How to Sell a Screenplay in 30 Years or Less
For the chronic underachiever, there’s a moment in your twenties when you begin to realize that what you are, it’s what you’re going to be. I experienced that moment at 26, on an uneventful summer night in 2004. At 26, people graduate from medical school. They develop real estate. They add new entries to the fossil record. At 26, people retire from military service. They become mothers. They serve as mayor for small towns in western Pennsylvania.
At 26, I was living with my parents, having washed out of city life and now circling the drain. I had no full-time job, I had no college degree. During the day, I edited the Holy Trinity of high school term papers, college admissions essays, and grad school personal statements. At night, I took classes and moonlighted at a group home for the elderly. Predictably, I wanted to be a writer, having shown promise as a boy. Unfortunately, I hadn’t written since I was 20. I hadn’t written a single word in six years, at a time when nascent skills and budding brains should be developing, evolving, and emerging.
I did, however, think about writing. Every day and around the clock, I thought about writing. Though lacking in focus and otherwise addled, I thought my talent and sense of humor to be exceptional, as evidenced by e-mails, cover letters, and middle school. But I hadn’t written for six years, and a life defined by potential eventually gives way to a life defined by failure.
Still, I remained hopeful. I had well-educated, upper middle-class parents, with the sister to match. They loved me unconditionally, a guiding light through the worst of storms. The advantages granted by wealth are an ugly truth that few writers deign to acknowledge, so to tip my hat at privilege is a gesture I feel both obligated and compelled to make. My forced purple prose comes from a polished silver spoon.
I remained hopeful that writing would deliver a better life, because in small ways it always had. In high school, I mailed long letters to sportswriters, and sportswriters sent short notes in reply. This was in 1993, before e-mails, texts, and tweets, so the old stamp-and-envelope two-step was the only method of contact.
A former beat reporter who covered my beloved Mets, Tom Verducci had recently moved to Sports Illustrated. After sending him a story on the NBA’s Dražen Petrović, he responded with an encouraging note, closing it by directing future submissions to the appropriate department. Upon sharing the letter with friends, I absorbed some gentle ribbing over what we all interpreted as a poorly disguised blow-off. While Verducci’s slick verbs and triumphant hair may have fooled the dinosaurs at S.I., didn’t he know I was sixteen? How could he expect to side-step an 11th grader, similarly versed in delivering poorly disguised blow-offs? Conversely, Mike Lupica knew how to better butter the public’s bread. Though name-checked by George Costanza on an early episode of “Seinfeld,” Lupica hadn’t let the distinction go to his head. After I wrote to him at Newsday, he encouraged me to send further writing, though not before vigorously crossing out the return address on the back his personalized envelope. It was clear that on Beacon Hill Road in New Canaan, Connecticut, they didn’t roll out the welcome mat for excitable teenagers with idle hands.
Two years passed. I went from a junior in high school to a freshman in college. During first semester, I started an internship at Marvel Entertainment, where I worked for Barbie magazine and answered fan mail in the voice of Barbie herself. (“Horses are pretty!” “I have a kitten, too!” “Don’t be silly – there’s no such thing as too many sequins!”)
With an an eye on earning a byline in a magazine for grown-ups, I submitted a story to Details, repurposing a friend’s theory on the Unabomber’s then-unknown identity. Though it didn’t make the cut, I was surprised to receive a response from the Editor-in-Chief:
(Please excuse the root beer stains that make me seem like I take rejection way too hard.)
In the spring, a second article I wrote was published in Sassy magazine. They dumbed-down the copy and never paid me, though that did little to dampen the enthusiasm of my resident assistant. Beaming with pride, she posted the article on a dormitory bulletin board. In turn, I immediately tore it down, because that’s what you do when you’re from Long Island. When you hit a home run, you don’t stand at the plate and admire it, you put your head down and run. It’s a show of respect for the competition; it’s a show of respect for the game. In any case, I swore off teen magazines for good, as their editing was bad, my writing was worse, and the thrill of being published was both short-lived and anti-climactic.
I wasn’t studying, I wasn’t attending, but I was enrolled at New York University, an institution that finds itself somewhere between eye-rolling and vomit-inducing in the annals of good taste. Too many NYU students carry themselves poorly, drawing the ire and scorn of the adults in their midst. Having once held a lion’s share of culpability, the only defense I can mount is to suggest that one can speak ill about any group of young adults, especially those at a private school in Manhattan. (The graduate students comport themselves with civility. It’s a small percentage of undergrads who should be beaten by the police and public alike. Often, they are.)
I matriculated at NYU on a (partial) merit-based scholarship. It was surprising, because on the pre-ADHD battleground that was high school in the early 90’s, I struggled to keep pace in every class beyond journalism and gym. However, an unusually high PSAT score marked me as a student worth courting. At the time, NYU was hardly a destination school, as the East Village was sketchy, the Lower East Side was dangerous, and debilitating depression was par for the course. Today, NYU matriculates pretty girls and prettier boys, dressed in Rodarte and dining at Daniel. The students are smarter and the depression is deeper.
That freshman year, I was lucky enough to live next door to a brilliant film student whom I’ll affectionately refer to as “Robespierre.” Robespierre devoured books, movies, and music, and his passion was contagious. I soon became a frequent and uninvited guest at the film school, where I read scripts, responded to flyers, and screened the contents of Spike Lee’s mailbox. (An act perpetrated not so much for an edge, but out of a deep-seated sense of entitlement.)
Reading scripts taught me lessons, responding to flyers led to meetings. I sat down with two French brothers, Gédéon and Jules Naudet. It was my first trip to the Upper East Side, and their family’s stately townhouse did little to disappoint. The brothers offered wine, cheese, and cigarettes. Like them, I was (three) miles from home, hesitant as a result. I distinctly remember Jules acknowledging the spread, observing that only frogs’ legs were missing from the platter of stereotypes. “We love the U.S., but we are very much Frenchmen,” he said. “You’re an American; our food is foreign to you.” I apologized for my reticence, reconsidered, then ate his rancid cheese. It was delicious.
After dinner, Gédéon told me everything he knew about the French New Wave. Jules asked me everything I knew about American romantic comedy. I felt alive and inspired. Six years later, while shadowing the FDNY for a documentary, Gédéon and Jules captured the first footage of Flight 11 striking the North tower. Upon arriving downtown, they chronicled additional horrors. I imagine that on that day, they too, became Americans. (Or at least I would, if I were partial to ridiculous statements that assign meaning to tragedy in service of cheap sentiment.)
In December I turned 18, and at the start of second semester I met with a foreign-born grad student recently nominated for a Student Academy Award. He was looking for a script to direct.
Impressed, I told him I had one.
He asked to see it.
I said it needed a polish.
He asked to see it.
I went home and banged out 85 pages in two weeks. I didn’t stop for act breaks or bathroom breaks, plot points or reversals. I wasn’t bound by meticulous planning or painstaking research. In some ways, I was wiser at 18 than I am today.
I handed over the script, and the director asked to shoot it. We worked on the project for months, though not before signing an option agreement. Christine Choy, the chairwoman of Graduate Film – and a (Korean) member of the Black Panther Party – added her signature as well. It was a boilerplate contract from a dot matrix printer, and I thought little of it. Of course, time and nostalgia have a great deal to say about present-day perception. Today, I look so proudly upon that option agreement. The director had been nominated for a Student Academy Award, and the Chairwoman had been nominated for an Actual Academy Award. The contract was hard evidence that once upon a time, I was young, present and driven. I could have enjoyed the approaching fallow period if I knew that my early drive and motivation would one day return.
Sophomore year began, with the language barrier between writer and director taking its toll on a dialogue-driven script. We parted as friends. From there, writing is rewriting, and a screenplay written in two weeks led to three years of daily revisions. I was attending to the script when I was supposed to be attending classes. I wasn’t a delinquent – not totally – as I also interned 35 hours a week at “Saturday Night Live,” pulling 14-hour Fridays and 17-hour Saturdays. Privilege and hustle make for a potent formula, and I wasn’t about to let my education stand in the way of my Education.
A year later, a film student friend with deep family pockets asked to produce the script on a $25,000 budget. We hammered out a business plan and placed a casting call in Backstage. However, in light of a growing dissatisfaction with the quality of my own writing, I wasn’t ready to move forward. Twenty-one was closing fast, and I didn’t want 100 pages of my teenage output surviving on to bear my adult name.
After I gave up on the script – and school gave up on me – one year passed without writing, followed by a second and third. I found steady underemployment through a series of ill-gotten jobs, but while alternately progressing and regressing through my early 20’s, I could sense time slipping away. If high school went slowly and college went quickly, my quarter-life crisis arrived at the speed of light. I moved home at 25, seeking some avenue toward becoming a better person, though equally determined to locate the source of past-life ambition. By then, the Sassy article and screenplay, the semesters at “"SNL," they had come to serve as a marker – not of prior success, but of life’s disappointment. Some people peak at 18, playing high school football in Texas. I peaked at 19, in the “Weekend Update” offices at 30 Rock.
I turned 26 at the end of 2003, finishing a semester at the local community college. True to my Sassy roots, I took an introductory women’s studies class, then promptly aced it. True to my NYU roots, I took an introductory film class, then promptly failed it. While my 26-year-old peers were accelerating particles and exploring shipwrecks, I was working for Catholic Charities in a group home for the elderly. Specifically, the mentally retarded/developmentally disabled elderly. The MR/DD population is both a challenge and a joy, but truth be told, the challenges they present can be overwhelming. In our house, there were reasons why their families placed them in group homes, and there were reasons why people like me were charged with their care. Life found both us the bottom of the barrel, then deemed us a match. (The difference being, only I deserved my fate.)
MR/DD in older populations is particularly daunting. Down syndrome, for example, highly correlates with Alzheimer’s disease, and makes for a cruel and unusual dual diagnosis. Providing care was a humbling experience in a long line of humbling experiences, one that now found me assisting grown men with their bowel movements. Despite my misgivings, I knew at the time that it was the best job I would ever have, with the best friends I would ever make.
However, since time flies and doesn’t really care if you’re having fun, 18 turned to 26 with shocking haste. And if there really is a moment in your twenties when you begin to realize that what you are, it’s what you’re going to be, I saw my life at 26 for what it was, and where it wasn’t going. Still, I believed in my talent, even as a sixth year passed with no writing to show for it. It was 2004, 27 was months away, and I was a man in age only. And yet, I remained hopeful. I had faith that regret would filter into ambition, and ambition would spring into action. I always believed that one day I would locate the tap, twist it so, and my writing would pour forth with conviction.
On an uneventful summer night in 2004, it finally did:
I didn’t know where I was headed beyond the kernel of an idea: Fresh out of rehab, a writer moves in with the family of his editor. I knew that if I placed a charismatic, down-on-his-luck 20-something under the same roof as one mom and three kids, interesting things would happen. Fifteen months later, I finished a second screenplay in November of 2005, just before turning 28.
Now, in the pre-.PDF era, the aspiring screenwriter was well aware of the stringent guidelines which governed script formatting and presentation: 3-hole punched paper, sandwiched between neutral-colored cardstock, fastened by two brass brads. Even the slightest deviation from standard practice would inform readers that the writer wasn’t well-versed in their craft. So to arrive at the finish line and apply the highly-specific rules was nothing short of exhilarating. Having fulfilled my potential, trying as hard as I could with regard to cogent writing and devout rewriting, I knew that if nothing ever came of the script, I would forever be satisfied that I simply tried after so many years of inactivity. I was 28, thrilled to be writing with the same enthusiasm I had at 18.
First up were the various contests and competitions. I applied to Tribeca Film Institute’s All Access program, an early avenue for underrepresented filmmakers telling underrepresented stories. While waiting for Tribeca to weigh in, I sent the script to an agent at William Morris, pre-Endeavor. “Clark” and I were in a fraternity together, and on the night we met, he gave me tickets to a screening of Wong Kar-Wai’s “Chunking Express.” He received them through a magazine internship, and I was surprised that a frat bro jock had a handle on arthouse films. I shouldn’t have been, because Clark was smarter than me, and the margin between us was significant.
