Welcome to our new series, Writers on Breaking In, highlighting screenwriters who have broken through the velvet ropes of Hollywood. What better screenwriters to launch our column than Arthur Pielli and Andrew Knauer who sold their script, Senior Year, to CBS Films earlier this year.
After a cheerleader falls off a pyramid and knocks herself into a coma, she awakens 20 years later (present day) in the body of a 37-year-old woman. But having only aged physically and knowing nothing else, she returns to reclaim her seat at the cool table and win the prom queen crown that has eluded her.
Script sat down with Arthur and Andrew to learn about their journey from script to sale as well as the ins and outs of breaking into today's Hollywood.
Let’s start at the beginning. Many of our readers are juggling day jobs with writing on the side. Did you work in any other part of the industry while you were trying to break in? How did you manage your time between your job and your writing?
Andrew Knauer: I worked for a well-known Management Company for three years. I did a lot of grunt work, but I also got to read a lot of scripts. It was a 10-to-7 job so it afforded me a few hours each night to write when I got home.
Arthur Pielli: I was production coordinator for a few television shows and eventually worked my way up to writer’s assistant. We’re of the mind that working in the business while trying to make it is ultimately going to benefit you more than taking an odd job outside the industry.
AK: You’re more likely to make a useful connection and even if you don’t, at least you’re constantly surrounded by and confronted with your end goal.
AP: If the industry is out of sight, it’s out of mind and the impulse to give up when things aren’t going your way is that much stronger.
Did you ever enter or have success with screenwriting contests or pitching events? Or was your strategy personal connections, cold calling, or query letters?
AK: Our first script was a comedy about a medieval band of thieves. Neither one of us really had any idea what we were doing, let alone who to give it to, but we submitted it to the Scriptapalooza screenwriting competition.
AP: Every few weeks they would announce who made it to the next level of the competition. We finished in the top ten and they gave us some screenwriting software.
AK: We were pretty stoked about that.
AP: Afterwards, our parents told us to get real jobs, but with this “ace up our sleeve” we decided to pack our bags and drive across country, screenwriting software that wasn’t Final Draft in tow.
AK: In retrospect it was more like a three of clubs.
AP: It was at least a seven of diamonds.
Many writers are hesitant to jump into writing partnerships. When and how did you decide to write together as a team? Did you think it would improve your odds of breaking in?
AK: We both went to film school so naturally neither one of us had ever written a feature script before. Writing the first one together just seemed like the best way to do it.
AP: We both wanted to be writers, neither of us had a job, and we lived together so it was kind of a no-brainer.
How did you get representation? Were you represented before the "break" or did agents approach you after, and how did the agents help demystify the way Hollywood works?
AK: I was lucky enough to land my manager, Jake Wagner off a sci-fi script I wrote back when I was working at the management company. He helped me get an agent and from that point I was focused entirely on writing. It didn’t take my boss too long to figure that out either. My firing allowed me to work full time on my next project which became The Last Stand.
AP: I was a staff writer on Randy Cunningham, an animated Disney show, looking for representation. Andy’s team did such a great job with Senior Year, it just made sense to sign with them.
Is the script you broke in with the one you were most passionate about or was it simply the most marketable? Perhaps both?
AK: I would say both. I took a bit of a risk because I didn’t tell my reps about Senior Year in the beginning. They were out there selling me as an action writer and it just didn’t make sense to tell them we had an idea for a comedy. I wouldn’t have done that unless I thought it was a marketable idea. I was confident once they read it, they would too.
AP: Writing is hard enough as it is. If you’re not passionate about the material it’s probably going to show in the work. It doesn’t do you any good to write less than your best. This was written completely on spec so you never know what to expect, but it felt like a marketable concept and that always helps.
When attempting to break in, writers are often advised to write only one genre and stick with it. Before Senior Year, you wrote the horror-comedy Ghost Team One together, which screened at Slamdance (hysterical trailer, by the way!). Do you feel you’re boxed into comedy now when the two of you write as a team?
AK: There is definitely a lot of truth to that. If you don’t want a career working in a certain genre, don’t write that genre because if they like what you’re writing that’s where you’ll end up. In my case, I found success writing action, and if I’m known within the industry it’s probably as an action writer. In one sense that was great because I really like action movies. I happen to also really like comedies and the two of us were writing comedy together before anything else. Making the jump from a solo action writer to a team comedy writer was tricky, and I would say it’s generally frowned upon, but I’m of the mind that the material should speak for itself.
