Sean McGinly


I’d been in Los Angeles for a week with no idea really what I was doing here let alone how I’d get started and make something of myself.  I’d ask people for advice and they’d tell me that it was essential to network and make “contacts”.  You didn’t go to parties or functions to have a good time or even to make friends.  You were there to meet people, charm them and see if they could help you in some way. This was how the business here worked.  It’s all about who you know.

I didn’t know anybody but my mother knew a woman from our hometown whose daughter was about my age.  This girl was also in Los Angeles, trying to make it.  I got in touch with her and she invited me to a party.  This is how it starts, I thought.  This girl was an assistant at a big agency.  Many of her friends had jobs as junior executives or P.A.’s on films.  These were the kinds of people I needed to be mixing and mingling with.

I was still learning my way around Los Angeles and got confused.  The address for the party was on Burton Way but according to my Thomas Guide it looked like I was on Little Santa Monica Blvd..  I couldn’t figure out how this had happened.  I wandered around what I hoped was the right apartment building trying to find the entrance.  I was wearing a sports jacket, which I assumed was the proper attire for a Hollywood party.  I was relieved to see a tall kid about my age who was also wearing a sports jacket.  His name was Tripp.  Like me, he was trying to figure out where this party was.  Together, we found it and went in.  We were the only two guys at this party wearing sports jackets.  

Tripp’s story was similar to mine.  He’d been in Los Angeles a few months longer but had the same desires and dreams.  We both wandered around the party, trying to meet people and see if anything led anywhere.  Neither of us were naturals at this.  It seemed forced and fake to want something out of an interaction when you talked to people.  Before long Tripp and I just wound up spending most of the night talking to one another.  It was more relaxed.  I couldn’t help him and he couldn’t help me so we just chatted casually, mostly about movies but also about life. By the end of the night I hadn’t made any contacts but Tripp and I decided to exchange phone numbers just because we liked each other.  I didn’t think of Tripp as a contact.  He was a nobody, like me.  I just wanted to be friends with him. 

Tripp and I later became very good friends and roommates. These were hard times. We were both so anxious to have careers.  We were almost frantic with ambition and easily discouraged when everything didn’t immediately start going our way.  We were both always broke and neither of us had much of a life.  We’d frequently go to the movies together on a Friday night, pay for one and then sneak into 2 more.  I think we were both relieved though to have a real friend in a place where neither of us knew many people. We leaned on each other.  Eventually, we’d make a couple films together that weren’t big successes and nearly kill ourselves from stress in the process.  We were so single minded and naïve.  What we were doing was so pure. It was a crazy time that I wouldn’t want to relive but it was also one of the best times in my life.  We were so full of hope and I learned a lot about my profession but also about myself.

One of the films Tripp and I made was a very low budget production that Tripp and I scraped and clawed to get done.  I wrote the script, Tripp directed it.  One of the actors we cast was a guy named Karl.  I hadn’t grown up around creative people or actors and was very intimidated by them.  I found Karl was a normal, interesting guy not terribly unlike me.  I wasn’t trying to make a “contact” with Karl.  I just thought he was intelligent, funny and warm and we became good friends.  

Spending time with Karl I came to understand actors much better and went from being intimidated by actors to feeling completely at ease around them.  Karl was a few years older than me.  He’d been around the block and had lived through some hard times.  Karl was struggling, always broke but he took his work seriously and was just so determined.  Nothing was going to stop him.  I looked to him and modeled myself after him in many ways.  

Coming to Los Angeles had felt so intimidating and foreign.  Meeting a guy like Karl and becoming friends with him made the place feel less imposing somehow. He’d been getting by here for years.  If he could do it, maybe I could too. Karl was an engaging and compelling person.  He was a great storyteller and was always relating anecdotes about his time in Hollywood that stayed with me. I got the idea for a script that used many of the anecdotes from Karl’s life. In the first draft of the script the main character was named Karl.  It basically was him.  This was the first script I’d written that was really any good and it got some attention.  Known producers and name actors read it and became involved but I still couldn’t seem to find the money to get the thing made.

Tripp got a job directing a short film.  The producer on this film was a guy who was trying to get started as a manager.  Tripp introduced us.  This guy became my manager.  He found the financing for the script about Karl, which I made. This manager later helped me to sell my first script, which led to me getting my first agent, which led to lots of other jobs.  It had all started with Tripp and Karl, who I just thought of as a couple of my best friends.  I’d never considered them “contacts” but they were – the most important contacts I’d ever make.

In the late 90’s, my father took a business trip to Australia.  When he came back he told me he’d met a guy whose son was involved in the film industry back in Australia.  This kid was going to be in Los Angeles on vacation and my father asked me to get together with him.  The last thing I wanted to do was have a lame coffee or drink with some film nerd from Australia but I did it, as a favor to my father.  The Aussie’s name was Heath.  He worked mostly as an editor but was as passionate about films as me.  We had a beer and found we got along really well.  A couple years later he moved to Los Angeles.  He didn’t know anybody and was just trying to get a start.  I tried to help him out a little but was still struggling myself.  We liked each other though and became the best of friends.

