Once again we return to our So You Want My Job series, in which we interview men who are employed in desirable jobs and ask them about the reality of their work and for advice on how men can live their dream.
It’s common for a man to dream about becoming a screenwriter and seeing his words and ideas come to life on television and movie screens around the world. Unfortunately, it’s just as common for a man never to get any closer to his dream than typing away at his laptop at a Starbucks, telling people he’s working on a potential blockbuster of a screenplay. If you’re that guy, today you’re in luck, because in the interview below, television and film screenwriter Stephen Scaia offers an instructive and inspiring behind-the-scenes look at what it’s like to be a writer in Tinseltown and how he got there.
1. Tell us a little about yourself (Where are you from? How old are you? Describe your job and how long you’ve been at it, etc.).
I was born and raised in the Midwest, but my family is originally from New England. We moved around a bit because of my dad’s job, eventually landing in Dayton, Ohio. For college, I ventured to Boston, and then packed up my pick-up truck and headed west to Hollywood. Took a little while (five years of working hard) but my big break came when I was hired as a Script Assistant (glorified copy-boy) on The West Wing. Being Aaron Sorkin’s bat boy sure didn’t hurt, but the thing that changed my life was meeting a fellow assistant, Matthew Federman. We had the same tastes and shared the same tiny office in a trailer on the Warner Brothers lot where we spent upwards of 80 hours a week at work. Needless to say, we started talking, and started writing together…that writing caught the attention of one of the producers who shared our material with her agent–and the next year, we got our first TV job and we’ve been writing partners ever since. We’ve worked on television shows such as Jericho, Warehouse 13, and Human Target. Just recently we’ve started writing films. We’re currently working on the reboot of the Zorro franchise for Columbia Pictures as well as adapting a favorite comic of ours, Y: The Last Man, for New Line Cinema.
2. Why did you want to become a screenwriter? When did you know it was what you wanted to do?
I’ve always liked telling stories–even when I was a kid. But growing up in a military town, and watching Top Gun about a thousand times, I was convinced my destiny was to go to the Naval Academy and fly F-14s. It wasn’t until late in high school–when I had a really great English teacher, who was also the advisor for our school paper–that I realized my true calling…and that the life portrayed in Top Gun was not only unrealistic, but that it was somebody’s job to create that awesomely rad fictional life of jet fighter pilots who sing to hot girls in bars, get yelled at by that angry bald guy from all those 80s movies, and ultimately save Val Kilmer…and the only thing they seem to struggle with is if they’re as awesome as they think they are (spoiler alert: they are). It was propaganda. I was hooked.
3. What’s the best way to prepare yourself to be a screenwriter? How important is choosing a writing-related major in college and/or graduate school?
The best way to prepare yourself is to WRITE. Write every day. Whether it’s a one-page skit, or The Great American Novel, the more you do it, the better you get. Work your brain like you do your muscles and it’ll get stronger every day. When you’re not writing, STUDY. Read scripts. Watch your favorite movies and TV shows over and over again to learn their structure and style–and don’t feel like you need to be a snob. There’s a reason you love the stuff you love, and it’s likely to be the kinda stuff you’re gonna write, so your favorite movies are instructive. I’ve learned more from 1000+ viewings of Raiders, Die Hard, and Back to the Future than any Academy Award winner. Dedication to your craft like that (yes, I just gave you permission to say “I HAVE to see Avengers again, it’s for WORK!”) is as important as any class you’ll ever take about writing.
As for writing-related majors in college, well, everyone’s experience is different, but I got very lucky with my choice of schools: Emerson College. It’s a smallish visual arts school in Boston with a great reputation. It was the best experience of my life–but not because of the classes–because of the people I met there. They were just as creative and driven as I was. We spent all our waking hours making movies or shows for the school’s TV channel, going to the movies, or just sitting up all night talking about stories we liked and why. We formed a bond and we all learned the best way to use our gifts to tell stories–either as writers, directors, producers, actors, or editors. After college, a bunch of us even moved out to LA together. We remain close friends–and even continue to work together. But now, it’s on giant studio movies or TV shows instead of 30-second class projects.
Long story short: more important than any school is how hard you work and the people you surround yourself with. Writing is difficult work, being around people who think like you (and struggle like you struggle) is the best way to tap into your creative energy and ward off the frustration as you write, and rewrite, and rewrite again. I truly believe you’ll find your voice whether you get your BFA from USC or simply join a writing group that meets every other week in the back of a Sizzler.
4. Once you’ve written a script, then what? How do you go about getting producers interested in it and selling the script? Can you walk us through that process and offer any tips on getting noticed in a highly competitive field?
First, the good news: YOU CAN DO IT! There’s no such thing as luck…luck is nothing more than preparation meeting opportunity.