Ten years after our initial meeting in 1996, Clark offered me another golden ticket. A trainee on his desk read the script, then shared her thoughts:
"So, as you may have noticed...my email is NYTrainee10. That being said, I am still fairly new to this place and my opinion may or may not be supported by most. I'd like to think I know what I'm talking about, but don't feel like you have to listen to what I have to say.
"I think you are an amazing writer. There are some passages that I absolutely loved. For example, on page 103 the conversation of ‘your own personal hell’ was wonderful. It actually inspired me to ask one of my friends that very question (because I like to think it sounds extremely philosophical). I think there is some extremely great dialogue between characters, mostly between Caitlin and Wally, but also Vanessa and Will.
"My overall feeling about this is it's extremely interesting, the characters are fabulous, and I really enjoy your writing. Clearly an intelligent guy, you raise a lot of fascinating life questions. I think it's great...I think it needs a few changes (no piece of writing is flawless), but I like it. I can absolutely picture it as a movie, and it's one I'd enjoy seeing. If you ever have any questions about it, feel free to ask me. If you'd like, I can have another trainee read it and get you a second opinion."
The second opinion came from Clark:
"It’s not there yet."
He was right. I was disappointed, but happy to get the read. A few months later, I returned home one night to the following e-mail from Tribeca:
“While final selections have yet to be made, we are very pleased to inform you that THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF THE MONOGAMOUS DUCK has advanced to the finalist round in the selection process.”
The next morning I floated to work, later forwarding the letter to William Morris. Clark quickly responded by writing, “Send me two copies no typos.” Understandably, he never got around to giving the second draft a look, but I was on my way. Or so I thought.
I counted down the days, hours, and minutes until my phone interview. Once on the call, the festival director inquired about my influences. I didn't know how to respond, as I thought it was a little pretentious for a writer of such limited stature to have “influences.”
"I actually don't watch as many movies as I would like to. I just really enjoy stacking the scenes, and I adore the screenplay medium in general."
I didn't say that, of course, because in doing so, I would be making the jump from “a little” pretentious to “hopelessly” pretentious. Instead, I mumbled something about Nicole Holofcener, then apologized for not knowing how to pronounce her name. In response, the program director was so sympathetic and so understanding that I immediately knew I was doomed. I was an applicant with awkwardness instead of confidence, a passport photo instead of a headshot. I also didn't have a neat biography to submit, while this ended up being the least impressive offering of the attending filmmakers:
"[Jesus Christ] was born in Taipei, Taiwan and grew up in a diplomatic family, living in New York, Paris, and Athens during his formative years. [Jesus] left home at 15 to attend Mercersburg Academy, then Harvard College, where he graduated cum laude in Modern European History, lettered in Varsity Lacrosse, and produced and acted with Black C.A.S.T. Following college, [Christ] worked as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs, then worked for Motown Records, where he co-headed strategic planning and new business development. In addition to screenwriting, [Yahweh] is currently working on a novel, IO, which examines biotechnology's impact on humanity in the distant future. [The Son of God] is an avid fan of interactive entertainment and a member of an online World War II flight simulation squadron. His other interests include theoretical physics, history, and science fiction."
As one might imagine, I couldn’t quite compete with that. “Neeraj Katyal is a stamp collector from Long Island” doesn’t fill out a program as well, nor does it keep those Amex sponsorships flowing. I wasn't going to qualify, and didn't. Thankfully, each of the honorees they chose were fantastic and deserving.
Around that same time, I began noticing a trickle of articles and blogs that chronicled the burgeoning private tutor phenomenon. English majors from Yale and Math teachers from Spence were preparing New York schoolchildren for the SAT, and to the tune of a thousand dollars a session. I took stock of my personal inventory, then a long look in the mirror. Reflected back was a South Asian face, a former National Merit Finalist, and a future graduate student in Social Work with a concentration in Children, Youth, and Families. More importantly, following my third, ill-fated year of college, I was successfully trained by Kaplan to tutor the Math and Verbal sections of the SAT. While I only proctored exams for Kaplan, the foundation was effectively laid and long cemented. Best of all, I knew the test was a complete and unrelenting sham, as scoring highly on the SAT measures little more than one’s ability to score highly on the SAT.
While brushing up on my math, I continued to shape and develop college essays, capitalizing on the fact that it was the only personal aspect of the highly impersonal application process – a chance to address admissions committees directly. However, my eyes were still on the prize. After failing to make the final cut at Tribeca, I sent the script to additional contests, programs, and services: Nicholl and Nantucket, Sundance and ScriptShark, so on and so forth. The inevitable rejection letters were saddening, though not surprising.
Several months later, I received a phone call from an Andrew Friedman, who explained that he was one of the judges for Tribeca. He had read my script, and after learning that I failed to land a long stem at the rose ceremony, he repeatedly pressed the administrators for my contact information. After some pleasant back-and-forth, Andrew spoke at length about my screenplay. He said that of the many he had read, there weren’t any that compared to mine. I thanked him, then bit my fist the way teenage girls in sitcoms do when boys ask them out over the phone. As we wrapped up, Andrew left me with a final verdict of sorts: "I think you can go as far as you want with this script.”
I’m not paraphrasing here. That was his exact quote, one firmly inscribed in my brain. Andrew’s postscript on our conversation gave me the confidence I needed in the face of long odds, and I’ll always be grateful for the kindness he extended in reaching out to me.
Another breakthrough came in the Fall of 2006. I had previously listed my script on InkTip, with nary a bite. It was now a full year since I finished the first draft, and the following e-mail paired nicely with Andrew’s post-Tribeca phone call:
We found your script on ink tip (standing SO alone). It's absolutely wonderful and brilliant.
Call or email whenever you'd like...!
Roger & Christian
My heart skipped a beat. Before I could catch my breath, a second message appeared:
We can't resist writing you after only 16 pages of your script. You're an absolute breath of fresh air on ink tip. And thank god. No idea if your script will fit our strange and specific needs, but we'll read on and talk about this project and/or what else comes out of your genius pen.
I wrote back, expressing my excitement, appreciation, and concerns, though not before furiously Googling. Roger Soffer and Christian Ford had credits – actual writing credits – on several produced projects. I hopped on IMDb, scrawled out the names of actors who had given voice to their words, then stared at the list for the entire subway ride home.
I missed my stop. The wide-ranging group included Gil Bellows, James Brolin, Josh Brolin, Shannen Doherty, Minnie Driver, Gina Gershon, Daryl Hannah, Swoosie Kurtz, Randy Quaid, Campbell Scott, Tom Skerritt, James Spader, and Robert Wagner.
However, one name stood above the rest in this pantheon of earthbound demigods. In 1996, Buena Vista Pictures released Roger and Christian’s first feature film – the Shaquille O’Neal vehicle “Kazaam” – in over 2,000 theaters nationwide. While history hasn’t been kind to that film, as an aspiring writer I was keenly aware that the two men were living the dream. They were playing in the Major Leagues – forever noted in The Baseball Encyclopedia – and their accomplishment stood as an unachievable goal for a soon-to-be 29-year-old.
Another message arrived the next day:
Dude (as the vernacular here goes) – your script rocks. Scene after scene, literally, was excellently executed; heartfelt, surprising, quirkily comic, or tragic – all in a wonderfully intimate way. You're exactly right – the water formula, the Nancy Drew pay-off, everything with Meghan – your script is full of real character. Which makes it the kind of story you're sad to see end, since it means saying goodbye. I'm happy to walk you through what delighted me specifically, and I'm sure my partner Christian will as well. But most importantly, this is not a passing, "cool script, good luck" situation. You're right to keep an even keel with regard to all things Hollywood, but it sure helps to start a venture with something worthwhile. Here's the thing to be uncautiously optimistic about – your own talent. Really. No shit. We're writers, like you. And we read a lot other scripts. Well, at least the first few pages. Keep writing scripts. It's insane to think that you won't hit something that sells or turns you on to something.
I was thrilled. Roger’s encouragement served as further motivation to get the script read. But as 2007 approached and later rolled on, there weren’t many paths left to travel down. All the available literature said that agents were interested in building careers, not one-hit wonders, and I wasn’t keen on starting a new script. By this point, I had work and grad school considerations to address, having earned my (online) degree during the writing of the first draft.
As I did in the past, I responded to every misspelled “screen play” ad on Craigslist, but never heard back from anyone. I foolishly subscribed to ScriptBlaster, and was met with the same result. The William Morris trainee, Andrew from Tribeca, and Soffer/Ford had all waxed poetic about the script, but even after two years of rewrites, I couldn’t get anyone to really turn the screw. A friend who worked at a recording studio advised me to send query letters to agents and producers. (I had little knowledge of literary managers, nor the vital role that they play.) I told my friend that Hollywood was more formal than the music business, and next level introductions only came by way of referral. “Do you send your demo tapes to Quincy Jones?” I asked.
When my friend wrote back, I expected some version of, “I’m just trying to help.” Only that e-mail never came. Instead, the message was from Clark, my frat brother at William Morris.
"Maybe you should come in for a coffee."
Shortly thereafter, on my 30th birthday in December of 2007, I was let go from a part-time, $12-an-hour job. I still had term papers, college essays, and personal statements to work on, but it was an unusually cold winter, and my spirit was broken. A friend who studied Film at NYU suggested that I fudge my film school qualifications in contacting potential readers. I refused to lie, in part because I had lied to some close friends in high school, which proved more hurtful to them than it did to me. That offense was borne of some deep pathology and general selfishness, coupled with a fear of asking for help. It was 1994 Long Island, and I didn’t want to be perceived as being overly sensitive, or lacking in toughness. In this context, I knew my talent would surface and breathe, if only it could make its way upstream. That said, I’m from Long Island, and my favorite baseball player is Ty Cobb. To reach my endgame, I was willing to stuff online ballot boxes, influence offline selection processes, or club every last baby seal. The film school gambit, however, was never on the table. It would be damaging and insulting to those who had earned their degrees with integrity. Granted, it was a seemingly arbitrary line to draw in the sand, but given my struggles at NYU – and my legitimate talent – it was a line I wouldn’t cross. Still, I was desperate. I had just turned 30, I had just lost my job, and the script wasn’t getting traction.
I decided to change the protagonist’s name and nationality. “Wally” (“Walid”) was a Pakistani-American analogue to my standing as an Indian-American. In writing the script, I wanted to feature a person of color, but have their ethnicity be incidental to the story. The “Wally/Walid” version of the script was enjoyed by several people, and while the praise was encouraging, it didn’t move the needle. Now, correlation is not causation, the script that won Tribeca was a story about the dating life of a white woman, though written by an Asian-American man. In an attempt to ape that distinction, I thought changing “Walid” to a standard-issue white male would make the script easier to peddle. And so, by turning “Wally” into “Grady,” I made a decision that did not sit well with my peers.
To be certain, a few black and Latino writers I consulted voiced no concerns with the change. This wasn’t a stage play or a novel, it was a screenplay, which meant a bigger budget and a bigger risk for wary financiers. Prior experience told us that if we writers sought broad success, then telling our highly-specific, ethnic stories would rarely deliver us to the Promised Land. In fact, the first script I wrote during college featured two Jewish characters, one of whom had a crisis of faith in wanting to date a Puerto Rican girl. Unfortunately, writing the leads as nice Jewish boys – plus a girl named “Amalia” – was as far as I could push the envelope while still drawing interest. After all, if we’re having conversations about race and representation today, it’s because we weren’t having them as often in 1996 or 2007.
While black, white, and Latino writers approved of the “Wally”/”Grady” switch, many of my East Asian and South Asian acquaintances were disappointed. In their view, I had a special script that had a chance to blaze trails, yet there I was, preemptively giving in, and therefore giving up. Frankly, I thought little of the switch. It was the character’s worldview and huge heart that meant so much to me, not his ethnic makeup. In fact, I was already compromising by giving “Walid” the more palatable nickname of “Wally.” I understood the grievances people had, and I respected their stance. Still, it was my script, and what mattered most to me were the characters and their relationships. Those qualities would live on, and if a white character named “Grady” had to be the conduit between me and a defining read, so be it.