On September 11th, 2001, my brother was killed.  He was working in the North tower of the World Trade Center.  I went home to be with my family.  These were the worst months of my life.  My mother suggested to me that I make a documentary film about men who lost their brothers on 9/11.   As soon as she suggested it I knew it was something I should do but I didn’t really have it in me to put together a project like this at the time.  My father agreed to give me a little money but nowhere near enough to hire a crew and actually take the time that would be required of a project like this.

I’d gone to USC Film School.  This was another place where “contacts” were supposed to be made.  I didn’t make any but I did make a few friends.  One of these was a guy named Ray.  He’d spent time in New York and was affected by 9/11.  He told me if I could get the documentary going that he’d shoot it for free.  I had another friend who lived in New York named Stephanie.  She was someone I’d met as a “contact”.  Over time we’d just become friends.  Stephanie agreed to produce the documentary and arrange the interviews, also for free.

Stephanie, Ray and I spent about 4 months in New York shooting this documentary.  It was just the 3 of us, driving around New York and New Jersey every day and meeting men who’d lost their brothers.  It was summer and terribly hot.  Ray and I stayed in a little apartment in New York with no air conditioning.  There was only one bed.  I let Ray have it and I slept on an air mattress on the floor of the kitchen.

It was not an easy way to spend a few months.  New York was still haunted by 9/11.  Some of the men we interviewed were devastated by what had happened.  There were days where we’d sit as a man talked for 4 or 5 hours about his brother and cried the whole time.  Then the next day we’d do it again.  All three of us were affected by the experience.  I paid for the apartment and picked up Stephanie and Ray’s meals out of the money my father had given me but that was all they got out of it financially.  

When the shooting was done I went back to Los Angeles.  My friend, Heath, the Aussie, agreed to let me use his AVID and to edit the film, all for free.  Heath’s girlfriend, Katie, did the graphics.  Another friend of mine from film school, Alan Lazar, who had become a film composer, wrote the score.  No one got paid a dime. When it was done the film was called Brothers Lost: Stories of 9/11.  It was bought by HBO and screened as part of the Cinemax Reel Life Series. It’s probably the thing I’ve done that I’m most proud of.  It wouldn’t have been possible without my friends.

About a year after I’d arrived in Los Angeles, my high school friend, Rachel introduced me to a guy named Pat.  He was a lawyer who had moved to Los Angeles to attend UCLA Film School.  He’d hit the ground running.  He already had an agent when he arrived and then won the Nicholl Fellowship.  Pat and I just got on.  We had an easy back and forth.  He was just one of those people that I was friends with right from the start.  He was a former lawyer, a little older than me and a serious writer at a time when I was still figuring out what that meant.  I watched him though.  I saw how seriously he took his work, how he sat down every day and churned out new material.  I remember thinking, “OK, this is what it’s going to take.”  As I had with Karl, I modeled myself after Pat.

Even though Pat was much more successful than me he always had time to talk.  And he never treated me like he was a big shot and I was a nobody.  It didn’t even occur to me to ask Pat to help me in any way.  He was miles ahead of me and I didn’t want to impose on him or damage our friendship, which I valued.  However, he read my scripts and gave me thoughtful notes that helped me a lot.  

The biggest thing though was just that I enjoyed Pat’s company.  He’d come from a big Irish Catholic family and had lots of great stories.  He was also a good listener and liked listening to my stories. I’d had an experience right after college working for a kind of magician.  For years Pat told me he thought this experience was the basis for a movie.  I didn’t see it.  One day he finally just called me up and said, “Come over.  Let’s talk this through.  I want you to write this script.”

There was nothing in it for Pat.  He got absolutely no benefit from taking 2 or 3 hours of his own writing time to help me find this story.  He was just a nice guy and, by now, a genuine friend.  We talked for a while, brainstormed some scenes and a general structure.  Pat even suggested a few films I should watch, for inspiration.  By the end of the afternoon I was convinced and went home and wrote the script.  It became, The Great Buck Howard.  A few years later I wound up getting the script made with Colin Hanks and John Malkovich in it.  I wouldn’t have even written the thing without Pat.  When I got my first check for the script I gave Pat a few grand but his help was priceless.

I’m still very good friends with Pat.  We talk a few times a week and still read each other’s scripts. We even wrote a script together once. It’s the same with Heath.  We’ve written scripts together and even made a film and a spec TV pilot together. Tripp is married with children so I don’t see him as much but we talk on the phone every month and get together a few times a year.  I hope I get to do something with him again some day.  Ray and Stephanie are in New York so I don’t see them as much.  Karl has drifted out of my life altogether.  He became a big success doing voices on The Simpsons and then moved to Berlin, Germany last I heard.  I really hope I haven’t seen or heard the last of him.

There are so many people out there giving advice on how to make it in Hollywood.  There are seminars that people I know have been to that actually teach people how to network and make “contacts”.  But what kind of person goes about always looking at every interaction as an opportunity for advancement?  I’ve met people like this. There are a lot of them here. They’re transparent and the disingenuousness of interactions with them just makes you want to jump off a bridge.

I was never much good at networking.  I’ve been fortunate though with friends, as is evident.  I’ve been in Los Angeles for nearly 20 years and most of what I wanted to achieve when I got here has happened.  None of it has come to be as a result of charming people at parties.  I never engineered any of it. Pretty much everything can be traced back to people who I knew, liked and wanted to hang out with if they’d helped me or not.  Because they’re my friends.