know what you want out of it to make this insane lifestyle work for you. Friends of mine have mortgages and retirement funds and 2.5 kids (oooh, grisly thought). I on the other hand have my writing and my friends (not in that order). I chose this life, or rather it chose me, and I intend to make the most of it. There is no other job I can see myself doing, and if anything can dissuade you from this path then don't go down it.

Tailgating on your idea of career paths for writers, I think it is in a writer's best interest to learn film distribution and production (in that order. It's a practical thing, but knowing how movies are sold and how they are made are valuable skills that every writer should add to their kit.

joshua said...

Great thoughts and post, John - thanks.

Curt said...

John, what's the appeal of being a screenwriter as opposed to a print fiction writer? If the two are evenly matched for difficulty (in breaking in, in making a living at it, etc.), it seems like the novelist has much more autonomy and creative control. Does anything that makes it to screen ever approximate your vision of it? Doesn't it bug you to have to work with so many other people just to come up with a script, and then you hand it off to so many other people to do with it whatever they will?

Andy said...

You write movies because you love movies. That's it. If you don't love movies, don't become a screenwriter. 1) You'll probably never survive the process. 2) You'll piss off all of us guys who love movies and would gladly do this for free -- and probably have at some point in their career.

Now, I can't speak for John, but I know well enough to say that he's one of the few "artists" I've met in LA that actually bristles at being described as one. We both grew up in similar blue collar environments, and both had that work ethic pounded into us at a very early age. If my dad (God rest his soul) ever caught me complaining that something I'd been paid to do wasn't "my vision," well...let's just say the tongue lashing that would follow would not be pretty and would likely include comments about my manhood or what color umbrella I'd like in my girlie drink.

Screenwriting is a job, which means someone is investing their time, money and trust in you to do that job well. So that's what you do -- write til it's right. Everything else is ego.

John Donald Carlucci said...

For me, writing has not been a career change. I’ve been writing for many years and have a few scripts under my belt (I finished the final edits on the last one two days ago). I would say that finding my focus was more of the problem. I spent five years in LA and did a poor job of networking. I also got wrapped up in the drama of my day job - which help kill the writing urge. It took leaving LA to help refocus. I've spent months of time focusing on improving the scripts and actually taking the good script advice. I've found the focus again and look forward to heading back.

I won't worry about discouraging me; nothing you would say would do that. I have stories to tell and understand the sacrifices you make to tell them. Sometimes it is hard to keep the stiff upper lip, but I have that music in my bones. One thing I have focused on is the career and professional side of the business. The job aspect of the field.

In the end, I don't have a choice. I have to keep trying. I don't want to be like family and friends who let their dreams go and regret it every day.

Thanks for the breakdown John.


Curt said...

Andy--are you kidding or what? You take my question about the relative appeal of screenwriting vs. writing for print publication, and turn it into a question of manhood? I guess your dad (God rest his soul) really left you with some issues. Since you brought it up, why don't you go ahead and tell us--what color umbrella do you like in your girlie drinks?

Rogers said...

Andy likes pink umbrellas. I like green.

I believe he was making a corollary point to his original answer -- we write screenplays because we love movies. It would never occur to us not to write movies. And, despite all our (shared) bristling at the arty-fartiness which is so often used as a crutch out here, and our more practical work ethic, we're still in that way artists -- trapped in a calling despite ourselves. Because it's our calling.

Of course it bugs me to hand the script off. The last time that movie is mine is when I type "FADE OUT". On the other hand, there is a sublime delight in hearing actors say something you've written. Hearing an actor find something in a character even I didn't know was there. The first time you see a set you've only imagined actually, physically built, as if it was arcanely summoned, well -- that's a heckuva kick.

If it's not your drug, then that's meaningless, and there is no reason not to choose some other form of writing. If it IS your drug, well, yowch, you'll put up with the bullshit.

Having said that, it is worth remembering William Goldman's advice. IN ADVENTURES IN THE SCREEN TRADE, right near the end of the second chapter, I believe, he points out that screenwriting is the only art where you never, EVER will see your vision complete. And that will, over time, drive you insane.

Rogers said...

james everett:

Every job tries to lock you into one slot, doesn't it? I have friends who have a heck of a time moving from half-hour to hour TV, never mind into features.

As far as work outside the field -- well, it's a bit better as different media evolve, and there's always advertising. But, again, as with any career you're trying to slide into, a lot of people got there first or cheaper, eh?

Rogers said...

Oh, and Andy doesn't have issues. (Except with squirrels. Weird.) He just has the same problem with Hollywood I do -- people play the "artist" card to get away with all sorts of shit, inculding deluding themselves about what we actually do here. We make shit. Arty shit, but it's a job on top of a calling, not just a calling.

Bill Cunningham said...

John, we don't make crap - we make fertilizer! It does come wrapped in plastic with a label doesn't it?

As far as issues with Hollywood go - I don't have just issues, I have the subscription.

Curt said...

Haha--well, sorry if I got a little bristly there. I'm not familiar with the industry or its "culture," but the details you supply do give me some context for what Andy said and where he's coming from--and in that light, of course I'd agree. You really answered my question, and then some. Thanks!

Lee said...

Terrific post, and far from making me want to quit, I actually feel regalvanised. Yes, if one wants to make a career for oneself then it helps to remember that writing is a job and requires all the dedication you possess. On the other hand, you can't do it if you don't love it.

I'm just starting to find that love again after years of self-induced anxiety.

Having knocked around and generally wasted my time in various offices and stores over the years, I now understand that my job is not a sink that I need to pour my self-esteem into every day. After I finished school, I foolishly hitched all my self-worth to the idea that I could become a great writer. Needless to say, I found it impossible to perform under such pressure.

Now it's fun again; and I credit most of that transformation to guys like you, and Alex Epstein, Paul Guyot, John August, Craig Mazin and others. You're the guys doing what I want to do, and telling it like it is and putting all those juvenile inadequaces of mine into perspective.

So, quit? Like fuck. And cheers for the free advice.

Bug-Eyed Earl said...

I was in a production of "The LAramie Project" last year. Fred Phelps picketed our show, and his supporters shouted insults at everyone going in, but the real Father Roger Schmidt came to our show. We kind of knew he it was when we we ushered back onstage after the show and saw a priest waiting to talk to us. Really nice guy- just like he was in the script.

And as always, I applaud you, John. HAve you ever considered publishing a book for aspiring screenwriters? At the very least you could do a cloumn or two for scr(i)pt magazine.

Andy said...

What he said.

Sorry about that, Curt. I'm an ass, but I'm not that big an ass. And even if I were...never on John's blog.

Chalk it up to bad writing ;-)

Anyway, glad John stepped in to clear things up. Thanks for the assist, Big Guy.

>>Even in cyberspace, he rewrites me.<<

Curt said...

No prob Andy, and my own apologies back atcha. I misunderstood you, but now I see your point. ;-)

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Obat Herpes Kelamin
Obat Herpes Zoster
Obat Herpes Badan
Obat Jengger Ayam
Obat Kutil Kelamin
Obat Kondiloma
Obat Condyloma Accuminata
Obat Jengger Ayam Pria Dan Wanita
Obat Kutil Kelamin Pada Pria Dan Wanita