Just after Christmas, I heeded the advice of my recording studio friend by writing to a handful of agents and production companies with specifically-tailored query letters. In hindsight, they were poorly-written in contrast to what I would write today.
This was the logline and mini-synopsis I included:
A drifter, haunted the memory of his late girlfriend, moves in with the woman he worked for as a once-promising teenager.
"The Amazing Adventures of the Monogamous Duck" is a slice-of-life story that follows Grady Herman, just as he checks out of a rehab facility. Grady arrives in California to stay with Darla Nathanson, a woman he interned for while the latter was on staff at a prominent New York magazine. Once entrenched in her home, Grady rekindles relationships with Darla's children – three fertile minds he helped raise and develop as he progressed through his twenties. As Grady struggles with addiction during the weeks before Valentine's Day, he deploys his humor and heart in inspiring the others to love and be loved. In doing so, he allows himself to wander the same path that they do.
As one might imagine – even with a rudimentary understanding of filmmaking economics – that wasn’t a proposal that set the world on fire.
But it worked. Just before New Year’s Eve, while Hollywood was on vacation and enjoying a respite from the daily onslaught of phone calls and e-mails, UTA’s Billy Lazarus responded to my query. After some pleasant back and forth, he offered to take a look. Two weeks later, on January 11th, 2008, I was watching “Entourage” for the first time. The show had grown into a dude-bro conversation piece over the years, and it was time to join the dialogue. At one point, while Jeremy Piven was harassing Kevin Connoly over some immutable transgression or another – presumably his height – an e-mail from Billy Lazarus appeared.
I saw the subject line before anything else:
“I loved it. Let’s talk tomorrow am.”
I blinked once, then clicked to read the body of the e-mail.
“Have a good night.”
I blinked twice, then responded with an ill-conceived joke about Jennifer Lopez’s tour rider, asking that my green M&M’s be separated from lesser M&M’s.
“You are a great writer. This is a fantastic script.”
I went back to watching Entourage – acting as if – so as to not alter the space-time continuum. I e-mailed my sister with the verdict, wandered around on Espn.com, then went to bed. Nothing had changed at all, but everything had changed forever.
Soon, Billy and I spoke on the phone. He said that the script wouldn’t necessarily sell, but could certainly be packaged. It reminded him of The Catcher in the Rye, it was “actor bait,” and it could be made on a low budget. A few days later, he introduced me to Barbara Dreyfus, a respected literary agent, who also enjoyed the script. Barbara mentioned that she attended the prestigious Friends Seminary, which was around the corner from the address on my script’s cover page. In response, I told her that for over a decade, I had a photocopied magazine article pinned on my wall. It spotlighted industry talents, Barbara among them. As fate would have it, my fleeting space dust had gravitated toward her shining star.
I informed friends – including Clark at William Morris – about the exciting developments.
He wrote back with a request:
“Do me a favor and don’t sign with them yet.”
Clark wanted to connect me with an up-and-coming agent, one being groomed as a top industry player. I knew he wasn’t prone to hyperbole, so I agreed to take the call, mainly because I was flattered. I explicitly said, “Make sure your guy knows that I’m signing with UTA, but I’d love to talk to anyone who's read my script. Just tell him that I’m very flattered and very green, so this isn’t a business call to me, even if it’s only a business call to him.”
Clark sighed, ever the weary older brother. “Dookey, the future of William Morris read your script, and he wants to talk to you and have a very long conversation about it.” (In college, Clark didn’t call me “Neeraj,” he called me “Nay-Rookey-Dookey-Cowboy,” but mostly he called me “Dookey,” and sometimes he called me “Dook.”)
Once on the phone, the agent spoke first. “So Clark tells me you guys were in a fraternity together.”
I winced. Prior to college, I attended a predominantly all-white high school in a quaint town on Long Island. From 1991 to 1995, Smithtown afforded me a unique, incredible, Ferris Bueller-like experience. That said, while over 600 students in our graduating class treated me with unwavering kindness, there was always a subset of Long Islanders – children and adults alike – who weren’t as accommodating.
I pronounce my name – Neeraj – as “Neer·idge.” (In contrast to the Americanized “Nuh·raj.”) From the time I was a little boy, however, some kids went straight to “Nigger·idge.” I’ve been called the n-word hundreds of times in my life, which has shaped me in good ways and bad. But when I arrived at NYU, well-populated with fellow South Asians, I was thrown for a loop when a group of Indian boys began picking on me. I had never even seen any of them, much less spoken to them, so the harassment was jarring. This was a typical exchange:
Indian Boy: Why do you dress like you’re white?
Indian Me: I don’t know. Probably for the same reason you dress like you’re black.
I expected a nod of the head that conveyed a degree of understanding, and then a handshake.
Instead, I got punched in the face so hard that to this day, I still eat ice cream with a knife and fork.
I’m kidding, though not about the bullying and resultant humiliation. I never spoke about it with anyone, as I was embarrassed to have survived Strong Island, only to be harassed by a group of Indian college students. Do you know what a loser you have to be to get bullied by Indian kids? You have to be an all-encompassing, profound loser – almost a generational talent in the annals of loserdom – to get bullied by Indian kids. You have to transcend and transform the game, and that’s exactly what I did.
Later that freshman year, a buddy from high school kept calling, encouraging me to pledge his fraternity. I told him that the Greek system was dated and pathetic, and he agreed. Chris was in a sports fraternity, and while I respected that he was on the volleyball team – and therefore, had little choice in pledging – I was my own man.
One day, while I was being picked on by the Indian kids on the way to class, Chris appeared, along with a volleyball player named Declan and a basketball player named Edwin. It was the last time I would ever be picked on.
That night, I accompanied Chris’s “brothers” to their “house.” I brought my friend Peter along as backup, and without being pitched, we were sold. The diversity I sought when choosing NYU manifested itself immediately. Dominique was the first black kid I met at school, and he introduced me to Jay, a white kid, who was wearing a Newport cigarettes wife-beater. Though sharp as a tack and an Art major to boot, Jay had a blue-collar ethos that many students only pretended to have. These athletes – along with a gaggle of geeks – lived in an enormous loft, located on Mercer Street between Washington on Broadway in the heart of Greenwich Village.
There were 18 kids crowded on each floor, and while I would go on to hide my membership from nearly every classmate, pledging a stupid fraternity was a pretty stellar decision. In 1996, New York could be marvelous and exciting for a teenager, but it could also be cruel, lonely, and unforgiving. There was no campus quad or social media to connect with other students, who were spread across the city. Ultimately, many of the people in that loft weren’t friends, but adversaries to spar with. The feisty back-and-forth wasn’t always appreciated, but it informed my writing. If a joke was made, ruthless critics were there to weigh in on its quality. I felt myself becoming quicker and sharper, though I still felt conflicted about my membership. Nearly all of us did, in some way or another. I rationalized it by telling myself that as the child of immigrants, I didn’t have family connections to rely on. Of course, Clark had even less. He was the goalie on the lacrosse team, and that's probably why he pledged, but he was presumably there for the connections and camaraderie as well. I pledged for the same reason I tried to write for Sassy, Marie Claire, and Vogue: I wanted to show my range. Interning at “Saturday Night Live” was right up my alley, but for me, writing for a women’s magazine or pledging a fraternity was playing against type.
Once on the call, Clark explained that William Morris boasted a deep roster of clients who would love to produce, direct, and star in “Duck.” Clark’s colleague was quick to compliment the script, comparing the writing to that of playwright Martin McDonagh. I was grateful for the comparison, and did an adequate job of pretending to know who Martin McDonagh was. Later, I wrote Clark, letting him know that UTA would be the horse I rode in on. He responded in kind:
Always a good sport, I knew that Clark was happy for me. His message also confirmed that I’d made the right decision. UTA was a wonderful and terrific agency, and my agents in particular were wonderful and terrific people. Clark would be there for me in the future, in the same way that he had been there for me in the past.
A week went by, and Barbara Dreyfus called. I could practically hear her smiling.
“You need to come out here,” she said. “People want to meet you.”
I was happy. I was thrilled. Unfortunately, given the ethnic switch from “Walid” to “Grady,” the news didn’t go over well with my writer friends. It would be easy to chalk up the discord to professional jealousy, but they were hardly fair-weather friends. In fact, while I struggled through my 20’s, these were the people who sustained me. While other East and South Asians looked down on me for not having a degree – and later, for pursuing an online degree – these were the people who stood in my corner. They supported the goal of telling a definitive American story through a decidedly South Asian lens. Only then did I feel somewhat guilty about the ethnic switch, but my God – people liked the script.
I flew out in February, instantly falling in love with the West coast – the warm sun, the great food, the high culture. When I met Billy and Barbara, they each gave me a bear hug, as if my script meant as much to them as it did to me. And in some parallel universe, it probably did. After all, they were solely responsible for altering another human being’s life prospects and overall sense of self. One-by-one, three more agents trickled into the room. Luckily, I was dressed in my best Sunday outfit. In turn, all five agents were dressed better than I was, and on a weekday, no less.
“If you win an Oscar,” Billy said, “it’s L-A-Z-A-R-U-S.”
I laughed – for the obvious reason – but also because the quick refresher was unnecessary, if not absurd. At that very moment, I could’ve been struck on the head with a crowbar, fated to the life of an amnesiac, and unable to remember that my last name was “Katyal.” Still, I would never forget the name “Lazarus,” and I would certainly know how to spell it. My mother may have given birth to me, but Billy had blessed me with life. His acceptance of my script – of my humanity – conferred worth upon me, along with purpose and meaning. I dove headfirst into an explanation of the amnesia/crowbar scenario, including a description of the lengthy, inpatient rehabilitation process, along with the grueling, outpatient physical therapy.
Billy acknowledged the sentiment, then inquired about my goals. I wanted to the take the script to its logical conclusion – production and distribution – or, at the very least, use the impending experience as a stepping stone toward opportunities back home. Aside from lending further credence to my essay and personal statement concerns, any screenwriting success could provide more varied opportunities in New York than they would in Los Angeles, where thousands boasted the same skill set. I sounded like an efficiency expert counting widgets, and admitted as much. Regardless, one of my goals was a modest one.
“Can I get a job as a reader somewhere?”
I smiled in accordance with the resultant laughter. Barbara – bless her tenacious heart – countered my request with a compliment. “Reaching for stars is great, but questioning your limits shows self-awareness. With that kind of attitude, you can go far in this business.”
Cheekily, I pressed forward. “Far enough to get a reader job?”
Billy could see that I was serious. “Why would you want to be a reader?”
I wanted to be a reader for the same reason I wanted to be a screenwriter, a sports writer, a teacher, or a cop: I wanted in on the action. Wherever the action was, or however one defined it, I wanted in. I also wanted the excitement of being a part of something larger than myself. Playing a high school sport, for example, featured an uplifting, teamwork element that I knew I wanted to replicate in other areas of life. And while I wanted to be a screenwriter – desperately so – I knew the risks, pitfalls, and perils that came with the job. Hollywood in general features a great deal of turnover. Out of the six of us in the room that day, four of us wouldn’t be with the agency in five years. More importantly, I had limitations and weaknesses in areas where other writers had strengths.
“Have you heard of ScriptShark?” I asked. “They charge $200 to read your script, and if it sells upon their recommendation, you give them 10% of the sale price.”
Met with blank stares, I doubled down. “It’s called ScriptShark.”
“Wait,” Barbara said. “How much do they charge?”
“Two hundred bucks, then ten percent if they sell it.”
Barbara turned to Billy. “I’m in the wrong business.”
The room filled with laughter. In my mind, I returned to the night when Billy e-mailed me with his verdict. One month later, his colleagues had read my writing. His colleagues had recognized my talent. I deposited the moment in my memory bank, then locked it away with a smile.
