Dec 18 2005

Previously, on “Who Are You People?” – Part II

Published by at 12:08 pm under Who is this person?

Right before I left for Los Angeles, I took a quick trip to Europe with my folks. I brought a bottle of bordeaux back from Paris. It was to be my celebratory wine, only to be opened when I had my Big Break in the film business — however long that took.
Moving to Los Angeles wasn’t just a change of locale, it was a change of mindset. I made a pact with myself. I had become a skilled editor with a couple successful tv docs under my belt. But I decided not to seek work as an editor in LA. Editing would pay well, but it would also take too much time and energy. And, in the end, I didn’t want to be an editor.
I came out here to write screenplays. So, I decided to only take jobs that would bring me closer to that goal.
I ended up working as a script reader, writing coverage of screenplays and novels for a number of production companies around town. It was thankless, low-paying work that offered little in the way of industry exposure or contacts or experience.
But it did give me the opportunity to read about a thousand screenplays over the course of a few years — most of them lousy. It taught me a lot about what makes scripts work, and what makes them fail. I applied those lessons to my own writing, the pace of which increased dramatically after the move west.
Once I had a couple of screenplays I was proud of, I called up my old friend, the agent. I’d kept in touch with him over the years, sending him new screenplays as I wrote them. He had been increasingly impressed each time, but remained unconvinced that I would be a worthwhile client.
I told him that I was in LA now, and that I was very serious about this whole writing thing. He agreed to read my latest script, and that one sealed the deal. I had an agent. It only took me 4 years of persistent phone calls (and a lot of writing).
I considered opening the wine, but decided against it. Landing an agent, while promising, doesn’t really qualify as a Big Break. A lot of writers find an agent, but never make a sale.
No, the bottle should remain corked until I made my first script sale.
That came when an independent producer optioned one of my screenplays. But an option isn’t really a sale, it’s more of a rental. And the money, which was nice, was only a few thousand dollars. Not exactly hitting it big.
I decided not to open the bottle yet. It should be saved for a Really Big Break.
The same producer hired me to write a few screeenplays for him. That was a significant development — somebody was paying me to write. But the upfront money was small, and those projects were being developed outside the studio system, which meant the chance of the films actually being made was minute.
The bottle remained corked.
Then I optioned a screenplay to Miramax, and that was exciting. The money was much better. I readied my corkscrew. But then I discovered that this option was not going to qualify me for membership in the Writers Guild of America. And that was important to me.
I put the corkscrew away.
In just a few years in LA, I’d started earning money as a screenwriter. Given the number of people who walk around this town with a script under their arm, that’s not something to sneeze at. But I wasn’t making enough to earn a living at it. I was still covering scripts for rent money.
And I was starting to learn that, on this career path, you have to be ready for all the close calls — the producers who fall in love with your script, but then aren’t able to get the studio to write a check, the people who swear they can get your film made if only you do a free revision for them, the star’s brother’s kid’s nanny who promises she can put your script in the star’s hands. You make a thousand excited phone calls to your parents back home — “Great news! Rachel Leigh Cook’s agent loves the script and is giving it to her this weekend!” — only to have the rug pulled out from under you. Or worse — the interest simply fades away over the course of many months. You never get an answer from Rachel Leigh Cook. At least not while people still know who Rachel Leigh Cook is.
I stopped breaking out the corkscrew after a while. I wanted to wait for The Really Big Break, the one that would change my life, the one that would transform me from a wannabe in a rented house to a respected pro with a villa in the hills.
Then I reached a real milestone: I landed an assignment rewriting a sci-fi action script for Paramount — a project being produced by Gale Anne Hurd, one of my great Hollywood heroes. It was real money, and it got me a guild card, at long last. Better yet, it allowed me to quit working as a reader.
Nevertheless, it didn’t even occur to me to open the bottle. I’d become too jaded about it. I was a professional screenwriter, after all this time, but it didn’t feel at all permanent. Like it could all evaporate overnight.
I decided that The Really Big Break, if it existed at all, wouldn’t come until one of my screenplays was actually produced. It’s amazing how far you can get in this business without actually getting a film made. And none of my films were getting made.
In fact, none have been made yet. I’ve worked on several assignments and have optioned or sold several of my screenplays. A couple of them are tantalizingly close to production, but I’ve been at this too long to take anything for granted.
The bottle of bordeaux remains corked, tucked away in a cabinet. My wife reminds me about it every once in a while. It might be vinegar by now. It probably wasn’t any good to begin with. But, as my father said to me a while back, “The big day will come and you’ll open that bottle, and it’ll taste like shit, but you’ll drink it anyway and you’ll love it.”

2 responses so far

2 Responses to “Previously, on “Who Are You People?” – Part II”

  1. Kyleon 09 Aug 2006 at 8:33 am

    Great story. I interned at Valhalla for Gale 2 years ago. Right around the time they were producing Aeon Flux and Hulk. Very composed, independent woman. It’s a bumpy ride for sure. I just finished my second screenplay with my best friend in the past year. Another comedy. I have a handfull of contacts in L.A. who have given us strong feedback from out latest. We are in the midst of rewriting now. I’d love to hear back from you. I doubt you check this though. December of ’05. You may have even popped the cork this past year. Good luck, Mike!

  2. Michael Gilvaryon 09 Aug 2006 at 9:47 am

    I may not update the site frequently enough, but I do check it. Thanks for the feedback, Kyle. And congrats on the new script.
    PS – cork is still intact, I’m embarrased to say.