Guest post by John Craig Howells
I’m like you. I don’t live in the glamour or bustle of the film industry. I don’t have an uncle who’s a producer. And I’ve never done an internship with a major film company that opened doors for me and made me a millionaire. Nope! – That’s not me.
I live in Wales (of all places) in a council flat with my three kids. Yes, I’m a single Dad. And I’m disabled too – I have something called SCDS, which makes me extremely prone to vertigo. But so what?!
I’ve always loved film. When I was a kid we had just 3 TV channels, so I watched every film that hit the screen, and back then they were still running silent movies and serials (I loved Harold Lloyd, Buster Crabbe, Hammer Horrors, Westerns and Epics). In my teens my family re-opened an old art deco independent cinema, which was hugely successful. This was the 80’s and I became a projectionist and ate up the product. I loved it!
But it wasn’t enough. I had been writing for a while. But my passion for film pushed me back to college in my twenties and then on to university, specializing in writing for performance. I did well and came out with a 1st class degree with honours, and it has done me absolutely no good whatsoever! The truth is I didn’t know what I was doing, career-wise. I ended up in a multiplex cinema for a while and then, after a car crash, I started teaching writing for adult classes. That sort of grew, and I ended up teaching Creative Writing and Scriptwriting all over – even for a university. But I felt like a fraud! I wasn’t doing what I wanted; I wasn’t practicing what I preached. So I quit.
I floated about on the fringes of film and TV doing odd jobs, but nothing that got my foot in the door. I wrote two different sitcoms for BBC Wales, with one going through to commissioning. But after 2 years of being told “no news is good news” I gave up.
Then I hit a brick wall as my marriage broke up. I had three little girls and they were my life. I was borderline suicidal. I’m not ashamed of it. But I got involved with rewrites for others and started developing my own work in earnest. But when my ex started seeing an abusive partner I had enough and I fought for my kids. She eventually gave up and I got my kids. The next year was probably the happiest in my entire life! – I’m a great Dad!
Then – Bang! Overnight I contracted this weird condition that gave me permanent vertigo! Imagine you’ve drunk 12 pints of lager and the room is spinning! That was me. Very slowly it got better until I was just ½ pint (my mother would ask me “How many pints are you today?”). This was 2010. I knew no one was going to give me a chance to make anything myself. I’d done schemes that had come to nothing, and to be honest I could see people I knew from these schemes stuck in the same boat as me. So I decided I was going to make my own feature film.
Mad, right? Yes, exactly. I did it all wrong, but by the end of the year I had shot the film. The Stranger starred Rachel McDowall, who I thought was on the rise after her roles in Mamma Mia! (2008), Quantum of Solace (2008) and Streetdance 3D (2010). But because I’d done it all wrong there was no money for post and my health had suffered from doing far too much myself. I spent the next 2 years housebound. I could literally not leave the house and some days all I could do was lie on my bed trying to focus on one spot on the ceiling to stop the room from moving. After I was refused an operation which was to be my cure all Get Out Of Jail Free card I just stopped taking my meds. Within 2 weeks I felt ever so slightly better. That was 2 years ago. And I’m not right, but I’m a lot better than I was.
So, last year I was hearing all the online buzz about London Screenwriters’ Festival and I was cursing I couldn’t go. By the time it was over I said, “That’s it! I’m going next year,” and I took out the monthly debit scheme, which was perfect. Over the next year I did a course at film school, I did several rewrites for people, I wrote my own new material and I finally got my film finished. You can imagine how relieved I was when I had my home premiere of The Stranger just one week before LSF 2014! There was a big buzz about the film and people are still talking about it. (www.thestranger.info)
But as a result of the premiere being so close to LSF I missed the Pitch Sessions login and couldn’t get a slot, not even a stand by slot. But I wasn’t bothered. You see, LSF was my reward to myself for getting the film finished and up on the big screen. So I came to LSF 2014 really chilled out and happy. Chris Jones’s opening session was so upbeat and inspiring I wasn’t even self conscious when introducing myself to others. I met really great people who understood me, because they were me. You are My People! I love you guys.
While chatting, someone mentioned the Elevator Pitch! “What’s that?” say I. You guessed it – a pitch in an elevator. I heard it was 90 seconds. “I can do that,” I thought, “It’ll be an experience, anyway”. So Saturday I went to join the line – which was massive! And as I got there they closed the line two people in front of me. But the awesome helper who was organizing the line said to come back early next day and he’d make sure we got in. We all stood there talking for ages, and there was a real sense of camaraderie. We were all in the same boat.
