How I got that job

“any helpful suggestions? tips? ways to break into the business and the usual fodder?” — kornleaf 

For those interested, here is the complete tale of how I went from nameless obscurity to b-list screenwriter.

In 1988 I was an occasionally-produced playwright living in Brooklyn. I knew that I would never be taken seriously as a playwright unless I got produced in Manhattan somewhere. But how, I wondered, could I let theater people in Manhattan know about my work? I had no money and I knew no one.

I thought, okay: what I need is a kind of theatrical work that requires no sets, no light cues, no sound cues, no director, no producer and no actors.

Given those restrictions, I chose monologues. I had a number of monologues I’d written as audition pieces for actor friends in Brooklyn and I pulled a few more from the stack of unproduced plays I had sitting around. The pieces, for whatever reason, usually involved a character describing some traumatic urban event.

At that time there were a number of theaters and “performance spaces” south of 14th Street, including Home, Funambules (later Nada), Gusto House, Dixon Place and the Knitting Factory. All of these spaces had late-night “variety shows,” where almost anyone could perform for five minutes. Pretty much all you’d have to do is come to one of the evenings, find out who was in charge of booking them, and ask to be put on the list for the next week. Sometimes the person in charge would ask you to submit material but very rarely was I denied a booking because of that. It was five minutes of time during a late-night show, what was at stake?

So I got on at Dixon Place and Funambules. I chose strong pieces that were guaranteed to get a reaction, often with me performing with as much force and intensity as I could muster. The important thing was that I wanted to be clear. I didn’t want anyone in the audience to wonder what was going on; I made sure that, whatever else happened, whether they loved it or hated it, I had their attention for five minutes. They might like the piece or they might hate it, but they weren’t going to be unclear on what I was saying.

The audience for these shows was usually other performance artists and theater folk, so it wasn’t long before word spread that I was worth watching for five minutes and I had little trouble getting booked on the rest of the downtown circuit. Within a year I was getting my own solo late-night shows, where I would perform an hour or so of these monologues.

A small sample of the dozens of flyers I made to advertise my solo shows, and the professionally-made program for my off-Broadway solo show.

One of my first solo shows was at Home, and went very well. After the show, the artistic director of the space congratulated me and asked me if I had any plays that I thought would be good for the space.

And yes, I did. I had a play I had just finished that afternoon, One Neck, about a serial killer who crashes a Long Island dinner party. I handed the script for One Neck to the guy and before long (if you count 3 years as “before long”) One Neck was produced off-Broadway.

Three cards for different presentations of One Neck.  The first featured both James Urbaniak and Steven Rattazzi, the second featured future-Emmy-winner Camryn Manheim and the off-Broadway production featured future Tony-and-Emmy-winner Allison Janney.

One Neck was not a huge financial success but it was popular enough and well-reviewed enough to get a little attention from movie people. A producer asked me to adapt it into a screenplay, which went nowhere for a long time, except that it eventually ended up on the desk of another movie producer, who asked me to work on a screenplay he had, a romantic comedy set in the Hamptons. I had never written a romantic comedy before, but as long as someone was asking me to write a screenplay I was happy to be paid to learn.

I wrote many drafts of that romantic comedy script and when the producer felt it was done, he sent if off to CAA. CAA brought it to the attention of one Warren Beatty, who decided, out of the blue, to make it his next movie.

Now then, remember, I was still an obscure, downtown playwright in New York. The fact that Warren Beatty was interested in my script made me news in the world of script sales in Hollywood.

An executive at Dreamworks, Nina Jacobson, read my script (which eventually became the one of the biggest mega-bombs of all time, Town and Country, without my name on it) and asked to meet with me when she was in New York talking to new writers. I pitched her an idea for a movie about a cat that saves the world from a nuclear disaster (“Die Hard with a cat” was my four-word headline pitch) and while she didn’t buy that idea, she was amused enough to offer me a job working on what she described as “an animated film about talking ants.”  The ant movie was, apparently, a low-enough priority for the studio that they were willing to take a chance on a writer who had never had a movie produced before.

There are two lessons to be learned here. 

The first is, produce yourself.  Make something and get it out there, any way you can.  The advent of the internet makes this easier than ever.  You can work from your own home for free.

