Mark Sanderson is living proof that if you take the time to learn and grow, you will find a level of success unique to your own, one-of-a-kind journey.
Carrie Wachob is a screenwriter, video editor, and part-time staffer for the Stowe Story Labs. Her feature scripts and teleplays have been recognized by Coppola’s American Zoetrope, Final Draft, PAGE, and others. Her short film Crazy Cat Lady starts production October 2017 as part of the Create50 project. She’s a member of Story Broads and the best writers group in the universe. Visit her website and find her on Facebook and Twitter.
As I struggle with writing goals, and how to achieve them, I often find myself wondering, “How in the hell can I become a working screenwriter? Do these elusive unicorns even exist?” Turns out, they do.
I found one of these magical creatures in a Santa Monica Coffee Bean, and his windy path to success is both amusing and motivating. Mark Sanderson is living proof that if you want something bad enough, and take the time to learn and grow, you will find a level of success unique to your own, one-of-a-kind journey.
Mark Sanderson (aka Scriptcat) is a Los Angeles-based screenwriter, author, script consultant, and sometimes actor blessed to be living his childhood dream of making movies with screenplays written in many genres. His work ranges from his sketch comedy writing and performing as a member of The Amazing Onionheads sketch troupe, writing for MTV, his spec sale, nineteen screenwriting assignments, to the television premieres and worldwide distribution of his eleven films.
Mark's long association with award-winning Hollywood filmmakers dates back to his first produced screenplay, and has since worked with Academy Award®-winning producers, veteran directors, and has written films starring Academy Award®, Emmy®, and Golden Globe® acting nominees. His new book A Screenwriter’s Journey to Success is now available on Amazon, and he offers screenplay consultation services, workshops, and webinars on his website.
In your new book A Screenwriter's Journey to Success, you describe yourself as a film nerd. Can you tell us a bit about your "Beardless Wonder" days, and how you ended up on a Charlie's Angels set as a kid?
Well, I certainly was a “film nerd” growing up, as I started making films in elementary school when I was just eleven years old. It all started when my childhood best friend Matt Reeves, (director of War for the Planet of the Apes), received an 8 mm film camera from his grandpa, and it’s the event that sparked our passion to become filmmakers. We made short films and even started our own production company, R & S Studios, doing the casting, producing, writing, directing, acting, cinematography, editing, and even marketing and advertising of our films. After production wrapped, we would screen the films in his garage and charge admission like a real movie theatre. Those were special times growing up in Santa Monica, California because it was like Hollywood’s backlot. Any day after school, we’d walk home and see a major film or tv series filming on location in our neighborhood.
One day they were filming the hit series Charlie’s Angels on the same block where we lived. We hung around the location, watched the production, and eventually met the actors and got their autographs. We even met the star Kate Jackson and shared her birthday cake. As we continued making films, we unknowingly became part of a community of pre-teen filmmakers on the Westside of Los Angeles. Eventually, we had our films showcased at a teen film festival held at the historical Nuart Theater here in West Los Angeles. Other teen filmmakers with films in the festival included J.J. Abrams (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) and Larry Fong (Kong: Skull Island). The sold-out screenings garnered a feature article in the L.A. Times where they as branded us the “Beardless Wonders of Filmmaking” because we weren’t old enough to grow beards like our idols Spielberg, Coppola, and Scorsese.
When did you shift your focus from filmmaking to writing?
After making short films for about ten years as a teenager, I recall writing my first feature-length screenplay when I attended UCLA Film School. My professors were all working professionals at the time and they gave me valuable insights into the craft and the realities of the film business. I remember my first script and the long slog through the second act, wondering if I could ever finish a hundred pages. It was a comedy and my screenwriting professor liked it enough to put it into the screenwriting library with a handful of other scripts from her students for others to read. I received feedback from my peers, other film students as part of the process, and it was a very positive experience.