Sunday rolls around, and I was in several sessions I was loving. Then Lucy V. Hay’s session was slightly over running. I love Lucy, but I had to get my pitch in. So I left. The queue was still huge! But now I was half way down it. So, I’m standing there chatting with writers around me. The closer we got to the elevator the more nervous everyone got. Except me. I mean, I had a pang for about 30 seconds but then I just thought – “This is good. You couldn’t even walk 2 years ago!”
As we neared the corner where the elevator was, I heard a buzz coming up the line – It’s Joel Schumacher!!! Wow! Joel Freaking Schumacher! Doesn’t get much bigger this side of the Atlantic Ocean, does it guys?!
So, I get to the corner, and sure enough I see Joel Schumacher in the elevator hearing the pitches. Oh, and by the way, it’s not 90 seconds, it’s 45 SECONDS!
But that was fine for me. Then I hear the organizer speaking to his helpers – and it’s the same guy from yesterday – and he’s saying “Joel’s last few”. He looks at me and says, “He’s the last one”. Made it!
So, here I am. Some council house cripple with no real track record into an elevator with Joel Freaking Schumacher! I introduce myself and say I’ve just made my first film. He hurries me, “Get to the pitch”. He’s heard a lot and he knows how quick 45 seconds isn’t. So I do my pitch. He smiles. “What’s the end?” I tell him. “That’s clever! I really like that!”
Ping! – The doors open and we’re on the ground floor again (I hadn’t even noticed them opening upstairs). “Yeah, I really like that” he says again. “Thanks,” I say and I walk out of the elevator On Top Of The World. Joel Schumacher has just called my story clever! I walked out into the corridor where everyone else is waiting in line still, and I get a tap on the shoulder. I turn around and there’s Joel. He wants to talk about the script. So I’m talking with Joel Schumacher – I’m just going to say that one more time – I’m talking to Joel Freaking Schumacher about my script, the film I’ve just made (which he wants to see) and more about the script and the characters. He loves it. It’s clever. So I ask him can I send it to him. Yeah, he’d like to read it. But it will have to go through his agent – who he can’t even remember the name of – at CAA. “Just contact them and send it through them”.
I could feel everyone’s eyes on us from that line of hopefuls who now knew they weren’t going to be pitching to him. What has he got that we haven’t? How did he do it? What the hell are they talking about? I’m sorry guys. Actually, I’m not. It has taken me 20 years to have that 5 minute conversation. I earned that spot.
The stupid thing is I forgot to give Joel my card. I had to track him down later and give it to him. I wrote the name of my script on the back.
I couldn’t concentrate on anything else for the remaining sessions and I had to leave Pilar’s session as I was just mentally drained (sorry Pilar). But somehow I had suddenly turned into an unlikely screenwriting Rock Star! Guys and girls were coming up to me and congratulating me and asking about that conversation. It felt weird, but great. I didn’t feel like I had done anything, really. I still don’t. Chris Jones had to coax me into writing this piece for you guys.
The thing is, I had only written the first draft, what I call my vomit draft, and that was over a year before while on holiday in Menorca. I knew the script was a mess! The idea and some of the scenes were great, though. I started rewriting in Paddington train station and worked all the way home, and for the next week I was rewriting. Now I already had extensive notes on the script. I had notes from my 3 trusted readers and I had done myself a script report and I had written all over the 1st draft. So I knew where I was going. I worked like hell. I barely saw my kids. I never left the house. Then I sent it back to my brother (one of my readers), who is also a writer and very good with his feedback. I adopted many of his suggestions. I did another draft based on these notes and others I had made along the way. And then I sent it to him again. Bless him! He got back to me with typos to polish notes, and I was already doing more. I did more again. And then that was it. I couldn’t do any more, because what I had was as good as I could make it without a director’s input. It was ready to go.
The next bit is easy, right? Find out Joel’s agent at CAA and send the script. Wrong!
Firstly, CAA does not give out their email address. It is nowhere on their website. In fact it’s the most Spartan website I have ever seen. Look it up, it’s beyond bare. So, I know I have to call Los Angeles in the USA. But here’s where the fun starts. California is 8 hours behind us, so when we are all tired and starting to think of tea for the kids, maybe a nice bath or going out to relax, LA is just getting into work and starting to hustle. I called CAA. I got passed to Information. They told me Joel’s agent is Bryan Lourde. Now I’m reading Hello, He Lied (and other truths from the Hollywood Trenches) by Lynda Obst at the moment and it was a surreal moment when I read a passage in the book saying just how powerful this guy is in Hollywood and here’s me in a council flat in Wales trying to get hold of him!
