EARLY ON …
I was faced with a crossroads decision in this business that would later shape my career as a writer, and in early ’01, I decided to give a shot at writing my first screenplay. Up to that point I had co-authored a feature, but had limited input, because I didn’t know the first thing about how to write a script — even the basics. But later that year, I decided to give it a go, and that summer, I wrote three full-length screenplays. They flowed out of me as if I had been needing to tell these stories all my life.
Once they were finished, they just sat there; I didn’t know what to do next, and I stared at them for a number of weeks — probably months — until someone suggested I meet with a “Script Doctor.” So I Craigslisted one.
I didn’t know how to vet these people, so I landed with the one who had the most compelling pitch on the platform. Open Source Internet was still relatively new (to me at least), and surmised that regardless of their industry credits, he/she would likely know a heck of a lot more about this stuff than I did. I was starting from ground zero, and was thrilled to meet with anyone, even if I had to pay them.
A week or so later, I met with said “Script Doctor” at a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf in LA. I was there 30 minutes early, and of course he showed up 30 minutes late. Gotta love this town.
SUPER: SEVERAL MINUTES LATER
He strolls out with a hot drink and sits across from me, then casually crosses his legs and says something to the like of the traffic was bad, which is the #1 bullshit excuse in LA. Every one knows the traffic is bad. Plan for it. I digress …
He goes on to say … ‘So what do you got?’ That was when I put my baby on the small outdoor coffee table. It was called “Area 8” — a political thriller about a savant trash collector who worked for the CIA. Anyway, it was long ago, but I remember hinting at a smile as I slid it over, thinking this will be the best thing you’ll ever read, pal. But he was impassive, stony, and I recall his demeanor being the second thing that annoyed me about this guy.
Before we got too far down the rabbit hole, he asked for his money, so I cut him a check for $200 (or whatever it was) and then he seemed to open up a little, as he thumbed through my script. He ‘opened up’ by saying … “Ok, thanks, see you in a couple weeks,” and then stood up with his coffee and disappeared around a corner. They call it a ‘Brush Pass’ in the spy world, and I sat there for a long moment just trying to process what had happened.
I lived in Orange County at the time, and drove like 12 hours to get to this meeting (exaggerating [some] obviously), and then he showed up late, sat down for .5 minutes, took my money and left with my baby. You get the picture.
So here I am, sweating it out for the next couple weeks. He’s got to love this script, it’s amazing, I thought, and I played the pending phone call in my head 100x “…WOW Chadwick, this truly is great work, let’s find you an agent …” and then the call came in: “Let’s meet. Same place.” Nothing more — no hint if he loved it or hated it. Calloused bastard, throw me a bone!
SUPER: 2 WEEKS LATER
We met at the coffee shop, and he shows up late again, but eventually sits across from me with my first born in hand. I waited for him to start, but he was looking at me as if he wanted me to say something, so I did. “So … what did you think?” It was then when he cleared his throat and asked … “What else do you do? … I mean … with your life? I would stick with that.” No paraphrasing; these words have been burnt into my memory.
It probably took me a few seconds to wrap my head around what he was saying/asking, but then I knocked him out. KIDDING. I sat there with a faux smile on my face, and probably said something along the lines of … “What do you mean?”
He slid ‘Area 8’ across the table, and I picked it up. Having it back in my hands felt nice, until I started flipping through the dog-eared pages. The script felt different for some reason, and now I knew why, there must have been 10 lbs of INK — large “X’s” crossing out entire pages, notes about formatting, plot, story, character, etc.; big letters “NO” on nearly every other page. It was a massacre of Biblical proportion. He even used red ink to drive it home, and I felt myself sink deeper into my chair, wanting to disappear. He didn’t say a word; he just sat in silence and sipped his coffee like the Godfather, which made it all the worse. I suppose he just let his notes speak for themselves at that moment.
Another minute later (seemed like a lifetime) and he said “You know, screenwriting isn’t for everyone…” I would in time come to side with him to a degree, but at that time, I felt intrinsically different about it. I wanted to defend my work, my story, but I had no ground to stand on, so I kept quiet. After all, he was the ‘Doctor’.
This was the crossroads I faced, and when I arrived back home, I braved a closer look at his notes. There was little I could keep according to him, and digging back in would ultimately mean a blank page rewrite. I may even have to change the title — nothing seemed salvageable.
I had to close the script, because looking at it made me confused, angry, and my gut twisted. Why couldn’t this person see the Blockbuster in front of him? I was muddled. And then I turned from the butchered piece of work to a coffee maker in my kitchen. I know … where are you going with this ? … But the essential question that had to be answered was: Do I put another pot on and try to figure this out, or do I hang the hat and say “I gave a solid effort…”. One of these ways of thinking is (and was) not like me, but I had to entertain both, at least for that moment. The coffee went on.
I wanted to learn the craft — how to structure a story, plot, build characters, and format a screenplay. I studied and read 100s of professional (produced) scripts. I took classes, and read The War of Art, Save the Cat, and many others that people threw at me. I did what I should have done (in retrospect) prior to writing all these scripts, but this was my journey and my way to learn the ropes, I suppose. And I still have a TON to learn!
I have since written 9 feature screenplays, three of which are in development for 2018-19, and have received 5 studio Options. I joined the WGA, and in 2010 I launched CoffeeRing Entertainment, under which I have written and directed a number of Award-Winning short films, to include the Red Poppy Award winner (10/17), She Will Be Loved. The name of the company [CoffeeRing], as I’m sure you’ve guessed, was a no-brainer, as each one of my projects was inevitably branded with a coffee stain as I plowed through the second act.
Screenwriting is not for everyone — he may have been right about that — especially if you’re more of a flight-er than a fighter. But I say GO FOR IT! Dig in and tell your story — it’s a beautiful and cathartic experience. Learn the craft and believe in yourself, if seeing it through is important to you. And at the end of the day, if your script just sits on your desk, then that’s OK too. It’s a huge accomplishment; congratulations.
My latest project I wrote in 9 days, and it was Optioned on the 10th. I’m not saying this to boast, I just had a crazy assignment deadline. My point is that once you learn the nuts and bolts of crafting a screenplay, and you have a good story and the drive to tell it, then you are off to the races.