Thursday, July 30, 2009

3Questions: Valerie Alexander - Screenwriter

As part of our continuing 3Questions series, I present Valerie Alexander, a screenwriter, producer and director whose projects have included adapting the novel Social Crimes, with Joel Schumacher attached to direct, adapting Michael Chepiga's play Getting & Spending, for Catherine Zeta Jones, creating the TV series Gangster, Inc. for CubeVision, and her original screenplay, PR, which has been optioned many times, but is still an orphan. Valerie made her directing debut with the short film Making the Cut, a modest festival hit.

As she tells it, this
"involves a lot of procrastination and a lot of time spent waiting for the phone to ring, coupled with brief spurts of 16-hour days either writing or on set. It also involves a lot of relationship management. If I could go back and start over, I would have put a lot more effort into staying in contact with people. Never underestimate the value of buying someone lunch."

HBAD: How did you get your start?

VA: I wrote a great script and people wanted to be part of it. I know that sounds cocky, but it is the absolute truth of this industry -- there are only two ways to get ahead: have talent, or have access to talent. The great majority of people here do not have talent. It is very important to befriend these people. Assistants are the most important. The only way an assistant gets to the next level is by finding a great piece of material and passing it on to his boss. Do you know how you can tell when your script sucks? When the person who just read it hands it back. It might be while the words, "This is one of the best things I've ever read..." are coming out of her mouth, but as soon as she hands it back to you, without asking if she can show it to her boss, her roommate, her close friend the B-list actor, that's when you know it's not ready for the market. A great script is like an Neodymium magnet. It attracts everything. My first great script (which was far from the first one I'd written), attracted producers who staged a reading, which got me managers and talent attached to that script, which went through more producers and more talent, and is currently in development with yet another set of producers. I don't know if it will ever get made, but it's gotten me a lot of work on a lot of other things, which is what a good script is supposed to do.

The other thing that happened was that that script was read by two assistants at ICM, who passed it on to a former ICM assistant who now worked for Matt Bierman at Phoenix Pictures. It wasn't the right script for Phoenix, but Matt liked it and wanted to bring me in to pitch for an open writing assignment on an adaptation that Joel Schumacher was directing. I worked on the pitch for over a week, but the day before I was supposed to meet with Joel, he hired someone else to write the script. Now, this next part is almost impossible to believe, but Matt stood up for me -- an unknown, unsold, unproduced writer -- and demanded that Joel take the meeting anyway, since I had been working so hard on the pitch. I drove to Joel's house in the hills the next day (knowing another writer had already been hired), pitched my heart out, and by the time I got back down the hill to where I had cell phone coverage, I had the job. As with 90% of all projects that studios buy or develop, many things changed and that movie didn't make it to the screen, but I will never forget what both Matt and Joel did for me that day. I am still in contact with Matt (who is one of the best and nicest execs in town) and every once in a while run into Joel, who always gives me a great big hug and asks, "Whatever happened to that movie we were working on?" Given his tenure in this industry, I imagine that's a safe greeting for him with just about anyone he somehow recognizes, but it still makes me feel great.

HBAD: What are the most difficult challenges you've encountered on your career path?

VA: The biggest challenge for everyone who is not already on the "short list" (and by that I mean the 6 writers, 8 directors, and 15 or so actors whose name alone gets the movie greenlit) is the complete absence of true representation. Nobody wants to do the work to build someone else's career for 10% anymore. Everyone wants to be a producer or, since that's illegal for agencies and they don't do it (wink-wink), a "packager." There is no longer a business model of just finding work for clients and taking a percentage.

Every job I've ever gotten, I found and pursued on my own, with my agents and/or managers merely setting up meetings, and even sometimes not that much. I think there is a tremendous opportunity for someone with connections to buyers to really hustle and make a lot of money representing writers and directors for hire, but the problem is, that's not annuity money. Those checks don't come in for the rest of your life whether you are still working or not, and so I guess it's not enough of an incentive anymore. The sad thing for me is that I miss the days (long before my time, so I guess I don't really "miss" them) when being a skilled writer or director got you work. Now, being a good writer is 80% of the job, and being a self-marketing expert is the other 20%.

HBAD: What advice would you have for someone just starting out in this business, looking to become a screenwriter?

VA: Anyone in high school or college right now should stay away from Hollywood for at least a year and LIVE! You can bike across Europe or work at a factory in Bangalore or at a law firm in Memphis, it doesn't matter, but if you want to write, you have to have life experiences to write about. Movies about Hollywood generally don't work, because outside of Hollywood, most people don't care about this business (sure, they're obsessed with the fame and the stars, but the industry...not so much).

People who come straight out of school and work here without any other life experience get a very skewed view of what the real world is like, and have a very hard time creating real characters to inhabit the worlds they create. If you have the luxury of spending a year in the Peace Corps, or Teach for America, or even just being an office drone at a technology park, you'll be so much more interesting to this town once you get here, you can't imagine. That's not to say you should give up your art while "living." By all means, write, shoot video, edit, hone your craft, but, as they say in the intelligence community, "you gotta live out among 'em."

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