Originally published in Script Magazine January/February 2003 by Brian Gadowa. Follow Brian on Twitter: @BrianGodawa.
All right, so I’m no “young buck” college grad fresh out of film school with an agent already and the next hottest million dollar meaningless action script under my arm. And I ain’t a video store clerk without a life—on the edge of homelessness—obsessed with nothing but movies and my nihilistic imaginary world I’ve turned into a slasher franchise. I’m just a middle-class Joe. An average guy with a happy marriage and a good day job who has been writing on the side for over 10 years while maintaining a somewhat normal life in the suburbs. Somewhat normal.
Okay, I am obsessed with movies, but I do have a life. And I have a movie coming out soon. I hope. It’s an independently produced and distributed film called To End All Wars, starring Kiefer Sutherland and Robert Carlyle. So why is it being independently distributed? I have some ideas about why. I think one of them is because the movie is so dang original and unique that it scares executives. Many Hollywood executives cry for originality but then don’t know how to handle true originality when it stares them in the face. They feel safer with remakes, prequels and sequels. Originality often doesn’t fit into a neat and tidy little marketing demographic.
Anyway, To End All Wars is a true World War II story about a group of Allied prisoners of war suffering at the hands of their Japanese captors while being forced to build a railroad through the man-eating jungles of Thailand. Remember The Bridge on the River Kwai? This is the real story they didn’t show you—the story that the Veterans of Foreign Wars awarded their Commander in Chief Medal of Service, Honor and Pride because someone finally filmed the POW’s experience from their perspective. We have yet to see if the public feels the same way. But in the meantime, I’d like to recount my experience of the long, hard road to my first produced credit, my first 10 years of breaking in.
I hate to use a tired old cliché, but I’ve wanted to make movies ever since I was a kid. I remember making Super 8mm stop-motion animated movies of clay monsters patterned after Ray Harryhausen’s creatures when other kids were out playing hide and seek. In college, I spent my last semester producing, writing, directing and editing a Super 8mm sound movie when other students were going to football games and frat parties. My college education prepared me for a graphic design career to pay the bills. But when I tried to start screenwriting for Hollywood on the side, just out of college, I was so stinking lonely I had to stop and wait until I got married. As most screenwriters are aware, the hours of isolation necessary to crank out hundreds of pages and dozens of rewrites that get rejected by 99 percent of readers burns a hole in your social life and any other human contact necessary for one’s sanity. A couple years later, the companionship of my precious wife allowed me to tolerate the stretches of solitude, and I launched out on my never-ending quest for the Great American Screenplay.
Since I didn’t go to film school and I wasn’t planning to, I decided to read every screenwriting book available as my self-education curriculum. Keep in mind, at the time about the only book available was Syd Field’s classic, Screenplay—and oh yes, of course, Aristotle—just before the Screenwriting Book became a genre unto itself with a glut of published how-to manuals. I eventually read them all: Campbell, Vogler, Egri, Seger, Hunter, Hauge, McKee, etc. I went to as many seminars in my area that I could just before this became a lucrative industry of avatars: Hauge, Walters, Freeman, McKee, Writer’s Boot Camp, and on and on.
But the most helpful of them all for me was Truby’s Story Structure class on tape. Here was a guy who understood the moral nature of storytelling and redemption and wasn’t afraid to emphasize it. Of course, many Hollywood types use the word “theme” because “moral” sounds too Taliban to their confused postmodern minds. But that’s okay. Theme and moral—same thing. Funny thing, too, about all these different story structure approaches; they all fit right in with each other. Even though one guru crows about the three-act structure being dead and another guru bellows about the tediousness of a third guru’s technique fixation, they mostly all fit right in with each other. Aristotle’s structure of beginning, middle and end is obviously the three acts, which accommodates three-six-three sequencing very conveniently; as well as the 22 Building Blocks, which is basically the hero’s journey and so forth. Argue the minutiae all you want, I synthesized all of them rather nicely, thank you.
