Breaking in with 'Break Even' - Part 1
Breaking in with 'Break Even' - Part 1
In our next series post that follows a Stage 32 Screenwriter's Journey, we're following CJ Walley, an optioned screenwriter who is working with a production crew on his first feature script, 'Break Even,' which was written on assignment. You may remember CJ for his outspoken, yet truthful posts, including this one: How This Rejected Writer Optioned a Goddamned Feature Script.
Over the next month or so, we'll be taking you along on CJ's journey, starting with his flight from England to Los Angeles, to his experience on set, all the way through to his return of what he calls a humbling, exciting, and prideful experience.
CJ Walley, left. (Photo by Jenny Harper Photography)
So here I am, six years into screenwriting and sitting in a familiar place, at my desk within the cold glow of my monitor, encased inside my tiny fish tank of a room with a view of the church spire in the distance that towers over this decaying old mining town that once helped fuel the engine houses here in the middle of England.
Things are bleak and have been for some time, but I find myself staring through lead bars and raindrops on this old Tudor window with a mug of tea in my hand, a smile on my face, and in an unfamiliar state; one consisting of excitement and pride.
Today I went clothes shopping with a curious question in my mind; “What do you wear in California in spring? What do you wear when sailing, on the beach, or in the desert?” You see, I’m about to make my first trip to Los Angeles to watch a crew shoot a feature script I’ve written on assignment - my first ever assignment.
Over thirty actors have signed on to be part of the cast of Break Even, an action thriller set in the North Pacific. Honey wagons and three bangers have been booked, whatever those are. Locations from Lancaster to the Channel Islands and Santa Barbara have been secured, wherever those are.
My friends and family can barely believe it and seeing their eyes and smiles beaming when we discuss my forthcoming six week adventure is wonderful because I know they’re my champions and this is as much a win for them at it is for me. It’s the dream I’ve been chasing for a long time now, and getting my first payment for writing brought a tear to my eye. I don’t want to show off but I’ve even gone and sprung for a new battery in my old Jeep. #ballin Those of you who know me (and that’s many of you on Stage 32, given that this place has been my screenwriting happy place for many years now), know I’m an outspoken screenwriter with opinions on the craft and career building that often go against the norm. I believe strongly in writers seeing themselves as artists foremost, embracing their voices unapologetically, and finding fulfillment through the process of creation rather than validation.
Ultimately, my philosophy is: Create art without fear and alignment will come in time. You just have to believe in yourself and have faith in the law of attraction.
For me at least, it seems to be working.
I plan to share more details on the production of Break Even and my time on set in forthcoming blogs. However, before that, I want to write about how I got here and what it’s been like working with a producer on my first assignment. Why? Because it all happened, unfolded, and proved to be nothing like I was told it would be. And, before you get worried, I mean only in a positive and inspiring way.
Breaking All The Rules
Look, I’m not going to beat around the bush here, I’m going to come straight out with it. My big break came when a producer found a script of mine on a free script hosting website. A script I’d uploaded to that website four years prior. In fact, it was the second script I’d ever written. This wasn’t just any producer either, this was a producer who was one of the youngest filmmakers ever to win an Emmy, a producer who’s had a #1 Box Office hit, a producer with over forty production credits to his name.
Now, that free script hosting website wasn’t Stage 32 or my own platform, Script Revolution, but it just as easily could have been. In this case it was Simply Scripts, which is run by the amazing Don Boose.
People have told me over and over that relying on free script hosting websites can’t work, and, on top of that, the script in question was exactly the kind we’re told we shouldn’t write. Bold, gritty, and focused foremost on entertainment, this was a script written at the time by a naive screenwriter who knew no fear because he was yet to be exposed to the fear machine.
The producer loved it, and went on to read my various blog posts online to make sure I was the kind of person they could work with before reaching out to me. Being a veteran of the business, they played it very smart, choosing to send me a book they’d written about filmmaking and even taking time to write a lovely note inside praising my craft - my first fan mail! I loved the book and admired their approach to producing and directing. We soon arranged a Skype call where we hit it off big time, discovering we had a remarkable amount in common and very similar tastes. I thought we were talking just to discuss their book but then they went on to explain the entire process of discovering my script, how they loved it, and how they’d already spoken to a partner with the intention to make it.
My jaw hit the floor. You see, the alignment process tends to work in the background without our knowledge. It’s often only at the eleventh hour that we come to realise we’re on the brink of a new deal or working relationship.
Now, the more astute among you may have already registered that I opened this blog talking about an assignment and moved on to talking about a spec script. Well, long story short, the partner advised the spec script wasn’t ideal for the current marketplace and detailed why. When my producer talked about making some changes to address those concerns, I had one response - “Dude, let me write you a new script from scratch. It’ll be even better!”
They Told Me I Would Hate It
While trying to break in over the years, there’s been this saying I’ve continually heard from what I understood to be working writers; “It only gets harder.” The image I’d been fed about writing for an industry member was so dire, it filled me with dread. Writing spec script after spec script felt tough enough and I’m sure many of you are familiar with how much that can punish our mental health. The thought of things being even tougher on my weakened psyche, should I finally get paid to do what I love, genuinely put me off doggedly pursuing a career, especially one in Hollywood.
