My very first professional writing job came to me by way of a friend I’d gone to film school with. I’m not counting student stuff or writing ad copy for the local paper, or that kind of thing. I’m talking about my real first job. The one they paid me a salary for.
Basically it was pretty simple. I had finished film school and I was living in a crappy apartment in North Hollywood. I had made some progress since graduating six months previously. For one thing, I had an agent, which was one of the things you needed in Hollywood if you wanted to be a screenwriter, and for another thing, my writing samples were starting to be seen by people in the business. But though I was gaining some traction, I still didn’t have a job – something to pay the bills. And I really, really needed one. In fact, when I received the phone call, my savings were about gone.
A good friend from film school called me at nine AM and said she had an interview for me. She wanted me there by ten that morning if possible. Of course it was possible I told her, even though the location was deep in the San Fernando valley. So I dropped what I was doing, got into my old VW van, and drove north on the freeway about twenty miles.
Now the valley is home to a whole lot of the movie business. Most of the major studios are there, almost all the equipment suppliers and post production facilities are there, and it’s also home to an enormous pornography industry. No, this isn’t a post about how my first foray into professional writing was scripted porn. That would be a good story, but it wasn’t how it worked out for me.
Instead, I pulled up at a large, modern looking studio facility in the middle of nowhere. When I say large, I mean at least a couple of hundred thousand square feet. This was a new studio, but it was also a studio I’d never heard of. Looking back now I realize, I was about to enter a nether world, a fringe dimension of Hollywood movie making that I might never have escaped.
Now, if I’d slowed down to think about it, I would have admitted that it was weird that I had just gotten the call that morning and was expected to show up for the interview right away. In my experience so far it had taken weeks for my agent just to set up a meeting. The next thing that was a little weird was that there was no guard gate at the facility. All the others studios had them. You had to stop at the gate and announce yourself, after which the guard would check your name off a list to let you in. Not here. I just parked my VW bus beside some guy’s brand new Mercedes Benz and walked right in.
The third thing I noticed, other than the fact that it was ridiculously hot this deep in the valley, was that I was going to be on my own here. I entered the lobby and walked past reception. Somebody may have said hi, or I might have identified myself, but I don’t remember doing so. This was in marked contrast to the typical Hollywood meeting where you check in with the receptionist in the lobby and you’re offered something to drink – tap water: room temperature, or a Pellegrino, that kind thing. Not here. Here, I just breezed past the receptionist and walked upstairs.
I found myself in a newly finished office space. No expense had been spared. Deep rich carpets covered the floor, empty offices hidden by partially ajar oak doors. A few of the doors were shut, behind which I assumed people to be working, but I didn’t pay too much attention at the time. I simply continued to the end of the hall where my friend had told me her office was.
I finally found myself in a big administrative room, chalk full with the machinery of the film business: piles of scripts, computer equipment, and photocopiers, and my friend looking at me a little harried from underneath it all.
She gave me a hug, thanked me for coming, and told me that her boss would see me momentarily. Then she stepped out of the room to get him. I knew the way things worked at most other studios and production companies. Basically your agent would submit a writing sample to them. Then, if you were lucky, some low level reader or D-girl (development person) at the company would read it, and if they liked it, they would call your agent to set up a meeting. You would then go into the company and pitch them some material either for a project they had in development, or something new you wanted to sell them.
Nothing like that had happened here though which meant, to my mind at least, that the whole process was upside down. For one thing, I knew for a fact that no one here had read any of my samples because I hadn’t submitted any. For another, even if they liked my work, I had nothing to pitch these guys because I had no idea what kind of movies they made.
It didn’t matter though because I needed gainful employment, whatever it was. If that was writing employment, great. If the job meant cleaning their offices or painting their walls, I would take that too.
Enter my friend’s boss. He walked into the room looking very much the Hollywood mogul and asked her if I was the guy. What exactly that meant I had no idea, but when she nodded that’s who I became forever after. The guy. Mr. Hollywood then asked if I had a computer to write on? I nodded to that as well and he said great. Then he gave me a title and told me to find an empty office and bang out the first five pages of this action movie they had planned. Oh, and he needed it by 11:00 AM.
That was it. Nothing else. He left the room.
Now, this was unusual to say the least. No talk of them contacting my agent. No talk of contracts. No talk of pay. Hell, no talk of anything. Just give me the first five pages of an unwritten action movie and give it to me now.
OK, I thought, I can do this. I had trained for this moment. I had attended the best film school in the world. This was it, my trial by fire. So I did what he said. I found an empty office, plugged in, and wrote. To be fair, the title was pretty descriptive so I had an inkling of what they were going for. It was just after ten AM when I started and I had my first five pages in under forty minutes. Then I took ten minutes to put a second pass on the draft and brought it to my friend. She printed it up, shook my hand, and said goodbye.
That was it. I got into my VW van, cursed the lack of air conditioning and left. It was weird sure, but this was Hollywood. I got back to my apartment, listened to the crazy guy in the building next door rant about his methadone problem and took a seat at my desk.
That was when reality set in. I had taken an interview, that was great. But I was also a realist and I knew that things in the film business moved at a glacial pace and that I had to work something out fast to pay my share of the rent. I knew I could write, but this whole idea that I could get out of film school and instantly become a working screenwriter was clearly a ridiculously naïve one. I’d have to pay my dues, doing whatever I could until my ship came in. If that meant delivering pizza, or parking cars, that’s what it meant. So I picked up the phone and started to think about who I could start calling to find a job, any job. But before I could dial, the phone rang. I picked up. It was my friend.
“He read your pages,” she said.
“He read it already?”
“Yeah. He read it and he loved it.” I felt my heart quiver. “You’ve got the job. Ten AM tomorrow. You can bring your own computer or you can use the one here.”
I think at that point I said thank you and then I said thank you again. I don’t remember asking how much they were going to pay me or any of that. I figured they’d tell me in due course. And they did. Of course, things were just starting to get strange, but what did I care? I was employed.