The second is, an agent will not necessarily help you.  While I did get an agent as a result of One Neck‘s success, everything that happened in this story happened in spite of, not because of that agent’s work on my behalf.
hit counter html code


19 Responses to “How I got that job”
  1. Anonymous says:


    Finally! Knew someone would get you to reveal your secret background. Ok, I can accept the narrative ending up at that “little” ant movie, it has an absurdist twist. But I just have a hard time picturing the person doing all that protagonist-analysis, as someone who was standing on a stage doing monologues in such places like Home, etc. Just curious – what attracted you to operating in those situations? I only recall the early 80s publics in NYC, but was out by the late 80s.


    • Todd says:

      Re: Ants?

      My story-analysis skills were granted to me by none other than Jeffrey Katzenberg. When I was working on Antz I would be in story meetings with Jeffrey (and often five or six others) and I would be talking about scenes in terms of tone or structure or ideology and Jeffrey kept on saying “Stop, stop, stop. What does the guy [that is, the protagonist] want?!” I found this behavior alarming at first, but he said it so often, five or six times a day it seemed, that I finally wrote it down on a postcard and stuck it up over my computer. I went into the Antz job an experimental downtown playwright and came out a Hollywood professional. It is up to the reader to decide if that was a step up, down or sideways, but that’s how it happened.

      • Anonymous says:

        Re: Ants?

        The decisive moment for the origin of the blog’s title even. Illuminating situation, certainly crystal-clear. This posting has been like one of Marvel Comics when they include a smaller section that retells the whole origin. But seriously, today what does the one side of you offer the other – does the old spirit of the experimental downtown playright have anything to offer the Hollywood professional? Or is it akin to you look the other way when passing by, that guy you used to know, he was ok..etc? Because I can not imagine where the “experiment” ever enters in once the words “Hollywood” and “professional” are uttered conjoined in the same sentences. Still, always reading!


        • Todd says:

          Re: Ants?

          Sometimes I read my old work and can’t help but think how much of a career I might have had if I had understood story structure at, say, 18 instead of 35. Other times I lament the loss of that young writer who didn’t know what the hell he was doing and had to make stuff up as he went along, relying on intuition and taste instead of formula and tradition. The goal, perhaps, is to keep innocence flowing over a solid foundation of experience, like syrup over waffles perhaps. But you can’t go home again.

  2. craigjclark says:

    Town and Country?

    I guess this is one of those cases where WGA arbitration was a blessing.

  3. ghostgecko says:

    I’d probably watch a movie about a cat that saves the world. WTF do executives know?

    • Todd says:

      9/11 kind of put the kibosh on my “cat saving the world” idea; it involved a bunch of terrorists who hijack Air Force One (this was before Air Force One) as it’s on its way to a peace summit. But one day I hope to revive that project.

  4. ayrn says:

    Couple questions, if you don’t mind (and if you do, I don’t mind being deleted 🙂 ). How much of your writing was and is solo? For example, do you have a group to workshop/bounce ideas off of? Also, how do you stay motivated for solo writing?

    • Todd says:

      All my actual writing I do alone. I do have what I call a “research assistant,” who I’ll bounce ideas off of or call for technical advice (she’s great at fight scenes). I’ve never had a writing partner.

      I do often have a “group” to workshop with: the producers and/or studio executives who control the project. It’s relatively rare that I write a screenplay on spec; there’s no market for it these days.

      As for staying motivated, I simply give myself artificial deadlines. I give myself eight weeks to write a screenplay. That might sound protracted but for me it’s quite leisurely. Think about it: a screenplay has 120 pages and there are 56 days in eight weeks. That works out to a little over 2 pages of screenplay a day. And that’s just not that hard. What’s hard is getting the gig to write the screenplay in the first place.

      Of course, I should also add that I never start writing a screenplay before it’s been extensively outlined already. An outline, for me, is a 40-page treatment (double-spaced) that describes every scene in the movie in prose form.

      • tenebrae says:

        Wow, would you be willing to share one of those outlines? I’m very curous as to what one would look like.

        • Todd says:

          They simply describe, in present tense, the movie on a scene-by-scene basis. Exactly the way you’d describe a movie you’ve just seen to a friend of yours.

          “There’s this paleontologist, Alan Grant, and he’s working in the Southwest digging up dinosaur bones, and he’s got this girlfriend and she wants kids but he’s not sure if he wants to commit, and then one day this guy shows up in a helicopter, and Alan’s really pissed because the guy is ruining his dig, but then it turns out the guy in the helicopter is John Hammond, who’s really rich, and Hammond offers to finance Alan’s research for five years if he’ll come to this “experimental zoo” that Hammond wants to open…”

          Like that, but a little more formal and a little more detailed.