UTA recommended that Nina Jacobson produce the script, and after some basic Googling, I didn't need to be convinced. Impressively, she'd been a studio head at Disney, and more impressively, she was chosen to lead the charge as an openly gay Jewish woman. Perhaps most impressively of all, Nina was only in her mid-30's when her tenure at Disney began. She was a living legend, and Forbes had named her one of “The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women.”
As I waited for our meeting, I received a phone call from a man who identified himself as a producer named Gil Netter.
“Is this – I hope I’m pronouncing it right – is this Neeraj?"
I wanted to say, “You can call me ‘Sally’ if you’re really a producer.” Instead, I said, “Hi.”
"This is Neeraj who wrote the best script I've read in three years?"
"I guess so. Thank you," I said. "Wait, what was the script you read three years ago?"
"Listen,” Gil said. “I'd love to meet you."
"I’d love to meet you, too. I don’t have anything to do for the next week, so...”
"What are you doing right now?"
“Right now? I’m just reading garbage on the Internet.”
“Sorry. I’m reading gossip online. I read a lot of trash.” (I was probably reading The Daily Mail.)
Two hours later, I arrived in Venice for my first Hollywood meeting. When I took my seat, I saw a copy of The Life of Pi sitting squarely in the middle of a coffee table. I knew the book was about an Indian boy and a tiger, and I wondered if it was strategically placed to make me feel welcome. I was hoping it was, because the idea of a megaproducer in Gil Netter setting it down just right – again, to ensure my comfort – was utterly charming to me. I wanted to ask, but I didn't want to make things awkward. Once, a friend of a friend from Massachusetts stayed at my place while I was away, and I unknowingly left a biography of JFK on the table. Underneath it was a book about Machine Gun Kelly. When I got back, I was horrified after realizing which two books were sitting out, as I didn't want him thinking I had left them out because he was Irish-Catholic.
One of Gil’s producing partners gave me my first, distinct compliment on the script. While she was reading, a joke about “Charles in Charge” almost caused her to spit out her soup. Soon after she relayed that well-appreciated detail, Gil told me of their desire to produce.
“I want to put Ashton Kutcher in this movie with Katie Heigl.”
I couldn’t muster a response, as I was still caught up in the “Charles in Charge” compliment. There was already one producing team who wanted to climb on board, and now there were two.
“Don’t they each make like, ten million dollars a movie?”
“Actors would pay you to be in this movie.”
Gil shrugged. (I call it the Santa Monica Shrug. We were in the heart of Venice, but I call it the Santa Monica Shrug. They’re both by the ocean.)
In any case, Gil’s confidence was infectious. Ashton Kutcher and Katherine Heigl would surely mean a “go” movie, and Gil intimated as much: “I get movies made.”
It was a statement that I didn’t fully appreciate. I thought movies simply got made if someone wanted them to get made. I didn’t realize that one has to fight to get them produced, battling so many obstacles along the way. I told Gil that UTA recommended Nina Jacobson as the producer, and while I was grateful for his interest, I should go along with the agency’s plan. The worst-case scenario would be me calling an audible, only to see the bottom drop out of the project. If that doomsday scenario occurred, I would never forgive myself. Gil and his team understood, and I communicated my appreciation once more. Still, it felt odd to turn down an elite quarterback of a producer.
Over the next few weeks, I went on a series of meetings known as the water bottle tour. It was a happy, heady time, so much so that I rarely accepted the proffered water. I didn’t want my excitement to cause a spill, as many of the offices featured plush carpets and stylish rugs that put their more utilitarian counterparts back home to shame. I could feel myself shape-shifting from an urbane New Yorker to an unsophisticated rube, and in retrospect, I’m pleased that I never tried to obscure my innocence. At the same time, if there was one, defining misstep I made in meetings, it was trying too hard in an effort to impress. If a keen observation or quiet witticism landed well in one meeting, I would drop the same one in a subsequent meeting, regardless of whom I was conversing with. For example, I dropped a joke about parenting on a team of executives, and they exploded in laughter. The crux of the bit rested on the premise that white parents are the most loving parents in America, black parents come in second, while East Asian and South Asian parents bring up the rear.
“White American parents are amazing,” I said. “If you ask a white woman which of her kids she likes the most, she’ll be like, ‘Oh, Neeraj. I love all my children equally. They all provide me with equal amounts of joy.’”
“As an Indian guy,” I said, “that’s so nice to hear. Because if you ask a black parent which of their kids they love the most, they’ll flat-out tell you: ‘Steve.’ Black parents don’t mince words. Now, if you ask an Indian or an Asian parent who their favorite child is, forget about flat-out telling you, they won’t even let you finish the question. It’s like, ‘Auntie, who’s your favorite – ’”
“ – Roshni. Roshni is the favorite. Rima is a stoo-pid, and she can’t sing.”
That joke killed the first time I told it, so – following in the footsteps of my gambling thesis – I restated it a few days later. (It was appropriate, given the related questions about my family and background.) Once again, the joke elicited laughter. Unfortunately, I went on auto-pilot, told the joke a third time, and was met with strained smiles. I tried too hard to impress when I was there to listen, not talk. I should’ve let the ball enter the strike zone before taking a short, compact swing. Instead, I jumped out of my cleats to try and hit it out of the park. When we do that – in Hollywood and in life – we sometimes connect, but we usually strike out.
Conversely, if there was one defining strength I exhibited during the tour, it was placing my aforementioned, wide-eyed innocence on display. It’s never a bad look to let someone know how grateful you are to make their acquaintance. While I’d advise anyone going on the bottled water tour to simply be themselves – and to stay within themselves – I’d similarly advise them to embrace their child-like enthusiasm. Don’t be afraid to show your gratitude. There’s no such thing as being too cool for school, as people will appreciate your sincerity. Also, you should always accept the bottled water. You won’t spill it; I promise.
About a month after arriving in L.A., I was walking down the street on my way to a meeting when my phone rang. It was Barbara calling. She said that Harvey Weinstein had read the script, and was offering $25,000 to option it. Had I been an established writer, Barbara would’ve rejected the offer on the spot. With me being new, however, she felt obligated to tell me about it.
Now, a year earlier, in an effort to learn about stage plays, I joined a playwrights group. When I told the group about Harvey Weinstein’s offer, many were taken aback by what they perceived as a king’s ransom. In the no-frills world of theatre, $25,000 was a mind-boggling figure, and turning it down was a mind-boggling decision. Some ascribed the high dollar amount to my being Indian-American (and young). Several playwrights in the group were older, and I maintained that a 30-year-old writer was hardly considered “young” by Hollywood standards. Still, given the continued backlash surrounding the change from “Wally” to “Grady,” I was a bit hurt. In my view, a Harvey Weinstein wouldn’t have shown interest in the script unless he genuinely enjoyed it. I didn’t think he either knew, remembered, or cared who wrote it.
Though I advised myself to ignore the noise, it was superficial, facile advice that ignored the complexities of the issue. After all, throughout my life, I’d ignored far more vicious criticism. I faced anti-Indian rhetoric before college, anti-Muslim rhetoric during college, and anti-white rhetoric after college. I face anti-Semitic rhetoric today. I’m not Muslim, white, or Jewish, but I do have a face that renders me the natural born enemy for many different cultures. Like any member of a marginalized group, I’ve fielded even the most vicious attacks with grace and aplomb. I’ve handled myself well, in part because the majority of people I’ve met in life have showered me with affection – from first grade to twelfth grade and beyond.
With that said, a life spent battling racial animus related to the playwright criticism as follows: Though people had long-denied my humanity with slurs like “sandnigger,” “towelhead,” and “camel jockey,” my sense of humor – coupled with my writing ability – was never in question. Prior to college, my talents were acknowledged by even the most vehement, violent detractors. Predictably, the comedic chops developed in classic fashion – as a strong defense mechanism. As Hemingway once said, “A man’s got to take a lot of punishment to write a really funny book.”
So at age 30, to have allies questioning my talent was more hurtful than I would’ve expected. When I was published in Sassy back in 1996, the same affirmative action charge was leveled at me by a subset of students who were neither artistically nor athletically inclined, and were flat-out ignored by girls and boys alike. I thought I’d left “diversity” criticisms behind, but no such luck. And while the notion that my achievements were invalid was hardly defeating, it was demoralizing. I tried to ignore the criticism and soldier on, as again, I’d faced so much worse. Granted, I did switch “Walid”/“Wally” to “Grady,” disappointing so many people. I didn’t agree with their critique, but I did respect the sentiment behind it.
Unfortunately, when Harvey Weinstein called UTA’s brain trust with a purchase offer of $260,000/$600,000, the backlash grew stronger, with the diversity angle taking center stage. Worse, the East and South Asian peers who knew of my “Wally/Grady” switch were further disappointed. To them, the offer served as confirmation that had I kept the protagonist as “Wally/Walid,” I could’ve made the movie on some level, however small. Again, when I didn’t complete my education at NYU, these friends were the only ones who supported me, and now I was turning my back on our shared mission. Thankfully, I was staying with “Robespierre,” my NYU friend who introduced me to screenwriting, and he voiced no concerns with the change. It was never discussed, and he too, was a person of color – one who had read the first draft. Yes, I’d written the role with an eye on redefining South Asians, but the story was about so much more than that. I couldn’t get any traction with an ethnic protagonist, so I did what I had to do.
Publicly and privately, I was so excited to have an offer, even while the backlash grew stronger. Again, I was getting pushback about the ethnic switch, coupled with a perceived diversity boost. Only now, the incoming advice about about the offer added a third layer of discomfort. The film could be financed independently, though I'd receive a small fraction of the $260,000. That said, there was no guarantee that financiers would present. I could receive 1) $600,000 and a movie, 2) $260,000 and no movie, 3) far less money and a movie, or 4) no money and no movie at all.
Those weren’t choices, but possibilities. If given a choice, I’d pick the movie, money be damned. In light of the quality of producer courting the project, a low-budget production seemed a given, but there were different opinions about how to proceed. With many back home labeling me a sell-out for the ethnic switch, I felt a degree of guilt, however unfounded. At the time – and in retrospect – I was so happy, though the criticisms were taking a toll. To cap it all off, there was concern that the strange, uneven figure of $260,000 would end up being a first and final offer – one that could be pulled at any moment by an unpredictable Harvey Weinstein.
The general meetings continued, a respite from the second-guessing. I met several producers who wanted to make the script, along with a number of producers who wanted to kick my tires.
Then, in March, I received an e-mail from Clark at William Morris.
“Heard you had the hottest script in town while I was in la.”
I’d been rejected by Craigslist producers, only to be accepted by A-List producers. It was a wonderful feeling, though I was itching to get back home. Granted, I prefer L.A. to New York, which – in certain circles – is a mortal sin, but I prefer L.A. to New York. It’s just not my home base, and I had life that was waiting for me back East.
Barbara called one day, and while she addressed me as “Sweetie,” the tone in her voice was one of concern. “Why are you telling people that you’re not going to write anything for three years?”
Well, despite the encouragement I received from so many people, I knew I would let them down. I wanted to be a reader – among other things – and my hesitation was evident from the start. Soon after my arrival in California, for example, Barbara forwarded an e-mail from a literary manager:
Wow!! Amazing. Love it. What a great read. Almost poetic. This guy is the real deal.
What's his story?
I didn’t sign with that manager, nor did I sign with the fine managers I did meet with, if only because I was loathe to disappoint them when I inevitably failed to produce a single, darn word. Aside from work considerations in New York, I wanted to join the reader brigade, the ranks of which were filled with talented writers in their own right.
“Again with the reader thing?” Barbara said. “Don’t you want to make movies?”
I did, but I didn’t think I could.
Before I point out the specific, personal reasons for shying away from the film business, here are some passages that illustrate the difficulties and frustrations inherent to screenwriting for most writers. Every job in Hollywood is tough, replete with its own anxieties and concerns, but writing can be especially harrowing. Again, I had my own reasons for shying away, but here are some concerns shared by writers throughout the industry.
