HOW IT HAPPENS
When I first came to Los Angeles with dreams of becoming a successful screenwriter and director I often found myself wondering, how does it happen exactly? How does someone go from being a nobody to being someone with a career? I was always trying to figure this out because I wanted a model, someone to emulate. Success seemed so elusive. I wanted the secret!
I’d scour magazines looking for stories of how people had made it in this business. They were often frustrating though. Either the person grew up in or around the business and had more contacts than I’d ever have. Or, when interviewed, they’d leave out important details. For instance, I’d read an article in a magazine where a director being interviewed would say, “So I finished the script and showed it to my agent”. And I’d be screaming at the magazine, “But how did you get an agent to begin with?!!!” So, I thought I’d write, in detail, about exactly how it happened for me; a guy with no money, no pedigree, no contacts… no nothing.
The first time it happened it was on a small scale. I had written a script that I thought would make a really good independent film. This was before the internet. I went to the Samuel French bookstore on Sunset and bought a copy of a book called The Creative Directory. I think it cost 30 bucks or thereabouts. This was a listing of hundreds and hundreds of producers and studio executives. I made a list of every producer who’d done an independent film that I knew of or admired. By the end I had about 50 names. Then, and this is crazy, I borrowed $500 from my father to make 50 copies of the script and for postage. I sent off the scripts, each along with a quick, one page letter. I even included a signed release that I’d gotten somewhere. I’m sure people who have only been in the business for the past 5 years will think this is crazy but back then we spent a fortune copying scripts, binding them and mailing them off.
Amazingly, I would say I got about 15 calls from producers who had read and liked the script. A few wanted to talk more about it. A few even wanted to meet with me. I’d sent out scripts before and they were always ignored. I knew I was on to something by the reaction.
One producer was named Paige Simpson. She had produced the film “Leaving Las Vegas” among others. She liked the script enough that she and her partner agreed to option it for $1000. That may not sound like much but at the time it was very gratifying. This was the first time I’d been paid any amount of money for something I’d written. Paige later became and still is a friend. To this day I remind Paige that she was the first one who ever helped me. It still means the world to me. It’s a giant milestone in my career.
Paige got Paul Rudd attached to my script. This was before he was “PAUL RUDD”, the movie star. We still weren’t able to find the money to make the movie. Paige had to let the project go to do other things. I wound up making the movie a few years later with some other people. Paul Rudd was a sweet and loyal guy who remained attached even though it had taken years and we wound up making the film for almost no money. It’s called “2 Days”. The film has some flaws but I’m generally very proud of it. It did nothing to change my life though. I didn’t make any money on it. I still didn’t have an agent. I was still struggling to pay my bills every month. But, the movie played at a few good film festivals and I had a great time and worked with some truly fantastic actors.
The next time it happened, it happened on a somewhat larger scale and the whole thing reverberated for some time. In the spring of 1999 I went to the wedding in Italy. A guy I’d known in high school was there as a guest. Back in high school he’d been a fantastic kicker for our football team. I mean, he was really a big deal. He’d kicked a 52 yard field goal, which is long for the pros and almost unheard of on the high school level. He had scholarship offers to big schools. He was featured on TV. The guy just had a great foot. He’d kick a football and it’d go flying. He was also in great shape; lean, muscular, an all around good athlete. When our football team ran the mile on the first day of practice he finished more than 30 seconds ahead of anyone else.
This wedding was ten years later though and the man I saw before me had devolved into a fat, drunken slob. We were in Italy and he was the embodiment of the ugly American. He made a loud scene wherever he went. The Italians at the wedding didn’t know what to make of him. It was actually kind of sad. There’d once been something that he was amazing at. Truly, he had a talent that was extremely rare. And now he had fallen apart. I left the wedding in Italy and never saw this guy again.
More than a year later I was watching my home town team, the Washington Redskins, on TV and they lost a game because the kicker missed a field goal at the last second. At that moment it just hit me. This has only happened once or twice in my life as a writer. I had a story. It was just there: What if this guy I’d gone to high school with woke up one day and decided he was going to get in shape and become the kicker for the Redskins? It was a Rocky story. A fat, drunken, washed up loser gets in shape and decides to chase an impossible dream. This story may sound familiar to you. A few years later a movie called “Invincible” came out starring Mark Wahlberg with a somewhat similar concept. Mine was first. I’m not claiming they stole it from me. That movie was based on a true story and it was actually quite good. I’m just saying that I didn’t steal it from them.
Anyway, I wrote the first 20 pages of this script the day that I got the idea. Within 3 weeks I’d written the whole script. I knew it was good. I showed it to my usual group of friends who read all my scripts. They all loved it and agreed I’d made some major strides with this one. Screen writing is as much a craft as an art. Over the past year or so I had felt myself getting better, really starting to figure it out. This was the first script I’d written where I really felt in command of the craft.
More importantly, this was a commercial piece of material. So many things I’d written were good but just tough to sell. I loved movies like “Hoosiers” and “Rudy” but I was far more likely to write a weird independent sort of film that no one knew what to do with. I just knew this script was going to be the one that got my foot in the door, got me an agent, that got me a career.
By this point I’d been in Los Angeles for about 6 or 7 years. I had a few contacts, people I’d met naturally as I’d gone through life. It wasn’t anyone huge. I just knew 4 or 5 people who were managers or producers that had some clout, or at least more clout than me. I sent off my new script to each of them. To my shock they all read it and said they didn’t think it was up to par. I moved on to something else and this script sat on the shelf for 2 years.
During those two years I made the movie “2 Days”, the one I mentioned above. There was a manager who had helped me put together “2 Days” and during that time we had gotten close. He wasn’t officially my manager but he liked my work and was supportive of it. He was also one of the contacts that had read my football script 2 years earlier and said he didn’t think it had what it takes. I called up this guy one day and said something to the effect of, “Will you please send out the football script? I know you don’t think it’s good enough but I do. I think it could sell and I want it to get a chance. I’ll pay for the postage. I’ll pay to make copies. I’d do it myself but I don’t have the contacts you do and I think it’ll look better coming from a representative”. I think more out of friendship than anything else, he agreed. And, to his credit, he paid for the postage and copies.
The manager sent the script out to about 30 producers. Over night, the calls started flooding in. The response was overwhelming. This script, the exact same one that had been sitting around gathering dust for 2 years was now going in to every studio. Producers were arguing over who could take it in where. We thought we were going to have a bidding war. As it turned out, a bunch of different studios flirted with the idea of buying it and decided not to. Luckily, Fox 2000 stepped up and bought it. It wasn’t a huge deal by industry standards but it was more money than I’d made in the previous 10 years combined.
The phone wouldn’t stop ringing. Everyone who had read the script wanted to have a meeting with me. I took over 100 meetings with producers and studio executives, all of whom said they wanted to work with me. One meeting, early on, was with a producer who had a deal at Universal. When she heard I didn’t have an agent she called up a contact she had at one of the major agencies. Next thing I knew I had a team of big time agents.
I started booking jobs, making real money. I had another script that I wanted to make myself. My agents were instrumental in helping me put that together. It would not have happened without them. The script became the movie, “The Great Buck Howard”, which I also directed.
The football movie never got made. The executive who had championed it was transferred to another division and it languished. I still think we may have been able to resurrect it eventually but when “Invincible” came out a few years later and was so similar that pretty much killed it. Still, it was the script that gave me a career. And that’s how it happened.