Last week I got the opportunity to have a chat with screenwriter Joe Gazzam (@JOE_GAZZAM).
Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Joe who?” If you look Joe up on IMDb, you won’t find much. He doesn’t have any credits listed, but he has actually been working on paid projects and selling specs within the studio system for the last ten years. A Black List writer, you may not know Joe’s name, but you’ve probably seen his work (he has been a writer on such films as 21 Jump Street and Step Up Revolution).
I was particularly interested to speak to Joe because he knows what this industry is really like — not what it’s like for the Aaron Sorkins and Shane Blacks of the world — but what it is like for 99.9% of screenwriters working in Hollywood.
In our interview, Joe talks about how he got his break, his daily work routine, writing assignments, independent film financing, and why it’s so important to live in LA.
LA Screenwriter (LA): How did you get your start as a screenwriter?
Joe Gazzam (JG): I was sort of the cliché. After working a bunch of crappy jobs, I had this revelation. I wrote one screenplay, and realized it was the only thing I wanted to do. I was in Atlanta at the time — never been to California, didn’t know anyone — literally just packed everything in the car and headed out. Then I started hanging out with this guy who had a girlfriend who was repped.
Now, the only way you can get an agent for the most part — other than screenwriting contests and what have you — is to basically browbeat someone into forwarding your script along. So my friend and I browbeat her, and she gave my script to her agent, and that’s how I got my first representation.
The first real spec that I wrote was called Scared Straight. I dumped the agent that I first had and used the Scared Straight script to get an agent at ICM. We went out with it, and it ended up going to New Line, and then it got on the Black List. Then I wrote another spec that went to New Regency, and based off of that I got the assignment to write 21 Jump Street. Then the writer’s strike hit, but when we got back, I was rolling. I sold a TV show to Syfy and was starting to go from assignment to assignment — I did an animated thing at Fox, ended up writing Barbarella, and then last year I wrote two things: one for Disney, one for Universal.
LA: So you’ve done quite a bit, actually.
JG: Yeah, and I wrote this in the rules [Look for Joe's list of screenwriting "un-rules" tomorrow], but a lot of times assignments are a trap. You’re getting paid which is great, but in this last year, for instance, I had two assignments. That meant that for the entire year there were only a couple of people — a few at each studio — who were reading anything I was writing. So for a year you’re out of the spotlight of everyone else. Also, when you go from assignment to assignment, your quote stays the same. You’re not getting any sort of bump. The only way to do that is to write something original.
LA: When you do assignments, is there much chance of getting your name on the project?
JG: It depends. A lot of the time with assignments, you’re doing rewrites, and down the line there are a million screenwriters on the project. It gets really convoluted. That happened to me when I did Step Up Revolution: didn’t get credit. 21 Jump Street: didn’t get credit. There were just so many writers on it, and so much weight is placed on the first writer. You hope to be the first writer on an assignment, but that doesn’t happen often. So even when I do a ton of work, it doesn’t always translate into credit.
LA: You mentioned you’ve sold specs as well?
JG: Yeah, I was kind of lucky. I was three for three, and that’s how I started to get the assignments — with the heat from those. But now I’m trying to go back and start doing more spec work to rekindle things.
LA: Can you comment on what it feels like to sell a spec script?
JG: It feels great when you’re poor! It’s funny, because I was working a really horrible job while writing the first spec. We had this nutty lady at my job who was running the place, and I had organized this office-wide coup. We were all going to go into the guy who owned the place and say, “This lady’s nuts. You have to get rid of her.” But she found out about my coup and then canned me. At that point, I was halfway through my first spec, and I was dating a girl at the time who is now my wife. She basically said, “Look, I believe in you, I believe in your writing. I’ll support you. Just finish the spec.” So she did that, I finished the spec, and then it went to New Line. So I was rolling.
LA: What were you doing before you started working as a screenwriter?
