Thursday, March 4, 2010

3Questions: Ryan Raddatz - Man of Many Talents

As part of our continuing 3Questions series, I present Ryan Raddatz, an everyman if you will. He's a screenwriter, producer, composer, voice actor…all over the map.

"I guess you could say I run a freelance storytelling business, and I deliver whatever the client needs. Or you could just say I make stuff up, and then sell it, and then (if I’m lucky) I get to go make the stuff I made up. Sometimes it’s dreaming up entire universes (which we call “development”) and other times it’s taking an existing something (a book, blog, or idea) and developing it into something else (a tv show, movie, website), which you could call “adaptation.” Another big chunk of my time is spent somewhere in the middle of the creative process, taking an existing show or web idea and writing episodes for it. For example, I’ve written 19 episodes of the PBS kids series WordGirl. I also provide voices for the show.

"Oh, here’s a metaphor. Picture a piece of content (TV show, movie, website, whatever) as a house. The finished product is a lovely house that the audience gets to live in and enjoy. And in the business of home construction, I do many jobs. When I’m an actor, I’m doing the interior decorating. (Late in the homebuilding process.) When I’m composing, I’m doing the landscaping, which is one of the final steps before the audience moves in. When I’m writing episodes, I’m designing the layout of individual rooms that have to fit into this house. So, far all of these jobs are at the sub-contractor level—specific creative missions that relate to the overall blueprints. And when I’m developing or adapting something, then I’m the architect, setting the goals and boundaries for the entire project. I’m looking at the land this house will sit on, taking into account what kind of house the audience wants and can afford. What are the zoning laws? What does the neighborhood look like? Okay, enough. I’ve driven the content-as-house metaphor into the ground. "

HBAD: So, tell us, how did you get your start?

RR: I studied improvisation, theatre, and screenwriting at Northwestern, and spent my first seven years in LA acting, primarily. I had a good career as the “guy behind the counter,” and “door-to-door missionary” on a slew of your favorite shows, films, and commercials. Acting paid the bills (and provided health insurance) but at a certain point I found myself doing more improvising than scripted work. Producers and directors were asking me to improvise and essentially write my own material. Eventually I made the move to full time writing, and I-- Wait a minute. That’s technically what happened, but it’s doesn’t answer the question.
How did I get my start? Two things: friends and material.

FRIENDS: I can’t overstate the importance of (in my case) living in LA and working with as many people as possible. It’s all about collaboration. My first writing jobs (and 90% of my current writing jobs) came from people I already knew who trusted me and liked my work. When people complain that success in Hollywood all depends on who you know, I’m like, “Of course it does!” In my experience, for every job in Hollywood (acting, writing, set painting, whatever) there are 100 talented people that could do that job well. It’s just a fact—this city is overflowing with insanely talented people. Hooray. So how do you get a job when there are 99 other good-enough people out there vying for it? Someone has to trust you. And there’s only two ways to earn trust—your resume (which puts you in a smaller pool of qualified people, but still a sizeable group) or a direct personal connection, which is the best way. If I have a problem (which is all a job is for—solving problems) I’m going to want that problem solved by someone I trust, which means somebody I know can do a great job. And if I don’t know anybody, then I’ll look to a resume, which is just a document that says, “Here are things I’ve done, so that you might trust me.” I’ve been in LA eleven years, meeting people, collaborating, performing, supporting, and being social. I’ve been hired by friends, and I’ve had the chance to hire friends, and it’s a great feeling to know I’m paying my bills with creative work built on the foundation of successful collaborations.

MATERIAL: The second part of “How I got my start” was material. I cannot overstate the importance of having samples, a portfolio, a reel, whatever. Start now. Start yesterday. Decide what you want to do and go make samples that show how awesome you are at doing it. Everyone in LA is happy to meet you and hear what you do, but they can’t hire you unless you have already done a similar job. Who would hire a plumber who said, “I’ve never unclogged a drain before, but trust me, I think I’ll be really good at it.”? And if you haven’t been paid to do a similar job, it means having an awesome spec as a sample—something you wrote/acted/painted on your own, for free, as proof of your talent. This brings up a big point, which is the notion of job-hunting vs. job-doing. A few years ago I spent months toiling over a fantastic TV pilot script. Blood, sweat, tears, etc. in bringing it to life on the page. And I’ll never forget the moment when I slid it across the table to my agent. Four months of work, boiled down to 37 pages. I was thinking, “This is it. My work is done.” He picked it up, smiled and said, casually “Great! What’s next?” I had to laugh, because in that moment I saw the reality of being a creative person in Hollywood: You don’t work your ass off to get a job where you can stop working your ass off. You work your ass off to get a job where they pay you to keep working your ass off. You don’t do anything with the goal of “being done.” There is no “finished.” In fact (and I’m getting off tack here, but whatever) it’s not even enough to have just one project going on. I’ve found that, in order to pay my bills as a freelance writer, I need at least five projects moving at one time. Because out of five projects, only one or two will get to the point where I get paid. The other three will help establish relationships and move my craft along, but there’s a ton of creative energy that doesn’t directly translate into cash, and you can’t depend on one project, with a thousand ways it could die, to provide for the long term.

Whoa. I did it again. Totally went off course. This interview is a disaster. Thanks for sticking with it.

So that’s how I got my start: I hung out in LA long enough to generate some great material while being an active participant in the creative community. When those collaborators (friends) eventually needed me for a job, I had samples ready so they could convince their bosses I should be paid.

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

One challenge in any creative career is that there’s no road map for success, especially today. So much of the work is freelance, and the jobs come and go unpredictably. I can be scary to look at your calendar and think, “Wow, after next week I don’t have any paying gigs lined up…” To combat this anxiety, I think of myself as a small business with a workforce of one. This means I have to do everything any business would do—sales, marketing, branding, R&D, production—and I have to do it by myself, every day, just to pay the bills. That can be daunting, and I spend a ton of mental time tweaking my business methods. It really is entrepreneurial. And it’s a blast when a project comes through and you can recognize, “Not only did I write something I’m proud of, but I helped create the business circumstances that got it read/sold/produced.” Luckily, I have a great team who cover some of these business tasks—My agent handles sales, managers handle marketing, lawyer handles contracts, etc. But starting out, you do everything yourself, largely without advisors. It’s a wild ride.

HBAD: What advice would you have for someone just starting out in this business, looking to become a...well, multi-multi-hyphenate?

RR: Practice your craft. Iterate, iterate, iterate.

Publish your craft. I think Steve Jobs said, “Real artists ship.” Study your craft. The internet is limitless. Learn from the best. Start with Explore. And keep a journal of your adventures, because you’ll hate yourself in your 30’s when you can’t remember every excruciating detail of your passionate teens. Collaborate. Join a community to share, challenge, and inspire. And here’s the biggest one — Figure out what you’re going to do for a day job before you land in the real world. This is essential. Your day job can be anything, but it has to accomplish the following:

  1. It must cover your rent, health insurance, and bills in the city where your dream job already exists.
  2. It must allow you time/energy to pursue that dream job.
  3. It must not suck. Meaning, you have to picture yourself doing it nonstop for ten years, without wanting to give up on your dream job.

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