Screenwriters historically get a rough ride in Hollywood. If a film works, they're normally skipped over when it's time to hand out the credit; if it doesn't they're the first to be blamed. They're rewritten, fired, replaced, rehired, fired again, underpaid, made to do free drafts, generally abused, and disrespected. And then the star takes the credit for the best lines anyway. And yet, no movie that you love would exist without a screenwriter to come up with the damn thing in the first place; they're the most consistently and perplexingly undervalued part of the process.
Hm. For someone unfamiliar with the writing game, that’s not cool, but I knew that going in.
Every screenplay, original or adapted, starts with a blank page, the words ‘Fade In,’ and the writer’s idea. Getting that idea down into final form can be a daunting, mind-bending process for even the most seasoned storytellers. Robert De Niro described this fact with hilarious honesty before announcing this year’s Best Adapted Screenplay nominees. “The mind of a writer can be a truly terrifying thing. Isolated, neurotic, caffeine-addled, crippled by procrastination, consumed by feelings of panic, self-loathing, and soul-crushing inadequacy. And that’s on a good day.”
Okay, so we all get that. At the same time, this is Robert De Niro talking. Every writer he knows, simply by existing in his orbit, is a great writer. So not only is writing a challenging, often “terrifying” experience for top writers, that’s also “on a good day.” If “panic, self-loathing and soul-crushing inadequacy” is standard for a top writer – on a good day – how are things on bad days, and for mid-level writers? It’s easy to push this aside and say, “Well, things worth having often involve sacrifice and pain.” That’s true. But it’s telling that on a night that celebrates achievement in film, the very worst stereotypes of a writer’s plight are presented for the world. That says a lot. Being a pro athlete is also difficult, but when basketball players speak at the ESPY awards, it’s not like Steph Curry talks about how frustrated everyone is. Yet no discussion of screenwriting seems to ever be complete without a description of how bad things can be for writers. And again, we’re talking about writers at the pinnacle of the business.
Here are some wise words from a regular at Scriptshadow. (I respect that for many readers and writers, “Scriptshadow” and “wise words” are strange bedfellows. But as someone who’s been taken to the woodshed by Carson Reeves, it’s a bad look to return fire. For better or for worse, he has more influence and connections than I do. Plus, while his criticisms made me feel bad about myself, they also made me a better writer.)
"What's true, almost without exception, is that strong writing gets noticed. The larger subject that you broach, however, is what happens next, because being noticed is barely even the beginning of the road. Can you deal with the politics? The doublespeak? The idiocy? The glacial lack of progress interrupted by spurts of frantic, useless activity? The backhanded praise? The outright deceit? Can you collaborate with someone whose ideas you hate? Or, sometimes more frustratingly, someone whose ideas are fantastic but whose bedside manner is horrendous?"
Yes. I can answer yes to any of these questions. I can put up with all of it. It’s the information contained within the following paragraph that’s cause for concern, though I can handle these obstacles, too.
"A screenwriting career is a complicated beast, and many of those complications are either irrelevant to writing or actively hostile to it. The fact is, people who are truly serious about storytelling often quit the business because telling stories in the studio system (and even in the indy world) requires constant compromise, and even after you've contorted yourself into awful poses for the sake of a project, you sometimes watch helplessly as outside factors drive that project toward failure, abortion, or the limbo of turnaround.
"Very quickly, people who get a bit of traction start to realize that the rocky road they're walking is the only reward they'll ever get. Some people make their peace with that because they love enough of the game to play through the rest of it. Others draw a line and turn back.
"The cream certainly rises, but it may curdle before it gets to the top.
"Nobody ever said this was a life for everyone, right?"
Man, that’s bleak. Let’s see if Emma Thompson can lift our spirits.
"[Emma] Thompson noted that 'some of the most intelligent people' she knows live in Hollywood, but lamented that the town 'always finds a way to make you feel bad.' At parties, there’s “always some bit that’s penned off that you’re not allowed into,” she mused, adding that it’s the 'better than/less than judgment you’re making upon yourself and others that Hollywood is particularly good at and that’s the one thing I really hate.'”
This isn’t some actor’s lament, it’s from an actor/writer whose work on “Sense and Sensibility” won her an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. A beloved actor in Emma Thompson – a celebrity who’s multitalented – isn’t talking about the joy and privilege of working in Hollywood, she’s talking about the soul-crushing cruelty of it all.
Then there’s Terry Rossio. Mr. Rossio is one of the best writers in the world, and to list his credits would be doing a disservice to the rewrite and polish work that doesn’t appear on his IMDb page. His “Time Risk” blog – about the perils of writing – runs over 28,000 words. I could point out sections that illustrate the frustrations and hassles inherent to the profession, but all I have to do is point out the section titles:
Death by Sale, Getting Fired, Credit Arbitration, Writing on Spec, Free Revision, The Boxed-In Draft, The Agent Hoop, Assignment Chasing, Pitching up the Ladder, The Free Outline, Note Delays, Development Art, Sweepstakes Pitching, The Phantom Assignment, The Competing Project, The Child-Killing Gorilla, The Hit Song, Underlying Rights Hustle, The Hidden Previous Materials Boogie, The Vanity Option, The Underlying Option Expiration, The Parallel Draft Deal, The Roundtable, Giving Notes, Contract Delays, Turnaround Costs, World Creation Subject to Whim Destruction, Sue the Bastard, Gone in 60 Seconds, Learning Curve.
At the end of his blog, Rossio discusses the wonderful aspects of writing, of which there are many. Though, had I read his post when first starting out, none of the negatives would’ve bothered me. I loved writing way too much to be dismayed or deterred. I loved writing, I loved dramatic writing, and everything in-between. If I had to get bruised, battered, or exploited along the way, that was fine by me.
Now, I’ve just listed some general reasons that would justify most anyone shying away from the film business. I wouldn’t begrudge an aspiring or established writer for keeping their distance. Again, I had specific, personal reasons for being wary. I wasn’t wary of writing original scripts, I was doubtful of my ability to succeed in the high-stakes, ultra-competitive, writer-for-hire arena.
In any case, you’ve read 12,000 words to this point, but I could’ve written 12,000 words about my experience interning at “Saturday Night Live.” I mentioned it in the prologue, but later rushed through a second mention: “I was attending to the script when I was supposed to be attending classes. I wasn’t a delinquent – not totally – as I also interned 35 hours a week at “Saturday Night Live,” pulling 14-hour Fridays and 17-hour Saturdays. Privilege and hustle make for a potent formula, and I wasn’t about to let my education get in the way of my Education.”
Here’s a passage that details what Dave Chappelle calls “the hostility of show business.”
"For most of its tenure, “Saturday Night Live” was known for the ruthlessness of its reorganizations … In 1995, perhaps responding to a slew of negative reviews, including a New York Magazine cover story about the show’s “decline and fall”, Michaels fired some of "SNL’s” biggest stars, including Chris Farley, Adam Sandler, and Kevin Nealon. Even though he went on to A-list movie stardom, Sandler seems bitter about the manner of his departure to this day. (“Who knows?” he told The Daily Beast in 2014 when asked why he was fired.)
"The choices are often hard to fathom. Michaels frequently rejects pieces that he thinks are over the heads of "SNL's" teens and frat-boys demographic. His preference is for the broadest likability, not the sharpest bite – amazingly, he’s lately been trying to soften the dark humor of Norm Macdonald on “Weekend Update,” one of the few new successes on the show."
It’s important for me to note that I didn’t maintain some casual interest in writing, only to arrive in L.A. with no exposure to the highs and lows of the entertainment business. Sure, I was a mere intern at "SNL," but I spent some time with a two-time Emmy Award-winner in Frank Sebastiano. I spent time with Norm Macdonald, and I spent time with James Downey, one the great writers in television history. Jim Downey didn’t know my name, but Norm did, and as a 24-year-old wunderkind who allowed me hang out in the “Weekend Update” offices, Frank did, too.
After the first episode of that ‘96/‘97 season, I found myself in a room with a number of staffers. The mood was grim. I was asked my opinion on the quality of the show, but I refused to answer. This was an internship where – from my first day on the job – it was explained to me that we weren’t allowed to sit down during the wrap parties following each show. I imagine that previous interns had commandeered choice seats at whichever high-end bar the parties were held at, leading to a blanket policy that may have seemed draconian. Regardless, I knew my role, and it didn’t include commenting on the hard work of the cast and crew.
That wasn't good enough.
Again, I was asked my opinion. I could sense the eyes in the room turning toward me, and in retrospect, it made perfect sense that people wanted to know my opinion. I was 18 years old. Who better to source an opinion from than a blank-slate teenager?After saying all the right things about being young, and not knowing anything about anything, I admitted that were a number of sketches and jokes that were “cute,” but not necessarily “funny.”
No one said a word. Glances were exchanged, but there was no approving nod to set me at ease. I grew worried about my job. Then, Norm Macdonald broke the silence with a jarring, “Hey!”
I looked at him. (Everyone else did, too.) Norm flashed a mischievous smile, winked, then left the room. From that moment on, in the intern mafia of “Saturday Night Live,” I was a made man.
My “SNL” experience was awesome, but much like writing, it was hard work. Looking back, it was interesting – particularly as a Mets fan – to stand in the writer’s room and watch Jim Leyritz’s pivotal home run in Game 4 of the ‘96 World Series. It was less interesting, however, to watch Charlie Hayes catch the final out in Game 6, granting the Yankees their first in a series of championships. Mark Lemke popped out to Hayes during the airing of the show, and Norm announced the victory in the middle of his “Update” segment. I didn’t speak to him for a week.
Meeting actors and musicians was neat, but it was tagging along with Frank Sebastiano – and spending time with my fellow interns – that was most memorable. As our time at "SNL" drew to a close, I was invited back for a second semester. By the end of that term, I was spending Saturday afternoons running the finalized “Update” jokes down to the cue cards team. Jim Downey would go over the jokes with Norm, Frank, and Ross Abrash. As they made their final edits, I’d for wait the sheet of paper that contained each joke, bring it down to the 8th floor, then head back up for the next joke. Often, when searching for the right word, Mr. Downey would look at me as I stood in the doorway, granting me a loose permission to contribute. In retrospect, one of my finest accomplishments in life was keeping quiet rather than offering a suggestion, as I didn’t want to step on the toes of the professionals in the room. (As a side note, in a recent interview, David Letterman said that Norm, Jim, and Al Franken were the funniest people he’d ever met. I would swap out Al Franken for Frank Sebastiano, but that’s just me.)
I reported to Caryn Nathanson Zucker and the late Thom Wilson, and at the close of my second semester, Caryn asked me to come back for a third (and possible fourth) semester. There was a clear path to becoming a $10-an-hour staff member on the show, but I was burned out from the grueling weekend hours, and I wanted to further bolster my résumé beyond Marvel and "SNL." In fact, I didn’t work the final episode of the season – or attend the much-hyped cast party in the Rink at Rockefeller Center – as the school year was over, and I had nowhere to stay overnight in the city. I never got a chance to say goodbye to Caryn, but in writing “Monogamous Duck,” I named the female lead after her.
Later, given the fact that another character’s name was “Caitlin,” I changed “Caryn” to “Darla,” but kept “Nathanson” as the surname. I didn’t have any sort of personal connection with Caryn, as we interns were there to work and not socialize. Still, I named the character after her for a reason. Until “Duck” took flight at age 30, that time at "SNL" marked the high point of my life. Much like a high school football player who peaks at 17, I peaked at 19, and in some ways, I grew a bit resentful of the street cred that the internship afforded me. In short, my “Duck” script was born out of that sadness. It was about a writer who received a book deal at young age, only to see the manuscript get “bought, edited, and buried.” After losing his twenties to marijuana – which I later changed to cocaine – he left a rehab facility, then moved in with his editor and her family.
