Dear Screenwriter Bill of Twenty Years Ago
by Bill True – Writer and Dept. Chair & Head of Dramatic Writing at the Scottsdale School of Film+Theatre
As I am writing this, it is nearly twenty years since you re-engaged with writing and are having your first serious thoughts about committing to it as a career/life path.
FYI, you’re gonna do great over the next few years. The feature film script that’s kicking your butt right now? You’re gonna figure it out and finish it. You’ll go through too-damn-many drafts, but eventually it’ll place in the top 1% in the Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowship. That will get the attention of a Sundance-winning producer, who’s going to buy it and make a movie out of it.
Before I continue, I am going to point to a conversation you had with the Universe a few months back, when you asked it to help you have a screenwriting career. The Universe’s response back: You’ll get it, but it won’t happen in the way you expect.
You’re still puzzling over that message. At the same time, you’re not quite buying it. Well, I am twenty years on the other side of that conversation, and I’m here to tell you that the Universe wasn’t kidding.
Recently, you started compiling a list of the kudos that, per your observations, getting any one of them would launch a screenwriting career. You’re determined to tick one of them off the list and be off to the races. What you don’t know yet is that over the next 4-5 years, you’re going to tick every single one of those kudos off your list. Still, that big break doesn’t come.
Now…what you also don’t know is there are some personal obstacles headed your way, too. Your wife will pass away five weeks before your movie premieres at Tribeca. You’ll be the toast of the festival circuit for much of that year, but it will be bittersweet. People will ask you when you’re moving from Minnesota to LA, and you’ll demur. Because you aren’t going to move. Your house in Minnesota is where your kids grew up, you tell yourself. And they’ve gone through too much to uproot them. At least for now.
The good news, however, is that you “commute” from MN to LA and somehow manage to cobble together enough gigs to make a modest living at this screenwriting thing. You even manage to get a green light on your second feature.
Don’t get too excited yet. Then there’s a writers strike, and then a huge recession. The movie project dies on the vine, and the writing well dries up. By mid-2009, you’re broke and ready to pack it in.
Then…plot twist! Your life takes a wonderful turn, and you reconnect with the girl you thought you were going to marry in college. You and she just celebrated your tenth wedding anniversary. Marrying her takes you not to LA, but to Phoenix. That’s pretty close to LA, though, so you’re hopeful that you can jumpstart your screenwriting career from there. And it works! Within three years, you’re working again and land the biggest gig of your career to date.
At that time, you make a decision. The whole reason why you wanted to be a screenwriter was to work in TV, so you decide to pivot. Someone in the industry tells you that in order to make it happen in TV, you need to give up features for awhile and focus 100% of your energy in the TV space. So…at the tender age of 47, you do that. And…you almost sell your first TV pilot. Twice.
But it doesn’t happen. The pilot does get you a lot of notice, though. As a result, you get to develop other projects with other people, and sometimes get paid for it.
The reality is you’ve been doing this for twenty years now, and you still only have the one produced work to your name.
Shit. Right now, I know what you’re asking yourself…
Was it worth it?
Twenty years on, I can tell you unequivocally….yes.
Recently, it dawned on me that I’ve made my living as a writer for the past 15+ years. It has officially sustained me longer than any other job I’ve had. That feels really, really good because, deep down, that’s all we ever wanted. To live a writer’s life. Well, we have. We do.
Back in 2001, you’re still working your corporate job. You don’t hate it, but it doesn’t fill your soul. There’s a hole there, and you’re hoping screenwriting can help fill it. Well, it does.
Every day, I marvel at the cool things I get to do, and the amazing people I get to talk to and work with. And guess what? No more suits, Dockers, and polo shirts! My “professional attire” these days is jeans and a T-shirt. And then there’s the best part—screenwriting also brought me to teaching, which is the other thing we always wanted to do in our life. I get to not only work in this industry, but I also get to pay it forward and help launch the next generation of writers.
Listen…it’s been a tough road. Way tougher than you ever imagined. It’s been so hard, you almost given up. So. Many. Times. Because it hasn’t happened at all like you hoped it would. Thank you for not quitting, though, because it’s happened. You have that writing career. Just not in the way you expect.
Now, there is good news on the horizon. All the hard work you’ve put in the last twenty years seems to be paying off! You’ve had the most productive fall ever in terms of making connections and getting your work out there. Who knows what will happen, but there’s a different energy to recent conversations. You’re not the only one that senses it. Fingers crossed, as they say!
Thank you for dreaming. More important, thank you you for taking the steps to manifest those dreams into reality. It hasn’t been easy, but it’s been worth it. Thank you for sticking with it, even when it seemed like a fools errand. Even when it seemed bleak, which was most of the time. Thank you for doing the hard work of honing your craft and building great relationships in the industry (relationships that have turned into some of the best friendships of your life).
I take stock of my life today, and I feel tremendous gratitude…for you. The person that started it all. That started me on this path.
Keep going, Bill of twenty years ago. You’re not crazy. And this thing you’re contemplating dedicating your life to..? Well, let’s just say, it’s a wonderful life.
Be well, and Happy New Year
Bill in 2021
Bill True’s debut feature, Runaway, was hailed by critics as “Brilliant” and “Hitchcockian” as it premiered to universal accolades at Tribeca and Toronto. Bill also took the top prize at the Austin Film Festival for his work on Runaway, which was subsequently released by eOne Films. He has since developed feature and television projects with The Film Collective, NBA Entertainment, Warner Horizon Television, Veritas Entertainment, More/Medavoy Productions, eOne Television, and more. He is currently in development at Echo Lake Entertainment on his original drama series, Way Beyond. He also working with Rom Com Pictures to produce his original drama series, Hope Springs.
In addition to his work in Hollywood, Bill is Faculty-in-Residence for Dramatic Writing and Department Chair at the esteemed Scottsdale School of Film+Theatre.
Great article Bill.