So, let’s talk “preparation” and “opportunity”…
PREPARATION. Make sure your script is great. Not just good. GREAT. There are thousands of “decent” or “pretty cool” scripts floating around town, but if yours is fantastic you’ll get to jump to the front of the line. How do you make it fantastic? Keep working on it. Give it to friends who you trust–and can tell a good story themselves–listen to what they think, make changes (one of the biggest skills to learn as a writer is how to take notes). Then, when enough people (and not the ones who go easy on you because they love you unconditionally) tell you it’s great…
OPPORTUNITY. Move to Los Angeles. Seriously. While hardly anything shoots here anymore, it’s still the place where the studios are headquartered and all the writers are hired. “But why can’t I just e-mail my scripts from where I live…?” Fair question, but the reality is, if you want to start a career as a screenwriter, you need to immerse yourself in it. You need to be available for meetings on a near-daily basis; you need to be local to be taken seriously by agents and managers. Once you’ve made a gazillion dollars–and/or are Steve Zaillian–you can move back East or to your chateau in France…but for now, you need to be where the action is. And that place is STILL LA. I know that’s easier said than done, but if you love screenwriting, this is the place to get your foot in the door. How? Get a job in the industry–anywhere at first. Even if your job is replacing the water jugs and going on lunch runs, take it seriously, be great at it. There you’ll meet more like-minded people, make friends, talk story. Also, chances are, if you’re really good at your job, people higher up than you will notice you making their lives easier, being smart, competent, and affable. They’ll ask what you want to do…they’ll ask you how they can help…you’ll give them your script–don’t look now, you’re in the right place at the right time–and because you worked your butt off on 50 drafts of the same story and it’s PERFECT, that person suddenly wants to show it to their agent, manager, producer-friend…and that person wants to help you sell it/make it/get you another job…and you’re off. Sounds crazy, but that’s how most careers in Hollywood start. Including mine.
5. Do screenwriters work with an agent?
Yes. But that’s not all… My writing partner, Matt, and I have what we call “Our Crack Staff of Entertainment Professionals:” A TV Agent and a Features Agent (who both work at the same agency). We also have a few more filling out our Agency Team–which isn’t uncommon these days. Sometimes it’s junior agents who are hungry and learn from the upper-level agent, Obi-Wan style. Other times, it’s another senior agent who just likes the cut of your jib and wants a piece of your action. But the more people on your agency team, the more folks that are looking out for you and keeping you from getting lost in a big agency.
In addition to agents, we also have a Manager. Sounds redundant, but while agents are the ones focused on getting you the next job, the manager is the one who should be focused on the big picture of your career–where you want to be in 2 years, 5 years, 10. But they work really well together.
But that’s not all–we also have Lawyers! Yep. After the Manager and Agent work to get you the job, the Lawyers swoop in and negotiate to help secure the most lucrative, iron-clad deal possible (and squeeze another 10% out of the studio). Also, I’m told that if I’m ever “in trouble” or “in Tijuana” they should be our first phone call. I am afraid of them.
At the end of that day, that kinda group can run you upwards of 25% of your total salary…and when you’re like me and already splitting your salary with a partner (more on that below), it’s important that every single person is doing their part. So, it’s not uncommon to shift agencies and individuals. Luckily for us, we’ve had an amazing agent who’s been with us since we were copy-boys at the The West Wing…and she keeps introducing us to other great folks who have filled out the rest of our Crack Staff. We’re extremely lucky because in Hollywood, you’re only as good as your representation.
6. On average, how much money do scripts sell for?
Every script is different. The very top echelon (a half-dozen guys the agencies call “the closers”) can make as much as $300,000+ a WEEK for a polish!! But sadly, the rest of us don’t make nearly that much. As of right now, the WGA (Writer’s Guild) has set the minimum for the amount a studio can pay for an original feature script right around $65,000. The minimum for an hour of broadcast network TV is around $30,000.
Want more? That’s where your Crack Staff of Entertainment Professionals comes in. They negotiate back and forth (usually cordially, sometimes threatening to kidnap family members) to get that price up. And, more good news! Every time you sell a movie or a TV show, “your rate” changes and that becomes the base from which your reps will negotiate.
Now, $65k may sound like a lot of dough–and we’re all thankful to get paid to use our imagination–but remember, at the point they make the deal you’ve likely put a few months of (unpaid!) work into the idea and still owe your Crack Staff of Entertainment Professionals up to 25% of that. Oh, and don’t forget Uncle Sam. He takes a bigger cut–sometimes close to half (welcome to the 1%!)…and you haven’t even bought your gold teeth or diamond-studded car yet!
The reality is, with movies and TV shows costing more, and studios wanting to pay less, there’s less money in writing than there was even a few years ago. Bottom line: Don’t become a writer to get rich…become a writer because you love writing!
7. Do you work on more than one script at a time?
Yes. But it’s a personal preference, not a requirement. For me, it helps to shift gears mentally while still writing all the time. If I run out of steam on one thing, I can switch it up–I stay productive but not burnt out.
Writing is a perishable skill, so doing it every day keeps me “in shape.” I also think that my time in TV taught me good time management. In TV, we’re producing a show every 7 or 8 days. That means we need a completely new script in the same time frame. In a writer’s room, we’re breaking one story, outlining another, writing an actual episode, and “in prep” on more–so after nearly 10 years of that, I’m used to multi-tasking creatively.