So. One reason I was wary of staying in L.A. and getting on the writer-for-hire treadmill was that the entertainment business had already broken my heart. Soon after I left “Saturday Night Live,” NBC’s Don Ohlmeyer famously fired Norm Macdonald because – on “Weekend Update” – Norm kept jamming knives into O.J. Simpson’s throat. (Ohlmeyer and O.J. were close.)
After Norm was fired, the injustice stayed with me. Also, Caryn Nathanson was married to Jeff Zucker, who, at the time, was an Executive Producer of “The Today Show,” and at a very young age. Mr. Zucker later graduated to President and CEO of NBCUniversal, and is now President of CNN Worldwide. That said, you don’t need to look too hard to find unflattering opinions of the man. He’s been accused by many of running NBC and CNN into the ground, has publicly sparred with Conan O’Brien, and has been likened to Dick Cheney by Jon Stewart. While I don’t know Jeff, and have never so much as met him, I do know that his best friend is Caryn Nathanson – one of the sharpest, sweetest people you can ever hope to work for. So by age 30, I was skeptical about the entertainment business. If the industry was brutal to a much-maligned Jeff Zucker and a much-adored Norm Macdonald, how many pounds of flesh would it extract from me? It may be laughable to others, but Jeff and Norm were men I admired, so it had an effect on me upon seeing them drawn and quartered, particularly as an impressionable teenager. It wasn’t just cause to avoid pursuing my creative impulses, which I didn’t. Heck, I even left "SNL" by choice, never harnessing the power of those connections, and here I was, about to achieve my long-held goal of selling a script. But for me, the writer-for-hire business was a different beast.
My thinking was as follows: If a film were made from my script, I would perhaps be in a position to repeat the writing process from the comfort of a New York apartment – or my parents’ house. But if things went downhill after so many creatives wanted to climb on board, I would probably turn to other pursuits. Again, as a teen, I had seen how soul-crushing the business could be, and I wanted no part of that heartbreak. To paraphrase Carly Simon, I didn’t have time for the pain.
As proof that the industry can gut you, I just explained how “Duck” was (originally) about a guy who wrote a manuscript that was “bought, edited, and buried.” Well, in a horrible twist of fate, the screenplay itself was bought, edited, and buried. Again, it doesn’t mean that I’ll stop trying. I can write spec scripts or make my own films without being humbled by the writer-for-hire game. The pain and disappointment will come for you anyway, but it’s tough when it comes every day. The men and women who hustle and pitch are cut from a finer cloth. I do admire their courage.
A second, more important reason for shying away was the fact that my engine was hard to start. There was a reason why – after working tirelessly on my first script from ages 18 to 20 – I didn’t write at all from ages 21 to 26. There was a reason why I struggled in high school, at NYU, and at Hunter College. Later, there was a reason why I failed a basic film class at a community college. And finally, there was a reason why it took me 15 months to complete the initial draft of “Duck.”
My biggest fear was putting someone in a position where – months after hiring me – I wouldn’t have a single page to show them. I know myself, and while many writers pride themselves on being “good in a room,” I’m terrible in a room. I was once “fun in class” and “great in the office,” but I’m not one to come up with Act II rewrite solutions unless I have the time to work it all out. I’m not the guy who has an encyclopedic knowledge of cinema, even if I analyze films adroitly.
I had an engine that was hard to start, and it still is. Now, while I’ve thrived and done my best work under pressure, there’s a difference between writing under pressure and writing quickly – or writing at all. Lawrence Kasdan once said, "Being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life." It should be noted that Lawrence Kasdan wrote “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” I didn’t write “The Empire Strikes Back” or “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” nor am I good at homework. For me, Kasdan’s analogy can be extended further.
Writing is such a privilege. It’s also such a pleasure. At the same time, it makes me feel as if I’m back in high school on a Sunday night, staring down an exam when I’m weeks behind in class. Earlier, I explained that “...on the pre-ADHD battleground that was high school in the early 90’s, I struggled to keep pace in every single class beyond journalism and gym.” Most screenwriters – a supremely well-educated lot – struggle with the blank page. They struggle to sit down and write, and they struggle to write. Still, my shortcomings were all-encompassing. Writing was hard for me, but so was everything else.
True to form, the script I wrote after “Duck” – a one-hour pilot called “American Criminal” – took seven months to complete. (Some writers can write a pilot in seven days.) Worse, I didn’t even start it until September 2009, a 19 months after I landed in L.A. Later, after developing it with Peter Chernin's production company, I converted it to a screenplay. And that didn’t get finished until three years after I told Barbara that I wouldn’t write anything...for three years.
Now, just what was I doing the whole time, aside from helping high school kids get into college?
I was reading. I was also writing, albeit on a smaller stage, helping other writers with their work.
I wasn’t skiing in Lake Tahoe. I wasn’t on a beach in Hawaii, or even on a beach on Long Island. I was rewriting “Duck” at my parents’ house, focused on my future and looking to get a job at Next Jump. I was trying to get a job at Rookie, working for a teenager in Tavi Gevinson. I was also studying the art world, looking to trade on my own sale by becoming a small-time dealer. Earlier, I wrote that “I believed myself to be in possession of a talent that could breathe, if only it could make its way upstream.” But for better or worse, when I finally reached oxygen-rich waters, my goal wasn’t to write every day, but to confirm that the years spent wanting to write weren’t a waste of time. By the same token, I felt indebted to UTA, as expressed in an interview with The Los Angeles Times:
"I've sort of messed everything up my entire life," says Katyal. "And this is something now that there's more a sense of obligation to these people than there has been, unfortunately, to my family even, or myself. When you get a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, if you don't run with it, you won't have anyone to blame but yourself."
Again, I hoped that if “Duck” got made, my writing path would be made far easier. I also hoped that if the project fell apart, I would have the courage and wherewithal to get back on the horse. (Granted, I was convinced that any heartbreak would be too much to bear.) In any event, I knew that if I didn’t have the ability to deliver, I should get out of the way for a writer who did.
Well, in 2012, on a day when one of my two agents was let go from UTA, I was dropped, too. It was painful, though mitigated by the fact that I wasn’t writing, nor was I thrilled about Harvey Weinstein and the death of “Duck.” Plus, Barbara begged off in 2011 after I confessed to slow-dancing with CAA. Any way you look at it, in four years, I wrote only two pilots and one screenplay, which is not what I would call an acceptable output for one year, much less four. That said, UTA has been generous enough to consider two of my scripts on three occasions – in 2013, 2015, and 2016.
One of them – “Uppercut” – was labeled a potential “indie darling” by a UTA agent in late 2015. To me, “indie darling” conveys a certain affection that audiences have for a film. It presumes the type of story that they treasure and often revisit. I was asked by two UTA clients to write a script about an Indian-American boxer, and after ten months of ‘round-the-clock work, I turned in my best effort, featuring a high degree of difficulty. It was challenging in light of the fact that I was writing a “statement” script about South Asians. Also, there were five to ten boxing movies coming down the pike, and the project was announced online before I had figured out the story. (Plus, I don’t know anything about boxing.) Regardless, most of “Duck” was written in 2005 – when I was 27 – but all of “Uppercut” was written in 2015, when I was 37. To me, its quality reflected ten years of intellectual and experiential growth.
Now, the original draft of “Uppercut” that UTA read was a whopping 184 pages. I’ve written nine scripts in my life – seven screenplays and two pilots. Of the nine that I’ve worked on, each of the last six feature ordered, symmetrical formatting. Check this out:
It’s hard enough to do that on one page, but do it for 184 pages on a script that could’ve been the basis of an “indie darling” is nearly impossible. To do it while writing sharp jokes – where every word or syllable matters – is incredible. It’s not advisable, but it is incredible. (And I don't mean that it in a good way, I just mean that it fits literal definition.)
Screenplays are living, breathing documents. 90% of writing is rewriting, and filmmaking is a collaborative medium, especially when compared to stage plays and novels, where writers wield far more power and control over their work. My writing has been championed for many reasons, and one of those reasons is the fact that I work on my projects – if necessary – for years. Sure, I’d like to believe that I’m extremely talented, but the truth is, I work really, really hard. I’ve repeatedly killed my darlings, cut pages, and delivered each time. And I do it while bound up in chains.
I took those “Weekend Update” jokes down to cue cards after three writers worked on them. They wrote their jokes, and Jim Downey worked on them some more. As such, I know that arranging writing into perfect boxes is a pointless, wasteful exercise. I’ve known that since I was a teenager at "SNL."
So why do I do it? Well, I really don't know. I think I do it to prove that I can go page-for-page with (almost) anyone. I’ve been dealing with the affirmative action critique since the day I left high school. In any pursuit, no person of color wants to hear that their success is predicated upon race or ethnicity. No woman wants to hear that her success is tied to efforts at gender inclusion. No white male wants to hear that his success stems from some actual or perceived leg up. The criticism I received after getting “Duck” off the ground with a white protagonist may have been the tipping point, but perhaps I want to prove that I can write at a high level, all while handicapping myself. I’m aware, of course, that the handicap only hinders me and my writing, not my detractors. Still, no one will ever question my talent again. I can fight as well as anyone, and with one hand tied behind my back. (Last year, I developed a project with a studio-based producer, and they found it amusing.) Anyway, I have to stop with the symmetry, as I proved a point. If not to others, then to myself. It's awful in some ways, but fun in other ways. There’s certainly a prominent OCD component to it, an itch that’s being scratched, as it wasn't necessarily a choice. But no one will accuse me of being a diversity writer again.
Maybe I should’ve told Billy and Barbara about my slow engine, or my experience seeing Norm get burned at the stake. Maybe I should’ve told them how disappointed I was over the diversity issue, but 2008 was a different time. There was no Twitter – and no Black or Brown Twitter -- where people of color and marginalized groups could come together in support. It would come across as if I were complaining, and no one gets ahead by cataloging their annoyance or grief.
Either way, the idea for my best screenplay – and really, the crowning achievement of my writing life – grew out of my being let go from UTA. I own a piece of intellectual property that's twice as valuable as "Duck." The fact is, even if it isn’t, the joy I get from reading it is priceless. Since I’ve talked it up so much, here’s a logline, along with some feedback I received after submitting the first draft to The Black List in 2013.
“Murder in London”
With their thesis collections at London’s Central Saint Martins looming on the horizon, two fashion graduate students make a pact. American Jo Miller, short on talent but long on familial standing, will assume authorship of Hackney native Eleanor James’s masterful designs. After Eleanor’s work catapults Jo into the strata of Europe’s fashion elite, her jealousy and addictions threaten to derail their plans. When a detective from Scotland Yard begins asking questions about Jo’s past, his ambition and inquiries threaten to destroy their lives.
The forced alliance and then primal rivalry between Jo and Eleanor creates a diabolical clash that is wrought with tension. At stake are moral, philosophical and even cultural values as Jo buys her way to success in the fashion world while exploiting Eleanor's superior, yet volatile talent. The elegant and witty Alex provides not only the perfect object for a fatal love triangle, but also a foil from which an erotic and psychological thriller is artfully constructed. The narrative cleverly employs red herrings and minute details to toy with the audience, while building towards an explosive, Shakespearean conclusion where Jo and Eleanor's rivalry degenerates to its most primal level. The dialogue is the shining star of the story, exhibiting flair, economy and memorable wit in nearly every scene.
The script blends the more salacious and captivating elements of Black Swan and The Talented Mr. Ripley. As an erotic thriller and a Shakespearean drama the story is brilliantly rendered through arresting dialogue and complex, layered characters. Jo, Eleanor, and Alex offer attractive roles for even some of the top young actors in the industry today. Not only is this script indicative of a rare talent, it already holds commercial potential in its current form.