It was a good start to my screenwriting journey, but it was certainly nothing close to being a professional piece of work. I continued studying, writing, and made my thesis film, but it wasn’t anything that would get me signed by an agency. I then decided to focus on screenwriting and enjoyed the fact that writers can work anywhere and anytime.
For you, giving up was never an option. How important is tenacity is the life of a screenwriter?
Tenacity is vital to any screenwriter’s success over the long haul journey. You have to be the writer that just doesn’t go away. Trust me, there will be plenty of reasons to quit. That being said, staying in the game without learning or doing the necessary work will only lead to frustration as you chase that elusive dream. You will find that good isn’t good enough, you must become an excellent screenwriter and a master of your craft. Every writer’s journey will be different, full of successes and failures, rejection and criticism, but if you keep producing unique work at a professional level, you’ll stay in the game and have a shot at success. I never put an expiration date on my dreams. That being said, the road hasn’t been easy, and it was six years after film school when I finally secured my first professional writing job. I’ve been tested on this journey, far too many times, to see just how badly I wanted a screenwriting career. My answer to myself was always, “More than anything else.”
On your journey to becoming a working screenwriter, what was your greatest disappointment and your greatest achievement?
One huge disappointment happened during a slow period in my career. It happens if you’re in the business long enough and you have to be prepared for it, as there are no guarantees in Hollywood. I had to take a “real job” and worked it for a while, but continued to write at night. That was difficult because it was like having two jobs, working eight hours in the day, and coming home and writing another five hours at night. It was killing my creative soul, and you can see how easily dreams can slip away if you allow them.
Luckily, during that period, one of my script assignments was produced, but I continued working at the job because I didn’t know when another writing job would come my way. About six months later, I received a call from a producer whom I had worked with previously, and she had a fast-tracked film that needed to be written. That was my cue to give my notice at my job and take the leap of faith again. I’ve never looked back.
One of my greatest achievements was selling my original spec and later walking the red carpet at the premiere with the stars and director. It premiered and opened the Palm Springs International Film Festival where I participated in the question and answer session after the screening. I was up in front with the director and stars, when someone in the audience commented to the star how much she loved what he said in a particular scene. The star was standing next to me, put his arm around my shoulder and said, “You know without the writer, there would be nothing to say.” The script was a seven-year journey from the time when I completed the first draft, to the first day of photography on location. It was also in the top one percent of the Nicholl Fellowship semi-finalists for the year entered, so it was a special journey for me to finally see my script produced after bouncing around Hollywood for so many years.
They say luck is when preparation meets opportunity. Can you give us an example of a time you were "lucky"?
Yes, you never know when an opportunity will come your way, so you have to be ready. If you take a screenwriting job and fail, you’ll harm your reputation and they probably won’t hire you again. If you pass on the offer, you’ll never know if it was an open door that would lead to more work. But if you accept the job and write a successful script, odds are they will hire you again—but you have to be ready.
One example of me being “lucky” happened when I agreed to do a rewrite job on a screenplay stuck in development for a production company. Now, I’ve had a lot of experience with executing producer’s notes on my screenplay assignments in the past, so I was ready for any rewrites that might be needed. I could have passed on the job, but I was smart enough to realize a good opportunity to forge a new working relationship with these producers—and potentially save the project by pushing it from being stuck in development to moving it into production. The rewrite was ultimately successful and we now have an ongoing working relationship where they offer me screenwriting assignments that are mine to take or turn down. It’s a good place to be.
What are you working on right now?
I hate down time and love to stay busy. I’m always working on various projects, whether it be for TV or film. I’ve been blessed this year with six screenplay assignments and it’s been a lot of work, but I’ve learned that you take the opportunities when they come. Nov. 18 I have a live screenwriting seminar at CBS Radford studios in Los Angeles. I’ve also just completed writing an indie thriller that will go into production this month in Los Angeles, I co-created and wrote a paranormal talk show pilot for late night TV, and I also wrote my first web series. Both of those TV projects will soon be shopped to producers. I will never complain because I have the best job in the world, and I’m blessed to get up in the morning and continue to live my childhood dream.