  5. urbaniak says:

    Ah, the “One Neck” reading from February..1990. If I’m not mistaken my voice had changed just the week before.

    I’m reminded of the joke you wrote for the downtown variety show we worked on in 1994 where I reminisced about the glory days of the early ’90s. Now we can actually do that without it being a joke.

    • Todd says:

      Ah yes, when we’d all pile into the Geo Prism and drive down to the multiplex to see Silence of the Lambs while listening to Nirvana.

  6. mcbrennan says:

    Ah, the age-old Horatio Alcott story…

    Thanks for this. As I continue to loiter aimlessly around the service entrance of the professional writing world, I appreciate all the advice/perspective I can get, and the “produce yourself” lesson is something I need to remember. I used to direct a lot of short films and write/produce short plays, and over the past several years have spent far more time writing in a room alone than getting things out there or performing my material myself. So I appreciate that reminder.

    And needless to say, it was fun hearing about your salad days.

    Also, and I’m sure this won’t surprise you, your story/advice here echoes the words of almost every other professional I’ve spoken with, namely that agents typically arrive well after things are already in motion (at least in an early-career/first-time writer situation) and aren’t necessarily very useful in the first place.

    • Todd says:

      Re: Ah, the age-old Horatio Alcott story…

      When people ask me “How do I get an agent?” I tell them “When your career is going well enough that you need an agent, don’t worry, one will appear.” That is, when you are making enough money at your work that someone might profit from taking ten percent of it, you will have no trouble at all finding an agent. Before that, they don’t want to know about you.

      The “useless agent” tag, I should add, does not apply to all agents. In my case, it was two specific agents, working for the William Morris Agency, who not only did not ever find me work but actively sabotaged every career advance I made on my own, including my movie sale for One Neck, which my agent gave away to a producer for nothing, in a deal which continues to stymie my career to this day, and my efforts on Town and Country, which my agent insisted I not work on and which was the path through which I accomplished everything else.

      One last agent story. In July of 1997, my agent at WMA called me into her office to tell me that they were dropping me as a client. At that time, I had had three movies made of my work, including Antz, and Warren Beatty attached to a script I’d written. When I told them that, as a writer with three produced screenplays and a fourth with Warren Beatty attached, I was in the top nth percentile of members of the WGA, my agent simply gestured to her phone and said “Todd, the phone is right there and it’s not ringing.”

      I sighed, took my box of scripts home, called a guy at ICM, and six weeks later had a three-picture deal at Dimension.

      That agent is no longer in the business, by the way.

  7. kornleaf says:

    wow, now I feel somewhat famous
    as if
    “in the miserable annal of earth I have been duely enshrined”
    I am having real trouble developing themes

    but that does help, thanks

    • Todd says:

      On the subject of “theme,” read this.

      Jeffrey Katzenberg is also very strong on theme. When I was working on Antz he kept mentioning Beauty and the Beast, which is also very strong thematically. The theme is “Beauty is only skin deep,” and every character reflects that theme in some way. Belle is beautiful on the outside and beautiful on the inside, the Beast is beautiful on the inside but ugly on the outside, Gaston is beautiful on the outside but ugly on the inside, etc.

      Offhand I can’t remember what the theme of Antz is. That was a long time ago.

      • kornleaf says:

        Thank you again for being more than helpful, again.
        You know, I actually had a discussion with one of my friends who is an ardent Thoreauean about Jurassic Park, we came to the conclusion that there were a few parallels with the serpent/dragon from the Beowulf; it only attacked Beowulf’s people because his environment was disturbed. If Man left it good and well alone then the death and destruction caused by the dragon would never had occurred.
        If man left dinosaurs’ environment alone (left them dead), everything would have been hunky-doory.
        We concluded that this film (and the novel) was also about how man would eventually destroy himself.
        YAY hubris!

        • Todd says:

          Think of theme as the channel in the middle of the river. If you want the boat to go fast, you stick to the channel. When you know what your theme is, it makes many creative decisions a lot easier. Once you decide your theme is something like, say, “Beauty,” then you can look at each character and plot point and see if it reinforces or reflects on that theme. If it does, it strenthens the theme, if it doesn’t, maybe you should adjust it so that it does.

          A lot of times you’ll see a movie and afterward you’ll be talking about it with friends and someone will say “What was that one character doing in there? That didn’t make any sense.” A lot of times, those characters or scenes are put in for thematic reasons, but their context gets changed or removed in the editing process, leaving only the oddball character dangling out there in the breeze.