This screenplay is a sharp, modern day film noir deftly hidden behind the world of fashion. JO and ELEANOR are polar opposites, except in their desire to succeed in this high-stakes business; their passive/aggressive behavior a perfect plot device to fuel their hero/adversary flip-flop that reads as a cliff-hanger right up to the story's FADE OUT end. ALEX, the Scotland Yard rogue hot on the trail of deceased rising star, GIDEON SIMS, is an unexpected legacy roadblock that assists story advancement with a steamy love triangle reader/audience expects from this genre, the personal foibles/demons of Alex/Eleanor playing right into Jo's femme fatale plan. The dialogue is funny and biting at turns, the script developing into some Stephen King/PROJECT RUNWAY hybrid, it's progeny a poison concocting star. What starts off as some sweet, non-threatening "across the pond," hand-shake slowly simmers conflict and rising stakes to a boil two-thirds; Jo, Alex and Eleanor bringing out the perceived best and obvious worst in one another, pressure cooking this whodunit all the way up until the final scene/shot. This is a surprising read, its benign start gaining speed at just the right intervals, begging reader/audience forward.
This script has great potential, PROJECT RUNWAY and THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA having already shown that the high-stakes world of fashion can bring a lucrative return to screen scenarios – both small and large. This new take on an old idea (Vogue with a deadly twist) might have been penned at just the right time – and with some solid American/UK casting – this story could resonate with young and old on both sides of the "pond" – and beyond. A world of casting possibilities fill the eyes as the script reads/unfolds – always a good sign that there is indeed film potential in the material.
Granted, readers had their criticisms, which I addressed. But even a lukewarm review had this to say:
It's also refreshing to see female characters depicted in such a strong and multidimensional way that treats their romantic entanglements as secondary for most of the story. The setting is convincing through the writer's sophisticated sensibility and attention to specificity. While it could use some tuning, the dialogue is consistently witty with an elevated quality worthy of a movie that would be uniquely quotable.
So...yeah. It’s a good script. I submitted it under a pseudonym: Hack Wilson, he of the 191 RBI’s in 1930.
When conceiving of the idea, I was no longer with UTA, so I thought my writing life was over. I read about a prominent billionaire’s daughter, contacted her, then asked to put her name next to mine on a future script. Surely, I thought, folks would read it, since the billionaire’s daughter was smart and compelling in her own right. She was totally down, but I never pursued the lead. Regardless, if I hadn’t been dropped by UTA, I couldn’t have written this story. The idea of an unholy alliance between two artists was only borne of the fact that I thought I needed a partner. Also, after Barbara didn’t enjoy “Great White Men in Black History,” I desperately wanted to impress her. Again, getting dropped lit a fire under me, and led to this script and others. If I die tomorrow, I’ll rest in peace knowing that I left it behind. The fact that Chris Evans wanted to pursue “Duck” is fulfilling, but “Murder in London” is the reason my parents moved to America. For most people, it’s a simple, unproduced blueprint, and that’s okay. To me, it’s a treasure map.
Anyway. Back in the real world of La La Land, tough choices had to be made. Harvey Weinstein was pestering the bosses at UTA, and the question of “to sell or not to sell” was a little stressful. I was happy – very happy – but the prospect of making the wrong choice weighed heavily on me, as I didn’t want to disappoint my parents. Again, I received a sizeable scholarship at NYU, but since I didn’t graduate, their money had gone down the drain. Though I didn’t want to sell the script, only a fool would turn down a chance to get back to even. UTA deserved their cut as well.
My plan was to keep the money on the table. I didn’t want to risk losing it all by asking for more. $260,000/$600,000 was a lot of scratch in 2008, especially because in the wake of the ‘08/‘09 financial crisis, the Federal Reserve began printing money. In general, $260,000 was worth considerably more money in 2008 than it is some 10 years later, the Fed notwithstanding. In any case, I didn’t want to sell the script, only to see it languish. Thankfully, Barbara guided me to an attorney with all the right moves. His name was Adam Kaller, and he was everything one could hope for in an entertainment lawyer, soon earning us a progress-to-production clause. If the project didn’t get made in 18 months, another company could pick it up it. Granted, I didn’t realize that the economic landscape would shift dramatically, and indie romantic comedies – indies in general – would fall out of favor. Still, thanks to the strategy and tactics deployed by Billy, Barbara, and Adam, my life changed forever.
Billy and Barbara called one day, explaining how Adam needed my “walk away” price – the lowest figure that I would sell the script for. It was a welcome question, but I had no answer. Barbara thought my number would be $650,000 against $1.1 million, which was reportedly the amount that Brad Ingelsby earned for selling “The Low Dweller.” That project had Dicaprio and Ridley Scott attached. Mine didn’t have anyone attached beyond Nina Jacobson, but that was just it: There were so many producers who wanted in, and as Adam said upon meeting me, the script didn’t go wide. Even more buyers could present, so Harvey Weinstein would have to pay a premium to effectively take it off the market. I had a script that could be made cheaply, and in speaking with Nina and me, Mr. Weinstein told us that he’d push it hard for Oscar nominations.
I told Barbara that I couldn’t possibly ask for $650,000/$1,100,000. In retrospect, it seems odd to have not asked for that amount if Barbara was suggesting it. Again, however, we were concerned about the offer being rescinded. Billy thought my number would be $500,000 against $1,000,000. Over the phone, I gave a little “Santa Monica Shrug,” then said, “Sure. Tell Adam that we won’t sell it for less than $500,000.” After that, we hung up, and when Robespierre got home, I told him the news. It felt like a near-death experience, where I was watching us both from above.
“500 against a million?” he asked.
“But you’ll take 400 against 800.”
I remember looking at him, almost annoyed by the question.“Of course.”
A few days later, Adam called after negotiating with The Weinstein Company for a while.
“We’ve run into a little bit of a problem,” he said.
I knew in my heart that the deal was off, but I was fine with it.
I wasn’t fine with it. I was panicking.
Adam continued. “You went to NYU, correct?”
“But you didn’t graduate.”
“I did not.”
“You don’t have a college degree.”
“Technically, I do. I have an online degree from The University of Maryland.”
“Oh, that’s too bad.”
“Why is that bad?”
“You shouldn’t have gone back to school,” Adam said. “Hollywood is kind of like Silicon Valley. If you only had a high school diploma, that would be really good. It’s a selling point. Maybe I can get you some more on the front end, but we’ve come to a standstill. It looks like their offer is going to top out at 400,000 against 800,000.”
“That’s incredible,” I said. “Thank you so much.”
“You’re okay with that?”
“I’m definitely okay. I’m very much okay. Thank you.”
“Great,” Adam said. “I’m going to tell them that we’ve got a deal.”
“Alright, I’ll be in touch. Sit tight.”
The room was so sunny. I’ll never forget how bright it was. It never got that bright in New York.
I said “thanks” again, and thanked God for the miracle. Then, Adam said something charming. He said something to the effect of, “It’s just Tuesday, baby,” even though it was a Friday, and he didn’t say “baby.” But he said something really cool – something that the late Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis would say. It was a weird name to come to mind, but I remember talking about miracles, Adam acknowledging that the moment was very special, but reminding me that it was “just Tuesday, baby.” Again, he didn’t say “baby,” but he said something cool. After we hung up, Robespierre told me to open the bottle of Dom Perignon he had in the fridge. I didn’t feel happy, really, I just felt at peace. I sat down on the couch, cognizant of the fact that I wasn’t particularly jubilant, if only because I had already experienced the great joy of my life. The true feeling of joy and happiness came when Billy Lazarus wrote me on January 11th – exactly three months prior.
“You are a great writer. This is a fantastic script.”
I knew the screenplay sale was special, but it was mostly notable from a societal perspective. Deep down, I was a little annoyed at myself. My last semester at NYU was in May of 1998, and here I was in April of 2008, accomplishing a long-held goal. Why so much anxiety for ten years? Sure, I had no degree, wasn’t writing from 20 to 26, and peaking at "SNL" at nineteen is not ideal. But looking back, I wish I would’ve enjoyed myself more when I was, well, enjoying myself. Okay, beating ourselves up may be part and parcel of achieving a goal, but I spent my 20’s knowing that I wasn’t going to get very far in life, despite having expectations placed upon me by friends and strangers alike. “One day, you’re going to do something special,” they would say. Okay, well, you’re wrong, I would think. Though I did have talent, the stars usually don’t align. I was given a scholarship to NYU, did poorly, then received a (smaller) scholarship to NYU for grad school. Okay, it was for Social Work, not nearly as competitive as Dinosaur Studies, but I was hard on myself throughout my 20’s, when I had the right stuff the entire time. In any event, despite being annoyed at myself, the satisfaction was immediate. I had reached the mountaintop.
Before leaving L.A. for New York – in mid-April, when students needed my advice on which colleges to attend – I met with Nina and her producing partners, Josh Simon and Bryan Unkeless. They had notes for me, and encouraging words. I remember them saying that they would try to get Eddie Vedder for the soundtrack. It seemed about as realistic a possibility as Harvey Weinstein buying the script in the first place. At the same time, with that trio – and The Weinstein Company’s influence – anything seemed possible.
Nina gave me a piece of paper with their notes, a short document which raised important story questions that I knew could easily address. In fact, the only thing that I found more surprising than the low-impact nature of their notes was the fact that the companion notes which came in from The Weinstein Company were even less extensive. The respect for my work was stunning. Prior to the sale, when I spoke on the phone with Mr. Weinstein and his executive team, he told Nina and me that he didn’t have any notes on “Duck.” Nina mentioned that she wanted to work on the script, but Mr. Weinstein thought it was ready to shoot. At the time, I thought it was a negotiating ploy to get me salivating over the prospect of a smooth script-to-screen transition. But now that The Weinstein Company owned the property, there was no reason to butter my biscuit. There were three changes that I can recall, which took just minutes to implement. And while Nina wanted Jodie Foster for “Darla,” The Weinstein Company wanted Meryl Streep. I was over the moon.
Regardless, over a ten-day span, Nina, Josh, and Bryan whipped our story into fighting shape. Frankly, with respect to tackling the structure, I didn’t really have any ideas of my own. In fact, there was a great deal of character dialogue sparked by the three of them. I took their spitballed words, and based on those prompts, I would tease out the rest of the dialogue. Back at the hotel, I would work on the script some more. On the last day, I walked into Nina’s office, and she gave me a huge hug – one of the best hugs of my life. I had nailed the rewrite, though again, I was just teasing out what they had given me. Still, I was beyond happy. I remember Josh and Bryan having a look on their respective faces that said, “Alright, I guess we’re doing hugs,” so the three of us embraced as well. I said at the time that it was one of the best moments of my life, because for the first time since college, I felt like other people needed me – at least in a business context. Many people yearn for romantic love, but finding a life partner has never been a worry of mine. In light of my academic struggles, the concern was my gross insignificance to the working world. Being a water cooler buddy or the lunch hour friend? That camaraderie was always there for me. But my competence with respect to starting the work and finishing the work a constant concern. As such, nailing the rewrite and receiving those hugs was just as important as selling the script.
When I arrived back on Long Island, the first payment from UTA – via The Weinstein Company –- was waiting for me. It was a check for $200,000, and in the ultimate nod to privilege, I let it sit around to collect dust before misplacing it entirely. (I thought that acknowledging the money would be tacky and gauche. Besides, I was focused on the real prize – a potential feature film.) Finally, after my mom found the check, she drove to the bank to deposit it for me. I wanted her to have that moment for herself, but the date was 9/11, so I was nervous that an Indian woman depositing a fake-looking check for a fake-looking dollar amount would raise some suspicion. My concerns were realized when she came home and told me that the bank teller had grilled her at length. However, in a wonderful turn of events, the questions weren’t about citizenship or routing numbers. The questions were about UTA, as the teller recognized the agency’s name and was blown away by my good fortune – literally and figuratively. My mom was so happy, much happier than I was, and I was pretty damn thrilled. Ultimately, of course, a film never got made.