First two years, first two scripts were crap—get-them-out- of-my-system stuff. And then I started writing. One of the things all the screenwriting teachers tell you is that once you have a well-hammered-out script, then get as many people connected to Hollywood to read it as you can. Those six precious degrees between me and Meister Spielberg. Heck, I’m six degrees separated from my own family, so that’s hopeful. Getting read is the key to getting bought or optioned. Rhino skin is a genetic necessity. I think it was Steve Martin who said that the more rejections you receive, the closer you are to success because all success is preceded by a history of failures. So I made my goal to get as many rejections as I possibly could. I bought The Hollywood Creative Directory and simply walked through every producer that I thought would be interested in my scripts. Cold calls, query letters, network connections, follow-up calls, follow-up to follow-up calls. You know the story. Got me a lot of rejections. Didn’t get me a deal or an agent.
I entered as many legit screenwriting contests as I could. Won a slew of screenwriting awards, from quarter-finalist to semi-finalist to finalist to first place. Nicholl Fellowships, Chesterfield, Austin Heart of Film, Fade In, Worldfest, America’s Best, Maui, Scriptapalooza, Carl Sautter, Writer’s Digest, Writer’s Network, yada, yada, yada. Did ’em all. Great thing about these competitions is that even attaining semi-finalist status often helped my scripts to get read by serious producers, agents and the like. But boy, those sleazy producers that create new contests as a cover for their own production companies still piss me off! It’s basically a way of getting writers to pay for their own script coverage. Well, legit awards got me read. Didn’t get me a deal or an agent.
Since I was a million miles away from Hollywoodland in “fly-over country,” my wife and I moved out to California to be closer to the action—but not too close. We wound up in Orange County to maintain some semblance of safety and mental health. I was close enough to meet more people who are more involved in the industry—not close enough to get a deal or an agent.
Another great thing I discovered in L.A. was the pitchfests. You pay a couple hundred bucks for a two-day weekend deal, and you get in line with a couple hundred other wide-eyed panting screenwriters lining up to pitch scripts to a dozen or more producers. It’s a great way to get right to the people who are looking for material without having to make a million calls—one more step closer to the action—actual human beings, in the flesh, listening to me pitch my script. I had another little bennie going for me. Because of my day job in graphic design, I designed fake one-sheets, movie posters of each of my scripts complete with pictures and tagline on the front and synopsis on the back. Producers loved this technique. It was always a great way of visualizing the story as a movie. I met a lot of producers through pitchfests. Got a lot of scripts read. Didn’t get a deal or an agent. Whatever.
So I’d been in Southern Cal for about nine years, phone calling, query lettering, pitching, knocking on every door possible, and doing everything all the books and teachers told me to get my stuff read in (writers on writing) this town, including dragging my big, fat Polish rump through an hour and a half of dreadful 405 traffic into the city when necessary. And wouldn’t you know it? Of all the ABCs I followed regarding “breaking in,” the way I would actually get my first movie made would be none of the above. My big break came from chatting about existentialist and postmodern philosophy with a guy I just met down in an Orange County church parking lot after services. I guess God works in mysterious ways. The guy, Jack Hafer, found out I was a screenwriter; I found out he was a producer. Such an encounter is rare because unlike in L.A. where everyone you bump into is a writer or producer, in Orange County only every other person is a writer or producer. I gave him a writing sample—and he offered me the adaptation of this World War II prisoner of war story he had been trying to get made for the past 25 years!
The book was called Through the Valley of the Kwai by Ernest Gordon; and it moved my soul, so I chomped. This was not a typical American story about escape or rescue from suffering. This was about finding redemption in the midst of suffering—a redemption that was oriented toward loving one’s neighbor and the power of forgiveness. The Allied POWs start a “jungle university” within the Japanese prison camp in order to maintain some dignity and humanity. They ended up finding much more than they bargained for when their culture clashed with the Rising Sun. This was an “East meets West” kind of situation, at its worst because the differences led to intolerance and ultimately atrocities. Talk about prescience. This story wasn’t merely about war but about human nature and the essence of all conflict.
