As part of our continuing 3Questions series, I present Ryan Jaffe, writer of the 20th Century Fox film The Rocker.
HBAD: So, tell us, how did you get your start?
RJ: I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1996, and moved here immediately after. I started in the mailroom at Industry Entertainment, then was promoted to work for producer Nick Wechsler, whom I assisted for almost four years. I left to write, took several detours in the process, including working as a reader for ICM and even quitting the business altogether for a year. But I still had the bug and came back, where a spec that never sold titled "The High Road" earned me many meetings with producers and studio executives and led to a two script deal at 20th Century Fox. The first pitch I sold them was called "The Rocker," which was made three years later. Peter Cattaneo directed and Rainn Wilson and Christina Applegate starred. I have sold several other TV shows and screenplays. Currently I am in the midst of writing a movie about the life of musician Jeff Buckley.
HBAD: What are the most difficult challenges you've encountered on your career path?
RJ: To be honest, every step is difficult and every success brings a whole new set of challenges. I think the present state of the film business may present the greatest challenge. Studios have trimmed back development significantly and there's simply much less work to go around. These days, it seems you have to write a great spec, with talent already attached before the studios decide to put any money towards it.
HBAD: What advice would you have for someone just starting out in this business, looking to get into the position you're in?
RJ: There are three things that I would advise to any aspiring screenwriter: The first, though it may seem counterintuitive, is to not write something that you think will sell, but something that shows how well you can write. Write about something you know, people you know. It still needs to read like a movie, but it doesn't have to be X-MEN or some huge franchise to get you noticed. You are much more inclined to get attention with your first script if you are writing great characters, and usually the characters that you can write best come from the people you know best.
Second, learn how to take a note. So many aspiring writers think they know what's best for their screenplays and are very sensitive to criticism. There are a lot of smart people in Hollywood who know what they're talking about and the writers that find success are usually the ones that are willing to hear their notes. A good rule in terms of receiving notes is that if you hear the note more than once, chances are you should take it.
Third, don't submit something, especially in the beginning, unless it's great. This is by far the biggest mistake aspiring writers make. It's an almost impossible task, because most people think their stuff is good, their best friend said it's good, they're anxious to put their great script out there, and they want to make a million dollars. The system is built for most people outside the system to fail. When they submit a script, it usually enters at an entry level reader's desk and must pass through several levels before it reaches the desk of someone that can actually make a decision for you. If your script is going to get all the way to that decision maker, it better be great. If it's not, you will receive a nice call or letter saying that "your script was great, but just not for us," and it will disappear from that recipient's radar forever. That avenue of opportunity, as far as that script is concerned, will be closed. I can't tell you how to figure out when your script is great. The best I can offer is to a) find a couple trusted people that are smart and will be brutally honest with you, and b) rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. I wrote eleven drafts of the script that got me all of my initial work, and it still needs improvement. Your intitial introduction to the film community needs to be special.