Drafting a Career

(l-r): Ray Wright, J.B. Bird ans Tasca Shadix

photograph by Jana Birchum

L.A. or not L.A.? It's the question every screenwriter faces, particularly those who are trying to make their first dent in the industry. Sure, it's a smog-choked, overcrowded, image-laden city, but it's also the place to do business, the entertainment epicenter where almost every contemporary screenplay is bought, sold, and produced. If you want to make it as a screenwriter, almost every student is told again and again, move to L.A.

Stephen Harrigan thinks it's good advice: "There's a kind of perversity about living in Austin where you think to live anywhere else would be to sell [your] soul, and I think that's a notion you maybe can't afford to have." It's a question, Harrigan says, of priorities: "The students of mine who say to me, 'More than anything in the world I want to be a screenwriter, I'm willing to do anything to be that, what should I do?' I don't dissuade them from moving to L.A. Because it's kind of hard not to notice that that's where it happens."

UT alum Stephen Blackburn is more direct: "Move to Hollywood as soon as possible."

It's advice some choose to ignore, seduced by Austin's quality of life and increasingly vibrant screenwriting community. And being out of the mainstream does have its advantages: There are producers, Tasca Shadix says, who are looking for regional perspectives and the type of fresh ideas that aren't always nurtured in the Hollywood screenwriting mills. Here are the stories of three who have stayed -- at least for now.

Success has come early for Tasca Shadix (M.F.A. '98): At 25, she already has a feature film in the pipeline. It all started when Shadix went to the International Film and Video Workshops in Rockport, Maine, where director Michael Miner read her script The Book of Stars and Lovely Things. (Shadix's entrance to the workshop was paid, fortuitously, by the Austin Heart of Film Festival after Shadix won the Student Short Script category with Off the Deep End in 1994.) The Stars script was optioned by Miner and eventually picked up by Shadowcatcher Entertainment, a young production company whose first release was this summer's Smoke Signals. Production on The Book of Stars ("and Lovely Things" was dropped from the title) began last summer with Mary Stuart Masterson in the lead role; shooting has wrapped and the picture is now in the final stages of post-production. Look for a preview during March's SXSW Film Conference.

Shadix says she found rewriting the most difficult part of the process, although, unlike many writers, she was able to retain creative control over her script. Most of it, anyway: She did check in one day to find that the director had given one of her characters an artificial foot. "Now it works okay," she admits. "Now I couldn't imagine him without his limp."

Despite the sale and, more importantly, production of the script, Shadix says her daily life hasn't changed that much: She still wakes up each morning to a waiting word processor and an agonizing case of writer's block. "It is a breakthrough, but I thought the breakthrough would change my life. ... I thought once I made it I'd say, 'Okay, I've made it,' but instead I'm just as anxious and insecure as before, and probably will stay that way." Supported by the Stars sale and a Michener Center postgraduate fellowship, she is currently working on a novel and two original screenplays.

More typical is the experience of J.B. Bird (M.A. '95): While he enjoys a solid local reputation and has had a hand in several promising projects, he has yet to see any of his scripts hit the big screen. Upon graduation, he wrote a series of literary adaptations for the legendary Texas director Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line), but none have been produced. All were "miss or near-miss in small, frustrating ways," Bird says, and he wonders now if he shouldn't have spent the time developing his own work. "You see why people get paid well to write scripts, because you have to satisfy the producer and the whims of another person. If you're trying to fit into another person's vision or another person's dream, it's pretty tough. If you're gonna be poor, I'd rather be poor in pursuit of my own dream."

His work has made the small screen, however: He spent a year as a writer and co-producer for Texas Entertainment News, which was broadcast on network affiliates throughout Texas. His current labor of love is a television documentary about the "unknown hero" John Horse, a black Seminole warrior who led the largest slave uprising in U.S. history. Recently awarded a grant from the Texas Council for the Humanities, he continues to raise funds and hopes to start filming next year. In the meantime, he's taken a 35-hour-a-week job writing for UT's business school to make ends meet, a move that's taken from his time to develop scripts but has given him a touch of economic security.

While he may not be coming soon to a theatre near you, Bird is satisfied with his progress. "I know it's going to take a while. Steve Harrigan said to me when I got out of school that one out of 10 is a good batting average [in screenwriting]. So I feel like I've just barely stepped up to the plate."

At 30, Ray Wright (M.F.A. '00) took longer to step to the plate than some of his colleagues, but he's already taken a pretty good swat at the ball. Although only in his second year at the Michener Center for Writers, Wright has already sold a screenplay to big-time Hollywood: His script The Apprentice is currently "in development" at Warner Bros. What that means, Wright explains, is a lot of difficult rewrites and no guarantee of production. "One of the things that's been the hardest to adjust to is that, when you get drawn into the Hollywood system, nothing of what you've written is sacred. It could be your favorite character or part of the story, and they'll just tell you flat-out, 'Lose it. We don't want it.' And you just have to accept that that's the tradeoff for being able to write professionally, that you don't have the final say. And that's hard."

Proud to call himself a corporate dropout, Wright came to the screenwriting trade after a rough couple of years in his former job. "Screenwriting became an increasingly attractive alternative to my 'promising' career as a psychiatric disability claims adjuster," Wright remembers. "Oddly enough, after several death threats and a series of satanic faxes I became disillusioned with the insurance business. 'How else might I earn a living?' I asked myself, and after a period of reflection I became convinced that my life would be improved if I could find a job where people paid me large sums of money to think up story ideas."

So far, so good, says Wright, who says the industry is more accessible than most people suspect. "Which is not to say I haven't worked hard, just that the studios are actively searching for new material and entry is far more merit-based than people think. Write a good commercial script and Hollywood opens its doors. It doesn't matter who you are or where you're from." -- J.H.

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