So imagine my shock when my first assignment turned out to be probably the best writing experience of my life. No horrid notes that conflicted one another, no painting over my creativity, and nothing but respect and admiration for my efforts.
Sure, I had my own doubts as I submitted the first drafts of those early acts. My anxiety conjured up catastrophes in my mind that, thankfully, failed to materialise. The opposite was true. My producer was bursting with praise for my efforts. Eventually, fear morphed into faith to the point that I was proud to send what I’d created and eager to hear their feedback. Call me sappy, but I burned some midnight oil to make sure they got the complete first draft on his birthday.
Something I’ve come to realise is that, as screenwriters, we have a habit of demonising producers and development executives and we tar them all with the same brush. They are simply people, many of whom are either creatives themselves, or have tremendous respect for the creative process. They don’t have to be the bad guys.
My relationship with my producer is like that of a best friend. No it IS that of a best friend. We message on a daily basis, have in-jokes, share news, and most importantly, fuel each other’s energy. I’m kept up-to-date on pretty much all developments from studying audition tapes to picking out props. Hell, we chose a hero speedboat to buy together while on a random Skype call one Monday. By Wednesday my producer was sending me videos of them trying it out on the water.
I think the most intimidating point was when the script was sent out for coverage. I was expecting harsh criticisms and lengthy rewrites but instead got glowing praise with a couple of pointers to consider. The same came from actors we approached regarding roles, all of whom we agreed together would be the best fit and many of which we aimed high with. At least one has come out of retirement to play a lead role while another said, “You just don’t see great roles like this for women,” which was as big a compliment as this writer can get.
It all feels almost too good to be true, especially with being flown over 5,000 miles to join in the fun. It all seems completely at odds with how I was told this would be. If this is what professional screenwriting is really like, then sign me up for a lifetime.
Maybe this is the difference between the indie scene and the studio scene, or perhaps I just got lucky with my first assignment. I don’t know. I can’t say. Either way, I feel incredibly fortunate.
Ultimately, I feel this is the payoff we get when we patiently wait for alignment between our work and industry members, and I did wait a long time for the right person to approach me. Providing our writing authentically represents our artistic voice.
It should pull in those who think like us;
The people who want to see the same movies being made.
The people we will best work with.
The people who want to see us succeed just as much as we want to see them succeed.
If you take anything from this blog entry, take comfort knowing that writing on assignment can be just as joyful as writing on spec. In fact, it can be even more rewarding since you have a champion right there not only cheering you on and bringing out the best in you, but also trying their hardest to turn your vision into reality once the words are on the page.
Good producers shouldn’t be hounding you, they should be humbling you.
I’ve been saying for some time now that having fun is an essential part of writing an entertaining script and I’m extending that philosophy now - having fun is an essential part of making an entertaining movie, full stop.
Next time I plan to report back on the excitement and lessons learned during the pre-production stages and then onto my first forays both into Los Angeles and onto a film set. Until then, keep writing like all your dreams are going to come true because I’m discovering that, by maintaining that very mindset, they genuinely can.
CJ Walley: I’m here for the gritty movies, the rebellious movies, the b-movies, those features that are here to be good old fashioned entertainment and pack a punch that’s a lot harder than their budgets would suggest.
I love pulp and exploitation, I like car chases and gunplay, but I also love depth and themes that resound with viewers at the core of their being. I like dialogue that crackles and has weight behind the words. I love scenes that twist and turn as characters vie for power or fall for each other.
2012 was the year I started writing and it’s been a hell of a ride. Following one of my first scripts being featured by Amazon Studios, I’ve been cutting my teeth writing shoestring budget short scripts and giving them away to up-and-coming filmmakers. Now I’m here for the independents and timing couldn’t be better. We need a goddamn uprising and I'm helping drive it with a recent feature script option in Vancouver and another feature in pre-production in Los Angeles.
I write what I call nextploitation; hard-hitting, in your face content with a nod to the past and one eye on the future. I’m talking progressive values mixed with nostalgic hedonism. My twist? I write female characters, often as leads, that don’t suck. I do this because I care deeply about my characters being the real deal.
I’m all about the craft and all about the love. It doesn't matter to me if it's Tarantino or Twilight, I always look for the good in everything. I’m not here to take centre stage. I’m here to knuckle down and prove myself in the hope the teams I join go on to grow with our audience.
I’m all about helping change the industry too, in any way I can and for the better. In 2016, I started the script hosting website Script Revolution, offering the same benefits of sites such as the Blacklist and Inktip but with none of the costs.
That sound cool? If so, let’s talk.
(Learn More about CJ at: https://cjwalley.com/)
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About the Author
I’m here for the gritty movies, the rebellious movies, those films that pack a punch far harder than their budgets would suggest. As a spec script writer, I love to create pulpy thrillers, mostly with female leads, that feature strong themes, brutal action, witty dialogue, and twisting scenes tha...