AP: We never thought of Ghost Team One as anything but a comedy. The horror elements were there to enhance the jokes. At the end of day it’s a story about two idiots who live together - something we knew a little about.
How many scripts had you written before your big break (either alone or together) and at what pace were you coming out with new material? How many years did it take from your first script to your first sale?
AK: Together, I think this was number eight, and we’ve each done at least that many individually.
AP: Yup. Band of Thieves was 2001/2002.
Regarding submitting your work, what’s your advice on knowing when to stop rewriting and send it out? Did you ever use script consultants?
AP: A lot of our friends are writers and we use them for that, so we never really had to go that route, but it’s always a good idea to get some fresh eyes on your work before you send it out.
AK: There’s a lot taking turns reading people’s stuff.
AP: You never really know when something’s ready, but eventually you just have to trust that what you did was good.
For Andrew: Regarding other genres and writing teams, you and George Nolfi (The Adjustment Bureau, The Bourne Ultimatum) are reportedly working on a sci-fi action project for Universal. Was the process of working with George similar to how you and Arthur work?
AK: Arthur and I write as a team in every sense of the word. We conceive ideas together and whenever we write it's with both of us sitting in front of the screen at the same time. George Nolfi had done a pass on The Last Stand, and I was fortunate enough to meet him at the WGA one day so I introduced myself as the original writer. He had a big idea that he was working on, and thought I would be a good fit for the project. We spent a lot of time together outlining the story then I went off and wrote the draft on my own. I wouldn't say George and I were writing partners. He was kind enough to take me under his wing and give me a chance to do a pass on a fun project.
For Arthur, can you talk about writing on the TV series Randy Cunningham: 9th Grade Ninja? Did you always envision working on TV as well as features? How did you break into TV? How are those skill sets different? Do you have a preference on platform?
AP: I was working as a Production Coordinator for Randy Cunningham for over a year when I got the opportunity to move up to Writer’s Assistant for the show’s second season (currently airing on Disney XD). I eventually moved on to staff writer. It was a great experience and I learned a lot. I never had a preference between TV and Film. For TV, especially with Randy, the trick was trying to cram a lot of story into a 15-page script whereas with features you have a lot more room to finesse the beats. Overall, the strict page count in TV forces you to become a more efficient writer, which helps in either platform.
You both have written shorts. Can you share the lessons you learned as writers from those experiences? I’m also curious about Andrew’s directing experience and any lessons learned that he’s carried into his writing.
AP: For me, shorts were always a means to an end. They were a great tool for learning how to tell a story on the screen.
AK: For me, directing is much more like a job in the traditional sense. Everything has to fit into a schedule and you’re relying on a lot of other people. It’s a real team effort. Both require a lot of problem solving and each comes with its own unique difficulties. Writing is creating something from nothing and that can be incredibly isolating. Not too much compares with it.
With the countless rejections writers face, were you hesitant to get excited when Senior Year went wide in January to a reported 11 major players, as reported by Tracking Board? The sale happened fast! What was that process like and will you be heavily involved in the development?
AK: It’s always exciting, but it’s also really stressful anytime one of your scripts goes wide. I don’t know if that will ever change. Our team moved really quickly with this one, which was great and made for a much more palatable experience.
AP: You always prepare for the rejection. It’s the best way to keep your soul from being crushed.
AK: CBS Films has been great, and we’d like to stay as involved as possible, but ultimately once we hand it in, our job is finished.
Looking back at the moment you broke in, once a sale happens, what can a writer expect and what most surprised you about the realities of breaking in and/or finally getting repped?
AP: Yeah, you don’t get to rest on your laurels. Sales are great, but if you want to keep working, you have to keep working.
AK: You certainly feel validated in all your hard work.
How confident do you feel now that you’re "in"? What's your access like now?
AK: There are only so many movies getting made each year and a lot of competition to be one of them. You want to be confident, but you also want to be realistic.
AP: There are more producers willing to hear our pitches now and wanting to pitch their ideas to us and that’s definitely a good thing.
I like to put writers on the therapy couch since it’s obvious we’re all a bit insane. If you could go back and give advice to your 18-year-old selves, what would you tell that teenager staring back at you?
AK: Don't be afraid to take chances and stick to your guns
AP: Write the movies you want to see. Van Damme makes a comeback.
Broken Road and Benderspink are producing. Writers repped by Benderspink, Gersh and Jeff Frankel.
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