So, eventually, after being passed around the building several times over 2 days, I get through to Bryan Lourde’s assistant, Reece/Rhys – who is great, but doesn’t want to speak to me, because I should be speaking to Jay Baker who runs the literary department. I Google Jay. Yikes! Big player!
I don’t mind telling you how scared I was trying to do all this. I’m just the guy with the words on a page, which people may or may not like. These are wheeler dealers of the highest order living on the Mount Olympus of Hollywood. Someone, I can’t remember who – might have been Reece/Rhys – gives me Jay Baker’s email. They don’t like doing this, remember, to someone they don’t know. So I’ve done something right. Now, I email Jay.
I get panicky. I send him another one.
I send him one from my company email address. Maybe that will help, right?
I really start panicking now. I mean, my worst fear in this world is probably yours too – Nothing happens! I’m scared shitless that nothing will happen. Just like nothing has happened right up to now. So, I make the stupidest, most amateurish mistake EVER! I email them the script! (I registered it with the WGA the same day.)
The script bounces! I get an email saying they don’t read “Unsolicited Material” and the script has been returned unread by anyone in their organization. I just hope to God that was an automated response!
Now I’m really starting to think I’ve blown it. I asked Chris Jones if he could help in any way, as he was obviously in contact with Joel. He kindly asks me to outline what’s happened and he’ll see what he can do. This was very kind of him. It’s dangerous to ask for these favours as they can jeopardise their relationship with the person in question. I try not to ask such favours, but this time I did. I was so terrified that nothing would happen.
I asked around online and Lucy (V. Hay) put my mind a little at rest when she said that agents regularly take weeks, months or more to respond sometimes. So, I thought, back to the drawing board. I need a really pucker query letter in which I name drop Joel. I’d relaxed into a sort of fall back position of let’s start again.
That’s when I got an email from Sue, Jay’s assistant at CAA, saying they want to see the script and which address should they send the release forms to. (I should mention that in the US in particular they make you sign a Release Form which indemnifies them from copyright infringement should they have something similar in development. This is standard practice. I had already said I was willing to sign one.) Another email from Sue: No, they want a physical address, the release forms have to be hard copies! Wow! That shocked me, but then how do you sign a digital copy?
My address is in Welsh – it looks like someone sneezed – and many of my English friends refuse to believe it’s even a real address! So I tell this poor assistant sitting in an office in blazing sunshine with a palm tree outside her window what my address is and explain it’s in Welsh so she’d best just copy and paste it – which she does.
I gave a deep sigh of relief – I’d gotten away with it! The wheels were finally in motion for my first screenplay to go out to Hollywood! I thought, well if air mail takes 2 weeks either way, it’s a month. I’ve waited 20 years. I can wait that long.
Then, yesterday, Fed Ex knocked my door with a card envelope. Inside were a cover letter and 3 copies of the release forms for me to sign. This was just 2 days after I last had an email from Sue! I felt like Steve Martin in Bowfinger!
So, that’s my story. It took 20 years, but I finally have a script going to Hollywood – And they asked for it! I’m told this is a HUGE deal. I’m not blasé about it; quite the opposite. I like to think I’m a realist. Maybe I’m a pessimist. But I’ll believe I’ve achieved something when the money is in the bank or when I’m commissioned to write something else – and that money is in the bank!
Regardless of what happens in La-La-Land, I took a chance and I’m seeing it through. It won’t be the last chance I take or the last opportunity I make for myself. It’s all possible if you just believe in yourself and make sure you know what you’re taking about. I didn’t prepare my pitch with Joel. I had a logline, and I know the story and the characters inside out. And here’s the clincher – I LOVE IT! That passion comes through when I talk about it. It’s the kind of film I would like to go and see.
Here’s the pitch I gave to Joel.
The Hitman & Her – an action-comedy; think early Lethal Weapons and Die Hards.
A hitman goes on his next job only to find it’s the daughter he never knew he had. Now he has to protect her and get the contract lifted, while getting to know his feisty young daughter!
It’s not rocket science. But it is fun.
You can do it too. Even if it takes 20 years!
John Craig Howells