A Writer’s Apprenticeship, Hollywood version
I had been in Los Angeles for about five years. I had written nine screenplays on spec (each taking about six months) and sold none. I had a terrific agent who was also a great friend, Mike Werner.
Mike believed in me, but he was getting tired of taking my screenplays out to the town and having them sent back rejected. One day he took me out for coffee. “What would you think,” Mike said, “about me teaming you up with an older, established writer? You’d be the junior member of the team… you’d have to work your ass off. But you’d be working. You’d get jobs. You’d be bringing home checks.”
Mike teamed me with Ron Shusett, who had written the original Alien with his then-partner Dan O’Bannon, as well as Total Recall, that was making its way toward production at that time.
Ron was a brand. He had had hits. He got us into meetings. Scripts we wrote on spec were taken seriously because his name was on the title page. For the first time in my life, I could actually pay the rent.
But the best part was what I learned working with Ron. I would throw ten ideas at him. He would discard nine and pick one… and he’d be right. This is experience you don’t get at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Ron taught me how to evaluate original material—which ideas have potential and which don’t—and how to revise and rework your own material. He introduced me to the concept of acquiring and adapting. Not every idea has to come out of your own fevered brain. Watching him, I learned how to mine journals and collections of short stories, old movies and forgotten novels.
“We’re not looking for successful stories or movies. We’re looking for failed stories with great premises. We acquire them and we fix them.”
Ron opened my eyes to genres of film and literature—sci-fi, film noir, speculative fiction—that I had never even known about, let alone fallen in love with.
In Ron’s company, I met other filmmakers—producers, directors, editors, writers, financiers, studio people—from whom I learned even more and some of whom became real friends and allies that I still have today.
When I finally went out on my own, I felt like I’d acquired a PhD in film, just from the exposure working with Ron gave me.
The Big Takeaway from this experience (remember, we’re still on the theme of “Put your ass where your heart wants to be”) is that what made it all possible was packing up my Chevy van and moving from the East Coast to Tinseltown, i.e. to the epicenter of my dream of writing for the movies.
Would I have met Ron if I’d stayed in New York? Would I have met Mike? Would I have met anybody?