After the financial crisis, the film business – like every business – experienced a tectonic shift. The DVD market imploded, the international box office became a more fertile hunting ground, and spectacle began to take precedence over story. Plus, companies began making fewer films. Layoffs hit The Weinstein Company at the end of 2009, and when the progress-to-production clause came up a few months later, I received a call from a TWC executive. I was told that in 2010, the company was going to focus its efforts on two movies: “The Silver Linings Playbook” and “I Don’t Know How She Does It.” I was further told that Harvey Weinstein might call, and perhaps offer more money. Mr. Weinstein didn’t call, but another executive did. I had already decided that we – Color Force and I – should go at it alone, as piling more cash on the project would just increase the amount that someone would eventually have to pay back. In retrospect, maybe I should’ve asked for, say, $75,000 more. Either way, I’m just happy to have been loved.
I can’t ever express just how saddening it was to have never gotten off the starting blocks. Most screenplays that sell will never get made. That said, most don’t receive progress-to-production clauses from Harvey Weinstein. Also, “Duck” wasn’t some slick space opera or fun action script. What made it attractive was the fact that it was castable, and it would’ve been cheap to produce.
It’s easy to say that I should’ve done things differently. I could’ve not sold the script, worked on the story with Chris Evans, made a movie, then followed it up by writing more scripts for Evans. I know this makes me sound like the “mercenary writer” I was accused of being, but I’d sell it all over again. (Though certainly not to the Weinsteins.) Frankly, I would’ve sold it for less money. One can’t assume the most favorable outcome, and even for those who’ve been in that situation, it's tough to predict your response. Maybe if I didn’t do so poorly at NYU, I wouldn’t have sold it. I also knew that a sale would open doors beyond the world of film. Again, I did what I had to do. There are so many moments I look back on with fondness. I remember the night Billy read my script. That’s obvious, but when we met, I remember going to shake his hand, and him giving me a hug. I initially planned on going in for a hug, but I didn’t want to be uncool in doing so. I thought the act of discovering a filmmaker might be standard operating procedure for an agent, but he knew it was important to me. Yes, I wrote a more personal script, but his embrace was hardly a given.
And that’s what I like so much about the entertainment business: No one’s stingy with the hugs. I suppose that’s the subtext for every positive interaction – how we’re all so lucky to be chasing our dreams, or how each moment can feel like we’re sharing something special and everlasting. After the rewrite, the hug I received from Nina was beyond special, Billy’s broke the mold.
Barbara Dreyfus sold my script, but I’ll remember her more for pronouncing my name correctly. I’ll never forget how she stopped a conversation to scold a fellow agent about the pronunciation. I couldn’t have cared less, but in recognizing my individuality, she acknowledged my humanity. As a teenager, I was known for being funny, but as an adult, people just looked at my name and assumed that I was an automaton of sorts. The only thing I was good for was rote memorization.
In a business where things move fast and agents have a lot of people to deal with, it was great that Barbara took time out to learn my name. Again, I didn’t care, but it was nice that she did.
In addition to pronouncing my name wrong, which is obviously understandable, people have always butchered the spelling of my name. It doesn’t bother me, much in the same way that microaggressions don’t bother me. (I’m from a different generation, so I’m not worried about microaggressions, I’m worried about aggression-aggression.) That said, when I interned for Caryn Nathanson Zucker at "SNL," you can be darn sure I spelled her name “C-a-r-y-n” as opposed to “K-a-r-e-n.” Now, remember how I got published in Sassy during my freshman year of college back in 1996? Well, they spelled my name wrong. Instead of “Neeraj Katyal,” I got...
Fast-forward to the script sale. When the contract was drawn up, my name was spelled “Neeraaj Katyal.” That extra “a” in “Neeraaj” is a real difference maker. It’s the difference between “Neeraj” – which means “lotus flower” – and “Neeraaj,” which is one step away from “Haaj,” the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. “Haaj,” in turn, is one step away from the slur “Haji,” which is one step away from “I’m buying a one-way ticket to Syria to join ISIS and fight the infidels."
The entertainment business is a lot like pro sports. It elevates you, but it humbles you, too. While selling a screenplay turned me into a different person in some ways, it didn’t change me on any fundamental level. You never transcend who you are, as evidenced by the fact that whenever an actor’s rep has reached out to me, my name has – more often than not – been spelled wrong.
Again, when you sell a script or make a movie, it changes you in so many ways, but it doesn’t change the fundamentals of who you are. If folks butchered your name for the first 30 years of your life, they’re going to butcher it for the next 30 years, too. It’s not like Beyoncé Knowles has some success with Destiny’s Child, she turns into just Beyoncé, and all of sudden, people start placing the accent mark over the “e.” For me, it's probably my favorite aspect of the entertainment business. It’ll lift you so high, but no matter who you are, it’ll humble you, too. Since I live in New York, I still get so excited and nervous when my phone rings and I see that 310 or 424 area code. Those calls will give you everything in life, and they’ll take everything, too. Still, even in my lowest moments, there have been too many blessings to count. Okay, neither I nor my parents can afford 430k to make a Chris Evans movie. That said, when I get clubbed to death by a Viking in America’s upcoming race war, they can definitely afford to pay Chris Evans 430K to speak at my funeral. So at the very least, money aside, it served some purpose. It also brought me general credibility and personal fulfillment, which is no small thing.
The best moment of all, however, is worth remembering not because it was wonderful, but because it was so horrible. Nina and Color Force stayed with “Duck” for a long time, and they did everything they could to make it into a movie. After four years, though, the well had run dry. One night in 2012, Bryan Unkeless called to formally tell me that they were letting the script go. There was too much money against the project for a company or financier to resuscitate it.
Though it was obvious by that point that we weren’t getting any action on the script, I still cried.
I cried, I kept crying, and then I cried a little more. I never whined about anything, but I did cry.
It was a wonderful moment because I gave Bryan countless opportunities to hang up the phone, and he never took one of them. I kept saying, “I’m sorry,” followed by, “I should let you go.”
He never let me go.
I remember being impressed with his patience. No one wants to be on a call like that. No one.
It’s not like laying someone off, or breaking up with a girl. It's extinguishing someone’s dream. Still, Bryan stayed on the call much longer than I would’ve, and I would’ve stayed on forever.
The next morning, he called again. He wanted to throw a Hail Mary pass to a director, which would give us one more chance. Nothing came of it, but Bryan had worked on the project, too. He’d put time into to the script, and it further cemented the idea that he wasn’t just waiting to hang up on me the night before. He really cared. By that point, he didn’t need to, but he cared.
Later, when Bryan started getting press for discovering The Hunger Games – he helped turned the book into a juggernaut of a film franchise – I saw his name misspelled in Fortune. I wrote him, letting him know that I noticed the misspelling, too. I supposed that empathizing with people’s “pain” is my value proposition, and it’s one reason why I pursued Social Work for a short time. Regardless, Bryan will always be known for – among other things – having the keen eye that brought The Hunger Games to the screen, and for producing a ton of movies. Those are cool, flashy, and awesome moments that will partially define him. And that’s a great legacy to have. Still, I would say that his value proposition revealed itself in the quiet, unheralded, and awful moment that was letting me down easy. I cried about it then, but I always smile about it now. Sure, it was a sad moment, but today, I’m just happy that I had something worth crying about.
Finally, you can never realize how much your words can mean to someone. When “Duck” was getting passes, I received an e-mail from a foreign director. It lifted my spirits, to say the least.
I don’t know how to end this tale, but let’s try this:
Let me introduce myself. My name is ***** ***** , I’m a film director from ***** (therefore, forgive me for my poor English). The thing is that very recently I had some meetings in L.A. and through the Weinstein Company I had the pleasure of reading your script (“THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF THE MONOGAMOUS DUCK”). I have to say that I was amazed, I had a great time and quite a few laughs. It’s not so easy to find scripts that match the tone of the stories one likes to tell. I was so utterly moved by the story that when I saw your e-mail I said, hey, at least I should thank him for such a great experience.
I was so impressed by the characters, their witty dialogues and all the relationships that Grady establishes with the others... especially with Caitlin and his unique friendship with young Meghan.
I feel so connected to its tone… There are a couple of funny coincidences with my feature film *****. In both films there is an exceptional but not-always-politically-correct friendship between the protagonist and the kid, and also a subtle love that this irresponsible protagonist feels for a woman. After all, both stories are about a reckless man who finds a delicate redemption in the end when he tries to help the people he loves… which ultimately proves the audience he was not as selfish as he looked like.
Anyway, I could write pages about “Duck’s” cleverness, humor and fine tenderness. I can only congratulate you. Obviously as a film director, I couldn’t stop thinking of powerful images that I thought would illustrate many of the passages. Please don’t think of me as a “social climber”, since I’m sure that by now there’ll be a bunch of great renowned American directors fighting to direct it, and that’s the way it should be. You deserve it. However, as a director I can’t help to see this great story already in images. It’s just in my nature, I guess. Since the script is so sensibly written the only aspects I could think of belonged to the mise-en-scene phase, or the way a director would shoot it.
By now you probably wonder, why is this guy telling me this? Well, I just thought it was fair for you to know how much I enjoyed your story. Life is not always short, and who knows, maybe one day our paths might cross (if that makes any sense in English). Until then, if for some reason you want to see my film *****, I’d be glad to send it. I guess I owe it to you for reading your script. Oh, and one last funny coincidence between those two stories: both protagonists at some point end up putting braids in the kid’s hair :)
Well, I don’t want to be excessive; I just wanted to thank you for making me have so much fun and fall in love with your characters.
This is ***** , the filmmaker from *****. First of all, I want to apologize because I just returned home from a few trips abroad and I found out that the DVD with my feature film ***** was not sent to you as I hoped. I’ll make sure it’s shipped today. To make it better I’ll throw some extra shortfilms in the package too.
These last weeks I’ve kept thinking about your great story. I couldn’t stop visualizing scenes and I also thought a lot of the musical tone of those scenes. Don’t ask me why. This just happens to me when I’m thinking in my stories: I daydream with the tone they’ll have one day on screen, and some music just seems to belong naturally in it. Anyway, since the DVD was not sent to you yet, I’ll throw some music that helped me “see” your movie. There were a few songs that kept coming to my mind, especially “The Important Thing Is To Love” by +/- (Plus/Minus), “re: Stacks” by Bon Iver…
Please don’t take this as something pretentious of me. I just do it for altruistic reasons: I like to share the things that move me. I hope you enjoy these songs too:
1. Trucker's Atlas - by Sun Kil Moon. Album: Tiny Cities
2. I Needed It Most - by My Morning Jacket. Album: At Dawn
3. North Marine Drive – by Ben Watt. Album: North Marine Drive
4. The Important Thing Is To Love - by +/- (Plus/Minus). Album: Let's Build A Fire
5. Comfortably Numb (Pink Floyd Cover) – by Staind. (Ok, this one might be a little obvious)
6. Sound Of Lies - by The Jayhawks. Album: Sound Of Lies
7. Racing Like A Pro - by The National. Album: Boxer
8. Everything Means Nothing To Me - by Elliott Smith. Album: Figure 8
(Ok, yes, this might be a little obvious too, but it’s great)
9. Some Things Don't Matter - by Ben Watt. Album: North Marine Drive
10. Floating - by Sun Kil Moon. Album: Ghosts of the Great Highway
11. Theme For The Bad Angel - by The Strugglers. Album: The Latest Rights
12. re: Stacks - by Bon Iver - Album: For Emma, Forever Ago
If one day we meet I’ll love to tell you why I imagine each song in each particular scene of your story. Unfortunately I don’t think I’ll stop in New York soon. If for some reason you happen to go west, this summer I’ll be in ***** (teaching a Filmmaking Summer Class at the University of *****), and then in ***** (same thing at the University of *****). And in between I’ll also spend some time in Los Angeles. If you’re around, it’d be great to chat.
Once again, my most sincere congratulations on your work.
I don’t look at this very often. When I do, it feels even better than it did the first time I read it.
Do you know long it’s been since a guy made me a mixtape? Not since I was in eleventh grade.
I may not have made a movie out of “Duck” – or any of my scripts – but it sure feels like I did.
This seems like a good way to close things out. If that letter's the farthest I go, boy, was I lucky.
I’m grateful that you read this, as I know it was a lot to get through. Thank you for your service.