CHOOSING ANOTHER ROAD TOWARDS DIRECTING
Last September I blogged a bit for this site about my experiences as part of the 2010 Emerging Narrative class within the Independent Filmmaker Project’s (IFP) Project Forum at Independent Film Week (here, if you’re so inclined.) As a direct result of IFP’s support and my experience at Ind. Film Week, I sold my screenplay to a Hollywood studio a few months ago, which (Filmmaker Magazine editor) Scott Macaulay kindly covered here.
Being part of Emerging Narrative quickly changed my life, but not without my careful consideration of what those changes might mean, and going forward with an open but informed mind. I am currently, and blessedly, by virtually any aspiring writer’s definition, living the dream —- my agents and managers send me new projects “to consider” on a weekly basis, my producer is keeping me in the loop about developments on my film, I’m writing a new spec and developing pitches, and I’m getting into the Writer’s Guild.
But it’s not, necessarily, the aspiring independent filmmaker’s dream that I’m living. Don’t get me wrong—I’m thrilled and excited and grateful, having fun, and it’s been an extraordinary experience thus far. But when I made the decision to sell my script, I knew I was letting go of any chance at directing it.
My goal, before IFP generously selected me to Emerging Narrative, and through Independent Film Week, was to write and direct features. Most specifically, I intended to be the director of my script INSIDE THE MACHINE. (I’ve learned that in Hollywood correspondence, at least between agents, managers, producers, development executives, assistants, and writers, titles of films/scripts are always in ALL CAPS.)
My goal now is still to write and direct features. But now I have a burgeoning career as, for lack of a better term, a Hollywood screenwriter, which I got by letting go of the chance to direct INSIDE THE MACHINE. I embarked on this path because I think it will most quickly lead to directing features. It’s not the path everyone takes, either by choice or opportunity, and it’s not a decision I made easily. I’m hopeful that sharing it can be valuable to anyone else in a similar position.
Quick history: I wrote my screenplay INSIDE THE MACHINE and submitted it to the IFP’s Emerging Narrative in May of 2010. Around July of 2010, I was chosen to come to Independent Film Week in New York in September, where IFP set up a bunch of meetings with producers, development executives, and literary managers, in hopes of helping to get my script off the ground. As my blogging from that week indicates, it was tremendous exposure to the industry, and I highly recommend it for any serious writer-director. But in the long run, no producers jumped on my script and said “let’s raise a few million and do it!”
However, one person I met—now my manager, at Circle of Confusion—called in October, and said he liked the script, and signed me. In December, he brought another manager out of his LA office onto my account. He also slipped my script to an agent at UTA, and I signed with two agents at UTA in January. Together, these four guys became my team.
In March, the team went out wide with my script, and very quickly sold it to a mini-major studio.
This was a big and wonderful surprise to both me and the team; I knew that most spec scripts don’t sell, but are just great introductions to the industry, so this was great news.
In April, I went to LA for a week of generals. I came home with about five offers of material to look at, and have had another half dozen since getting back, am now in varying stages of chasing a few jobs, finishing a new spec, and working up a few pitches.
This is the classic, almost too-good-to-be-true screenwriter success story: get a manager and agent, sell a spec, go out for a bunch of meetings, start getting offered work. If this sounds wonderful, it truly is. But I was a little abashed to come out of the Independent Filmmaker Project and … sell a script to Hollywood.
In my heart, I wanted to direct INSIDE THE MACHINE, and in my heart, I’m a filmmaker, a writer/director, or, at the least (or most), a director. But I’m now in a position where my producer and agents are telling me to watch other director’s films, because they are on the “director list” for INSIDE THE MACHINE. You know who’s not on that list? Me.
But there’s a reason behind what I did, and for what it’s worth, I’m hoping there’s a lesson or some insight for others to be found in what I’ve done.
After we met at Independent Film Week, I sent my manager my script, as well as my (thematically similar) short film All in the Game. When he first called me in October, and suggested that he could “take my script out” and get me “introduced to the town” (Hollywood), I recalled some advice I had gotten at Ind. Film Week: stay attached as the director for at least six months, and if you aren’t getting any traction, then consider selling it.
In fact, it was my manager himself who gave me that advice. I mentioned that to him, and he said it’s usually good advice, but that my script needs a $20-30M budget to be done right, and I wasn’t going to get to direct a film with that kind of budget off a strong short. But he said that he could help me build a career as a writer, and then he would help break my career as a director once I’m established a bit.