JG: I did probably two of the worst jobs on the planet. One of them was retail management, and not even at a cool store – I was at Sears. I was the men’s store manager, and that is where I had my epiphany. I remember it very clearly: I was getting screamed at in the middle of the floor because I had arranged the underwear rack incorrectly, and I was just thinking to myself, “What have I done with my life?” As soon as my boss was done screaming, I went upstairs to the electronics department, bought a laptop, and just started writing.
The other job before that was as a Claims Adjuster, which is literally nothing but getting yelled that all day long.
LA: I saw on your Facebook page that you’re coming out with a novel as well?
JG: Yeah, I think that’s something that’s really helpful for writers: to diversify. I wrote a YA novel called Uncaged which should be out in October [check out Uncaged here], and I’m working on another one now which will be a YA series.
LA: Do you think it’s important to diversify from a career perspective or for your own education as a writer?
JG: I think, for me, it’s for the career. Particularly with the second one, which will be a series, I’m hoping to translate it into a movie and be able to write those movies.
LA: Do you think it’s easier to sell a novel than a screenplay?
JG: I don’t know if it is or not, to be honest with you. If you’ve got heat of any sort, then it’s easy. But I don’t know: to come out of the blue with a novel, I think it’s about as hard as it is selling a screenplay, to be honest with you.
LA: You said you moved from Atlanta to LA. Do you feel like it’s essential to be in LA in order to sell a script?
JG: At the time, for me, absolutely. But that was about 10 years ago. Now, you could probably pull it off, but I would still move here even if I were starting out today. Because, again, if you’re not repped you’ve got to find someone else who’s repped, because how else are you going to get someone to forward your script along? You can try and reach out, but that’s never going to replace having a friend who’s repped and being able to say, “Hey, give this to your agent.” In LA, you’re constantly inundated with people. You’re meeting people everywhere. It’s a town built on connections, so I think even if I started today, I would move out here.
LA: In today’s climate it feels like all the movies coming out are sequels or superhero movies — they’re all tent-pole things. It feels as though there’s very little space for new writers trying to sell their original little spec scripts. Do you think there’s still a chance for aspiring writers out there?
JG: Yeah, sure, it happens all the time. I mean, you’re right, there is less space, for sure. But spec sales have even picked up a little bit this year. A good idea and a good script will always find its way.
In terms of what gets made, that’s a whole different story, because studios only make a few films a year, so they’re going to put all the emphasis on that kind of stuff. That’s a completely different discussion, but in terms of selling, I think you still have a good chance of selling a spec.
LA: It sounds like you’ve worked almost entirely within the studio system. How do you feel about the rise of the independent film?
JG: I think it’s cool. I would love to see financing diversify more. I think it’s sort of heading that way — heck, you’ve even got Kick Starter at this point. I think the more independent the financing, the better the chance of having a good movie. The less hands involved in any sort of creative process, the more pure it’s going to be. I think it’s great – the more options a writer has, the better.
LA: What is your writing routine? How do you go about your job, day to day?
JG: You know, I think it was from all the years of corporate nonsense, but I’m super structured. I built an office in my backyard, so I literally come out here at eight o’clock every day, I write until lunch, take a lunch break, maybe work out just to clear my head, and then I’m right back at it until about five. So I’m pretty much holed up in here all day long, just grinding away.
LA: How much do you write in a day on average?
JG: Well, there’s two different sides. There is the planning stage, when I’m coming up with ideas and starting to outline — sort of cracking the story, all that stuff — which is the hard calculus part. That stuff always varies, because half the time you’re punching the wall and pulling your hair out, so you’re not getting a lot done in terms of volume. Once I actually have everything planned out, because I’m pretty detailed in my outlines, I can pound away pretty good. I get about eight or nine good pages done in a day. So in terms of a first draft, it doesn’t take me much more than a couple weeks.
LA: If you had to describe the life of a professional screenwriter in one word (or a sentence), what would it be?
JG: In one word: “Grind.” In one sentence: “There are a lot of people, distractions and obstacles trying to stand between you and good work: don’t let them.”