Having a writing partner also frees you up to work on more than one thing at once. Because we don’t write in the same room, it’s good to have things to pass back and forth. For example, I can be writing an action scene in the feature script while Matt is writing an act of our TV pilot, then we trade back, revise the other’s work, and add our own next pieces. We can work twice as fast that way–which is good, because a “team” splits one individual salary. Yep. If you have a writing partner, you don’t EACH get paid–you’re paid as a single “entity.” So when you sell that big feature script, for a gazillion dollars—you only get half the gazillion. Your partner gets the other half. But I digress…
8. What percentage of screenwriters would you say do it as a full-time job and what percentage do it as a side gig?
Aside from taking a few months off to travel to some awesomely faraway location to research your next story or lecture at your alma mater, screenwriters in Hollywood work full-time. Even when you’re not on the staff of a show or actively in production on a movie, there’s lots more to the job than just writing. A writer is taking meetings for potential jobs, developing new ideas, on the phone with agents, mangers, and producers trouble-shooting various elements of projects. They’re on set, getting notes on current scripts…and, in my case, frequently sitting in a booth at Jerry’s Deli with Matt, trying to “figure out the problem with act three.” It’s so full-time that I can hardly tell the difference between when I’m working and not working. But, it’s a tough gig, and lots of people would give anything to do it, so you can’t slack off or they’ll hire one of those folks instead. As our agent often reminds us…it’s called show BUSINESS not show FRIENDSHIP.
9. What is the best part of your job?
As a kid, I wanted to be Han Solo and James Bond and Indiana Jones. But I’d have settled for winning the Indy 500 and/or been the greatest Naval Aviator that ever lived. I was bummed when the realization hit that those guys aren’t real, and the other stuff I’d never get to do without years and years of experience…but thing is, as a writer, I get to be ALL of them at once. For “research” I’ve rode along with cops, been stranded on a desert island, flown in a B-17, taken fencing classes…I even got to drive an Indy Car at top-speed. For me, good writing is wish-fulfillment–a chance to experience all the best parts of life that you can, and with the help of a little imagination put them down on paper later to share with others.
10. What is the worst part of your job?
There’s no time-clock to punch. I remember a previous “So You Want My Job” with comic-book artist Francis Manapul, and he wrote about how his job is “all consuming.” Thought that was a great way to put it…my brain is ALWAYS working–coming up with new ideas, solving story problems. I can’t tell you how many nights I’ve written until 3 AM, and how many days I’ve spent staring at blank walls with no concept of the passage of time. As important as it is to have good time management when you’re writing, it’s just as important to have the same thing in life. You need time off to re-charge. “Filling the well” is what Matt and I call it…which brings us to…
11. What is the work/family/life balance like for you?
You can’t work 24-hours a day (trust me, I was on a show once where that happened…I don’t recommend it), your work suffers, your relationships suffer. So even though my time is my own, I try hard to make sure I spend time away from the computer and live life. That can be a vacation at the end of a job…or just sneaking away for beers with a buddy or a lunch-time picnic with my fiancée. Here’s a tip to help you with the balance: Got a story problem you just can’t work out? Don’t bang your head against the wall. Either go jogging or take a nap. No joke. Just completely unhook your brain. Usually, about a half-hour into either of those, the solution presents itself. Your imagination is funny that way.
12. What is the biggest misconception people have about your job?
The biggest misconception people have about writers is that we don’t work hard. Yes, my job looks a lot like sitting around. Yes, if I have to put on pants before noon, I feel like a sucker. But those are the parts of my job I do for free. The stuff they pay me for is trying to creatively re-write scripts and tactfully solve the problems of producers, executives, cast, and crew after having gotten up at 3 AM to be on set (and if set’s in Vancouver, often in the cold, pouring rain) before dawn. As I mentioned earlier, sometimes Matt and I will work for months on an idea–FOR FREE–only to get in the room with the person who holds the checkbook and have them tell us about something completely out-of-our control that sunk our idea (“That new Tom Cruise movie didn’t open as strong as it should have this weekend, so the studio isn’t going to make any more action-comedies. Sorry guys. Thanks for coming in.”)
While I’m not saving lives or putting my own on the line, there’s a lot of money at stake—and that makes things very real. Add looming deadlines, petulant movie stars and problematic locations–sometimes all at once–and writing can be as stressful as any job I know of.
13. Any other advice, tips, commentary or anecdotes you’d like to share?
Not sure who said it–it was either Confucius or my Mom–but it’s true: “Find a job you love and you never have to work a day in your life.” I mean, yeah, I *could* have been the greatest fighter pilot who ever lived…but I loved telling stories and part of me wanted to go for the ridiculous dream of getting suckers to pay me to come up with cool and interesting ways to tell those stories (free writing tip: explosions ALWAYS help!). I wasn’t sure I could do it, but I had to try. So I was passionate, I worked really hard…then, one day, preparation met opportunity…
Whatever you dream is, GO FOR IT! I think you’ll be surprised at the result.