Being an “unknown,” uncredited greenhorn, I, of course, wrote on deferment (never say never) for Writer’s Guild minimum. I made the big mistake of not noticing that the contract said I wouldn’t get paid until the movie was released! Typically, payment occurs at least by principle photography. Thank God the producers were kind enough to pay me within a year of production because it’s been two years, and they are only now getting close to release. Ah, the slings and arrows of outrageous independent filmmaking. Lesson learned: READ THE FINE PRINT, DUMMY! So, I may not have gotten an agent, but who cares? I got a deal and, ultimately, a movie made. Would I advise holding back on traditional means of breaking in just because my way had nothing to do with it? Absolutely not. You have to try everything, including the unorthodox, because it’s all part of the symbiotic but chaotic butterfly effect—sorta.
Back to Valley of the Kwai. The original book is not very plot-driven. It’s more of a diary of Ernest’s experiences loosely connected by a thematic thread, so I came up with an ensemble piece focused on the four key men in the story. I went through several drafts with my writing group from Scriptwriters Network (indispensable). That process took about four months or so. When other production companies started reading the script, a common reaction was, “This is good, but it’s too much like The Bridge on the River Kwai.” “What?!” I would think to myself, carefully hiding my rage behind understanding nods, “You’ve obviously not read the script or not seen Bridge.” To End All Wars is about as much like Bridge as Gladiator is like Spartacus. Besides, Bridge was over 40 years ago. Why be worried about similarities with a 40-year-old classic in an era infatuated with remakes of classics like Planet of the Apes and Psycho? Okay, if it makes you feel good, consider it a remake of Bridge then. It’s about time for a remake anyway. Sheesh.
This is when I began to learn that in order to figure out how people think in Hollywood, you have to learn to think insanely. (Special thanks to William Goldman.) Somehow movies that are 40 years apart and take place in similar locales are too much alike, even though no two stories about the same incident are ever alike, and even though they make movies that take place in similar locales all the time. Also, no one wants to make period pieces because they are too expensive, even though every year dozens of period pieces are made, even lower budget ones, and often times they win Oscars®. Somehow, give us something original and different, but make it a remake or a sequel. Give us something we haven’t seen before, but make it the same as the latest box office wonder. Doctor, make the pain stop!
Within a year or so, David L. Cunningham came on as producer and director of To End All Wars. Then he and Jack went about doing the impossible: raising $14 million through independent sources. Don’t ask me how they did it. I’m just the writer. Furthermore, they went into production within a year, before they had all the funds. And it all worked out. Don’t ask me how they did that either. Once the movie was finished and started the film festival circuit, the long, arduous task of finding distribution began. Evidently, the studios for this fare of film made distribution offers that did not seem to acknowledge the fact that they did not provide the money to make the film, so Jack and David decided to go independent with distribution as well (a la Memento). To End All Wars is being platform released in several cities throughout the country, starting November 1, desperately trying to get around that monstrous monopoly of control that studios have on distribution venues. A David-and- Goliath kind of thing.
I got my first movie made, and I still don’t have an agent, and I’m not about to wait around for one to “make” my career. I’ve moved up to L.A. to be even closer to the action. Home at last. In some ways I feel as if I’m starting all over from square one to get my next movie made. But the relationships I’ve begun are posing some future possibilities. I’m working on a couple projects with Jack and David separately. Oh, and I do have a few producers wanting me to write their projects on deferment now. Oh, boy. They say having a produced movie brings you up a tier in the realm of getting work. I have yet to experience that blessing. But then again, the movie hasn’t officially opened yet, so God only knows.
*Editor's Note: Stay tuned for a follow-up interview with Brian to learn how his career progressed.
BRIAN GODAWA comes to the film industry with a background in advertising and marketing. His scripts have won multiple awards in such screenplay competitions as The Nicholl Fellowship, Austin Heart of Film, Fade-In, Worldfest, Writer’s Network, and Chesterfield Writer’s Film Project. He wrote To End All Wars (www.toendallwars.com), starring Robert Carlyle (The Full Monty) and Kiefer Sutherland (24), The Visitation, and TV documentary Wall of Separation.
- More Writers on Writing
- Notes from the Margins: Finding Your Writing Process - A Procrastinator's Journey
- Behind the Lines with DR: Writer Reviews - Growing a Thick Skin
Get more tips on breaking in from screenwriting career coach Lee Jessup's webinar
Specs Don't Sell: How to Build Your Screenwriting Career