Hot or Not
Carter Blanchard (COM’88) on the ups and downs of screenwriting| From First Person | By Carter Blanchard
"All that money went toward therapy, Stoli, and sushi, and none of the projects got made." Photo by Carter Blanchard
The conversation is always the same. I’ll be at a party, meet someone new, and they’ll ask what I do.
“I’m a screenwriter.”
“Oh — what movies of yours have I seen?”
“So what do you do for a living?”
I’m one of an unheralded Hollywood breed: the working-class screenwriter. Outside of the occasional unemployment check, I’ve been making a living in this business since 1994. But while I’ve come very close six times, I’ve yet to get a movie made. And I don’t walk this road alone — there are a lot of us out here.
Things started promisingly enough. I landed my first agent a year after moving to L.A. In 1992, I sold a script about a psychic con artist to USA TV, joined the Writers Guild, and started what I was sure would be the world’s greatest action script, set in the world of virtual reality (pre-Matrix). After two years of tearing my hair out, I was done, and my “boutique” agent had me Xerox forty copies to send out (on my dime). Then she decided it still needed “a lot of work.”
I did what every unknown writer without options would do. I fired her. Unfortunately, every prospective new agent shared her opinion. Just as I was contemplating a job at the 7-Eleven, a reader at William Morris gave my script glowing coverage, saying it had summer blockbuster potential. I sold it to Columbia Pictures, my first big spec sale.
My next script was based on a short film I made at BU, Frigid & Impotent, about two sexually frustrated serial killers who fall in love. By then, I rated superstar-agent Marty Bowen at United Talent Agency. He slipped my script to Drew Barrymore, and New Line bought it, with Michael Stipe producing. Suddenly Kurt Loder is talking about it on MTV News and I’m getting V.I.P. passes to R.E.M. concerts. After years of obscurity, I was hot.
Two years later, both projects went belly-up, and I’d blown my money on every nouveau riche cliché out there. My follow-up script was about a superhero in an S&M mask whose archenemy was a corrupt detective with a thing for poodles. It just scared people. I didn’t even finish the next one, and the one after that was so bad, it got me an earful from Marty. I finally took some rewrite gigs, including one in Tangiers to tweak Jean-Claude Van Damme’s dialogue on Legionnaire (though I mostly just stalked the actresses and did scene readings with JCVD in his trailer — he always made me play the girl). That job almost paid for my layover in Amsterdam on the way home.
Marty pulled a rabbit out of his hat by landing me an assignment at Disney to put a new spin on Robin Hood. Assignments at MGM and Universal followed quickly. Too quickly. There weren’t enough hours in the day, and I developed chronic hives trying to keep up. All that money went toward therapy, Stoli, and sushi, and none of the projects got made. I had a choice: forget about movies and get a real job, or recommit to this frustrating so-called career. Problem was, by then I’d forgotten why I wanted to write in the first place. The passion that once inspired the world's greatest action script was gone. So I asked myself, ‘What do I love?’
Movies about sharks, aliens, and ghosts.
I wrote a script about killer bugs. New Line made a preemptive offer on its first day out. No studio notes, it went straight out to directors, fast-tracked. I was so hot I went supernova. A year later New Line decided to make Snakes on a Plane instead.
You know Johnny Drama from Entourage? I became the writer equivalent, fondly recalling my mid-nineties glory days . . . when I crashed Drew Barrymore’s birthday party . . . when Alec Baldwin took me to the cigar club on Canon . . . when Van Damme told me I had nice legs. Somewhere along the line I turned forty. Though I’m not a religious man, I began to pray.
It worked. Last summer, I sold a script about near-death experiences to Fox Searchlight. Meetings and job offers followed. I had my heat back.
Then the writers strike happened. I figured out how long my savings would last this time, then flew East to make my divorced friends with teenagers feel better about their lives. I planned on taking a long break from Hollywood. But a week later I had a great idea for a sci-fi thriller. My best one yet, for sure.
What do I do for a living?
I write. Hot or not.