I didn’t bite immediately; we agreed to talk again in a few weeks. I had thought/hoped that I could raise maybe $3-5M, get a star to work for scale, and maybe direct it that way. That was my plan going in to Ind. Film Week, and I wasn’t about to just jump at the chance to sell my baby away and give up my dream of directing it.
I’ve been hustling and planning and plotting and scheming and struggling and burning with desire to direct a feature for 20 years, and this script is the single best thing I’ve ever written. I’ve been making shorts, reading Filmmaker, doing workshops, working my tail off at my day job, raising kids, paying the mortgage—in some ways, I thought of this script as my golden goose. I had hoped I could ride it all the way to the director’s chair.
So rather than agree to just put it out there for sale to Hollywood (which was theoretically going to be a far stretch anyway, but it was the symbolic exposure as much as anything else), I decided to consult with some more experienced people.
Thankfully, I had trusted people I could call to talk about this, including Scott Macaulay, the editor of this magazine, and a few other producers I had met at Ind. Film Week. I laid out the proposition for Scott —— let a well-known, well-respected manager take my script out to Hollywood, see if we can sell it, and at the least, get me known, meet a bunch of producers and development execs (and at “best”, sell it), and start generating a professional writing career, to transition to directing later/as soon as possible.
On the other hand, continue looking for an independent producer who would both believe in me and the possibility of doing my script on an ultra-low budget. Remembering, of course, that about a dozen producers had passed since Ind. Film Week.
And Scott’s advice made my decision: he said if I can not imagine anyone else directing my script, if I HAVE to direct this script, then to clutch it tightly in my hands and never let it go, knowing that it may take a decade or more, or may never get made. He gave me this advice having read the script, having watched my short, and having been in the indie film business for many years. He knows the current climate, can read a script for budget, and is a real producer.
But, he added, if I have other stories to tell, and can imagine letting this one go, then the path of being an established writer transitioning to directing is not exactly reinventing the wheel, and has proven a good path for many a writer/director before me.
I distinctly remember hanging up the phone and realizing that my decision was made. (Two more producers that I spoke with thereafter concurred about the “other stories to tell”/writer-to-director transition analysis.)
Here’s what it came down to for me: I want to direct. I love writing, but I love directing more —— being on set, working with actors, making decisions, calling the shots (literally and figuratively.) And I feel I made the decision that will get me to directing, on a project that I am passionate about, most quickly. I don’t know what that project is going to be yet, but I do feel closer to it now that I have sold my first script than I did nine months ago, when I was attached as the director and no producers were jumping on it.
Ultimately, I know the industry a bit, despite not working in NY production or LA development. Getting an indie feature off the ground is hard. An indie feature with a first-time director, with action ranging from crashing vehicles to fires to shootouts, was going to be damn near impossible. (Unlike my shorts, which I always write based on easily available locations and props, etc., I let myself go with this script.) So I could have waited six months, or a year, or six years, and hoped that the right producer would come along who would fall in love with the script and make it his or her life’s mission to get it made.
In fact, before Ind. Film Week I wrote a blog post for Filmmaker about what I was looking for in a producer. And despite a great exposure to the independent film industry in NYC thanks to IFP, I didn’t find a producer who flipped for it and me as the director. My manager did flip for it, and will support me on the road to directing. So I made the pragmatic decision—let go of directing this one, but use it to get further down the road. When I shared my final decision with Scott and the IFP staff, I felt a little sheepish —— having utilized Independent Film Week to ultimately sell a script to a studio.
But Scott said he thought that this story of my success might actually be a dream for a big chunk of folks who read Filmmaker, and I hope that my decision-making process regarding directing my own indie feature and starting a career writing in Hollywood might be instrumental for other folks setting out.
So INSIDE THE MACHINE is out to directors, I’m up for writing assignments in Hollywood, finishing a new spec and working up pitches. My agents and managers know that my long term goal is directing, and that’s something that I talked about in many of my meetings in LA as well. I also made sure to hire an entertainment attorney out of NYC who has a lot of experience with independent financing, and we discussed how he could support my directing down the line as well—always thinking for the future. I’m feeling incredibly grateful and lucky, and looking to support anyone else on their journey that I can.
I’m also thinking about making another strong short, even better than my last, as a good way to showcase my talent as a director, work with actors and crew, hone my skills, etc. This past weeked I attended the Sundance ShortsLab at BAM and learned some stuff there that I can use to make my next short better, and get me further down the road towards directing my first feature.
It’s a marathon, not a sprint; I’m taking it one step at a time, and enjoying every minute of the trip.
Feel free to chime in on the Comments if any of this connects with you.