By Daniela Zaccheo
Navigating the cut-throat world of Hollywood as a screenwriter can be daunting. The competition can be fierce and the rejections plentiful, but the rewards can also be great. The experience of seeing your work make its way from script to screen makes all the struggles worthwhile. The key to overcoming those inevitable obstacles is perseverance, along with a fierce determination and dedication to your craft. Award-winning Screenwriter Tom Grey has seen that persistence pay off, and offers refreshingly positive insights into the world of screenwriting. He was kind enough to sit down with Mason’s Road and share his thoughts on dealing with rejection, his inspirations, and remaining true to your craft.
In this issue of Mason’s Road, we are contemplating the theme of “Truth.” How do you stay true to your writing and your creative process, especially in Hollywood? Have you ever been asked to drastically change or alter any of your screenplays?
Ha! People can’t truly call themselves screenwriters in Hollywood until they’ve been asked to drastically rewrite their screenplay. Generally speaking, there are so many cooks in the creative kitchen in screenwriting that it’s amazing anything ever gets made. Your manager (if you have one) might have some thoughts before she takes the script out. If you do option it, then there will almost definitely be a rewrite or two from the executives before they take the project out to talent. At this point, assuming you haven’t yet been replaced by another writer (and that writer hasn’t already been replaced by another writer), you may get some more notes from a particular actor or director. And then when you finally get a draft of a script that everyone can agree on, your executive producer will read an article about how China’s box office growth is exploding and ask you to set the entire story in Hong Kong.
This may sound terrifying to a writer, and in some ways it can be, but sometimes this process can actually grow a story in a positive way. A good writer is in a constant balancing act of keeping an open mind, while also fighting for his characters. For me, it all starts with those original drafts. I stay true to myself by writing the draft that I want to see first. Everything after that is just a job.
You’ve been working in Hollywood for ten years. What advice would you give a young screenwriter just starting out in the industry?
Don’t be too quick to option a project away. If you’re going out on meetings and you get a first offer, don’t necessarily jump at it unless it really feels like a good fit. I recall when I closed my first option deal. I was over the moon. Life was going to change and success was right around the corner. Instead what happened was that my script sat on a shelf for two years before I got the option back and then took it to a new company, where it was rewritten over and over again. Eight years on, they now tell me that they are close to going into production, though I doubt it. The reality is that whomever you set a project up with is someone that you should really believe is going to not only make the movie, but make it in the same spirit as the story you’ve written. Don’t ever take the seemingly easy path because this or that producer is promising you the world. Chances are you will regret it down the road.
My other suggestion…go into television.
For many writers a certain amount of rejection is anticipated. Do you feel that way even more as a screenwriter? How do you handle it and how do you push forward and keep writing?
Rejection is a fact of life for any creative profession. Don’t let it bother you. The truth is that anyone rejecting you isn’t doing so out of spite. If they don’t like your work it doesn’t mean the work is inherently poor. There are so many reasons a script can be rejected. Maybe the producer has a similar project. Or maybe their financing agreement demands they need to make a certain style of movie. Or in the end, maybe they just personally didn’t like it. Everyone has different tastes and if someone doesn’t like something you wrote, it doesn’t mean they are an idiot, they just might not be in to it.
Everyone gets rejected at every stage in their career. Recently Edgar Wright departed as director of Marvel’s Ant Man due to “creative differences.” In other words, his vision was rejected by the studio. It doesn’t matter how successful you’ve been, rejection is out there waiting for you. Brush it off and move on.
What writers have inspired and influenced your writing? Are there any screenwriters that you particularly admire?
I’m a book nut first and foremost, so the authors that have influenced me most are Stephen King, H.G. Wells, Dickens, J.K. Rowling among others. I’ve always admired Lawrence Kasdan, Quentin Tarantino, Charlie Kaufman, Aaron Sorkin, and William Goldman. And of course Julius and Phillip Epstein who wrote the screenplay for Casablanca.
Would you like to tell us about any projects you are currently working on? What can we expect to you see from you in the future?
I’m currently working with my agent to finish up a middle-grade fantasy book series that is the most fulfilling project I’ve ever worked on. In addition, I am piecing together the financing for an independent film that I’ve written and will direct. I’m happy to see the occasional check come in the mail for projects I have set up at various production companies as I wait for them to finally go into production, but in the mean time I’m going to make my own opportunities.
Tom Grey is an accomplished writer and director. As a writer, Tom has set up screenplays with multiple producers and companies such as Mad Chance, makers of such films as 10 Things I Hate About You, Get Smart, and I Love You Phillip Morris, as well as Radar Pictures, makers of the Chronicles of Riddick. He has also worked as a script consultant on various productions.
In the digital space, Tom has written and directed multiple projects with clients such as Conde Nast, Microsoft, Geek & Sundry, the Grammy’s, and the Smithsonian. From 2012-2013, Tom had the honor of working with comic book legend Stan Lee to create some of the most popular content on his digital channel, World of Heroes. During his tenure as channel producer, World of Heroes’ average monthly viewership grew from 250,000 views per month in October to over 4,000,000 views per month in June. His work has been featured in countless blogs and news outlets such as Entertainment Weekly, The Huffington Post, Gawker, USA Today, and Ain‘t It Cool News and has gone on to win multiple awards, including the Geekie Award for Best Short Film and Best Web Series, the LA INDIE spirit award for Best short Film, and the Independent Academy of Web Television award for his web series, Cosplay Piano.