When I moved to Los Angeles in the summer of 2012, I was in my early 20s, and I was sure I was going to be somebody. Just who I would be, I had no idea. But I was determined to be somebody, damn it!
Ideally, I wanted to be a writer in Hollywood. And not just any writer. One of those scribes executives trusted. The one they brought in to help fix narrative problems, build characters, and think on their feet.
Ten years later, I wrote about how that journey has not panned out exactly the way I wanted. But the one thing that did come true was that I became a writer. One who learned how to count on himself. While I still deal with the imposter syndrome and pitfalls of doubt, I've been in enough shit to know there's a way out.
Even if you have to swim through the sewers for a while.
But along the path of self-reliance, I was worried I never achieved the thing I wanted the most—being the writer that other people rely on when things get bad.
After getting on The Black List earlier this week, emails came in from executives I haven't heard from since 2013. There were a lot of congratulations and requests to read my script. One person offered to buy me dinner, so of course, I went.
Reader, if anyone in Hollywood offers to buy you a meal, take it. It's just about the only free thing you're ever going to get in this town. And a lot of times, it comes with a request.
This dinner didn't. It came with good conversation, reminiscing on the times we spent as assistants and on what the town was like when we worked our way up on different paths.
I brought up my worry to my friend, and he thought for a minute, and then came up with one of the most brutal assessments of the last 10 years of my life I had ever heard. When my buddy uttered it, I wrote it down, and I asked his permission to write an article about it. He laughed and agreed.
Basically, I asked him why he thought it took so long for me to break through again as a writer and get some incoming calls.
So here's what he told me...
"You're a craftsman. I called around. You’re respected. But you’re a different kind of writer, and people appreciate it, but I don’t think they ever understood what to do with it."
Man, that was a kick in the nuts. But It was true. I have been on hundreds of meetings, and everyone kind of goes to a place where executives were trying to figure me out. And when I come back to them with the next spec years or even months later, I don't think I ever answered their questions. I think I maybe confused them.
Let me explain.
'A Beautiful Mind'Credit: Universal Pictures
Does Hollywood Know What to Do with You?
One of the things they tell you after breaking in is that you need to cultivate a brand. You have to pigeonhole yourself just a little, so that when you go out on the market with a new idea, there are friendly rooms ready to read. And when executives had projects or OWAs (open writing assignments), you were on the top of their list to go to for help.
When I wrote Shovel Buddies and got on the Black List in 2013, every assignment I got sent was a kid or family movie because my screenplay was about kids. If it was a coming-of-age story, it crossed my desk. But there were not many of them made. And because mine was edgy, it also whittled down the ones I was asked to pitch on. Despite having other interests, I got a bit stuck.
And when I wrote new scripts without kids in them to try to branch out, I didn't have those warm rooms. I had to forge back out into the unknown.
When I got to the abyss... I am not sure anyone knew what to do with me.
Over the last decade, I wrote somewhere near 10 feature film specs. Many of them were different genres, budgets, and tones. There was a dark comedy about kidnapping the Lindbergh baby, an adventure to Atlantis, a heist rom-com, a horror comedy about bonding with a serial killer, and an alien invasion movie.
These were all well received. A few of them got directors, all of them had producers, and none of them got made. That's sort of the way Hollywood runs. You write specs to remind people you exist. Getting made is hard, but hopefully, you get on someone's radar and can win a job from there.
And let's get something straight. I didn't lose all the time. I got in rooms and won gigs. I rewrote a few things without credit. I got paid to build huge world documents and even to write for live television.
I got to meet a ton of different people from a ton of walks of life. I got a diverse education on what companies were looking for and what projects executives long to make.
Still, I had this sneaky worry that I had wasted the last 10 years of my life writing myself out of jobs because I was exploring too much.
When I posed that theory, which formed in my synapses in the milliseconds between the line my buddy delivered to me and the sip he took of his drink, he did a partial spit take and replied with something that caused me a great sigh of relief.
'Adaptation'Credit: Sony Pictures Releasing
Nothing I did was a waste. The one benefit from this kind of exploration into different genres and stories is that I found my voice. I may have written topics that feel all over the place on paper, but I believe you could pick any of them up and read them you would know they were written by me.
I had spent all 10 years building a portfolio of work that answered his worry about the last decade of my career.
The truth is, it might have taken a decade for me to break into Hollywood. I might have thought that back in 2014, I had, but instead, I had just opened the door. I wasn't ready to walk through it until now.
Now, people sort of know who I am. They know I try to bring a lot of heart, that I have a point of view on the world. And that I have no problem getting weird and wild with my characters and situations. While I might bend genres, they know me when they read me.
My compatriots were finally figuring out what they could do with me, just as they were reaching a point in their careers where they had the power to actually do things.
And as I talk to the people I've met over the years, it's exciting to start collaborating with them on ideas that feel like they finally fit.
There's so much more I have to learn, and I feel like day by day, I'm getting new lessons. I'm getting better, and I'm getting the chance to prove I'm worthy of being relied on. You can't rush that. No matter how badly you want to be somebody.
Whatever I write next, it's going to be with the help of a rep who wants to help me continue to develop who I am. That's what I'm looking for in a manager or agent. Someone who can continue to bring me along on a journey to show Hollywood who I am.
And hope that they like me.
The only thing in your control is writing your spec and not being afraid to learn hard lessons.
Let me know what you think in the comments.